Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Saeed Khan is a professor at Wayne State University, a PhD candidate, and a Muslim living in greater Detroit. Saeed was born in Pakistan, raised in England, but has lived in the United States most of his life. He spent time in Houston, New York City, and then moved to Michigan where he is now. He attended Michigan University for his undergraduate degree and practiced law for a while after receiving a law degree from Cooley Law School.
“Once 9/11 happened, I realized there was a need for not only getting into the public debate, but helping to really reshape the contours of the public debate.”
The Transformative Power of Education
Saeed developed a relationship with some of the professors at Rochester College, a local evangelical Christian university, and has been teaching once a quarter at the school for their World Religions class.
“My policy—which is the same wherever I go—is that no question is out-of-bounds and I’ll be there to answer the last question. I would not it want it to be said of us that we were being evasive, or lecturing at length but avoiding the 800-pound gorillas in the room.”
Last year Rochester College had a “Muslim and Christian Interaction” course based on Miroslav Volf’s book “Allah: A Christian Response”. It was such a successful course that they will be having it again at the Rochester College campus in the fall and they will using it as a model to open similar classes at evangelical universities across the country. Saeed told me about an incredible story about one student who was dramatically changed by this course.
One gentleman in his first journal entry (one of the required assignments) wrote “I can’t help but think that I see the devil standing next to Professor Khan when he lectures.” I couldn’t put a name to face, however, as to who had written the entry. A few weeks later, one of the students came up to me and asked if he could talk to me after class. I put two and two together and realized that this was the author of the journal entry. After witnessing to me and telling me his testimony, he said that he felt he had become a better Christian and a better person as a result of the class. And he actually admitted his flaws of having been so judgmental and so sanctimonious that he was alienating people. From going from the start where he thought the devil was standing next to me lecturing to having that kind of moment, and being honest about it was to me one of the most powerful things I’ve experienced in a long time. It’s something that I talk about when I talk about this class and the transformative power that it’s had.”
Islam is an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion with roughly 1.25 billion followers spread throughout the world. It is the second largest religion with 21% of the Earth’s population, meaning almost 1 in 5 people are Muslim, with the highest concentrations of adherents being in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Iran.
I also interviewed Tuba Rizvi, a young Muslim woman who I met through school. Tuba was born in Pakistan, was raised in Saudi Arabia, and then came to the United States as a sophomore in high school.
“The foundation of Islam is believing in the Oneness of God: the fact that God has no preceding or succeeding family and the fact that he is All-Knowing and has control over everything. Muslims are required to pray five times a day, we have several rules we are to abide by,” she said. A few of which are: not eating meats that aren’t slaughtered properly (called halal, similar to the Jewish kosher), abstaining from alcohol and keeping sex within the bounds of marriage. “Islam also has several sects, just like many other religions do. The two most common ones are the Sunni, the more dominant sect, and the Shia, which I belong to.”
Islam and Everyday Life
Unlike Saeed who said that he was practically born into Islam, Tuba has a slightly different story. While she has been Muslim her whole life, she has only been a fully practicing Muslim since December 2011. She decided to embrace her Muslim roots during the first month of the lunar Islamic calendar, Muharram, which is a time of mourning for the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson for Shias.
“During Muharram, I just sat there and thought to myself, if someone as great as the grandson of our Prophet sacrificed his entire family just to save Islam in its true form, then I don’t understand why I should give up on my religion so quickly.”
Her new commitment to Islam changed her a lot as a person, as it affects almost everything she does during the day. “It made me more aware of my choices as a Muslim. What I wear, what I do during the day, what I eat, basically everything I do is influenced by my faith. Islam is not just a religion, it is a lifestyle.”
Tuba said that she had a hard time deciding to wear her Hijab (the Arabic word for the Islamic headscarf). “I was so scared to go out there with a scarf on my head, especially in America, a country with so many islamophobes,” she said. “It took everything in me to start wearing the Hijab here. Thankfully though, I have yet to face severe discrimination. Mostly I have met people who are really great about everything. They ask me questions, which makes me happy because they are not jumping to conclusions but instead trying to learn more about my religion.”
