Photo by Elizabeth Lavin Elizabeth Lavin

Religion

What Faith Looks Like Now: A Conversation With the Imam Omar Suleiman

"So to be the reason that someone else smiles in these hard times is very special."

Since I met Imam Omar Suleiman a few years ago, he’s been good at checking in from time to time, to see how I’m doing or to get my perspective on something. And I’ve found that it’s invaluable to get his take, or just to talk to him for a few minutes. He is a comforting presence in what, even before this month, were uncomfortable times. We had spoken recently: he had been scheduled to go to New Zealand not long ago, on the anniversary of the Christchurch attack, but was forced to stay here and was wondering how best to commemorate the moment.

We caught up again early last week, to talk about how he’s handling the current pandemic. Suleiman—the resident scholar of the Valley Ranch Islamic Center in Irving, founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in Las Colinas, and professor of Islamic studies at SMU—sounded exhausted when he picked up the phone, but seemed to gain strength through the rest of the conversation. Which, in turn, gave me strength, as it always does. A transcript, lightly edited for clarity, follows. I’ll have more of these in the coming weeks.

But, first, a prayer.

How’s it going with you? It’s good. Just nonstop. I think everyone’s in the same situation. It’s been interesting. I’m just trying to help people stay optimistic. It’s hard, though. It’s hard to validate people’s pain, but at the same time, you know, trying to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a tough time to sort of adjust our pastoral capacity or put it to the test, you know?

Just the amount of stuff you have to take in now with something like this happening, on top of everything else. Yeah. So I’m worried about my dad. I mean, I think that’s the main thing. I think everyone’s worried about their own elderly folks, more than anything else. My dad’s 77, moved to Dallas last year, he lives down the street. So trying to keep him safe and protected, as much as possible.

Of course. So balancing that with everything else is something else. But, all things considered, we’re doing a lot better than the vast majority of people. So just grateful and trying to do as much as we can for everybody else.

How have you seen things change with, you know, having to keep a distance from the people who worship alongside you—or you used to, at least in the past weeks? How’s it different to do what you do with not being able to be around people? Yeah, it’s obviously—I mean, I think like with everyone else, it’s tough. It’s particularly difficult because for the elderly that were coming to the mosque on a daily basis, the mosque was also their only social outlet.

Yeah. So we have to think about how to do more than just send out texts. In my case, I’m doing my three webinars a day, you know, but I realize I need to just actually schedule every day, just call five people, FaceTime them, or try to do some kind of Zoom or Skype or whatever it is just to, just to give them some level of social comfort, you know?

To find some kind of normalcy. So that’s been the main thing. It’s been really on the minds of every Muslim here is what’s going to happen with Ramadan? It’s exactly a month away.

Oh, right. I didn’t even think about that. Ramadan is what the whole year is about.

Of course. I think that for us, that’s been what’s occupying the minds of people is, you know, what Ramadan is going to be like. What I anticipate is that as more people actually start to feel the pain of this thing beyond just being quarantined, you know, as we have more deaths in the community, which is inevitable, that’s where the focus will shift. So right now it’s more about the loss of spiritual privileges, less about the amount of spiritual pain that people are feeling. Once this really settles in and I think we see the full consequences of this virus, that’s when I think it’s going to hit the community harder. I know that from speaking to a lot of Muslims that are in New York and New Jersey right now, where we’ve already had several deaths and some of them have been Muslim and not being able to do the funeral prayer properly. So while we’ve been sort of consumed here with not being able to do the Friday prayer, in places where there have been more deaths, they’d been consumed with not being able to be the funeral prayer. And I think that that reality is gonna dawn upon us very soon and, you know, just pray we’re able to learn from those that are going through right now.

You said you’re doing three webinars a day. What are you doing in those? I’ll do like a nightly reflection. I log on every night at 8 o’clock. I’m recording a bunch of different talks and series to be used for Ramadan. I do a Friday sermon online, but it’s not the actual replacement of the Friday sermon. It’s just to give people that connection on Friday that they typically would have had with a sermon. And, you know, I’m just trying to make myself available to all the different organizations that are out there. Practically every Muslim organization right now is organizing some sort of webinar, especially the nonprofits that are at risk of going under because of this, not being able to pay staff. Ramadan is the main fundraising season for every Muslim nonprofit. So that’s another dynamic to this. It’s not just the financial pain with the rising unemployment rates and, you know, everything else that all other Americans are going to feel, but Muslim nonprofits relying on Ramadan to give them their annual funding. And so that’s not going to happen. So a lot of these Muslim nonprofits are doing webinars constantly, which offers some sort of spiritual component, but also just, you know, I think that they’re trying to—they’re asking people to continue to support them.

A sort of virtual Ramadan. I’ve been just trying to make myself available to all those organizations. Like I said, I’m considering the 8 o’clock reflection at night one of the webinars, but it’s not really a webinar. It’s more just like a Facebook Live. And I’ll do—like, I did two webinars today for two different organizations. On top of that, I’m just making a point to call five people a day, you know, and just check up on random people in the community. And I’m also trying to, you know, work with some of these charity organizations that rely on Ramadan for their annual funding are doing incredible work and community right now. And it would be the worst time to lose them.

