As President Obama looks to foster a new dialogue with the Muslim world, I want to give voice to an Islam that is too often ignored in the media in both East and West. It is the Islam that I have grown up with. It is the religion that inspires countless friends, colleagues, former classmates, and relatives of mine.
I wish to tell you about the beliefs of the many Muslims, with whom I have been around whether as a leader of Muslim Student Associations at Princeton and Harvard universities, or living in or traveling to the mountains of Tajikistan, the streets of Kabul, the alleyways of Damascus, the villages of South Lebanon, the madrasas of Uzbekistan, the towns of the West Bank, and even in corners of Riyadh. Of course it would be folly of me to claim that this Islam I describe is predominant. Yet, it is authentically Islam, and it is part of the ethic of the faith of millions of Muslims around the world.
My Islam is foremost about reason. It is about harnessing one's capacity to understand the complexities of this world and beyond. The mind and the pursuit of knowledge are central to comprehending, to the extent that is possible, what is the divine. One also cannot make conscious decisions about right or wrong without exercising his own judgment. Blindly following the edicts of scholars, is not choosing a path except one that is not your own. When I refrain from consuming alcohol, it is not because I am backward, or uncultured. I refuse drugs because they hinder our judgment and our ability to reason, the trait that God endowed us with that distinguishes humankind from all other beings.
The pursuit of knowledge that emanated from Islam brought to bear the tradition of universities. Much of modern science and philosophy was shaped by Muslim intellectuals, and the centers of learning that were Bukhara, or Cairo, or Baghdad. Putting aside the tangential and abstract, however, there is no one who is more energetic about education than the Muslim immigrant parent (in the West). The most respected word in the Arab world is 'doctor'. Count the innumerable Muslims at the world's leading educational institutions.
My Islam is about the equality of women, where paradise as the Prophet said (the Prophet whose first convert was a woman, who was his wife but also his employer), is found at the feet of our mothers. Islam is the faith that gave women legal status, the right to divorce, and the path to financial independence. Inspiration is found in the women leaders of the three most populous Muslim countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, who found their way into the modern political space long before their counterparts in North America. This Islam is about the strong, independent Muslim women, some who wear hijabs, and others who do not, who balance the needs of families with their rights to be full and equal participants in all aspects of society.
My Islam is about tolerance. It is about a religion that told its adherents that all persons performing good deeds can find a just place in the hereafter. For Muslims, believers of other faiths should be respected and protected. I believe in the traditions of Fatimid Egypt, Andalusia, and the Ottoman Empire, which gave sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the West. In my faith, discrimination and prejudice along race or ethnicity is an abomination, while equality is a requirement. It is a religion that sees all peoples living in mutual respect, working towards the common good.
My Islam is about compassion. Empathy is not a virtue but an attitude that permeates every aspect of my life. The condition of your neighbor or a stranger is a reflection of you. The mosque is the center not for organizing people for bombastic shouting sessions of anti-Americanism but rather for mobilizing persons of faith to serve their communities to develop an ethos of compassion for all. My Qur'an exhorts in countless verses that spending on the less fortunate is the true measure of an individual.
My Islam is about humility. It is an Islam that means submission to something greater than oneself, and forces the recognition of our smallness in the face of the wider world and beyond. It is about co-existence with all creation that surrounds us be they our compatriots or persons living in a distant land. It is about sustainable stewardship of the resources that God has endowed this world with.
I do not naively believe that what I see as Islam is the status quo in every Muslim country or family. Nor do I consider my vision as a monopoly on what is right, for true religion is about the ability of each follower to forge his or her own path. Yet, the next time someone remarks that Islam is irrational, violent, and hateful, know that there are countless millions whose practice and beliefs of Islam prove otherwise.