Imam Wahy-ud Deen Shareef: What we see in ISIL may be fire, but it is not illumination

Wahy-ud Deen Shareef (Photo: Today's Zaman)
Wahy-ud Deen Shareef (Photo: Today's Zaman)

Date posted: April 11, 2015


American-born Imam Wahy-ud Deen Shareef, 64, the imam of Masjid Waarith ud Deen in Irvington, New Jersey, has said, “What the American Muslims see in the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may be fire, but it is not illumination.”

“What we see in ISIL may be fire but it is not illumination. What I put forward, and what Imam [W. Deen] Mohammed puts forward, is that what you see in this group that calls itself ISIL is a weak and misguided moral logic, a weak and misguided moral reasoning,” he said, adding, “Regardless of what they may say in terms of how they can quote from the Quran and how they rationalize what they extract from the Quran, it is led by weak, diseased, misguided reasoning.”

Imam Shareef has been entrusted with the responsibility of serving as the convener of the Council of Imams in New Jersey, which consists of 15-16 imams representing mosques and centers in the US state of New Jersey.

He embraced Islam when he was 18 years old through the movement founded in the 1930s known as the Nation of Islam, led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Being a member of the African-American community, he has a lot of insights about American Muslims

and America’s interaction with Islam. “While percentages are debated, our history has documented that, of the number of slaves who were brought from the west coast of Africa, between 12 percent and 20 percent were actually from Islamic communities and societies. This being of interest to us as members of the African-American community, we continue to study about Al-Islam and about our history,” he said.

Imam Shareef believes that Islam made some contributions to the formation of the ideas of the Founding Fathers who led the American Revolution against the authority of the British Crown and established the United States of America. “I believe that because it’s a known fact that many of them had Qurans and probably read them, of course. Thomas Jefferson was just one [Founding Father who owned a Quran], and I believe that John Adams was known to have read the Quran. These were thinkers, and as thinkers they did not confine themselves to small, narrow-minded perceptions of life. Their desire was to broaden the spectrum of how people looked at opportunities to advance life, as a bee gathers pollen from many sources to make honey. I think that was their goal,” he said.

Today’s Zaman sat down with Imam Shareef and discussed a variety of subjects — from the history of American Muslims to the emergence of ISIL.

Could you please tell us about the history of African-American Muslims?

While percentages are debated, our history has documented that, of the number of slaves who were brought from the west coast of Africa, between 12 and 20 percent were actually from Islamic communities and societies. This being of interest to us as members of the African-American community, we continue to study about Al-Islam and about our history. Our study led us to the knowledge of the universal principles of Islam.

What happened to these Muslim Africans enslaved and brought to America? Were they converted to Christianity?

There is a very interesting book written by Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf titled, “Servants of Allah, African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.” In her book she documents the stories of many Africans who were enslaved and brought to America who came from Islamic backgrounds and from Muslim societies and traditions.

From the west cost of Africa?

Many Africans enslaved between the 17th and 19th centuries came primarily from the west coast of Africa, along the area now known as Sene-Gambia and from countries along the Gambia [River] or along the Ivory Coast. If you examine these societies, [you will find that] many of them are still Muslim. Dr. Diouf documents that the slave masters intentionally mixed the Africans so they could not communicate with each other. African Muslims struggled to preserve their traditions and historical narrative despite the repression of their ability to communicate. When the slave masters broke up those who could speak to each other, they also broke up the associations necessary to keep a connection to language, religion, tradition and history. Many tried to narrate their history and preserve their story. So, you have, for example, the story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori called “Prince Among Slaves,” a story recently made into a movie, and there are others who began to write narratives about their history and record verses from the Quran.

It is also recorded that the enslaved Africans even attempted to practice what they called a Hajj ceremony while they were in slavery. It is documented that they formed a little circle around a square and tried to emulate the rites of Hajj. Of course, the slave masters didn’t know that they were trying to replicate the Hajj itself. These were attempts to preserve their knowledge base and maintain a mental record of their Islamic culture. These stories are documented in [Dr. Diouf’s] book and those of others like Allan D. Austin, who wrote, “African Muslims in Antebellum America.” [Many] have written on the subject of the Africans who were enslaved and brought to America.

