Exploring Faith & Theology

November 20, 2019
Sarah Eltantawi

For faculty member Sarah Eltantawi, appreciating Islam means realizing its vastness and complexity. 

When Sarah Eltantawi was little, she climbed on her father, at often inconvenient times, to hone her acrobatic skills. “He would be praying,” Eltantawi remembers, “and I would climb on top of him, roll down his back, and flip over when he bowed to the floor. And he would let me.”

His patience with Sarah’s exuberance befits what she fondly calls “falafel Islam,” the gentle faith into which her parents nurtured her.

Eltantawi, a comparative religion and Islamic studies scholar who joined the Evergreen faculty in 2014, was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents. Her father, an engineer, was recruited to the U.S. in the 1970s. Her parents took night classes, worked second jobs, and economized so their family could prosper. They are, she said, “very, very proud to be American.”

From these beginnings, Eltantawi matured into a faith that influences how she lives and informs her academic work.

“Islam” means “surrender.” Its practice centers on personal devotion. That plays out not in rigid uniformity, but through rituals, customs, theological teachings, and cultural contexts. Islam’s origin story tells us it emerged on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE, when the Prophet Muhammad received divine wisdom from Allah, the one God also worshiped in Judaism and Christianity. Islam flourished and rapidly spread across continents and cultures, bringing with it lush, enduring contributions to mathematics, science, art, literature, philosophy, and law.

Because of her parents, Eltantawi developed an intense appreciation for Islam’s complexity and her place in a secular world. “My parents have always been serious Muslims, but in an ethical rather than a political sense. My dad prays five times a day, and has my whole life,” she says. “Both of my parents fast during Ramadan.”

Her mother encouraged her to be a good person. “Once people discover you’re a really nice, good person,” she told her daughter, “then you can tell them you’re a Muslim.” Her father gave her an early civics lesson: “Your nationality is American, your ethnic background is Egyptian, and your religion is Islam.”

In the 21st century, these distinctions are sometimes lost when it comes to Islam, Eltantawi says. Western misunderstanding and mistrust of Islam is hardly new, but the attacks of 9/11 launched untruthful and frequently sinister portrayals of Muslims and their beliefs. Eltantawi cites what many observers identify as an Islamophobia industry, promulgated by religious leaders, media personalities, and politicians at the highest level. The intensity of anti-Islam propaganda has driven some Muslims, wittingly or not, to respond and sometimes lend legitimacy to a dehumanizing and dangerous narrative.

“You get typecast,” she said. “You’re portrayed as a cartoon, trying to recover the truth with people who only want to further their own agendas.” She knows this first-hand. In the years following 9/11, she worked in Washington, D.C. as an advocate for Muslim issues and made the rounds of cable news shows, debating Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and other purveyors of what she calls “entertainment news.”

“I played a foil. My mother certainly loved seeing me on CNN, but I don’t miss it at all.” She hopes other Muslims will also stop playing along. During this period, she says, her life was “devoid of spirit.”

Politics are integral to Eltantawi’s scholarly work and much of her teaching. Her 2017 book, Shari’ah on Trial, explores the 1999 Islamic revolution in Northern Nigeria. In 2016, she worked with two Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF), partially funded by the Evergreen Foundation, to finalize the book and deepen her exploration of conflict across the Middle East. She is currently at work on a paper about the impact of Muslims’ political responses to Islamophobia in the U.S.

“How I present myself politically is a major part of my ethical journey,” she said, “but not everything is about politics. Islam for me means that life is, number one, a spiritual experience. Getting co-opted by these political forces has nothing to do with the spiritual path, which is bigger than all of us.”

There is a 14th century saying quoted by many Muslims: Whatever you imagine in your minds, Allah does not resemble it. In her academic program, God(s): An Inquiry, Eltantawi explores Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and a variety of other faiths with students. When it comes to Islam, she reminds them that Islamic theology considers humans “little twerps compared to God.”

Since she arrived at Evergreen, Eltantawi says, she has been able to reflect deeply about her own experiences and spiritual life, to expand and test her thinking with colleagues from other disciplines, and to work with students that she finds open, curious, and generous.

“I try not to B.S. them,” she says of her students. “I tell them: ‘Islam is complex. Muslims are humans. That means good and bad. Let me humanize it for you.’”

“Evergreen students have brave, lovely hearts. I think we need Greeners everywhere because they are so whole, so accepting. They are kind and care about other people.”

It is a perception in keeping with Eltantawi’s Islamic practice, one that her mother would almost certainly approve: A quest to understand what is infinite and unknowable. Faith in the unseen. Kindness. Humility. You might call it “falafel Islam,” but it is bigger than that.