Q+A with Shereen Elgamal, Scholar + Interfaith Mentor

Shereen Elgamal is an educator, scholar, interfaith mentor, caregiver, mother, writer, blogger and devout Muslim. While in school at UNC-Chapel Hill, I had the excellent fortune of being friends with two of her sons, Mohammad and Ahmad Saad – both incredibly bright and smart. No surprise, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Shereen is an intelligent, charming, vibrant woman whose warmth just shines.

When we learned that Shereen co-wrote a blog with her daughter, Amena, Sarah and I knew we needed to learn more. That blog, The Meeting of the Minds, discusses their experiences being Muslim in America, the unique dynamics of immigrant families, political perspectives on Islam, and even feminism and female empowerment in the Muslim tradition, from both Shereen and Amena’s perspectives. 

As we’ve learned recently, you can’t truly understand someone else’s story unless you let them tell it. Their blog lets the reader in, allowing us to communicate better as neighbors, families and friends. In a world that seems tumultuous and divided, their message of respect, sensitivity and kindness is a powerful one.

In this two-part feature, we’ve interviewed Shereen and Amena separately about their opinions and their passions. We’ll start with Shereen, and share Amena’s story tomorrow.

The Basics

  • Age: 50
  • Location: Cary, NC
  • Education: Doctorate in Education
  • Field of Interest: Curriculum planning, Interfaith work, youth mentoring
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? I am grateful to have a strong work ethic that allows me to persist and put forth my best effort in everything that I do.
  • What Inspired You Today?  There were several caring gestures and a lot of positive energy around me today, which inspired me to take steps that may have been harder to take under different circumstances.
  • What Are You Currently Listening To On Repeat? Recitations from the Qur’an
  • What Are You Reading That You Can’t Put Down? Various material on the widely misquoted verses from the Qur’an
  • What Are You Currently Involved In That You’re Really Excited About? Two projects are on my mind right now:
    • Developing a curriculum package that teaches form and proper pronunciation of the Arabic letters in a creative way that cuts down on the time needed to about 12 contact hours.
    • I am also excited to lead an initiative within the Muslim community of the Triangle area to raise funds and start an endowment that supports a position for a Muslim Chaplain at UNC.

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Questions + Answers

The blog you started with your daughter, Amena, is a remarkable body of work. At what moment did you know you were ready to start this project, and how would you describe the experience?

Starting a blog came together piece-by-piece. The idea to write down my thoughts on certain issues was sparked as I listened to friends and community members from immigrant families like mine share their frustration or concern, at one point or another, about the identity of their children. Their worries made me think about my own children and how our move to the States may have affected them. Family discussions of this issue were enjoyable and enlightening, as they revealed how each of us views his/her identity in a unique way, and how our varying views complement rather than contradict each other.

Then Amena started applying to colleges and I noticed how her essays demonstrated deep thought and clear expression. Her reflections opened my eyes to perspectives that never crossed my mind. We both love writing and agreed that documenting our views on the same issue may bring us closer together. We thought that sharing a diary for a year or so as a way to connect while providing a lasting memory that we can both enjoy in the future.

Current events and election campaigns added a third layer to the idea as they presented topics to discuss and issues to debate. Religion is a major part of both our identities and we both became eager to share our reactions to unreasonable comments and wild statements about our faith tradition.

Social media outlets allow for varied sharing possibilities, but they all tend to favor concise formats.  A blog presented us with the perfect medium to reach out to our community, as large or as small as it may be, and also to anyone who shares our disposition or is curious about it.

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Our goal is to share our perspectives with parents who may be worried, children who may be confused, and colleagues and friends who may be interested in our outlooks.  We aim to send a message that teenagers can relate to their parents on many levels, and that differences do not get in the way of strong relationships and healthy modes of discussion.  We also wish to bring attention to the fact that while Islamic principles are clear and stable, individual Muslims have their own way of interpreting them and applying them onto their respective lifestyles.  We also want to highlight the importance of seeking credible information and that not all claims about Islam are true, regardless of how widespread they are.

In a recent, fascinating post detailing your experience with the hijab, you describe yourself as an ambassador of your faith and the honorable role of women in Islam. This particular section stands out as particularly compelling: “In my opinion, appearance guidelines in Islam place more responsibility and set higher expectations of confidence and courage for females than their male counterparts.  After all, Muslim women are the ones constantly demonstrating their identity, even at the risk of possible negativity or criticism.” Why do you think this responsibility is placed on women?

