Bringing Islam to Our Campuses

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Youth in Toronto  host Ashura Awareness WeekAny on-campus organization, movement, or community that seeks to promote Islamic awareness cannot be built by just a one-day event or a few events each year. That community has to be developed through regular interactions and purposeful activities among organizers, members, and general participants.

Youth in Toronto  host Ashura Awareness WeekPlease allow me to start with a few inter-related questions. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “Shia”? Is it a specific color? Is it a certain “Shia” practice, or tradition, or occasion? Is it some experience you had while growing up? Is it a picture of some iconic “Shia” figure, or some symbol? Perhaps, it may be something totally different. Now, think about what comes to your mind when you hear the word “Muslim”? Is it the same color? How is this image similar or different from the one you have for “Shia”? Similarly, think about the words “Jewish”, “Hindu”, and “Buddhist”.

These questions are meant to draw your attention to a basic anthropological observation. The more visible and ritualistic aspects of a religious tradition – symbols, celebrations, practices, people – usually become the medium through which most followers develop their understanding of the religion itself. These aspects may also become the primary markers of identity for the followers themselves and in the eyes of the outsiders. Traditions, practices, and other outer aspects are a very useful medium to convey deeper religious meanings and also to preserve them. They appeal to multiple levels of human faculties – physical, emotional, rational, spiritual. The problem occurs – and speaking from an Islamic perspective and focusing only on Islam here – when in the minds of the followers the visible and ritualistic aspects become all what Islam is supposed to be, and the followers do not realize their deeper meanings and social implications.

A Self-Transformative Approach

The ritualistic Islam is just one among many other kinds of Islams out there. Whatever the kind of Islam we understand and practice is what we will bring to our on-campus activism. However, our understandings may or may not be in line with the true essence of Islam. That uncertainty alone is enough reason to warrant, in the first step of any outreach efforts, a careful reconsideration of our Islamic understanding. That brings me to a major point of this piece. Our outreach efforts should be oriented toward a sincere and constant reevaluation and development of our Islamic understanding, and through that process we should define the kind of outreach projects and activities we want to do as organizations or movements.

That reevaluation cannot happen simply by listening to monologues; that further development of Islamic understanding cannot happen if we just think about ‘educating others’. They require a different approach, in particular, a discursive space for self-reflective, critical, and constructive engagement. That is what we first need to build within our organizations. Without a constant reevaluation of our Islamic understanding, the choices we make about activities, speakers, and outreach strategies and content may all just reinforce our previously held beliefs.

Having such a discursive space would also allow us to evaluate our activities and strategies on a regular basis. For evaluating the effectiveness of any of our activities, a critical measure should be to see if the members themselves have learnt from that experience. This is a critical element of, what is named here as, the Self-Transformative Approach. Promoting awareness of Islam should not be like teaching physics. I may or may not believe in Quantum Mechanics or String Theory, but I can still teach them in my classes. Islam should not be treated that way. Islam, as I have understood so far, is about “believing” and “doing” and their inseparable connection, but more than that it is a way of “being”. It is a journey of self-transformation. Our outreach efforts should also be part of that journey, but they should not become the end in themselves.

Organizing outreach activities – congregational prayers, Du’a Kumail on Thursdays, tabling for promoting Islamic awareness, lecture events, etc. – in themselves cannot be the criterion of our effectiveness and success. Instead, what we gain from those experiences – in terms of increasing our spirituality and social awareness – is how we should evaluate their impact, along with other indicators. (As I write these words, I should ask myself: how does this activity relate to my own journey?) I strongly believe that as we do Islamic outreach with this approach, or method, transforming ourselves and building an environment of sincere learning and activism, we will inevitably impact others around us.

Expanding Our Horizons

A critical factor in this self-transformative approach is the scope of the perspective with which we understand Islam and do Islamic activism. I may lead a discussion on Hajj where I may just focus on the DOs and DONOTs of specific rituals and the places to visit in Mecca and Medina, or I may also delve into the deeper meanings of each and every ritual obligation of Hajj, from declaring the Niyyat (intention) and Tawaf (circumambulation) of Kaaba to the mandatory stay in Arafat and Sacrifice. Similarly, I may read Du’a Kumail and its translation every Thursday evening with friends, yet not reflect on its meaning or relevance. Or, I may also ponder over that one beautiful point toward the end of Du’a Kumail, asking God to turn all of my activities, during day and night, into a constant remembrance of God, and based on that standard define and evaluate my activities, values, career choices, and goals of life. When I organize a food drive, I may just satisfy myself by feeding the poor. Or, I may also take the next step and realize that Islam’s socially conscious teachings demand that I ask why the poor is poor and what could be done about various forms of economic and social exploitations which lie at the roots of widespread hunger and poverty. All these examples are meant to elaborate the same point: our perspectives or levels of understanding of Islam have a direct impact on the scope of our activities; hence, the need for constant re-evaluation and expansion of our horizons.

