I pray you are well! It is hard to believe that two years ago this month, in January 2021, we arrived in Ohio from California with all of our belongings and our 100,000+ book library packed in boxes, and immediately jumped into our Project Illumine mission full-force, presenting two intense, several-hours-long halaqa classes per week as we began working our way chapter by chapter through the entire 114-chapter Qur'an. At that point, we already had eight surahs (chapters) under our belt from our last months in Los Angeles - a pilot run of sorts, where Dr. Abou El Fadl flew a "test balloon" by seeing how people responded to his sharing his personal relationship and journey with the Qur'an - turning his private world of reflections out onto a public online forum, open to the world for full view. Those who were with us at that point were amazed to see what a scholar's private engagement with the Qur'an looked and felt like. It was a world that we would not have been able to access on our own - understanding the Qur'an with a scholar of the caliber of Dr. Abou El Fadl as your personal "tour guide" has been simply unparalleled. Imagine effectively "re-learning" - or perhaps learning for the first time - what God's Book has to say to us in our time as Dr. Abou El Fadl points out all the various side paths of discovery along the way and translating the "street signs." How valuable is the journey when the Shaykh tells you, "I spent countless hours researching this tradition and that tradition and these reports and found X..."? Or when he gives us the historical context of what the prevailing norms and understanding were at the time of the Prophet or other times in history - so we can understand the context and time of the revelation to better understand the revelation itself. We just recently started watching "Game of Thrones," (yes, late to the party, I know!) which illuminated how important context and prevailing norms are in understanding meanings. In "Game of Thrones," chopping off heads, considering women as chattel, or meting out justice without evidence was commonplace. Imagine in the midst of a similar backdrop that a man emerges with a message of justice, morality, equity, the need for evidence to convict, and equal rights and duties for women to name only a few of the Qur'anic prescriptions - and transforms that world! As silly as that may seem, it did help me to understand how the Qur'anic message was truly transformative for its time. Yet, at the same time, what we have been learning in Project Illumine proves that the Qur'an continues to speak to us NOW, with prescience, intimacy, and the insight of a loving Creator.
Two January's ago, we knew what we intended to do, but in many ways, did not know what to expect. We started on this Project Illumine journey in Ohio with Surah 52: Al Tur, recording and uploading every class to YouTube, and did our best to invite people to join us on this road of discovery. Fast forward two years, and we have completed 91 surahs, some surahs requiring multiple sessions - like Surah 2: Al Baqarah requiring 14 sessions to complete! People at all points in their own journeys found us along the way. On our end, we had no idea if, when, or how people would find Usuli unless they wrote to us to tell us - and what stories we have heard! We are grateful to have been instrumental to the many people who have written to let us know that the work we are putting out at Usuli has made a difference in their lives. Many have shared that this Usuli approach and understanding of the Qur'an has allowed them to reconnect with their faith or make sense of our world or give them a renewed sense of confidence about being Muslim. These messages in turn have given us hope and the encouragement to keep going, especially when it sometimes would feel as if no one was listening nor cared about the Qur'an anymore.
Yet just as telling about our state of affairs as Muslims are the messages we receive from people who have found us in the midst of crises - those who are confused or frustrated with the status quo, losing their faith, searching for answers, and sometimes in a desperate place. Countless people write to ask if they can meet or speak with the Shaykh. We receive so many messages, questions, and inquiries, that it is simply impossible to answer them all, which is why for so long, it has been one of my habits (often irritating to the Shaykh!) to try to record as much as I can of the knowledge he shares with others - everything from classes and lectures to interviews and casual conversations and even car-ride conversations - and somehow make them available! I have a crazy inventory of recordings that needs organization, study and publishing, but that is another story all together!
From Usuli and before, we have a TON of content that is available online at www.usuli.org and at the online archive of much of Dr. Abou El Fadl's work at www.searchforbeauty.org. Many of the most common questions we get are more than addressed; the answers are all there, between the khutbahs, halaqas (circles of learning), and Q&A's we have held over the years, not to mention the extensive body of scholarship that Dr. Abou El Fadl has published. In fact, I believe it is more than fair to say that this entire body of work is its own school of thought. It is the approach or methodology or outlook that we teach at Usuli that has allowed me to remain a committed, proud, and passionate Muslim as a convert of 29 years, living in a rabidly Islamophobic age. So when we get messages requesting meetings or asking questions of the Shaykh, I often first try to direct people to this extensive body of content available for free online. The answers are all there, but the challenge is the investment of time. People want fast answers for everything in our world, and religion is no exception.
