Ever since I began my blog, I wondered which imam to contact for an interview. I considered going to a local mosque to get some answers about the essence of Islam. But each time I decided upon a mosque or an imam, something just wouldn’t fit. I realized that I couldn’t just interview any imam. Since my blog is trying to build bridges and keep doors open for anyone to come and explore God through different faith communities, I had to find someone who embodied the universal/Islamic values of inclusivity and unconditional compassion.
It was not that the imams in the area were not nice, it’s just that as a woman, I felt a little uncomfortable approaching them. Mosques aren’t exactly the most woman friendly places at the moment. So I asked God to help me find the perfect imam for my blog interview. After many days of wondering whom I could interview, God blessed me with clarity. Of course! How could I not have thought of this before? I would interview Imam Jamal Rahman of the Interfaith Amigos. I had seen him speak on youtube videos during his Tedx presentations with Rabbi Ted Falcon and Pastor Don Mackenzie. You should check out this video if you haven’t already:
For a few moments, I stalled: what if he’s too busy to answer my email? He has exposure in the media, so what if he doesn’t want to talk to a ‘nobody’ like me? But I decided to take my chances. There was no way of knowing whether or not he would speak with me unless I asked him first. I was thrilled when he responded with an enthusiastic yes.
As soon as I heard his voice, I knew he was exactly the same person he appeared to be in his public presentations. He was calm, kind, funny, and most importantly, approachable and easy to talk to. I had the most interesting conversation with him.
I expressed how at times I felt overwhelmed by what I was doing, wondering whether I was even qualified to do this kind of work. His answer made my heart smile. He explained that in Islam we don’t have ordained priesthood, and no religious hierarchy. It is as the Prophet pbuh said: you are your own priest. The Prophet pbuh also said, “consult your heart.”
How does Islam/Quran define or explain God?
Allah is the most mentioned word in the Quran, and from my perspective, one thing that stands out is that the Quran says that God is an absolute mystery. A verse in the Quran says if all the trees in the universe became pens and all the oceans became ink and you tried to write the mysteries of God, still you would not come close to describing a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the mysteries of God. We can never really get to know God directly. That is why we have the 99 divine names. I like how the Prophet (pbuh) said: Oh God! We have not yet known you as we should have. So even as a prophet he could not have known the fullness of God. In the Quran, God is a boundless ocean of infinite compassion and mercy. Virtually all chapters start with “bismillah.” Also, God is both “zahir” and “batin,” so outside of you and inside of you. There is this beautiful hadtih qudsi, where God says: I cannot be contained in the space of the earth or heavens, but I can be contained in the heart of my loving servant. There’s another wonderful Quranic verse: Everywhere you turn is the face of Allah. So God is inside of you, outside of you, formless, genderless.
What is the essence or goal of Islam?
The goal is Islam itself; which means to surrender in peace to God. But question is, what are you surrendering? We surrender our attachment to the ego, which is called “nafs” in Quran. If you really want to surrender, you have to go through the process of transforming your nafs. The purpose is as the Quran says: when you surrender your nafs to Allah, then you have the capacity to turn the heart in devotion to Allah. Islam is about evolving into fullness of one’s being so one is worthy of what Quran says: becoming Allah’s vicegerent on Earth. But it’s important to know that we shall never understand surrender unless life circumstances force us. In islamic spirituality it is said there are 2 veils standing in the way of surrender: health and wealth. When my health is good or I have wealth, and not just money, but emotional security, all this talk about surrender, praying, fasting is not only irrelevant, it is also inconvenient. but should one of the veils shatter, I ask deeper questions. But what islam is waiting for is “I need help.” But I need help from a source higher than human personality and greater than human institution.
How does the Quran/Islam view non-Muslims?
The Quran is very clear that God has deliberately created people of different faiths as part of divine diversity, part of a divine plan. One verse says if Allah wanted Allah could have made all of us one single community. But he chose diversity, not only in languages, nations, or tribes, but especially religious diversity for 2 main reasons: so that we may compete with one another in doing righteous deeds, and to get to know the other on a human level. So these are the 2 main reasons, and the reason it’s so clear is because there are other key verses such as: let there be no compulsion in religion, and other such as if even if you find others’ religion aversive to yours: to you your religion to me my way. To me its 100% clear, it’s about honoring God’s diversity and not only with people of the book, the Christians and Jews . They were mentioned specifically because they were existing in the 7th century Arabian peninsula. Unfortunately, due to fundamentalism and fight over economics and politics , the problem is even greater in intra-faith. You have sunni versis shia, shia versus sunni and other infighting. This really points to tribalism and conditionings. And what do we do about evangelism? Both Islam and Christianity particularly focus a lot on converting. In my personal opinion, the focus should be more on becoming a better human being rather than “come to my religion.” Even if you read the Quran, the best way is to live the life of a good Muslim and it is through your example that they will want to know more and that will fulfill the path of what is known as “dawaah” (inviting others to Islam). This idea of focusing on conversion takes us away from the essence of Islam, which is to live it and to practice it.
