Lying in my tent under the night sky in the Egyptian desert, I began to hear beautiful sounds from outside. The Egyptian workers who served as our guides sat in a circle listening to a cassette tape recording of the Islamic Culture Prayer. To this day, it was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard.
ST. BONAVENTURE, New York ꟷ Studying Egyptology as a college student in the 1980’s, I discovered Islamic culture. For four decades, I have worked to show people Muslims are not terrorists. I am a Catholic, Franciscan friar and the closest friendships I ever made are with Muslim people.
The year I began studying Egyptology, one of my college professors noticed my interest and passion and suggested I go on a school-sponsored trip to Egypt. I signed up immediately. While I did not know what to think or expect, excitement filled me. I was ready to experience a new opportunity. Family members expressed concerns, but nothing was going to change my mind.
Despite all of the unknowns and the preparations I endured to travel to a foreign country for the first time, the experience seemed normal. Then, one particular night in Egypt, everything changed for me.
Lying in my tent under the night sky in the Egyptian desert, I began to hear beautiful sounds from outside. The Egyptian workers who served as our guides sat in a circle on that starry night in Egypt. They listened to a cassette tape recording of the Islamic Culture Prayer.
The brightness of the moon and the sounds from the cassette guided me out of my tent. The experience overcame me with emotion as I listened to the prayer. To this day, it was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard.
While I did not understand the language, a sense of the words emerged in my mind. I knew I must take this experience back to the United States and it stayed with me for years.
In 2003, I became a Franciscan friar and began teaching college courses. Being a friar pushed me to be the change I wanted to create in the world. It also helped me see the complementary aspects of Islamic culture and Franciscan values.
I became even more motivated to prove Islam is not terrorism, so I went deeper and deeper into my teachings. I soon realized people had more interest than I expected. One day, in a lecture class, a rugby player came to class on crutches. He always seemed to be injured or hurt in some way.
As I clicked through the presentation slides for class, the rugby player stood up on his crutches, one-legged, and completely zoned into the pictures. He stared at the photos of Islamic culture and the Arabic language. He was absolutely enthralled.
The experience drove me to another goal – to create the Center for Arabic Studies at St. Bonaventure University in 2015. It seemed a massive moment in my life. It was as if I was taking my students through a lifetime of my own experiences.
Through all my journeys and travels, I noticed Islamic culture is expressed differently in various countries. However, there was one thing that always remained consistent: even as a non-Muslim, I could form and share deep connections with the people and the culture.
The closest friendships I ever made are with Muslim people. Some of those people are as close to me as my own family with whom I share a genetic connection.
Embracing Islamic culture may seem unusual because of American views and the intentional messaging of American media. Yet, even though barriers like this exist, I will continue to push for people to see the truth. I will share my experiences so others can see Muslim people are not dangerous.
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