The Imago Dei: Dr. Mustafa Khattab

Today I'm starting a new blog series called The Imago Dei, it means the image of God. I wanted to talk to people from some of the groups that Americans tend to demonize and misunderstand. The people I've interviewed may not think or believe the same things you do, but they all have dignity and value. There is so much we can learn from one another if we are willing to listen. 

 I traveled to Egypt almost 10 years ago and spent time in the homes of many hospitable Muslim families. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but times have changed and the major sentiment towards the Muslim community in our nation is fear. A few months ago I spoke to Dr. Mustafa Khattab: a Muslim imam who ministers in Toronto Canada. He has recently written a new translation of the Quran (which is the historical Muslim religious text) called the Clear Quran

 Image Courtesy of  Crystal Tompkins

Image Courtesy of Crystal Tompkins

Can you tell me where you were born and where you grew up?

Well, I was born in a small village in the delta which is about 70 or 80 kilometers to the north of Cairo. It's called Kom El-Dab’.

What was life like for you as a little boy in a Muslim family? What kind of religious training did you receive, and what were your relationships like with your family and your siblings?

I have three brothers and two sisters, and we have a long, long tradition in the village of not going to school, so I was lucky to make it to school. My mother fought for me to get an education. So I'm talking about being the first person in the history of my family, we're talking about hundreds of years here-- I was the first one who was ever educated.

Then I made it into college in Cairo: and I got my bachelors', then my Masters', then my Ph.D, now I'm here in the West teaching about Islam. And my family, they're basically all farmers, they still live in the village in Egypt.

And what kind of religious training did you receive?

In Egypt we have two types of education. There's the public system: you go there to study science, math, Arabic, and different things. Then there is the Islamic education which is called El-Azhar. The El-Ahzar system is very popular in the Muslim world. People come from different parts of the world, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, to study El-Azhar. So this is where I got my religious training, from the age of seven all the way to getting all the degrees they have.

I know there are different types of Islam, can you tell me which sect you are from? 

Normally in the Arab world we don't go by sects; we just call ourselves Muslim. But recently because of political issues and conflicts in the Middle East in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, people have started to identify themselves as either Sunni or Shitte. Technically, what makes a person a Muslim is their belief in the Five Pillars of Islam: to believe that there is only one God and that Muhammad (peace be upon him and all prophets) is a prophet; pray five times a day; fast during Ramadan; give to charity; and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

All of them agree on the same thing and the have the same version of the Quran. Maybe there are political differences but not much of a religious difference. They do exactly the same basics of Islam, so I don't see the difference between Sunni and Shiite like I see the difference between Protestants and Catholics, for example. Most of the time they pray together at the same mosques, and do the same functions and services together. Here in Canada--and even when I was in the US-- Sunnis and Shiites were praying together. My previous mosque in St. Catharines, Ontario, was built by a Shiite, and the majority of the worshippers are Sunnis. However, in places teaming with political tension—like Iraq and Iran—each group prefers to have its own mosques.

A little bit of history, the reason why we have the two groups is because in the year 632 C.E, when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and all prophets) passed away, there were two groups who disagreed about who should be the successor of the prophet as the ruler of the Muslim community. So the majority of the Muslims who are now called Sunnis (they make up more that 90% of the Muslim population in the world) they said that the most qualified, the most knowledgeable, and the most righteous man in the community should become the ruler. Then there's the smaller group who are now identified as Shiite. They believe that someone from the prophet's bloodline, namely his cousin or his son-in-law, Ali, should have been the ruler of the Muslim world. This is the reason why they had the disagreement.

Growing up did you always want to be an imam?

When I was younger I was wishing to become a writer or a journalist, and I ended up becoming an imam. But I author books, so I do both now.

What do you do as an imam? I'm totally not in the Muslim world, is it similar to being a pastor?

