As a signifier of commitment to progressive values, the terms “diversity and inclusion” are nearly ubiquitous. The past decade or so has witnessed “diversity and inclusion” move from the Affirmative Action inspired charters of schools and businesses to a vibrant part of our media, art, and vernacular cultures. Put differently, we no longer only expect diversity and inclusion where we work or study; it’s something we’ve come to seek more broadly. Taken at face value, this shift toward plurality should inspire American Muslims with great satisfaction. Our faith affords inter- religious/cultural exchange and ultimately familiarity, spiritual value. The Qur’ān proclaims,
“O humanity! We created you from a single pair, a male and female and made you into nations and tribes in order that you might come to know one another! Truly the most honorable of you (in the sight of God) is the most God-conscious. Verily, God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” [49:13]
It’s worth noting that this verse contains a rare Qur’ānic style. There are very few places the Qur’ān references something as an underlying purpose for the creation of humanity. We have been created to worship God. Women and men have been created to find sakīna (tranquility) in one another. We have been created to cultivate (ta’mīr) the Earth and serve as its stewards. We have been created to know one another.
Correspondingly, when I surveyed students from this year’s American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) Summer Program (SP), I wasn’t surprised when many of them cited the program’s diverse faculty and student body as one of its strengths. Yes, while all of the instructors and students were Muslims, they did boast an impressive array of backgrounds, regions, life experiences, and perhaps most importantly, ideas and opinions. The remarkable ability to voluntarily form community and camaraderie with people who fundamentally think differently than oneself should not be overlooked. In fact, of much of the diversity and inclusion celebrated in the current cultural moment, one commentator mentioned: “We celebrate the fact that we all look different, have different sexual preferences, gender identities, maybe even worship (or not) differently, but we all think the same.” When truth isn’t allowed an uppercase “T” but is restricted to a small “t” and everyone’s right to live their “truth” is affirmed, what results is certainly a kind of diversity, but not a very challenging or deep one.
Conversely, the instructors and students that assembled for the ALIM SP are people who believe in Truth and believe that inasmuch as Truth is represented by the Will of God it can be ascertained through revelation and contemplation. Nonetheless, they differ—and often profoundly—about the actual substance of that Truth.
The possibility of celebrating diversity without succumbing to relativism is one the greatest civilizational legacies of Islam. At break during this year’s SP, I got a chance to get some feedback on the program from one of the students. After asking what we could improve upon, I turned to what she appreciated about the program: Unsurprisingly, she mentioned diversity (are you detecting a theme here?!). Yet, when I probed and pushed a little; mentioning, for instance, “All of you work or go to school in diverse environments. I was hoping you could offer an observation particular to ALIM,” she elaborated: “It’s one thing to simply share physical space with people from other backgrounds; it’s entirely another to negotiate mutually exclusive truth claims with people whose experiences are completely different than mine and feel at home doing so. I feel as though we’re all collectively benefitting from one another.”
Her insightful comments actually brought the Qur’ān to mind: Take for example the stories of the Prophets Solomon (Sulaymān) and Joseph (Yūsuf): In spite of the fact that each of their direct knowledge of God came from the same source (i.e. revelation), their individual experience of God must’ve have been vastly different. As a Prophet, Solomon had an impressive demesne. His was a kingdom full of monumental works of art, a magnificent throne, a strong garrison and travelling army, prized stallions, etc. In fact, so complete was his rule over his dominion that he would sing the praises of God in unison with the hills, communicate his orders to the animals, and he even enjoyed the fealty of the jinn. On the other hand, Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, left for dead at the bottom of a well, becomes the victim of human trafficking, is sexually objectified, survives assault, is jailed for a crime he didn’t commit in spite of his known innocence, languishes in prison, develops friendships with people he knows will die violent deaths, earns his freedom on account of a God-given talent he possessed and then is ultimately called upon to forgive his brothers after he has ascended to a place of authority and service within the very society in which he had been oppressed.
The Qur’ān, the intimate self-disclosure of God, includes the stories of both of these great servants of God. Taken as unique, the story of Solomon would fit nicely within a “prosperity gospel” paradigm while that of Yūsuf might offer more to a theology focused on perseverance through oppression. However, read and reflected upon side by side, they remind us that God and Truth are known incompletely if they are only known through one set of experiences. Thank you ALIM class of 2018 for teaching me a valuable lesson. I am…
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