8116Converts/Reverts: Reverend drawn to Muslim faith
- Jun 22, 2007Reverend drawn to Muslim faith
Jun 17, 4:08 PM EDT
By JANET I. TU
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE (AP) -- Shortly after noon on Fridays, the
Rev. Ann Holmes Redding ties on a black headscarf,
preparing to pray with her Muslim group on First Hill.
On Sunday mornings, Redding puts on the white collar
of an Episcopal priest.
She does both, she says, because she's Christian and
Redding, who until recently was director of faith
formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, has been
a priest for more than 20 years. Now she's ready to
tell people that, for the last 15 months, she's also
been a Muslim - drawn to the faith after an
introduction to Islamic prayers left her profoundly
Her announcement has provoked surprise and
bewilderment in many, raising an obvious question: How
can someone be both a Christian and a Muslim?
But it has drawn other reactions too. Friends
generally say they support her, while religious
scholars are mixed: Some say that, depending on how
one interprets the tenets of the two faiths, it is,
indeed, possible to be both. Others consider the two
faiths mutually exclusive.
"There are tenets of the faiths that are very, very
different," said Kurt Fredrickson, director of the
doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological
Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "The most basic would be:
What do you do with Jesus?"
Christianity has historically regarded Jesus as the
son of God and God incarnate, both fully human and
fully divine. Muslims, though they regard Jesus as a
great prophet, do not see him as divine and do not
consider him the son of God.
"I don't think it's possible" to be both, Fredrickson
said, just like "you can't be a Republican and a
Redding, who will begin teaching the New Testament as
a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University
this fall, has a different analogy: "I am both Muslim
and Christian, just like I'm both an American of
African descent and a woman. I'm 100 percent both."
Redding doesn't feel she has to resolve all the
contradictions. People within one religion can't even
agree on all the details, she said. "So why would I
spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief
with all of Islam?
"At the most basic level, I understand the two
religions to be compatible. That's all I need."
She says she felt an inexplicable call to become
Muslim, and to surrender to God - the meaning of the
"It wasn't about intellect," she said. "All I know is
the calling of my heart to Islam was very much
something about my identity and who I am supposed to
"I could not not be a Muslim."
Redding's situation is highly unusual. Officials at
the national Episcopal Church headquarters said they
are not aware of any other instance in which a priest
has also been a believer in another faith. They said
it's up to the local bishop to decide whether such a
priest could continue in that role.
Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he
accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim,
and that he finds the interfaith possibilities
exciting. Her announcement, first made through a story
in her diocese's newspaper, hasn't caused much
controversy yet, he said.
Some local Muslim leaders are perplexed.
Being both Muslim and Christian - "I don't know how
that works," said Hisham Farajallah, president of the
Islamic Center of Washington.
But Redding has been embraced by leaders at the
Al-Islam Center of Seattle, the Muslim group she prays
"Islam doesn't say if you're a Christian, you're not a
Muslim," said programming director Ayesha Anderson.
"Islam doesn't lay it out like that."
Redding believes telling her story can help ease
religious tensions, and she hopes it can be a step
toward her dream of creating an institute to study
Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"I think this thing that's happened to me can be a
sign of hope," she said.
Redding is 55 and single, with deep brown eyes,
dreadlocks and a voice that becomes easily impassioned
when talking about faith. She's also a classically
trained singer, and has sung at jazz nights at St.
The oldest of three girls, Redding grew up in
Pennsylvania in a high-achieving, intellectual family.
Her father was one of the lawyers who argued the
landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court
case that desegregated the nation's public schools.
Her mother was in the first class of Fulbright
Though her parents weren't particularly religious,
they had her baptized and sent her to an Episcopal
Sunday school. She has always sensed that God existed
and God loved her, even when things got bleak - which
She experienced racism in schools, was sexually abused
and, by the time she was a young adult, was struggling
with alcohol addiction; she's been in recovery for 20
Despite those difficulties, she graduated from Brown
University, earned master's degrees from two
seminaries and received her Ph.D. in New Testament
from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She
felt called to the priesthood and was ordained in
As much as she loves her church, she has always
challenged it. She calls Christianity the "world
religion of privilege." She has never believed in
original sin. And for years she struggled with the
nature of Jesus' divinity.
