An interview with Judge David Shaheed
The third podcast by Rachel Koehler as part of the “Dynamics of Interfaith” series. For decades Judge Shaheed has been an interfaith leader in Central Indiana.
Judge Shaheed opens up about his faith journey from Christianity to Islam. He has also been involved with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation from the beginning and discusses the importance of exposing oneself to differences.
Headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC), works to create an environment for meaningful engagement and peaceful dialogue between and among a wide variety of faith communities. This podcast seeks to record the stories of CIC Board members representing the Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Pagan, Church of Latter-day Saints, Buddhist, Baha’í, Catholic, and Hindu religious traditions. Each individual brings a unique, enriching story, so tune in to begin “de-othering” unfamiliar faith communities.
Music: LXtronic “Run Away (Stay With Me)”
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Interview with Judge David Shaheed
Rachel: Today we have Judge David Shaheed. Welcome Judge.
Judge: Thank you.
Rachel: Yeah and so if you want to just start out by introducing yourself, telling the listeners a little bit about what you do in your day-to-day life and your connection with the CIC.
Judge: Yes absolutely yes. I’m what I call a semi-retired judge in the sense that I still do work as a judge but in the state court for Marion County where I was a judge for over twenty years, they have what you call senior status, so I’m there as other judges who are elected need me but I also teach a class at IUPUI for the School of Public and Environmental Affairs on criminal justice. And then I’m also involved in boards and commissions. I’m on the ABA American Bar Association Commission on lawyers assistance programs, and I will be the chair of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation starting January 2019
Rachel: How did you get connected initially with the CIC?
Judge: My initial connection was really two-fold. One is that I’ve been involved in interfaith dialogue for a number of years for which I am very proud, but then I also am friends with Charlie Wiles who is the executive director. Charlie and I go back to a time when he was the executive director for the Peace Learning Center, so he has a very strong sense of justice and fairness. When I heard that he was trying to start the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, he asked me to be involved, and of course, I wanted to be involved. Since I retired formally from being a full-time judge, I have more time to devote and that’s how I ended up as chair for the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.
Rachel: So you have been a part since the very beginning.
Judge: Oh yes yes and even before the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, there was an organization called the Interfaith Alliance of Indianapolis, and I was president for that at one point, but that actually predates the CIC.
Rachel: Tell us first all about your faith journey and why that informs your desire to join in with interfaith work.
Judge: Yes, well I was actually raised as a Christian, and my parents went to Bethel AME Church, Bethel African American Episcopal Church and it was founded by Richard Allen because at that time in the eighteen hundreds, blacks, African-Americans, couldn’t worship with whites and so he started his own version of the Methodist Episcopal Church. So it was the African American Episcopal Church and so I grew up in that church. But as I became a young adult, there were certain aspects of Christianity that I had difficulty with and the more I learned in particular about Islam in many ways it appealed to me and because of so many Africans who were brought to the Americas as a part of the slave trade were Muslim there was a natural kind of reconnection for me with the faith of Islam and so I became a Muslim shortly after college and started practicing.
Rachel: And looking too at your day-to-day how do you carry out your faith or live out your faith?
Judge: One of the aspects of Islam that resonates for me and is particularly helpful to me with respect to my life and how I live my life are the five daily prayers. As a part of you know the life of a Muslim, if one takes advantage of the prayer life and I use those terms take advantage of the prayer life because God doesn’t punish us if we miss a prayer. But for me, the prayer life, you know the five daily prayers, are an essential part of my life and a way of staying connected to the will of God because we say those prayers and as part of saying those prayers it causes us to disconnect from whatever we’re involved with during the day at that particular time and when the prayers come in, you know there are certain times day of when the prayer happens if we break away from whatever we’re doing and make those prayers, it is a way of reconnecting and orienting our lives to that which is the most important and that is trying to be a servant of God and one of the best ways that we serve God is with the prayer life.
Rachel: Regarding that story, in general, were there challenges that you faced in figuring out faith because it sounds like you have a lot of questions going on so what did that process look like?
Judge: One of the main difficulties that I had with Christianity and because those who are listening will be unable to know my age and that is the easiest way to describe my faith journey so to speak is that I’m a child of the sixties and so the sixties are I think very much associated with the civil rights movement and effort of African-Americans to obtain civil rights with respect to housing, education, public accommodations, all those things were, voting. I can remember the struggle for those particular rights and for me, the church was for the most part silent in those discussions. There were some people of faith in the Christian church who stepped forward. There were many Jewish people that stepped forward, but the idea that as I was introduced to Christianity, the concept of Jesus always being depicted as a Caucasian young man and all the angels who are Caucasian and never saw any black angels, I never saw any Hispanic angels or Chinese looking angels you know all of the angels were white and then you know if you look at representations in the arts of religion all the figures are depicted as white. So to leave that was a conflict because I could not imagine a loving, compassionate, all-encompassing God that would only anoint as His chosen Caucasian people and so that caused difficulty for me and caused me to start looking in another direction for religious devotion and so Islam represented that for me because in Islam you know Jesus is a prophet. Moses is a prophet. Adam is a prophet. Mohammad is a prophet. So the prophet is seen as the most lofty position a human being can attain but at the same time that human being is still human being with flaws, faults, insecurities, difficulties, but that individual devoted to God is trying to please the one all-encompassing God who is the Creator of sustainable life and to me that resonated and it was easier for me to accept as a way to live my life respecting all the prophets but recognizing all the prophets as men and women you know who serve God and that God is separate and distinct and has no part, no associates, no sons, daughters or offspring.
