Interview with Stephen Schwartz
June 6, 2005
VIBES: As a Muslim, inspired by Sufism of 13th century Spanish Muslim mystic Ibn Arabi, can you talk about your journey to discovering Islam and the inner compulsion to convert?
Stephen Schwartz: I did not feel the call to become Muslim until I had spent time in a Muslim society, namely Bosnia-Hercegovina. Until then, Sufism was a fascinating intellectual phenomenon for me, and Islam is, of course, a great, civilization-building faith. I am now 56 years old, and began studying Sufism almost forty years ago. But my road to shehadeh was a fairly long one in terms of my life-span. I grew up and spent most of my adulthood in California but I was not a "New Age" Sufi. I came from a mixed background (mother Christian, father Jewish) but had no religious upbringing, and although drawn to both Catholicism and Judaism, did not join either community formally. My work as a journalist in the Balkans, however, and my relations with Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, transformed my life. I began to see a hidden logic to my journey I had not previously imagined, and to understood why my life had led me to the door of the mosque. A part of me feels at home in synagogues, and I know I am welcomed and useful in Catholic churches, but when I first entered a mosque, in Sarajevo in 1991, I immediately sensed, if only in the form of "sparks," that "this is the home of my whole soul and being." I read through Qur'an, and after some readings of Ibn Arabi, made shehadeh, at the age of 49, alhamdulillah!
I do not describe my decision as "conversion" because I did not have a specific religion before becoming Muslim; I did not "convert" from one thing to something else. I would also add that the indigenous European character of Balkan Islam was an important element in my development. For me there was no cultural barrier to Balkan Islam such as might have existed if I had first gone (as I often thought of doing) to Morocco, Turkey, or Central Asia. In Sarajevo and in Kosovo, I am at home spiritually, culturally, and psychologically. Finally, the similarities of the Balkan Islamic heritage with the East European Jewish legacy inherited from my father also affected me significantly.
VIBES: You have enunciated the belief that a pluralistic traditional Islam was reformed by the Arabs in the 18th Century to reflect a radicalist agenda. What is your take on the call to "reform" Islam today by various progressive groups, given that context?
Stephen Schwartz: I do not call for reform of our religion, but for restoration of pluralism. Once pluralism and debate are restored, with the end of the Wahhabi monopoly in the Haramain, we can discuss the legitimacy of reform and of issues that may need new interpretations. But first we must reestablish pluralism.
VIBES: Is the concept of Ijtehad (reform) a valid one in terms of practicality in a global world with Muslim Diaspora?
Stephen Schwartz: In my view, as a Sufi, ijtehad was never lost in Islam. The glory of our religion is that it encouraged debate and reason among the believers from the beginning, and the debate bore magnificent fruit, religiously and civilizationally. As Muslims in the world, how can we be prouder than of the historical fact that we reintroduced the scientific and philosophical heritage of the Greeks to a Christian world that had lost it? In addition, as Sufis, we represent a spiritual tradition that transformed Jewish and Christian theology. How can we forget these great gifts to humanity?
The Wahhabis have sought to eliminate all this from our consciousness as Muslims. It is like slashing the face and cutting the heart out of one's beloved spouse. Ijtehad, as reason, is relevant and a practical necessity in the life of every Muslim everywhere.
VIBES: You point to Wahabism as the main problem in the struggle for the soul of Islam. How could it be that simple?
Stephen Schwartz: It is that simple because the Wahhabis were enabled to seize control of the Haramain and the hajj, and then benefited incredibly from the generous support of the foreign oil companies and Western governments. Saudi Arabia remains the richest and most powerful Muslim country. When it stops financing Wahhabi colonialism in the Sunni community, the struggle will be nearly won by moderate Muslims
Related Topics: Wahhabism
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