US growth of Islam creates need for religious scholars

RTX3Z4ML-e1572281662504DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. (AP) — “Brothers and sisters,” the seminary instructor tells his class, don’t believe in God because of your parents’ beliefs but because “you know why God exists.”

The challenge spurs a discussion about beliefs. But more than Imam Mohammad Qazwini’s interesting delivery, deep understanding of Islam and his formal training at a seminary in the holy city of Qom, Iran, have drawn them to this suburban Detroit classroom just off the large prayer room of a mosque.

He speaks their language — literally.

An increasing number of U.S. Muslims want guidance from religious instructors who they can understand linguistically and culturally. The Quran, Islam’s holy book, is written in classical Arabic, but many of the students aren’t well-versed in the language. Qazwini navigates the intricacies of Arabic effortlessly — in the everyday English they use, opening a door for many of the students and meeting an increasing need.

Traditional imams and scholars who once came from the Middle East or were educated in schools there are having more difficulty entering the United States. The Trump administration imposed a travel ban in January 2017 on people from several Muslim majority countries, and the government has made it harder to enter the U.S. entirely, with more rigorous interviews and background checks.

“In many other states there are mosques with no … functional imam, who can assume the responsibilities of the religious leader or even speak,” said Islamic Institute of America leader Imam Hassan Qazwini, who started the seminary with his son. “I thought maybe a long-term solution for facing this shortage is to have our own Shiite Islamic seminary in the U.S., instead of waiting for imams to come.”

Al-Hujjah is the newest of several seminaries focused on the Shiite branch of Islam in the United States and Canada working to address a shortage of leaders.

The seminary started in fall 2017 with about 35 registered students. Now it has nearly 400, with some attending in-person, others watching live and still more watching recorded videos online. In addition to the Qazwinis, there are four other instructors.

Although there are students in 25 countries the emphasis is on North America because of the desire to deepen the bench of U.S.-trained imams, scholars and speakers, according to the elder Qazwini, a native of Iraq.

In a class on a recent evening, the younger Qazwini led an intense session on faith, proposing case studies, playing devil’s advocate and prompting a philosophical back-and-forth with his students. His execution is informal but authoritative. The students understand him.

“I need to make sure he speaks the language, he’s knowledgeable, he’s respectful, he’s truly caring and he’s trying to adapt to the country we live in,” said Alia Bazzi, 32, a graphic designer and seminary student. “Why would my imam speak Arabic if we live in America and the main language we speak is English? … I want to know he’s up to date, he knows what’s going on.”

About an hour’s drive south, in Toledo, Ohio, the Ahlul Bayt Center mosque has been running for about four years without a full-time imam. Imam Mohammad Qazwini and other clerics travel there for services and special events.

Dr. Ali Nawras, a board member of the Toledo mosque, said the arrangement works for day-to-day needs because of its proximity to the Detroit area — a longtime hub for Islam in America. But the center seeks a permanent imam to meet its broader, long-term objectives: Having a strong understanding of challenges within their own community, particularly among youth, and forging stronger bonds between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

“On one hand, you can find an imam who is very knowledgeable, very strong background in theology, but that person might not speak English or might have lived most of his life outside the country,” Nawras said. “On the other hand, you might find someone who is born here and educated here, but they don’t have a good or strong theology background.”

“To have a combination of both, that is where the challenge comes,” he added.

FULL ARTICLE FROM RELIGION NEWS 

A Muslim teen builds bridges, one conversation at a time

aminaillustrationAs one of the few Muslims in Gig Harbor, I am aware of the need for understanding among different religions. I realize that many people in my community do not know much about Muslims.

A person once voiced a misconception to me about my religion being terrible to women: “Islam doesn’t give any respect to women.” This really hurt me.

It was just one of many comments and statements of ignorance I have faced while being a minority Muslim in America today. That’s why I set out to promote understanding and greater dialogue in my community.

When I was younger, I had my own misconceptions, including some about the Catholic faith; for instance, how could humans eat Jesus’ body and blood? In my mind it sounded a bit like cannibalism.

However, as I grew older, and thanks to my religion classes, I came to see it as symbolic rather than literal.

We all have our misconceptions, but it’s how we choose to seek out knowledge and use it to correct ourselves that matters.

In today’s political climate, understanding within our community is needed more than ever. With that in mind, I decided to host an event to promote understanding across faiths.

The discussion took place Aug. 30 at the Lakewood public library and involved eight women of faith. What they said surprised me.