This week, I received one such message, a plea for help from someone struggling with their faith, asking for a personal conversation with the Shaykh. I always feel bad when I have to explain that Shaykh is overwhelmed with demands and simply cannot give a one-on-one meeting to everyone who wants or needs one. I shared all the various resources we have made available and an explanation of our content online and offered to help give some guidance about where to go for certain topics if they could give me more specifics about what they were grappling with. In response, I received a number of questions. I suggested that I could perhaps address some of those questions in this weekly email in case others could benefit, to which they agreed. And as always, I must begin with the necessary caveat that I am only offering my own opinion based on my own experiences as well as my learning from Dr. Abou El Fadl. I am not authorized to speak for God, Islam, Muslims, or Dr. Abou El Fadl! :) So for whatever it is worth, hope this might be of some help to someone somewhere:
Q: I have several issues with my faith some of which are listed here but they stem from the feeling that I should not believe in something exclusively because I was born into it. Most people retain the faith they were born into and think it is the truth. How can I say these people are wrong all the while I am doing the same thing as them? Retaining a faith I was only born into. This, in itself, makes me doubt my faith since I ask myself: Would I believe if I were born at a different time and place?
You are absolutely right that being born into a faith is hardly reason enough to believe in it nor think that it is the truth. As a convert myself, I personally believe that every human being should go through their own faith exploration - especially heritage Muslims. Seeking God, knowledge, and Truth - and questioning faith - are all necessary explorations that lead to growth and understanding. Speaking from experience, I believe that if you seek God with an open heart and are willing to invest the time and do the work, God will lead you to the answers you need. If you are starting out with the presumption of being a Muslim because that is where you were born, then hopefully, you are starting out believing in a loving God, free will and personal accountability, and the Qur'an as God's Book, which further delineates belief in God's consistent message to humanity through all of the prophets with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) being the last in the line of Abrahamic prophets. If that is not your starting point, then it is important to figure out where your starting point is and work from there. You should absolutely question and explore everything to your satisfaction, and sincerely ask God to guide you every step of the way to the Truth. If you are uncertain about God, then that is the best starting point - building a relationship with your Creator. The key to everything for every human being, I believe, begins and ends with their personal, loving relationship and connection with God. From there, all things can become clear.
Q: One of my issues is 'Abrahamic centrism. We often forget that there are other religions and beliefs other than the ones born in the middle east based on the Abrahamic heritage. It seems to me that there is no historical data that corroborates the Abrahamic religions in other parts of the world. Every part of the world seems to have grown some kind of religion with a completely different set of beliefs that don't trace back to an original 'Islam'. If I were born in Japan, what would make me convert to a religion completely alien to me based on the preachings of people in faraway lands I have never seen? Furthermore, there are multiple foreign religions and all say the others are liars? I have no way of knowing who to trust more than the other but they all tell me I may go to Hell if I don't choose their religion. And all of these people's religions seem to come from one small geographical area, which was only a small part of the world even when their religions came about. How can I be sure that it is the real truth and not just a particularly successful lie? After all, Muslims will say everyone else is wrong, at least to some extent.
To get to the Truth, it is necessary to get beyond the impressionistic and invest in learning. God's Truth is not limited by geography or place of origin. It is recognizable and intuitive through the heart and intellect. It is like recognizing goodness and light as opposed to darkness. However, many people recognize the truth and do not want to embrace it because it can challenge what people are comfortable with and make life uncomfortable. It demands that people do the right thing and act ethically, especially Muslims. But the reality is that we will all die and meet our Maker (a fundamental truth if you are a Muslim), and will be held accountable for our actions in this life. If you believe this, then it is wise to be proactive now. If you are not sure about this, then you have two choices - either figure out whether you believe it and act accordingly, or ignore it and hope for the best. It is your choice.