She found a good fit at St. Mark's, coming to the
flagship of the Episcopal Church in Western Washington
in 2001. She was in charge of programs to form and
deepen people's faith until March this year when she
was one of three employees laid off for budget
reasons. The dean of the cathedral said Redding's
exploration of Islam had nothing to do with her
Ironically, it was at St. Mark's that she first became
drawn to Islam.
In fall 2005, a local Muslim leader gave a talk at the
cathedral, then prayed before those attending. Redding
was moved. As he dropped to his knees and stretched
forward against the floor, it seemed to her that his
whole body was involved in surrendering to God.
Then in the spring, at a St. Mark's interfaith class,
another Muslim leader taught a chanted prayer and led
a meditation on opening one's heart. The chanting
appealed to the singer in Redding; the meditation
spoke to her heart. She began saying the prayer daily.
Around that time, her mother died, and then "I was in
a situation that I could not handle by any other
means, other than a total surrender to God," she said.
She still doesn't know why that meant she had to
become a Muslim. All she knows is "when God gives you
an invitation, you don't turn it down."
In March 2006, she said her shahada - the profession
of faith - testifying that there is only one God and
that Mohammed is his messenger. She became a Muslim.
Before she took the shahada, she read a lot about
Islam. Afterward, she learned from local Muslim
leaders, including those in Islam's largest
denomination - Sunni - and those in the Sufi mystical
tradition of Islam. She began praying with the
Al-Islam Center, a Sunni group that is predominantly
There were moments when practicing Islam seemed like
In Seattle's Episcopal circles, Redding had mixed
largely with white people. "To walk into Al-Islam and
be reminded that there are more people of color in the
world than white people, that in itself is a relief,"
She found the discipline of praying five times a day -
one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims are
supposed to follow - gave her the deep sense of
connection with God that she yearned for.
It came from "knowing at all times I'm in between
prayers." She likens it to being in love, constantly
looking forward to having "all these dates with God.
... Living a life where you're remembering God
intentionally, consciously, just changes everything."
Friends who didn't know she was practicing Islam told
her she glowed.
Aside from the established sets of prayers she recites
in Arabic five times each day, Redding says her
prayers are neither uniquely Islamic nor Christian.
They're simply her private talks with God or Allah -
she uses both names interchangeably. "It's the same
person, praying to the same God."
In many ways, she says, "coming to Islam was like
coming into a family with whom I'd been estranged. We
have not only the same God, but the same ancestor with
Indeed, Islam, Christianity and Judaism trace their
roots to Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism who is also
considered the spiritual father of all three faiths.
They share a common belief in one God, and there are
certain similar stories in their holy texts.
But there are many significant differences, too.
Muslims regard the Quran as the unadulterated word of
God, delivered through the angel Gabriel to Mohammed.
While they believe the Torah and the Gospels include
revelations from God, they believe those revelations
have been misinterpreted or mishandled by humans.
Most significantly, Muslims and Christians disagree
over the divinity of Jesus.
Muslims generally believe in Jesus' virgin birth, that
he was a messenger of God, that he ascended to heaven
alive and that he will come back at the end of time to
destroy evil. They do not believe in the Trinity, in
the divinity of Jesus or in his death and
For Christians, belief in Jesus' divinity, and that he
died on the cross and was resurrected, lie at the
heart of the faith, as does the belief that there is
one God who consists of the Father, Son and Holy
Redding's views, even before she embraced Islam, were
more interpretive than literal.
She believes the Trinity is an idea about God and
cannot be taken literally.
She does not believe Jesus and God are the same, but
rather that God is more than Jesus.
She believes Jesus is the son of God insofar as all
humans are the children of God, and that Jesus is
divine, just as all humans are divine - because God
dwells in all humans.
What makes Jesus unique, she believes, is that out of
all humans, he most embodied being filled with God and
identifying completely with God's will.
She does believe that Jesus died on the cross and was
resurrected, and acknowledges those beliefs conflict
with the teachings of the Quran. "That's something
I'll find a challenge the rest of my life," she said.
