Yale professor discusses Quran, American Muslims

Yale professor Zareena Grewal visits SVSU to participate in the Dr. Raana Akbar Memorial Lecture Series of Islam and discuss her book. Vanguard Photo | Kyle Will

SVSU hosted Zareena Grewal on Thursday, March 21, as the Dr. Raana Akbar Memorial Lecture Series of Islam lecturer at 6:30 p.m. in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.

The series was started nine years ago by Raana’s husband, Waheed Akbar, after she passed away from cancer in 2009. Raana served as an SVSU Board of Control member from 2002 to 2003.

Grewal is a professor of American studies, religious studies and anthropology at Yale University.

Her lecture was named after her upcoming book, “Is the Quran a Good Book?” The book and lecture discussed how ethnographic, cultural studies and historical research can explain how Americans view the Quran.

Akbar gave introductory remarks at the event.

“Raana and I felt strongly that it was our duty as American Muslims to bring the message of peace to our friends and fellow citizens,” he said. “We found a misperception about our peaceful religion, which was because of our lack of engagement with our friends, neighbors and co-workers.”

President Don Bachand also spoke about the lecture’s purpose.

Bachand believed that Grewal’s lecture and research was “a proud representation for everything that Ranna and Waheed Akbar hoped this series would provide to the public.”

Grewal began her lecture by debunking myths about “the Muslim world.”

“As a girl growing up in Michigan, I often wondered about what this meant,” she said. “I thought that I may be part of that world. I wondered if Michigan could be part of that Muslim world.”

Grewal said that, often, when American presidents are elected, they deliver an address to “the Muslim world,” but the last few addresses have been delivered to places where Muslims are a minority.

“The idea of a Muslim world is troubling,” she said. “It’s not a physical place. It’s a political idea. It’s the Western idea and racial logic that Muslims live in a world of their own.”

Grewal said that, after 9/11, the Quran became a bestseller in America, but not because Americans were interested in learning about Islam.

“It is a very American thing to turn to the Quran to understanding the verses that caused 9/11,” she said.

Besides searching for radical and extremist ideas in the Quran, Americans also began buying the Quran to burn and shoot them after 9/11.

“I have an archive of shot-up Qurans,” she said. “I also have a collection of gassedup Qurans.”

She said the “gassed-up” Qurans she has were saved by counter-protestors before people could burn them on the anniversaries of 9/11.

Grewal used this information to point out that most Muslims do not respond with violence when they are offended or when their religion is insulted.

“You are so used to assuming that, when Muslim sensibilities are offended, violence happens,” she said. “In fact, that is not the case.”

To illustrate her argument, she used examples from Sandow Birk’s “American Quran.” For the book, Birk, an atheist, created illustrations for each page of the Quran to juxtapose Muslim ideology and American ideology.

Birk asked Grewal to write the foreword to his book. She agreed to because she thought the book was thought-provocative.

“Birk’s book asks, does the Quran have anything to say to 21st Century Americans, or is it stuck in the 7th Century?” she said.

Some images in the book depict human beings, and Grewal said that many Muslims are uncomfortable with that because the Quran says not to worship idols or give physical images to figures from the Quran.

“Most Muslims don’t draw people … especially not in Qurans,” she said. “This is the first illustrated Quran that has people in it.”

When she showed the illustrated Quran to Muslims in Pakistan, she said, there was “discomfort, but also curiosity.”

There was not violence, like she said many Americans expected. She hopes that more Muslims will look for Birk’s “American Quran.”

“I hope at the very least the book helps them imagine a different world than the one we have,” she said. “We have to acknowledge it before we can build it.”

Grewal ended her lecture by displaying a photo of the books used to swear in Congress members this year, including the Bible, the Quran, the Sita, which is a Hindu religious text, and constitutions for atheists.

She hoped the image would be “heartening” to those discouraged by the current political environment.

Kaitlyn Farley

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