When I was growing up Catholic in the 1980s, religious diversity in our neck of the rural Pennsylvania woods meant a cast of Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and Roman Catholics. There were Quakers and at least one Jewish family. Everyone at school was white.
History classes began with ancient Egypt before jumping from the Greeks and Romans to the European Renaissance to the founding of America. I knew who invented the cotton gin but nothing about how cotton textiles were popularized under the Mughals. Aladdin and reruns of I Dream of Jeannie were my unabashed favorites, but I’d be bewildered if ever asked about the etymology of “Aladdin” or “genie.” Sure, I had a copy of The Arabian Nights amid the Roald Dahl on my bookshelf, but Arabia to me might as well have been Wonkaville.
This initial ignorance about Islam and Muslims is why, when I later attended an international school emphasizing global citizenship and intercultural exchange (United World College-USA in New Mexico) and met a student from Ramallah named Moe, I thought not of the West Bank, but of a certain animated character from the fictional town of Springfield. It is also why, when I caught a glimpse of a young woman in my residence hall bending over straight-backed, with her hands on her knees, staring intently at the floor, I initially contemplated helping her find whatever small object she must have dropped in the rug.
This was August 2001, when it was still possible in some places to be young, American, and not know even the slightest thing — good or bad — about a religion called Islam.
From the dead and dying steel and coal country to suburban New Jersey and an elite education, I have seen how access to education, travel, and economic opportunities — and exposure to religious, racial, and cultural diversity — can shape a mind anew. Exposure to diversity alone often is not enough to purge cultural illiteracy, but personal experience does expand horizons. Educating about a religion I once knew nothing about ultimately became an impassioned career pursuit.
At Princeton I concentrated in Near Eastern studies and embraced Islamic faith wholeheartedly during a semester studying in Cairo, which was followed by a year of intensive Arabic studies in the region. In Cairo, I met a Muslim man who became my life partner; we married not long after and started a family. “Most kids come home from trips with souvenirs,” my mother quips, with a grin. “Celene returns with a new religion, a spouse, a baby.”
My daughter Rahma is now 10, and America’s knowledge of Islam is still about as dismal as it was when I was an adolescent. In a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center and affiliates, more than a quarter of Americans reported knowing nothing at all about the Muslim religion. Fewer than 10 percent assessed that they knew “a great deal.” (And encounters with ideologues have taught me to be suspicious of those who claim to know a great deal about Islam, a religion in which the central value is humility.)
These survey findings match what I have seen as I travel the country educating about Islam and Muslims. Speaking to business leaders at corporate gatherings, to congregants in churches and synagogues, and to audiences in galleries, theaters, and town halls, I continue to be struck by the illiteracy on topics related to Islam. This comes despite decades of concerted efforts by Muslims and others, including anti-bigotry advocates, academics, artists, media foundations, and concerned members of civic organizations.
My colleague at the Council of American-Islamic Relations, also a convert to Islam, likes to jest that he left a budding career in academia to turn his full-time attention to the Muslim “PR problem” — no part-timers need apply. Like him, I am intensely aware of how my identity — I’m white and a native English speaker — means that I am not as readily the target of the disturbing mixture of xenophobia and racism that so many of my Muslim friends and colleagues of color confront daily.
It troubles me how quickly misperceptions based on stereotypes of race, ethnicity, and national origin engender fear and push individuals to call into question the religious and political freedoms of Muslims and our fundamental belonging within American communities. This is why Gold Star father Khizr Khan, proudly holding his pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution as he stood with his wife at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, generated a soul-searching moment for many Americans across the political spectrum. Khan’s family defied stereotypes not only of who can be an American patriot but also of who can call upon the Constitution as a guiding moral framework.
