From silicon to sand: Engaging religion in a global classroom

Author: Mahan Mirza, Ansari Institute Executive Director

Mahan In Oman

The goat was delicious. Prepared in traditional Omani style, on a farm about an hour’s drive from the capital, Muscat, it made for a delightful communal meal. Our group (students and instructors, as well as our hosts) enjoyed it together, appreciating how the conversation complemented the cuisine.

Greeted, per custom, with bitter coffee served with sweet halwa and dates upon arrival, we were invited by our generous host to ask anything. The questions flowed seamlessly. What distinguished Ibadi Islam from Sunnism and Shi’ism? Why were male foreigners discouraged from wearing the dishdasha—the flowing white Arab attire donned by every adult native? How was Oman able to maintain good relations with so many quarreling neighbors like the UAE and Qatar, Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia and Yemen? Were Omanis required to learn a second language in school? Did they like to travel abroad, and what were their most favored destinations for business or holiday? What did they think of the United States and the West?

These were just a few of the questions we considered over the course of the trip, which connected students from two great Holy Cross institutions, the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame University Bangladesh. The phrase “social distancing” had been introduced into our vocabulary less than twenty-four hours ago, mid-week into our spring-break trip abroad, as we sat on the ground in a circle eating with our hands from a single dish of tender goat on a giant platter of rice. One of the students, singled out as the guest of honor, had the privilege of receiving hand-crafted morsels from the host. Social distancing was not going very well for us, but there was love, and we were far from the epicenters of the outbreak, for now.

Oman was the perfect place for us to meet. Our home at Al Amana Centre in the foothills of Muscat provided the right balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity for exactly the kind of engagement we were hoping for, as students pursued dialogue across religious and cultural differences. Sitting there, under the gently swaying date palms, life presented itself in an alternative form. The males competed in scaling the palm trees, the females decorated their palms with henna, the call to prayer resonated through the cool spring air in the desert sunset.

Traveling to the Middle East raises anxieties, especially for American college students who have never left the country before. The accelerating COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help just as the trip was getting underway. We arrived late Saturday night; by Wednesday, our university in the United States announced that it was switching to online instruction for the rest of the semester. On Thursday we were at the farm. On Sunday, as we prepared for our return flight to Chicago, we collectively wondered whether we might be safer riding out the pandemic in Oman.

At that moment, at least for our little privileged bubble, the crisis had become a gift. It fulfilled what might be considered as every teacher’s dream: providing students an opportunity to see the world differently, to see both others and themselves in new light, to see humanity where before they saw barbarity, to imagine a world where we could all flourish together, despite our many differences.

While Oman has been touched by modernity—we communicated through WhatsApp with our hosts, used GPS to navigate back to the city, rode in tank-like SUVs with air conditioning, and carried with us state-of-the art first-aid kits—the rhythm of life is nonetheless very different on an Arabian farm than a global metropolis. Life in urban innovation centers, corporate hubs, and even college towns of the United States is fast-paced, perhaps a little too fast. One speed bump brings into question everything that we have worked for or that gives us meaning: retirement accounts, tenure clocks, endowment forecasts. Some speed bumps, like climate change, might turn out to be brick walls, arresting the civilizational project altogether.

The hazards are many. Our interconnectedness is increasing. And the winds of progress are strong. Can we stop rowing, feel the currents, and let the sails carry us onward for a while? Maybe we will not collapse. Maybe we will not lose all that we’ve been able to accomplish as a human family. Maybe we’ll save something valuable we are losing as we sprint relentlessly into the future. Perhaps we’ll restore something essential we need to survive: harmony with nature, compassion for the least among us, leisure to contemplate existence and purpose.

In the foreword to his second edition of Liquid Modernity, the sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman invites us to contemplate alternative possibilities in history and progress: “is, perhaps, the truth of an alternative view of history (and so also of an alternative understanding of ‘progress’) about to out: that far from being an irreversible dash forward, with no retreat conceivable, the episode of chasing happiness through shops was, is and will prove to be for all practical intents and purposes a one-off detour, intrinsically and inevitably temporary?” (xix).

Bauman’s reflections remind me of Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard—paralleled in a prophetic tradition in Islam—where the laborers hired late in the day reap the fruits of those who have toiled since the morn. Might our condition be like the laborers of the eleventh hour, enjoying the bounties of the harvest that others had planted before we arrived? The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. seems to echo this parable in his final work entitled Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, where he calls for the direct elimination of poverty through a “guaranteed income” made possible by the abundance of our times (171). 

The ship of capitalism set sail centuries ago. Its goods have reached the four corners of the world. The sands of the desert have become the silicon for microchips. Technology has changed the world, most certainly for the better, but pandemics remind us of our precarity. Are we going too fast? Can we build more resilience into our global system? Can its fruits be better shared among all? On the shores of Oman, at the crossroads of Africa and Asia, we were reminded of these questions, as we experienced a different rhythm of life, where, for a few days, strangers became like family, and we saw the possibility of a different world.