Sunday, March 16, 2014

My Oman Odyssey

I am incredibly blessed. As if to put an exclamation point on that fact, I started the year with a two-week travel seminar to Oman (on the Arabian Peninsula). As a student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, I went to attend lectures and meetings with Ibadi imams and scholars, engage in interfaith dialogue, meet missionaries of the American Protestant Mission in Oman, and explore the interfaith context of Oman.
My first discovery was the amazing culture, sights, people and geography of the otherwise unknown Sultanate of Oman. It is a gorgeous land! We visited the country’s historical sights – the many forts throughout the land, mosques ranging from the Sultan’s Grand Mosque in Muscat to some of the oldest mosques in Islam, and natural wonders like (the Grand Canyon equivalent at) Jebel Shams and the majestic dunes at Wahiba Sands. We stayed in the thick of Muscat (the capital), only a stone’s throw from the dazzling Mutrah Souk (bazaar). I enjoyed sunrise runs along the Corniche that runs along the shoreline of the port. We were repeatedly treated to unmatched hospitality in government offices, religious centers and homes – Omani style.
The second aspect of learning was the class presentations, discussions and exercises. Our hosts at the Al Amana center led some sessions and offered us Imams from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Omani and U.S. government officials, and leaders of local religious communities. Several sessions of Scriptural Reasoning - where we considered particular biblical or Qur’an texts and engaged in interfaith dialogue – were increasingly stimulating and revealing.
As astounding and inspiring as the first two learning vehicles were, the third may have been the most impactful. Besides the three of us participating from NBTS, we were blessed to be accompanied on this odyssey by five exceptional Muslim students from Hartford Seminary. We had many hours together, especially in cars travelling between sights, to talk theology and ask all that we wondered about each other’s faith traditions. (My constant peppering of questions became a source of good-natured ribbing.) Witnessing their worship practices and experiencing their intentional submission to Allah day in and day out was a welcome, thought-provoking challenge to my own beliefs and spiritual discipline. Despite many months spent (cumulatively) in Muslim countries in my life, I learned more about Islam in these two weeks than in all of my years thus far.
The challenge of interfaith tolerance, dialogue and, beyond that, understanding was a focal point of the trip throughout. It is a testament to the efforts made by Sultan Qaboos and the Ministry of Religious Affairs that such religious acceptance can exist in a conservative and overwhelmingly Muslim society. The Ibadi School of Islam is unique, faithful and tolerant – with none of the extremism we sometimes see in the other, larger schools of Islam. “People of the Book” (especially) are esteemed as believers, even if they do not recognize Mohammed as a prophet. The Omani people seem to have grasped that people longing to worship God need an outlet and that offering them such opportunities is the best way to avoid extremism and societal strife. I have come to see religious exclusivity (i.e., my way is the only way) as the greatest challenge to the achievement of the ideals of religious understanding. It’s a tough nut to crack.
Our visits, presentations and discussions brought me face-to-face with a number of my long-held beliefs. Contrasting the two religions made me consider the difference between being a servant rather than a slave of God. What does submission to God really mean? I became much more acutely aware of the differences in one’s (personal?) relationship to God and the attributes of that God that get most stressed in a particular tradition. Just as there are a variety of different focus points amongst Protestant denominations in the U.S., I also enjoyed considering aspects of faith that I may downplay in my own spiritual life – like standing before God on the Day of Judgment, for instance. I also appreciated the different emphases that I encountered – like the consistent acquiescence to God’s will captured in the phrase “Insha’Allah” (God willing).
One of the most impactful visits we made was to Eloise Bosch, the surviving wife of a missionary couple that spent over 50 years of their lives providing medical care and education to the people of Oman. In thanks, the Sultan built a stunning residence on the coast for them to live out their days. Such gratitude is a testament to all that the Boschs did for the people of Oman. In a moment alone with her, I commented on the courage it must have taken to come to an unknown and undeveloped land like Oman in 1955. This humble servant responded almost matter-of-factly that there is little else one could do when called by God. It was a beautiful thing to witness.