So, I’ve been trying to support, volunteering with a few of the organizations that are out here—and they’re not necessarily just Muslim organizations. CitySquare. Ma’Ruf Dallas is an incredible organization. They do refugee work. They’re getting all the groceries and the medical needs and keeping tabs on the refugees that are here. And if you want to talk about people that have no idea how to handle the situation right now, it’s them, right? These are people that, a lot of them don’t speak English, have multiple special needs children, widows, and they’ve just been washing dishes in the backs of restaurants and they have no idea what to do if they get sick. They have no idea how to handle the basic necessities. So I’ve been helping Ma’Ruf Dallas, working with those refugees, dropping off boxes on a daily basis, just leaving them.

And then there’s ICNA Relief—Islamic Circles North America—which operates 36 food pantries around the country, and they operate one here in Dallas. And what’s great about them is that they just do sweeps of neighborhoods. So they go through different neighborhoods of Dallas every day. Check up on the elderly with focus on some of the lower-income neighborhoods, you know, and just deliver aid packages. So I’ve been trying to support them, as much as I can.

And then lastly, we’ve been doing a weekly—I shouldn’t say we’ve been doing; we just started this past Sunday—what’s going to be sort of a weekly sit down, about the state of faith in Dallas. This last Sunday we talked about hunger and food insecurity. I think this next Sunday we’re going to talk about fear. So it’s sort of how all of our communities are uniquely impacted by this and then what, what our communities are doing to contribute to the solution. And then how the listeners can also be a part of those efforts. That’s something we intend to keep on doing.

I guess it’s really valuable is that you’ve already, you know, had those pretty strong connections with all the different faith leaders they’ve built over the last few years. Yeah. And you know what I’m afraid of? What I’m afraid of is that because every community is sorta hunkering down with its own right now, I’m afraid that we’re actually going to lose some of that interfaith cooperation, a spirit that we’ve had, over the last few years.

Really? So I what I told my wife on Sunday. I was like, all right, I’m going to church. You know, we laugh about all the time because she’s like, you go to church more than you go to the mosque. Because you know, that’s, that’s just what we’ve had, right? Is going to churches, going to synagogues. We’ve been deeply involved in each other’s communities. But right now we’re all sort of having to hunker down, back into our own communities and provide for the needs of our mosques, churches, and synagogues. So that’s why I think we were like, you know what, let’s keep making that connection on a regular basis so that we don’t lose that interfaith expression that so desperately needed. I’m really worried about that, like if this thing goes on for a year or so.

Yeah, that makes sense. And that could really fracture. Not that it would cause us not to love each other anymore, but it’s just become so regular now, that our communities work together. It would be hard, as we’re recovering in our own unique ways, to reestablish those connections.

Is there a particular, you know, passage or verse that you’ve found yourself turning to a bit more over this past week, two weeks? There have been a few. But the one that I keep on—I have it right in front of me. So it’s actually from the story of the prophet Joseph in the Quran, when he talks about verily God will place with every hardship ease. And so I think that that’s just the idea that in, you know, in Islam—there are two verses. They’re very similar. “Indeed with hardship comes ease.” The verse does not say after hardship comes ease. The verse says with hardship comes ease, which means two things: that as a hardship has been decreed, the ease has already been decreed alongside it. And the second thing is that, within every hardship, if we look close enough, you’ll find ease, and you’ll find you’ll find an opportunity to be ease to someone—to be the facilitator or the one through whom God’s mercy is facilitated.

So to actually seek to be people’s ease in these moments. Something that’s been sitting with me—and I was, like, we constantly worry about our own prayers being answered and we don’t think enough about being the answer to someone else’s prayer. And like when you call someone who has been neglected, who’s alone, who’s afraid, and it’s just as simple as FaceTiming them and like, Hey, just wanted to check up on you, how you doing? And make a lighthearted joke and like, you can see like that person needed that. That’s a lifeline for them, you know. So there’s the food and the aid and the basic necessity and obviously the financial hardship that people are going to encounter. But loneliness was already attendant within our society. So that loneliness is only going to be further compounded now.

So to be the reason that someone else smiles in these hard times is very special. And I actually did my nightly reflection, I believe three nights ago, was on that. That the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said a smile in the face of your brother is a charity. And what I talked about was what’s a greater charity than smiling in the face of your brother is giving your brother reason to smile. The prophet Muhammad said that the most beloved of actions to God is that you bring joy to the heart of your brother, or that you feed him a loaf of bread, or that you do away with one of the debts. So in that order, you know, eating a loaf bread or doing away with the debt, you know, that’s very easily quantifiable. But the first action that he said requires no money at all. It’s to make someone smile.

It doesn’t take much. To actually bring joy to someone’s heart that would cause them to smile. So I keep on thinking about that and just how much people need it right now.

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