The Islam I Know Encourages Exploration

Islam in London

A keen traveller tells us how Islam spurred him to get to know new environments and practices: It was the first Monday of the month, and as usual I was in my favorite bar, sipping a chai tea latte and spilling my travel plans in front of my most internationally-oriented friend.

It’s our monthly ritual: we meet, we talk about our future journeys and we give each other tips. We are quite different types of travelers: I certainly don’t share her enthusiasm for long plane journeys as much as she doesn’t approve of my sneaking into Brazilian favelas or roaming in Haiti.

Despite that, on one aspect of travel we can’t help but agree: how incredibly fundamental Couchsurfing is for us. Therefore you might understand why I had a jolt when she cringed at my idea of being hosted by a Muslim boy during my upcoming trip.

Knowing that she’s an even more experienced Couchsurfer than I am, the fact that she might have these biases came as an unexpected revelation, and got me wondering if being discriminated against for their creed is somehow common for my fellow Muslim backpackers.

When I posted this question on the Couchsurfing forum, Hisham accepted to be interviewed and I couldn’t have been happier. He boasts one of the most extraordinary profiles I’ve ever seen.

Therefore you might understand why I had a jolt when she cringed at my idea of being hosted by a Muslim boy during my upcoming trip.

Not only has he piled up more than 1,600 positive references, but his list of visited countries amounts to almost 50, including Togo, Gambia and Saudi Arabia. He’s been appointed ambassador of the association and for a good reason, I’d say.

At my question about prejudices, he tells me a story that seems beyond incredible. One day Hisham sent a girl his usual message as an ambassador, welcoming her to London and offering some help. Her answer was a blunt, “Thanks a lot, but I don’t mingle with Arabs.

After wondering if he should have answered back, he decided to sympathize with the fact that some Muslims can give the wrong impression to foreigners, but he still remarked that this didn’t make it logical to judge 1 billion people on the basis of her limited experiences.

Islam in the UK

As a consequence, she threatened to report him to the administrators because of his “aggressive reply”. Hisham asked her in his last message, “What are you going to report? That I welcomed you to London or that I said that labelling 1 billion people with the same bad mark is wrong?” She has never reported him.

One day Hisham sent a girl his usual message as an ambassador, welcoming her to London and offering some help. Her answer was a blunt, “Thanks a lot, but I don’t mingle with Arabs.”

Then what is the reason that keeps you motivated to host and be hosted around the world?” I ask. Referring to verse 49:13 in the Qur’an he quotes, “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.

Hisham continues, “Islam, at least the Islam I know and the Islam I practice, encourages exploring new cultures, even those ones which are poles apart from ours. The ultimate reason for creating us all different is indeed that we might connect and find in each other a source of wisdom.

I am never bored of meeting people because every human being is different, and each person I meet enriches me through his unique experiences and points of view. Imagine, we wouldn’t even be talking now, if it wasn’t for the diversity in our cultures.

He speaks openly, “Of course this is me, I can’t guarantee all other Muslims join Couchsurfing for the same reason. I know some people who just use the platform to find a free couch to crash on: they are so rigid in their beliefs that they can’t even conceive of the idea of confronting themselves with someone in an open-minded attitude.

However, I can assure you that despite many people being concerned about being hosted by a Muslim, there are many of us who are incredibly outgoing, whilst still being rooted to their Islamic values.

As Islam is the main reason that brought him to travel, I ask Hisham if he uses Couchsurfing as a way to share his religion with non-believers. “I don’t shy away from talking about Islam when I travel and when I host. Moreover I find it encouraging that so many people are keen to learn about my religion.

The fact that they don’t let themselves be blinded by the propaganda and are unable to accept ridiculous claims against Muslims to me makes them pure at heart. I consider this the proof that God exists and that during the Creation He instilled His spirit in us.

I don’t shy away from talking about Islam when I travel and when I host. Moreover I find it encouraging that so many people are keen to learn about my religion.

Hisham continues with his response, “However, I tend not to start the conversation first. When potential guests and hosts see my profile they know what my religion is and usually they are the ones who let the conversation flow towards that topic. I don’t want to start discussions that might make someone uncomfortable nor do I want to force Islam on anybody.

The last question I ask him is if he hosts anybody indiscriminately: Muslim or not, man and women. “Yes of course” he says confidently, “because, again, under no circumstances does Islam approve of discrimination based on religion, background or skin color. To me the only difference that matters between people is if they do good or they do wrong.

I don’t want to start discussions that might make someone uncomfortable nor do I want to force Islam on anybody.

I challenge him by asking, “So if an atheist came to your house but still behaved well how would you consider him or her?” Hisham replied, “Simply it’s not my job to judge. If a person is acting good to me he’s a good person, and as far as one is a good person we can be friends. Of course I will talk to him about my beliefs, but then it’s up to him to choose his path. God is the one who created him and the only one who is entitled to judge.

The interview with Hisham leaves me with a bittersweet taste in mouth. On the one side I feel relieved to have confirmed my theory that only through education and traveling we can free ourselves from prejudices.

However, on the other I quiver at how many people are too cocooned in their feelings of hate and biases to ever be able to face the truth.

Michela Occhioni

Michela Occhioni

Michela Occhioni is a law student at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. Her interest for Islam and the Arab world brought her to focus on the learning of Sharia. Passionate polyglot, she has recently decided to add Arabic, Farsi and Turkish to the 5 languages she already speaks.

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