As I understand it, Ramadan begins today. Or tomorrow for some. I wish all those of Islamic faith Ramadan mubarak!
As you can tell, I am no expert on Islam. Or any religion for that matter.
I was raised in a home without religious beliefs. In high school most of my friends were Jewish, as were my aunts and cousins and, of course, my grandparents.
At about that time I discovered Unitarians. Unitarianism was attractive to me in the early 60s for a number of reasons. The youth group was called Liberal Religious Youth and, at least in Los Angeles, it was integrated, politically active in anti-war and civil rights movements and had great parties.
When we got together on Sunday mornings at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, we learned about different religions, including Islam. But my knowledge of Islam did not extend to actually knowing personally a single Muslim.
As I’m writing this it occurs to me that Muhammad Ali may have been the first Muslim I ever met. And by met, I mean that I shook his hand. And had my draft card autographed by him.
That would have been in 1967.
In 1968 I went off to Europe for the summer on a very low-rent trip. I had budgeted about five dollars a day for as long as my money would last, which would be not much more than 100 days.
This required that I sleep in a bed roll on the side of the road. And travel a lot by sticking out my thumb.
One afternoon, somewhere between Paris and Lyon, a tiny Renault pulled over with two men in the front seat. I squeezed into the rear with my bed roll and backpack.
They were Algerians who spoke no English and I knew only enough French to say please, thank you, good day and good bye.
And “où est le WC.”
At dusk when they pulled over to the side of the road and took out their prayer rugs, I had no idea what was going on.
They kneeled facing east.
It was the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily Muslim prayers.
When they finished, they got back in the car, pulled back on the road, dropping me off a little later at the turn-off to Grenoble.
I waved and yelled, “Merci” and “Au revoir!”
I was twenty-years old and aside from Muhammad Ali, they were the first Muslims I had ever met.
It was in France, not America. Only 50 years ago.
It is hard to imagine an America like that existed where someone like me could grow up in a major city and know no Muslims.
I’m glad that’s over.