TEHRAN – Sheikh Azhar Nasser is a Canada-based, globally-renowned Islamic scholar, lecturer, orator and a social media sensation. He is the founder and head instructor of Tasneem Institute, which offers on-site, weekend crash courses on Islamic sciences to Muslim communities worldwide. He also serves as the religious director of CBE Academy, which specializes in the production of short spiritually uplifting videos.
Sheikh, who has a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Michigan and has studied under the tutelage of Islamic luminaries like Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Hakim, has been hailed as the ‘best thing to happen to Twitter’.
In an interview with Tehran Times, Sheikh talks about his foray into the virtual world, the power of social media, issues facing Muslims today, the need for unity, growing Islamophobia in the West, and the significance of annual Muharram commemorations.
Following are the excerpts:
Q. You have got massive following on social media, especially Twitter, and your posts generate lot of enthusiasm among youth. How did this journey into the virtual world begin?
A. I have always been active on social media but recently I decided to share a more satirical outlook on the challenges and struggles of the Muslim community. Life can be overwhelming and stressful at times so why not impart Islamic knowledge in a way that is relatable, enlightening and entertaining?
Q. A lot of us underestimate the power of social media. Do you think it can be a powerful tool to bring Islamic awakening and social reformation?
A. Absolutely. We live in an era where I can reach a wider audience with a single tweet than a traditional lecture. Whether it’s a theological discussion or a social justice issue, there is no doubt that a single post on any social media platform has a significantly greater impact than the more conventional methods of spreading knowledge and awareness.
Q. What according to you are the most significant issues facing Muslims today?
A. There are too many to list but perhaps the most disheartening issue facing Muslims today is our lack of unity. We promote inter-faith dialogue but I believe that we must begin with intra-faith dialogue. As an Ummah, we have yet to learn how to co-exist and respect each other’s differences.
Q. We just commemorated the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Hussain (as) and his companions in the desert plains of Karbala 1400 years ago. What, in your opinion, makes these annual commemorations significant and relevant today?
A. These annual commemorations are significant because the values and ideals that were upheld by Imam Hussain (as) on that day transcend time. The battle of Karbala was not simply a military conflict that took place in the barren deserts of Iraq 14 centuries ago, but it is a heart-wrenching saga that represents the two extremes of the human soul.
Imam Hussain (as) and his companions attained the highest stations of spiritual enlightenment and represent what the Quran calls “the tranquil soul’. His enemies, on the other, fell prey to their lower animalistic tendencies and therefore exemplified what the Quran calls “the commanding soul”.
The question is: where is your soul on this spectrum?
Q. Some days ago, a group of Shia Muslims was attacked in London during a Muharram commemoration. There have been such incidents in other countries as well. How do you see this wave of Islamophobia and hate crimes in Europe, especially in London?
A. Any attack on innocent civilians is an abhorrent act and deserves the strongest condemnation. Unfortunately, there seems to be a concerted effort by Islamophobes to use fear, intimidation and violence to send a message to Muslims that they are not welcome here. Muslims must remain steadfast, hold onto their values and pressure public officials to condemn acts of violence, irrespective of race, religion, gender, etc.
Q. In times like these, how important has it become for Muslims to forge unity and collectively fight forces that seek to sow discord between them?
A. Unity was important when the Holy Prophet (pbuh) first began his prophetic mission in Mecca and it will continue to be the source of our strength until the Day of Judgment. Almighty Allah says, “And hold on to the rope of God and do not be disunited.” This verse applies to Muslims of all times.
Q. There was a massive attack in Iran few days ago yet we didn’t see global outrage, condemnations, or hashtags. On the contrary, the whole world erupts when where is a similar attack in any part of Europe or the U.S. How would you define these double standards?
A. There is definitely a double standard. Without a doubt, greater attention is given to victims of violence in certain parts of the world far more than others. The Holy Quran is explicit in highlighting the sanctity of all human life stating, “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” (Quran 5:32)
Q. In your lectures and social media posts, you extensively talk about issues like mental health and depression. Why such issues are considered a taboo in Muslim community?
A. There is a dangerous misconception in the Muslim community that mental health and depression are indicators of weak faith. People who suffer from depression in our communities hesitate to seek help because they are afraid of being perceived as abnormal or spiritually deficient.
As Muslims, we need to show more compassion, empathy and actively try to help those who are suffering before they reach their breaking points. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) famously said, “Have mercy upon those on earth, so the One in the heavens will have mercy on you.”
Q. What’s the connection between religion and science?
A. From an Islamic perspective, religion and science are largely complimentary. Religion invites people to explore the natural world and marvel at its beauty and complexity. Allah says in the Quran, “Then do they not look at the camels – how they are created? And at the sky – how it is raised? And at the mountains – how they are erected? And at the earth – how it is spread out? (Quran 17-20)