On Building a Society of Light
What is the hallmark of a great civilization? Is it the amount of land they own or the number of people that society has? Is it the things they create and share, or is it a society of light where everyone is united by common goals, values, and respect for one another? I asked myself these questions frequently while contemplating my faith in undergraduate religion classes at Rutgers University.
I was born into Islam, meaning that both of my parents practiced the faith, and as an extension of the family, I practiced it, too. My parents always valued an Islamic education for their children, especially since we were growing up with different identities; American, South Asian, and Muslim. While public schools taught American identity, Sunday School aimed to keep us connected with our Islamic roots.
My Sunday School education consisted of basic knowledge of Islamic history, stories of the prophets, learning how to pray, and how to read the Qur’an. This pragmatic approach was challenging for me because I have always been an avid reader and thoroughly inquisitive about finding out the “Why?” behind things and how they are connected. However, when you are taught religion as a cultural custom and as simply a following of rituals and rules, it leaves little room for imagination and intellectual curiosity.
At University, I chose religion as my major in an attempt to remedy this, but even there I found a gross lack of diverse courses in my faith. It wasn’t until I met my husband, a convert to Islam, that I fully accepted how hard it was to find Islamic spaces that engaged in intellectual discussion. Our journey of learning about Islam and what the Qur’an actually led us to the Usuli Institute. And this was the moment that changed everything; the moment that led me to CHOOSE being a Muslim rather than accepting it as a birthright.
I’ll be honest, most Muslims are unaware of how beautiful and rich their tradition is and how advanced it was in its historical origins. This is due to factors like the pressure to assimilate, a lack of meaningful resources available, and the loss of knowledge due to colonialism. Founded in 2017, The Institute for Advanced Usuli Studies, or the Usuli Institute, aims to address these concerns and help Muslims reconnect to their faith.
Usuli is trying to bring people back to the foundations of the Qur’an: Educating, bringing truth to power, and reconnecting people to their faith. The Institute was founded by Grace Song, a Taiwanese-American convert to Islam, and her husband, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a world-renowned scholar. Even though they are from different cultural backgrounds the study of Islam brought them together.
What is unique about Usuli is Dr. Abou El Fadl’s background. He is a leading authority in the world on Islam and Islamic law, and an Islamic jurist. He is also a distinguished American law professor and a prominent scholar in the field of human rights. This breadth of expertise comes together to inform the work that Usuli produces.
Usuli is home to one of the largest private collections of Islamic texts and rare religious manuscripts in the world. They currently hold virtual Qur’anic study seminars and Friday sermons every week. These sermons have proven so valuable that they were a launching point for Usuli Press, The Usuli Institute’s new imprint.
The first published book by Usuli Press, The Prophet’s Pulpit, captures twenty-two Islamic sermons and provides them in a very accessible format. The book is organized into five parts and is meant to be read by Muslims and Non-Muslims alike because Usuli strongly believes in inclusivity. Their work is meant to bridge the gaps between humanity because the message that Islam preaches at its core is an entirely human message. A message of mercy, love, beauty, and justice for all.
When I was reading the book, I felt like a withering plant finally being watered. There were moments when I felt so seen, heard, and understood, that it moved me to tears. This emotional response is due to the Islamic discourses I was exposed to throughout my upbringing. They felt distant and focused on rituals, which led me to feel like I was living a double life: one religious and another secular. There was little connection between Islamic values and modern life which made me feel tethered but groundless. The Prophet’s Pulpit is the bridge that not only connects the sacred with the secular but empowers its readers with the knowledge of how to live a meaningful life.
Discovering Usuli and reading The Prophet’s Pulpit has been such an impactful experience for me, that I reached out to Grace Song to see if she would be interested in an interview. I’m humbled and honored that she obliged.
Our interview is shared below; responses are edited for brevity. I’ve also included some quotes from The Prophet’s Pulpit (TPP), where applicable.
Muslim Girl: Can you give a brief introduction of who you are and what Usuli does?
Grace Song: Sure, I’m the Executive Director of the Usuli Institute and a Muslim convert of 28 years. Being Muslim was the last thing I ever imagined – same for my parents, Taiwanese immigrants who came to the U.S. to chase the American Dream. I grew up in Palo Alto, California, and attended the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell Business School. Becoming Muslim was never part of the plan, obviously! By the time I got to Business School, I was searching for greater meaning in my life. I was raised to believe success was measured by material wealth, prestige, and status, but over time, came to feel there had to be more than that. I was longing for something more fulfilling and purposeful.
