I was very young when Cassius Clay Jr. converted to Islam and became Muhammad Ali. I barely remember being confused that a person could change their name and wondering why a person would do such a thing. A few years later, and maybe a wee bit wiser, I was acutely aware of Lew Alcindor converting to Islam and becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If memory serves me correctly I was in 5th grade. I was obsessed with basketball, and Lew Alcindor was my hero. The major assignment in my English class that year was to write our first term paper. After much negotiating with my teacher, she allowed me to write my paper on this figurative and literal (7’2”!!) basketball giant. I read, researched, and wrote with abandon about Alcindor, all the while trying to be him on the basketball court. I loved this guy and then he changed his name and I was again bewildered.
However, my new found researching acumen motivated me to learn about this religion where now two great sports legends had converted and changed their names. At this point in my life I had never met a Muslim, knew nothing of the Islamic faith. It was unquestionably a seed planting experience that still continues to grow in a desire to learn and experience other faith traditions.
A couple of years ago friend and colleague Barbara Brown Taylor introduced me to the concept “holy envy”. Her source for this, Church of Sweden Bishop Krister Stendahl, was a New Testament Scholar. In response to the marginalization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sweden he came up with three rules of religious understanding:
1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.
3) Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious traditions or faiths that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)
Ramadan, the Muslim month of the spiritual discipline of fasting for the deepening of one’s relationship with God, began this last Sunday. A fact that I learned from an Imam at the Central Metro Mission Area Gathering was that 1 in 4 people worldwide is Muslim – meaning many of our neighbors are Muslim. I would encourage all of us to take time during this month of Ramadan to learn more about the Islamic faith tradition and, as importantly, to get to know our neighbors.