(Deseret News) — Najeeba Syeed is a theologian, a lawyer, a professor, an interfaith studies leader and a Muslim who went to a synagogue in the weeks immediately following the brutal Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 and said to a Jewish group, “You will be safe with me. It is because I am a Muslim that I extend my hand in warmth and welcome and safety to you.”
As a Muslim, Syeed extends her hand with warmth, peace and safety to other religious communities too. In a conversation on the Interfaith America podcast, I recently spoke with her about what it looks like to extend peace and create constructive dialogue in a community during times of intense global conflict.
A portion of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Eboo Patel: It’s a difficult time for Muslims, a difficult time for Jews, a difficult time for everybody. How’s your spirit doing?
Najeeba Syeed: Yes, I think it is a difficult time for everyone. One thing that’s really been illuminating for me is that you never know how a global crisis is going to impact you and students. I was really struck by one of my students after one of my classes. She took me aside and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, Professor Syeed, I really didn’t know much about this region before this moment.”
It really was eye-opening to me that whatever I might be going through or individuals might be going through, other people are just learning, are just coming to the table now, or just hearing. How do we make room for all of those folks at this place, whether it’s our universities or our communities, to have a conversation?
I could have responded to her and said, “Well, why didn’t you know anything? What’s wrong?” but I had to have an open heart and an open mind and just listen. I think that’s really been indicative for me of the stance that I personally take as an individual, as a mom, as a professor, as someone who engages across the country — let me show up and let me listen.
EP: A few days after Oct. 7, you speak at a synagogue in the Twin Cities and you said something in that talk that I just found so moving. You say, “I stand here to let you know that in our country right now, we know that antisemitism is on the rise, and I want you to know that you are safe with me. I want you to know that if your synagogue is ever targeted, my home and my heart are open to you. Some days it may get impossible to be able to share space, but I want you to know that if ever there was a moment when we can witness each other’s pain, that is, in fact, a sacred witness.”
I think those are sacred words. I want to ask — you’re a Muslim American and a professor of Islamic studies at Augsburg University. How is it that a week or two after Oct. 7, you, a Muslim professor, are speaking at a synagogue? How does that come to be?
NS: I think the question for me that’s even bigger is how is it as a Muslim who’s a professor at a university, how is it that I couldn’t say those words? That to me is really the question … but this was planned months ago.
EP: Your visit to the synagogue was planned months before that?
NS: Exactly. Part of what I think is important to know is that, for me, being in relationship with other faith communities was a practice that predated this most recent crisis. I share that because what that means is, showing up isn’t just an act of recognition when there has been harm. I should be showing up then anyway, but it should be a way of life for me, and that’s part of being Muslim. At the very core, part of being Muslim is to, as the Quran tells us, get to know people of diverse backgrounds.
It’s mentioned more than once in the Quran that the diversity of humankind is a sign of God’s creation. The Quran also says God could have made us all one people. God could have made us all Muslim, God could have made us all Jewish, or all of one language and culture. To me, it’s a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice to know other communities. Then at the heart of that, showing up in that moment, a commitment I had already made prior, months before. It was this other saying of Prophet Muhammad that, from a Muslim, you should feel safe from their hand … as a Muslim, other people should feel safe with me.
To me, it’s a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice to know other communities.
I mentioned in my comments at the synagogue that I’m doing this because it’s based on how I interpret my relationship with God. That if a community is in pain, if a community is scared, that it’s my sacred obligation first to be there to witness the harm that they’ve gone through, and then to make sure that if they need a place of safety, that me and my family would be there.
EP: The beauty of the language was particularly moving. It’s a combination of your own manifestation, “You will be safe with me,” and the Muslim theological heritage, which is the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, says that a Muslim is someone from whose hand you shall feel safe. There’s that combination of what is in the tradition and then your particular interpretation and centering of it.
By the way, this is a time of duress for Muslims in America. We all agree on that. And you are saying we should do that, and more. Tell me how this particular interpretation of Islam, what we at Interfaith America would call a Muslim theology of interfaith cooperation, which is to say my commitment to protect you is rooted in my particular theology. How does that become central to your understanding of Islam?
NS: There’s a really important time of Prophet Muhammad’s life where he experienced what was a Muslim ban, where he experienced tribal leaders that said, “We don’t want to have trade with you because if you continue preaching this message, in many ways, we will ban you physically. We will not do commerce with you.” This was one of the most difficult times in his life. It’s called, by some scholars, “the year of sorrow.”
One of the things that really struck me that was really beautiful, I was reading a scholar who said the way that that ban was broken was by righteous people who were not Muslim who broke that embargo, whether it was around feeding this community — it was a very small, at this time, nascent community of people who were very much at the margins of society. Early Muslims, like early Christians, early Buddhists, people who came to these faith communities, were not always people of power. They were people at the very margins and edges of society that were really touched by the messages of justice and solidarity.
I think about that again and again, that, in many ways, the survival of Muslims early on depended on righteous people who are not of Muslim origin or didn’t accept the Muslim faith but supported this very small community. Prophet Muhammad’s own mission in his 20-year-plus mission, it was non-Muslims in his family that also supported him despite not believing in what he preached.
I have a family shajra tree that’s more than 15 generations long, in which each generation, we were Muslim teachers and keepers of the tradition in Kashmir and starting in Arabia and moving all the way into South Asia.
I say that because it’s the survival of my community, my family is tied to people who stepped out of their own self-interest. I think about all those moments, and I think about Prophet Muhammad in these times of these years of sorrow, and thinking about how my community has survived, not just because of us, but because of others who extended themselves — so how can I not do the same?
Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”
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