The participants were three Muslims from The Islamic Center of Tacoma, three Christians from The United Church of Christ on Fox Island, one Catholic from St. Charles Borromeo parish and one Jehovah’s Witness.

Each woman was very friendly and genuinely interested in authentic, meaningful conversations.

FULL ARTICLE FROM NEWS TRIBUNE 

Author Q&A: Charles Kimball on ‘Truth over Fear: Combating the Lies About Islam’

71sKXa55BuLWith memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks still raw, Charles Kimball, a professor, Baptist minister and expert analyst on the Middle East, drew on three decades of experience to write a book released in 2002 about why people do bad things in the name of religion.

In When Religion Becomes Evil, Kimball, at the time a professor at Wake Forest University, identified five warning signs common to all religions – absolute truth claims, blind obedience, the impulse to establish an “ideal” time, belief that the end justifies the means and the declaration of holy war – and gave advice about how to recover what is best and healthy in all religions.

In his latest book, Truth over Fear: Combating the Lies about Islam, Kimball explores a new development in Christian-Muslim relations – the mainstreaming of Islamophobia as a pathway to political success.

Now presidential professor and chair of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, Kimball discussed ways Christians and Muslims can work together in this Q&A about the recent release of the new 180-page paperback published by Westminster John Knox Press.

Why did you write this book?

The 21st century may well be defined by interfaith relationships. The most dangerous and widespread flashpoints center on relationships between adherents of the world’s two largest religious communities: Christians and Muslims.

This book grows out of more than 40 years of work focused on my vocation with a teaching ministry and constructive interfaith cooperation in the U.S. and the Middle East. Speaking in more than 500 colleges, universities, seminaries, divinity schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, civic organizations, etc., I have a clear sense of the kinds of questions and concerns about Islam that foster widespread fear in the West.

While there remains a lot of goodwill, a large majority – including a large majority of Christian clergy – still lack the resources to address growing Islamophobia or pursue constructive programs with Muslims (and others) in their local setting.

This book seeks to address this urgent need by providing a new paradigm for how Christians and others of goodwill can better understand Islam as most Muslims live out their faith. And, it offers an accessible guide for positive initiatives individuals and congregations can take to work toward a more healthy future between Christians and Muslims.

FULL ARTICLE FROM BAPTISM NEWS 

How the West’s depiction of Prophet Mohammad has come a full circle

Today’s globalised context, provoked by colonisation, decolonisation and immigration has brought negative European perceptions of Islam and its Prophet to the attention of Muslims.

Was Mohammad a heretic and an imposter or a reformer and a statesman?

9780691167060In European culture, the Prophet of Islam has, more often than not, been vilified as a pagan idol. In the early Middle Ages, Islam was portrayed as a perversion of Christian teachings. Not merely a heresy but the sum of all heresies. Its founder was said to be “the chosen disciple of the devil.”

A caricature of the Prophet, which accompanies a work by Peter the Venerable, a 12th-century abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy — “Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum” (“A summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens”) — shows him as a siren, a monstrous combination of the human and the bestial. His purpose was to lure the unwary to their doom. This was at a time when the assumption was that the Saracens were like the Vikings or the Magyars and calls were frequent to the faithful to join the Crusades.

Yet by the 18th century, most portrayals of Mohammad were positive. In the late 16th century, Reformist polemicists explained the spread of Islam by the corruption of the established church, which led them to portray the Prophet of Islam as a champion of reform.

Mohammad is a “saint” only in comparison with the pope, yet Martin Luther introduces “a note of relativism that marks an important change in European discourse on Mohammad and Islam.”

Islam is viewed by some as one “sect” among others. John Tolan writes in “Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today” that because they were “plagued by violence and religious strife at home, Europeans looked to the Ottoman Empire not only as a threatening military power but also as a model of political unity and stability and of tolerance for religious diversity.

European Christian writers, Protestant and Catholic, saw the Turks as a double threat who could both conquer and seduce unwary European Christians. He adds: “Ottoman Istanbul was both an enemy capital and a bustling cosmopolitan city. The Ottoman Emperors seemed to have found ways to tolerate religious diversity and peaceful coexistence that Europe, riven by religious strife, was unable to put in place.”

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE ARAB WEEKLY

 

Egypt: Al-Azhar struggles to balance politics and tradition

Caught in the crossfire of ambitious geopolitical players, Al-Azhar struggles to chart a course that will guarantee it a measure of independence while retaining its position as the guardian of Islamic tradition. So far, Al-Azhar has been able to fend off attempts by Mr. Al-Sisi to assert control but has been less successful in curtailing the influence of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that increasingly are pursuing separate agendas.

