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Breaking bread, building bridges: CMA panel highlights misconceptions about Islam

Sunday evening, roughly two hours before the sun set, community members gathered at the Columbia Museum of Art to break bread–and stereotypes.

Dr. Noah Gardiner, assistant professor of religion at the University of South Carolina, Imam Omar Shaheed, from Masjid as-Salaam, and Dr. Akif Aydin of the Atlantic Institute made up the panel moderated by Glenna Barlow, Engagement Manager of CMA. The panel addressed the core values of the Islamic faith, how Islam embodies peace, misconceptions about the religion, and differentiating between culture and religion.

In opening remarks, Barlow asked the panelists to address the essential themes of Islam and how they pertain to Ramadan. Imam Shaheed led the discussion, explaining that even the word Islam itself is rooted in in the Arabic word “salaam” (peace). The traditional Arabic greeting, “as-salāmu ʿalaykum” translates to “peace be upon you.” The response being, “Wa ‘alaykum al salaam” means “and unto you peace.” Both phrases are considered to be the equivalent of “hello.”  

Shaheed also explained that the first pillar of Islam is Faith; acknowledging submission to the one true omnipotent God of Abraham. The panelists agreed that recognizing this submission is integral to understanding or following the Islamic faith. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are more similar than different. Dr. Aydin explained that Muslims, along with Christians, and Jews, are all encouraged, in their religions, to do good deeds. Aydin pointed out that Islam has a system of reward for carrying out these deeds, awarded by “Allah,” or “God.”

Ramadan is an intensely focused time, during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, to practice intense focus, restraint, self-introspection, and good will. These actions, in the Islamic religion, are to know God better, to celebrate the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, and to encourage a sense of community. The spiritual reward for good deeds is magnified during Ramadan.  Abstinence from “unclean” actions helps reiterate an greater sense of self and bring awareness to the struggle of humankind. Breaking the fast come sundown encourages fellowship and kindness. Muslims rise early in the month of Ramadan, before sunrise, to eat and pray. After the sun rises, a Muslim is not to ingest any food or drink until sundown. After the sun sets, Muslims break fast and invite their neighbors to join them. This communal dinner is to bring together the community.

All three panelists reiterated the similarities and relation of Abrahamic religions. Imam Shaheed explained that “Allah” is not the name of an Islam-specific god, but is the Arabic word for “God.” Allah is God, God is Allah. Judaism, Christianity all acknowledge the same omnipotent, omnipresent being. The Imam referenced Abraham and his sons, Issac and Ishmael and the evolution of the three major religions. The Koran recognizes Muhammad as the last prophet of God, sent to relay the fundamentals of a monotheistic religion. It also recognizes the prophets before him, including Jesus. Shaheed stressed that there is “one God for all people” and that “we all pray.”

The pertinence of separating Arabic culture from Islamic religion was an essential theme. Dr. Ayden explained that many cultural practices were in place before the recognition of Islam. Historically, women in the Arabic world were viewed as “lesser than” and violence was prevalent in harsh punishment for crimes. “Islam,” he continued, “brought a message of equality of men and women. After the death of Muhammad, “some Muslims slowly returned to a culture that pushed women back.”

Dr. Ayden noted that today, unfortunately, culture dominates religion in many parts of the Islamic world and we tend to think of cultural practices as incremental in the religion. In reality, they are very separate and the violence stems from a culture that predates the religion. Too often, peace-oriented Islam is overshadowed or confused with cultural differences. “Principles are universal,” the Imam added, “culture is not.”

Shaheed spoke to the belief that violence of this chauvinistic culture is a product of colonial dominance and does not coincide with the Islamic belief system. Every religion has their “nuts,” he said. “Don’t give us the nuts, if you don’t want the nuts,” a statement sending a light chuckle across the room. “Study the principles of the Koran, the life of Muhammad, then you will know the religion. Culture is confusing and does not always follow what religion dictates.”

Dr. Gardiner echoed the Imam’s sentiments, “since the death of the prophet, there has been no single organized body in charge of Islam;” contrasting the structure of the Islamic faith with the hierarchies Catholicism. “And yet, somehow, the religion has endured,” he said, as he attributed the incredible diversity of ideas, great deal of pluralism, and disagreement to the religion’s continuance.

This difference of interpretation the peace seeking majority of the Muslim community but has also given rise to the horrors of Islamic extremism. The Imam pointed out the dangers of extremism and the vast differences of this school of thought from Islamic principles.  Shaheed shared an analogy, likening the violence of Muslim extremists to the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He reflected on his experiences as an African-American child growing up in the turmoil of segregation.

Shaheed also brought up recent events, including bombings of Mosques and the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. He said with fervor, “That is where we go to pray, there were children and young adults at that concert, do you really think Islam would preach that?” He asks for understanding. In the same respect that we are able to separate the heinous crimes and fear tactics of the KKK from the true moral teachings of Christianity, he urges that we make an effort to recognize the disconnect between the benevolence of Islam and the terror of extremism.

Nearing the end of the dialogue, Dr. Gardiner added that the word “Islamophobia” is bothersome. This term, he clarified, has a connotation of a psychological fear and inability to cope with that fear, akin to arachnophobia. Instead, he doubles-down, “call it what it is, anti-Muslim bigotry. There are people who stand to benefit politically and/or financially from magnifying prejudice. This has to be fought patiently, slowly, and with education to help increase understanding.” Gardiner then spoke to the concerns of his students, that many feared the repercussions of their parents seeing his classes on their transcripts. Unfortunately, the bias is still there, but he sees hope in his students and their willingness to learn about the Muslim world.

Overall, the event provided a clearer definition for a religion so easily misinterpreted. Each speaker highlighted themes of morality, brotherhood, tolerance, and peace.

In his closing remarks, Imam Shaheed urges us to come from a place of understanding; “Start with commonalities, work for all that is socially good. Kindness is for everybody.”

As the sun slipped over the horizon, a golden, ethereal light cast a glow through the wall of windows in the atrium of the museum. Guests filed out of the lecture and into a dinner reception to break their fasts, dining together. The sustenance provided was from many different local restaurants and represented traditional foods from all over the Muslim world.

Featured photo: Panelists Dr. Noah Gardiner, Imam Omar Shaheed and Dr. Akif Aydin

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