Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans, Scholar-in-Residence at the American Learning Institute for Muslims, opened the Sacred Time Project 2019 — an annual weekend conference sponsored by the Muslim Students Association — Friday afternoon in the Rackham Amphitheatre with a session called “The Faithful Servant: Rooting Service in Tradition.”
“I embraced Islam about 20 years ago,” Evans said. “I converted when I was 16 … so when I encountered Islam, it was this…uncompromising monotheism that really drew me to the faith.”
Evans’s talk was one part of the Sacred Time Project, which ran Jan. 25-27. The conference included two main speakers — Evans and associate professor Su’ad Abdul Khabeer — as well as full-group sessions and other workshops and activities.
LSA sophomore Areesha Shahab, who was a Sacred Time Project chair and took part in organizing the conference, said she hoped participants left the conference feeling empowered to be a servant within the community and feel more involved in the Islamic faith or spirituality.
“This year, we were super heavily focused on student initiative and the aspect of being a faithful servant to the community and just being a good servant,” Shahab said. “I just want people to leave feeling like, ‘Oh, I need to do more’ or ‘Oh, I just need to get myself more involved in something.’”
During his session, Evans discussed his discovery of Islam and experience with his faith. He also talked about similarities with other faiths, but the uniqueness of Islam comes from recognizing Muhammad’s place as a messenger for God.
He said in the past, Islam used to debate the place of God. In the present day, however, Evans said negotiations focus around understanding religion in real time. He specifically noted the conference’s focus on examining Islam and the understanding of the religion in the present day, which he characterized as a commendable quality of the program.
Evans then looked at the meaning of the term “servant” and what hierarchy entails. He said the Islamic model, as he understands it, is not about avoiding or disavowing privilege- rather, it is about helping those who are not as privileged and supporting equity.
“Some people will be exploiters, some people will get exploited and some people will be servants and some people will be liberators,” Evans said. “The only choice that we get to make is what side of the equation do you want to be on? Do you want to be amongst those servants, those liberators, those trying to push for better treatment, fair treatment, equal treatment, inclusive treatment for more people? Or do you want to be the one selfishly clinging to the privilege you’ve been given?”
Evans continued his talk by discussing using privilege as a vehicle for service, and said that while inequality is inevitable, it is a buffer against utopian ideologies and the blinding belief in progress. Evans said it is also important to recognize some people will exploit privilege, but each person can decide how they will use it.
“If I have the ability to furnish some of your needs, to honor some of your requests, then God has placed me in a position of privilege, not to lord it over you, but only to serve you,” Evans said. “This is what it means to be a ‘servant.’”
Evans closed the talk by challenging the idea that there is only one group of believers who go to heaven while others cannot. He said claiming to know who is right and who is wrong is presumptuous. No one can look at another person and know their fate, and they should be comfortable with this indeterminacy, Evans reminded participants.
Evans said humans have always displayed a propensity toward intolerance, but which specific example intolerance is focused on changes. While it is innately human to see others for their differences, Evans stressed the importance of being continuously tolerant and accepting of others in all circumstances.
“We live in perhaps one of the most diverse places on Earth and yet we’re still frustrated by diversity. We see diversity and it makes us insecure, and I’m always shocked by that,” Evans said. “This is not a religious characteristic, this is a human characteristic. Intolerance — a failure to appreciate diversity — this is human, this is not religious.”
LSA junior Sumrah Jilani attended the Sacred Time Project for the first time this year. She said she was interested in attending because she wanted to be part of the community and learn about diverse issues and perspectives.
She also said Evans’s discussion about using privilege for good resonated with her.
“I really like how he emphasized that it’s important for people to not only just recognize your privilege,” Jilani said. “It’s one thing to say ‘I know that I have privilege and I acknowledge it,’ and it’s another thing to actively use your privilege to elevate people who may not have that and using it in a way that’s benefiting society.”