CHOOSING A FAITH FOR OURSELVES
“My earliest memory of faith was the first time I went to Eid [Eid al-Fitr, Festival of Breaking the Fast] prayers when I was young, age 12, I think. I went with my dad. It was the first time I saw my dad praying. My mother prays all the time; my dad doesn’t. I wasn’t connected religiously because my dad wasn’t. The fact that the father in my family wasn’t and my mother was, didn’t really give me much room to be religious. Why? Because you can’t go with your mother to the mosque. This is opposed to Christianity where you can go with her to church. In Islam, the male and female are separated. So the fact that my dad said, ‘C’mon Wael, let’s go for Eid prayers,’ was significant. I had to wake up at 5 in the morning. I thought, ‘Wow, let’s see what this is about.’ I remember it was a huge open space. It was basically like a flat desert and they put out carpets everywhere so it was like an open mosque. There was the imam at the top talking about Islam, and where you should go with your life. And the fact that I saw my dad praying with me was touching because I felt, although he wasn’t very religious, that one moment of my life where I was praying next to him—it was just magical—because we were always together, we were on the same level. It was always the father-son relationship, but just that when I prayed with him, we were on the same level for the first time and it made me connect to both family and religiously to God. It was the first time I got exposed to God in that context. And it was the first time I got exposed to, yes, there’s a being above us looking out for us, and that I should respect and appreciate life because this is what He created, so appreciate what He’s done.
The first time I chose to rely upon God was when I went to university for four years in Canada. My first year, I was out of touch with the religious world because I was very focused on school. I was meeting all these Canadians, and we were partying a lot. I mean, it was fun but there was definitely something missing in my life. Then I came back second year and I met some Muslim friends. And I saw that there was an actual community that went and prayed every Friday in Canada in the university. So I joined them. And then I realized, ‘Oh, you’ve been doing that for the first year; kind of not listening to what God has said.’ I kind of regret what I did the first year of university but when I went back to Islam, it just changed my life again. It’s not that I doubted faith or had no faith in God. I guess I wasn’t concentrating; I just wasn’t focused. A lot of elements changed when I realized that what I did in the first year was wrong. When I started praying, it was like a magical moment where, especially that first time, I went to the prayer room. It was surprising ’cause I was in a huge room and I saw all these other Muslims and I was in a foreign country in North America, in Canada, Montreal, a very French province. And I looked around and my brothers were all over me and it was nice to be together as one. Praying to the same God. Believing in one faith. It was like a warm feeling inside after I got out of the prayers. Everything in my life changed after that day. I’m very grateful for that day. That was the main pillar of my life. It all came out of just one prayer so I was shocked that one prayer would change my life. But it was just one—that one prayer, that one Friday prayer that I went with my friends. And it just changed the way I thought of life. It made me believe that yes there is a God. Don’t drink, be good, you know, do good things. It just changed it.”
I met Wael Jabi when I went to Dubai to train P&G marketers and to work on Portraits in Faith. Jabi (as his friends call him) offered to give me a lift back to my hotel and we struck up a conversation about what I, as a Jew, was doing in Dubai: looking to interview people about faith! This led to a long friendship, as well as being fellow marketers. Jabi is a deeply kind soul and I was especially grateful to him for introducing me to several of his friends in Dubai to interview about their formative experiences as Muslims. Wael also took me to Friday prayers at a mosque in Dubai which was a deeply meaningful experience—praying side-by- side with fellow believers in a Higher Power.
Jabi’s interview revealed two very special episodes in his life. First, when he went to Eid prayers with his father for the first time and, second, when he went to prayers while attending university in Canada and made the decision to start praying. In the first event, Jabi experienced a oneness with his father and with God that he had never experienced before. In the second event, he made a decision that he wanted to rely upon God in his daily life.
This reminds me of the idea that we are not adults until we reject our parents’ religion. It does not mean literally “reject,” but that we each have to come to a place in our lives where we take on faith for ourselves and not because of anyone else, especially parents. I grew up being very immersed in Judaism but as an adult I’ve had to come to terms with the faith and God of my understanding which is broader than the Jewish theology I grew up with, even though I still very much love being Jewish. I believe the lesson is that no one can tell us what our faith journey is meant to be. Even the atheist gets to define exactly the God he/she is rejecting!
A very big thank you to my friend, Wael Jabi, for his loving presence in the world.
Very interesting. Have you read “I am not a Spy” by Michael Bassin? He is a Cincinnatian who went to college for a semester in the UAE and also in Cairo. He made some Muslim friends and for them it was the first time they had met a Jew. He also had some adventures where he thought it more prudent to not say he was Jewish and thus got an insider’s view of the Muslim world. He had a LOT of adventures, actually–it’s a great read!