What do you think about the percentage of the Muslim population in the US?

I think, praise be to Allah, that the percentage is growing. Muhammad Ali used to say, “There are two people who come to my fights: those who want me to win and those who want to see me lose. Either way they are paying to see me.” The reality is that there are some things happening in Islam that are negative. We try to correct the misperceptions that people have. However, in some people’s attempt to distort Islam it also arouses curiosity in people, which also gives people, out of that curiosity, an impetus to research. Sometimes their curiosity leads them to the truth. Perhaps the beauty of what is happening today is that people are curious about Islam. Muslims really have a duty and an obligation to address that curiosity with truth, with bringing the truth of the message of Islam, and give people an opportunity to see the pristine purity of its message. Now, we know that if Allah wanted to make everyone Muslim, He would have done that. However, the reality is that we are not trying to make people Muslims. What we want to do is to help people to understand Islam and hopefully appreciate the contribution that Muslims can make to America and to the world. The goal of growing Islam is not just to grow it in numbers, but to grow it in a way so the members of the Muslim community can make a contribution to the growth and development of what I consider the vision of America for continuous improvement. That, I think was the goal of the Founding Fathers, to see America continuously improve itself. I think that Muslims and Al-Islam can contribute to that process of continuous improvement.

Do you think the number of Muslims in America is around 5 or 6 million?

I think it’s even more than that. There are some pollsters who say it’s probably closer to 8 to 10 million. When, for example, you look at the African-American population, most people cannot do a good census of the African-American population because a lot people just don’t participate in the census. But when I look at the influence that Islam has, particularly in urban communities, it has a strong presence within the American urban community. Why? Because Islam is typically an urban-centered religion. It began in an urban center and that’s the way that it has been propagated because those people really struggle socially, struggle spiritually and struggle sometimes in an oppressive material and political situation. So Islam serves as a liberator for many people and this is how it began. It began as a liberator. I think when we see the understanding of Islam growing we will start to see that it will take on new growth as a liberating force within the societies that are most oppressive, the societies that are sometimes suffering from the injustices that typically keep people from realizing their full potential –that being of course, not only the African-American community, but also the Latino community. I understand that Islam is growing even in the Latino community. So the more we can get the message of the Quran heard and the more people can identify with that being a way for them to realize their freedom, a way for them to realize their potential and also a way for them to realize their desire to express their faith, I think it will continue to grow. Why? Because there is an aspect of Islam that not only appeals to what I consider to be the emotional or spiritual state of the human being, but there is an aspect of Islam that appeals to the rational and intellectual aspect of the human being. I think in America this is something that people will be attracted to when they understand that Islam appreciates and nurtures the human intellect as well as the human spirit.

As a Muslim-American, do you sometimes have concerns about the way the American media covers Islam-related issues?

Yes, I do have some concerns. I don’t know whether sometimes the distortions are intentional or whether the distortions are done out of ignorance or perhaps a lack of balanced information. I think Edward Said touched on some very significant points and even his title, “Covering Islam,” shows his insight into the fact that in many instances Islam is “covered” in terms of its truth being concealed by the manner in which the media exposes the population to Islam. I think the media, of course, is inclined to sensationalism. Therefore, it reports that which is sensationalized as opposed to the message that Islam brings that it is a mid-way or stabilizing religion. I may say the stabilization of society as opposed to the uprooting of society is what too often gets reported. When Islam is reported in a way that begins to shape minds so that it becomes less sensationalized, then the media will be doing a better job on how it can cover Islam because the majority of Muslims are not extremists. The majority of Muslims are rational, balanced-minded, hard-working people. When we say “moderate” they are people who follow a balanced way. That word “moderate” is sometimes misused. It’s not used in the sense that people sacrifice the principles of Islam. What they do is that they find a balanced way of approaching their faith; a balanced way of approaching their material needs; a balanced way of approaching their political aspirations; and a balanced way of approaching their intellectual growth. That is what I mean when I say that there is a balance in Islam. And I believe that if the media wanted to report Islam in its true perspective, then they would be truly reporting about how Muslims live their lives on a day-to-day basis. They go about their lives struggling to be productive and peaceful and seeking an opportunity to contribute, and seeking an opportunity to serve the betterment of society.