There are many persistent misperceptions about Islam and Muslims that I regularly encounter. These range from basic demographic facts about Muslims to misperceptions about the “oppression” of Muslim women to distortions of the messages and principles that animate the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Many Americans are unaware of the size of the global Muslim community and the great diversity among followers of Islam. When I address an audience, I stress the diversity among Muslims by first asking for the most populous Muslim-majority country. The first guesses typically are Arab-majority nations, many miles from the correct answer: Indonesia. Sometimes I pose a very basic question: “How many people in the world are Muslim?” “Two hundred fifty million,” ventures one high school student in Newton, Mass. “Higher,” I respond. The students go back and forth until we get into the vicinity of 1.6 billion, almost one-quarter of all people in the world.
Because Muslim women have long held rights to perform religious rituals, hold wealth independently, and seek education, Muslim societies have produced tens of thousands of erudite female religious scholars and philanthropists ... .
If I lead a talk with: “Where did the Prophet Muhammad live?” I’ll invariably get responses including “the Holy Land,” to which I like to reply: “Which one?” An undergraduate at a Catholic liberal-arts college responds to my prompt, “Who or what do Muslims worship?” with this: “Don’t they worship a magic black stone that they kiss like a bishop’s ring?” The student gets points for analogical reasoning, but I had some clarifying to do on the role of the Ka’ba in Muslim devotion. When speaking in retirement communities, a setting where people are delightfully uninhibited by political correctness, I like to play an icebreaker game that goes like this: “When I say the word ‘Muslim,’ you say the first words that come to your mind.” Suffice it to say that I have yet to hear “engaged citizen” or “friend” among the responses.
Questions about gender relations are some of my favorites. I am a woman leader and a practicing Muslim, with the emphasis on the practice — “muslim”(with a lowercase “m”) is an adjective describing a person possessing genuine, full-hearted peace that is brought about by ethical action and spiritual discipline. It is fundamentally a state of the heart that is to be aspired to and regularly practiced through prayer, fasting, charity, self-cultivation, and kindness. Seeking education — for males and females — has been a central priority of the faith since the formation of the earliest Muslim community in Arabia in the early seventh century. I have studied Arabic and Islamic sciences enough to bear some religious authority, but I do not lead congregational prayers on Fridays, as that is one role traditionally reserved for men. This is OK with me, as it still leaves approximately 167 other hours each week to teach. And given the many demands for Islamic education, it is a treat for me to take a break and listen, too.
Sure, like American society more broadly, Muslim communities have areas in which women’s experiences could be improved. I’ve said prayers in a glorified broom closet (also known as the “women’s section”) enough to know that there is work to be done. But I’ve concluded after careful reflection that issues of gender equity don’t stem from faults in the original principles but from the faulty implementation of those principles. Think for a moment of the American dream of “liberty and justice for all,” a dream that is as compelling as it is illusive, and perhaps you’ll understand why I’m committed to working for improvements in Muslim communities from within.
I am part of a rising cohort of Muslim feminist academics, theologians, and activists who take up women’s “liberation and empowerment” with respect to Islamic principles — and there are in fact plenty of principles in our foundational sources to draw from. Often those encountering the Qur’an and prophetic teachings for the first time are surprised both by the number and rhetorical force of female-affirming verses in the Qur’an. Once, when I displayed a series of Qur’anic statements on loving affection and compassion between spouses, a hand shot up from the middle of the audience with such force that I simply had to pause the flow of the lecture to take it. “Did you make up that verse?” the questioner asked. “No,” I replied, trying my best not to laugh out loud at his bemused query. “But don’t take my word, you can look up verses on quran.com.”
Some may think that women’s religious leadership, such as my own, has been made possible by the liberalizing effects of Western influence. Certainly, so-called progressive Muslims are vocally advocating for changes that include introducing women prayer leaders for public co-gender prayers, but most forms of Muslim women’s leadership are far from modern or progressive inventions. Because Muslim women have long held rights to perform religious rituals, hold wealth independently, and seek education, Muslim societies have produced tens of thousands of erudite female religious scholars and philanthropists since the inception of the religion in late antiquity. Muslim history is in fact replete with the contributions of women.