She considers Jesus her savior. At times of despair,
because she knows Jesus suffered and overcame
suffering, "he has connected me with God," she said.
That's not to say she couldn't develop as deep a
relationship with Mohammed. "I'm still getting to know
him," she said.
Some religious scholars understand Redding's thinking.
While the popular Christian view is that Jesus is God
and that he came to Earth and took on a human body,
other Christians believe his divinity means that he
embodied the spirit of God in his life and work, said
Eugene Webb, professor emeritus of comparative
religion at the University of Washington.
Webb says it's possible to be both Muslim and
Christian: "It's a matter of interpretation. But a lot
of people on both sides do not believe in
Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at
the University of Kentucky, agrees with Webb, and adds
that Islam tends to be a little more flexible. Muslims
can have faith in Jesus, he said, as long as they
believe in Mohammed's message.
Other scholars are skeptical.
"The theological beliefs are irreconcilable," said
Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies and
comparative religion at Temple University in
Philadelphia. Islam holds that God is one, unique,
indivisible. "For Muslims to say Jesus is God would be
Frank Spina, an Episcopal priest and also a professor
of Old Testament and biblical theology at Seattle
Pacific University, puts it bluntly.
"I just do not think this sort of thing works," he
said. "I think you have to give up what is essential
to Christianity to make the moves that she has done.
"The essence of Christianity was not that Jesus was a
great rabbi or even a great prophet, but that he is
the very incarnation of the God that created the
world.... Christianity stands or falls on who Jesus
Spina also says that as priests, he and Redding have
taken vows of commitment to the doctrines of the
church. "That means none of us get to work out what we
think all by ourselves."
Redding knows there are many Christians and Muslims
who will not accept her as both.
"I don't care," she says. "They can't take away my
baptism." And as she understands it, once she's made
her profession of faith to become a Muslim, no one can
say she isn't that, either.
While she doesn't rule out that one day she may choose
one or the other, it's more likely "that I'm going to
be 100 percent Christian and 100 percent Muslim when I
These days, Redding usually carries a headscarf with
her wherever she goes so she can pray five times a
On Fridays, she prays with about 20 others at the
Al-Islam Center. On Sundays, she prays in church,
usually at St. Clement's of Rome in the Mount Baker
One thing she prays for every day: "I pray not to
cause scandal or bring shame upon either of my
Being Muslim has given her insights into Christianity,
she said. For instance, because Islam regards Jesus as
human, not divine, it reinforces for her that "we can
be like Jesus. There are no excuses."
Doug Thorpe, who served on St. Mark's faith-formation
committee with Redding, said he's trying to understand
all the dimensions of her faith choices. But he saw
how it deepened her spirituality. And it spurred him
to read the Quran and think more deeply about his own
He believes Redding is being called. She is, "by her
very presence, a bridge person," Thorpe said. "And we
desperately need those bridge persons."
In Redding's car, she has hung up a cross she made of
clear crystal beads. Next to it, she has dangled a
heart-shaped leather object etched with the Arabic
symbol for Allah.
"For me, that symbolizes who I am," Redding said. "I
look through Jesus and I see Allah."
Information from: The Seattle Times,
Christian Composer, Inspired by Allahs 99 Names
By MICHAEL WHITE
Published: June 17, 2007
FOR anyone in Britain and for millions of television
viewers elsewhere, a defining image of the year 1997
was the aerial view of the coffin of Diana, Princess
of Wales, inching through the darkness of Westminster
Abbey. And the defining soundtrack to that image was a
stark lament sung by the abbey choir that captured the
moment with heart-stopping potency.
