A Sunni And A Shiite Woman Bond In Long, Frank Evening Talks
March 5, 2006
By Courant Staff Writer
Ayat Agah, 27, is a Shiite - the Arabic
or Farsi word is "Shia" - who grew up in Virginia just
outside Washington, D.C., the daughter of an Iranian Muslim father
and an American Muslim mother who converted from Catholicism.
Suendam Birinci, 26, (Endam to her
friends) is a Sunni who grew up in Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
Since 2003, both have been students at Hartford Seminary. Both are
pursuing careers in education. And they are roommates.
Sunnis and Shiites appear intent on
destroying one another in Iraq, and the women greet the increasingly
dim news of bombings and attacks there with a mix of pain and concern.
Interviewed by Courant Staff Writer Susan Campbell at their Hartford
apartment, the women talked about Sunnis and Shiites and a gulf
that they say doesn't exist.
Birinci: At the seminary, we had some
classes together, and we started asking one another, "What
do you think about that?" on things we'd discussed in class.
I lived on campus and we started spending time together for prayer
time, for snacks, after our courses. Our roommates wondered why
we weren't rooming together because we would stay up until very
late talking about religion and theology. We'd often end up staying
at one another's place because by the time we quit talking, it was
too late to leave.
Agah: I remember Endam was one of the
first people with whom I would continue discussions beyond the classroom,
knowing that we came from different schools of thought.
Birinci: We had the hardest time when
we were introducing one another.
Agah: I always said I was Shia, and
Endam never introduced herself as a Sunni. I asked her if that was
something important to her, or was it something she didn't want
to be identified with.
Birinci: I don't see any need to introduce
myself as Sunni. I am a Muslim. I don't see any differences. That
was such a starting point of our discussion.
Agah: We started talking and we had
such open, frank discussions. The main difference has to do with
the time right after the death of the prophet. [Shiites believe
the successor should have been the cousin and son-in-law of the
prophet Muhammad. Sunnis - the larger of the two sects - believe
the appropriate successor was selected by a committee of elders.
And within those two schools of thought, there are branches.] The
history and stories we would have been told as children are different.
So we would say, "OK, can you have two histories about these
same events, with all the time that's passed between?" Too
often the way we learn about Islam in this country happens around
crisis, like 9/11, or what's going on in Iraq now. I would think
that puts a damper on anyone wanting to learn. Islam is out there,
but if people only hear the negative, why would they want to know
anything about it? The best source would be the Koran. Start to
read, and then ask people. And no matter what you read and no matter
who you talk to, realize that's one voice, not all Muslims.
Birinci: We ended up seeing our two
Agah: How do you talk about the same
people with such different attitudes? And then we started seeing
the similarities, and there were a lot. The strangest thing was
recognizing the similarities in the prayers, outside of the regular
five-times-a-day prayers. The Sunni prayers recognize the prophet's
family, and show reverence for them. That was so surprising to me.
Endam brought me a prayer book from Turkey. I shared with her a
prayer I have been reading since I was a kid. As friends, we don't
speak to one another in a harsh way to begin with, and we never
had to hesitate talking with one another, never had to worry about
being politically correct.
Birinci: One thing we question is how
seriously do you take the words of the prophet in terms of a successor.
There are two different stories, two different interpretations.
Agah: I have heard the differences
being compared to that of the Catholics and the Protestants. As
far as Iraq, I really don't know the history there. One of the things
that kept coming up for me is that the Shia and the Sunnis live
together. Anyone with an agenda could pick up on that and try to
cause divisions between the two groups. You don't always need to
use labels. You are talking about neighborhoods, Sunni and Shia
side by side, intermarrying.
Birinci: In Iraq, you have the Sunnis
and the Shias, and the Kurds in between. Religion has always been
used by politicians to keep people under control. And that's not
its purpose, not at all. I was talking today to my mom and Ayat
was on the other line. Our parents know one another. Ayat came to
Turkey before we moved in together. We are roommates, but we rarely
see one another. We mostly talk on the phone. I take courses, and
work part time [at the National Conference for Community and Justice].
She takes courses and works full time [at Covenant to Care for Children].
She likes to wash dishes. We like cleaning. We like cooking. One
of us will get home first, and the other says to go ahead and eat,
but we always end up waiting. We do roommate things. We watch movies.
No, we're seminary students. We watch documentaries.
Agah: We saw "The Matrix"
together. "Spanglish." When I got to know Endam, I felt
like I'd met a long-lost cousin. Family is family. We trust our
histories. We know that the ultimate source is God.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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