Imam Dr Khalil Abdur-Rashid

Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University; Instructor of Muslim Studies at Harvard Divinity School​

This post is Part 1 of an online book panel on Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination. This online dialogue is hosted by the Christian-Muslim Studies Network.

From the outset, Martin Nguyen’s work, Modern Muslim Theology, attempts to ‘develop a Muslim theology of engagement’, no small order of business. The work eloquently calls for a reformation of Muslim theology in light of the new conditions affecting believers (specifically Muslims) relating to engaging with God and the modern world. The work challenges the way Muslim theology is studied, taught, framed and applied. Given the needs of the American Muslim community, this challenge, along with the questions it raises, facilitates the need for greater discussion about what it means to be a Muslim in an era when adherence to Islam specifically, can be perceived as a potential security or public health threat.

I have had students come to me in my capacity as a University Chaplain and ask why God did X to them? As an Imam, I have had to address communal and individual issues related to suffering, healing, gender norms and doubts afflicting believers. In my former role as Resident Scholar of a mega-Mosque, I have encountered congregations who understand faith and prayer as simple rituals, nothing more. In my experience, many American Muslims are strong believers in God yet somehow have fallen away from active cultivation of their faith. Many students, parents, and general community members alike struggle to answer basic questions about the God they believe in. This is not only a shortcoming of the believer but also a symptom of how belief has been transmitted to the Muslim community in America.

Modern Muslim Theology is an excellent step in addressing this problem. The work offers areas of opportunity to rethink theology and challenge faith leaders and scholars alike to popularize theology, thereby bringing it down from the ivory tower in which it was cultivated and domesticating it for both personal and mass engagement.

The book may be divided into three broad areas that deserve significant attention and raise important questions about how a new Muslim theology of engagement may begin to be formulated. Martin’s use of the term ‘engagement’ is critical and essential to the objective of his project. In attempting to keep that spirit, the three areas I divide the book into involve three distinct areas that challenge us to think about engaging God (or responding to God’s call) in various ways.

‘How do we deal with the impact of divisive language in modern Muslim theology?’

The first pertains to what I call, ‘the Language of an Engaging Muslim Theology’ which, if taken to further extents, yields some profound questions for the construction of a modern Muslim theology. I group chapters one and five of Modern Muslim Theology into this category. The core theme of engagement here, in my view, relates to what it means to be human – something classical Islamic theology does not address but takes as a given. Yet this is a profoundly fundamental question for American Muslims. Martin’s assertion that the worship of God is what it means to be human, raises important questions for modern Muslim theology. As outlined in chapters one and five, engaging with the Quran through language and practice is a part of worship. How then does translation affect such engagement? What effect does translation have on the reader’s horizon and their pursuit of a greater experience of becoming human? How has translation of the Quran affected how we live and therefore how we express ourselves in the world and engage with God? This dialectic between God and believer is mediated through another believer (the translator).

American Muslims are the only people to have ever received the Quran in its entirety through translation. Arabs, Persians, Turks, Indians, Africans, Egyptians, and Kurds have all received the Quran through the Arabic language. American Muslims, however, have received the Quran through English translation, first and continually. Language is essential to who we are. It is also essential to how we understand faith and God. When the pronoun for God in the Quran is translated as ‘He’ or when Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib says on social media that, for her Allah is a ‘she’, then how should this be addressed in modern Muslim theology? How do we deal with the impact of divisive language in modern Muslim theology?

‘For many believers who are enduring great suffering, who struggle with mental health challenges or addiction, or find themselves emerging from a tragic loss – how is modern Muslim theology deployed to help them imagine a better, brighter future?’

The second area is what I call, ‘the Imagination of an Engaging Muslim Theology‘. This would combine the questions that are derived from combining chapters three and four. In these chapters, the element of rediscovery, as articulated by Nguyen, is central to the questions I have that emerge from thinking about the Ka’aba and the Quran in newly imagined ways. For Muslims, the Ka’aba and the Quran are sources for spiritual healing. How can modern Muslim theology address the need for spiritual healing as well as spiritual cultivation? For many believers who are enduring great suffering, who struggle with mental health challenges or addiction, or find themselves emerging from a tragic loss – how is modern Muslim theology deployed to help them imagine a better, brighter future? What use is belief in Heaven when all you can perceive is Hell around you? How should modern Muslim theology facilitate a believer’s quest for an imagined world of peace and serenity in the midst of turbulence and trauma? Furthermore, and less dramatic but nonetheless pervasive, how does modern Muslim theology address the rampant crisis of the absence of cultivation of faith which produces an atmosphere of doubt about God? What are the ways the modern Muslim theology can inspire believers to engage in a quest for certainty in this age of doubt produced by secularity? In the midst of war and trauma, can modern Muslim theology re-enchant a disenchanted world?  

‘In the midst of war and trauma, can modern Muslim theology re-enchant a disenchanted world?’  

Finally, the third area I term ‘the Response of an Engaging Muslim Theology’. This would combine questions arising from chapters two, six and seven. What does responding to God look like in various contexts, such that believers become theologically engaged? The notion of sacred resistance and prayer reimagined as protest is quite powerful and particularly moving. How do we continue to posit the prayer as more than just ritual? This relates to the larger question for modern Muslim theology – the question of the reduction of Islam to just a religion as opposed to perceiving Islam as a fully engaged way of life, an existential posture. When a way of life becomes reduced to simply ritual, then meaning is amputated, and imagination becomes stifled and replaced by the mundaneness of routine. How can modern Muslim theology create opportunities for believers to rediscover their rituals and Islam itself in new ways – such that they find meaning in advancing social justice causes and participate in meaningful civic engagement? How can modern Muslim theology, through prayer as both a pillar of Islam and a motif for protest and confrontation, address people’s desire to not be silenced in the face of injustice?

In conclusion, I believe each of these three areas calls for its own independent study, perhaps even independent books in their own right, that would further delve into the questions, challenges, offer suggested answers towards the development of a modern Muslim theology that remains consistent with tradition, yet ready to engage with the many challenges that continue to emerge from the nature of our social context.