By Ruth Broyde Sharone
I was looking for a new cell phone when I met 27-year-old Maz, a wireless expert who works for T Mobile at a mall in Los Angeles. We started talking about droids and ended up talking about interfaith. I wasn’t surprised. These days interfaith consciousness lies just under the surface of almost every encounter between strangers – especially in LA, culturally and religiously one of the most diverse cities in the world.
Born in Mumbai in India, Maz came to the US when he was 16. A progressive Muslim who identifies with his religious tradition and his Indian cultural heritage, he navigates freely and comfortably in American society. He prays at the King Fahad mosque in Culver City and acknowledges the special challenges in being a Muslim today in the United States.
Maz revealed that his phone suddenly and mysteriously stopped working when he innocently texted a friend with a comment about “airport security.” He decided that the combination of those two words must have created an “alert” for Homeland Security. When he used that phrase again a few days later, just to test his theory, the phone became inoperable once more. Given the current climate, he understands why that happened. He was laughing, not complaining, as he shared the details of his story. As a Muslim he anticipates being scrutinized more than most people when he travels abroad or flies home. He accepts it as a fact of life, even if it greatly inconveniences him. “It is a sign of the times,” not a permanent aspect of life in America. He knows it won’t last forever. Obviously, the man is both a realist and an optimist.
In between discussions about payment plans, phone options, and minute quotas, Maz and I played “interfaith geography.” We discovered we have mutual friends in the Muslim community who attend the mosque where he prays.
Before we parted, Maz shared something with me that illumined an elusive aspect of my recent trip to India. I have been attempting to explain to my friends what I found so special about Indian “spirituality.” Maz unknowingly helped put everything in perspective.
According to Maz, interfaith acceptance was an everyday part of growing up. When he and his friends faced an important exam at school, for example, they would make the rounds together to pray and ask for divine blessings. First they would go to the mosque to ask Allah to help them “ace” their tests. Then they’d stop by the local Hindu shrine to ask Ganesh, the much loved elephant God, to make sure they would overcome all academic obstacles. Finally they would pay a visit to their local Catholic Church to ask Jesus for his blessing. Maz attended a Catholic school, so Christian theology and practices were an intimate part of his daily life. They never impinged on or challenged his life as a Muslim, he assured me.
Of course, he and his friends studied hard for their exams, Maz acknowledged with a grin. They were just “hedging their bets” by asking for multiple blessings. They knew they were praying to the same Divine source, no matter what name they used to address that source, no matter what their religious, spiritual upbringing had been. Somehow making the rounds to all three houses of worship empowered them.
Spirituality in India is ubiquitous, an experience corroborated by many of my American friends who have been there and now by Maz as well. It informs every aspect of daily life for Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Jews, and they take it for granted. Religious respect and tolerance in India are the rule, not the exception. There are exceptions, of course. When I asked Maz about Hindu-Muslim violence in India, for example, he attributed it primarily to political motives and territorial imperatives, not religious differences. “In India we are basically a live-and-let-live society.”
Although Maz has spent half of his life in the U.S., he still identifies with his country of birth and feels grateful for the unobtrusive and natural interfaith education that characterized his upbringing.
Did it help you on the exam by going to the mosque, a Hindu shrine, and a church, I wanted to know. “Absolutely!” Maz replied, flashing his winning smile. “We all got great scores!”