Feb. 24, 2007 -- "Go to the source: If you want to know about Islam, talk to a Muslim," said Imam Dawud Walid Friday evening, speaking at the University of the Virgin Islands.
The Islamic cleric spoke for more than 90 minutes in a wide-ranging discussion and question-and-answer session on the nature of his religion. "If you want to learn, go to the Muslim community right here in St. Thomas."
Walid, 35, encouraged people to engage with Muslims, to ask questions of each other: "If you wanted to learn about Hinduism, you wouldn't go to a Muslim, would you? Don't let people like Pat Robertson explain or define Islam to you."
When questioned about the role of women in Islam, he smiled and deferred to the Muslim women in the room. "They are not oppressed, and they can certainly speak their minds," he said. "They can talk about it themselves."
Those present in the audience loudly affirmed the point.
Raymond "Brother Sulyman" Francis, president of the local mosque, Masjid Nur, hopes Walid's talk will be the first in a series to introduce, explain and expand Islam in the territory. Walid, visiting from Detroit, spoke both from notes and extemporaneously about many different subjects, including Iraq, Somalia, Darfur, the Sunni-Shiite conflict and the state of Islam in global politics.
After a full day of speaking at different venues and leading prayers at the mosque, the focus of Walid's evening talk was "extremism." He had spoken earlier in the day at Charlotte Amalie High School in a program called "Choices, Chances and Consequences: Charting a Course to Success."
"I did not really talk about Islam this morning, but more on how to succeed as a human being," he said.
But Islam deals with all aspects of life, he said.
"The goal of Islam," according to Walid, "is balance in one's spiritual, intellectual and material (financial) life." Extremism in any one of these areas is to be avoided, he said.
Walid spoke about aspects of Islam that are universal to all religions and those that are unique to the faith. It is monotheistic, a holistic way of life, and Muslims follow a code much like other religions in terms of ethics and social interactions. They agree that there is a natural order to the universe. Where they differ -- for instance, in abstaining from alcohol -- they acknowledge and accept spiritual and cultural differences.
As in other faiths, Islam adheres to strong non-violent, charitable tenets. It stresses the equality of men and women. In Walid's opinion, problems have been exasperated by various governments and by the media: "It is a misinformation, a disinformation campaign."
Walid went into detail about the misunderstandings of certain words, such as "jihad," saying it means "struggle." It is misconstrued and mistranslated as "holy war," according to the Imam, who speaks fluent Arabic. He described two kinds of jihad, the first a struggle against an oppressor, and the second the internal struggle of day-to-day life to be a better human being. Learning Arabic had been a personal jihad, he said laughingly, a struggle, but one with great rewards.
Walid described growing up in the Christian church, but discovering Islam in his teens through such diverse means as hip-hop artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubians and books, citing The Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of his major influences.
A Navy veteran, Walid served in Bosnia, where he worked with the Muslim population. He also visited Haifa, where he observed the lives of Palestinians. "I agree with 85 percent of what Jimmy Carter said in his latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Walid said. "I got the book the first day it came out. I don't know what else you can call it. It is just like apartheid."
Walid is considered a leading voice for American Muslims and serves as executive director of the Council On American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national civil-rights organization. His knowledge of Islamic history is extensive, and he was able to give perspective to historical events ranging from the Moorish rule of Spain to the Holocaust and the current situation in the Middle East.
"The Muslim world is asleep," Walid said. "All the Arab nations just sit back and do nothing with their billions of dollars. The only leader to speak up for the Palestinians is a non-Arab. He is a Persian (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) Iranians are not Arabs, and he is the only one to say anything."
Muslims are not monolithic. There are different interpretations by different communities like Sunni and Shiite. Walid spoke about Islamic fundamentalists, but stressed that fundamentalism has nothing to do with violence.
"Remember that the Amish and Quakers are fundamentalist Christians," he said. "They don't have TVs, radios or cars."
There are Muslim groups that are similar, following a more puritanical way of life. To emphasize the difference, he offered this example: "They would not like me wearing this tie, because this is not proper Islamic dress."
Walid admitted that there was infringement on personal rights in certain parts of the world, but said, "That's not Islam; that's cultural backwardness."
To learn more about Islam, Walid recommended various websites, including the site for his organization, CAIR, and islam.com. He also recommended Bridges TV, a 24/7 network delivering Islamic programming.
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