Since birth I was exposed to two different, beautiful worlds — Catholicism and Islam. Likewise, my parents gave me two wonderfully distant cultures — Mexican and Syrian. To add to this curiosity, my parents met in Texas and raised me right there in the heart of the Bible belt. So, to say that I’m unique is an understatement. But I love my heritages in all their cultural and geographical variety.
My experience with two contrasting religions has enriched my spiritual life. Growing up I would mimic my Muslim father in his daily prayers, and my mother would come to my room at night and ask me to recite the “Our Father.” When we visited my grandmother at Christmas time, her house smelled of tamales and spices and her tree was covered in ornaments and candy canes. Oh, how I wished I could have a tree, or at least help decorate it. We didn’t celebrate Christmas at home, much less have a tree, so when we visited my Abuela it felt special.
The decorations, the family, the food, and of course the presents, all celebrated the Spirit of God, or as Muslims say Rooh-Allah. In more traditional Catholic circles, Christmas celebration lasts forty days and ends at the Feast of the Purification of Mary in February.
Muslims celebrate Eid at the end of Ramadan when gifts are exchanged with family, similar to Christmas. But the sharing was incomplete because my father’s side of the family lived far away in Syria, a place I wouldn’t see until I turned ten. I always felt so isolated from the other children. My family was different, my holidays were different, my culture was different, and my fellow Texans thought I was so odd. But surrounded by family who loved me, Christmas at Abuela’s made me feel accepted, even if they didn’t understand why I couldn’t eat the tamales (though they were pork-free).
Though I often felt conflicted by these two religions, I eventually decided Islam was the right path for me. How ironic, then, that years later I ended up at a Catholic university. Who would have thought the Muslim girl who wears hijab and prays five times a day would be hanging around the school chapel almost every day? Not me, that’s for sure. In my sophomore year at The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW), I discovered an interfaith student organization and was able to learn more about the Catholic faith, as well as many other faiths. I began inviting friends to the group and attending events with excitement.
At that time, the leader was nearing graduation and the organization asked me to take her place. I felt overwhelmed at first, but after careful consideration accepted. Not only did I become president of the organization, but I also began working as the interfaith intern in campus ministry. I went from a shy, quiet person to laughing and joking every day. My colleagues were like an extended family to me, so even if I wasn’t on the clock organizing events, I loved to just stick around.
When I wasn’t in the offices I helped the sacristan in the Chapel. He often cared for the place alone so I would go in and ask if he needed assistance. I helped raise the banners behind the altar, water the plants, and set up the area near the door of the chapel. When Advent season came, that little girl wishing to decorate at her Abuela’s suddenly emerged within me. So I rummaged through the closet and found pink and purple candles to put on the wreath.
I asked many questions about Catholicism and always learned something new. Decorating was one thing, but feeling comfortable enough to converse with an officer of the church gave me gratitude. And though I can’t speak for all Muslims, this experience made me wish Muslim clerics were as open. There are many Sheikhs willing to answer my questions, but the dignity of their position seems to require a certain reserve.
The opportunities I had to decorate this Catholic chapel prompt me to ponder the relationship between creativity and faith. God is the ultimate Creator. So when we, as His creations, use our resources to create something artistic, we move closer to Him. As Muslims we say that nothing resembles God — Laysa Kamithlihi Shay — but we strive to keep righteous actions to near ourselves to His presence. Surrounded by divine inspiration to create, we in turn can inspire others.
Mosques, brocaded with geometric shapes and beautiful calligraphy, are examples of this artistic inspiration. But I sometimes secretly wish that Islamic holidays came with the same kind of decoration and festivity as Christmas. This is okay because learning about the religious practices of others only helps me grow in my own faith.
I am proud to be a Muslim woman, but the Catholic heritage I received from my mother and grandmother continue to broaden my appreciation for humankind. Having lived between two worlds, I still feel the personal pull of both Islam and Catholicism and wish others could experience the beauty that I have.
Amira Alsareinye holds a Bachelor of Arts in biology from The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW). While attending UIW, she worked as the Interfaith Student Ministry Intern for Campus Ministry. She is currently busy caring for her two children. Her passions include art, science, and writing.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.