When Pope Francis I visited Egypt in 2017 to stimulate inter-faith dialogue he walked into a religious and geopolitical minefield at the heart of which was Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning. The pope’s visit took on added significance with Al-Azhar standing accused of promoting the kind of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that potentially creates an environment conducive to breeding extremism.

The pope’s visit came as Al-Azhar, long a preserve of Egyptian government and ultra-conservative Saudi religious influence, had become a battleground for broader regional struggles to harness Islam in support of autocracy.

At the same time, Al-Azhar was struggling to compete with institutions of Islamic learning in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan as well at prestigious Western universities.

The battleground’s lay of the land has changed in recent years with the United Arab Emirates as a new entrant, a sharper Saudi focus on the kind of ultra-conservatism it seeks to promote, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts since 2015 to impose control and force Al-Azhar to revise its allegedly conservative and antiquated curriculum that critics charge informs extremism.

FULL ARTICLE FROM RELIGIOSCOPE 

Western civilisation’s immense debt to Islam

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The Alhambra Palace in Granada. ‘The Tory contender should surely acknowledge the outstanding examples of high Arabic society and culture,’ writes Paul Dolan. Photograph: Chris Warren/Alamy

Boris Johnson is painfully ignorant of the immense cultural, economic, and scientific contributions of Muslims (Islam kept Muslim world centuries behind the west, Johnson claimed, 16 July). Western civilisation owes an immense debt to Islam, whether in the form of algebra, the saving of ancient Greek heritage or the free-market economics of Ibn Khaldun.

Johnson is correct that many Muslim-majority nations are beset by social and political problems. Yet the same holds true for numerous Christian-majority nations such as Russia, Honduras, Haiti and South Africa. He also makes a “false equivalence” argument in comparing stable western democracies to war-ravaged countries like Bosnia, seemingly blaming Muslims there for being attacked. Curiously, Muslim extremists promote the same arguments as Johnson, albeit for different aims. Neither depiction is true nor helpful.

Another pathetic observation by the next British PM concerns the Ottoman empire. Johnson takes one oddity of the Turkish dawlah – the resistance to the printing press – and passes over achievements of the sultans such as religious tolerance and the architectural feats of Sinan. He claims this one act of backwardness negates the entire history of Islam, although resistance to technology is apparent even in British history, the luddites a classic case in point.

Johnson’s authority for his ignorance is Winston Churchill. If Churchill said it, it must be true. However, Churchill was neither a historian nor a sociologist. He was a myth-maker whose literary skills were devoted to “demonstrating” the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over all others. To achieve this sleight of hand, Churchill had to simultaneously denigrate other cultures, including Islam. It seems that Great Britain under Johnson will be beset by similar doses of myth, fantasy and supremacist doctrines.
Dr Colm Gillis
Hethersett, Norfolk

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE GUARDIAN (UK)

Social harassment of religious groups in the US among worst in the world: report

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People walk by a poster from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) depicting a woman wearing a burqa in front of a Swiss flag upon which are minarets which resemble missiles, at the central station in Geneva, Switzerland.

NEW YORK — Government restrictions on religion have increased markedly in many places around the world, not only in authoritarian countries but also in many democracies, according to a report surveying 198 countries that was released Monday.

The report released by the Pew Research Center, covering developments through 2017, also seeks to document the scope of religion-based harassment and violence. Regarding the world’s two largest religions, it said Christians were harassed in 143 countries and Muslims in 140.

This was Pew’s 10th annual Report on Global Restrictions on Religion. It said 52 governments, including those in Russia and China, impose high levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 governments in 2007. It said 56 countries in 2017 were experiencing social hostilities involving religion, up from 39 in 2007.

Pew said the Middle East and North Africa, of the five major regions it studied, had the highest level of government restrictions on religion, followed by the Asia-Pacific region. However, it said the biggest increase during the 2007-2017 period was in Europe, where the number of countries placing restrictions on religious dress — including burqas and face veils worn by some Muslim women — rose from five to 20.

Among other measures in 2017, Austria enacted a ban on full-face veils in public spaces and Germany banned face veils for anyone driving a motor vehicle or working in the civil service. In Switzerland, voters in two regions have approved bans on face veils and voters nationwide backed a ban on the construction of new minarets.

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE NEW YORK POST