As the Friday evening rush hour set in around the DC beltway, I and hundreds of other Muslims battled through traffic, which more than doubled my travel time to get to the ADAMS Center mosque in Virginia. I arrived before the event and helped a parent carry in some boxes of Girl Scout cookies before making my way toward the gymnasium/multipurpose event room.
Before I even took off my shoes, I met an old acquaintance who said that the room was full and that we might as well make our way upstairs to the overflow space in the musalla. For a moment I considered trying to squeeze my way in but instead reluctantly decided to go upstairs knowing that the experience would be inferior. And it was, although, I give the organizers props for trying.
A television monitor, a bit on the small side, had been setup with close circuit feed to the program downstairs in the gym. The camera appeared as if it were placed on the furthest possible wall at the highest possible angle so we couldn’t really make out any of the main speakers. Some extra speakers had been brought in to amplify the sound so at least we were able to hear if not see.
Dr. Jonathan Brown, a hadith scholar at Georgetown University, opened by highlighting some of the pitfalls he sees in many western universities, which he described as having “sterile” and “amoral” environments. In such settings, moral thinking based in religion is often seen as an impediment to progress and enlightenment. According to Brown, most academics are afraid to weigh in on the political and moral issues of the day fearing a backlash or being accused of trying to “force” their personal convictions on others.
For a Muslim student raised in environment of black-and-white morality and where a spirit of inquisitiveness is not encouraged, a college environment, which does not nurture their faith can lead them to question everything they believe or had been taught to believe. According to Dr. Brown, this is one reason many colleges began as religious institutions that had a strong moral framework.
Dr. Brown hopes that the Muslim community can pool its resources to create more institutions like Zaytuna College that can build up and pass on wisdom for future generations of American Muslims. Through these institutions, the Muslim community can show the rest of society the values contained within the Islamic tradition.
Yahya Rhodus began his talk by translating some lines of poetry: “Make knowledge an excuse and don’t make other things an excuse for knowledge. And know for certain that knowledge and worship are the means of felicity and salvation. And that is what will remain for you in the next world so purify and cling to that.”
Today, many young Muslims feel at a loss spiritually and are not sure how to respond effectively to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. Rhodus emphasized that having a holistic knowledge of the religion is key to navigating our situation as American Muslims. Knowledge can help the believer understand the context of generalized Prophetic principles, which remain constant, in light of the underlying changing circumstances of today.
Hamza Yusuf praised the ADAMS Center as a model American Muslim community but cautioned the audience not to become complacent by mentioning a narration from Abdullah Ibn Umar: When a believer is praised, he works harder, because he knows it [the praise] is always more than he deserves but when a hypocrite is praised he become lazy because he is pleased that people think good things about him.
Yusuf then reminded the audience that the religion of Islam is based on knowledge. The revelation of Quran began with the word Iqra, which means to read or recite and that this knowledge is a gift given from Allah. Knowledge can raise a people and communities in ranks but only if we remain humble.
In some narrations of the famous hadith “Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim,” Yusuf explained that some scholars added the words “wal muslima” so that everyone would know that learning is obligatory for both men and women.