He began briefly talking about growing up in a refugee camp in Aman, Jordan and learning about the US by watching television - one of two sets in the camp. Hollywood doesn't send out a good image of the United States he said. Nevertheless, it was a place that he wanted to see for himself one day, but never dreamed he would be able to.
Schooling in the camp wasn't very good. It was in a tent and he didn't learn much. But something must have worked because he got a chance to go to college in Italy, where he learned Italian and got a degree in engineering. And eventually he made it to the United States. He is now proud to be a United States citizen. The talk then turned to his understanding of Islam.
Muslims, he said, believe in the same God as do Christians and Jews. He was surprised when he learned that in the west they talk about Allah as though this were a different Muslim god. Allah is simply the Arabic word for god. He cited a survey that found that 10% of Americans believed that Muslims believe in a moon god.
Mohammad did not write the Koran, he said. He couldn't have because he was illiterate. It was revealed to him over 23 years by the angel Gabriel. He pointed out that millions of people today have memorized the whole Koran in Arabic. (This reminded me how remarkable the human brain is and how we are all capable of far more than we realize. Before radio and television many Americans also memorized the bible. Now we can't even memorize our passwords.)
He said there are five pillars of Islam:
- Declare there is only one god. (Sounds like the first of the ten commandments)
- Daily prayer, five times a day - He said that talking to God five times a day was a great source of peace.
- Giving charity - to the poor, orphans, the stranded, etc. "You're not a good Muslim if you go to bed full, but your neighbor is hungry."
- Fasting - the sick, travelers, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempted.
- Pilgrimage - The Hajj
He also talked about Reason and Human Rights.
- God asked us to use our heads
- Education - obligation for men and women
- Independence of Women - equal responsibility to build and protect the family, women keep their own names
- Dignity is important
- In charge of the environment - shouldn't waste the earth
- Sanctity of human life - "Killing of one innocent life is equal to killing all mankind." Conversely, "Saving one innocent life is equal to saving all mankind."
Here's the end of his talk:
One of the questioners was about the book I'm reading for this month's book club meeting - No god but God. Reza Islan argues that the battles we see in Islam today are not about the West and Islam, but rather they are a modern reformation among Islams, a struggle for who will define Islam. Will it look to the past or will it adjust to the modern world. He suggests that Islam in the US can and should play a major role in this debate. Did Awad agree, asked the questioner.
He did. He believes that real Islam is very consistent with American ideas of equality and justice and thus US Muslims have a critical role to play in the world of Islam.
[Again, this is my take on what happened - leaving a lot out. If something doesn't look right, contact Nihad Awad to get clarification. And then leave a comment to correct my errors.]
Let me add another note. I was reminded of a conference I attended in India several years ago. In one panel on Islamic justice in Pakistani villages, the panelists all said that Islam in the villages was still mixed with local tribal traditions that were not based on Islam. It is often these non-Islamic tribal customs that result in the abuses of women and others that lead to outraged Western headlines pointing at how primitive Islam is.