The Many Faces of Islam

Index cards were distributed and we were asked to write down our answers to several true–false questions about Islamic beliefs. These questions served to uncover stereotypes that we might have. Many of us evidenced some surprise as we shared our answers and received accurate information. Danya Wellmon read a passage from the Qur’an.

Background Information on Our guest speakers

Dr. Tazim Kassam is professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. Her research and teaching interests include gender, ritual, devotional literature, and the cultural heritage of Muslims in South Asia. Tazim has written a book about Hindu–Muslim ideas expressed in the song tradition of the Isma’ili Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.

Cjala Surrat is a graduate of Syracuse University. Formerly the public information officer for the Redhouse, a multicultural arts facility, Cjala currently is involved in public relations and theater instruction for the Community Folk Art Center and is director of the Muslim Sisterhood Youth Group at the Islamic Center of Central New York.

Dr. Irum Hussain earned her doctor of chiropractic degree from New York Chiropractic College. She has worked with public and private organizations in inner-city New York and rural Pakistan to improve health conditions through education. She is personally and professionally committed to integrating wellness into daily life and is the sole practitioner in the Syracuse area specializing in the unique needs of women and children from a holistic perspective. Irum is of Pakistani descent, was born in Kenya, and grew up “all over the world.” She currently resides in the Hawley–Green neighborhood of Syracuse.

Tazim Kassam

Tazim, a Shi’a Isma’ili Muslim, said that WTB has taken quite a risk by asking a scholar to discuss pluralism in Islam! It is a tall order to make sense, in a short time, of the different divisions that have developed over many centuries.

Tazim attempted to provide a framework in which to view the differences from a historical perspective. The word sect is problematic and not an appropriate term to describe the differences in the Islamic tradition. The word is more applicable in the context of the Christian tradition, which uses terms like orthodox and heterodox and, in the past, excluded certain sects as heretical. In their earliest written materials, Muslims spoke of different firqah, or groupings, that might have divergent views about a particular issue.

Tazim said it would be better to think of divisions in Islam by comparing them to the parts of a tree. The roots, shared by all the groups, represent a common belief in the Qur’an as revelation and in Muhammad as prophet. The trunk of the tree represents the development of tradition that then separates into various branches. One might think of Islam as organic and beautiful like a tree, with its integrity and wholeness centered in its common roots. The branches lead to different understandings of the Qur’an and of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.

The word Qur’an comes from the verbal root q-r-a, meaning “to recite.” The Qur’an is a compilation of recitations that were experienced by the prophet as revelations from God and that were brought together and collected into this single volume within a short time after his death. Tazim discourages her students from reading the Qur’an from beginning to end because unlike the Bible, which contains a narrative, the Qur’an progresses from the longest chapters to the shortest chapters, a style that students can find confusing and frustrating. Moreover, just as a preacher or a professor often repeats ideas, so too the Qur’an has many verses that are repetitive. Tazim recommends Kenneth Cragg’s book, Readings in the Quran, which arranges the verses thematically.

The Qur’an contains terms that are self-referential; that is, the Qur’an describes itself. Examples include hidayah, which means guidance; risala, message; and furqan, the criteria communicated in the revelations about how to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from bad. The Qur’an provides guidance, a path toward God, and helps Muslims determine their own thoughts and actions. Islamic teachings do not differ from the teachings of other religious traditions in terms of basic morals, ethics, caring for others, honesty, humility, and the sacredness of life whose source is other than self. Many verses in the Qur’an talk about death, and in doing so they show that life is something that is created. These verses illustrate the importance of humility (we are humbled by the knowledge that we were created by God), of accountability (we are accountable to God who created us), and of faith (we have faith in God who created us).

In explaining the branches of Islam, Tazim said that even in Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, the reception of his messages differed. All prophets bring messages of justice and social conscience, and many are critical of their society. Initially, Muhammad wanted to throw himself off a mountain when he began receiving revelations; he thought he was possessed. At first he did not preach, and when he finally did, he was ridiculed and rejected and had to leave Mecca. Differences of opinion continued after he began teaching. People would often ask him to explain his teachings and the Qur΄anic recitations. Even after he died, discussions and debates continued, shaped by the society in which the people lived.

One Islamic orientation was linked to existing practices. The word sunnah means “habit” or “usual practice.” The people of sunnah, or the Sunnis, tried to follow the traditions of their forebears. They considered the question, “What did Muhammad do?” They remembered his teachings and practices, called hadith, and maintained an exoteric orientation based on a collection of memories about the prophet’s actions and example and on consensus within the community.

Interpretation of verses of the Qur’an required an application of intellect. Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was recognized as a person who could interpret the Qur’anic messages. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad sent his followers to Ali for explanations and religious knowledge. Sunni and Shi’a developed as separate groups more than a century after the prophet died. But among all Muslims, a focus on the Qur’an continues from generation to generation.

There is a variety of interpretations even within the Sunni or Shi’a branch of Islam. The Shi’a Isma’ili tradition is esoteric and looks to the inner meaning. Many Sufi ideas come from Shi’a, with an intention to return to the spirit or spiritual path. Shi’as put significance on constant interpretation from generation to generation according to the times. They consider Ali to be the first Imam, who guides them, and then his descendants to be subsequent Imams.