Rachel: Yeah, some things that I’ve just never thought about before in looking at my own faith and representation because coming from a female perspective, there are certain issues I hold too in regards to my representation in Christianity, which is my faith tradition, so I can understand to some extent that challenge. Was there any controversy within your family maybe and growing up and then switching faiths?
Judge: Well actually my mother had no problem at all. She wanted to understand the religion because she didn’t know anything about Islam until I started telling her I was thinking about becoming a Muslim so forth and so you know she actually visited with me and so she had a better understanding firsthand about what was involved. I was married and had been married about a year when I really decided to change my faith perspective. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, had some difficulty with Islam and especially when her daughter, my wife, decided to become a Muslim also because I became a Muslim first. My wife became Muslim and so my mother-in-law had some difficulties initially because we were living in a small community. People knew me and they were critical of my decisions. She heard about it, and she felt embarrassed that her family was involved in this religion that she knew nothing about but over time she came to appreciate that I was a better person as a Muslim than I was before.
Rachel: Looking too at Indianapolis this has probably informed your reason to join interfaith in general too and just promoting that understanding.
Judge: Yes absolutely yes because unfortunately, I have to admit in all honesty that there are some radical and extreme elements in Islam and those can’t be explained away. I mean there are people that have what I consider a very extremist view of Islam that is not represented in the Quran as I’ve read the Quran and it is not represented of the prophet Mohammed who is the prophet of the religion because prophet Mohammed was not hostile to Christians, was not hostile to Jews… Of course, he was trying to establish a religion but just outright hostility to the point that people are of a different faith was not part of his tradition and is not at all mentioned in the Quran and so I felt it was very important for me as a Muslim who knew and who knows what is proper Islam to be involved in interfaith and let people know that what they see sometimes in Africa, some Middle Eastern countries is not representative of Islam as I’ve come to know and appreciate it and trying to live it.
Rachel: Have you found amongst the interfaith community that support and a mutual understanding?
Judge: Yeah, I think what happens is an interfaith setting people have committed to learning about other faith traditions, so they’re open to learning. The difficulty is that a lot of people, and I wouldn’t say the majority of people, but there are many people who are not willing to stray away from what is their belief system and so they take what is presented in the media when there are events that are unfortunate as oh that’s what Islam is about you know they’re trying to slaughter Christians, they have no regard for Islam or they’re trying to destroy the sacred sites of Christians or Jews. So if they are not open to being educated as to what is proper Islam, they will get the wrong idea and they’ll be stuck with that idea, and they’ll be fearful of Muslims so that’s one of the reasons why I tried to engage in dialogue.
Rachel: Definitely and that’s something that I have been trying to wrestle with too being an intern at the Center for Interfaith Cooperation is that it does attract those people who are interested in this dialogue. So how do you then expand it to reach those who may feel comfortable on their own beliefs and don’t want to challenge their beliefs or their beliefs come in conflict with others?
Judge: That’s the difficult part because as you know with education, part of the process of enrolling in a college or university is the admission that I don’t know everything, and I want to learn some things. So the first step is I won’t ever know everything and so I want to learn something. That’s the first step and so you can’t make somebody take the first step to know or learn what they don’t already know because you can take somebody who says I don’t need a college education, I just want a job. Okay that’s a choice and you can’t put them in the college and expect that they’ll succeed. The same thing works with religious and interfaith dialogue. You can’t push somebody into an interfaith setting and hope that they’ll learn anything that they don’t already know. Just because the information is there does not mean that they’ll accept it and grow from it.
Rachel: And that’s part of my hope is that this podcast will reach somebody else, somewhere beyond and you have to start somewhere.
Judge: Right exactly.
Rachel: And that’s [what I have learned by] talking with Charlie too. That hopefully by creating this environment [in the CIC] it will allow other people at some point [to feel comfortable joining] and have a ripple effect.
Judge: Yeah because the reality is that we never know how or when we will be touched in our lives to reach out to something that we didn’t even know was there or to embrace an idea that we had not thought about before. It is more or less like trying new foods. You know some people say, “well all I want is hamburgers, French fries and a Coke.” Well if that’s all you want that’s fine, but there are other food choices out there – Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, so forth. But the more we expand our intellect and our souls to learn, the more that we are able to appreciate how all-encompassing God is because God doesn’t want us to just eat hamburgers, French fries, and a Coke. I mean there’s a whole lot more to life than just one thing on the menu.
