The wonderful fruits that overcoming a prejudice brings

Tonight, after a wonderful opening of the Bulgarian School and a farewell party for a couple of great Baha’is who have truly inspired the whole community with their tireless service, I had a chance to talk on Islam and the Baha’i Faith, as part of the conclusion of the Wilmette Institute course I had taken.

… the Guardian would certainly advise, and even urge the friends to make a thorough study of the Qur’án as the knowledge of this Sacred Scripture is absolutely indispensable for every believer who wishes to adequately understand and intelligently read the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
(Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 561)

I am, of course, no expert on Islam, so I focused instead on the story of how I overcame my prejudice against Islam and what struck me the most about the spiritual truths of Islam as elucidated by Baha’u’llah.

To put my story in context, it is worth explaining that Bulgarians as a general rule are quite prejudiced against Islam because of the historical experience of surviving for 5 centuries under the rule of the Ottomans. This prejudice permeates traditions, folk songs, folk tales, education, anything. What is interesting about such prejudice (maybe it is typical of any prejudice?) is that I was not aware of it — it had become so much the norm of my environment and life, that I never questioned it. How I faced this prejudice and over time overcame it, is one of the gifts of the Baha’i Faith:

It all started on a sunny summer morning, when I was sitting on a blanket at the Sea Garden in Varna, the Black Sea capital of Bulgaria, surrounded by Baha’i pioneers who had come to the first teaching project in my country. What I thought to be a German family had invited me to partake in their breakfast – muesli. It was the first time in my life that I had that delicious European cereal with dried fruits and nuts. As I was enjoying the meal, I asked my hosts what part of Germany they were from. They answered that in fact they were not from Germany but from Turkey…

The following happened in a split second but I still remember it clearly as if happening in slow motion in front of my eyes… As I heard these people saying they were from Turkey, I almost choked. My first thought was — “I can’t believe I am eating this food”. My second thought was “Shame on you! These people are extending their hospitality! Who are you to judge them!”. That is all it took — recognizing that in a split second from a wonderful host family I had turned them into objects, “them”, “the enemy”; and then recognizing that thought as a total non sense. That of course was the beginning of a journey. But I am enormously grateful to God for helping me make that first initial step in overcoming my prejudice because without that first step there wouldn’t have been the next ones.

The degree of my prejudice was so profound that for years I would be embarrassed to bow during obligatory prayer because that reminded me of Islamic prayer; for years I would not fast because the Baha’i Fast so reminded me of the Muslim fast; for years I would cringe at questions if the Baha’i Faith was rooted in Islam.

Today I can proudly say that just as Christianity started as an offshoot of Judaism, the Baha’i Faith had its beginning in  the cradle of Islam, whose laws it abrogated and spiritual truths renewed.

That initial step of overcoming a prejudice allowed me in time to have a wonderful roommate from Istanbul, to benefit from the wonderful help of a Lebanese professor, to appreciate delicious Turkish and just about any Middle-eastern food, and to be able to face a Muslim and see them as a human being.

That initial step enabled me to reach out and talk to my building’s apartment manager and invite her to an interfaith devotional gathering. And even though she did not come the other day, I know she will — she left a note on my door that she was hesitant to enter because she did not want to interrupt our prayers but she wants to come next time, on time.

So, thank you, Baha’u’llah, for the wonderful fruit of overcoming one of my prejudice!

I ask you all, each one of you, to follow well the light of truth, in the Holy Teachings, and God will strengthen you by His Holy Spirit so that you will be enabled to overcome the difficulties, and to destroy the prejudices which cause separation and hatred amongst the people. Let your hearts be filled with the great love of God, let it be felt by all; for every man is a servant of God, and all are entitled to a share of the Divine Bounty.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 27)

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