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Friends Across Islam's Divide

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 different histories.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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