The annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America was more like an annual convention of Baptists than most Baptists would want to know: leaders wrapped the will of God around appeals for funds; scripture citation was frequent; cell phones rang at inopportune times; participants were more interested in hallway fellowship than platform presentations; displays sold books, CDs, DVDs, religious trinkets and hair loss-prevention products. Some speakers were dynamic; others were pedantic. Some attendees were smartly dressed; others were casually clad.
Unlike Baptist conventions of the South, the ISNA convention had more strollers, more teenagers and a lot more racial and ethnic diversity. Many adults spoke with an accent (although most children were linguistically as American as apple pie). Only one or two women wore the burqa. Most had headscarves. A number lacked any head coverings.
Rank-and-file members and leaders showed more hospitality than I’ve received at any number of Baptist meetings.
Thumbing through the Saturday morning program, I finally decided to attend the 75-minute workshop titled “Thinking Outside the Mosque: How Muslim Institutions Can Change America.”
Little did I know that I would hear one of the most compelling and significant Muslim American leaders ”Hamza Yusuf ”who converted to Islam as a teenager and co-directs the Zaytuna Institute. Much of what he said would resonate in Baptist churches.
Yusuf said early in his presentation: “The idea today of liberty in the United States has become licentiousness. People are free ¦to surrender themselves to the worst qualities of their selves.”
Toward the end of his presentation, he told a packed room with every seat taken and every aisle filled with attentive Muslims: “Moral actions have physical implications in the real world ¦. [W]hen you pollute you get global warming ¦. [W]hen you do things that are wrong, things in the physical world come back to affect you. It is the law of cause and effect.”
“People want to deny this aspect of human society, of the moral universe that we live in. But we are religious people and we are committed to this view. It is dangerous to point the finger at any individual and say God that affected them with this, that or the other. We don’t have any right to do that. That is true. But when bad things happen, it is often as a direct result of what we have wrought ¦.This is the koranic and biblical perspective of the world and until we return to that view we are just deceiving ourselves,” he said.
Yusuf noted earlier that European Christians once placed churches at the center of their cities, because God was at the center of their lives. But now, he said: “We put malls in the center of our cities. The most important thing for modern man is consumption. It is just buying and spending.”
Warning about mosque building, Yusuf pointed out that the worst type of money is the money spent on buildings.
“Sometimes in building the building, we forget what is meant to be inside the building ¦. You have to have meanings before you have blocks,” he said, lamenting that the centrality of God and the purpose of the mosque are often lost.
“Islam is a state of being,” he said, in which one submits one’s entire being to God.
Yusuf asked, “What is taqwa? Taqwa (consciousness of God or fear of God) is a state of being in which a person has a conscious awareness of God. And so their actions are in accordance with what God has dictated.”
Another workshop panelist, Ayesha Gray Henry, also an American convert, talked about showing the way of Islam without shoving it down the throats of others.
“I don’t say ‘the Qur’an says’ I just help people,” she said. “One of the biggest contributions that Muslims can make is being who they are.”
In another venue, Sayyid Syeed, ISNA’s national interfaith director, reported that the All Dulles Area Muslim Society collected funds to help rebuild a Christian church burned down in Pakistan, a story unreported in the American press.
In the Muslim-Baptist taskforce meeting, Syeed recalled a Southern Baptist Convention booklet on praying for Muslims at Ramadan, targeting Islamic believers during their holiest period of fasting and praying. He said the ISNA ordered 800 booklets to teach Muslim children about the lack of understanding of Islam.
Goodwill Baptists have much in common with goodwill Muslims. One thing is without doubt: If Baptist Christians and Muslims are not at peace, then much of the world can’t be at peace. From what I saw and heard, goodwill Muslims may be trying a lot harder to be peacemakers than goodwill Baptists.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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