Professor Hussein Rashid discusses his work, perceptions of Muslims, cosmopolitan ethics, attitudes towards faith, materialism, and religious and cultural literacy.

The.Ismaili is pleased to bring you Sahil Badruddin’s exclusive interview with Dr. Hussein Rashid. He discusses his work, perceptions of Muslims, cosmopolitan ethics, attitudes towards faith, materialism, and religious and cultural literacy.

Sahil Badruddin: How long have you been involved with religious education as a teacher, an al-waez, and on the academic side as a professor and writer?

Dr. Hussein Rashid: My Jamati service has always been about religious education. My family was one of the first to move to America, to New York. My parents and my mother’s extended family and I were very involved in the REC in Queens as a student. But I think sometimes we think about religious education in a very structured way which is the REC. I grew up in a very small and new Jamatkhana and a lot of what I learned about religion came through our service. How did we build the Jamatkhana, how did we care for the Jamatkhana? What happened in Jamatkhana, besides rituals and formal programming?

Jamatkhana became a place for us, as kids, to hang out. It became a social space. That was an important part of my personal religious education. That’s when I started serving as a Junior Volunteer and as a Boy Scout, things I tried to pass on to younger generations. Of course, this is all hindsight, but that to me is also religious education. In a more formal way, I probably got involved in a broad category of religious education through the Al-Ummah program where I joined as a scholar and as a director.

I took over the original Al-Ilm program which was geared for high school students. The current Al-Ilm program is for an older age group. I helped, with professor Ali Asani and Shiraz Hajiani, something called the College Program on Islam (CPOI) for this age segment. I was involved in curriculum review for Camp Mosaic, for the younger kids. As you've mentioned, I’ve done lots of youth programs in Jamatkhanas, hosting youth discussions, Islam, including delivering waezes. So this is something that really, comes out of my family’s tradition and history of service.

This has been ongoing for, nearly almost over two decades now. Regarding my academic career, I started teaching at university level in 2007 in various institutions around New York City, including Hofstra University, and now I’m at Barnard College at Columbia University. I’ve also been at Fordham University and SUNY Old Westbury, including a couple of seminaries: an Episcopal seminary, a Rabbinical seminary. These experiences have a lot to do with the way I look at the world.

Sahil: On the academic side, what kind of subjects have you taught over the years and what has been your most memorable?

Hussein: I’ve taught a variety of courses. I do comparative courses such as “Life, Death, and Immortality,” “Christianity and Islam,” “The History of Christian-Muslim Relations,” as well as more Islam-focused courses, “Introduction to Islam,” “Islam in North America,” and “Sufism.” I’ve also done a small seminar on “Music of the Muslim World,” and a seminar on Shi’ism. I’ve done courses on political Islam, “Islam and the Post-Colonial World,” and I’ve started teaching a new course now on “Religion and Popular Culture.”

I’ve also done “Classic Texts of the Muslim World,” so in terms of academic study of religion, it’s been very Islam-focused with a little bit of comparative work. When I was at an Episcopal seminary, Virginia Theological Seminary, I offered a course on biblical stories in the Qur’an. For Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for several years, I was offering or taking part in a course called “Islam for Rabbis,” which was trying to introduce Islam to rabbis and how to prepare for living in a multi-faith world, doing religious work in a multi-faith world.

I always feel like I’m learning from my students, but I’m very excited by the “Religion and Popular Culture” course right now because it’s new for me. I really like the Shi’ism seminar because it allowed me to dig into some history and texts, and pushed some of my own research that I was working on at the same time. Those were probably two courses that are really memorable.

Sahil: Over the past decade, we’re actually seeing a growing number of courses and programs in Middle Eastern studies and Islamic studies. Has there also been substantial progress to increase courses on the diversity within Muslim traditions, particularly from the Shia perspective?