Q: The Quran often mentions the signs of God in the Universe, be it the creation here on Earth or the stars and planets. I get the impression that these are supposed to be irrefutable signs and anyone who looks at them should deduce the truth, however, I see that a large portion of the scientific community, some of which I work with, who frequently contemplate these things and do not necessarily deduce the same things, rather the opposite. How are we supposed to interpret these verses then?
It matters what you are looking for and what you want to understand. As Muslims, we understand that seeking knowledge is among our most important priorities, and again, we must move beyond the impressionistic. Clearly from your question, seeing the stars and planets is not an irrefutable sign for you to deduce truth, and in your experience, in the stars and planets, some people can see science while others see proof of God. Our journey with the Qur'an at Usuli has taught us that all knowledge and all creation comes from God, and with that knowledge comes certainty of God and so much more. It took a lot of learning, reflection, and a serious investment of time to arrive at that certainty. The pathway to that understanding is open to you. It is up to you whether you want to invest your time in seeking that understanding, or if you are fine with the status quo.
Q: Why is Islam the truth rather than anything else? Why should I believe that Muhammad PBUH was the greatest man to ever live when I have never met him and the records of his life and his companions' have a high probability of being severely biased due to Muslims not being serious about writing down their own history.
The answer to this question lies in the quality of your understanding of the Qur'an and your belief in God. After the Prophet Muhammad passed away, no one would meet him in this life again. Instead, God left us with the Qur'an, our inheritance after the passing of the Prophet. We are currently engaged with Surah 5: Al Ma'idah, which was the last surah revealed, through which God left Muslims with the final message of what to do to preserve God's message and faith after the Prophet passed. It is mind-blowing, especially after having done deep dives into 91 other surahs before Surah Al-Ma'idah. (As a side note, to your earlier question, one of the amazing take-aways from Surah Al Ma'idah is that with regard to the other monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Christianity, while others among the People of the Book have different rituals, our core message of light and ethics from God is the same. God will settle the differences between us on the Final Day, as it is clear in the Qur'an.)
Our learning through Project Illumine has demonstrated the consistent thematic ethical unity of the entire Qur'anic message and proven the depth, vibrancy, and profundity of the Qur'anic message for our lives in 2023. I believe that the crises of faith that Muslims today are experiencing come from a lack of understanding and connection with the Qur'anic ethical message. I didn't know I could have access to that message in a way that would resonate with my life until Project Illumine. We have been deeply and intimately engaged with the Qur'an in this way for the past two years, and while it seems like a daunting investment of time, I would testify that for anyone who truly wants to know what the Qur'an has to say to us and to make sense of the world we live in - and to understand what God is calling for us to do as ethical human beings, then there is no better way than through this learning. Nothing of value comes without effort, commitment, and the investment of time.
Q: What are the best sources for learning about contextual Quran? As in the occasions for the revelation of each Ayah. I understand this might be a tough ask, but I would be grateful if I had somewhere to start.
It is not a tough ask. :) Project Illumine is the best source for understanding the contextual Qur'an. It is Dr. Abou El Fadl's personal journey with the Qur'an, which he never intended to share with anyone - and allowed him to explore and research without the burdens of expectation or judgment from others. He explored every avenue to satisfy his own curiosity - his scholarly obsessions made him focus on what was happening in the time of Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims when they received the revelation, how they received the message, and how the message ultimately transformed them. The Qur'anic message transformed them from desert dwellers to civilization builders. How? Dr. Abou El Fadl takes us through this exploration, gives us the full picture, makes the apparently non-sensical make sense (why some scholars have argued certain things), and ties up so many loose ends. It has left me with an understanding of my tradition that is liberating and empowering, and given me a connection with the Qur'an I never thought I could have. It has been life-transforming for me and so many others. I would suggest you start where we started: Surah 57: Al Hadid, and work your way through in the same order we followed, since the learning built upon each surah as we progressed. Dr. Abou El Fadl would pray (istikhara) on which surah to present next, which is how the order of surahs was determined. I hope these answers are of some help! May God guide and bless your journey and lead you to the best way always!
I am so excited for tonight's Project Illumine halaqa installment of Surah 5: Al Ma'idah, Day 6! Hope to connect with you online soon insha'Allah (God willing)! May God surround you and your loved ones in light, love, beauty, and mercy always!