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The Story of Islam

posted Jul 1, 2012, 5:09 PM by Interfaith WS   [ updated Jul 5, 2012, 12:04 PM ]

This is the seventh installment in our look at “Acts of Faith” written by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core. 


Chapter 6 -- Acts of Faith:  The Story of Islam


When Eboo Patel headed to England in September 1998 on a Rhodes Scholarship, he again saw himself as an outsider.  He was convinced that all of the other scholars had all of the “right” connections and knew exactly what the future held from them:  Nobel prizes and tenure at Harvard.  That feeling was short-lived.


“Self-righteousness and feelings of inadequacy are close cousins.  Once I admitted to myself that winning a Rhodes was a fluke and that everyone around me was smarter and more deserving, I figured the only thing I could do was accept my luck as God’s grace and try to make the most of the experience.”


Eboo’s faculty supervisor at Oxford was Geoffrey Walford, a rail-thin, blue jeans-clad professor who shattered stereotypes of Oxford dons.  Walford surprised Eboo by telling him that he should get a doctorate in something that ideally would connect with his career, instead of encouraging Eboo to pursue a route to academia.  “‘…the thing I’ve been thinking about most is the relationship between religious identify and interfaith cooperation,’ I said. 


Because of Eboo’s Islamic Ismaili heritage, Walford steered him to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, which was directed by Azim Nanji from the University of Florida.  “Azim knew that I was interested in something more significant than a doctorate.  I was embarking on an intensely personal journey.  The perspective I brought to Islam had been shaped by my admiration for Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, as well as my friendships with Kevin and Brother Wayne.  I loved the spirituality and social justice in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.  I had had no interest in Islam until my most recent trip to India, when I had found Muslim prayer surfacing in my Buddhist meditation, when the Dalai Lama had told me to be a good Muslim.”


Azim told Eboo, “‘You are living at a time when Islam can go in many different directions, and it will be young people like you who are shaping its next steps.  Having an understanding of the humanistic dimensions of Muslim history and how to teach them most effectively is about as important an education as you can get.’”


Eboo recalls the story of Yusuf Islam, who sang under the name of Cat Stevens in the 1970s and was one of his favorite songwriter-singers (spiritual songs like “Moonshadow,” “Peace Train,” and “Wild World.”  When Yusuf converted to Islam he associated with Muslims who told him that music was against the faith, an interpretation that was entirely legitimate.  In the early 1990s, Yusuf came under a different influence and rethought the position on music and faith.  This was during the time of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs while few leaders and nation’s did anything to stop it.  The leader of a Bosnian aid agency called on Yusuf to organize an international concert to support the effort to stop the killings.  Eventually, Yusuf realized that his music could be a powerful tool against oppression, and he started to make music again.


“Under the guidance of Azim Nanji, I learned that Islam is best understood not as a set of rigid rules and a list of required rituals….Frazlur Rahman (of the University of Chicago) emphasized that the core message of Islam is the establishment of an ethical, egalitarian order on earth….It was the ethic of service and pluralism in Islam that I felt most enlivened by and most responsible to.  Starting the Interfaith Youth Corps gave me the chance to put that ethic into action, to feel worthy of the designation ‘Muslim.’  With the help of several established interfaith organizations, I gathered a group of sixteen young people from four continents and six different religions to discuss the basic principles of the Interfaith Youth Corps in the Bay Area in June 1999….We came out of that conference with the three pillars that still serve as the heart of the Interfaith Youth Core: intellectual encounter, social action, and interfaith reflection.”