Ever since my early arrival home from Senegal in February, I made it a primary goal of mine to study religious texts. Religion had never been a priority in my academic or non-academic pursuits, perhaps because I had never had substantial exposure to any religion in my secular childhood to draw myself into the subject in the first place. Because of such lack of experience in actually being in the shoes of a believer, I was shocked in learning how immense and central a role religion can play in someone’s life. To me, religion was just a dead specimen of the past preserved in textbooks and classrooms, as opposed to a dynamic and ever-evolving social system that it really is. Global Citizen Year was my first major wake up call to cultural sensibility that made religion “alive” to me. I was blessed to have a number of fellows passionate in these subjects with whom I made numerous enlightening conversations regarding Islam and Christianity. Listening to their personal beliefs about religion and how those beliefs have influenced their lives, I felt a desire to learn more about it. In-country, I had the rare opportunity to observe and learn how religious faith—whether that be Muslim or Christian—transcends everything that one does in life and serves as a code of conduct for living one’s life “to the fullest.” Singing in the Catholic choir alongside my host brother, I also learned much about the combining of religion and local culture—the use of djembes (African drums) in Catholic choirs, existence of Muslim brotherhoods unique to Senegal, and the like.
Now back home, I sense that I have grown a lot more culturally alert. To my own surprise, I am halfway into reading the Bible and just started reading an introductory book on Islam. The greatest gain so far from my journey into open-minded and self-directed religious studies is that I am nurturing a sense of empathy, which is enabling me to understand how one thinks and behaves in certain ways both on individual and societal levels. It never fails to amaze me how the masses galvanize for or against certain political and social issues based solely on their shared religious belief. I am starting to appreciate the humbling force of religion on mankind.
In the meantime, it is hard to achieve mutual understanding between one belief system and another. It is unfortunate that in America, religion—let alone promoting mutual understanding—is considered too personal and offensive of a topic to discuss in public. However, there is a subtle yet fine line between ‘understanding’ and ‘acknowledgement.’ When it comes to religion, understanding means the ability to tell one belief system from another by identifying similar and unique traits that developed in their respective historical, political, and social contexts of the time. On the other hand, acknowledgment is often a concept that leads to self-denial, as most belief systems are simply not compatible with one another. For instance, one cannot be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time, because they disagree on the fundamental subject of the identity of the divine being (Christians believe in Jesus the Son of God and the Trinity, while Muslims believe in one and only God and prophet Muhammad, a human worth emulating who led a perfect life as God intended for a human being).
Sun Tzu, a famous Chinese military strategist in the Warring States Period, wrote famously in The Art of War, “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.” Sun Tzu’s lesson cannot be more lucid. If we were to lead a healthy religious lives, we need to understand other belief systems. That way, we will be able to strengthen our own beliefs.