Overnight the worldwide exposure of Song for Athene
transformed John Tavener from a distinguished
classical composer into a public figure. New fans
registered his odd appearance: tall and thin, with
long hair parted in the middle and the 60s-pop-star
look of shirts unbuttoned to the navel. He was
re-evaluated. He was knighted. And for many he became
almost a spiritual guide: All his work was steeped in
Christianity. Or, as he liked to say, primordial
Although English-born and -bred, Mr. Tavener, 63,
turned in the 1970s to Eastern Orthodoxy, mirroring
its stark, sluggish severity and tonal structures in
his music, which, like his conversation, came with
allusions to St. Dionysus the Areopagite, St. Gregory
of Nyassa and other blissfully obscure divines. His
scores bore titles like Diodia, Apocalypse and
Agraphon. And being slow, spare and repetitive, they
earned him the affectionate but slightly mocking label
Holy Minimalist, a term that survivors of his
three-hour Resurrection or seven-hour Veil of the
Temple might challenge.
Most of his output these days tends toward the huge,
praising God across long time spans with enormous
forces in vast spaces: more events than concerts. And
the event to have its premiere in Westminster
Cathedral on Tuesday could be considered one more
example, but it does something likely to unsettle Mr.
Taveners devotees. Instead of Christian words it sets
a text from the Koran.
Given the times, this is newsworthy, and variants on
Tavener Goes Muslim headlines have already surfaced
in the British press, along with items that report his
loss of faith and disenchantment with the Christian
church. None of which is true.
But for Mr. Tavener to have written The Beautiful
Names, a meditation on the 99 names of Allah,
commissioned by no less than Prince Charles, for
performance in a Roman Catholic cathedral does raise
certain issues. For one, the charge of opportunism.
For another, the risk that Muslims, who dont exactly
value music in worship, might not be appreciative.
Well, if you look at it like that, Mr. Tavener
muttered in his endearingly distracted way recently,
I suppose it could be a can of worms Im opening.
Ive no idea what Muslims will make of it. I havent
really asked. But right after the London premiere,
its being done in Istanbul, and no one seems to have
raised any objection there.
All I can say is, its a wonderful text basically a
list of names, some of majesty, some of mercy that
Ive set as theophanies: as soundings-forth on the
nature of the divine, with music that reflects their
meaning. The Beneficent, the Opener, the Subtle. ...
And the Dangerous?
Yes, thats one of the names. The Koran can be quite
fierce at times. Not that Ive read it all, or in the
original Arabic. Thats beyond me. But I have a
brother whos a Sufi, and he finds God in the Koran in
ways he cant in the Bible. A loving God. Thats there
The matter-of-factness with which Mr. Tavener talks
about his brother the Sufi is disarming, since the
Tavener family is in every other respect
quintessentially English middle-class business stock:
respectable, patrician, people who drive vintage
Jaguars and Bentleys. There is one of each parked on
the grounds of Mr. Taveners home, a comfortably
disordered farmhouse by the parish church in an
attractive Wiltshire village, with (when I was there)
what looked like several years supply of cat food
piled up in the hallway. Its the stuff of Country
Life magazine. Or Horse and Hound.
But enter the barn, and you discover that it has been
turned into the kind of Orthodox chapel you would more
likely find on a Greek hillside. Enter the stables,
and you see the huge American Indian powwow drum that
appears with regularity these days in Mr. Taveners
works. It all contributes to the incongruity of a
contemporary composer who with some justification
considers himself rather radical for writing music
that echoes the distant past. A composer who, like
Bach, devotes his life and work to God but who keeps
the pop-star look.
In a sense the unbuttoned shirts pay homage to the
past. Mr. Tavener first came to attention with a
noisily iconoclastic entertainment called The Whale,
which was first performed at the debut concert of the
London Sinfonietta in 1968 and was seized on by the
Beatles, who had started dabbling in the avant-garde.
Recorded on their Apple label, it propelled the young
Mr. Tavener into fashionably swinging circles.
Then along came Orthodoxy, with a vengeance. Always
drawn to Christianity, Mr. Tavener spent his youth
playing the organ in a Presbyterian church and
programmed spiritual content into early works: even
The Whale, which was built around the biblical story
of Jonah. But his discovery of the Orthodox faith
concentrated all that into an artistic identity. And
with the zeal of a convert he became, as he now says,
His works were not for entertainment; they were
icons: musical correlatives of timeless, emotionally
impassive Byzantine portraiture, conceived as aids to
prayer and windows on the world beyond. Mr. Tavener
dismissed the idea of progress or development as
meaningless; all art had reached perfection in
primordial times, so everything the modern West had
produced even the spiritually motivated West of Bach
and Bruckner was in error.
