April 16, 2007

Speaker Stresses Need For Unity Within Islam

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Chairman of the Nawawi Foundation Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah came to speak at Cornell last Friday about the role of American-Muslim culture in today’s world. Abd-Allah’s speech was the keynote address of Islam Awareness Week 2007.
The events of the week were co-sponsored by the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, Islamic Alliance for Justice, Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Department of Government Belnick Fund and the Alice Cook House.
Abd-Allah began his speech by discussing the diversity within Muslim communities in the U.S. He explained that Muslims in the U.S. consist of African- Americans and of immigrants from across the globe.
Abd-Allah spoke about the overall importance of cultures within nations, and went on to state his opinion that there should be a Muslim culture in the U.S.
“Culture is central to community. Although there are many Muslims in the U.S. we are not a community because we don’t yet have a culture to unite us,” he said. “Having a successful culture means having a unified sense of self and community. It’s not assimilation, it’s not integration, it’s not loss of identity — it’s a way of preserving identity so we can be who we are and be proud of it.”
Abd-Allah called the Muslim immigrants “the greatest American success story in the history of immigration.” According to Abd-Allah, per capita, Muslims in America are the most highly educated and most wealthy in the world.
“Human beings are natural creators of cultures, we do this automatically. Consciously or unconsciously, we are constructing a Muslim-American culture already,” he said. The speech brought to light some of the aspects of this culture that, according to Abd-Allah, is being cre ated. These aspects include Muslim poets, stand-up comedians, writers and hip hop artists.
Abd-Allah’s speech was one of the final events that took place as a part of this year’s Islam Awareness Week.
“The purpose of Islam Awareness Week is simply to promote awareness and understanding of Islam as a religion, as well as Islamic history and culture, and to foster dialogue about salient issues related to Islam,” said Shaan Rizvi ’07, president of MECA. “Through Islam Awareness Week, we would hope that people would develop a better understanding of exactly what Islam has to offer not only to those who choose to follow its teachings, but also in a larger way to a pluralistic society such as this one. We would hope that people can see beyond traditional categorizations of Islam and Muslims and recognize that Islam emphasizes peace, charity, good-will, discipline and that Muslims are increasingly becoming part of America’s rich socio-cultural fabric.”
Abd-Allah hopes to create what he calls a “matrix” that will bring together the individuals of a culture.
“Your culture becomes like your instinctive self. You cannot have true spirituality without a culture,” he said.
Abd-Allah was born in Nebraska in 1948 to a Protestant family. He received his bachelor’s degrees in both history and English literature from the University of Missouri and in 1969 came to Cornell to pursue a Ph.D. program in English literature.
After reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a student, Abd-Allah was inspired to convert to Islam in early 1970. He transferred to the University of Chicago to study Arabic and Islamic studies.
In 2000 Abd-Allah became the chair and scholar-in-residence of the newly founded Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation. The foundation works to spread knowledge of Islam and its civilization and provide Islamic guidance for Muslims in America. It also welcomes dialogue and relationships with other religious communities, academic institutions, corporations and advocacy groups that share the common idea of understanding and respect between peoples of all faiths.
“What my foundation is working on is not likely to bear fruit in 50 years. We are looking further into the future. It is important to set the cognitive frames, because your cognitive frames determine what you understand and what you don’t understand,” Abd-Allah said. “Cognitive frames are also interesting in that you can’t attack them; that will only make them stronger. You have to change them, to substitute them with others. The window of opportunity is now open.”
Students who attended the lecture were impressed by Abd-Allah’s perspective on the importance of cultural context to the Muslim community.
“The speech was really interesting,” said David Greenky ’07. “Dr. Abd-Allah showed how diverse Islam is, and how it has the ability to change with whichever culture it finds itself in. That’s important to know because it’s not how most Americans know Islam. Islam is different from the notion that most Americans have of it.”