What can you tell us about freedom of religion and freedom of expression in the US as an American-Muslim?

I appreciate the principles that are established which afford Americans the ability to exercise freedom of expression and freedom of religion. I think this society founded itself on the opportunity for people to have those freedoms. I think too often political dominance and political authorities run the risk of threatening those freedoms; sometimes marginalizing people who are considered to be different from the majority. I believe that, as a Muslim, we have an obligation and a duty to stand and represent the preservation of those principles. I say that for two reasons. One reason is because every human being — as the Declaration of Independence says — has what he or she calls unalienable rights. When Imam W. Deen Mohammed explained it to us, he said that this refers to the fact that the creator has established these rights for every human being. They are inherent within the nature of the human being, which means these rights — among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are not supposed to be taken away by any government and they are not supposed to be taken away by any organization, political, educational, commercial or religious. These rights are supposed to be preserved because they were not rights that were given by theses entities; they are rights that were given by the creator. So the message of Islam is a very important message that, I think, resonates with the natural order that every human being is born with potential and that potential is sacred, it’s not to be violated by any man-made authority. It is what we call in Islam, the sanctuary of God. These freedoms… I believe the Founding Fathers understood are principles that preserve life. Although some of them violated it because they did certain things like owning slaves that violated these principles. Although I think they understood the inconsistencies in some of their behaviors, I think, sometimes out of expedience they violated the very principles they believed the society needed to protect. I think as Muslims in America we have a duty and an obligation to represent the truth of what American can be. Even though sometimes we may be the victims of persecution and violations of these principles, we have a duty to stand up against those who have a tendency to jeopardize or threaten those rights. And when the violations are directed at us, we must remind society and authorities that such actions threaten the rights of religious freedom, the rights of expression and the practice of religious freedom of Jews, Christians, whoever or whatever philosophy or ideology that those in a dominant position may for whatever reason disagree with. Everyone’s rights and justice for all becomes threatened as a result of persecuting minorities. We have a duty to stand up for what is the beauty of the Quran because it addresses the importance of preserving the dignity and the intelligence of every human being.

Thomas Jefferson had a Quran and there is a book written about his Quran. What does it tell us?

He had a Quran. Interestingly enough, President Obama actually put that Quran on display at one of the iftars [fast-breaking dinner] he hosted at the White House. I was privileged and honored to attend one of these occasions. President Obama had Thomas Jefferson’s Quran on display for us to see. It was a Quran that he used and also I saw there were notes, so clearly he actually read it.

Why do you think he was curious about the Quran? Did the Founding Fathers discuss whether a Muslim could be the president or not?

I don’t know whether they discussed whether a Muslim could be president or not. But I do know that the founding fathers had knowledge of Islam and they also had an appreciation for the contributions that Islam and Muslims had made not only to the spiritual and religious life of humanity, but they also had a deep appreciation for the contributions that Islam and Muslims made to the scientific discoveries that advanced human society.

I believe in one of the institutions in Washington, D.C., in one of the ceilings of a building, there is a note about physics being one of the contributions that Islam made. But this is just one of many contributions. When one studies the development of medicine, for example, it traces back to Andalusia, where medicine was being developed not just by Muslims, but also by Christians and Jews. They were all working together scientifically. There was a cooperation between people of various faiths to advance scientific discoveries.

When we get into the polemics that sometimes happen today, we’re really negatively affecting ourselves in terms of not only how religious development, but we put a hurdle in the path of how, scientifically, we can work together to advance our society.

Do you think Islam had some contributions on the formation of the ideas of the Founding Fathers?

Yes, I believe that because it’s a known fact that many of them had Qurans and probably read them, of course. Thomas Jefferson was just one; I believe that Adams was recorded to have read the Quran. These were thinkers, and as thinkers they did not confine themselves to small, narrow-minded perceptions of life. Their desire was to broaden the spectrum of how people looked at the opportunities to advance life. It’s like a bee: How does it gather the pollen from many different sources in order to make honey?

