One day in early September, I went to the Austin restaurant Halal Bros to get lunch. As made plain by its name, Halal Bros is a Muslim-friendly restaurant — but it’s also very popular among customers of all backgrounds.
I was just at the restaurant by myself, but as I was about to begin eating, a girl came up to me and asked if I wanted to sit with her and her friend. I’m pretty introverted and I don’t mind eating alone, but I thought, “Well, why not?”
I joined the two girls at their table, and we got to know each other a little. Emily and Morgan told me they were roommates who had recently moved to the area, and they were looking to meet new people.
But I didn’t open up to them much during that first encounter. I was on edge and suspicious of their motives, even though they were incredibly nice and friendly. One thought kept running through my head the whole time: “They’re going to invite me to a Bible study.”
Without any discussion of religion coming up during our conversation, I could just tell that they were devout Christians. Really devout members of any faith just seem to have this invisible glow about them. They wear their deep love for the divine on their sleeve. I respected that, often wishing I felt that same glow of piety within myself – but I had no desire to be the target of anybody’s proselytizing.'They're going to invite me to a Bible study,' I thought. Click To Tweet
By the end of our lunch that day, we had each other’s numbers but there was still no mention of religion, let alone any invitations to join them at a Bible study or other Christian event. I felt guilty for assuming the worst.
We met up frequently after that, often for dinner at their place with other young people living in their neighborhood. Then, about a month after we first met, one of them mentioned how she was going through a personal challenge and she had been trying to remember that, in her view, she had already been forgiven for her sins. I said this reminded me of how in Islam there’s an emphasis on God’s compassion and mercy outweighing his “wrath.” She asked me if Jesus was in the Quran, and I said yes – and soon enough they asked me if I would like to read the Bible with them sometime.
So, they had gotten me after all. But we were close enough now that I knew they were asking me as a friend, not as some potential target of conversion.
I never expected to enjoy the first session so much that I’ve continued into the present. When we go over Bible passages, we break it down by identifying what the passage says about God and humanity, and how we can apply any lessons learned. The Bible doesn’t resonate with me in the way the Quran does, but the comparative perspective it offers helps me think about God, piety, and what it means to be a good Muslim from a unique angle. The framework through which Emily and Morgan study the Bible has allowed to me pull deeper meaning from the Quran as well.
I attend prayers and other events at the local mosque, but I don’t really have any Muslim friends here in Austin – they’re mostly back home in the Houston area. My closest non-Muslim friends here aren’t particularly religious, and even the ones who aren’t atheists or agnostics don’t center spirituality in their lives the way that Emily and Morgan do. I feel blessed to have found this unexpected avenue to explore religion. Compared to Islamic halaqas, I feel more comfortable discussing the text in-depth and sharing how faith fits into my life.
I had thought that because I had spent my whole life in a predominantly-Christian society, I’d already learned everything I needed to know about Christianity through osmosis. American society has been heavily shaped by Christian beliefs. American culture is peppered with Biblical references. Christian holidays are so mainstream that many Americans of other faiths have no problem getting into the holiday spirit themselves. Especially in the South, Christianity is often taken as the default faith – despite official aspirations to the separation of church and state. You can’t help but become familiar with at least the basics.
But through reading the Bible with an analytical lens, I’ve learned more about different viewpoints within Christianity and just how similar our two Abrahamic faith traditions are. In the end, both can be boiled down to the principles of loving God and loving God’s creation. After reading a passage, Emily or Morgan will often ask if there’s something similar in the Quran – and they’ve been surprised to hear that the answer is usually yes.
I’ve also found I could confide in them about my fears about rising Islamophobia throughout the country, driven by the rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump. By making spirituality the focus of our interactions, I’ve developed a much fuller perspective of Christianity and even come to improve my practice of Islam. I know that, in turn, they have developed a fuller perspective of Islam and Muslims that transcends the mainstream discourse they may have previously heard.
My friendship with these wonderful girls is genuine and based in mutual respect. I’m secure enough in my beliefs that my Christian friends aren’t going to convert me, but I trust them enough to know that isn’t their intention anyway. Instead of staying in our spiritual silos and regarding people of other beliefs with suspicion, building interfaith connections reveals our common values, and our shared humanity, as an alternative to intolerance.