Of September 11, 2001

18. “My Interfaith Life in Indianapolis”

I have lived in Indianapolis for 28 years, more than in any other city elsewhere.  For the first 18 years of my life I lived with my parents in India.  When they migrated to Pakistan, I went to Karachi and finished my medical school there.  So when the opportunity came, I came to the USA to Chicago in 1969 to peruse higher medical education and training.  I lived in Chicago for 3 years before I decided to come to Indiana University for my specialty training.  While in Chicago, I was more concerned with my medical training than any other issues such as interfaith.  At that time, I did not have much knowledge of people of other faiths, hardly ever meeting them in my own country.  So when Professor Nicholas of University of Chicago, a Jew, invited me to his home to have dinner with him, I asked “is there any pork or ham in the food”?  He said “didn’t you know that I am a Jew and Jewish people don’t eat pork”?  That was a pleasant surprise to learn that there is something in common between we Muslims and Jewish people in our diet. 


After I entered into private practice in 1974, I had more encounters with non-Muslim Americans as my patients.  I have treated 20,000 of them since then.  Many of them became my close friends.  Some Americans who come from a small town had not seen a foreigner, and especially  of a different faith but they did bring me Christmas gifts knowing that I am not a Christian.  So out of curiosity as well as ignorance, they asked questions about my faith.   I had to learn my faith in order to share it with my friends and workers.  Twenty years ago I wrote an essay “The Agonies of a Muslim living in a non-Muslim Society”.  That became the first chapter of my book “Reflections of an American Muslim”( Kazi  Publications Chicago 1994).  I am supposed to practice my  faith in both individual and collective capacities.  I can pray by myself, give charity by myself or fast by myself, but it is the collective practice that is difficult in this society.  The joy of being a Muslim in a collective way was not available when I came to this country 30 years ago.  There were few people to visit and socialize with and the food was a major problem.  I had to check each item to see whether there was pork or lard in it and I had to avoid alcohol in every drink.  One major problem was the ignorance of media about Islam, leading to the labeling of Muslims as terrorists.  This was a dilemma for my patient who used to fight with his co-workers saying “Muslims are not terrorists.  Look at my doctor.  He’s so nice and kind and caring.  How can he be a terrorist”? 



Joining Interfaith Alliance in Indianapolis, which was originally started as a northside interfaith project, was one of the best things that happened in my life.  For the first time, I could see that members of other faith groups have equal status as children of God.  We continued to meet monthly and make plans how to bring people of different faiths together in respecting each other.  Just as they learned about me and Islam, I learned by interacting with leaders of the interfaith group, that after all, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahai and Sikhs are not bad people at all.  One evening I was invited by Reverend Jerry Zehr to have dinner at his house.  Also invited was Rabbi Jonathan Stein.  When the time for my evening sunset prayer came, I wanted to excuse myself and go to a different room and pray.  Reverend Zehr asked me if I could pray in the same room and if they could join me for the prayer.  Therefore, I did formal Islamic prayer and both the Reverend and the Rabbi prayed behind me and then we made a personal prayer at the end.   We realized that we did pray to one God.


During the Gulf War, there was a lot of hostility against Muslims.  For the actions of Saddam Hussein, we Muslims here were being identified with his faith or lack of it.  My son, a high school student, was taunted as Iraqi though he has never been to Iraq and my wife was called an Iranian because of head cover that she wore.  During that moment, a Christian priest, Father Tom Murphy called me and said “Shahid, I am worried about you.  What can I do for your safety”?  I said “Father Tom, all security is from God, but you can do something for my community.”  He spoke publicly and issued a statement in the newspaper saying that the Muslims in Indianapolis have nothing to do with what is happening in the Middle East and their lives and honor should be respected as would the lives and honor of other Americans.  Love is a two way traffic, so when I heard about missiles falling on Israel, I called my Rabbi friend to give sympathy to Jewish people.  He publicly thanked me in the congregational prayer of the synagogue for that.  One of the sweetest memories in the month of Ramadan is when I received a package as a gift.   Upon opening the package, I was  pleasantly surprised to see the gift of most delicious dates from Palm Springs, which were ordered by my Jewish friend Sharon Mishkin for our family to break the fast with.  How caring of her!


For 26 years I have worked in a Catholic hospital and the administrators as well as Chaplins, make me feel at home.  Through them, I have learned what compassionate care is.  One day, I was rounding and a Chaplin came to me and said that he was planning to write a pamphlet that each patient will get to help him or her pray at the beginning and end of the meal.  He said that he knew what the Christian and Jewish prayers were, but he did not know what the Muslim prayers were before starting a meal and at the end.  So I asked him “there are hardly any Muslim patients at this hospital, why do you want to include an Islamic prayer”?  He said “even if there was one Muslim patient in the entire hospital, I do not want him to wonder why his or her religion is missing.  I want all of the patients to be able to pray in whatever manner they want”.  To me, this was the American freedom of religion. 


For the last 5 years, I have been host to Islamic/Catholic regional dialogue between leaders of both faith groups.  It has been a joy to be with the leaders from different cities.  Through interfaith process I have gotten to know some very beautiful and knowledgeable people like Rabbi Dennis and Sandy Sasso, who’s writings and speeches I enjoy, and many in other faith groups as well.  Too many to mention.  Several of the non-Muslim leaders came to laying the foundation stone for our new mosque in Indianapolis.  While it was being constructed, during a fund raising ceremony for Muslims which I had to attend that kept me away from an Interfaith Alliances meeting.  So when they found out about it, they had an on site fund raising of their own at the mosque and sent me the check to help with the construction of the mosque.  It was a small check, but big in thoughts and values.

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Shahid Athar, MD
8424 Naab Road
Suite 2D
Indianapolis, IN 46260