Volume 5, August 2011








Imaginary Boundaries

Avideh Shashaani is a member of The Faith & Politics Institute's Board as well as the Founder and President of The Fund for the Future of our Children.

I have asked friends this question: If Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad lived at the same time, would they fight each other? If yes, what would they fight over? If no, how do we come to understand what they experienced and taught?

13th century Muslim mystic Rumi told this story: As a sage walked along, he heard a man crying for help. As he got closer the man's cry for help became clearer and he heard the man saying, Help, I'm burning, I'm burning, get me out of here. The sage noticed that the man was standing in the middle of a circle with nothing around him. He went up to the man, bent down, erased part of the circle and said to the man, The door is open, you can come out now.

I was born in a country where Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths lived in harmony. When I was very young, my family and I came to live in Washington, D.C., where my father was military and air attaché and later received the Legion of Merit Award from President John F. Kennedy. Most of my education was within a Christian context where I met students from various countries. I was never exposed to any form of discrimination.

Some years later, when we left Iran for the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution, I was immediately confronted with the highest level of prejudice. What had happened? We had not changed!

I decided to understand the situation by studying Islam through the lens of its mystics, to understand the discrepancy between its fundamental practice and the heart of the religion. Studying the life of the mystics I noticed that they arrived at a place in their search for God/Truth where boundaries ceased to exist and love, from which they derived amazing strength and courage, overtook their existence. Celebrated Muslim mystic Ibn'al-Arabi has said:

My heart has become capable of every form; it is a pasture For gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka'ba and the Tables of the Tora[h] and the book of the Koran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's Camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

As I studied the lives of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, I realized they had not arrived at their faith through blind acceptance of societal teachings, but through an urge to know the Truth. They spent long periods in spiritual retreats seeking inspiration and guidance, which in its arrival let them withstand hardships and afflictions to serve humanity.

If we look with an unbiased lens at the heart of any religion, we see we've been given a manual to discover and be in harmony with our heart/spiritual core and that which is rooted in universal truths. I know of no religion that does not ask us to be charitable, truthful, just, and compassionate.

The depth of our connection to our heart/spiritual core determines our response to situations that demand sacrifice and courage. This direct link to our spiritual core is what I propose to be conscience/the awareness of universal, unchangeable truths such as justice, integrity, love, and compassion. Rainer Maria Rilke said, One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.

Thus, conscience becomes the trustee, engaging in acts that are mutually beneficial/not detrimental to the well-being of others. This is the very foundation of what religion teaches.

Six years ago we, at the Fund for the Future of our Children, launched the Children of Abraham Peace Essay Contest. We asked high school students to reflect deeply about the wisdom in the Abrahamic traditions and apply that wisdom to an action project.

Year after year these young people have shown us how to look with an unfiltered lens and an open mind at the tenets of these faiths and come away with a unifying, peaceful approach to what the other has said.

This is what Sarah Elizabeth Schwartz, grade 11, this year's second prize winner, said in her essay:

Texts of the Abrahamic faiths—no matter in what language, no matter from what origin—all share the same message: practice compassion. Through compassion, whether for a brother or a beggar on the street, we place someone else at the center of our universe. It is only once we let go of our ego through compassion that we can accept God, placing God at the center of our universe. In this way, compassion is the basis of religion. Through compassion, we are able to turn to God.

Based on these insights into the heart/spiritual core of traditions of faith, these young people have been inspired to do incredible projects, including work with victims of child trafficking in India, orphans in Kashmir and Haiti, a literacy project for girls in Mali, and homeless shelters in the U.S.

I am hopeful that young people will lead the way to a more peaceful co-existence. They have not yet developed a self-interest perspective in judging the other. They understand the fragility of our planet, and do not want to burden it with needless conflicts and alienation. They listen to the voice of their conscience and have the courage to stand up for justice, to serve the underserved of our planet.



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