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A road to religious questioning

This is the prepared text of graduating senior Jazib Zahir's address, "My Spiritual Odyssey," at the Multifaith Baccalaureate Celebration on June 11, 2005.

Sept. 11 raised many questions for all of us. But for me, half a world away in Pakistan preparing for my maiden voyage to Stanford, it raised the question of how welcome I as a Muslim would be in my new home.

My journey to Stanford involved several days of close scrutiny of my baggage and Pakistani passport. At orientation, I nervously introduced myself to new faces. And to my surprise and relief, everyone from the orientation coordinators to Dean [Robin] Mamlet to President [John] Hennessy expressed joy at my decision to come here and concern for how I may have been treated by outsiders during my journey. Having entered the Stanford Bubble, I was safe in a land where no one can be persecuted because of what he chooses to believe.

At home, I left behind a homogeneous society that is about 95 percent Muslim, and five times a day the call to prayer resonates in my streets. Now I was to live in the same dorm as Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists who till then had just been action figures in my history textbooks. Sure, there were other Muslims around, but many so different in their beliefs and practices from myself that I was left vulnerable in this flux of ideas. No longer could I blindly attribute all in the world to Allah's will and assume everyone else did the same. My new environment encouraged me to question all before me and meant that for the first time ever my blind faith needed to be questioned too.

The advocates in this case were my peers who, intrigued by my strict religious beliefs, probed to find out more about why I abstained from pork and why women of my faith wore the veil. And as I answered their questions both in formal panels and private conversations, it revealed to me how much I appreciated the subtle logic to Islamic principles. For me then religion was a matter of pride. It made me special and unique and endeared me to people who are always eager to learn more about human ideologies.

But deep inside, as my pride in my own religion grew, so did my interest in others. With no one around to tell me Islam was always right and other ideologies wrong, I was left alone to find the truth. And again it was my peers who held the answer, since it was through them that I would extract the essence of other faiths. Just this last spring, a close friend asked me to lead a trip with her to teach people how all the different faiths were united in their desire to serve the community. From the Sikh Gurdwara in San Jose to the Bahai Center in San Francisco, I saw how multidimensional the world was. And as complacent as I was in my abstract and well-defined nook of Islam, there were more vibrant and colorful faiths out there that were equally conscious of building community.

I am fortunate to have spent four years at an academic institution that equally harbors all faiths. I am fortunate to have personally experienced many different faiths. I am content with the conclusion that I am born into one and can remain steadfast to it while still respecting others. While in the safety of the Stanford Bubble, I still hear distant tales of people killing each other in the name of religion. But college has taught me that we need not take aggressive steps to establish the dominance of any one faith. And I hope all of us who are fortunate enough to have experienced this are also able to carry our sentiments well beyond the ivory tower. Because no matter where we may go after today, our personal faith will always have a place in the world. But at the same time, we will always stand to learn something from each other.