At Cornell, I had Muslim classmates for the first time. One prayed five times a day, which was so striking to me. What in the world would make anyone so devoted? I thought that maybe religion was what I was missing. I always believed in God, but because I am very logical, I had a hard time with the concept of Trinity, although my family is largely Christian.
I decided to check out a book on Islam from the library and was absolutely shocked to find that the theology of Islam was what I already intuitively believed. But I associated Muslims with terrorism, oppression, and backwardness and I couldn’t imagine myself as a Muslim. Yet the more I read and studied, the more I realized there was much more to Islam than what people imagine. It took two more years of study, reflection, and prayer to reach the point where I knew in my heart this was the truth and chose to convert.
My journey after converting has been fascinating, lonely, and challenging, yet wholly transformative and fulfilling, in large part because of who I married. My husband has his own fascinating story; two more unlikely people could not have come together without the aid of the Divine, but we come together in our commitment to elevating a beautiful, ethical, humane, and loving Islam. And everything makes sense. It is a true blessing to marry someone similarly committed to seeking after the divine and who is profoundly knowledgeable. Someone gifted me his lectures on women jurists in Islamic history and I literally fell in love (with him and the lectures) before I met him. That dedication to knowledge, scholarship, and books has been at the foundation of our union, which eventually led to the founding of The Usuli Institute.
How is The Usuli Institute and your work hoping to address the perception of Islam in the modern world?
GS: Education is the key to everything, hope, change, understanding, mutual respect, and dignity. Our mission is to elevate ethics, critical thinking, and dignity through education. People need to feel that they can think critically and ask difficult and controversial questions about their faith and have the breathing space to be fully human in engaging their religion and what it means to have a loving, intimate, and vibrant relationship with God. We begin by grounding people in the ethical tradition of our faith. We do deep dives into the meaning of the Qur’an, our holy book, and demonstrate that it has so much to say about our present human condition in the modern world dealing with issues like racism, privilege, justice, empowerment, and human rights.
We try to teach and demonstrate what it means to be an ethical Muslim in 2022. Religion is not just about the ritual acts of prayer, fasting, and how you greet others or what you wear. It is all about what you do to create goodness, make the world a better place, and advance justice. It is active and engaged. We believe that this is what God calls for and expects from us. We are here to make a difference, move the meter so to speak, and be at the forefront of humanity in social justice and change – we are supposed to be the best examples for humanity on earth.
The Prophet’s Pulpit in many ways is an encapsulation of who we are and what we do in a book. These powerful essays are effective lessons in Qur’anic ethics applied to modern-day problems and issues. We experience the power of knowledge and education by engaging in the details and depth of understanding of an issue.
For example, spiritual and sexual abuse from those in power and then draw upon Qur’anic ethics, ie. speak truth to power, stand up and seek justice; and then call Muslims to action. We say it is not okay to be silent, that we must act, we must educate ourselves, and we must imagine what God wants from us. We must be critical, and self-reflective, wake up and get beyond ourselves, uplift the disempowered, and be the voice for the voiceless. It is a never-ending call for justice, enlightenment, and empowerment. The reaction to The Prophet’s Pulpit has been stunning and profound.
There is a billion-dollar Islamophobia industry that fuels our global wartime economy and feeds the agendas of the rich and powerful. You can see the impacts around the world. Muslims are suffering everywhere, in war-torn nations, as displaced refugees, jailed as political prisoners, or starved in concentration camps. The Islamophobia industry has convinced the world not to care because they have convinced the world that Muslims are backward, terrorists, and not human.
The Muslim counter-offensive to Islamophobia is effectively null. This is our attempt to counter all of the hateful, ignorant, and intelligently designed Islamophobic narrative that keeps Muslims down. What else can we do? The power of education is largely a function of investment and Muslims don’t invest in knowledge and education. Our efforts are completely donor-funded and we put our content out online for free, hoping that it will make a difference somewhere, somehow, but we leave that part to God. We just do our best and pray for God’s aid.
Can you tell me more about Project Illumine?