Hussein: I think there's been a real increase in the visibility of courses related to Islam, particularly, after September 11th, in the United States. A lot of the survey data indicates the number of courses is not actually increasing. It just seems like there is a greater visibility. What happened is that a lot of places confused Arabic studies and Islamic studies, and so they would say, "We want an Islamist who can teach Arabic.”

That is like saying, “Well, we want somebody who can teach French language and Rene Descartes because he speaks French.” Yes, there is some connection, but it’s a very distant connection and it doesn’t really do justice to the Islamic tradition. So, was there an increase in Arabic studies? Yes. In Islamic studies? No, it doesn’t really seem to be the case. There’s definitely been more interest on the part of students. One of the things that we have to be careful of, is that this is tied to a geopolitical event, that is 9/11, and the ongoing and continuous and possibly perpetual war on terror.

Terror equals Muslim in a lot of the American imaginary. Edward Said, who was a professor at Columbia University wrote a very influential book, almost 40 years ago called Orientalism, where he talks about the ways in which we construct ideas of Islam or the Middle East to exert control over it. We always have to be careful what we’re reading about this part of the world. And his other book Covering Islam, he talks about the religion of Islam.

What we read about this part of the world or the religion, how much of it is how Muslims understand themselves, and how much of it is useful to people in power to achieve certain ends are important questions. Whether it is colonialism, building military bases, funding despotic regimes, these are things we have to be very careful about when reading. Even if we do see an increased interest in this area of the world, does it actually benefit our understanding of Islam and Muslims in the world or does it benefit somebody else’s purpose?

In terms of the question of diversity of what’s being taught, one of the things that I think has been interesting within the academy, is whether we should be offering specific courses on Shi’ism. The short answer is, yes, we should, but should everybody be able to do that? That’s a bit impractical. How do we adjust the teachings of Islam so it is less Sunni-centric and more representative of the diversity of what it means to be Muslim, whether that is about Shi’ism, Sufism, Wahhabism. Because I think a lot of people conflict Wahhabi Islam with Sunni Islam.

How do you integrate the Nation of Islam or Ahmadi Islam into a discussion of what it means to be a Muslim? And I think there has been a real push within the academy to try to think about introducing Islam that is organically more diverse. It’s a slow process, but I think it is happening.

Sahil: Talking about ideas, what have students found interesting when you, particularly, discuss the impact of Muslim traditions and cultures in the United States and the West on western literature and music, arts, etc.?

Hussein: The biggest impact that students have had when I’ve talked about the cultural impact of Muslims in the United States has been on contemporary music. They listen to a lot of Muslim artists and don’t realize that they’re Muslim. They may listen to Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. Even though he begins his album with Bismillah, they don’t recognize that he is Muslim, and the same with Lupe Fiasco. Most recently, A Tribe Called Quest released a new album in 2016. A lot of people didn't realize that they were Muslims, or even Dave Chappelle, who is a comedian.

They recognize names like Mohamed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but they don’t recognize current football players in the sports world. Hamza and Husain Abdulla gave up their NFL careers in order to go on Hajj; Shaquille O’Neal is Muslim and also went on Hajj. So, I think those are things that are always surprising to them.

Sahil: You gave a talk at the Michael Carlos Museum of Emory University in 2011 on “Everyday Art: The Islamic impact on American art.”

In this talk, you spoke about how American popular culture, architecture and literature—the arts that we engage in every day—reflect the cultural diversity of American Muslims and help shape the way Americans understand themselves. You say, perhaps the least understood of these influences is the cultural impact of Muslim communities in America.

Given this impact, how can the arts and popular culture be used to break negative stereotypes and help change the perceptions of Muslims in America and the West generally?

Hussein: One of the things we have to understand is that, when we look at the ways in which Muslims have been dehumanized in the American context, it is not unique to Muslims. We see this with other minority groups, with other marginalized groups. That marginalization can happen because of race, because of gender, because of sexuality, because of class, and so on. I think that once we understand that, we understand that the ways to move past that marginalization is to acknowledge it exists. So, it's not about our personal benefit, but it's about the benefit of our community, and it can't be the benefit of our community at the cost of somebody else's community.

