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A Muslim humra

On that moment when an Orthodox Jew meets somebody who checks the ingredients to be sure there's no pork

Sporting a bushy black beard, Nazim wore a flannel shirt and jeans. When my medical student extended her hand to shake his, Nazim shook his head. “Sorry,” he said, “I don’t shake hands with women.”

Nazim hails from Saudi Arabia. He came to this country to study endodontics.

Our discussion turned to medications Nazim might use for his problem. “I can’t take that,” he said, referring to a capsule recommended by a previous doctor. “It comes from pork. As a Muslim, I do not eat pork.”

Nazim had done his homework. He’d researched several versions of the medication in question, name-brand and generic, and learned that the gelatin in their capsules derives from pork. We settled on a different drug that comes in tablet form.

Done with the medical aspect of our visit, I tried to satisfy my curiosity about another matter.

“Permit me to ask you something,” I said. “I have treated many Muslim patients who don’t eat pork, but none of them has raised this concern. I realize there are different levels of observance in every religion, but I can recall that one of the Muslims who took this medication was fasting on Ramadan during treatment.”

Nazim nodded. “Some members of my family do shake hands with women,” he said. “And some have taken this medication. But I don’t feel comfortable doing those things.”

“When you have a question about religious practice,” I went on, “whom do you ask?”

“I have studied Islam in several countries,” he said. “I have teachers at home and in Indonesia. When I have questions about religious practice, I ask them.

“I know there are different interpretations of tradition,” he continued. “But when it comes to religious matters, I don’t want to take any chances.”

I smiled, if only to myself. Nazim’s line of analysis is a familiar one. Pesach is coming, after all, when half the precautions many of us take are not, strictly-speaking, required. When it comes to religious matters, though, we just don’t want to take any chances.

I am not trying to draw simplistic parallels. Judaism and Islam are not the same. Jews and Muslims are not the same. Still, there are similarities that get lost in polarizing times.

Nazim has become more acculturated to America than he knows, or would care to admit. Except for his beard, he sends no signals in dress or manner that he’s the kind of man who wouldn’t shake hands with a woman. And he know — and cares — enough to apologize for the slight a woman might perceive at being rebuffed.

Likewise, he doesn’t view his lax relatives — the ones who do shake hands or take gelatin capsules — with contempt. They do their religious thing, and he does his. Nazim has been away from Riyadh for a while. Whatever his inner thoughts, the fact that he is even willing to express tolerance for alternative practices makes him more American than he realizes.

Regardless of vast distinctions in history and belief, traditional people from different religions share understandings that they don’t have in common with secular people, even from among their own. Christians who go to church every week — there are still a few of those — “get” Jews who go to shul regularly, and vice versa.

Likewise, practicing Muslims are familiar with the reach of religious law into the fine details of daily life in a way that others from different traditions, or from no traditions, can’t begin to grasp. When you fast on Ramadan, you know when shkiah (sunset) is. Also Rosh Hodesh (start of the month). You also know what a seyag (religious safety measure) is, and what a humra (stringency) and posek (legal arbiter) are too, even if you call them something else.

I point this out with no political agenda. Despite popular pieties, mutual understanding will not make peace break out anytime soon, if ever. My own interest is purely personal. Deep inside, we all think we’re different in some way that others just don’t get. If you follow halakha and go to shul, you may feel — correctly, in my view — that those who don’t do such things have no idea what the fabric of your life is like, what it is that you do, or why anyone would bother. Meeting someone who does bother evokes a tingle of recognition, one that — at least in theory — might be reciprocated.

My daughter once met a young woman her age who was a Seventh Day Adventist. “You know,” said her new acquaintance, “we dress and act a certain way. I can tell another member of my church just by seeing them. But I’m sure you wouldn’t understand that.”

“Actually,” said my daughter, “I would.”

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts
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