And he morphed into a cultural ayatollah: popular with
general audiences who were pleased to find a serious
composer writing music that was easy to absorb, but
isolated among his professional peers.
It bothers me, he said, that I dont really have
any composer friends. It would be nice if I did. But
maybe the time is approaching. As The Beautiful
Names makes clear, Mr. Tavener has changed. He hasnt
abandoned Orthodoxy. He remains devotedly Christian.
But his mind and ears have opened out.
I reached a point where everything I wrote was
terribly austere and hidebound by the tonal system of
the Orthodox Church, he said, and I felt the need,
in my music at least, to become more universalist: to
take in other colors, other languages.
It was a gradual process in which his devotion to the
East as the true source of God-centered art began to
absorb elements of Hinduism, Islam, even Shamanism.
But it was specifically during composition of The
Veil of the Temple his 2003 all-night vigil, first
performed at the Temple Church in London before a
reduced version at the Lincoln Center Festival that
a defining event occurred.
Mr. Tavener had, he says, a vision. And in the same
unremarkable way that he talks about his brother the
Sufi, he explains that his vision involved a visit
from an Apache medicine man. Id been looking
everywhere for this big powwow drum, a wonderfully
primordial sound, to use in The Veil, and a friend
rang me up to say shed found one and would bring it
over. When she came, she brought the medicine man too.
I think hed been performing healing ceremonies at
Stonehenge or something like that. And after hed
gone, I had a visionary dream, which Im told is
common after contact with such people who have a
purity and intensity that Western man has lost.
The dream, Mr. Tavener said, was a visitation, from
the spirit of the mystical philosopher Frithjof
Schuon. And what Schuon told Mr. Tavener was, in two
words, loosen up. Be open, musically at least, to
A simpler, more straightforward reading of what
happened might just be that here was a composer in his
60s softening with age. When I suggested this, he
smiled good-naturedly and said, Its possible.
During his hard-line years he faced successive crises:
serious illness, serious drinking, serious demons. Now
his life is settled, brought to order by a lovingly
no-nonsense, younger wife, his second, and the arrival
of a third child. Ive become a peaceful family man,
he said. It helps.
Whatever the reason, he is no longer dramatically
Orthodox or anti-Western. He listens to Bach with
pleasure. He plays it on the organ of the church next
door, which he happily tells you is the instrument on
which Arthur Sullivan composed Onward Christian
Soldiers. And primordial tradition?
Well, its important, Mr. Tavener said, but you
have to find a way of honoring it that communicates
with modern man. It used to be a sort of tyranny for
me. Now I feel free to wander further, so long as it
makes metaphysical sense.
His wandering into the Koran has taken time. According
to the score The Beautiful Names was written several
years ago. Has he been sitting on it, hesitating while
political events unfolded?
No, he says. It has simply taken that long to fit
together the large forces the piece requires, which
include the Westminster Cathedral Choir, the BBC
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (strategically placed in
different parts of the building), the baritone soloist
John Mark Ainsley and of course the powwow drum, which
is ceremonially struck every 99 beats: one beat for
Essential now to Mr. Taveners sound world, the drum
will also surface in his next big work: an orchestral
Mass of the Immaculate Conception that has its
premiere in Zurich in December and travels to St.
Thomas Church in Manhattan next spring. Congregants
may be surprised to hear invocations to Hindu
goddesses inserted into the Latin text. A bit of a
stir, Mr. Tavener predicted.
So far there are no plans for the drum in what he is
working on now: a comparatively modest hymn for the
queen, intended, he says, to address the dearth of
good new hymns since Ralph Vaughan Williams but also
signaling his close connection with the royal family.
That Prince Charles was eager to commission The
Beautiful Names is understandable in someone who has
spiritual interests at least as exotic (some would say
eccentric) as Mr. Taveners, and the prince has
floated the idea of changing his monarchic title
Defender of the Faith to the subtly more inclusive
Defender of Faith. The two men have much in common:
not least, a maverick, mockable sincerity that people
laugh at from a distance but find curiously compelling
face to face.
