My Simple Minded World

What I learned at RIS 2008

Posted in Religion by Omar Ismail on December 28, 2008

This was my first RIS Conference (Raising the Islamic Spirit) and I have to say it was much better than I was anticipating. While there were some talks on standard introductory Islam (manners, marriage, etc) a lot of the talks were focused on Tariq Ramadan’s “Radical Reform”. I’m not in tune with modern Islamic intellectual discourse, so this might be a bias sampling of Shaykhs and Imams, but it appears that the new trend is that as Muslims in the west it is OK to integrate (not assimilate), and contribute to the societies in which we belong.

I’m not going to go through each of the lectures and give a summary, instead in this post I’m just gonna talk about what I learned particularly since many of the lectures referenced each other and expounded on similar points and themes. Also while I wrote this blog post as if these are my thoughts that I believe, I still haven’t fully analyzed them and determined if I fully agree with them or not… I’m just jotting down what I *THINK* I understood, so if anybody wants to correct me in my understanding feel free! God Willing I’ll also be picking up Tariq Ramadan’s book to make sure I’m getting the ideas down correctly.

Obviously the big theme that I took away from the conference is this Radical Reform mantra. This is how I understand it:

There are a lot of problems in the world, and societies that we live in, Muslims should bring together experts in their respective fields (medicine, economics, technology, law, physics, etc) with Muslim scholars to strengthen our spiritual and intellectual weakness and generate transformational ideas, practices and policies to solve and improve these problems for everyone – Muslims and non-muslims.

There are a lot of problems in the world.  I don’t think I need to explain this phrase too much. Climate change, Crime, War, Terror, Economic Bankruptcy, Slavery, etc. These are major global forces in the world that are destroying people’s lives. And even locally there are problems, something like Canada’s parliamentary issues, or even more locally with the educational or transportation systems. These are all problems that can be solved/improved with Islamic thinking and ideas. And this doesn’t mean an all or nothing approach where the Muslims take over the government and run everything entirely by Islamic law/practices. Instead we can apply Islamic lessons to each situation to improve each problem.

Strengthening our spiritual and intellectual weakness. This was really focused upon by Imam Zaid Shakir, who made some really great points. He used yesterday’s Israeli attack on Ghaza to highlight what he meant by strength and weakness. Essentially, the rockets that some Palestinian fighters launch into Israel serve no strategic purpose; they don’t really kill anyone, and don’t cause much damage… however, what they do in reality is give Israel a psychological pretext to use disproportionate and overwhelming force in response. He states that the Israeli thinking goes “While these small rockets don’t do much damage, if these people got big rockets/bombs they would use them to wipe us out, therefore we must wipe them out before that happens.” And that’s when you see 160 people dieing in one bombing attack.

Zaid Shakir states that instead of focusing on military strength, as it is a wild goose chase/false path, Muslims should be focusing on strengthening our spirits, souls, and minds. And eventually the power of Islamic ideas and practices IN REALITY will be so compelling and alluring the people will convert on their own. He mentioned two examples one during the time of the Prophet (AWS) and one with the Mongolians. The prophetic example was when Prophet Mohammed (AWS) travelled to a town to call them to Islam, this was in the early days of the religion, and the town’s people treated him with absolute brutality driving him out of the city with sticks and stones. Instead of consenting to have the angels destroy the town he let them be, and the town’s next generation was entirely Muslim.

The Mongolian example is when the Mongols under Ghengis Khan and his ilk ravaged the core of the Islamic world with their overwhelming military might. The Muslims didn’t beat the Mongolians militarily, they got rocked. However, because the Muslims at the time were spiritually and intellectually strong within two generations the Mongolians had all converted to Islam. Now in the eyes of history who is the winner of that war?

Bring together experts and Muslim scholars. This point really hit home to me, since I’m not a Muslim scholar and don’t think I can become one. The underlying point behind this phrase is that you don’t need to be part of the “Ulema” or religious scholars to BE a scholar in Islam. If we limit the concept of “Scholar” to those who study the text, shariah, and history and rely solely on them for the answers the Muslims will always be behind in the world because it is impossible for a person to be both an expert in religion and an expert in other fields such as Economics, Law, Technology, etc. Therefore the solution is to get the field experts talking with the religious experts to share their knowledge and move forward.

