Monday, November 20, 2006


It was a long, hot walk today in Petra. Although I was completely captivated by the beauty and majesty of the place, the Siq was eventually engulfed in shadow as the sun sank in the afternoon sky. I could feel that my face was flushed red from the long day of hiking in the steep desert terrain.

As the sun was setting Mr. Ibrahim, drove us to a simple, sidewalk café just outside the Petra gate. The owner brought a tall jug of cold water, and we ordered two big plates of chicken and rice, hummus, yogurt & cucumbers. We sat quietly for a while, drinking and cooling off, the sound of a girl’s voice chanting the evening prayers coming from a television in the back of the shop.

Hearing the child's voice chanting piqued my curiosity. I told him that I knew very little about Islam, and I was curious. If I were a Muslim child, what would be the first things I would learn about my religion?

He explained one of the core tenets of Islam, The 99 Faces of God (also known as the 99 Names of God). As I understand it, Muslims believe that everything we can know about God, and ultimately everything we can know about the entire cosmos is delineated by the Names. The long list of God's faces includes Ar-Rehman (the Beneficent), Al-Malik (the Sovereign Lord, The King), Al-'Aziz (The Mighty), Al-Bari, (The Evolver), etc.

And then he put his hands on the table and turned the palms up facing the ceiling, asking me to do the same. "Now, look at the palm of your RIGHT hand. The lines in the palm of your hand (reading right to left) form the Arabic numerals 8 and 1," or 81, which in Arabic looks like this:

He traced the lines in my palm with his finger, patiently teaching me the shape of the unfamiliar Arabic symbols.

"Now," he said, "look at the palm of your LEFT hand. What do you see?" Slowly, struggling to remember the shapes of the numbers, and pausing to remember to read right to left, I responded "1 and 8....18," which in Arabic looks like this:

"That's right," he said gently, as if he were praising a young child. "And 81 plus 18 equals...?" "99," I answered slowly, the light dawning. One of the earliest lessons for a young Muslim child is that God is with you all the time - the "99 Faces of God" are literally present in your hands.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this simple yet vast concept could be the foundation of a solution to the huge gulf between Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures? All three faiths started with Abraham, and it seems to me that it couldn't hurt to have us all believe that a single God is present in the palms of our hands.

Let's start with As-Salaam....האלוהים של שלום in Hebrew, "The God of Peace," in English.

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