John Esposito-Let God be God

I went to a talk by John Esposito during Ramadan. I wrote a draft of this post during Ramadan but I didn’t want to waste time writing the post so I’m finishing it up now with all of my commentary. Unfortunately it’s not as fresh in my mind. It was a very short talk. He is working on a book called The Future of Islam.

I was very surprised, It was an at an Iftar do mostly Muslim attended and I think most of us were blown away. The talk was very Dr. Jacksonesque and Muner Fareedesque too. I guess it’s an academic thing. But I was just surprised to hear it from a non-Muslim.

But he mentioned the book by Maududi: “Let us be Muslims.” He said the theme of his talk was going to be “let God be God.” He makes the judgments calls. We are not the judges, He is. And Dr. Esposito mentions that this is a problem that Christians also have.

He started with the tendency of Islam and Christianity to go back to tradition rather than scripture. This was really interesting and true in many ways.

Now first things first, I want to deal with some criticisms that many people put forth about John. Oh he’s an apologist oh he’s not a real Islamic scholar. Now he might not have as much scholarly presence as Dr. John Voll or Dr. Sherman Jackson and he might not have the breadth of knowledge of the likes of Mufti Ali Gomaa etc., but I will put forth the argument that he is CREDIBLE at least even if you don’t agree with his conclusions. This is because he clearly has spent A LOT of time with and around Muslims. Regular youth and people such as Al-Qaradawi and Mufti Ali Gomaa. And if you truly believe that he doesn’t know Islam very well, he definitely knows Muslims extremely well. He knows how Muslims interpret and behave towards Islam. As a Muslim I can tell, when he says things, it’s usually on the bull’s eye. I HATE when non-Muslims and act like orientalists and want to enter into my psyche. I can’t stand it. I always feel like non-Muslims just don’t understand the way we think at all and they are usually WAY OFF in their conclusions about us Muslims. But John Esposito is the opposite and when he was talking I was slightly uncomfortable in the way he was on point with the way he Muslims think. Like it took me awhile to get used to Dr. Jackson( he does it the most) and Imam Zaid and Shaykh Hamza getting into our psyche and challenging the way we think! Imagine this tall Italian Catholic doing it! You feel quite embarrassed. After I was feeling uncomfortable, I was quite impressed. He knows our thought process. It’s quite impressive. He makes conclusions about the community similar to the way we would. And it’s very valuable because he then tells us the way that the Catholic community does the same thing. So people can say a lot of negative about him, but he’s still credible on issues that have to do with Muslims. He proves that time and time again. He knows a lot about our culture and history and about our state in America. More than you can say about the likes of Ayan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji.

Another funny anecdote is about a hate e-mail he received in the morning. He receives many of these.

Here is what the hate e-mail he received said:

E-mail: There are people that live in the 13th century that behead people that’s bad enough but you try to sympathize with them and understand them so you’re worse. Someone needs to drag you and bitchslap(I usually don’t curse but he said this so forgive me) you until you are all bloody and skin you like a tomato and even that’s not enough for you.

Isn’t that just outrageous? Many non-Muslims see him as a sellout. I see him as very intelligent and someone that knows Muslims really well.

Muslims in the past used to always refer everything back to God.- hmm Now that I’m coming back to edit this post I can’t remeber exactly in which context he said this.

Muslims fighting: we can’t afford it. America is different after 9/11.Our freedoms are more limited. This is not something new. I’ve heard many Muslim scholars remind us of this. Like many people say, before we are thrown into Guantanamo we are not asked if we are Sufi, Salafi, Shia, Arab, South Asian whatever.

Less Safe, Less Free: Why America is Losing the War on Terror by David Cole

He also told us that when we want to judge other people we should think to ourselves and he put this in the lingo of: “Brooklyn Italian”: Who the hell do you think you are?

He mentioned some Muslim youth that were asking him for religious advice. (Strange right?) He gave them good advice. They were mentioning how they see salafi Islam as “no-no” Islam that is defined as what you can and cannot do. They asked him how they could be more spiritual. He said he told them to pray. I think that’s pretty good advice. And it shows that even he notices that there is a spiritual vacuum among American Muslim youth. Movements that don’t put in spirituality in religious teachings as well as law are bound to create youth that feel spiritually empty. Islam is supposed to be a balance between spirituality and law. If you lack either one, you have a problem.

He also mentioned speaking to Shaykh Ali Gomaa of Egypt about how there’s a need for an American/European fiqh. But he asked us who knows fiqh well enough and who knows the West well enough to be able to do this?

Now many Muslims were pretty upset with his talk. I don’t know exactly why. I think we need to get over ourselves. He meant well and he wasn’t saying anything new. He wasn’t saying anything a Muslim scholar hasn’t said sometime in the past. It’s always good to be reminded right? Even if it’s by a “Catholic”.



  1. Nadeem Khan Said:

    May Allah give him Hidaya insha Allah

  2. Sumera Said:

    Most Muslims get a bit tetchy when a non-Muslim basically tells it like it is – they see them as “infringing” in their “Muslim space” – I find Esposito to be highly competent and spot on in his analyses.

  3. a reader Said:

    John Esposito is a very smart scholar.

  4. I completely agree. But, I guess it’s a matter of not wanting someone you think is an outsider to tell you what you don’t want to face.

    thanks for posting.

  5. Jennifer F. Said:

    Movements that don’t put in spirituality in religious teachings as well as law are bound to create youth that feel spiritually empty.

    This is so true. You see this in Christianity as well — young people don’t want to be “constrained” by “rules”…but then they’re surprised when they fill spiritually dry. I used to be that way as well, but now I see the “rules” more like a prescription for healing from the great Doctor.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

  6. Jennifer F. Said:

    Oops! That one line was supposed to be “…when they *feel* spiritually dry…”

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