My knowledge of Islam and my understanding of relevant historical accounts lead me to believe that the Islamic tradition is more focused on equity than equality between genders. Religious text addresses both men and women equally in matters of faith and spirituality, but matters of practice and role in society do acknowledge biological and emotional differences and treat them with careful consideration.  Consequently, variability in expectations is minimal and mainly aims to set up a structure, ease a burden, or highlight a strength.

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Numerous religious accounts recognize and appreciate women as valuable partners and contributing members of society. Abraham is viewed as the father of all monotheistic religions, and his wife Hajar is recognized as a role model for deep faith, steadfastness, and wisdom. Stories about her portray a devoted wife and mother who was also a dependable partner, a savvy negotiator, and an effective collaborator. Prophet Mohammad repeatedly referred to his wife Khadija as the cornerstone of his life. She was a wealthy business woman who was known for her strong personality, integrity, and deep wisdom.

These were only two examples of how the Islamic tradition appreciates women as the backbone of society, working side-by-side with their male counterparts and also gifted with heightened sensitivity and emotional intelligence.    

So when I think why appearance guidelines place responsibility on women, I see it as a symbol of shared leadership.

While my husband leads in prayer, I lead in representation.  I feel empowered by my Islamic attire as I constantly represent my faith without speaking a word. While everyone rushes to follow fashion trends, I sift carefully through what is available and only pick what suits my guidelines and standards. I also see the Muslim dress as a tool for character building. I think of how many women are the primary caretakers of children during their formative years, and how clear identity and demonstrated self-confidence can be communicated to those around them.  Finally, my Islamic appearance is a constant reminder of a goal and a duty to live up to and maintain the legacy of role models from earlier in history.

Would you share a fond memory of Cairo, either from your childhood or from a more recent visit? We have never been and would love to experience the city through the eyes and heart of someone who knows it!

Thinking of fond memories brings to mind a lot more people than it does places and events. One particular day in my fourth grade math class remains distinct, and I have drawn upon it time and time again ever since.

It was a big day for me because we were taking a unit test. Math was never a strength of mine and I always compensated for that by going over the same material several times and by practicing many exercises for each lesson or concept.  I was also in the habit of checking my work multiple times to catch silly mistakes.  Near the end of the class period, several students were done with their tests and the teacher was walking around room to see if anyone had questions.  She stopped by my desk and observed how I was carefully going over each and every problem and re-doing all calculations in the margins of my paper.

Ms. Mohsena waited patiently until I finished and as I handed her the exam, her face beamed with a wide smile while she asserted, “Shereen Elgamal, you will become somebody someday, and when that happens I want you to remember that I was the first one to foresee it.”

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This memory always draws a big smile across my face as I feel the power of care, dedication, hope, and positive thinking. The day she foresaw is yet to come, but her words have carried me through many apprehensions and moments of doubt.  I thought of Ms. Mohsena on the first day of class at the start of graduate school after being a stay-at-home mom for 11 years.  When self-doubt overwhelmed me as I pursued my doctorate, I convinced myself to push through as I thought to myself, “Maybe these last few months are the final step before becoming somebody.”

When responsibilities and commitments pile up, when hardships hit, when relationships face difficulties, and when motivation fades, I think of my fourth grade teacher and feel an urge to live up to her expectations and fulfill her vision.

This is the Cairo that I grew up in, the one that I cherish and like to remember.  It is a society where the old take care of the young until they are old enough to complete the cycle and return the favor. It is a place where people take their work to heart and far beyond what is required or expected. It is a space that is full of ambition, hard work, and big dreams.

This cherished memory comes with caution though, as the city that I knew has developed a different reputation.  I live with the sweet old memory and the hope that the light in the hearts of the honest and the loyal will soon shine again.

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Moving from Cairo to Kentucky in the early 90s must have been a challenging yet fulfilling transition. What was the greatest lesson you learned during this time of change? Do you have any advice for women on the precipice of a grand adventure?

I moved to America at the age of 28, with clear ethnic and religious imprints marking my sense of identity. I took pride in my heritage and the way it shaped my outlook on culture and tradition. Living in America for the past 22 years, my family has navigated its way through various achievements and challenges but we all agree that the process has been a transformative and impactful one.  The greatest lesson I learned is that a dual identity can be a great gain if we allow it to be, and that finding balance between the “old home” and the “new home” is a happy place to be.

