Understanding Islam: Scholars Share their Experiences

Shakir MustafaOne of the most memorable details of the "Understanding Islam" program is the genuine curiosity about the faith I felt in an overwhelming number of participants. It warmed my heart to see people from all walks of life determined to step away from distortion and cliché, working together to gain a better understanding of what might seem an enigma to many of them.

– Shakir Mustafa

Shakir M. Mustafa is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Boston University in the department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures. He earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University, and his M.A. and B.A. degrees from Baghdad University in Iraq. Shakir has published many articles, translations, and book reviews in both Arabic and English.

Carolyn Fluehr-LobbanThe Mayor of Malden attended the book discussion of Leila Ahmed`s book on gender and Is-lam and was an active participant in the lively exchange that included several Muslims in the group of about 25 people. As in other such sessions where I have been a discussion leader, I found those in attendance to be eager for knowledge and open to a humanistic understanding of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East and Muslim worlds. The group came prepared to discuss; they had clearly read the book, and although I was the "expert," I thoroughly enjoyed the time that I spent with the good people of Malden in their marvelous public library.

– Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban is the author of Islamic Society in Practice and Against Islamic Extremism: the Writings of Muhammad Sa`id al`Ashmawy. She earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology at North-western University and is currently a visiting professor of the Humanities at Colgate University.

Khaleel MohammedWhile the overwhelming majority of people claim ignorance of Islam, they are amazed to learn of the similarities between basic, normative Islam and their own Western religious values. . . . I am amazed at the number of people who have worked in the Middle East and attend the sessions to let others know that the people are good and that a minority form of radical, militant Islam should not cloud Americans` perceptions of all Arabs and Muslims. The number of participants shows that people are not willing to accept television and popular media reports, but, when provided with the opportunity, prefer to listen to specialists give their views and then converse with them. This is the best form of education, because information is shared in an interactive format. Perhaps the most interesting question I have had so far is from a person who, Muslim himself, asked, `If the Qur`an says that each nation and each people has had a prophet sent unto it, then why has the conversion of non-Arabic speaking peoples become such a large movement, to the point where the majority of Muslims are non-Arabs?` I am still struggling to find an answer.

– Khaleel Mohammed

Khaleel Mohammed received his Ph.D. in Islamic Law at McGill University and earned his M.A. in History and Philosophy of Religion at Concordia University. He also has B.A. degrees from Imam Muhammed bin Saud University in Saudi Arabia, and Universidad Interamericana in Mexico. He is currently a Professor in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department of Brandeis University.

Keshia AliI have been participating in the MFH "Understanding Islam" series since last fall, mostly leading discussions of Leila Ahmed`s Women and Gender in Islam. Though the book is challenging, participants are committed to understanding as much as they can, and are willing to question their own basic assumptions about controversial issues such as veiling, polygamy, and women`s social roles in Muslim societies. I speak on this topic frequently, and the library audiences have been among the most enthusiastic and energetic that I have encountered. The "Understanding Islam" series is a vital way of reaching interested and open-minded Americans who otherwise would not have the opportunity to discuss Islam and Muslims with specialists from a variety of disciplines, perspectives, and personal backgrounds. I have relished being involved in such a worthwhile endeavor.

– Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali received her doctorate in Islamic Studies (Religion) from Duke University and currently serves as the Senior Research Analyst responsible for Islam with the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University. She has contributed articles to two recently published anthologies, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (One-world Publications, 2003) and Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (Rodale Press, 2002).

John HillJohn Adams wrote, in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, that ". . . liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know . . . ." The participants at Medford exhibited a strong desire for knowledge, to understand Islam. Obviously, this is largely a post-September 11 factor. But, as the sovereign citizens of a democracy, we must be informed and be able to make competent judgments about a religion which had been virtually ignored in this country. "Understanding Islam," thus, is a sophisticated response to Adams` concern that the citizens be able to support liberty by developing knowledge, in this case understanding, of Islam."

- John Hill

John Hill received his Ph.D. from the University of Denver and is Professor of Politics and History at Curry College in Milton, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1969. His most recent book is Revolutionary Values for a New Millennium: John Adams, Adam Smith, and Social Virtue, published by Lexington Books in 2000.

©2003 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2003