To the best of my knowledge, pastors mostly work on Sundays and Wednesdays if there are lectures, but in my case, like many imams, I work 24/7. Especially in the West, because we don't have as many mosques. So when I was in Niagara I was one imam serving 7,000 Muslims. When I was in Edmonton I was serving at least 30,000 Muslims in the city.

My responsibilities are primarily religious. I conduct the Friday services like Sundays for the Christians, the holiday functions, and also when someone dies, I lead their funeral prayers. Then there are the educational duties like teaching lectures, and giving reminders after prayers. If there is a school in the mosque, then I help with curriculum, and I help the teachers, and I give talks to the students.

I also lead tours and do chaplaincy work if my services are needed at the hospitals. I also help with the local colleges if there is a Muslim Student's Association. I go and give them talks and answer their questions. Then there are the social services like marriage, divorce, and counseling. So these are basically the duties I do most of the time.

I'm a Christian, and within Christianity there's a pretty strong message of future dominance. In our Scriptures it says, "Every knee will bow and every tongue will proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord." And in our Scriptures God also promises to crush his enemies. Would you say that similar themes can be found the Quran?

Well, it depends, The Quran is a neutral book. If you would like to do good, serve humanity, be courteous, kind, and good you will find support in The Quran. Also if you would like to spew hate and become violent and evil you will find ammunition in The Quran--just like The Bible.

You can interpret the same verse your own way for your own interests. This is something we--as human beings--have done throughout history, whether we're talking about Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews. We just look for proof for whatever we like to do, whether we're talking about good things or bad things.

How do you think hateful themes affect religious extremist groups?

Again, I believe that these are political groups, and for them to win political support from the masses, and for them to have credibility; the easiest way is for them to quote (or rather misquote) the scriptures for their own interests. This is the easiest way for them to build a base for themselves: to use religion as a smokescreen or a disguise for whatever agenda they may have.

Here in the US many people are afraid of terrorist organizations that associate themselves with Islam. Some politicians have suggested that we should fear all Muslims and all immigrants, do you agree?

No, because the same thing was said about the Japanese in WWII, the Italians, and the Germans. And now, many years later, they came to regret and apologize for what they have done. You don't take a whole group and punish them or demonize them because of the actions of a few. If we take the Klu Klux Klan or some Catholics who do certain things-- and you see them in the news all the time-- and you demonize all of Christianity.  This would not be fair. My main problem is that in many cases, the actions of some who claim to be Muslim are perceived as representatives of Islam whereas the actions of good Muslims are not.

Have you, yourself met any imams who are radicalizing people?

I don't think so, because the imams that I work with, and the imams that I associate with, teach the true message of Islam. On how to become a good citizen, and how to become a good Muslim at the same time. 

I think radical groups and some politicians share the same views that Islam is violent and Muslims are on a mission to dominate the word. They always say that you cannot be a good American and a Muslim at the same time. It's either one or the other, right!? But this doesn't make sense. This is like saying, you can either be a good father or a good husband. I can be both at the same time because there is nothing in Islam that is against being a good citizen. Early Muslims they used to travel, they lived with non-Muslims, and had good relations.

 Image courtesy of  Crystal Tompkins

Image courtesy of Crystal Tompkins

Tell me what you believe is the true message of Islam?

Islam just like any faith is based on two things, your relationship with the creator and your relationship with the creation.  So if you look at the Ten Commandments the first four say worship God alone, serve Him alone and so on and so forth. From five to ten, don't kill, don't lie, don't steal--be a good guy.

Every single prophet says the same thing: good relationship with God and good relationship with people--and by extension all of his creations. If you take the golden rule: love God with all you heart and love your neighbor as yourself, it's all about the creator and the creation. So this is what Islam teaches and I've seen a lot of people come to Islam because of the simplicity of the teachings. You can always explain the concepts of Islam. They make sense whereas-- I'm not trying to put down Christianity or anything-- but I've been breaking my head for over thirty years now to understand the concept of the Trinity. It still doesn't make sense to me. Again, the teachings of Islam are very simple: your rights and your obligations. Like in the Ten Commandments: have faith in One God and do good. You communicate directly with your Creator, no intermediaries. Because of its practicality, because of its common sense-- this is why a lot of people find peace in Islam and they are able to understand it and apply it to their lives. 