In order to understand differences, it is important to bear in mind that interpretations and practices have had historical influences. Muslim traditions have been shaped, in part, by the culture, political context, and languages that existed at the time. One example might be Islam in the United States, where African-Americans, having lived through slavery and the civil rights movement, have a different understanding of democracy as a result of their experiences. One of the most important books on the position of women in Islam was written by an African-American Muslim woman, Amina Wadud, herself a convert to Islam; she authored two books on the interpretation of gender in the Qur’an.

Another example pertains to the requirement for prayer five times a day. This obligation is viewed differently within various branches of Islam. In the Sufi tradition, where every moment is meant to be a sort of prayer, the five daily prayers are viewed as outer rituals. All the branches of Islam that exist today have derived from historical experience, making it difficult to answer questions like, What is the position of Islam on, for example, organ transplant, divorce, etc.? There are many views.

The Shi’a orientation requires that there be someone in every generation to interpret the Qur’an. Isma’ili Shi’as accept the current Aga Khan, a lineal descendant of Ali, as the 49th Imam. Every Imam interprets the Qur’an and the prophet’s message in response to a changing world. The Imams have concerns for those who suffer and for providing a connection between spirituality and an intellectual understanding of faith. The current Imam has focused on helping and serving others; Tazim emphasized that the activities of the Aga Khan Foundation and Network are open to everyone, regardless of race, religion or nationality.

Cjala Surrat

Cjala, a native of Syracuse, shared that her journey into Islam did not begin with a single profound moment. Rather, her realization that this was the right path for her came after much reading and many discussions about Islam with others. Raised as a Buddhist, Cjala had to read children’s Bible stories in order to become familiar with the Bible! In high school, as students shared their faiths with each other, Cjala felt that Islam was not right for her. That changed in college, however, when she met a woman who introduced her to the masjid. A while later, Cjala told Imam Kobesi (of the Islamic Society of Central New York) that she wanted to make her shahada, or profession of faith; the ceremony was scheduled for the next day. That evening, however, the imam phoned her to say that if she truly felt drawn to this, she should not wait a moment longer to pronounce her intention. The experience was extremely moving. Her mother, though, had serious reservations about Cjala’s conversion to Islam and was particularly disturbed about her decision to wear hijab. Now, ten years later, they have come to a greater understanding about these issues.

Cjala met her husband, and within a month they came to a mutual agreement, found a common moral code, and were married. Cjala stated, “Most of my life has been about being present or being a presence in the world. I try to have proper morals, proper ethics.”

The most difficult moment for Cjala occurred as a result of the 9/11 attacks, when she was working at H&M. Her manager asked her to leave the store, and she has chosen to believe that this was out of his concern for her safety. She chooses to be unafraid and to engage people and answer their questions at every opportunity. People often ask her questions about Islamic practices, such as, “Can Muslim women work?” “Are Muslim women allowed to drive?” She feels that WTB’s “Journey to the Tent of Abraham” was an excellent opportunity for non-Muslims to visit the masjid and have some questions answered.

Cjala’s husband is from Cambodia, where there were very few Muslims as a result of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Cjala has found that living with her mother-in-law has been quite a learning experience! She has looked at pictures, recognized some of her own misperceptions, and come to realize that in Cambodia, there are a great deal of spirituality and culture mixed in with Islamic traditions.

Cjala shared some of her travel experiences in London and Zimbabwe. In the latter, because many others looked like her (Cjala is African-American), they assumed she could speak with them in their own language. Cjala finds it a moving experience to pray in the masjid, where so many from different ethnic traditions can be praying together, shoulder to shoulder. She feels there is an inherent moral code within Islam.

Irum Hussain

Irum’s grandmother and mother were born in Kenya, as was Irum. Her grandfather was brought to Kenya from Asia to work on the railroad. Racial tensions between Africans and Asians exist in Kenya even today, and Asians were in solidarity with each other.

Irum’s father, a doctor, eventually moved the family to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian government had mandated that women must wear hijab as well as niqab, a face veil. Her mother hated this, so on Sundays the family would go to an isolated spot at the ocean where her mother could remove her coverings.

Following their stay in Saudi Arabia, Irum’s family moved to New York City. There, in that very cosmopolitan environment, the children were exposed to many ethnicities. They remained in New York City until Irum was 13, when they moved again, this time to Bath, New York.

Their years in Bath were very difficult for the five Hussain siblings. Being the only Muslim family in this tiny, upstate New York village, the Hussains faced a great deal of racism and discrimination.

Irum attended the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, and it was there that she met her husband. There, too, she made a decision to wear hijab. Her mother was furious, having been through her own struggles in Saudi Arabia. Irum remembers 9/11 as being an exceedingly difficult time for her. Her mother, concerned for Irum’s safety, tried again to discourage Irum from her recent practice of wearing hijab. Irum continued, however, and today her mother is more accepting of her decision. Following 9/11, Irum felt that each Muslim needed to become a spokesperson explaining Islam to others, and that Muslims needed to be doing more interfaith work. Irum, like Cjala, advises a youth group at the masjid.