For that reason, it is absolutely essential that we educate ourselves in scholarly literature on religious and contemporary issues. And, just knowing them is not enough. We also need to see what principles and inspirations we can derive from them that could guide our activities. In short, we need to develop an informed perspective (or perspectives) for all of our activities. The “Save Darfur” movement provides a useful illustration, and warning, in this regard. Without doubt tragic injustices occurred in Sudan and needed our immediate attention. A large number of ordinary participants across North America supported the “Save Darfur” movement out of their genuine concerns, humanitarian and religious, but they did not know that the organizers of the movement were intentionally pushing their hideous agenda behind this cause. Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University has documented the politics of that agenda in detail in his book Saviors and Survivors. In short, as Alan Kuperman summarized in his op-ed in the New York Times (May 31, 2006), instead of helping the cause, the “Save Darfur” movement actually “poured fuel on the fire”. It is unfortunate that, still unaware of the organizers’ agenda, a majority of ordinary participants continue to support that movement.

An informed understanding of issues and surrounding politics, therefore, is absolutely essential for all activities and causes that we take up on our campuses. In order to build that informed perspective, I emphasize again the need to develop a discursive space for critical dialogue among ourselves and also with scholars – from campus and outside – where we can define and evaluate our principles, strategies, alternatives, and short and long term goals. More examples of issues about which we need to observe similar care include the efforts to promote a positive image of Islam in Euro-American societies, defending pro-justice causes like that of supporting the Palestine cause, talking about gender issues, and presenting various moral and philosophical positions in the name of Islam.

It is quite natural to have doubts and unresolved questions during the college years. Students come across a range of conflicting ideas and questions in their classes, particularly those in social sciences and humanities. Those ideas directly impact their thoughts, outlooks, values, identities, lifestyles, and goals of life. It is very important that our gatherings provide a positive environment to engage those doubts and questions and use those occasions as opportunities for sharing and learning knowledge. Such gatherings, similarly, can help participants reevaluate their culturally constructed ideas of taste, desire, beauty, identity, and aspirations in life, all of which also impact their understanding and practice of Islam.

For example, the discussions and other activities may draw their attention to individual consumer choices and their connection to exploitation of people, cultures, and environment in their own country and other parts of the world. Such activities may also help them to realize the connection between, for example, “perfect body” images in their favorite Disney movies, TV shows, teen magazines, and advertisements and teen’s low self-esteem and materialistic attitudes, and, also, how these adverse effects could be countered by re-defining our standards of beauty and adopting simplicity and modesty. The activities may also examine the distorted histories that are taught in classrooms, in different on-campus events, and promoted through celebrations and holidays like Columbus Day, and their connection to reinforcing racism and historical injustices. I feel that such discussions would inevitably have a self-transformative effect on all participants, including the organizers, broadening their understanding of what Islam is about and also its relevance to society. Islamic Insights contains a range of excellent topics and material to engage with in our campus activities. See also an excellent list of discussion topics compiled by SIA Chai-Chats.

We should also encourage our members and participants to gain necessary skills, knowledge, and experiences to advance their understanding, such as, learning relevant languages, studying Islamic and contemporary thought and history from multiple perspectives, and traveling abroad to explore different cultures and meet peoples.

Toward Building A Movement

Any on-campus organization, movement, or community that seeks to promote Islamic awareness cannot be built by just a one-day event or a few events each year. That community has to be developed through regular interactions and purposeful activities among organizers, members, and general participants. The regular activities can give them a sense of belonging, a conducive environment for spiritual and intellectual nourishment, a consistent impetus for social activism and striving for self-improvement, and life-long fraternity and learning opportunity through sustained communication and activism after graduation. We need people who are not only highly educated in different fields but who also have informed perspectives, sincere concerns, and positive identities, in short, those who are on the journey of transforming their “beings”. In that process, they will inevitably influence the professional areas and communities that they will join after graduation. Promoting these qualities should be one of the major tasks of our on-campus Islamic activism, and as I have argued in this piece, building that discursive space with a friendly and constructive culture can do a lot of service in this regard.

Based on the above discussion, I hope we can see that doing Islamic activism should not be treated like joining just any other cultural or social organization on campus. Islamic activism demands a constant self-evaluation. Any attempt to change our surrounding has to start from within ourselves; the personal is directly connected to the social. And, our activism should be guided by an informed understanding of Islam and contemporary issues.

A practical concern emerges when we try to establish that conducive culture in our organizations: Start with changing hearts or disciplining actions based on Islamic teachings? A frequent issue that comes up in this debate is that of Hijab. Should we have Hijab as a requirement of membership and participation in our activities; at official forums should we allow members who dress modestly but do not cover themselves in formal Hijab to represent the Islamic cause of our organization; about a policy that asks, as the minimal requirement, not formal Hijab but just adherence to “modesty” (for both males and females), what may be its impact on the overall culture and direction of the organization? I cannot get into the details of this particular issue and the broader debate here, but if I may briefly share my perspective, the two directions do not need to be contradictory or mutually exclusive, and the emphasis on one direction or another can vary with contexts. In the university environment and in many other settings, however, I am inclined to approach Islamic activism with an emphasis on the first direction, not as an instrumental choice or strategy but as an appropriate approach to encourage individual perspective-building and meaningful self-transformation. I take this position with the realization that the outcome of this method may not always turn out to be what I consider is the best action or policy. This last point is further elaborated in the following section.

