I tightened the hijab around my head as the Uber wove its way deeper and deeper into the tight and narrow alleyways of central Cairo. It was 4:30 p.m., and the air was stagnant with car fumes and liminal light. Yet, Cairo, known as the city of a thousand mosques, was in full bloom. Men, women and children milled around the courtyards, waiting for the Maghrib to be sung from the tall stone minarets, calling the end of the day and the time for evening prayer.
After several near misses with horse-drawn carts, we arrived at Ibn Tulum Mosque. Built in 879 AD, it’s known as the oldest in-tact mosque of Cairo. Built of marvelously thick stone, it’s no surprise it’s been able to withstand 1200 years of time. As we walked around the outside of the mosque, a giant wooden door creaked open, and a Muslim man gestured for us to enter. The mosque was now closed, but for a certain amount of money donated to Allah, we might be able to look around and climb the minaret tower for a better view of the city.
I paid a small donation to the mosque, and another donation for the man at the door, which ensured me ten minutes of silent exploration of the empty mosque, and I wordlessly climbed the staircase to the top. Minutes later, I had an incredible view of Cairo as I wrapped my arms around the stone pillars of the minaret tower. The air was hot, and I breathed slowly looking down, wondering at what time the call to prayer (adhan) might occur this evening so that I could avoid overstaying my welcome. There were no railings or safety guards — simply a combination of ancient stone and prayer.
I traveled to Egypt as a Fellow in the newly created Odyssey Impact NYC Fellowship, an interfaith initiative designed to organize Abrahamic faiths for social change using storytelling and multimedia. For ten days, I explored Upper Egypt and was trained on Muslim-Christian peace practices and efforts. Our cohort of 15 international religious studies students met with peace-building organizations with the intention of growing our understanding of Islam and bringing back a desire to combat Islamophobia in our own religious circles.
Our meetings included visiting the newly created Centre for Muslim-Christian understanding housed within the Anglican Diocese of Upper Egypt’s facility in Cairo. We also visited Al-Azahar University, the leading Islamic Studies University in the world. We toured the mosque attached to Al-Azhar and then were shuttled to Al-Azhar’s Centre for Combatting Extremism, where a room of 100 translators worked tirelessly combing the internet for extremist Islamic propaganda.
We also spent a few days with Anaphora’s Coptic Christian Monastery in the Egyptian desert, engaging in the sacred monastic practice of social separation. In Egypt, Christians are constantly under threat, and the many guards patrolling the exterior of the monastery with guns did little to assist in my ability to fully retreat from the world.
Tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims were palpable on the trip. Eighty-five to ninety percent of Egypt is Muslim with the remaining numbers falling into Christianity. It is illegal according to Egyptian state law to convert to Christianity from Islam, and the number of Christians is rapidly declining in Egypt. Additionally, Coptic churches were under constant threat of attack by Islamic extremists.
Equally as frustrating is that these threats transfer to Al Azhar University, which is threatened by the same extreme groups for their moderate views on Islam and their own work against terrorism. At Al Azhar University, our speakers seemed intently focused on the fact that our group understood that Islam is a religion of peace. Our small group understood that, but the worlds we were returning to after this trip hadn’t spent 9 months in interfaith dialogue as we all had.
I returned from my pilgrimage with a plea to my Christian peers to continue to buff their identities with the sandpapery feel of interfaith dialogue and friendships. The moments that taught me the most on this experience were the uncomfortable moments in which two cultures were in tension with one another. I watched time and time again as Christians and Muslims found themselves in situations in which both parties had to intentionally decide to extend olive branches of peace. A willingness to engage in dialogue and a curiosity for culture outside of your own can go such a long way when in a foreign country.
I believe that as Christians, we are called to reconciliation and serve as agents of peace and community healing. Part of that includes extending hospitality to outside faiths, and in being in relationships with those who think differently than us. And how will we truly work toward community stabilization and peace if we are not willing to engage in true friendship?
Peace work is beyond climbing a minaret tower, wearing a hijab or placing a hand over the heart and saying, “salaam alaikum” (“peace be upon you”). It’s looking at those who believe vastly different things than us and see them as spiritual brethren, and partners in our own efforts of creating a world of peace.