Understanding Religion, Islam through a “calming” perspective

Haroon Moghul has contributed essays to a half dozen major news outlets, written three books, served on the Advisory Committee on Cultural Engagement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and helped establish the Islamic Center at NYU. Impressive. But Moghul would say, “My bio makes me seem like I do a lot of things, but I really just sit on Zoom calls all day. Although that’s everyone nowadays.”

On one of Moghul’s most recent Zoom calls, he was joined by some twenty-odd Etown students and faculty for a conversation hosted by the Bowers Writers House. He wished to discuss something old.

Moghul made a name for himself when he landed in the unenviable niche as a spokesman for Islam — right after 9/11. Appearing on news shows to help calm the waters during a disastrous time for Muslims in America, the pundit’s mental and spiritual states underwent great strain. Of being in the public eye in the capacity he was, Moghul would “not recommend it.”

To cope with pressure and prejudice, Moghul sought relief through writing. His book, a tongue-in-cheek memoir called How to Be a Muslim, was in some ways an exercise of self-healing. Moghul discussed this work at the Bowers Writers House six years ago.

Not catching a break, Moghul’s book tour coincided with another all-eyes-on-the-Muslims event, the 2016 election. Without missing a beat, the writer began to pen a second book to unwind from the stressful scrutiny of selling the first. This volume, titled The Future of Islam is in Your Hands, works to introduce Islam to a mainstream audience.

Moghul’s presentation at the Bowers House focused on a single chapter which summarizes a story from the Quran for a modern audience. The author found great comfort in this narrative during the low points of his spiritual journey. While he hoped to do the story justice, he noted this was the first time he had tested his material on a public audience. And so, the guinea pigs listened to the tale.

Moghul explained that before our world began, a jinn named Iblis was one of God’s most pious servants. So holy was Iblis that he prayed to live forever so that he could live to pray forever. But then God created Adam. Iblis became jealous when God selected Adam to become his representative on Earth. Iblis exacted revenge and planned to convince God that Adam could not be his representative. From here, the story follows about the same beats as its biblical version with Iblis assuming the form of the snake in the Garden of Eden.

The principle difference is in God’s reaction. As opposed to the original sin idea — that humanity is sullied forever because their distant ancestors ate an apple the God of Islam takes a more forgiving approach. While he still casts Adam and Eve out of paradise and onto Earth, he forgives them. He admires that they took the initiative to admit their mistake and beg for forgiveness. In trying to prove Adam could not be God’s representative, Iblis proved the opposite.

This, says Moghul, is the difference between man and the devil. Man can admit his wrongdoing and grow. The devil cannot. Moghul takes this story to heart. He believes nobody is perfect but that we are capable of improving ourselves and others — to become better citizens, better Muslims, or just better human beings.

This was an enlightening lecture. That Allah was more forgiving with Adam than the Christian God was something that passed by many. It probably passed by most Americans in the last two decades where our dialogue of the whole religion has been consumed with raving terrorists and stereotyping fear-mongers. Moghul says the intent of his career has been to inject some calmer ideas into a conversation that has become “shrill and harsh.” 

Moghul’s event, a wonderful example of theological storytelling, also points to the under-appreciated role of the Bowers Writers House. This little building on the far, far end of campus (you have to walk across a field to get there) hosts scholars from any and every discipline. The director of the house, Dr. Jesse Waters, says his job locating and talking with such a vast array of interesting people, makes him, “the luckiest guy on the planet.”

Dr. Leigh Shannon Haley-Mize, interim director of the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking, enjoyed Moghul’s lecture and is grateful to Waters for booking the writer. As Etown reorganizes to focus on interdisciplinary work, Shannon Haley-Mize believes the highly generalist Bowers Writers House has “great potential” to bring departments together. She looks forward to collaborating with Waters in the future. With any luck, perhaps this partnership between departments can help bring a little of Moghul’s quest for self-improvement to the College.


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