COLUMBIA — Imam Suhaib Webb isn’t your typical cleric: unlike Islamic scholars born into Muslim contexts, Webb is a blond, blue-eyed Oklahoman, originally Christian, who converted to Islam in college. Webb received an Islamic education at Egypt’s well-known Al-Azhar University and acted as imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. He now runs a virtual mosque, where he answers questions about Islam from those within and outside the faith, and he does interfaith outreach and anti-bigotry work across America.
Perhaps because of his diverse background — as well as references to Fetty Wap and Nicki Minaj — he easily engaged a crowd of over 100 students and families on American Muslim groups and shari’ah religious law Tuesday evening. MU’s Muslim Student Organization, along with other groups, helped organize the event.
Dressed in a blue-and-white button-down shirt and black sneakers, Webb generally kept it light, dropping jokes about his Book of Revelation-quoting grandmother and a seemingly conservative Egyptian friend searching for the film, “Scent of a Woman.” He also quietly suggested members of the audience might be “feeling the Bern” in Tuesday’s primaries.
Webb aimed to spread knowledge about Islam in coming to MU. He said non-Muslims are concerned about their freedom when faced with Islam. Women worry about intense patriarchy, he said, while gay people fear for their lives. His mother, Webb said, calls him every week with questions about Islam. This is why Webb reaches out to all groups: to clear up misconceptions about the religion.
Webb’s talk comes at a time when Muslim Americans face disturbing increases in hate crimes, a backlash to 2015’s ISIS-linked attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. The New York Times reported in December 2015 that the average monthly hate crime rate against Muslim Americans about tripled toward the end of the year in the U.S. Before San Bernardino and Paris, three Muslim Americans were killed in February 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Webb explained there are four types of American Muslims: first there are violent extremists along the lines of ISIS, who take the Quran literally and, Webb said, act in violation of the prophet’s teachings. Second there are “hyper-traditionalists,” who adhere to older scholarly interpretations of religion. Third are the moderates, who rely on contemporary scholars to interpret issues and are often heavily involved in social activism. Finally, there are those who feel culturally Muslim but do not practice the religion.
Webb emphasized that extremists often act alone and suffer from mental health issues.
Webb discussed the much-maligned concept of shari’ah, or Islamic religious law. He said shari’ah, often cited for punishments like stoning and cutting off hands, serves as a watering hole in a spiritual desert. In other words, shari’ah is seen as a source of religious life.
He stressed Islam’s biggest principle is not to cause harm to others, especially wives and children. Webb also said Islam centers on the preservation of life, intellect and family and the protection of societal welfare.
In a lampooned Southern accent, Webb noted that many non-Muslims think Muslims are “out to ‘shar-orrize’ America.”
“Everyone’s running from us like Rick (Grimes, a fictional character in the TV series “The Walking Dead”) being chased by zombies, behind him are the Muslims, building their mosques,” Webb said.
Webb spoke about how Islamophobia drains Muslim communities, how little children now want to change their Muslim first names because of bullying and how many Muslims constantly feel on the defensive.
“Have you ever flown into LA?” Webb asked. “You see that pollution, that haze, it kind of follows the city? That’s what it’s like to live with Islamophobia.”