Rachel: That’s true. I like it. And too just switching gears a little bit and looking at your career and seeing how faith plays a part, I know there is an intersection that I’ve seen a lot in the news and amongst scholars too of the criminal justice system and faith. So how have you seen that play a role in your career?
Judge: Well you know in our legal system one of the symbols associated with being a judge is a black robe and the symbolism behind the black robe is black is sometimes associated with death and then the idea is that when you take on the black robe of a judge you don’t take with you your personal biases, feelings and so forth. The only thing that you’re really working to apply is the law and so regardless of my faith tradition when I take the bench that doesn’t influence my decision. My decision is influenced solely by the law and that’s the kind of the symbolism of the black robe. However, I’m a human being also, so even though some of the facts that may be associated with a particular case and I’ve had numerous cases where the facts were very disturbing, but in the role as a judge, I can’t be influenced by the emotions. I have still be focused on the law. I try to take with me is the character of the prophet Mohammed, you know, of Jesus, of Moses, and their character was a character of compassion and since as a judge, there are people that are there not just, you know, robots, you know, they’re people. Even though I’m applying the law to the particular circumstance of the case that doesn’t mean I can’t show compassion, understanding, and a willingness to listen to both sides. That is not a legal issue that’s a human issue because one of the things I’ve learned over the years being a judge is that one of the reasons why they call it hearings because you have trials and sometimes we have hearings. Hearings are associated with not the ultimate decision with respect to a case but is to address a particular issue associated with a case so there may be a pre-trial hearing or maybe a hearing on a motion but the whole idea is a hearing. So the idea is that you got to listen you know. You can’t come in with a preconceived notion. You have to be able to understand what is being said and so what I’ve learned over the process is that everybody wants to feel that they were heard you know and so that to me shows the kind of compassion that is associated with a person of faith is that you have to be willing to put yourself into the situation. So that the human being that is involved, everyone involved knows that you’re there totally in fairness to hear what people have to say and then you make your decision but one of the worst things that can happen and we all have had that experience where there’s a customer service representative or at the airport a one-way flight is being cancelled, and we have to talk to somebody about reconnecting we know what it feels like to be ignored. We know what it feels like when somebody is not really listening to us and that we’re not really heard and it’s not a good feeling, so what I’ve tried to do as a judge is to let everybody know that I’m there to hear all sides of the case. I haven’t made up my mind. I want to hear what everybody has to say and then I’ll make a decision on the law.
Rachel: I like that approach a lot. Have you seen religion, in general, come at odds with the criminal justice system or the law?
Judge: There are some aspects that can be problematic. One of the difficulties, well I don’t consider it a difficulty but I’ve heard some present it as one and that is gender identification you know some religions are very strict about gender identification, but as a judge, I have to be fair to
everyone, and I’ve seen some situations where one’s sexual preference or gender identification might be a problem from a religious standpoint but that cannot influence how I treat that person and that person is still a person to be protected by the law and so that’s what I try to do and so that does not affect or influence how I treat them with respect to the issue.
Rachel: So in a way, the law has protected people from religious discrimination.
Judge: Yes, that’s how our system works and quite honestly as a human being, I’m much more comfortable with that idea. I know that in some countries the laws are different, but for me, as a person that has lived in a country that respects the choices of people, I find that to be compatible
with Islam because there is a passage in the Quran which says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” and that no one should be compelled to do something outside their own conscience because conscience is something that is God-given and so no human being has the authority, based on my understanding of the religion, to impose my belief system on another person. How they live their life is between them and God and so I may have opinions about it but I’m not in a position to impose my belief system on them. That’s something they have to work out with God just like I did.
Rachel: Yeah, I think a lot of people need to hear that for sure. And so to summarize since we are coming near the end of this, but looking at interfaith, in general, what does interfaith mean to you, and maybe a broad definition of that.
Judge: I think interfaith means to me a willingness to open your heart and mind to how vast and unknown God is because the analogy that was sometimes given to me you know that I think is very fitting you know that if you’re on the seashore in Florida, you’ll see one concept of your ocean. If you’re in Alaska, it’ll look different. But as you know you’re looking out at the body of water from the seashore but that’s still a creation of God and it’s going to look different. The person in Florida is going to see what they see. The person in another part of the world is seeing what they see, but it’s all part of God’s creation and so the person again in Florida can’t criticize the person in India saying that what they see is not correct because what they see is what they see what they feel is what they feel and is still you know a creation of God. God kind of orders what people see so to me and interfaith is the willingness to open your mind and heart to the fact that people may see something different and be totally correct and you can be informed by what they see and what you don’t see because it’s still a part of God ‘s creation and what God wants you to understand because you can’t learn everything just from what you see. There are many things that you can learn if you’re willing to open your mind and your heart to another person.
Rachel: Yeah that’s very true. Thank you so much for being here.