The arts show us ways in which communities and cultures interact to generate something new, to humanize us as creators, to allow us to tell our stories, and allow us to then change people's minds by having them say, "Well, if somebody can create beauty, how can we say that they are not human?" I think that's something that we often forget that we are taught as Muslim. There is a hadith where it is reported Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) said that “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”

When we engage with that beauty, we are not only manifesting the Divine, but we are also declaring and expressing our own humanity. When we started dealing with Islamophobic rhetoric after 9/11, there were people saying, “Well, if people knew the history of Muslims, everything would be okay.” The thing is you can give people a lot of information, but if they have a story that Muslims aren't American, that Muslims are violent, no amount of information is going to change that. You need to change the story that they are being told. You need to give them a counter-narrative, a counter-story using that information.

By the time Muslims addressed this, the discourse, the ways in which we talked about Muslims, had changed. Islamophobia is a type of racism in my opinion. Racism is not something that we are going to outgrow as a people. It's something that is inherently part of us, and it's something we have to contend with and struggle with. Racism adapts to the new environment. So, every time you think you have stopped racism one way, it will adapt and evolve in another direction. So, we constantly need to be expressing ourselves in a variety of different ways.

Some said, "We should do a Muslim Cosby show," because that helped integrate Black people in America. But Black people were brought over as enslaved people, they've been here for centuries, and we are only thinking about integrating them 300 years after the fact, and we are still dealing with Black Lives Matterhow successful was that? Or we look at Will and Grace and the ways in which some media critics say it helped make same-sex marriage more acceptable in America and allowed it to become law of the land. That may be true, but the ways in which that worked actually no longer work for Muslims anymore.

We need something new. We can't just be copying what happened before. We have to be learning from it, building on it, and developing it. That, fortunately, is a core part of our theology. That our tradition is important, we need to honor it, we need to know it, but we have to build on it because our current situation, the world in which we live, is very different from the world in which we lived in even a year ago. If we are not advancing that religion, if we are not engaged with our religion and the way it functions in the world, then it's really a museum object. It's not something that impacts the way we live our lives.

Sahil: Are there any other solutions you might provide to Muslims or other such groups to be more effective in changing perceptions, like you said, through the popular culture but maybe perhaps through other means?

Hussein: Well, if we take seriously the idea that the story that is told about Muslims benefits somebody, the first question we have to ask is, who does it benefit and how does it benefit them? Because that gives us an important understanding of how we need to respond. If we can offer somebody else a similar benefit that doesn't hurt us, or if we can point out that, "Hey, this person is benefiting while the rest of us are suffering," it allows us to build alliances and make connections.

The second part of that is, how are the structures built that allow some to benefit? Again, I want to turn Edward Said, the Columbia professor, who talks about the perception of Islam is defined by three major institutions: the media, higher education (academia/scholarship), and government and government-related organizations.

Do we have people in these spaces? In media, in academia, in government institutions, that can give a different perception, a different knowledge base of what it means to be Muslim? Who can give that and have the influence to have their opinions, to have their input make an impact? If we know that these are the spaces where our story is being told, and we're saying, "We don't want to get into the spaces to tell our own stories," our stories will never be heard.

There are very few other channels where we can tell our own stories. Social media at the end of the day is essentially media; so we need to think whether this is the most effective space to be in or is it a stepping stone for us to get into mainstream media to leverage our stories, and tell our stories with authority and authenticity, so that people understand who we are.

If you want to look for solutions, is there a silver bullet? No, but I think we have to think about the culture in which were engaged in and how are we supporting each other to get there. I will tell you a story because it's had a real impact on the ways in which I think about community-building. I am an academic, as you know, and education is not monetarily valued in this country. Some would say it's not even socially valued anymore, but economically, it's not a high-paying profession.