I think that was their goal. Their goal was to really pull from many different beautiful human sources and then create a society that is a reflection of the goodness that can be extracted from revelation and various human experiences. Human experiences are not just in one picture; this pluralistic society is composed of many coming together to make up one. I think that they understood that, perhaps, better than the politicians today. I think they understood that the beauty of the United States is the beauty of its people and the diversity of its people.

But within that diversity there is also unity. The unity is the fact that, according to the Quran, and I believe it is also in the Bible, there is only one human soul. For every human being, regardless of whatever identity they may have, there is only one human soul that exists. And that is what we have in common: that one human soul. When we place our identity at that foundation, then we can work from there and establish what is a society that is premised on that unity of the essence of the human being. And our differences fade as a result of us being able to understand that in reality you are my brother, I am your brother and we come from one family.

We may have differences. And there are lots of family members I have differences with, but we are still family. We should struggle to find a way for this family to thrive together. I believe the struggle for today is to understand that we may have differences of ideologies and philosophies, but this home we call the planet Earth is home for all of us. I don’t think anybody else wants to leave or to go somewhere else.

In your perspective, is there anything contradictory between Islam and democracy? Do you think they are compatible?

I think it depends on how you define and how you shape the word “democracy.” I think it is a mistake for us to make democracy as it is practiced in the West — the only form of democracy that exists. I think Islam has, of course, aspects of it that are democratic. If we were to practice those, then we would be practicing a form of democracy that is Quranically based and based on the example of Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him).

It doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be in the same shape and form as it is practiced in Western societies. But I think it is important that as the Quran clearly lays out for us that you “conduct your affairs according to shura baynahum,” which is translated to say mutual consultation among yourselves.

That principle lays out a basis for reminding us that every citizen has rights and there should be representation from that citizenship who speak for those rights. And there should be representation from that particular citizenship that preserves the integrity of society and protects it. Shura (mutual consultation) itself is a democratic process, but it is Quranically based. How do we build on that in a modern society so that it reflects the beauty of the freedoms that many Western societies reflect? And at the same time, perhaps, we can avoid the errors that some of democratic societies made.

Islam, as it’s been pointed out, is a book that comes to confirm, clarify and correct. Which means it confirms those things that were established as revelations that led society into a growth process, it confirms that. It clarifies where, sometimes, they were misunderstood or misinterpreted and it corrects, where sometimes errors have been made or concepts misapplied. That is the beauty of the Quran.

And the Quran is a book that is not just confined to spirituality. It is a book that also is to confirm, clarify and correct where mistakes have been made politically; where mistakes have been made socially; where mistakes have been made businesswise and economically and materially. This is what the Quran is here to do. The Quran is here to offer new solutions to contemporary problems.

We sometimes see that because of the rise of ISIS [ISIL] some people in the American media are labeling Islam as terror. Some are also claiming that ISIS is following the prophetic methodology. How would you argue with this?

Clearly, the first thing that we understand is that Allah calls Prophet Muhammad “a mercy to all systems of knowledge” or “a mercy to all the worlds.” Now, that is not something that we should take lightly nor should we allow people to distort what that really means. It means that he is a mercy to everything in the world. Everything in the world has a knowledge base, so he is a mercy not only to Muslims, but he is also a mercy to Christianity, he is a mercy to Judaism, he is a mercy to even those who don’t acknowledge God. He is supposed to bring light where there is darkness; he is supposed to dispel “dhulm,” oppressive darkness and prosecution.

When we see someone professing Islam, yet their expression of it is not really bringing light but actually perpetuating darkness, when it is not liberating but it is confining and persecuting, then we have to question whether their interpretation is misguided. And I put forward to you that people can have a very academic view, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is correct in the sense of the spirit.

You have got a lot of people who have a lot of intelligence, but they can be crazy as hell. And the Prophet himself said that there is a piece of flesh in the human body that when it is pure and clean, the whole body is pure and clean, but when it is diseased, the whole body is diseased and it is the “qalb” or the “thinking heart,” As the Bible says, “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he.”

