Muslims in the West have great potential to affect positive change in the countries in which they live. They have proven themselves to be industrious, intelligent and committed to high civic ideals. The one thing that they lack is guidance on how to effectively utilize these unique qualities in a way that does justice to their religious tradition. The success of Muslims in enriching their societies is predicated not only on proper knowledge, but more importantly on a nuanced contextual understanding of their faith. Mainstream Islamic scholarship has for centuries been preserved in seminaries throughout the Muslim world and it is in the successful transferal of this tradition to the lived reality of Muslims in the West that their long term temporal and spiritual success lies.
Such scholarship not only provides a counterbalance to aberrant readings of primary religious sources, but more importantly empowers Muslims in the West to realize the rich untaped human potential they undoubtably have.
The Solas Foundation in Scotland has started to push this unique model forward, with highly effective educational and community initiatives which provide a clear presentation of mainstream Islamic learning whilst challenging extremist misrepresentations of the faith. The two founding scholars are not only well versed in classical Islamic learning, they also have an acute understanding of the importance of shaping public debate through transformative civic projects from the vantage point of their own religious tradition.
In a world when we are constantly told of the emergence of a Global village, where innovations and ideas pass freely unfettered between nations and cultures, it is easy to become oblivious of the societal imperatives that require our thought and attention at a local level. Be it climate change, the fight against poverty or the search for common civic values, it is the local level where initiatives to address such issues ultimately find root.
Far from being a dismissal of the importance of the global initiatives, this model, through successful and transformative grassroots projects that are informed by authentic Islamic scholarship, affirms a commitment to the global stage.
The foundation is also distinctly Scottish, giving voice to the fact that Islam came not to create a universal cultural norm, but to act as a prism through which local manifestations of spirituality, art and the social space are refracted to show the true stamp of Godsí mercy to Mankind.
We hope that the initiatives it gives rise to will not only serve to empower its participants but just as importantly allow scholars to take their rightful place in the centre of informing public debate on issues of concern not only to Muslims, but the wider society in which they live.
PROFILE: Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah (Wymann-Landgraf) is an American Muslim, born in 1948 to a Protestant family in Columbus, Nebraska. He grew up in Athens, Georgia, where both parents taught at the University of Georgia. His father taught Veterinary Medicine and Organic Chemistry, while his motherís field was English. In 1964, his parents took positions at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where his grandfather had been a professor emeritus of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Abd-Allah did his undergraduate work at the University of Missouri with dual majors in History and English Literature. He made the Deanís list all semesters and was nominated to the Phi Beta Kappa Honorary Society. In 1969, he won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and entrance to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to pursue a Ph.D. program in English literature. Shortly after coming to Cornell, Dr. Abd-Allah read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which inspired him to embrace Islam in early 1970. In 1972, he altered his field of study and transferred to the University of Chicago, where he studied Arabic and Islamic Studies under Dr. Fazlur Rahman. Dr. Abd-Allah received his doctorate with honors in 1978 for a dissertation on the origins of Islamic Law, Malikís Concept of ĎAmal in the Light of Maliki Legal Theory. From 1977 until 1982, he taught at the Universities of Windsor (Ontario), Temple, and Michigan. In 1982, he left America to teach Arabic in Spain. Two years later, he was appointed to the Department of Islamic Studies at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, where he taught (in Arabic) Islamic studies and comparative religions until 2000.
During his years abroad, Dr. Abd-Allah had the privilege of studying with a number of traditional Islamic scholars. He returned to Chicago in August 2000 to work as chair and scholar-in-residence of the newly founded Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation. In conjunction with this position, he is
now teaching and lecturing in and around Chicago and various parts of the United States and Canada, while conducting research and writing in Islamic studies and related fields. He recently completed a biography of Mohammed Webb (d. 1916), who was one of the most significant early American converts to Islam. The book is scheduled for release Spring/Summer 2006 under the title A Muslim in Victorian America: The Story of Alexander Russell Webb (Oxford University Press). Dr. Abd-Allah is presently completing a second work entitled Roots of Islam in America: A Survey of Muslim Presence in the New World from Earliest Evidence until 1965 and is also updating his dissertation for publication.
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