An Ethics of Engagement

Please consider this discussion as only a prologue, an opening of the discussion on this important topic. I do not directly address the related challenges here. Challenges like how to handle ideological and political differences, how to balance theory and practice in our activities, how to reconcile multiplicity of perspectives and the need for unity in actions, how to engage with non-member Muslims and non-Muslims on campus, how to work with other organizations for common causes without compromising our principles, how to build coordination with other Islamic organizations in different universities, and so on. I must admit that these are difficult questions. But at the same time I believe that these challenges should not undermine the objective need and importance of having that self-reflective, discursive space in our organizations.

Toward addressing some of those challenges it may help if instead of unpacking and confronting each and every challenge through rational discourse we start by reflecting on the method, or the ethics of engagement, for building the said discursive space. The method proposed here is oriented in a form of practice – not just rational dialogue – guided by the core teachings of Islam. It is to embark on the journey of self-transformation and in that process tackle those challenges with humility, sincerity, willingness to learn and share, and putting into practice what we learn and believe. There are risks involved in this attempt too. Among other things, this ethics of engagement would be seen as advancing a particular perspective, at the expense of others and excluding those who do not necessarily subscribe to its standards; this ethics is also a perspective after all. That is a valid question, and one of the challenges for any attempt to theorize our activism.

In engaging with that challenge, I would submit that the propositions presented in this article – or proposal – are meant less as a perspective with specified utopian ends or destination and more as a perspective that tries to outline a process of discovery through self-transformation. These propositions are based on a few principles, or (pre)requisites, which I believe are at the core of Islam, and they are what I propose as that ethics of engagement. Let me explicitly outline those principles so you can evaluate them in your discussions and through practice. The first is spirituality; the second is developing a critical social consciousness and striving for social justice and other humanitarian causes; and the third involves attitudes of sincerity, humility, devotion to learning, and willingness to sacrifice.

As I understand, all of these principles have strong rational and spiritual basis. The first is a universal goal in the teachings of all Abrahamic religious traditions, and, arguably, could be found in other prominent religions too, and may even appeal to those who consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’. Perhaps the most direct statement of this goal in the Islamic tradition could be found in Sura Ash-Shams (Qur’an 91: 1-10). To purify and develop our “beings” and rise above the ‘material’ in the quest of limitless transcendental realities is a very common realization and pursuit among sages and saints all throughout history. Spirituality also has deep implications for our “worldly” lives and our assessment of social problems, and for the same reason, it should be part of a perspective for social change – as in adopting spirituality as a lifestyle emphasizing simplicity and modesty to resist hyper-consumerism and materialism.

The second principle also has deep resonance in the essential teachings of many major religions. Furthermore, it is a shared principle among many pro-justice, environmental, and humanitarian movements – basically, among all those who, irrespective of their religious or non-religious affiliations, are concerned about miserable conditions of humanity today and realize that there are structural and cultural causes responsible for these miseries.

The third principle should be self-evident from the teachings of many major religions and from experience. (The comparisons here are meant to point out the wider applicability and universality of these principles and not to advocate a philosophy of religious pluralism that hinges on moral and cultural relativism. I think that much should be obvious from the very nature of the above principles and the overall discussion in this article.)

If we could all agree upon this minimum standard, as the common denominator, and build from there the culture of our organizations and the scope of our activities, I believe we could address many problems and challenges that we face in our activism. One of the outcome of this (usually gradual) process of transformation of “beings”, or consciousness, is that it would align our individual predispositions with each other. The logic of our working together would then transcend from the bond of “agreement on particular issues” or “agree to disagree” to the much stronger bond of sharing common goals and principles and supporting each other in our respective journeys, with humility and sincerity. At the same time, we should not expect that this creative process or practice will always result in a unanimously agreed upon perspective or policy on specific issues.

I hope that the points presented in this proposal contribute to theorizing the method and direction of our on-campus Islamic activisms, from defining and evaluating our strategies and activities to making alliances with other organizations for common causes. The discussed approach and their underlying principles favor a discursive and self-transformative process to encourage meaningful perspective-building and activism, and at the same time, they acknowledge the need for some ground rules and boundaries, in order to address, if in part, the problems of endless arguments, lack of direction, and doing activism without understanding. I hope student activists find this proposal helpful toward building meaningful Islamic movements on university campuses and beyond.

Ali A. is a doctoral student in social sciences. He can be reached at alismails786@gmail.com.

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