I have an Ismaili friend who is involved in the business world and involved in politics. He said, “I'm going to these events, I’m contributing to these fundraising dinners. I don't know how to speak to people about Islam or what it means to be Muslim.” So, he would invite me and pay for me to go to these events. I had the knowledge but not the economic means to go, while he had the economic means but not the knowledge. That's really what community does. It’s not that everybody's going to do everything, but how do we take what we do best and help other people do what they do best, and build that way.

Sahil: Religions share similar core values and ethics, and humanity in general shares the same desires and worries. In this spirit, wouldn't it be productive to explicitly lay out a consensus? Perhaps “universal code of ethics...ethics for all people stemming from the world's great religions… Cosmopolitan Ethics” to borrow Hazar Imam’s terminology.

He said that this dialogue would also include non-believers because we are talking about human society, and as this cosmopolitan ethic is a consensus, its source would be the shared values of the world's great faiths. So perhaps Cosmopolitan Ethics is essentially the intersection, not the union of everyone's ethics. It's what we all agree on, not what we all like.

How do we create this consensus to put into action, so we can have a sense of ultimate direction, and does everyone even recognize a need for this, due to the current political global situations and even antipathy towards other cultures?

Hussein: The idea of trying to bring together world traditions to sign off on a charter of ethics is an admirable goal, and I think different religious leaders have tried to do this in small groups. This is not something that the common believer can invest in; it has to come from people like the Imam, the Pope, Chief Rabbis, Muftis, Councils of Churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to try to generate this now.

There was an attempt by Karen Armstrong, the scholar, and religious thinker, to do something she called the Charter of Compassion. It was an admirable task, and it caught a lot of attention, but we saw what happens when you don't get, for structured traditions, in particular, their religious leadership involved or invested in it early on. It can have a groundswell effect but it doesn't necessarily have that institutional support that makes it actually a topic of conversation or impacts the way people live their lives.

You can have people on the ground agreeing to one thing and not having institutional support. You can have the institution saying something that's really admirable but not making it down to the average believer. What we need is something in the middle. I don't know what that mechanism looks like because that's a very tall task, but it seems in part that that push has to come from very senior religious leaders. The Common Word Doctrine, which tempted to look at Christian-Muslim relations during the time of Pope Benedict, I think is one example of this - of institutional engagement, where they are trying to make a grassroots impact through ongoing conversation and publication. Again, I don't see it really reaching into the lay audiences of Muslim and Anglican communities, and Catholic communities as well.

I have thought a little bit about this and can see where the problems are—I'm just not smart enough to know what the solution is. I think that people are recognizing the need for something like this. I think that religious voices have a very important part to play in the world today. Not only as a personal matter for spirituality and spiritual fulfillment but as a way to say, "Our goal should not always be about the acquisition of wealth."

There's nothing wrong with earning money. We have been taught that, but the question is, what do you do with the money? When is the money, when are the material goods, enough? After taking what we need, and giving to charity, how much more do we need? When do we say that money and material goods are the end goal in and of themselves? It’s when we want money for the sake of money, or just for material display, that we have to ask ourselves if our personal balance is not weighted properly.

You forget people's humanity when you want to create, let's say, an industry, like self-driving cars, and free people from labor. That's great, but if the result is that those people you free from labor now live in poverty, have no dignity, have no hope, have no ability to care for themselves or care for others, what you've done is destroy their humanity. Our goal should be to think about, how do we free people from labor, so they can be more thoughtful, more reflective, more spiritual, and working more in a way that pleases them for the benefit of society and the people around them? I think those are the conversations were not having because religious voices aren't present in this mix.

Sahil: According to the latest study from the Pew Forum, around 27% of Americans self-identify themselves as non-affiliated or non-religious, which means they believe in some form of spirituality and the Divine, but don't really identify with one particular religion. Within that, if you are actually under the age of 30, there's a higher chance you are in the non-affiliated camp.

