Against the backdrop of Covid-19, Ramadan should be a time for people to think deeply about 'the life we want to live' and 'the impact we want to leave behind', a leading American Muslim scholar, writer, and civil rights leader has told a special edition of Qatar Foundation’s Education City Speaker Series.
Dr Omar Suleiman – founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University in the US – shared his thoughts on how the reflection that the holy month enables can be a catalyst for lasting change based on values, during a virtual discussion that drew more than 12,000 viewers from Qatar, the region, and around the world.
And he described Covid-19 as “a wake-up call for us to take a step back and reflect on the meaning and purpose of life”, while also explaining why the desire for change should come from the heart, be sincere, and be intended to create benefit and impact rather than influence.
“Anything that reminds us of the fragility of this world, or our own vulnerability, is an opportunity to cling to that which is permanent and meaningful,” said Dr Suleiman – who is also the resident scholar of the Valley Ranch Islamic Center and Co-Chair Emeritus of Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square, a multi-faith coalition for peace and justice – in a session titled Crafting a Lifetime of Change from a Month of Reflection.
“I think it’s a time for us to be heightened in our awareness of what type of life we want to live, what type of life we want to go to, what type of impact we want to leave behind, and what type of deeds we want to see ahead of us. It’s an opportunity for us to really take a step back; a wake-up call to be more intentional.
“Don’t be unhappy about what you don’t have in this life – Ramadan should teach us that. There are people in this world who don’t have anything to break their fast with. So we should live a more purposeful life, and Covid-19 has taught us to prioritise and think about what our blessings actually are, what we actually want to keep with us, and what will transpire into something meaningful for us going forward.”
Speaking about where change comes from, Dr Suleiman said: “It starts not just with you, but with a very particular part of you – your heart. If your heart is good, the entire body becomes good, and the rest of your actions follow suit.
“You then bring this into your home, and then you have societal change – it comes from a family, because a community is made of families and, if you think about the most transformative communities in history, that transformation was started by just one or two families who got together and started to build something and impact and affect change in their society.
“Change starts inward, then goes outward – but never forget the inward. You never get to a point where you are no longer developing yourself personally, where you can preach but not practice. You have to think of your heart as your spiritual reservoir that you feed, and with that reservoir you can give to the rest of the world. Never neglect yourself in pursuit of the betterment of society, because by bettering yourself, you better society.”
The Ramadan edition of the Education City Speaker Series – a Qatar Foundation platform for dialogue that brings together experts and thought-leaders to discuss key themes and topics shaping the world – also saw Dr. Suleiman encourage young people to commit themselves to being drivers of change, saying: “One thing you learn from people who are productive is they started young and kept going – when you are young, it is the perfect chance to dedicate yourself; don’t wait until you are older.”
And he told the online audience: “Your change should be sincere, and your desire for change should come from the right place. “Too many times, we conflate influence with impact. Make sure your desire for change is not a desire to be seen as a change-maker, because often people package righteousness into the desire to be validated by other people. Influence should come as a result of impact, but not be a cover for what is actually not impactful at all.
“Make sure that, as you seek to go forward, anything you do that is public is matched by an increase in private devotion. The more you teach, the more you need to be learning. The more you preach, the more you need to practice. The more you are seen by other people doing good, the more you need to be seen only by Allah to be doing good. Your devotion should match your growth.
“And change is meaningful even if it is small. Work in your own capacity, in your own self, in your own family and community, and don’t belittle any good deed that you are doing.”