By Akbar Ahmed
August 15, 2016
When I received an invitation to address the Adult Sunday School Plenaries at the National Presbyterian Church, I was curious how I would be received. It was an uncomfortable time to be a Muslim in the US and I was the first Muslim to be invited to the series.
I was acutely aware of the contentious environment towards Muslims festering as of late. Leading presidential candidates, like Donald Trump, have convulsed with conniptions at the mere mention of Islam. They promised to ban Muslim entry into the US, deport Muslims and even talked of interning Muslims in camps. Muslims have been assaulted in public in response to this toxic rhetoric and Muslim airline passengers have even been thrown off planes with impunity. But I knew there was another America inspired by the vision of the founding fathers: balanced, respectful, literate and welcoming. Understanding this background and knowing the imperative of building bridges, I accepted the invitation, despite these tensions. I was pleased that it was the America Jefferson, Washington and Franklin envisioned that I encountered at the Church on Sunday, August 7.
Arriving early on a crisp Sunday morning with a clear blue sky above, I was received warmly by Church Elder Ambassador David Mack and the Reverend Dr Quinn Fox. The distinguished congregation included ambassadors and senior government officials. Joining the audience was the Reverend Richard Cizik, one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country.
It was my first visit to the National Presbyterian Church, which was founded in the late 18th century. This prominent church has been visited by many presidents of the US, the Queen of England and Mother Teresa. President Eisenhower was baptised here not long after moving into the White House. Ambassador Mack introduced me most generously to this standing-room-only audience, even acknowledging that I had been educated at one of Pakistan’s premier institutions, which the Presbyterian Church founded — Forman Christian College in Lahore.
During my talk, I introduced the essence of Islam, which to my mind revolves around the definition of God. Central to this are the 99 attributes of God included in the Holy Quran, particularly Rahman and Rahim, the Beneficent and the Merciful. As God has chosen these two attributes to describe himself, it is logical that his followers should also strive in this direction. The Holy Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him), whose life is an example for all Muslims, demonstrated this and is called a “mercy unto mankind” in the Holy Quran. In turn, the Prophet (peace be upon him) emphasised learning and balance for Muslims. One of his most famous sayings which I quote often, is, “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
I discussed the violence inflicted on the Muslim world and the violence committed by Muslim individuals in the West and the need for greater mutual understanding to prevent future violence. This violence has to be checked and stopped. In the question-and-answer session, the head pastor of the Church asked me why Muslim societies tended to be theocratic as distinct from those of other religions. I replied that unlike in any other religion, the holy Prophet of Islam (pbuh) exemplified a unique combination of roles — prophet, founder and head of the state, commander-in-chief of the army and household head. Muslim rulers have attempted to emulate him and his myriad roles.
However, the matter was not so simple and over the last century we have seen three distinct categories of Muslims emerge in response to the challenges of modernity: mystics, literalists and modernists. The mystics are often associated with another-worldly peaceful approach to life. The literalists believe that Islam is under threat and must be defended by drawing boundaries firmly around the faith. The modernists, who seek to synthesise the modern world with their faith, are best exemplified by Jinnah who intended Pakistan in its founding to be a Muslim state which would balance tradition and modernity. In some senses, the battle within Islam is between these three categories. I pointed out that the main victims of the terrorists were Muslims themselves and explicitly stated that Muslims are not a monolith as too often depicted in the media.
The audience was responsive to my points and was polite, curious and fair in their questions and comments, despite the tensions around Muslims in the US. Smiles filled the room and many came up to shake my hand, take pictures, and express their appreciation following the programme. Expressing solidarity with my talk, Ambassador Mack, who had served in the Muslim world, quoted another famous saying of the Prophet: “seek knowledge even unto China”. An African-American woman came up to me afterwards and explained how she felt empowered to push back against those Americans who claim that Muslims are “terrorists”. The Reverend Cizik shortly afterwards sent a message, “Akbar a big hit! Professor Ahmed’s message was so warmly received because it was given with such warmth and love! It was scintillating, too.” Many said they understood the need to support Muslim modernists.
Only a few hours after the meaningful, thought-provoking dialogue at the church, I was pained to learn of the shocking massacre of 72 civilians, mostly lawyers, in Quetta. Once again, Muslim lives had been lost to terrorism. We often hear commentators talking about the battle for the “soul of Islam”. The battle has proven to be bloody and it will likely be long.
As the world continues to face senseless violence, I told the audience, Americans and Christians cannot isolate themselves. Americans need to work to bring not only their nation together, but the world. Those American leaders who are spreading hatred and prejudice need to understand the wounds they are ultimately inflicting on their own society. It is imperative that Americans remember the vision of the founding fathers for a pluralist nation that strives to carry out the values of freedom, democracy and liberty. The Muslim world is looking intensely at America. Just as commentators talk about the battle for the “soul of Islam”, Americans need to understand that a similar if different battle is being fought for the “soul of Western modernity”.
It is in that context that I believe each one of us has a duty to reach out and build bridges. My experience at the National Presbyterian Church confirmed that if you enter dialogue with an open heart and clean conscience, you will find a positive response at the other end.
Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, DC and has recently completed the film Journey into Islam and is working on the accompanying book with the same title for Brookings Press