Why do you think there is a sudden increase in the non-affiliated group?

Hussein: I have to spend a lot more time looking at the Pew Forum methodology. I have to wonder that if we did a similar survey and similar method, 30 years ago, would we have received the same responses? To use this word cosmopolitan, does a more cosmopolitan American society, does a more diverse American society, impact that? Would we have seen cities that were more diverse, would we see similar rates? As the countries got more diverse, would more people say they are not affiliated because they may have interfaith partnerships, or they are now more aware of different religious traditions and are not comfortable with them? I think there are a lot of assumptions that are working backwards from what the data says, rather than trying to understand how we get the data.

The late teens 20s, 30s are important periods of self-discovery and self-identification, where people are saying, "Well, I don't know if I'm Catholic or Anglican or Episcopalian or Buddhist, or reform Jew or Sufi Muslim.” I think we also have to understand what's happening in this age group, what's happening to the demographics of the United States. The comfort people have in saying things publicly may actually have been true a generation ago, but people aren't comfortable saying today, so I want to be very cautious in saying there's a sudden increase in this spiritual but not religious category.

At the same time, I think we have to be conscious of the fact that, a lot of people seem to not want to affiliate with the church or synagogue or a mosque or a temple because they don't feel that that religion speaks to them. It will tell them how to perform a ritual which is an absolutely important part of that religious tradition. It will tell them broad moral edicts, don't steal, don't murder, but how do I understand the fact that I am living in a world where I can't afford to buy basic necessities for my family? So, I have to find the cheapest product that I can, and in order to do that, that means somebody else isn't getting paid a living wage which means they can't afford to take care of their family. How do I live in this world? What is my religion telling me about that space? What is my religion telling me about how do I survive; how do I find hope in a political moment where a lot of people don't find hope?

What is my religion telling me about racial protest in this country? Do Black lives matter and is that something we should be talking about, or is our religious tradition simply silent on the value of lives that aren't our own? Are our ethics only conditional? I think that that's where we see a lot of people turning away from organized religion and that they don't find religion speaking to the needs that they have at the moment in a very specific way, but only in the most general sorts of ways. If people feel that their religious leadership is not speaking to these issues, then they think their religion has nothing to offer for timeless morality and ethics and is therefore irrelevant.

Sahil: Based on your personal experience with working with Muslim communities, and even the Ismaili community, do you see the same thing happening with people born in American Muslim families, particularly the youth?

Hussein: I absolutely see the same thing happening. From an economic perspective, there are people who have to decide; do they work or do they come to Jamatkhana? I don't mean work in the sense that I work an 80 hour a week or 120 hours a week in Investment Banking. It is, I work at a minimum wage job and if I take three hours to go to Jamatkhana, that means that I will not earn enough to buy my family dinner the next day. Those are real decisions that people are making. How do we address that?

Within the youth, they have to say, "Well, I need to work to support my family. The economic struggle is real amongst other things, but we also see youth who are saying, "The Jamatkhana experience doesn't speak to me." Here, I don't mean the language. Whether they understand Gujarati, Kutchi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian. It's not about the language of ritual, although many of them will frame it that way.

I can understand that there may be a reluctance to admit this reality or to say that simply because I have not witnessed it that it cannot be true. Yet, the Imam has been telling us for years that we need to deal with ultra-poverty; it affects us, both within the community and outside. The question we must ask ourselves is that when we do not see something, does that mean it does not exist, or that it is simply hidden from us?

What they are saying is that “there's nothing of that experience that resonates with them, and what do I learn out of this experience?” Now, again, it's important to have that community feel, ritual happening together as a community, but can we have waezes that talk about contemporary ethical situations in the specifics that will help members of the Jamat navigate some of the questions that they are trying to deal with. Or is our faith simply silent on questions of living our ethics aside from: “do good”?

