Som Pourfarzaneh’s two religions are sometimes at odds. Can he practice both without losing the richness of either?
Sundown turns to dusk as my forehead touches the rug beneath me. I stand, clasp my left wrist with my right hand, and intone the Arabic verses of the Qur’an that are recited daily by over a billion Muslims around the world. With my prayers, I’m unifying body, speech, and mind into the simple act of devotion to Allah, also known as al-Ra’uf, “the Compassionate.”
After completing the evening ritual, I fold up my prayer rug and exchange it for my meditation cushion. While I progressively relax my body from scalp to toes, the last embers of sunset glow through the glass doors leading to my balcony, and I watch airplanes and thoughts go by. I practice silent illumination until night covers the neighborhood, then I run my fingers over my string of mala beads for a quick mantra recitation, extending compassion toward all beings.
I am multireligious, Buddhist and Muslim.
Often, a person’s beliefs can coexist comfortably. There may be no tension, for example, growing up in a Christian household with a Candomblé altar, or celebrating Holi one month and Eid the next due to the different backgrounds of one’s parents.
For those of us with multiple religious identities, it is the experience of wrestling with conflicting beliefs that gives meaning to the evolution of our spirituality.
However, my path, which continues to unfold, has been anything but straightforward.
Generally speaking, the beliefs and practices of Buddhist and Abrahamic traditions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, can be complementary. Practitioners from each religion are encouraged to do good and avoid harming others, and quiet contemplation is the perfect counterpoint to vocal prayer. But, how does one reconcile incongruous or even incompatible differences between two or more traditions? How does a theist, who adheres to a religion that unequivocally refers to God, the creator, make space for a tradition that either has no reference point for a singular deity or instead has a pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas, which are venerated and often worshiped? Moreover, how does one make peace among disparate beliefs without losing all the texture and richness belonging to each tradition in the process?
I wrestle with these concepts. Buddhism as a tradition may not have the cosmological space for God, the creator, but then again, Muslim interpretations on the subject have tended away from narrow definitions that position Allah as an anthropomorphized, gendered deity. Allah is instead seen as both immanent and transcendent, simultaneously present in the here and now and beyond all words and concepts. Correspondingly, the selflessness and interconnectedness of all beings and all phenomena, as captured in the Buddhist concept of emptiness, provides me with a reference point for how to experience the presence of Allah in daily life. In my multireligious practice, Allah is not a dispassionate entity out there in the heavens somewhere. All phenomena are selfless manifestations of Allah, empty of their own inherent existence and dependent on everything around them to function.
For those of us with multiple religious identities, it is the experience of wrestling with conflicting beliefs that gives meaning to the evolution of our spirituality. Sometimes, the traditions we’re drawn to have compatible elements. The bodhisattva ideal, for example, dovetails beautifully with the concept of vicegerency in Islam, where the human being is thought to be Allah’s representative and should thus act with compassion. Other times, beliefs and practices might not line up so neatly, and we must work to make sense of how they inform our daily lives.
Ultimately, the elements of a multireligious experience meet in what I call a “disposition of devotion.” Whether a practice moves us to kneel in prayer, lift our hands in supplication, wake up early to recite a text in community, or sit in contemplation while running our fingers over a length of beads in seclusion, it is the embodiment of the practice that gives it meaning. Our beliefs may be important in setting the stage, but it’s our disposition of devotion—toward the divine, toward the teachings, toward the natural order of the cosmos—that comes alive in the actual practices as we embody them.
This disposition of devotion is itself active and fluid, with the potential to consistently push the boundaries of our comfort zones to make room for divergent beliefs and practices. As a Muslim, for example, my devoutness to the concept of tawhid, or oneness, goes only as far as I’m able to actually embrace a universality of humanity in my daily life. As a Buddhist, my devotion to the teaching of interdependence is meaningless if I’m not able to act altruistically in relation to others. In either case, the logical culmination of these beliefs is compassion.
There are many places where I can feel spiritually “at home,” but few where I feel wholly accepted and understood with all my religious beliefs and practices in tandem.
The actual embodiment of multireligiosity represents a process of negotiation with oneself and one’s spiritual communities, often requiring code-switching between different environments. There are many places where I can feel spiritually “at home,” but few where I feel wholly accepted and understood with all my religious beliefs and practices in tandem. I’m equally comfortable praying elbow-to-elbow with other Muslims in a mosque or sitting in meditation with fellow Buddhists. Worship and meditation represent to me different but converging practices pointing toward a similar experience of selflessness and generating the same outcome of compassionate altruism toward all beings.
Acknowledging one’s unique multireligious identity tends to be messy. It requires a great deal of honest spiritual wrestling and a consistent expansion of one’s comfort zones. Yet, if such a process leads to the continual refreshing of one’s spiritual home and deeper compassion, then the task is surely worth the effort.