An interview with Muhammad Abdul Latif
Muhammad Abdul Latif is the imam of Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland, California, and an instructor at ILM Tree, a home-schooling cooperative in Lafayette, California. He also teaches at Zaytuna College's annual Summer Arabic Intensive program in Berkeley, California.
Abdul Latif converted to Islam in 1995 in Atlanta, Georgia, when he was 20 years old. He subsequently traveled throughout the Muslim world and, in 2002, relocated with his family to the San Francisco Bay Area to take advantage of the resources of knowledge and the community that had formed around Zaytuna Institute.
Mr. Abdul Latif joined me in an interview to discuss the cancelled plan of Dove World Outreach Center to burn copies of the Holy Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks. We also discussed a variety of issues concerning the Islamic world including the growing wave of Islamophobia in the west, the plight of the Palestinian nation and the mainstream media's portrayal of Islam.
Kourosh Ziabari: An evangelical church in Florida announced a plan to burn copies of the Holy Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks. Although the church subsequently retreated from its decision following the eruption of global anger against such an immoral plan, what's your take on this announcement and its roots?
Muhammad Abdul Latif: We have always lived in a state of perpetual anticipation or awareness of possible danger. Our 'culture of fear' as it has been coined existed before 9/11 but as result of that terrible incident that experience of the world has become ultra-vivid. The upside of that scenario is that it makes us better consumers. When we are uneasy we will by products that claim to relieve our tension. We purchase devices that will help us just plain escape. We shop to numb the pain of our mundane lives. We have a very peculiar relationship with "stuff". The proof of that is the remark that George W. Bush made for us to "go shopping" within days of the fall of the Twin Towers, so that we would show the world that we were still resilient nation.
Considering that materialist incentive to make people uneasy, what is then, truly frightening is when our religious leaders, who are supposed to help us transcend this worldly domain and set us free from the bonds of the cycle of the consumerist society we live in are apparently more afraid, erratic, reactionary, exhibitonary, and generally immoral than their lay constituency and use religion as a way to project their own fears. That applies to all faiths. That kind of interaction with God and His creation is antithetical to the very essence of the spiritual life, regardless of its various possible forms.
A small, virtually unknown church in Florida has become a world renowned institution in a matter of days. Its pastor has become a celebrity. If they wanted their message to be propelled to a higher playing field, they certainly attained that objective. They clearly understand the power of fear and they have our attention. Ironically, using intense fear as a means of coercion, which is in this case to force a recall on the idea of building a 15-story community center is a desperate act of terrorism. Obviously, the advantage that they have over other fear mongers, at least at this point, is that they still have the option to disengage. We all pray that they have mercy and do the right thing.
KZ: We're witness to a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West. Although the number of conversions to Islam is increasing, we're seeing that the governments and politicians in the Western countries are taking measures to counter the growth of Islam. What's your idea about this phenomenon?
AL: Phobias are very common in the West. Many people experience an exaggerated or even illogical fear of things and scenarios. Islam as an ideology, as some mental image, fancy or thing of the imagination is a thing worthy of fear, as are most things when misused. However, Islam as a religion is as complex and particular as life itself with all its various nuances. To over simplify the Muslim and their relationship with the world, then, is a gross objectification of some 6694.89 million people. But, then again, it's much easier to hate that which is unlike you i.e. human.
It is true that the numbers of those who are embracing Islam are growing, but the multitude of those who have adopted the worldview that the highest objective of life is in material well-being and in the improvement of material progress for its own sake is much higher, by far.
So, it seems natural that people, who hold such high esteem for power over physical objects or the potential to do so, would try to counter the growth of a people who are, ideally, speaking positioned dead against that modality of life.
KZ: The Holy Quran has strongly advised the Muslims to respect the followers of other religions and their prophets. Would you please explain for us the reasons why Islam has given such an emphasis to respecting the other religions and their followers?
AL: People of faith generally believe that all creation is God's property. We also make claims to love God. How can we make such claims while not having any concern or respect for His property? So, due regard for other religions and their follower's is only the proverbial "tip of the iceberg". This relationship requires us to honor all aspects of life according to its due right. Otherwise, we would be oppressive. It's not until we establish that fact deep into our hearts and manifest it from our limbs that we can even begin to draw close to the Divine.
