In ‘Love Thy Neighbor’, a Muslim Physician Adapts to Rural America
In 2013, Dr. Ayaz Virji left a bustling practice in suburban Pennsylvania to take over a medical clinic in the town of Dawson, Minnesota, population, 1,300. Muslim population? Zero. That is, until Virji and his family took up residence. Virji movingly tells the story of the remarkable events that transpired because of that decision in Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America.
Virji unfolds his ghostwritten tale in passionate, vivid vignettes, beginning with a genuinely frightening incident in which a white man in a truck tries to run his wife, Musarrat, and two small children off the road, screaming at them to “go home!” Musarrat’s instinctive, poignant response, “This is my home”, becomes the theme for the entire book: can our country live up to its credo and be “home” to everyone, particularly in the age of Trump?
If your first response to this question is, “yeah, right, keep dreaming”, you’re in good company; it’s Virji’s initial response as well. In fact, “Love Thy Neighbor” traces his bumpy journey from idealistic caregiver, to disbelieving and devastated voter, to a man fearful for his family’s life. Virji is only able to move on to personal conviction and cautious optimism after he teams up with a local pastor. He gives a lecture to her church addressing misconceptions about what Muslims practice and believe, and the community begins to accept him.
Virji’s honesty is one of the most engaging elements of his writing. You live with him in his rage, his confusion, and his reactionary decision-making. At his breaking point, he accepts a job in Dubai, about to give up on Dawson–and America—entirely. Wisely, he intersperses his narrative with segments of his church lecture. It’s a passionate and thorough plea for truth and understanding. He turns Christianity itself back on his hearers, not only using a “What would Jesus do?” argument, (“would Jesus smear bacon on the windshield of the pastor’s car for letting a Muslim speak at her church?”), but also reading quotes and asking if the passage is from the Bible or the Quran. Spoiler alert: the church-going audience gets nearly every one wrong.
As a Christian, I read Love Thy Neighbor with a mixture of disbelief, despair, intense anger, and finally, overwhelming emotions of hope and conviction. It never fails to blow my mind what people consider “Christianity” these days, but thankfully there are those who are actually trying to live out a life of love and the heart of Jesus. And I consider Ayaz Virji to be one of those people.
“I want to give more time and attention to my patients—all the time they need,” he writes. “I want to practice what we call ‘dignified medicine’.”
Praise Allah for him.
(Convergent Books, June 11, 2019)