BOISE, Idaho – They’ve been married for 27 years. He says: “We’ve raised good children. We are good for each other.”
At the same time, they have big differences. She grew up in a small town in Montana; he was born and raised in Pakistan. Music is her life; he can’t carry a tune. They joke: She makes the messes and he cleans them up.
“She’s west and I’m east; she’s this way and I’m this way, completely opposite of each other.”
But what could be considered the most polarizing issue – their faith – is actually what brings them closest together. Lori Conlon Khan is a Christian and her husband, Ather Khan, is a Muslim.
Lori: “He said, ’You are strong in your faith, and that’s important to me.’ ”
Faith is the foundation of their marriage. Theirs are beliefs that don’t require the other to convert or capitulate, but faiths that center around mutual respect, common ground and deep-rooted spirituality.
Ather: “I consider a fine line between Christianity and Islam in many ways.”
Theologically speaking, the sticking point is Christianity’s belief in Jesus as the son of God, as well as the concept of the Trinity. For Lori and Ather, the similarities outweigh the differences.
Ather: “I cannot be a good Muslim without believing in Jesus as the messenger of God, very respected messenger. Somebody asked Prophet Mohammed, (who said that he) will sit on one side of God, and Jesus will sit on the other side of God. That’s how important Jesus is considered in Islam.
“And so is Prophet Moses – and all the prophets and the messengers that have come at different times to different places.”
The Quran, the Bible and the Torah all share Old Testament roots, and the Quran has New Testament stories as well.
Lori: “(In the Quran), Mary gives birth under an olive tree, which is, I think, a beautiful story. When the people come to see that she has a baby and she isn’t married and that causes a big ruckus, Jesus, as a newborn infant, speaks to the people to say that this is my mother and she’s holy.
“It’s basically the same story with just a different kind of lovely version.”
Islam is an Arabic word that means “submission to one God,” and Muslim means “people who submit to one God.” So what Lori and Ather focus on is the simple crux of faith.
Ather: “That you believe in God.”
Lori: “And live your life as well as you can.”
Ather: “So how can I come back and say, Lori, you are wrong?”
Lori has been an elementary school music teacher for 32 years, and Ather is a retired businessman specializing in international development. They met when Lori, early in her career, was waiting tables to make ends meet. Ather, visiting from Seattle, persistently asked for her phone number, and Lori, equally as determined, kept saying no.
Lori: “Then finally he said, ’What do I have to do to get your phone number? I’m a gentleman, I come from a good family, I have a business degree.’ He kind of started to give me his pedigree.
“I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. This (waitressing) is not my life; this is not who I am.’ That’s when he said, “You’re a teacher, aren’t you?’ I was like, what? Is it stamped on my forehead? He said, ‘No, I just have a good sense about people.’ ”
He was good looking and charming – plus he had an intriguing accent. She relented. Her family was aghast; his faith permits him to marry “people of the book” – the Quran, the Bible or the Torah. For him, the decision was easy.
Lori: “When I told (my grandmother) that I was marrying Ather and everybody was (coming unglued), she was very supportive and she said, ‘Your life with this man will be an adventure.’
“And it has been. It has been a very wonderful adventure. Not always easy, but.”
Ather finishes her sentence: “Life is not easy.”
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Like their faith, their marriage is also about finding common ground. In their bedroom, Lori made a framed cross-stitch that says, “Love, honor and negotiate.” For instance, in raising their children, Ather wanted his daughters to dress more modestly than current fashion suggests, and dating is not a tradition in Pakistan.
Lori: “How to compromise. Some of those things you just don’t know until you’re in the midst of raising your kids.
“I think it’s the same for any married couple when your kids start growing up; there’s issues of child rearing and how do you navigate that?
“Even within a Christian family – how do you do Christmas Eve? You’re coming from these traditions that you’ve held dear to your heart and your spouse is coming from (his traditions); how do you navigate, how do you come to an agreement about how you’re going to compromise and make your own way?”
And when one is working at compromise, it’s easier to see issues from other points of view. In particular, the sharing of the faiths has made them sensitive to others’ misunderstandings.
Lori: “Sometimes people who don’t know better will say, ’They pray to their Allah’ as if Allah is a different God. It’s simply the Arabic word for God.“
Ather: “How do you say God in Spanish? Dios. How do you say God in French? Or in Hindi? If you say Allah in Arabic and you say God in English and you say Dios in Spanish or Bhagwan in (Sanskrit) it’s all the same, but we’re talking about it in our own language, different ways.”
As Lori and Ather raised their three children (now in college or graduated from college and all in social service fields), faith was naturally a part of their upbringing.
Ather: “Because we are living in a Western culture, a Christian society, I wanted (our children) to know about Islam. I wanted them to understand what dad’s religion is.”
Lori: “I wanted (our children) to know both faith traditions and learn how we were similar and how we were different. And take the best from each faith tradition.
“I (also) had to really start reading the Bible and think about how I felt about things so I could answer questions the kids had. So it was really good for me to have to understand my faith more and where I stood on certain Christian ideas.”
To both Lori and Ather, the most important part of their faith centers on peace.
Lori grew up during the Vietnam War with images of helicopters lifting dead and wounded seared in her memory. As a college student, she was part of a USO tour that sang and danced in veterans hospitals.
“The young men I saw were still remnants of the Vietnam war, and that really shaped my ideas about non-violence and peace (and) avoiding war, because I saw these wonderful young men who were legless on gurneys.”
The protest songs of the era – “Blowing in the Wind,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” – spoke to her as a musician. Those are among the songs she teaches her students now.
Lori: “People at school will tell you I’m the ‘peace, love and brotherhood teacher.’ It’s my not-so-hidden curriculum.”
And Ather’s influence strengthens the idea of peace in their house. It comes from his faith, too.
Ather: “The first thing in Islam, if I meet somebody or I enter a house, I say ‘Asalaam alaikum’ – ‘May peace be upon you.’ Peace is the greatest aspect. Before I say anything, how are you, I say ’Asalaam.’ That is how important we
“What better can we ask for somebody?”
Sept. 11 was a test for their family in many ways, as it was the epicenter of violence, hatred and misunderstanding that still festers between Americans and Muslims.
Lori: “That made me even more intent on being what I can be to bring peace, however I can, into my classroom, into my family, my community at large.
“We always talk about being the hands and feet of Jesus. How do you spread that message of peace? Jesus sat with people who are considered outcasts; his example was bringing people together, not separating them into groups.
“Listening together, keeping an open mind, concentrating on the similarities and the things that are important – the aspect of being human. Treating each other as we want to be treated; helping those in need.
“(And so I want) to live an example – a Muslim and Christian, living together for 27 years and raising our families. It is possible.”