KZ: The Western mainstream media are trying to portray a distorted image of Islam. They introduce Islam as a religion of violence and aggression and depict Islam to their addressees fallaciously. How is it possible to respond to their propaganda and inform the public opinion of the reality of Islam and its peaceful teachings?
AL: The responsibility to educate America falls on our shoulders. We have to speak for ourselves and define ourselves. The reason why those media sources and reports that do in fact try to vilify the Islamic faith and its adherents get so much headway is due to the simple fact that the Muslims in America had been virtually asleep before 9/11. So, when the onslaught of misconceptions about Islam began to be spread deliberately furthering the agendas of a few, there wasn't any substantial alternative. We had been virtually non-participant in our society at that point and were operating on the fringes.
The reality of a thing can't be conveyed by abstractions. Without the space -time continuum "Islamic teachings" are nonexistent .There is nothing real about a concept in a book. It has no life until it is actualized in one's own instant. In short, Islam manifests through people whose actions and deeds give it life. So, the only real effective response for the propaganda and misinformation is for us to be what we claim i.e. Muslim.
KZ: Unfortunately, many Islamic states are divided on a number of issues, embroiled in redundant conflicts and rivalries which are harmful to the notion of Islamic solidarity. How should the Islamic Ummah draw and end to these conflicts and realize a sustainable solidarity and cohesion on the basis of Islamic pillars?
AL: A pillar is a firm upright support for a superstructure. Islam is the upright path. So, the pillars and the superstructure are, ironically, essentially the same in our religion. The straight path then, pillar and structure are all built on ten concepts as mentioned in Surah al An'am (Q.6:150-153). That is avoiding shirk ,abstaining from lack of philiopiety, not killing in a way not prescribed by Sharia or abortion due to fear of poverty, and leaving of indecency, both publicly and privately, etc. If we were united on these principles as a community then we would be unified on the straight path. That's how God once described the Muslims when He said: "You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah" (Q.3:110)
So, the only way to stop being petty then is to become of service to mankind and actually do what we were sent here for. Until that time, we will continue to be preoccupied with lowly ambitions and aims.
KZ: What's your viewpoint about the ongoing catastrophe of Palestine? The Israeli regime kills several Palestinian civilians each day and adds to its hostility and belligerence towards the nation of Palestine in an unjustifiable and inhuman manner. What's the solution to the question of Palestine? How can the Islamic Ummah end the ordeal of the Palestinian nation?
AL: There are many conventional humanitarian efforts that we should engage in to attempt to physically change that precarious situation in Palestine for the betterment of all involved. Recourse to the means though at times can lead us to depression when they look bleak. Inwardly, the Muslim must be convinced that the power and ability to do anything lies ultimately with God. He knows exactly what is happening in that troubled land. He has total control. If we ever had any ability to act or produce an effect in this world it has been through our invocations. When we consider that the supplication of the oppressed is answered and that calling on God is the marrow of worship, then why would any soul be sleeping in the late hours of the night for any reason other than heedlessness? He will answer us when He wants, but our job is to ask. It makes Him angry when we don't. To not request indicates a sense of self-sufficiency in the slave. That is an oxymoronic life to lead.
KZ: Finally, please share with us a useful and beneficial advice of the Holy Quran which can help us excel in our daily life, get nearer to the Almighty God and improve our cognition and knowledge of the Universe which we are living in.
AL: I advise myself and all those who would aspire to live a life of felicity in this world and in the next to learn how to be the servants of God. They are those who are drawn near. They are those who are cognizant and have knowledge. They understand that knowing the Creator of the Universe is the goal of life.
And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me. (Q.51:56)
Ibn Abbas, may God be pleased with him, stated that the meaning of this verse is "and I did not create the jinn and mankind except to know Me". So, as far as he was concerned, may God be pleased with him, knowledge and worship where the same.
A worshipper or servant obeys commands and the most essential of orders lies in this verse: Know, therefore, that there is no god but Allah (Q.47:19)
The excellence we can have in our daily life is to strive to have this intimate awareness of Our Maker and then capitalize on that relationship by invoking Him night and day to guide the rest of humanity to the path that lead us to that eternal bliss.
And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me - indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided. (Q.2:186)
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