But the prince doesnt put his money where his heart
is. When I brazenly asked Mr. Tavener how much he had
been paid for the commission, the answer was ...
nothing. Thats not how it works, he said. He gets
somebody else to write the check. For this it was a
lady from Japan, but I forget her name.
Presumably it is beautiful.
Muslim center in White Plains launches classes for
By ERNIE GARCIA
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: May 29, 2007)
There are no welcome wagons awaiting converts to Islam
after they recite the "shahada," a declaration of
faith made by new Muslims. The White Plains-based
Muslim Education and Converts Center of America - or
MECCA - wants to be that greeting committee.
The center, launched last year, has as its goal to
create "rightly guided Muslim citizens," its Web site
"What it means to us is people who are moderate in
their faith and don't take it to extremes, and people
who feel comfortable as Muslims and Americans and
don't feel a dichotomy between that hyphenated
identity," said Scarsdale resident Thomas M. Wilentz,
One example of the type of Muslim converts the group
wants to avoid is John Walker Lindh, an American
Muslim convert serving time in federal prison for
fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"I wouldn't point him out as an example, but that sort
of thing we're definitely trying to eliminate," said
Wilentz, a Scarsdale resident who converted to Islam
from Judaism about 20 years ago.
MECCA's outreach began last year with Saturday classes
in a New York City mosque in midtown Manhattan. Its
New Muslims Program is a three-month course focusing
on Islamic belief, practice and way of life.
Mount Kisco resident Saleem Niazi, 25, a medical
student, teaches the Saturday course at the Islamic
Society of Mid-Manhattan at 154 E. 55th St. MECCA
chose the Manhattan location because it is more
centrally located to Muslims in the tri-state area
than Westchester County, though the group eventually
wants to offer classes in Westchester, New Jersey and
Teaching Islam runs in Niazi's family. His mother
taught weekend religion classes at the Upper
Westchester Muslim Society in Thornwood.
MECCA's spring semester attracted a class of six
women, who sat at tables decorated with little snack
plates of dried fruit.
Niazi's May 5 lesson touched on many subjects,
including modesty, dress and interpreting the Quran.
He said that only highly trained scholars should
interpret the Quran for the observant, because some
verses can be taken out of context. He said that
nonspecialists have interpreted passages like "slay
the pagans wherever ye find them" to justify
"That whole section of revelation refers to situations
of war as mandated between two recognized
authorities," Niazi said.
He referenced Osama bin Laden, saying, "He's not a
jurist. So what is the result of that? He justifies
heinous acts that were never permitted in Islam."
Niazi also spoke about modesty and the head scarf, a
divisive topic among Muslims. His wife explained how
her older sister's decision to wear one initially
angered her Pakistan-born parents.
After class, Brooklyn resident Gabrielle Gantz, 27, a
book publicist, talked about her own inner debate over
the head scarf. She had been wearing one for a week,
but she said she didn't feel that she needed it.
"It is obligatory, but it isn't something you should
do against your will," said Gantz, who came to the
classes to learn the basics of Islam.
Gantz converted to Islam in April, and by May 5 she
had attended the MECCA classes for three weeks.
"It's a nice place to meet other converts and Muslims.
This is one thing you can do to build a community,"
Like many Muslim converts, she needs support because
of the reaction from family and friends to her
"My mom and sister know and freaked out because all
they know about Islam is from Fox News," said Gantz.
She also upset her Jewish father, whom she described
as "blindly Zionist."
Jeanett Gibson, 23, a Columbia University student who
graduated this month, converted to Islam last year.
Her family was initially angry but now they support
her, said Gibson, who returned to her native Fremont,
Calif., this month after leaving school.
Gibson praised MECCA's New Muslims Program because,
she said, many books on Islam discuss doctrine rather
than practical aspects of living as a Muslim.
"You can only learn it from other Muslims," she said,
adding that the course allowed her to create special
bonds. "These girls will always be in my life, I
Reach Ernie Garcia at elgarcia@... or