I think we have to name that, and I think we have to accept that this is a space where we need to think more deeply. Again, conscious that we don't want to take a stand—that's not necessarily the issue—our faith is a faith of intellect, it is a faith of personal exploration, but that doesn't mean we can't give guidance or instructions as to what is important to us as a community. So, this is really, I think, where we find some members of the Jamat struggling and trying to think through, “how does this faith speak to my life today?”

Sahil: Do you still see, generally, that the experience of being a religious person is still confined to just ritual practice, as you mentioned, just coming to Jamatkhana because it is much broader than that?

Hussein: Absolutely, and here I'm speaking very specifically from the Muslim tradition, a committed believer is living their faith at every moment. Is that taking out zikr tasbih when you have a moment? Yes, it is, but it's also in your demeanor, in your bearing, the way you interact with other people, where you choose to invest your time and your energy. These are all expressions of faith as well, and it's not limited to the walls of Jamatkhana or Jamati programming. It is about living that life as consistently as possible in all aspects of your life.

Sahil: Another challenge especially in the west that people face, people of religion face, not just Ismailis, and particularly the youth, is the influence of atheism, secularism, and a growing antipathy towards faith, that religion lacks intellectual merit.

It feels as though religion is fighting a losing battle, an ideological tsunami or as Hazar Imam said during the Seerat Conference, “as if we are surrounded by a foreign fleet of cultural and ideological ships.”

Given your decades of work again, what, if anything, should be done to create a robust response to this antipathy towards faith?

Hussein: When we look at a lot of western philosophical interventions, particularly post-Enlightenment, we have to be very careful what it is we are adopting. A lot of people talk about secularism as an ideal, but really if we look at secularism as it emerges in Europe post-Enlightenment, it really is a substitute for faith, instead of looking at the church as the organizing principle of life. It's the nation-state that becomes the organizing principle of life. Instead of giving your loyalty and your mobilization to some clerical figure, you are now giving it to some representative, a Duke or a congressman. Your goal is not to serve God but to serve the nation-state and die for the nation-state, rather than to live your life in serving God.

I think we have to understand that secularism is a competing type of religion. Now, does it give us things like separation of church and state that allow freedom of religion? Yes, within boundaries, and we have to recognize those boundaries. We have to be very careful that sometimes people say, "Well, I'm a secularist," which means I'm not religious, when in fact what they are saying is, I'm following a religion that doesn't believe in God. It's a different type of religion which is distinct from atheism or humanism. I think we have to be very clear about that.

What all of these competing systems do - competing here I don't mean just atheism, humanism, and secularism, but I mean Christianity, Judaism, Islam—is that they have different modes of rationality, they have different ways in which they see the world. The ways in which we see the world will still make sense, it's rational. Another person will look at the world as irrational. That actually is one of the things that we have to be very conscious of. That our rationality can be different than somebody else's rationality.

This comes back to question of the Cosmopolitan Ethic. We can agree that the premises in which we look at the world, and therefore the results of how we act in the world may be different, but if they're consistent with each other, within that tradition, they're rational. What's happening is that we are being told that religion is irrational because one of the basic premises of religion is that you are believing in something you can't see, which is the Divine.

Arguably, that's the same premise for secularism. You are asking me to believe in something I can't see which are borders of the world. These borders don't actually exist. These are things that somebody tells me exist. There is a leap of faith in the nation-state as well. So, we've got to understand that somebody is trying to tell us that we are irrational and setting up a way in which they can dominate us. In fact, we are dealing with these competing rationalities. How do we learn from that point of engagement, that point of friction, and again produce something out of that?

It's that old Sufi adage that, you only make the pearl when you are irritated. So, let's be irritated by this but how do we make something constructive out of this? In my mind, the way you create that pearl is by being firm in who you are. I see this question really as being related to the question of the Cosmopolitan Ethic, and the question of spiritual but not religious, that you asked. Because it is important to recognize our commonalities, but it should not be at the cost of our particularities. So that if we are saying, “do good and we all believe in doing good,” that's wonderful and this is true. But at the same time what we prioritize as Muslims in terms of doing good may look different from what somebody from a Jewish tradition would prioritize in terms of doing good.

