Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Holy hospitality: the essence of Islam and of interfaith reconciliation

“Being a guest in the home of an Iranian is like being elected a dictator for life,” Linda Wolfe explained. “You can have anything you want. Even if you simply admire something in your host’s home, they will give it to you. And you dare not eat everything on your plate, since they will keep giving you more.”

Linda knew whereof she spoke since for a year and a half, she and her husband David Wolf were not simply visitors in Iran, but guests—a term fraught with deep religious as well as cultural meaning for Muslims, and especially for Iranians. Muslims take very seriously the example of Abraham, who was the founder of monotheism and hence (in their view) the first “Muslim” (the term “Muslim” means someone who has submitted to God and therefore Moses and Jesus are also considered Muslim). When God sent three angels to Abraham and Sarah, they responded by providing the most generous hospitality. They later learned that the strangers who appeared at their tent were actually angels, messengers of God.

Linda spoke of “holy hospitality”—a term that has meaning for Christians as well as Muslims. Henri Nouwen defined holy hospitality as welcoming the Other, the Stranger, without preconditions. The goal of holy hospitality is not to change the Other, but to create a safe space where change can happen. A stranger can become a friend, and a friend can become a messenger from God, but such changes cannot be forced. They happen in God’s time and in God’s way.

The Wolfes were in Iran at a tense time, when Bush was still in office and there was a threat of a US attack. The Wolfs were told by a Muslim friend, “If war comes, you are welcome at my home and you will be our family and we will protect you.”

Linda explained: "For Muslims, hospitality is for people who don’t fit into our paradigm, for the outcast." Linda then asked: "Can you imagine Americans practicing this kind of hospitality if we were attacked?"
On another occasion the Wolfs were invited to the home of a Muslim family whose child Noor was brain-damaged because of US attack.

“When they invited us into their homes for dinner,” recalled Linda. “Her father washed everyone’s hands and sprayed them with perfume.”

The Iranian term for this kind of etiquette is tarof. Tarof involves elaborate rituals governing the relations between guest and host—rituals that go back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years and are deeply embedded in a culture which centers on trade and courtesy. When a guest arrives at a friend’s doorstep, he or she will protest:“I am not a good friend, please don’t go out of your way for me, I don’t deserve it.” The host will reply: “You are the joy of my life. I have been waiting for days for you. If you don’t come in, I will jump out of the window.”

Linda said we Americans have a lot to learn from the Iranians. Many Americans are fearful of the Other. Xenophobia is rampant. Linda said we need to covert xenophobia to philoxenia, “love of the stranger.”

Linda’s message spoke to my condition. I have learned a great deal from Muslims about how to be more hospitable, and how to see hospitality as a spiritual practice. In doing so, I feel I have become a better Christian and a better Friend. Hanging on the wall of my kitchen is an icon that shows Abraham and Sarah hosting three guests and plying them with food and drink. The Greek word under the icon is PHILOXENIA. It means “love of the stranger”—another word for hospitality.

What Linda and David shared is at the heart of what FWCC is all about. FWCC is about “holy hospitality”—creating a safe, welcoming space where people can change, where strangers can become friends, and where xenophobia can become xenophilia.

The Wolfes said much more about their trip, some of it “off the record,” since Iran is a country dominated by a theocracy that severely punishes those who transgress the rules or are seen as threatening. Suffice to say that it is not easy to be a Christian, or a non-Muslim, in Iran today.

Tomorrow I will talk about “Quaker Mohammad and the Ministry of Anecdotes.”

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