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Islamic Scholar Instructs New York-Area Clergy


Hussein Rashid, Ph.D., received a master’s degree in theology from Harvard Divinity School and another master’s and a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and cultures from Harvard.
Photo by Joseph McLaughlin

Clergy from the New York City area representing various faith traditions received an overview of Islam from a noted scholar of the religion.

Hussein Rashid, Ph.D., gave the keynote speech at the “Conference on Understanding Islam” on March 29 at the Lincoln Center campus.

Rashid told the audience members, some of whom traveled from as far away as Toronto, that he strives to free discussions about Islam from scripturalism, which he defined as looking solely at a religion’s holy texts to understand it.

“While it is useful to know what is in other people’s scriptures, we must not assume to be able to know how people of other faiths think and act from reading their scriptures alone,” Rashid said.

He noted that 45 percent of the world’s Muslims are concentrated in three regions—Indonesia, which is home to between 220 and 240 million Muslims, the neighboring nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Turkey.

He pointed out that those nations each share three traits:

• they are not Arab nations;

• each has elected a woman as its head of state; and

• all are nominal allies of the United States.

“This throws out the window two of the major myths about Islam, that Islam and democracy are incompatible and that women are oppressed in Islam,” he said.

Rashid then gave an overview of the religion’s founder and how his ideas have spread.

Muhammad, who lived from 570 to 632, was a monotheist in a pagan world, Rashid said. He would be considered by today’s Muslims to be a hanif—someone who believes in one true god and attempts to live that ideal.

Muhammad’s followers believe that at the age of 40 he received the first revelation of the Koran from the Angel Gabriel. He then traveled to the city of Medina, where he created a constitution that consolidated political and religious authority in him as a central figure.

When he died, his followers splintered into three communities:

• Shi’a Muslims, who believe that Muhammad’s political and religious authority is transferable and inheritable. They make up 15 percent of the global Muslim community.

• Sunni Muslims, who believe that only Muhammad’s political power is transferable. They comprise roughly 85 percent of Muslims worldwide.

• Sufi Muslims, who hold that only Muhammad’s religious power is transferable. Today, Sufis are considered Islamic mystics and are few in number.

In a question-and-answer session that followed his presentation, Rashid pointed out that the recent spate of revolutions in the Middle East has not been fueled by groups like Al Qaeda.

“Al Qaeda and groups like it are in the death throes,” he said. “These organizations are nihilistic; any organization that offers nothing to its adherents will collapse under its own weight.

“Young Muslims are saying, ‘No, we want to live. We want to raise families and advance ourselves and our culture.’ Those who are attracted to Al Qaeda are so far on the margins that they would have become violent anyway.”

He also addressed the demographics of Muslims in America and issues surrounding their integration into mainstream society.

In the United States, where Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the population, 33 percent are African American, 25 percent are Asian American, 20 to 22 percent are Arab American and the rest hail from the Balkans, Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“One of the stumbling blocks to understanding in the United States is this idea of trying to define what a real American is,” he said. “The second you begin excluding people, you begin losing what it means to be an American.”

The Conference on Understanding Islam was sponsored by the Faith and Public Policy Roundtable.


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