Tariq Ramadan gave a good example with the medical field. In Islam the concept of organ donation isn’t clear cut because of some issues (keep in mind I don’t know much about this issue) including those surrounding the concept of “death”. When is a person dead? When is it ok to remove the organs? Which organs are permitted to be used? I think in Western science the concept of “death” differed from that of traditional Islamic thinking and therefore there wasn’t many Muslim organ donors because they didn’t want their organs removed before they were truly dead. So now the medical experts and religious scholars are coming together and defining ok, what does it mean to be dead? When is the brain truly inactive? These are questions that religious scholars cannot answer on their own.

Generate transformational ideas, practices and policies. It is an integral part of Islam to attempt to make life and the world a better place in all aspects. The world “transformational” is important here because it implies being ahead of the curve. It means introducing NEW ideas to improve the systems and institutions that govern our lives. What this also means is that we must be experts in the CURRENT systems and institutions otherwise we’ll constantly be playing catch-up. And transformational doesn’t mean totally scrapping the old and replacing it with entirely Islamic systems, we work and contribute to the systems and institutions that are already established to modify and improve them.

For example, if Muslims are only seeking to implement Shariah they will never be happy with Canadian law until it is entirely Shariah (Islamic law). However, if this is the approach, it will never happen. Instead we should look at the wisdom contained in the Shariah and use the lessons to transform and improve the Canadian legal system to benefit everyone. To reduce the number of false convictions. To reduce the strain on the tax payer. To reduce the inefficiencies and injustices that are contained within.

improve these problems for everyone. This is one of Tariq Ramadan’s points that he kept on hammering down.  Dr. Abdul Hakim Jackson was another speaker that reall really emphasized and clarified this point. The Islamic way isn’t to just worry about Muslims, it’s to worry and solve problems for all of humanity. Islam is a universal religion, and the teaching and practices are beneficial to everyone whether they follow/believe in the 5 pillars or not. For those of us living in Western countries we should stop thinking of ourselves as minorities. Stop thinking of ourselves as Other. Stop thinking of ourselves as a different culture.

We are Canadians. We are Americans. We are Brits.

And this means legacy of Canadian actions isn’t “another’s” legacy, this is MY legacy. When Canada goes into Afghanistan and does things I disagree with, I can’t just sit here and denounce them like it’s somebody else’s government. This is MY government, and if I want to influence them then I need to be a part of that system and contribute to it, not subvert and undermine it.


The speakers went into even more detail in HOW we can do these things and I’m sure it’s pretty much all covered in Ramadan’s book. One of the big points that Tariq Ramadan talked about is being confident in our Islam. When you’re confident in the religion then you will be able to communicate and think about topics far more effectively. However, being confident in ourselves mean that we must EDUCATE ourselves, we need to read, and be more active. Ramadan places a lot of onus on regular people to do more. This is something that I agree with whole-heartedly.


Other Lessons

Some of the other issues discussed that I took away was Imam Shakir’s 3-fundamentals of the religion: faith, hope and love, also being more intelligent/strategic about dawa (calling people to Islam).

Shakir summarizes the 3 fundamentals:

Faith – I believe that God exists and can/has created a place called Paradise and Hell.

Hope – I believe that God will let me enter Paradise if I’m good

Love – I love God for doing all that.

In regards to Dawa one of the big things is doing it the proper way. If you just come to a person and say “You’re doing this wrong. You’re doing that wrong. Become Muslim!” you won’t get anywhere. My friend Abdullah explained how the Prophet Mohammed (AWS) spent the first 13 years of his prophethood just explaining to people that there is ONE God. That’s it. And it’s once people were strong in their faith that the more day-to-day rules and responsibilities were introduced. Another interesting point that was made by Hanaan Turk was how people always focus on what God has made unlawful, and not what God has made lawful – which comparatively speaking is MUCH more.

I also appreciated getting the opportunity to see/hear Maher Ahrar and his wife Monia Mazigh talk. I’ve been loosely following the Ahrar case on the radio, so seeing them speaking just brought things more into reality. I bought her book too so that should give more insight into the whole story. As it stands the authorities really messed up and abducted the wrong guy. Not because of him, but because his wife Monia Mazigh is a bad-ass that wouldn’t take the injustice sitting down. I think she is an amazing role model for Muslims everywhere, not just women but for men too!

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