Fasting is similar in Christianity and Islam, although more strongly emphasized in Islam, where fasting during the month of Ramadan is obligatory and is encouraged at other times as well. The family and family values are held in great esteem by both traditions (although perhaps emphasized more in Islam), as is the priority placed on the raising of children within the faith tradition.
There is also a strong belief in turning to God when difficult life situations arise, which helps them to reinterpret these crises to give purpose and meaning to them. This helps them to see adversity as part of God’s plan (and for Muslims, adversity is a sign of God’s love for them). Yes, there are differences too between the beliefs of Muslims and Christians. However, has focusing on those differences really gotten us anywhere? I think it is time to start building a relationship based on the many beliefs, values, and morals that our 1.5 billion neighbors have in common with us.
I have been anxious to start doing research with the faculty on a variety of topics, and we have begun working together on many projects (depression in colon cancer, patients with end-stage kidney disease, women with pregnancies with congenital fetal anomalies, breast cancer and changes in family relationships). To my delight, most of these projects also involved assessing people’s religious beliefs and practices. One of the biggest surprises has been the receptiveness to research on religion and health. This has been true at all levels, from medical students to faculty. Particularly striking was my being approached by the director of the university psychiatry department who asked if I could assist him in conducting a research project on religion and mental health.
In fact, it has turned out that every psychiatrist I have met here has been devoutly religious, has embraced me as a colleague, and has been interested in studying this topic. Medical students have even asked if they could come to the U.S. and study with me. In only two weeks I have come to love these people, and to respect their devout religious beliefs.
This experience of friendship, kindness, and acceptance has helped me to recognize that the Spirit here in Jeddah is the same Spirit that I worship back home in my church. Indeed, Allahu Akbar — God is great above everything else — and He is here in Saudi Arabia, too.