USC Baccalaureate Speech: How Interfaith Encounters Help Me Dare To Hope

Joining the Interfaith Council at USC and engaging in dialogue and service became ways in which I could strengthen my own faith, by viewing it through the prism that unites all faiths.
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Editor's Note: This was the student address for USC's Baccalaureate ceremony that Sarrah Shahawy gave as President of the USC student Interfaith Council, which includes students from many religious traditions and those who identify as spiritual or atheist. Baccalaureate is a multi-faith celebration for graduating students and their families and it is held the evening before Commencement. Sarrah Shahawy gave a separate speech as Valedictorian of the USC Class of 2011 at the Commencement Ceremony.

Faith. Foi. Iman. Fe. Emunah. Yakeen.

One word, with an endless array of layers and meanings. Powerful, defining, and all-encompassing. But what does it mean to have faith? It was the beauty of faith that made Jesus articulate his eternal words: God is love. It was the pursuit of faith that drove Muhammad up to a mountain cave where he would receive God's revelation. It was the search for truth that led Siddaartha to abandon the life of a prince for that of an ascetic. It was through trust in God that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son on the altar. And it was the search for a future to believe in that drove the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom. These stories still resonate with us today because we are all looking for something to believe in. We want desperately to believe, to hope, to find meaning where others find none.

My own search for faith began growing up in a conservative Muslim Egyptian-American home, in a religious tradition that has at its core the values of tolerance, diversity, human dignity, peace, justice, and love. My eyes were first opened to the idea of religious pluralism through the Islamic concept of the People of the Book, the Christians and Jews, who are given a special status in Islam because they too received scriptures from God. From there, came the appreciation of all faiths and creeds that share the basic human principles upon which I was raised. God says in the Quran: "O Mankind. Behold. We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know and cherish one another." So there is a reason for our diversity, and it is not to convert or preach, but rather to learn, understand, and grow.

Joining the Interfaith Council at USC and engaging in dialogue and service became ways in which I could strengthen my own faith, by viewing it through the prism that unites all faiths. In a world where religion is accused of being a source of violence, interfaith work, while celebrating our differences, reminds us of our many common goals: the eradication of hunger, poverty, disease, corruption. We all have friends outside our own religion, but how often do we engage in meaningful discussions around the topic of faith? How often do we ask: What do you believe? and more importantly: how do those beliefs translate into action? By exploring these questions, we strike at the innermost part of our souls and we are surprised to find that not all Christians will give us the same answer, nor will all Jews or Muslims or atheists. We find that we may have more in common with someone of another faith than one of our own.

That is the personal value of interfaith work: we strengthen our respective identities as Jains, Catholics, Hindus, searchers, but we also proclaim that these labels alone are no longer sufficient. I can say I am a Muslim, but I can no longer satisfy myself with that answer. To me, Islam is a way of life, so I must ask myself how it affects my everyday decisions, my general attitude towards life. What drives me to study, to strive, to serve, to smile, to laugh? Not until I have struggled, argued, despaired, and returned, can I begin to claim that I have faith. The Quran recounts the story of nonbelievers who adopt Islam and come to the Prophet, proclaiming, "We have believed." The Prophet responds, "No. Say that you have become Muslim, but faith has yet to enter into your hearts." There lies the distinction between the label and the deeper journey. And as we each embark on our own path, we find that it is more important to justify our belief to ourselves than to others: as the web comic artist wrote, "A million people can call the mountains a fiction, but it need not trouble you as you stand atop them".

For our generation, exclusivism seems obsolete. No one can claim to hold the sole monopoly on truth. I firmly believe in the teachings of the Quran and the prophet, but my religion commands me to find meaning and value in other religions as well. I find beauty in the Bible's call to love, richness in the history of Jewish traditions, peace in Buddhism's call to compassion, wonder in the message of the Bhagavad Gita, and splendor in the musicality of the Sikh kirtan. As the Sufi mystic wrote, "Now my heart has grown capable of taking on many forms: a pasture for gazelles, a convent for Christians, a temple for idols, a Kaaba for the pilgrim, a table for the Torah. My religion is love -- whichever route love's caravan shall take, that path shall be the path of my faith".

So let us not be afraid to open up to the various traditions and ideologies that surround us, let us not hesitate to explore how these might shed light on our beliefs, and let us not shrink from questioning and testing our own faith. Young as we are, we love to challenge and debate, which are absolutely essential. Just as we cannot know happiness until we have known sorrow, we cannot claim to have faith until it has been tested.

And it is during those tests, when we are at the darkest points and are able to look beyond them into the light of the coming day that we find peace in the affirmation of our faith. This hope and optimism are the practical manifestations of belief, of trust in God. For me, to lose hope is to reject God's words in the Quran when He assures us: "We will never burden a soul with more than it is able to bear". To despair is to reject the divine biblical teaching: "Perfect love drives out fear". And to refuse to see the beauty of this world often governed by what may seem to be the cruelest principles of "survival of the fittest" is to reject Darwin's claim that even so, "there is grandeur in this view of life".

But Faith is to stand in Tintern Abby as William Wordsworth did and know that, as he wrote, "neither evil tongues, rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all the dreary intercourse of daily life, shall ever prevail against us, or disturb our cheerful faith that all which we behold is full of blessings." And as we stand in the present world, as it is, we must be filled, he says, "not only with the sense of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts that in this moment there is life and food for future years. And so I dare to hope".

He dares to hope. Hope is, by its very nature, an act of defiance. It is not easy, it is not simple, it is not born out of ignorance or naiveté. It is born out of the ashes of doubt, of despair, of trial, of some kind of suffering, at any level, hidden or exposed, in whatever way we experience it. Happiness is to be fully cognizant of this suffering, the corruption, the injustice that plagues our world and to nevertheless stare down those cruel realities and in rebellion, exclaim: I still dare to hope. Because this is not it. This can be better. We each have a responsibility and the ability to make it better and this commitment to service, to something greater than ourselves, is our faith in practice.

So I pray that we, the USC graduating Class of 2011, have the power to do that: the force to explore our inner faith, the daring to find our own unique path, and the courage to ensure that our conviction becomes action. So dare to dream. Dare to believe. Dare to hope.


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