Islam and Femininity
I asked her how she felt when someone told her that she is oppressed because she is wearing her Hijab. She said, “At first I used to find it annoying … Now I just find it humorous. It’s funny someone would tell me that my personal decision to cover my body was more oppressive than a woman struggling to fit into societal standards of beauty.” Tuba continued:
I do not think I am being oppressed, if anything I am the opposite of oppressed. A hijab is my choice. Despite the stigma attached to that little piece of cloth I carry around with me, my decision to wear the hijab liberates me. My body is mine, and I choose not to share it with anybody except the man I plan to fall in love with. I want to be judged by what is in my head, not by what’s on it. If trying not to fit into the plastic mold that our society has carved for us is oppressive, then I guess I am oppressed.
Islam and Terrorism
Tuba said something very poignant to me about this subject:
Muslims are not terrorists. In fact, terrorism has no religion. There have been so many times I have seen people crack bomb jokes and think it is funny. It’s not. I would also like to let everybody know that we are overly sensitive to this topic, and people still seem to push our buttons, knowing that we are sensitive. This is because, like I said, Islam is not just our religion, it is our lifestyle, and making fun of our religion is like making fun of our lives. No one likes being told that their whole life is a joke. People are always misquoting the Quran, saying that it promotes violence and the killing of everyone who is not Muslim, when in actuality our Holy Book says that a man who kills another man is not a Muslim at all.
One of the big messages being heralded throughout the political landscape is the attempt to ban the Sharia. I knew enough about the Sharia to know the perception of it was incorrect, but I asked Saeed to explain it a little bit better to me. “Sharia basically means ‘law’. I would say it’s more of a code, but it’s a fairly encompassing code which has in it dimensions of the legal and dimensions of ethics,” he said. The Sharia was instrumental in reshaping culture during the time of Muhammad.
“Generally when a non-Muslim hears about Sharia, they tend to think corporal or capital punishment, cutting off the hands for thefts, cutting off the head for murder, stoning to death for adultery. And then it extends into ‘Well then, what would be asked of a non-Muslim?’ If you ask a Muslim what they think of Sharia, he or she will say that it conducts their code of conduct, it tells them when and how to pray, when and how to fast, how to deal with my family and community, and what to eat and what not to eat. It’s much more of an ethical impetus.”
Saeed said that the trouble in the debate about Sharia comes when Muslims tell people not to think of Sharia so violently and Americans say “No, we know what Sharia is about,” the trouble is that both parties are right. He said: “The ideas about the corporal punished are part of Sharia the same way that up until recently in the arc of American history, a black man and a white woman couldn’t get married in Mississippi.”
One of the things that scares people about Sharia is the enforcement issue. There is no enforcement of Sharia in America except through the honor system of the individual. I mean, even the local imam has no authoritative jurisdiction over you. And they are also worried that maybe Muslims here will be taking direction from Saudi Arabia or Iran which are considered the centers of Islamic culture, but no one would even give them the respect to do that. So what I think it comes down to is ‘What provisions does the American legal system make for Sharia?’ And it does already in the same way it does Jewish law and Christian law. I mean, people don’t find it a contradiction in this conversation that people have off for Easter. They are worried that sharing the space with others will mean the eroding of Christian culture, and I don’t really see that being under threat by anyone other than Christians.
One thing that I love about Islam is the commitment to prayer. It makes me feel weird sometimes about my own faith because if Muslims stop what they are doing five times a day and stop and pray… That’s quite a bit of commitment. Why aren’t I doing that?
Both Saeed and Tuba are remarkable, personable people. Saeed is doing so much good work speaking all over the world on behalf of Muslims and interfaith efforts. Tuba has infectious laughter, is wonderful to be around and is incredibly smart.
Saeed and Tuba answered any questions I had to ask them, which is key to building a healthy and loving respect that can exist between people of very different backgrounds. I know this is only scratching the surface and I can’t wait to get to know both of them and their cultures better.
Thank you to Saeed Khan and Tuba Rizvi for talking to me about themselves, their beliefs, and their beautiful cultures.
“Hindus worship cows?” No, not exactly. Hear why from our next interviewee, Padma Kuppa, a Hindu and Patheos blogger from Troy, Michigan.
Photo credit: Flickr / hashmil (Nimal Road Mosque in Colomo), Saeed Khan (used with permission), David Stanley (Mosque in Ghadames), insansains (the Qur’an), Tuba Rizvi (used with permission), taufiq @ eyecreation (Muslim girls wearing hijab), amrufm (Muslim woman and boy), Wikipedia Commons (the star and crescent), DVIDSHUB (Muslim man praying)