GS: Project Illumine is our flagship endeavor and our greatest challenge. Dr. Abou El Fadl is sharing his lifetime journey with the Qur’an as a scholar, Islamic jurist, and committed, practicing Muslim, and demonstrating his research findings that every chapter has a unique moral message. It is quite extraordinary because we get to receive the fruit of countless hours of painstaking research, reflection, prayer, and knowledge from a scholar that knows no bounds of inquiry – all literally for free.
From the time he was a kid in Egypt, Dr. Abou El Fadl was fascinated and even obsessed with things that only a future scholar’s brain would be wired to obsess about. What that means for us as learners is that we get to see through the lens of that fascination. We get to hear the detailed answers to and research that went into answering things like, “Why were the chapters named the way they were?”; “How did the Prophet Muhammad and the Early Muslims understand the message they were receiving?”; “What was going on in their time and what was this revelation referring to?”; “Is this report or tradition authentic, problematic or suspect and why?”
For the last two years, we have been intensively covering every chapter of the Qur’an and have completed 86 out of 114 to date. All of this work will, God-willing, become the first original English-language published commentary on the Qur’an in over 40 years, not since Muhammad Asad has there been any original contribution to the tafsir (commentary) literature in our tradition.
The reason it is our greatest challenge is that most Muslims think of the Qur’an as medieval, archaic, or irrelevant to the modern world. They think that every tafsir is the same, or that the Qur’an is inaccessible, or more importantly, that it has nothing to say about our current condition as human beings. Most do not think – as we do and teach – that it should be both the anchor and rudder of life. I see this when I tell Muslims we are doing a tafsir of the Qur’an and their eyes glaze over. In my 28 years as a Muslim, I have never heard anything like this when it comes to the Qur’an – and I am married to the Shaykh. Also, I don’t speak Arabic so I am limited to English translations of the Qur’an.
When I see how much nuance and depth there is to a single verse, it almost makes me angry and feel cheated that all these years English translations were so shallow in meaning. Even shallow translations of the Qur’an can be life-transforming, so imagine what it is like to be exposed to the deeper layers of meaning for the first time – and realize that this understanding exists nowhere else? It is like discovering that hidden place where the gold was buried – absolutely mind-blowing. This is my challenge: how do I, as a marketing person, convince Muslims that the Qur’an is not a dead book and that Project Illumine is not just another tafsir?
From TPP: “The Prophet (PBUH) said that the Qur’an–even the Qur’an– will do no good if it is read irrationally or without applying the rigors of the intellect…” (pg 104).
You often encourage others to join the “intellectual revolution.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that and what that looks like?
GS: What I mean is that it is time to change the way we think about Islam and being Muslims – we should revolt against ignorance, irrationality, and ugly interpretations of our faith. We should use our intellects to critically analyze everything – no holds barred – and not be afraid to question and push the boundaries of what it means to be exceptional human beings on this earth representing God as the best of creation. Islam and the Qur’an came to take people from darkness to light. This is a central theme and consistent message throughout the Qur’an.
People intuitively know the difference between darkness and light. Imagine if everyone actively applied that simple test to everything in life – am I moving towards darkness or light? By doing X, am I contributing darkness or light to the world or to those around me? Does this [fill in the blank] increase my own darkness or light? If we all focused on increasing our own light and creating goodness – what God wants from all of us – imagine what a different world this would be.
From TPP: “The very reason and purpose of Islam is to rebel. The purpose of the prophecies of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus was to rebel against the classism, racism, elitism, and unfair institutions of human society. If as a Muslim you do not understand this, then you are as far removed from Islam as possible,” (pgs. 61-2).
What are some long-term goals that you hope to accomplish with the Usuli Press?
GS: First and foremost is to produce exceptional books where the content and presentation are second to none. We want to meet and exceed the quality standards of mainstream professional/academic presses, and build a reputation where people trust that if it is published by Usuli Press, you know it will be excellent. Currently, we are editing Volume II of The Prophet’s Pulpit, and populating Volume III. We have a lot of incredible content so we have a lot to keep us busy. But the most important project and legacy will be the publication of the entire Project Illumine commentary of the Qur’an, which will take several years to complete.
