Friday, June 23, 2006

Home-grown Imams Reconcile Islam, American Culture & Newspapers

"Where you don't have people who have strong intellectual capacity, you get demagoguery," Yusuf believes.
CAIRO — With accent-free Arabic and rarefied Qur'anic grammar and being equally at home in Islamic subjects and modern American culture, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir are on a mission to reconcile Islam with American culture.
"Sheik Hamza and Imam Zaid have grown up here after having studied abroad, and you can really connect with them," Ebadur Rahman, 19, told the New York Times.
"The scholars who come from abroad, they can't connect with the people. They're ignorant of life here," insisted the New Yorker.
Rahman, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, is one of six full-time students in the first Islamic seminary in the United States.
Yusuf and Shakir are hoping to train a new generation of imams and scholars who can reconcile Islam and American culture.
Most American mosques import their imams from overseas — some who preach extremism, some who cannot speak English, and most who cannot begin to speak to young American Muslims growing up on hip-hop and in mixed-sex chat rooms.
While there is no scientific count of Muslims in the US, six to seven million is the most commonly cited figure.
Knowledge Beacon
Yusuf, who reverted to Islam after a near-fatal car accident in high school, believes that many Muslims lack "religious knowledge."
He regrets that many of the seminaries that once flourished in the Muslim world are now either gone or intellectually dead.
Yusuf noted that now smart Muslims go into technical fields like engineering, not religion.
He hopes for more Muslims to be schooled in their faith's diverse intellectual streams and had a holistic understanding of their religion.
"Where you don't have people who have strong intellectual capacity, you get demagoguery."
Yusuf named his school the Zaytuna Institute — Arabic for olive tree, and also the name of a renowned Islamic university in Tunisia.
Although many universities have Islamic studies departments, including a program at Hartford Seminary to accredit, there is no program in the US like Zaytuna, according to the New York Times.
Hundreds of Muslims come for evening and weekend classes on Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the Noble Qur'an and the Arabic language.
Still in its pilot phase, the institute's full-time seminary program has only six students, including two women - one a former software engineer, the other a former prenatal genetic counselor.
It is expected to double its enrollment next fall.
Increasing Clout

"Where are the Muslim Doctors Without Borders? Spend six months here, six months in the Congo. Form it," Shakir told his attentive audience.
Yusuf and Shakir, who have spent years in the Middle East and North Africa studying Islam, enjoy a much higher profile than most imams and draw overflow crowds in theaters, mosques and university auditoriums that seat thousands.
Their books and CD's are pored over by young Muslims in study groups.
During a recent presentation at the University of Houston, every seat in the auditorium was taken, and the crowd was standing in the back and spilling out into the lobby, straining to hear.
Yusuf told the audience to beware of "fanatics" who pluck Islamic scripture out of context.
"That's not Islam," he said. "That's psychopathy."
He urged his attentive audience to pray for the victims of kidnappers in Iraq, saying that kidnapping is just as bad as American bombings in which the army describes the civilian victims as "collateral damage."
"They're both sinister, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "One is efficient, the other is pathetic."
Shakir, who teaches as a scholar in residence in Zaytuna, urged Muslims to serve humanity at large.
"Where are the Muslim Doctors Without Borders? Spend six months here, six months in the Congo. Form it!"
When one student asked if assistance should be aimed at Muslims only he said: "The obligation is to everyone. All of the people are the dependents of Allah."
The crowd included students in college sweatshirts, doctors, limousine drivers in suits, immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and the grown children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the immigrant generation.
There were plenty of African-Americans and a sprinkling of white and Hispanic reverts.
After waiting for more than an hour to greet them, Sohail Ansari, an information technology specialist originally from India, marveled: "I was born a Muslim, and these guys are so far ahead of us."

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