Pioneering Islamic scholar, defender of women coming to Fresno: ‘Islam, Christianity and Judaism share the same genome’

Abdulaziz Sachedina
Abdulaziz Sachedina Special to The Bee

An Islamic scholar who served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense regarding Middle Eastern affairs and who helped draft Iraq’s constitution is this year’s Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend speaker.

“With what is going on in the world, we immediately decided it was an Islamic scholar that we needed – a great Islamic mind to share with us,” Jim Grant, chairman of the Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend Committee and director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said about this year’s speaker, Abdulaziz Sachedina.

All of them have something to offer, and all of them can help us comprehend our own a little better.

Jim Grant about different religions

Sachedina is the International Institute of Islamic Thought chairman of Islamic Studies at George Mason University in Virginia. He will present a series of talks Friday through Feb. 26 at the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, Temple Beth Israel, Wesley United Methodist Church and Fresno City College centered around the theme, “Islam, Human Rights, and Interfaith Dialogue.” The annual event is sponsored by around 30 churches and organizations in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The pioneer

Sachedina was among the first academics to offer what he calls a “rationalist Muslim interpretation” of Islam – an interpretation that threatened Iraqi spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani so much that he advised Muslims not to listen to him. Sachedina said al-Sistani even offered him $50,000 a year to stop teaching, lecturing and writing. Sachedina said his conscience is not for sale.

“I believe in God; I’m not rejecting my religion. I’m not questioning the religious leadership, but I will analyze it and critically evaluate it, that’s my work. It’s more the history of ideas.”

Our disagreements should not lead us to deny the humanity of another person – the dignity of another person.

Abdulaziz Sachedina

Of an al-Sistani proclamation in the 1990s, Sachedina said, “It’s not much different than the medieval Catholic Church where you couldn’t speak or do anything without being excommunicated.”

He said many Muslims are not used to an “intellectual interpretation of Islam which encourages critical assessments of primary materials” but that younger Muslims especially are hungry for this kind of analysis.

Defense of women

Sachedina disagrees with some Islamic passages that speak poorly of women. He says they should be viewed with an understanding of society at that time and not be taken literally. History helps contextualize teachings and makes the “absolute meaning of religions become relevant.”

Sachedina likes to ask: If Islam’s holy book, the Quran, were written today in North America versus the seventh century in the Middle East, would it have been written the same way? He says men are not superior to women because “God is just – he would not create one less than the other.”

His defense of women also comes from personal experience. Sachedina saw his mother as “more powerful than my father” and said his sisters – like many Muslim women today – work and live independently.

I saw my mother as more powerful than my father.

Abdulaziz Sachedina

Sachedina stressed this message in the Quran: “We human beings are all created in the womb of our mother and that the mother is the most holy creature that God ever created.”

Universal connection

Sachedina said his focus is on ethics, not theology. He views theology as largely defensive and ethics as universal.

Our work has been to build bridges between communities.

Abdulaziz Sachedina

“There will never be a common theology but there will be common ethics. You and I will shed tears when someone is killed unjustly.”

He is concerned about the way violence often is portrayed in the Middle East. He sees it as negatively affecting people’s view of Muslims.

To make his point, he talked about how past fighting in Ireland was portrayed: “Instead of Catholics versus Christians killing each other, they said Irish extremists were killing each other.” Today, with fighting in the Middle East, “They don’t say Iraqis are killing each other  they say Muslims are killing each other.”

When Islamic religion is used by those who kill they are not really Islamic.

Abdulaziz Sachedina

Sachedina doesn’t look down on other religions.

“Islam, Christianity and Judaism share the same genome and are equal in their offering salvation to their communities,” he said.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Interfaith Scholar Weekend talks

  • Friday, Feb. 24: “In Search of Religious Pluralism in Islamic Tradition,” 7:30 p.m. Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, 2111 Nees Ave., Fresno. Free.
  • Saturday, Feb. 25: “Islamic Theological Ethics: The Ontology of Human Action” from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; “The Inherency of Human Dignity as the Foundation of Interfaith Dialogue” from 10:45 a.m. to noon; and “Religious Minorities: Tolerance or Acceptance? Law and Ethics in Islam” from 1 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., all at Temple Beth Israel, 6622 N. Maroa Ave., Fresno. Registration required ($55 or $10 for students).
  • Sunday, Feb. 26: 10:30 a.m. sermon at Wesley United Methodist Church, 1343 E. Barstow Ave., Fresno, and “The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism,” at 2 p.m. in Fresno City College’s Old Administration Building, Room 251, 1101 University Ave., Fresno. Free.