He wore the clothes of a preacher. He stood in front of a gathered congregation. He quoted the Scriptures. He made an appeal for a certain kind of behavior. He even invoked the name of the greatest of them all.
It lasted 15 minutes, and I watched all of it, thinking “This man is really good.”
He sounded like a preacher. But he wasn’t. He is a professor at Southern Methodist University. His name is Omar Suleiman.
Yes. He is Muslim. Yes. It was a gathering of Muslim men. No women. Yes. It was a sermon. He presented like a preacher. He sounded like a preacher. In fact, he was a preacher.
His subject was gratitude.
“It is the first virtue of the Koran,” he said, referring to the holy book of Islam. I looked it up in an English translation. Chapter one is short—just seven sentences. Chapter two is long—286 sentences or paragraphs. And these are full of references to believers and unbelievers, heaven and hell, Jews and Christians, Bible and Koran. With an appeal to moral living.
Yes, right there in paragraph 53, after retelling the story of the unbelief of the Hebrew people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, it read: “Then We pardoned you after that, so that you might be grateful.”
Four paragraphs later, after telling of the terrors that came upon the Hebrew people because of their unbelief, it read: “Then We revived you after your death, so that you may be appreciative.”
These, I surmise, were the points of reference for the sermon I heard from Dr. Suleiman. But he may have had others in mind.
He spoke without notes, and the men listened without taking notes and also without consulting a personal copy of the Koran (as would be common in a Christian gathering).
Dr. Suleiman is an eloquent, learned, and passionate speaker. It is easy to see how his message would be both interesting and compelling.
“The first point I want to make,” he said, later referring to two others, is this: “Gratitude must be felt in the heart, expressed with the voice, and demonstrated with the deeds.”
That is a paraphrase and a summary of what he said, but he was more eloquent and passionate than what my written words here convey. He did not stumble once, and he moved easily from point to point to point, like a Christian preacher.
He had no stories, no anecdotes, no illustrations of people doing what he was urging on his hearers, except for one narrative embedded in the Koran that described a woman as faithful in religious duties but indifferent to gratitude.
In all these ways, Dr. Suleiman was like a gospel preacher, to the point of being winsome, even attractive.
He wore the black skullcap common in many Islamic communities. It is called a taqiyah. He wore a long black robe. It was very simple, contained no color, and drew no attention to itself.
It was his voice, his knowledge, his passion that drew me in.
Wikipedia describes him as a “an American Muslim scholar, civil rights leader, writer, and public speaker.” He was born into a Palestinian American family in New Orleans in 1986. He holds degrees from four institutions including the doctorate in Islamic thought and civilization from the International Islamic University of Malaysia.
His talk was sponsored by The Islamic Seminary of America, the first and only such school in the United States. It is located in Richardson, Texas, just outside Dallas. His sermon was one in a series explicating the “Manners of a Believer.”
I was surprised (and you will be also) to see posted on the seminary website of the faces of Directors, Advisors, and Faculty—men and women! The latter includes my long-time friend, Dr. Ihsan Bagby, recently retired from a career as Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Bagby has been a guest in TheMeetingHouse on more than one occasion, most recently last fall when we discussed his research on the status of the mosque in the United States.
He sounded like a preacher—Dr. Suleiman, that is; and, in fact, he is a preacher. A preacher of the Muslim religion. As a preacher of the Christian religion, I was pleased to hear him; and as a host of a broadcast/podcast, I am delighted at the thought that he, also, might one day be my guest in TheMeetingHouse.
One thing we would discuss: how can we measure gratitude in a person, and how effective are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim practices in cultivating gratitude in people. Are Muslims more or less grateful than Christians or Jews?
Wouldn’t that make an interesting conversation … on religion and American life?