That's not a good thing or a bad thing, it is simply different. If we can't express those particularities, why we exist in that way, why we do things we do, why it is important for us, then that generic platitude of “do good,” actually has no meaning because one person's good is taking all the money for themselves, and another person's good is taking money and distributing to the people so that they can live a life of dignity.

I think that this is something that we really have to engage with, in looking at how to build community, how to think broadly, how to make ourselves relevant, how to deal with competing rationales, competing systems of power - not run away from who we are, or not to revel in ignorance, our own ignorance of who we are, but to embrace who we are, and to become more knowledgeable, in order be more grounded to have these deeper conversations that are productive.

Sahil: This is really the essence of pluralism as well. On a more personal level, any particular advice or message you would give to the youth in general?

Hussein: The one thing that I have always urged participants in my programs to do is question. Question me, question the Jamati leadership, question anybody who tells you who you are or tells you what it is you should believe. The only person who has that authority is the Imam. Just so there is no misunderstanding, although the Imam gives the leadership guidance, I'm speaking here about questioning from a general standpoint anyone telling you who you are and what it is you should believe. But again, you should question not to tear down, but to build up. To understand better, to understand more deeply, to figure out who you are.

Simply because something is on some webpage or some interview on television doesn't mean that it is the truth. It doesn't mean that it is the final word. It is a point for you to begin your exploration. If you take information that doesn't come from the Imam and say that this is the truth, this is what it means to be Ismaili, what you have done is you've abdicated one of the most important tenets of the Ismaili tariqah which is the use of your intellect to figure out how to be Ismaili.

Use God’s guidance as revealed in the Qur’an; the teachings of the Prophets and the Imams; the authorized lessons of the Imams. With that information, that we believe to be foundational, seek other information that deepens our understanding, but understand that it is not at the same level of truth. Only the Imam can define what it means to be Ismaili, but he has blessed us with the ability to make a way for ourselves. We should not abuse that gift by treating Google as the same as we treat a Dai.

If there's one bit of advice it's always, always to question and to think more deeply, and to never be satisfied with the first or the third or the 20th answer you get, but to always question.

Sahil: It is the continuous personal search here.

Hussein: Exactly.

Sahil: You have on various occasions heavily critiqued materialism, again a deeply increasing aspect of a secular society. So, while not debating of whether something does or does not exist beyond the material world, could you speak about the dangers of materialism for humanity in general?

Hussein: When we think about materialism when I use the term, I'm talking about the acquisition of goods and wealth. From my perspective, and really working off some of the teachings of Imam Ali (alayhi as-salām) in Nahjul Balagha, collection of some of his teachings, is to understand that when we become attached to objects in the world, that the acquisition of objects in the world becomes an important end for us rather than a means to an end, then we give attention to the world, when we should be giving attention to God. Again, the acquisition of comfort is not inherently a bad thing, right?

We would like a nice bed, we would like a nice home, we want our kids to get a good education, but how much is enough? And how much of that is being given to spiritual progress? Here I don't mean just questions of our charitable donations or supporting Jamati programs, but also are we working enough to give ourselves the time to go to Jamatkhana? Or are we working so much because we are saying we can give more?

It's a difficult balancing act because both of them are acts of faith, but thinking about what is actually spiritual development versus how much are we working simply to stay alive, which is a very different question. Materialism can easily become a distraction from polishing the mirror of our soul. That's one trap of materialism.

The other trap of materialism is that it gives us a sense of achievement and accomplishment, often very immediate. It is pleasurable. The fact of the matter is, to be human is not always to be in a state of pleasure, it is not always to be happy - that is a drug. It is to aim for contentment, to be satisfied. Here, I'm obviously paraphrasing a little bit of the Imam’s guidance. Of course, I want to be cautious of saying that I don't believe I'm speaking for the Imam or representing his words fully, but how I think about some of that language. When we are aiming for that level of contentment and for that instant happiness, we are giving up the struggle that defines our life, because it is that struggle, that irritant, always striving, that makes us better and has us think about what is the pearl we are producing.

