I’ve often been critical of Islam, though I hold many individual Muslims in high esteem. Here is an article from today’s Washington Post, though, that does a great job of highlighting some of the problems with Islam in America – and the sort of person who might be able to help the Muslim community in this country become more modern and more American. The young man in question is Adeel Zeb, and he sounds like the sort of individual I would like to see in the pulpit of most faiths.
His theology is upbeat. He emphasizes what he sees as Islam's wisdom, the successes of Muslim Americans in sports and politics, and the need to boost Muslim self-esteem in a time of increased prejudice. A favorite topic is interfaith relations, in particular the importance of Muslim Americans being ambassadors to other communities.
Zeb prefers the middle ground in most disputes, focusing on cultural context and not on orthodoxies about who keeps more halal or whether online chatting with someone of the opposite sex is ever acceptable.
"Find an imam you trust, and if what they say is in accordance with what your heart thinks is right, go with that," he tells students. "But don't try to find someone who will please your desires."
But Zeb's tolerance has limits. Preaching to Georgetown students in mid-February, he tells them not to celebrate the holidays of other faiths. During a Koran study session a few weeks later at American, he walks a fine line when a student asks: Can non-Muslims be righteous? Are they doomed to hell?
"It's God's choice," Zeb says after circling the question a bit. "There can be non-Muslims who go to heaven and Muslims who go to hell. It's an individualistic thing. Every person has to account to God."
The problem, though, is that his age is an obstacle to getting hired by most mosques, and he has not memorized the Quran from start to finish and is not fluent in Arabic. And since there is no sort of central body for training and placing imams in this country, it remains hard for native-born Muslims of his generation to get hired in a mosque.
But interestingly enough, Zeb may have the sort of vision to do something about that.
Zeb's future remains unsettled. Although he's pursuing interviews with mosques across the country, he's exploring alternatives, including opening a center to train Muslim chaplains for universities. He's open to politics. Or being a professor and spiritual motivational speaker.
For now, he says, those might be more viable options than becoming a full-time, home-grown imam.
I like that suggestion about training Muslim chaplains. That is the sort of project that could get Zeb and his brand of American Islam a way in to American mosques as the younger generation of native-born Muslims rises in influence in that faith. What’s more, it could be that such a project would be the basis for creating that central body for training and placing American imams in this country And much like a younger generation of American evangelicals have made that brand of Christianity more relevant to life in modern America without compromising the essential truths and wisdom of two millennia of Christianity, it seems that Zeb may be the very force that does the same within the Islamic community – for the betterment of both his faith community and the United States.