Can you tell me about your translation of the Quran?

 I think this is the first translation done in Canada, and I think I am the youngest person to have translated the Quran at the age of thirty-seven. This is also not actually my first translation. I did one over ten years ago at the age of Twenty-six. I'm not trying to brag or anything, but this is my specialization.

 I've been studying this for many years, and I've been in this field for over thirty years. I've read almost every translation the Quran in English of and there are basically two reasons why I decided to translate. I'm not going to talk about non-Muslim translations of the Quran because for over 1,300 years, the Quran was never translated by a Muslim into English.

The first translation done by a Muslim into English was done in 1905. So for over 1,300 years Muslims believed that the Quran should only be read in its original language--Arabic. This is why so many translations were produced in Europe by missionaries or linguists. This is also why you still see some words in old translations like ‘holy war’ and ‘infidels’. We don't have these words in the Quran in Arabic. These words were introduced in translations by non-Muslim translators.

Now fast forward to 1905 with Muhammad Abdul Hakim.  He made his translation and then there were hundreds of translations made by other Muslims. But most of the time, I will tell you, these people didn't speak Arabic. I would say that more than 85% of the translations done by Muslims were done by non-Arabs, so they didn't have a proper understanding of the source language. You can't translate the Quran like you translate a newspaper. It’s a totally different standard of Arabic. The Arabic has a lot of metaphors and imagery, and when you use the dictionary to translate it you make many mistakes. This is something I faced when I studied these translations.

In 2013, I was in Toronto giving a Friday speech, and I was dressed up in traditional Arab garb. On the way to the hotel I was in the cab with a non-Muslim. If you know about Toronto, there are many cab drivers who are Muslim here, like it's part of being Muslim in Toronto to be a cab driver.

This was the first time and probably the only time where I got a cab and the driver was non-Muslim. I don't normally talk to people about Islam unless they ask me a question, and that day I get a comment from the guy and he said, "Muslims are good people but Islam sucks."  

And I said," Ok why do you think Islam is evil?"

And he said, "Because your book, the Quran calls me an animal."

I said, " I know the whole Quran by heart in Arabic and in translation,  I don't think I've seen this word anywhere in the Quran."

And he gave the reference Chapter 8 verse 55. And I told him that the word in Arabic is "dabah". Dabah doesn't mean an animal. It's a very general term in Arabic we use, and it means any living being. Any living creature. It can be a human. It can be a peacock. It can be a squirrel—anything (see Chapter 24 verse 45).  I'm sure he's watching too much Fox News because this is something they say. "Muslims are good: Islam is evil."

There is a website that gives you forty different translations of the same verse, and the man was right most of them said either animal or beast, but this is not what it says in Arabic. So that day I decided to do my own translation. For the next three years I was immersed in the translation, and I think we have produced probably the most accurate, and the clearest version of the Quran.

The first reason I did a new translation is accuracy. Those who previously translated the Quran didn't have adequate knowledge of Arabic. The second reason is that those who did know the Arabic language seemed to complicate things for no reason. They basically used an old, archaic style. Maybe they were trying to imitate the King James Version style.  They made it very difficult and inaccessible to the youth and people who would like to learn about Islam. This is why our translation is clear and it's accurate. It's accessible and it's smooth. There is good flow in the translation. Sometimes I talk about the translation too much because this is my passion (you can actually order a free copy in the US:

No, it was so good for me to hear. I've briefly studied Islam, and I felt like there were some words that I saw written in the Quran that I thought were really strong and harsh. I would love to go back and kind of look and see in your translation what you've come up with.... Also, you grew up living in the East, what are some of the critiques that people living in the East have of the West?