It also keeps us from our pain. It keeps us from the ability to grow from our failures, from confronting that pain and growing from that experience, and it keeps us from connecting to other human beings. We simply measure by worth. What is so and so wearing? What type of car are they driving? What type of house do they live in? Not, how can I help this person or how can this person help me or how can we help each other become more regular in Jamatkhana. No, instead, we pass judgment. We say, "Well, okay, this person is driving this car, I feel like I'm better than this person, I should be driving a better car."

We are always judging ourselves by material attributes, material aspects. Instead of saying what is this person like as a human being, as a person? How can I better myself by being in contact with this person? I think that's what materialism does, is it keeps us from God, it keeps us from ourselves, and it keeps us from making a human connection. Basically, what we do is, we willingly turn ourselves into nothing more than an object, by denying our divine connection in our very own humanity.

Sahil: Interesting. Finally, turning to the future now, you are the founder of islamicate, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency. In a globalized world where economies are intertwined and people from various countries are constantly moving, especially people from Muslim countries and the east moving elsewhere in large numbers.

What can be done about improving religious and cultural literacy, and what solutions would you suggest?

Hussein: Here I think we have to come back to a question of what secularism is. Secularism is an attempt to replace religion with the idea of the nation-state. Then, we have to understand that there is a vested interest, and again, who benefits? There is a vested interest in making sure that the language of religion doesn't have a base of power, doesn't have a relevance in the world. Secularism claims that religion is irrational, it's not practical. But the fact of the matter is, religion is a fundamental part of human existence, it has been, it is and it will be a fundamental part of human existence, and you miss of the world around you without understanding how religion functions.

You don't necessarily have to believe in a religion, you don’t have to necessarily believe in Christianity to understand how Christianity has affected European architecture or European literature. I think that this is really important. So, religious literacy, like any other type of literacy, is an important part of understanding the human experience and is an important part of understanding how the world functions.

We wouldn't say that you don't need to learn how to read because we now have television, that’s ridiculous. So, the idea that you don't need to learn about religion or how religion functions because we now have the nation-state is equally ridiculous on its face. So, we just are very conscious of saying that we don't need to know something because we've got something else.

Sahil: Hussein, thank you once again.

Hussein: Thank you Sahil, for the opportunity.


Hussein Rashid, PhD, is the founder of Islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency. He currently teaches at Barnard College's Department of Religion at Columbia University. He has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University, a Master’s in Theological Studies focusing on Islam, and an MA and PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from Harvard University.

Dr. Rashid works with a variety of NGOs, foundations, non-profits, and governmental agencies for content expertise on religion broadly, with a specialization on Islam. His work includes exploring theology, the interaction between culture and religion, and the role of the arts in conflict mediation. His research focuses on Muslims and American popular culture, and has a background in South and Central Asian studies, with an interest in Shi’i theology.

He worked with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan as a content expert for their “America to Zanzibar” exhibit and appears regularly on mainstream media, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.

Dr. Rashid’s Jamati experience includes being a junior volunteer, a member of one of the first Ismaili Boy Scout troops, a director of the original Al-Ummah Camp, managing and creating content for the Al-Ilm Camp for high school students, developing content for the Golden Jubilee Initiative, The Heritage Discovery Program, delivering waezes, and serving two terms as a scholar on National ITREB.


Sahil Badruddin is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and he majored in Chemical Engineering, Religious Studies, and History. He conducts interviews with scholars, leaders, and educators for various platforms such as The.Ismaili and OnFaith.Co to discuss their insights on contemporary issues. Some of his recent interview guests include Eboo Patel, Reza Aslan, Dalia Mogahed, and Wajahat Ali.