USC professor talks submission to God in Discover Islam Week keynote

Preston R. Michelson, Reporter

A University of Southern California professor and Islamic scholar spoke Friday night about Islam in the age of modernity in front of a packed room in Harris Hall.  

The keynote address, titled “Submission and Agency in the Age of Modernity,” capped Discover Islam Week, sponsored by the Muslim-cultural Student Association. 

“Submission to God does not eradicate my ability to choose in any number of areas in my life,” said Sherman Jackson, USC professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. “Even assuming that I am the most committed Muslim that one could imagine, scripture is not going to dictate to me every choice that I have to make in life. It’s impossible.”

Jackson is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at USC and was named to the 2013-14 list of the World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan. 

He spent much of his speech talking about how Islamic scripture like the Quran should fit within personal decision making. While he made clear that scripture has a place in the life of a Muslim, it is not the ultimate decision maker.

“Of course, we are people who believe in the power of reason,” he said. “As human beings, we are not just minds. We are anxieties, we are hopes, we are fears, we are ambitions, we are lusts.”

Jackson delivered a speech which was followed by a nearly hour-long question-and-answer session, moderated by Rami Nashashibi, the executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. 

Many of the questions from the audience asked about his opinion on the place of scripture, but others also probed about the four idols that can disrupt submission and agency that Jackson presented, which include rationality and white supremacy.

Zahed Haseeb, a University of Chicago student, found the point about idols convincing. 

“A lot of times when you become too committed to certain causes, you forget about the assumptions that you’re working on and treat them as universally true,” he said.

An annual event at NU, Discover Islam Week held daily events this year, including talks on topics such as “Black Jesus: Challenging Perceptions About Christ” and “The Many Faces of Feminism: Secular and Religious Convergence.” 

Jackson posed many open-ended questions to the audience but also shared his own opinions on how to live in a modern society as a Muslim.

“We engage life,” he said. “We do the best we can. … We make mistakes, we ask for forgiveness and we keep going. Islam is about engagement in life.”

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