Most people admire the advancement in science and technology and the relative respect of the law and human rights. Many of those who condemn the West are desperate to get a visa to the US or Canada. But generally the Western foreign policy—especially that of the US—is perceived as unfair towards the Muslim world, particularly when it comes to the suffering of the Palestinians and other nations before and after 9/11. Many people in that part of the world think that you guys are trying to force your democracy on them.

Keep in mind that many minorities have been suffering in the US, take Japanese Americans as an example. Now imagine if back in the 1940's or 1950's another democracy in Europe—say France or Britain—was not happy because of the way you guys treated African Americans or Latinos or the first nation, and they decided to invade you to impose democracy on you, to show you how to treat people equally.

It doesn't make sense you know!? People are saying, how can you force democracy on us when still to this day, many minority groups are treated like second class citizens? You see all the time the shootings: white police officers shooting black people in the street; even in the court system if a black guy does something wrong he will get a very severe sentence. Whereas, if a white guy does exactly the same thing, his sentence will be much lighter.

Getting a sentence in the US probably has less to do with the crime itself and more to do with your skin color. So when we look at all these things back home, you still have problems in your democracy but still you want to force it on our people. And also, all these unjustified wars like the horrible mistake that was done in Iraq, and you know all the misery and all of the horrible consequences that came from that which led eventually to the creation of these radical groups that we see now.

This is what people think over there--we'll be better off if you guys leave us alone. Again, if you watch Fox News--I did my PH.D. dissertation on Fox News and my forthcoming book is titled Outfoxing Fox News--this is a common theme they have: that these Muslims over there, they hate us because of our prosperity and because of our freedoms. Well the answer is, Japan has freedom, European countries have freedom, Canada has freedom. So why do Muslims in those countries have no issues with Canada, with Japan and other democracies in the world? Maybe because they leave them alone, they treat them with respect? This is part of the argument back there. I don't know if it makes sense to you.

I think it's really good. I think that forcing democracy on other people is not something that Americans view as a bad thing, because we believe that democracy is the best system of government. I think that comes from our education. We've been kind of trained and indoctrinated to believe that we are the best even when there are gross injustices happening all the time here. So I think a lot of Americans are delusional about the greatness of America, does that make sense?

Yeah, and I'm not saying that the countries in the Muslim world have the best political systems, but what works for you doesn't work for other people. This is just like when you have ten sick people: one has cancer, one has diabetes, one has a headache, one has a tumor and you give them all Tylenol. I'm not sure if you use Tylenol in the US, but it doesn't work for everyone right!? Everyone should have their own system that works for the people.

Can you tell me about your own personal dreams and aspirations for the future?

Just like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream that I will see people treated equally, and that everyone will have access to education, clean water, food, and human rights and good treatment with dignity as human beings.

 I believe that the earth is spacious enough, and it has provision for everyone. But it's because of the greed that some of us have that many of us don’t have access to all these rights. They aren't privileges. They are rights! Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their faith, race, orientation, or ethnicity. In our time many people are not treated with dignity or equality. If you look at the situation in Syria and Iraq right now, and how people are being killed on a daily basis and no one cares about them. It’s heartbreaking...

Here in the US we hear a great deal about the abuse of women in Muslim countries. Can you tell me about the role of women in the Quran and in the Muslim community? What do you think about equality for women?

The Quran makes it clear that men and women are equal before God and the Law (16:97 and 33:35). Abuses against some Muslim women (e.g., honor killing and forced marriages) are cultural practices in some Muslim countries that contradict Islamic teachings. Islam has given women the right to inheritance, education, to have a say in marriage—some of these rights are denied to some Muslim women in some cultures in the Muslim world, but Islam has nothing to do with it. Have you ever wondered why in Islam women keep their last names at marriage? There are many prominent Muslim women in every field: education, science, business, etc. Several Muslim women have been elected president and prime minister in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey (I’m not sure if Hillary will be able to make history in November. Bernie Sanders is the best of all). The high status of women in Islam explains why 75% of reverts to the faith are women.