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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Interpretation is focus of Imam talk

Published: March 16, 2012
Section: News

As part of the university’s first Islam Awareness Week on campus, Imam Suhaib Webb, the Oklahoma native who converted to Islam as a college freshman and was named as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, told the Brandeis community about his struggle to find culture in a new religion and reconcile religious values in American life during a keynote address Wednesday evening.

In a lecture filled with jokes and references to American rap artists, Webb explained how Islamic faith can coexist with American culture.

“One of the things that pushed me away from religion was very religious people,” Webb said. “As an institution, we believe faith is extremely important.”

Webb explained that “religion as a whole is on the ropes,” facing growing criticism in the media. He views the challenge of Islam as seeking to preserve the value of faith.

Discussing whether “Islamic law [can] function within American legal framework,” Webb said that 85 to 90 percent of Islamic law is actually open to a range of interpretation.

He said that although progressivism can encompass a diversity of viewpoints, it requires understanding religious texts in the context of present circumstances.

“I have found the universal [law] … but then how is that going to work with America?”

Explaining his own conversion experience, Webb said that he felt challenged to uphold his new religious values and teachings without sacrificing his American culture and sense of belonging through music and sports.

“In many ways you can amputate certain cultural aspects of your life” when you convert, Webb said. “The reality that we’re dealing with … is people are spiritually unstable.”

Yet Webb found that converting to Islam did not, in the long-run, force him to neglect culture and community. On the contrary, he found that adopting the new religion provided a sense of wholeness and belonging in his life.

“I think sometimes we forget that fraternity is an integral part of religion,” Webb said.

Other events sponsored by the MSA and other clubs this week included “Scarves for Solidarity” on Tuesday where students wore headscarves to classes, an art and poetry event in Mandel on Thursday evening and a prayer session in the International Lounge on Friday led by Muslim Chaplain Talal Eid.

Throughout his lecture, Webb voiced optimism about the connection between religion and progress.

“We have a lot of things to do. All of us are very young. We stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.