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Suhaib Webb gives keynote at Islam Week

By Tate Herbert
On March 19, 2012

Suhaib Webb, imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury and "one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the world," according to the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, delivered the keynote address at Islam Awareness Week Thursday night in Rapaporte Treasure Hall in Goldfarb Library. The event was sponsored by Brandeis' Muslim Student Association.

Other events during the week included a lecture, "Islam 101," on Monday, cosponsored by the Brandeis Interfaith Group; "Scarves for Solidarity" on Tuesday, during which BMSA encouraged students to wear hijabs, or traditional Muslim headscarves, during the day and learn more about the tradition at an event that night, cosponsored by Girl Effect; and the weekly Jummah prayer session in the International Lounge on Friday, led by Muslim Chaplain Talal Eid.

Prof. Joseph Lumbard (NEJS) introduced Webb, describing him as a "contemporary educator" who "bridges gaps between Islam and many other things."

Webb, who converted to Islam in 1992 as a college freshman in his native Oklahoma, spoke about his experience as a convert, the challenges facing Islam in America today and the role that American Islamic culture and modernity plays in interpreting Islamic law.

Webb described the social and cultural challenges that he faced during his conversion process.

"We forget that fraternity is an integral part of religion," said Webb, reflecting on his struggle to adjust socially to his newfound faith.

Before finishing his degree in education at the University of Central Oklahoma and his studies at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, Webb worked as a DJ and producer, which his speech reflected with references to artists such as Nas, Beyoncé and the Wu-Tang Clan mixed among passages he quoted from the Quran.

"At times, I think the best way to teach religion is not through theology, but ... to humanize," said Webb. "[Muslims] have a challenge to make our scholarship speak to America." Webb suggested that the religion faces this challenge with more apt interpretations of Islamic law in different cultures, as well as inclusiveness and increased participation in social services and the arts.

"One of the things that pushed me away from religion was religious people," he continued. Webb, who has memorized the Quran, estimated that about 85 to 90 percent of it is written in such a way that is open to interpretation and that much of this depends on culture and what is appropriate in specific situations. "Culture shades meaning in law," he said, referring specifically to Islamic Sharia law.

In terms of extreme interpretations, including those of what he called "the pseudo-jihadists" or "modernists," he said "We believe in the preservation of life... I would say the secular world has contributed to the slaughter of human beings, not just religion."

American Muslims who are grappling with their religion are partly having "an interpretive struggle," said Webb.

During a question-and-answer session with the audience, he addressed this theme again, saying that sometimes traditional religious guidance has failed people struggling with modern times. "Sunday school ain't cutting it, bro," he quipped. "Learning needs to be a give and take."

"I was really happy to see that he was coming to Brandeis," said Noam Sienna MA '11 MAT '12, who attended the event and said he follows Webb online.

"He tells it to us in a way that's not force-fed," said Frishta Abawi '13, president of BMSA. "It was just a nice way for him to introduce what we believe in ... He managed to kind of remind us why we love the religion and remind us what we need to look at rather than what is written in the books."

"We want to let everyone know about Islam, but it is also about embracing all the different types of Muslims that we have on this campus," said Abawi of Islam Awareness Week overall. 

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