Published April 20, 2014 | By Amaana
Harvard Graduate School of Education
October 4, 2001
by Marvin Pittman
“La ilaha illa Llah, Muhammadun rasulu’Llah”
“I witness that there is no God, but one God, and that Muhammad is his prophet.”
—The Shahada, Islam’s Declaration of Faith
As faith plays a strong role in America’s conscience in light of the events of September 11, the American public also focuses now on Islam. Even though an estimated 8-10 million Muslims—made up of people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and national origins—take part in many avenues in American society, the American public at large remains greatly prejudiced against, misunderstanding, and ignorant of Islam.
On October 3, the Harvard Graduate School of Education explored the complex issues surrounding Islam in the panel discussion “Understanding More About Islam” at the Askwith Education Forum. Emerita Professor of Education Courtney B. Cazden moderated a conversation with Ali Asani, Harvard Professor in the Study of Religion and in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; Munir Fasheh, director of the Arab Education Forum at the Harvard Center for Middle-Eastern Studies; Hossam Jabri, head of the Interfaith Committee for the Islamic Society of Boston; Walid Fatahi, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, endocrinologist at the Joslin Diabetes Clinic, and member of the board of trustees for the Islamic Society of Boston; and Mona Abo-Zena, Ed.M.’96, academic director of the Massachusetts Islamic schools Al Huda and Islamic Academy.
Classifying “The Other”
The panelists expounded upon issues of the misleading depictions of Islam in American society by discussing problems of classification as the Other. To Asani, Islam is not the Other, or an antithesis to the West, because Islam is not about being separate at all. “The message of Islam is universal…and is meant for the entire world.” In fact, the Arabic word islam means “Peace” and “Submission to the Will of God,” and the word muslim means “submitter.” “If you look at it this way,” Asani continued, “a Christian or a Jew is Muslim as well; any who submit to the one God is already Muslim.”
Continuing this line of thought, Asani stated, “Islam and the Qur’an have very strong roots in pluralism.” Muslims believe that Islam is the perfection of monotheistic faith, the final perfection of Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith and the messenger of the Holy Qur’an, the Scripture of Muslims, is the last of the great prophets—following in a line from the first man, Adam, and includes Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus. Islam maintains that all these prophets taught the same basic message of Islam, but that only through Muhammad was the Religion of God perfected. Muslims accentuate and affirm their relationship to Jews and Christians. Islam calls Jews and Christians “People of the Book,” and Muslims are obligated to protect their rights to practice their religions freely.
The Role of Women
To understand Muslims, one must first ask, “Who is Muslim?” Asani, a South Asian Muslim, explained, “[American] people think of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Arab’ as synonymous.” However, about 18% of the world’s Muslims live in the Arab world; the world’s largest Muslim community is in Indonesia; substantial parts of Asia and most of Africa are Muslim, while significant minorities are found in Russia and its former Soviet republics, China, North and South America, and Europe. U.S. Muslims in particular, according to Asani, are a special case. “In no other country is there this diversity of ethnicity, of interpretation, of culture. [U.S. Muslims] are at the leading edge of the Islamic world as to how to come to terms with plurality and diversity, an example to other countries.”
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