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I call it “healthy assimilation”, with a strong conviction that it is a lifelong process of using a solid foundation to build an elaborate structure.  I believe that we need to know where we come from in order to be clear about where we are headed, and that every person or experience presents us with a valuable opportunity for growth, regardless of where we are.

My advice to someone intending to immigrate is to embrace the new experience, maintain a positive outlook, and find ways for all the good pieces, wherever they come from, to fit together.  Think of it as a “both/and” situation instead of “either/or”.  As a wife and a mother, I believe that it is part of my responsibility to demonstrate strength and provide stability in the face of the uncertainty and apprehension that accompany relocation.  We are the beating heart of our families and we owe our loved ones a sense of calm and peace as we all face what is new and unfamiliar.

Homesickness sometimes leads us to idealize what we left behind, forgetting any difficulties and ignoring the fact that realities change over time and that our worries and concerns from far away may actually be echoed by family and friends back home.

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Some immigrants fall into the trap of putting their lives on hold until they go home.  To them I say, there is always a reason for things to transpire a certain way and every situation has an upside and a downside.  Figure out possible reasons that you are where you are, then highlight the advantages and enjoy them while working to marginalize the disadvantages.  I am now convinced beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

My final piece of advice is to maintain a flexible attitude because life rarely moves in a straight line, and if I have to head to another destination or return where I was born, my opinion would be the same.

You mentioned that you’ve been reading about frequently misquoted verses from the Qu’ran. What is one verse that is frequently misquoted, and what is the correct quote? Also, do you have a favorite quote, and if so, what is it?

“Kill them where you find them,” is a phrase from the Qur’an that is frequently carved out of a long sentence with total disregard to its textual as well as historical contexts.  The sentence that contains the phrase reads, “Kill them (those who fight you) whenever you come upon them and drive them out from wherever they drove you out.  And (beware that) persecution is more harmful than killing. And do not fight them near the holy site unless they fight you in it. But if they fought you there, then kill them. Thus, this (warfare) is the recompense for those who deny the truth.” (2:191)

Islamophobes and those who choose to cherry-pick from the Qur’an ignore the historical context of four consecutive verses that take account of this battlefield exhortation.  The passage refers to the major group that had persecuted Muslims for thirteen years and had driven them out of their homes, seized their property, and fought battles against them even after Muslims immigrated to Medina.  Later, Muslims were eager to visit the holy sites for pilgrimage but were apprehensive about a possible attack against them.  The passage, made up of four consecutive verses, was revealed to clarify how to handle a possible attack.

Those who use the phrase selectively never mention the sentence right before it that reads, “Fight against those who fight you, but do not commit aggression.  Indeed God loves not the transgressors.” (2:190) It is also important to point out that Muslim scholars explain the phrase “do not commit aggression” to mean, “Do not attack women, children, the elderly, or anyone who is not fighting against you (non-combatants).”  It is also never mentioned that the very next sentence reads, “And if they cease from fighting you, then do not fight them, for verily God is Most Forgiving and Most Merciful.” (2:192)

Then comes the concluding statement to wrap up the issue and complete the account, “Fight them to eradicate religious persecution and to ensure religious freedom, but if they cease fighting, then let there be no hostility except against oppressors.” (2:193)

Historical accounts reveal that such fighting never took place and a peace agreement was reached instead.

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Therefore, the passage clearly prohibits fighting against those who are not engaged in combat and the misquoted phrase describes fighting in defense against perpetrators of religious persecution and torture.

A favorite quotes of mine from the Qur’an reads, “Oh you mankind, indeed. We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you get to know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most virtuous of you. Indeed, Allah is All-knowing and All-aware.” (49:13)

The text beautifully and succinctly presents five key values in Islam:

  • The first value is the human bond, which connects all human beings at a foundational level and places our relationships above any considerations that may differentiate us from one another.
  • The second value is our differences and how Islamic ideals do not expect individuals to be identical. Islam values variation and considers it as natural and important as similarities.
  • The quote also points out how important it is to know one another. Individuals are expected to complement and support each other towards the shared goal of developing their respective communities/societies.
  • The quote also highlights that character and virtue are the traits that truly count. The Islamic tradition focuses on what is in the heart and the mind rather than any superficial features or material considerations.
  • Finally, the quote emphasizes that it is not the business of any human to judge another, as judgment belongs to God, who knows what is apparent and what is not.

