A Message for Contemporary Muslims

By Najeeba Syeed-Miller

Too often in modern religious discourse, we have devolved into conversations that emphasize only the passion of faith and do not honor the very aspect of faith that make us human: The role of rational thought. Emotion is important; it keeps us connected with God. We know however, that God has given us the thing that sets us apart from other Creations: The mind (‘aql) and free will which are signs of humanity bestowed upon us by Our Creator. Let us remember that in all aspects of our lives, to interject the coolness of the gift of our minds with the heat of the heart.

I will speak of three themes today:

  • The civilizing aspect of religion
  • Developing a coherent religious/national identity
  • Connecting and teaching our children the loving aspect of God.

When I studied traditional Islamic law for six months before going to law school, I spent one full day in tears while perusing texts that were nearly a millennium old. How is it I could not have known that one of the foundational aspects of God’s law was the notion of &’Imran, or civilization? Why had I been misled to believe that religion was to be used as a tool that was anti-civilizational? Here, in texts that were deeply concerned with law, there was also vigorous discussion of the complexity of how to apply this law. There was multi-layered exploration of how law needs to change depending on context. There was a clear chronological interpretation of holy texts that was informed by the richness of culture and history.

Faith and religion are two aspects of the same coin. Faith is a deep river of feeling of belief and jumping into knowing the unknown. You need not quantify your faith, you need not prove it. Religion however is an organized system of knowing, of believing and of creating civilization. We cannot make complex decisions on faith alone. Because we feel a thing must be so, is not enough. We must engage with all aspects of law, history, science, and humanities to make informed decisions. Any great theologian in history was an expert in jurisprudence, an accomplished scientist, had a great grasp of the literature of his/her time, and was multi-lingual and often well-traveled. The story of a traveling jurisprudence scholar is one that is oft repeated in Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions. Exposure to all the sources of knowledge, epistemology, custom (url) were required components for those who were entrusted with the most sacred of tasks: Keeping the element of civilization alive and intermarried with our faith.

If we do not give our children as rich an education as this, we will forever condemn them into the state of fighting for a God on this side or that. If we cannot rationally discuss how faith is buttressed by the sciences of law, mystical traditions, psychology, morality and literature then the battle that will spill forth is merely one of might of right over the other. We must be both deeply attached and objective when it comes to religion.

We must be deeply faithful in God, we must also be able to discuss how religion will be interpreted and molded into the human life span of society and discovery. Herein lies our task as educators, to connect and enrich our children with all aspects of their faith and endow them with the tools to analyze, argue, discourse, speak, and philosophize that faith into bettering the condition of their co-religionists and all people in the world. For me, if the state of civilizations goes backward because of any religious teaching, it is clear that we have lost the foundation of that faith, the &’Imran. Religion ought to restore our humanity and not bolster our barbarity.

This leads me to my second theme, a national/religious identity. Let me speak openly and candidly here. There are those who will question me because I choose to stay within a religious identity, there are those who will condemn me because I will say I have no problem with being an American and a Muslim. We must celebrate the convergence of these identities. We must be willing to have open, honest conversations when there are conflicts between these identities. We must make it safe for children speak to us and help them understand that as people of faith and people of country, they do not need to feel sorry for either component of their identity. If we do not support the development of a healthy amalgamation of identities then in fact, we will suffer dire, extreme and serious psychological consequences as a community.

Living with a dual consciousness that is unconnected between faith and country will create a dissonance for children that will last for generations. We must turn the attention of our charity to our neighbors, here on the street, close to us. Prophets from time immemorial were so very concerned about their local world; we must follow that example and know our country, all of her, all of the parts we know and those we don’t know.

Children must be aware that the people in this country are their people, that they are and will always be a part of this culture and community. We cannot claim we are not welcome, if we are not welcoming. For some people, they will find this argument apologetic. However, we have taken oaths to engage, protect and live in this nation. If we are unable to honor that oath, it is not just a blemish on us as a community; it is a dishonor to the notion that a person of faith is also a person who honors his/her commitments.

Yes, we should be critical thinkers, as stated before we must both think and feel. We should be a voice that is diverse, that allows diversity in our thought and engagement in society. However, if we do not fundamentally resolve this identity crisis, we will always be a community without a home and without an investment in the society around us. By anchoring, by setting roots, this informs every aspect of our being, our religious identity and choices as a community. If we drift, we become a community of drifters, always with the chip on the shoulder of being an outsider, bullied, and we all know that such mindsets have deadly consequences.

The best thoughts and critique comes from someone who loves that which he/she is discussing and deliberating over. If we do not love this nation, we cannot and will not be able to have a role in shaping her. If our children do not feel that this is a fundamental part of their identity, they will become agents of hate because that is the disease of the disconnected and discontent.

Finally, as we speak of hate and love, I ask you to think of how we are to teach our children about God. As a parent and educator over the years, I have found that when we speak only of a wrathful, vengeful God we are in fact allowing our very own ego to become intertwined in the pedagogy. We are using religion to control and scare our children into behavior we espouse. Believe me, the very worst way to change behavior is through fear alone, as any childhood development researcher will tell you. By teaching the notion of an oppressive God, we teach oppression.

There are innumerable Islamic and other faith based traditions about the gentleness of God, the beauty he has wrought. We must hold on to that aspect of God as well. In particular, a young child does not understand the aspects of fear that are so prevalent in religious instruction. Yes, we must understand that religion teaches that those who do good will get reward. However, we tend to use tactics of fear especially with young children whose sense of self is yet to be developed. By imbuing them with the notion of God as dangerous and painful then they do not develop the relational component of faith. For a young child, developing a love of God will last a lifetime. It is the stepping-stone to an introspective way of being.

If they love their God, they will serve him in a way that loves. They will begin to understand that their relationship with God is dynamic, and that through serving him and serving others, they are indeed recipients of his mercy and beneficence. Muslims start every action with that prayer, do we really understand the merciful aspects of God, and do we practice mercy?

Empathy and love of others and God are skills one must teach. I have mediated violent conflicts in schools and communities and I can tell you, as does the research that a lack of empathy is one of the highest indicators of for future violent behavior. We must practice mercy in small ways, exhibit it on a daily basis; encourage children to be merciful to one another. All of this must emanate from their relationship and concept of God.

I pray that we all move to the place where, every action is but our intention (from Hadith). That we understand that if peace is our intention then our actions must reflect that, that we engage with one another in love that is thoughtful, honest. That we teach our children to be critical thinkers, to love their history and heritage while always seeing it with an eye for what civilizes us as humans and brings us prosperity in all ways of life. We are at a crossroads as a community, a nation and a global civilization. If we choose a small, mean, limited, interpretation of how we should engage with one another, with God and with humanity then indeed we have already written our extinction formula.

Herein lies the very beauty of faith: We look to something greater than ourselves to find a common bond that wills us all to compete not in hurting another but in good deeds to serve God and to serve each other.

Najeeba Syeed-Miller is a Kashmir born American lawyer, professor and educator in the field of conflict resolution. Her research and writing explore issues of Islamic conflict resolution, family law and interfaith relations. This essay is adaptation of a speech delivered on the 25th year commemorative function of an Islamic school in Southern California.

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