Islamic Scholar Educates Students On the Muslim Faith
By Maureen Murphy
With myth and misconception clouding the interpretation and differences between Islamic religion and Islamic fundamentalism, SAIC Student Government sponsored a forum to help students understand the history and philosophies of Islam.
The forum, held in the 112 S. Michigan ballroom, was moderated by SAIC philosophy instructor Raja Halwani. Guest speakers included Islam scholar and chairman of the Nawami Foundation in Chicago, Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah, along with Muslim students from Chicago colleges. Abd-Allah is an American Muslim born in 1948, is fluent in Arabic, and has traveled to many Middle Eastern countries.
During the two-hour long forum, Abd-Allah discussed Muslims in today's world, Islamic faith, the religion's fundamentals and priorities, the diversity of people of the faith, and Islam's ideals and realities. Although Abd-Allah opened up his speech by explaining that "September 11 is the date that none of us will ever forget" and that "Muslims... utterly rejected what happened," little time was spent on the issues of Islam in relation to the terrorist attacks.
A Muslim was defined as "one who finds peace in submission to God [Allah]." Abd-Allah also explained that the Qur'an, or Koran, is the sacred text of Islam, revealed through prophet Muhammad. The five pillars of Islamic faith were described as the testimony of faith, daily prayer, fasting, charity and a pilgrimage to Mecca by all those able at least once during their lifetime. It was also made clear that Islam continues the Abraham tradition, and that the religion affirms the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
While discussing Islam in modern times, Abd-allah pointed out that there are about one billion Muslims in the world, on all continents, meaning that one in five people subscribe to the religion. He emphasized that the words Arab and Muslim "are not synonyms," and that "70 percent of Arabs in the U.S. are not Muslim at all." It was also noted that there are about 350,000 Muslims in Chicago alone. Abd-Allah offered that "the Islamic psyche and the American psyche are very similar," and that the two cultures coincide with their "shared Abrahamic values in revolutionary context." He elaborated on this idea by explaining that equality, toleration, and rule of law are characteristic factors of both Islam and America. He also emphasized that Africans all over the world are a significant part of Islam.
In contrast to Abd-Allah's objective demeanor, the first student speaker (a female college student in Chicago) spoke didactically and energetically about the characteristics of Muhammad. She also shared that her experiences in an all female Islamic high school caused her to believe that she "never felt that Islam is a male-dominated religion." The second speaker, also a female student, grew up in a suburban neighborhood and commented that her faith was never an issue despite being the only Indian on her block. But, she added, the traditional head covering of Muslim women, called a hejab, has caused some awkwardness on job interviews. Lastly, a male student explained that he was skeptical of Islam until he came to college. As a child he believed in Islam not out of choice, but because he had to, as it was his family's religion. He emphasized that since he has committed to Islam out of his own accord he has not Americanized his name like many of his friends.
During a brief question and answer period, the misconceptions about the word "jihad" were brought up. Abd-allah answered that the term corresponds to the Biblical concept of Holy War and, as a missionary religion like Christianity or Buddhism, it reflects the concept that Muslims must "do as much as possible to make the word of God known." It was further explained that "when 'jihad' means war, it has parameters." The prohibitions include that innocent people are not to be killed, fire cannot be used, and water cannot be used. Abd-Allah remarked that Afghans know very little about Islam. He also commented that part of the problem of extremists using the religion to justify their destruction is the lack of a central authority of Islam as the Pope is to Catholicism.