What are some major misconceptions non-Muslims have about Islam/Muslims?
In a general way people begin to judge the religion of Islam just from the behavior of some people: from suicide bombings, burning of churches, even the killings between Shias and Sunnis. But we can’t judge a religion from the behavior of some people. If we do that then every religion is in trouble. This fighting and killing is being fought in the name of religion, but religion is being used as a disguise for a different agenda. The agenda is conflict over politics and economics. On another general level most people think Islam is predominantly in Arab countries. But if you look population wise, Islam is really an Asian religion because 60% of Muslims live in South Asia and Southeat Asia, and Arab countries don’t make up more than 16%. Islam is spread all over the world but it’s predominantly an Asian religion.
For specifics, many people ask about jihad. If you want to put this into perspective, out of over 6000 Quranic verses, only 129 maximum are about fighting. Yes jihad does include fighting but it’s a defensive fighting. But the bulk of jihad is about making the effort for a spiritual transformation.
The second number of questions is about the status of women, and particularly the verse with the root word “darraba” and of course it gets into the status of women. I want to say that the irony is that the Quran in the 7th century, which was unthinkable, gave women inheritance rights, divorce rights, and property rights. So what happened? And the answer is, and most scholars agree, that the rights were so radical, so revolutionary, and the tribal men of 7th century Arabia were so used to treating women like chattle, like property, that they went along as long as the Prophet pbuh was alive. But moment he died and Islam spread to feudal societies, all those verses in favor of women, their interpretations were slowly changed to be in favor of men. For example “darraba” is translated by most men as beating women, whereas all women translate it as “turn away from” or “consensual intimate relationships” and even other meanings. There is another verse that says you need two women witnesses for one man, but women explain it differently: its for the 7th century time because the men used to bully the women so much, and so the other woman was just there to remind woman not to be bullied and remember the original terms of contract for which she is called to testify. It is not that the worth of a woman’s testimony is less. The worst misuse of the Quran in terms of women’s rights is of the verse that demands those who accuse women of adultery to produce four direct witnesses who saw the actual act of sexual penetration. This was to protect women’s dignity, because it’s almost impossible to find such witnesses, and it angered the men. So overtime, if a woman reported rape, it was used to ask her to provide four direct witnesses to the rape, which is impossible. This led to the man going free, and worse, if she got pregnant, she could be accused of fornication. But there is hope. There is an undercurrent of women’s empowerment through education.
The third misconception about Islam is that it’s so rigid and so severe there is no spirituality in Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. The heart of islam is so exquisite; it’s a wellspring of spirituality. People who have wanted to become Muslims, they have mostly been attracted by the spirituality, which is why Islam is fastest growing religion, especially in America.
Are you happy with how the interfaith dialogue has been so far? How could it be improved?
I’m happy that ever since 9/11, every single mosque has program has an outreach program. But it doesn’t go beyond barbecues and get togethers. You need to go through several stages of interfaith dialogue to make real shifts in people’s perceptions and make a difference in world issues.
I find if I’m open to the beauty and wisdom of other traditions, it makes me a better Muslim. It waters my Islamic roots more completely; it makes me understand my Quran more fully. That’s why we say interfaith is not about conversion, its about completion. It’s about becoming a more complete human being. So we begin to understand God’s plan for diversity.
But the main thing about interfaith isn’t just about hospitality, which is important, but it’s really a question of our survival. Our global issues are so enormous, such as climate change and social issues, that we have no choice but to cooperate and collaborate.
We kept talking, moving on to other topics. The whole time I couldn’t believe I was hearing about beautiful aspects of my faith that I had never really heard before; at least not like this. I have been raised in a Muslim family that has been practicing for generations. I have lived the first thirteen years of my life in Pakistan, which is a predominantly Muslim country, and been to a few Islamic conventions. But never before have I heard anyone talk about Islam in this way. It is soothing, magnificent. But most importantly, it is intuitive. Everything the imam said, my heart quivered in agreement.
Every time I spoke to someone, whether it was the rabbi, the reverend, or the imam, my spirit transformed a little. I feel like I am getting to understand God more fully. And yet, at he same time, I feel like I have just begun. I need to go out and talk to more people about God so that my connection to God becomes stronger and wider. I only pray that before I move on to the next stage through death, God blesses me with a full spiritual transformation of my ego, filling my whole being with the Divine light.
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