by Hasan Zillur Rahim
[Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) recently held a fundraiser in Northern California for its various Islam Awareness programs, including billboards in major cities in the U.S. on “Why Islam?” ( http://www.whyislam.org ) and providing halal food to the homeless in mobile soup kitchens – Mercy on Wheels – in the San Francisco Bay Area, to expand to other parts of the country in future. Professor Tariq Ramadan, the noted Muslim theologian and writer, was the keynote speaker. He spoke on the theme of “Islam Indeed: Rediscovering the Muslim Identity.” This is a summary of his talk.]
Do not let others define who you are. If our idea of moderation springs from a defensive mentality, we end up appeasing others. If we are too aggressive, it implies that we are reacting to what others are saying about us.
The ideal state is to engage with others at the center, not at the periphery, in a peaceful and spiritual way. It is easy to remain in our own cocoons. Far more difficult is to participate in the affairs of society. How we say what we say to Americans is important. We can be who we are and what we want to be without isolating ourselves from the urgent issues of society. Right terminology is important. Orientalists would like to define Muslims by their invented terms. We cannot allow this to continue. We are on an equal footing with them and must be intellectually assertive to define our own terminology.
The way we behave has a profound impact on how others view us. It is easy to preach peacefulness but if our behavior in society suggests otherwise, we lose. We must remember that communication is a two-way street. It is not: “I speak, you listen.” We have to learn from our surrounding society. To do that, we must know its culture, context, history. We must cultivate the art of listening and learn to be humble. Listen to the indigenous people, to African-Americans and Latinos who may be new to Islam but who have been Americans far longer. Don’t patronize them. They have much to teach us. We are often obsessed with Palestine and international issues while ignoring the pressing concerns of society right here. Balance is the key.
Arrogance in faith is one of our vices. We have no right to decide or declare who is or is not a Muslim. That is for Allah (SWT) alone to decide. A non-practicing Muslim today may become a better Muslim than you and me tomorrow by Allah’s grace. It is not for us to be the judge of someone’s religiosity.
Life is a test of our faith. There can be no faith without Jihad an Nafs, the constant struggle to purify our soul. Islam is incomplete without education. There is widespread illiteracy about Islam and Muslims. It is our obligation to transmit the essence of our faith to our children and to society. More important is to act on our faith. We must be the best example of our faith through our behavior.
We must keep the good of the society foremost in our minds. There is no returning to the old country. America is home to you. We have to overcome any psychological barrier to integrating with the society. At the same time, we must convince Americans to integrate us into their minds as well. This requires nurturing the media. It also requires patience and perseverance. We have to care about things that do not involve Islam and Muslims.
We must not shy away from speaking about spirituality, particularly in a consumerist society. American Muslims are better able to practice Islam than in many so-called Islamic countries. To give only one example: There are six Muslim countries where I am barred from traveling.
The entertainment industry is a powerful force in America. For American Muslims, it is an opportunity to make entertainment a force for common good in society, instead of what it is today.
In the United States, fatherhood is a huge problem, for Muslims as well as for people of other faiths. Many fathers are absent from the lives of their children. In pursuing career, wealth, fame or simply giving in to unworthy impulses, fathers are squandering opportunities to bring up their children in the right way. Muslim fathers must live up to their responsibilities in raising their children.
While we must be sincere in becoming a light for the society, we must not be naïve. We have to learn how to deal with and speak to power. The Prophet (saw) dealt with power all his life. We must be loyal to the country that is our home, but it must be a critical loyalty in that we have to support what is right and oppose what is wrong. If any Muslim says, I am not going to engage in politics, he or she must know that “no politics” is also politics.
Our goal is to best serve our society. Human dignity is the same for all. To be self-critical is to be humble. We should not be formalistic, forever debating, for instance, what is halal and what is haram. Our spiritual identity is shaped by our love of Allah. To act on His command is to speak to Him. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in a deep conversation about our role in society. This is jihad.