My Visit with the Mufti: A Man of Peace in a Religion of Peace

I can't begin to describe what I am feeling right now.

I am on the bus, riding through the crowded and smoggy streets of Cairo. The air hangs heavy with a hovering brownness that suggests a hiddenness to things, a hazy covering that implies there is a beauty underneath that the mere passerby will miss.

I reflect on that as I process what just happened. Like much of what I am experiencing of the Arab world, there is much beneath the surface that asks for a deeper engagement, a lingering to see what surprises await.

Whatever fear -- no, that's not right; trepidation? Better, but not this either. Apprehension? There it is.

Whatever apprehension I felt walking off the bus into the government building and through its security check-in to meet the Mufti of Egypt -- an apprehension borne of the weight of his office; the presence of security guards, my lack of familiarity with both Islamic customs (an awareness that had me more worried about my saying or doing something inappropriate than about the more common American fear that is the byproduct of Islamophobia); and the sheer weight of such a moment -- a moment rich with possibility that required, methinks, one with more experience in such matters and moments: whatever apprehension all of that produced evaporated the second, the very second, I walked into the room at the front of which sat the Mufti himself.

His smile is what did it.

His smile was one of welcome, of hospitality, of playfulness of spirit and openness of heart. His extended hand, his firm grasp, his locking my eyes with his -- all suggested that whatever unfolded in the following moments were not dependent on, and therefore not threatened by, either my apprehension or my incompetence.

Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stood with me. I followed her lead - something I have chosen as my primary strategy for coming across as one who understands how to act and who to be in these new surroundings. Her own warm smile, her own gracious words in that first exchange, helped to evaporate apprehension and create space for possibility and my openness to it.

The room spoke of weight - both of office and of moment. This man, this Mufti, knew a thing or two about how to set the table. While reporters and photographers gathered to capture the moment and frame the narrative, we sat in a space that suggested we mattered and that the occasion needed remembering. Gifts of food and drink were served throughout the gathering, offerings that delighted the palate and sweetened the mood.

Yes, he knew how to set the table.

But all of this is prelude to what lingers most, and not only what will be remembered upon leaving, but what should be remembered.

There is a scene that plays out at the end of the play Camelot, where a child is charged with going forth to speak about what Camelot dreamed of and made possible. Today, I feel like that child: the one chosen and honored with a duty to speak of what another made possible; and to speak it because of its power to change the world.

His Eminence spoke so beautifully of peace. Knowing that religious tensions threaten to undue us all, he committed his expression of Islam to an embrace of all others. These were more than words, for they came from the mouth of one who had seen both the byproduct of what the tensions do to people and of what a renewed commitment to peace makes possible. There were more than words because he was already an agent for the brokering of such peace, a brokering that opened up in a context neither neutral on nor friendly toward such an offer; but resistant to it.

He challenged us to take back a message to the people of our faith. Let them know, he said, that at its core the Islam is a religion of peace. Let them know, that in its truest expression, there is nothing in Islam that contradicts the teachings of the Prophet Jesus. Let them know, he said, that what the media wants you to believe about how Islam relates to Christianity is a myth.

This man, appointed to speak on behalf of and to all Muslims in Egypt; this man, whose words affect an entire nation of Muslim peoples; this man, himself an agent of peace and working hand in hand with the leaders of the minority Christian leaders of his nation: this man welcomed us into his home, into his heart - and spoke to us about his vision of peace between all peoples.

And so I do what I was called there to do: speak.

As a leader of an historic Christian denomination that has always sought to unify people of faith;

As a witness to and recipient of the kindness, hospitality, and genuine offer of love and friendship from one that many Christians in America believe themselves much superior to;

As a pacifist committed to the end of warfare, and sick of the way religion rhetoric and myth is used as fuel to the fire of humanity's worst proclivities and, therefore, a spark that often leads to warfare, hatred, vitriol, animosity, and almost intractable misunderstanding;

I declare on behalf of the United Church of Christ and our partners in mission, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), that the Muslim faith [as I have encountered it (in Egypt) (or, in the Middle East)] is a legitimate religion of peace;

That its peoples are no more desirous of war than people of my faith;

That the US media should do as much to report about this as they do telling the story of Islamic extremists who are no more guilty of the pain and bloodshed we witness than Christian extremists for whom Jesus becomes little more than an excuse for their Islamophobia;

And that we will commit ourselves fully to embracing a deep and abiding relationship with people of the Muslim faith, people of all faiths, and people of no faith. Every child who chooses the way of peace, be she Muslim, Jew, Christian of Atheist, is kin to me.

I pray for more dialogue and less rhetoric.

I pray for ears to hear the voices of peace that come from voices of many faiths.

I pray for the day when faith in God inspires the best in all of us - so that those with no faith can see us as their allies rather than the seedbed of their greatest fears.

I pray for the day when my grandchild can walk streets in America and not have to fear saying aloud and with great pride: I am a Muslim.

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with my Muslim neighbor.

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it never end.