By Robert Parham
executive director, Baptist Center for Ethics
The last place one would expect to meet the father of Jesus is in a Washington, D.C., office shoehorned between the Supreme Court and the Dirksen Senate Office Building. But meet him I did. And he is a Muslim. Yes, the father of Jesus is a Muslim.
Sayyid Mohammed Syeed is the father of identical twin boys–Jesus and Moses–who are American citizens, born to parents who are naturalized American citizens originally from Kashmir. The Syeed twins are named out of respect for one historic figure central to Christianity and another central to Judaism. Islam, the third religion of the Abrahamic faith tradition, identifies Jesus and Moses–Esa and Musa in Arabic–as revered prophets.
When the twins were born, the family had a celebration in Bloomington, Ind. They invited both their Muslim and non-Muslim friends, said the ever-joyous Syeed during a documentary interview in his office.
“There was so much discussion on why we had named our children Jesus and Moses. For many of them it was news that Jesus and Moses are equally respected in Islam,” noted Syeed, who is the national director for the office of interfaith and community alliances for the Islamic Society of North America.
“You can’t imagine how these names have an impact on their personalities,” he said, pointing out that Musa went to New York University for a degree in film production. Esa went to Georgetown University, a school in the Jesuit tradition of Catholicism.
Esa has dedicated himself to teaching in the D.C. public schools, said his proud father, underscoring his son’s sacrificial work and solidarity with the dispossessed. “He considers this as a mission,” he said.
Syeed laughingly remembered a farewell party for John Borelli, who was leaving his position as the interfaith director for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for Georgetown University.
“As a good Christian he is going to Georgetown University, and I know for sure that’s where he will meet Jesus,” Syeed recalled telling the gathering. “He will meet Jesus, my son, not the son of God.”
With a doctorate in sociolinguistics from Indiana University, the unassuming Syeed has worked tirelessly at building interfaith bridges among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Most recently, his focus has been on fostering understanding and goodwill between Muslims and Baptists, two faith expressions known for their boisterous adherents and intolerant extremists.
Walking to the Supreme Court, I asked Syeed about the way many Americans framed the nation’s heritage as the Judeo-Christian tradition, meaning our culture emerges from the Jewish and Christian religions. I wondered if it wasn’t time to refer to our tradition as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.
Of course, advocating such a linguistic shift would set off a seismic reaction. One can already hear fundamentalist Christians screaming that America is a Christian nation and hate-radio hosts ranting about the slippery slope into a Muslim takeover of the nation.
Nevertheless, a linguistic correction would be more historically accurate and inclusive for the Syeed family, now in its third generation of Americans.
If Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor at Colby College and member at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., is correct, Islam did shape American culture from the very beginning. She contends that 10 to 18 percent of African slaves were Muslims, who would have known the biblical figures common to Judaism and Christianity and would have held a common faith commitment to monotheism–belief in one God.
Gilkes has suggested a connection between the famous African-American Christian spiritual “Let Us Break Bread Together” and the Islamic practice of facing east in prayer. The hymn includes the phrases “Let us break bread together on our knees” and “When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun.”
A popular Christian hymn with an Eastern orientation adds evidence to the file on the influence of Islam on America.
Islam certainly shaped Western culture prior to the American experience. The crusaders brought back with them from the Islamic world the idea of the modern hospital and the public library. The madrasah became the seedbed for the Western university. From coffee to architecture, the Islamic world contributed to Western civilization, which uses the Arabic numerals that are essential to everything we do.
Expanding the national vocabulary from the Judeo-Christian tradition to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is overdue. Showing inclusive respect for Muslims creates good will and advances the common good globally.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
For more commentary on Obama’s speech to the Muslim World, go to the Saban Center at Brookings’ Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and the Doha Network.