We also have timely Q&A’s that should be published on important topics like dating, romance, and marriage for young Muslims; spiritual and sexual abuse; converts; and much, much more. We would even love to get into poetry and personal narratives. Because we are completely donor-funded as a non-profit, much of our ability to expand will depend on our donor support. We are not afraid to challenge the status quo, speak truth to power, and “get real” so if people like what we do, they should support our work. Muslims tend not to support knowledge or intellectual causes, but in all honesty, that is where the true jihad (struggle) is for our day and age. Knowledge is power and ideas matter.
Usuli stood out to me because you don’t solely focus on a Muslim audience. In your work, why is it important to speak to a broader audience?
GS: The message of Islam – the same message of God from all of the prophets – is a message to humanity. It is a profound message that affirms that all human beings are created equal, and further, that diversity, skin color, and all the things that seem to divide us today are actually all part of God’s plan. In fact, the Islamic message is the only message that emphasizes the idea that if we human beings do not honor diversity, ie. we are racist, sexist, bigoted, classist, etc., that we are dishonoring God’s creation and God’s plan. In Islam, there are no “chosen people” according to birthright or heritage, rather anyone can be among God’s “chosen people” based on their ethics, character, actions, commitment to justice, and Godly virtues.
We are told that God will settle the differences between us on the Final Day; our job as human beings is to stand for justice, empower the disempowered, pursue ethics and moral beauty, and represent divinity to the best of our ability – to seek after light and to emanate light in all we do. In the dark world, we live in, people are searching for the path to light. I believe Islam – elevated, enlightened, humanistic, beautiful Islam – is that path. It is our job as educators of this beautiful faith and message to be welcoming ambassadors so that anyone seeking the divine path can recognize it, learn it, and pursue it. We would not be doing our job as God’s agents on earth otherwise.
A final question, what message would you give to other Muslims who feel like their faith or community is not valuing their voice or who feel isolated or alone?
GS: It is a difficult time to be Muslim. So many people we meet through Usuli feel isolated and alone – they feel alienated from the mosque and unhappy with the status quo. They are seeking something much better. You are not alone.
Nevertheless, the Islamophobia Industry is real and extremely influential, and research shows that Muslims themselves are more influenced by Islamophobia than anyone else. What that means is that we have to work harder to counter that force at so many levels. As an individual, the most important actions are: 1) to educate yourself; 2) to strengthen your direct relationship with God; and 3) to support the right knowledge, either with your time or money.
At Usuli, we address all three of these points. We teach applied Qur’anic ethics. We begin at the foundations by extracting the moral lessons of the Qur’an and then applying them to current challenges. We stay abreast of what is happening in the world so we can be smart, relevant, and effective. Our values are here.
But I believe that more important than anything else is building your own personal loving relationship with God. Yes, we know intellectually that God is the most powerful, the most loving, the most merciful, compassionate, and forgiving, and that with God you can do anything. But at a personal level, it is harder to believe that God chose to create you; knows you intimately; loves you more than your mother loves you; wants what is best for you and for you to be the best version of yourself; and that God can protect you from anything bad. When you truly believe all of this in your heart and truly seek the path of God, then I believe that that is when you truly find peace (Islam) and know that with God, you are never isolated or alone. To me, that is the true meaning of peace.
From TPP: “For believers, every event that unfolds should be highly personal. How does that event speak to you and your relationship with God? Remember that God knows us as collectivities, as nations and tribes, but also as individuals…” (pg. 220).
In closing the interview, I shared with Grace that the morals of Islam remind me of the anime character, Sailor Moon. After all, she is the Guardian of Love and Justice. Sailor Moon constantly role models what it means to be a moral being and how we are all on our own journeys that will transform us towards hopeful good. Her message is inspiring, especially because we live in an age where it’s easy to fall into despair.
With suicide rates and depression spiking in Muslim communities, horrible genocides being carried out against Muslims around the world, and Muslim youth uneasy about their faith, institutions of light like Usuli are needed more than ever. Their knowledge gives us hope to face the everyday and work towards creating a society of light. What that will look like will depend on the efforts of each individual and how we all come together.
I’d like to share a final quote from The Prophet’s Pulpit that I’ve personally been reflecting on and feel that others will too:
“The most miraculous thing about human beings is our ability to decide upon our path after having comprehended the power of words. What makes us accountable before God is either our willingness to respond to words or our refusal and obstinance before words. Without words, there is no accountability…words are revelation,” (pg. 154).