On the eve of President Barack Obama's historic address to the Muslim world from Cairo, I wanted to take a moment to highlight a small but poignant story - of a Muslim shopkeeper, the man who tried to rob him, and the common bond of faith and humanity that they ultimately shared.
The Associated Press reported the story of Mohammad Sohail, owner of the Shirley Express convenience store about 65 miles east of New York City. A bat-wielding robber broke into the store, but was apprehended by Sohail, who confronted him with a rifle.
There are many predictable ways that this story could have ended. What actually happened was so improbable, that you might even call it a miracle.
The shopkeeper demanded to know why the man, no street punk but an older gentleman in his 40s, was stealing from his store. And then the would-be robber broke down and started crying. He was out of work and desperate to feed his family.
And Mohammad Sohail lowered his gun and forgave him. The shopkeeper handed the desperate fellow $40 and a loaf of bread, and told him to go and steal no more.
The robber was so stunned that he did not immediately run out. He stayed and engaged the the shopkeeper and asked him why he let him go. Sohail responded that he did so because that is was what his faith, Islam, required of him. Mercy.
And the robber then stretched out his hand and made the Muslim testimony of faith. There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger. He had come in seeking to find food for his family. He left having found faith.
This news report, so simple and yet so compelling. is spreading like wildfire through the Muslim world. And it is being hailed by many in America as an example of the best that our country represents. The United States is and always will be the home of the second chance.
As a person of faith, I know that every one of our religions and communities has stories like this, of how small acts of compassion and love transform people's lives. Every day, in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, and in homes and stores and street corners, tiny acts of faith are being performed that reveal the true glory of the human spirit, which is ultimately the purpose of religion.
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is that of Jesus and the woman who was to be stoned for adultery, recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 8. Jesus saves her life by shaming her persecutors with the famous words. "He that is without a sin among you, let him cast the first stone." Those words resonate across the divide of time to shake up the human heart, and are as fresh today as they were two thousand years ago.
But for me, what is just as important, are the words that Jesus, the Messiah of both Christianity and Islam, said afterward to the terrified woman. "Go, and sin no more." Faith can resurrect the human heart, but each individual still retains the responsibility to stay on the right path after they are born anew.
Jews and Christians are of course familiar with such stories and parables in the Bible, but most probably do not know that such stories are just as important in my own faith of Islam. In my novel, Mother of the Believers, I highlight some remarkable stories from the days of Islam's birth that reveal the power of faith to completely alter a human being's life and destiny.
Stories like that of Umar, a brutal Meccan leader who was on his way with a sword to kill Prophet Muhammad when he heard a verse from the Qur'an and converted on the spot. Or that of Hind, the infamous Meccan queen who cannibalized the Prophet's uncle Hamza on the battlefield, only to embrace Islam at the end. Or that of Zaynab bint al-Harith, a woman of Khaybar who poisoned Prophet Muhammad's food, killing his companions. When she was caught, the Prophet asked her why she had done this. And she responded that it was to avenge her tribe, which had been defeated by the Muslims in battle.
The Prophet forgave Zaynab and let her go.
Stories like these transcend doctrines and rituals and touch the human heart directly. No religion has a monopoly on compassion and wisdom. Regardless of what faith one professes, these stories move the human heart and reveal something beautiful deep within our souls.
Mercy is the common bond that makes us human.
So as President Obama prepares to speak to the Muslim world, at a time when a clash of civilizations threatens to destroy all of us, let us remember the central truths of our various faiths and traditions.
That despite our differences, we are all brothers and sisters.
We can sin. We can repent.
And most importantly, we can and must forgive each other. And begin life anew.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha (Atria Books; April 2009). For more information please visit: http://www.kamranpasha.com