Which means that if your intellect is not guided by purity of heart — the purity of human sensitivity or “Bashar” — if it is not being guided by the human sensitivity that we are all made from, then your intellect can be misled. Shaiitan or Satan was smart, but his intelligence was known as fire, not light — it was heat, not illumination. What we see in ISIS may be fire but it is not illumination. What I put forward and what Imam Mohammad (raa) puts forward is that what you see in this group that calls itself ISIS is weak and misguided moral logic and weak and misguided moral reasoning. Regardless of what they may say in terms of how they can quote from the Quran and how they rationalize what they extract from the Quran, it is led by weak, diseased and misguided reasoning. It is led by weak and misguided human sensitivity. The Prophet Mohammad (sas) said, “I am a human with sensitivities like you.” When you disconnect yourself from the rest of the world in terms of the display of your human sensitivities for other people, then you are disconnecting yourself from the essence of what the Prophet Mohammad was and is.

Even if a person is found guilty of a crime, the sentencing of the person who has committed the crime is not supposed to impose oppression and bad feelings on the entire society. When you impose a sentence on a person, the sentence is supposed to really be charged against the criminal, not the innocent. When you expose innocent people to atrocities against a human being, you make the innocent almost feel as though they themselves are suffering just like the criminals are suffering because you exposed them to something that they shouldn’t be exposed to. They should be protected from that and preserve the innocence of the human being. Why? Because they are innocent, they did not commit a crime, so why would you expose the sentencing of a criminal to those who are innocent? If you think there is a crime.
The spirit of these people… if they call themselves Muslims — I have to acknowledge the fact that they call themselves Muslims — but the spirit that they have has been distorted and misled and they have been seduced by Shaitan; they have been seduced. We know that Shaitan is the most subtle of creatures. This means that he can seduce even the most well-intentioned person. We have to pray for those people, that Allah will enable them to come out the darkness they are in and that their intentions to follow al-Islam sincerely will be something that they will be granted so they will be guided out of the misdirection that they are in. And we pray that Allah will grant them guidance and they will come into al-Islam as truly it is represented by the Prophet Mohammad (sas). Because, as we said, the Prophet Mohammad (sas) is a mercy to people, not a threat to people. He is a mercy to people; he brings life, not death.

How familiar do you think American Muslims are with the works of Mr. Fethullah Gülen? Do you think he is well known in the Muslim-American community?

Unfortunately, I don’t think he is as well known as, I believe, he should be. I believe that his expressions and his voice about Islam parallels as well as resonates with the body of knowledge presented by the leader a large majority of African-American Muslims follow, Imam W. Deen Mohammed (raa). When I studied Imam Fethullah Gülen’s writings and his commentary, I found a striking similarity not only in intellect but also in spirit with Imam W. Deen Mohammed. I think his message should be shared with others. I think we should have an opportunity to listen to him because he is a man who, of course, is a contemporary leader and is examining some of the conditions that exist in our lives today, both throughout the world and in America. I think that those opinions and those views should be examined and shared and where leaders, particularly like myself, find that those views can be supported and articulated and echoed, then we should echo them; we should be expressing them. And that is what Imam Mohammed wants us to do. Imam Mohammed did not want us to just repeat what he said but to reflect upon what he said and embrace our own thinking within that — of course, guided by the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (sas) — and allow learned people to lay a structure, a framework, a foundation for us, and let that foundation be the fertile ground that will give rise to new thoughts and give rise to creative thinking to give rise to new solutions to the problems that face society today. I think Imam Fethullah Gülen also would like to see that in his followers. I think he provides the kind of guidance and the kind of dialogue with people that is designed to help people think. We have to think. We should study the body of knowledge of Imam Fethullah Gülen along with Imam W. Deen Muhammed to research and extract from those bodies of knowledge insights that, Inshallah (G-d willing), will help us make some great contributions to growth and development and also the potential realization of peace and prosperity for human society.

Imam Wahy-ud Deen Shareef currently serves as the imam of Masjid Waarith ud Deen in Irvington, NJ. A graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, Imam Shareef is the president of Shareef Professional Services, an engineering and manufacturing project and program management company, and is a former senior advisor to the mayor of the City of Newark and former director of the Department of Economics and Housing Development. Imam Shareef is also co-founder and executive board member of the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace.

Source: Today's Zaman , April 10, 2015

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