Even if women authored fewer texts than men, they made abundant contributions to Islamic learning through the oral tradition and through philanthropy. The present state of women’s scholarship is also robust. Contemporary Muslim feminist scholarship, or “Muslimah theology,” is taking its place alongside feminist thought in Jewish, Christian, and other religious traditions.
What do you really love about Islam?” I was asked in a course on Islam for Jews, a course I affectionately called “studying Qur’an in the Beit Midrash” (a beit midrash is a Jewish house of study). Aside from Islam’s many inherently women-affirming principles (yes, I know this still comes as a shock to many), as an unabashed overachiever, I appreciate that Islamic devotion is demanding and that the existential quest to purify the heart is unending. I resonate with the strong messages of social accountability and economic justice alongside the plentiful affirmations of racial equality and civic engagement that permeate the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
I appreciate how so many contemporary Muslims are devoting their careers to living these principles, including Yusufi Vali ’05, executive director of New England’s largest Islamic cultural center (see PAW, April 6, 2016). Yusufi has the daunting task of uniting under one dome thousands of Muslims from a multitude of ethnicities, races, and countries of origin (more than 60 at last count) — and doing so in the heart of Boston, a city traumatized by the deplorable actions of two radicalized brothers. In addition to the interminable task of assuring the public that foundational Islamic teachings emphatically prohibit terrorism, Yusufi faces all the pressures of leading a large religious organization. In particular, he is working hard to meet the needs of refugee families and former prisoners, such as social integration and financial stability. His organization is also home base for the new Boston Islamic Seminary, a project that is striving to become the first accredited Muslim graduate institution of higher education in America. (Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., was the first accredited undergraduate institution and recently graduated its first class.)
But as Islamic institutions and populations slowly increase, politicians and Islamophobic think tanks encourage Americans to fear “creeping Sharia.” Muslims are building houses of worship and establishing places to buy “halal” meat (similar to kosher meat), but the fear that Muslims in America are going to push, for instance, for the institution of medieval penal codes is utterly out of touch with the actual sentiments and aspirations of American Muslims.
Pew survey data suggest that education, age, and political affiliation influence attitudes toward Muslims; people with a college degree, young people, and Democrats are three demographic groups that report more generally favorable than unfavorable views of Islam and Muslims. Most significantly, more than half of college graduates surveyed reported knowing a Muslim, compared to fewer than a quarter of those with a high-school diploma or less. Such data affirm my own experience: Education and personal relationships matter.
In his 2010 Tanner lectures at Princeton, sociologist Robert Putnam described the “pal Al” effect (in this case, we might call it the “pal Ali” effect): When someone of a different religion becomes a close friend, you become more tolerant toward that religion and toward other religions. In their book Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Putnam and his co-author, David Campell, examine America’s growing religious polarization (Muslims land as the least likable group on their “feeling thermometer”), even while a consistently high percentage of Americans say that religious diversity is valuable. Putnam and Campell point to personal networks as a main factor enabling Americans to disagree theologically while still valuing relationships with people of other faiths.
Oxford-trained sociologist and Muslim social entrepreneur Eboo Patel was betting on this principle when he and colleagues founded the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), now an influential Chicago-based organization dedicated to fostering conversation on religious and moral difference among the college-age population. The “pal Ali” principle also motivated the founding of my position at Andover Newton Theological School, American’s oldest theological school, and an adjacent institution of Jewish learning, Hebrew College. The Henry Luce Foundation, which funded the position, felt that improving the interreligious literacy of up-and-coming clergy could generate ripple effects. I am happily witnessing those ripples as many of my current and former students connect with Muslim activists, working together for social justice, more inclusive civil discourse, and a hearty embrace of diversity at the grass roots. As one of my seminarians put it in a recent impassioned sermon, “Following the teachings of Jesus means that I must love my neighbor; how can I love my neighbor if I don’t even know my neighbor?”
Celene Ibrahim ’08 is the Muslim chaplain at Tufts University and co-director of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College.