This is a trying time, especially in terms of politics. Intolerance and ignorance seem to abound, threatening to overwhelm from all sides. Where do you find peace and hope? As we also asked Amena, how can we challenge small-minded notions, and how do you personally stay strong and loving?

My faith gives me peace. I believe in a loving merciful creator who is always with me, and that gives me peace. I trust His wisdom and believe that there are good reasons for everything that comes my way. I find a lot more peace in acceptance and understanding than in rejection or doubt. I believe in judgment, and feel at peace that each person will eventually face the consequence of his/her chosen deeds. I believe in an eternal afterlife, so what’s favorable gives me something to look forward to and what’s unfavorable seems temporary and brief. I believe that the reward matches the effort, so I am at peace trying to always do my best.

People give me hope. I feel hopeful when a neighbor brings flowers to my door after a media campaign against Islam and Muslims. I feel encouraged when a colleague approaches me to make sure that I am not bothered by some politically-motivated remarks. I feel optimistic when people choose to think for themselves and ask insightful questions. I see a better tomorrow in interfaith discussions and service projects, in polite inquiries about beliefs or practices, and when a student tells me that my class broadened his/her views or informed their opinion.

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Religious tradition and community help me remain strong and loving. Islamic teachings highlight the value of love, patience, and positive thinking.  They affirm that patience and steadfastness will be generously rewarded.  The Qur’an states that effort is never wasted and that it will sooner or later pay off. Islamic ideals indicate that truth always prevails, even when the road leading to it is long and winding. I also believe that there is goodness in everyone, and that helps me excuse or overlook the slips and mistakes of others. The three main communities that I rely on for renewed energy are people who share my interests and passions through work, worship, or interfaith activities.

As for small-minded notions, I say, educate or ignore. Knowledge is the best way to challenge and defeat small-minded notion, lies, and half-truths. If people are interested to receive information and engage in civilized discussions, then I would gladly devote as much time and energy as needed to share knowledge and spread awareness. On the other hand, I say no to wasting time with someone who is set in his/her ways or who are too negative to consider alternate views.

Small-minded notions are also challenged when concepts and ideas are humanized.  I believe that working side-by-side with a Muslim may refute what a broadcasting company would devote substantial resources to spread about the faith and its adherents.

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Who inspires you?

  • Jan Fuller is a friend and a colleague at Elon University where she serves as Chaplain.  Having grown up in Lebanon, Jan is deeply knowledgeable on matters of religion and culture in the Middle East.  Jan’s outreach efforts are inspiring as she always has creative ideas that bring people together.  She finds great value in multi-faith initiatives and does a great job coordinating them.  Jan’s knowledge of varied religious traditions and her positive disposition allows for the most productive discussions and collaborations even when controversy marks certain topics or groups.
  • Frances Fuller is Jan’s mother and her writings inspire me even though we have never met.  Having lived in Lebanon for many years, she is also deeply knowledgeable of the cultural etiquette and sensitive conflicts.  As I follow her blog, I admire her up-to-date reflections laced with valuable life experience and an energetic flow of positive energy.  Her writing style is gripping and reflects cultural sensitivity and a clear desire for justice and peace.  I aspire to be as informed and as active as Frances Fuller during my retirement years, especially that her efforts are always focused on spreading understanding, respect, and peace.
  • Rachel Galper is a friend and a partner in various interfaith activities.  Working as a teacher at Durham Public Schools, Rachael’s care for her students appears in the way she talks about them and her passion for her work shows clearly as she describes how much she enjoys it.  When in Rachel’s company, an overwhelming sense of peace takes over, and the depth of her reflection is remarkably moving.  My interactions with Rachel motivate me to pursue new goals, and it is always fascinating to see how her faith inspires her work as a school teacher, a community activist, and as an interfaith collaborator.
  • Donna Van Bodegraven is a colleague who has been working at Elon University for 17 years.  She was the department chair when I first joined Elon 9 years ago and she volunteered to be my mentor to help me get familiar with the university and its system of operation.  It felt like a friendship more than anything else as she so caringly and answered my questions.  I am inspired by her energy and love for her work and her students and how she always volunteers for tasks and leads initiatives.  Donna’s attitude makes Elon feel like family where students are our children and collaborations are fun.  I have seen how Donna handles adversity and learned a lot from her graceful attitude and positive demeanor.  I respect Donna and look up to her as she always makes me think of what else I could do and who else I could reach out to.
+ Please share your comments in the section below, and get ready for a wonderful interview with Amena tomorrow!
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