Todd Lawson is Emeritus Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Toronto, Canada. He has published widely on Quran commentary, the Quran as literature, Sufism, and the Babi and Baha’i traditions. His book, The Crucifixion and the Quran was published in 2009, followed by Gnostic Apocalypse and Islam in 2011; he is also the editor of Reason and Inspiration in Islam, a collection of essays bringing together the disciplines of theology, philosophy and mysticism.
He is currently writing a book on the Quran as sacred epic. Todd embraced the Baha’i faith when he emigrated from the USA to Canada in his late teens, and remains an active participant of that community. He lives in Montreal, and we caught up with him during a recent visit to Oxford, where he gave a talk at the symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī Society entitled ‘Water, Light and Knowledge: towards an ecology of the imagination’.
Interview by David Hornsby and Jane Clark
We understand that you were born and raised in Indiana, then moved to Canada to escape the Vietnam era draft. Subsequently you taught for 25 years at the University of Toronto in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.
Yes, that’s right. The University of Toronto is the place that I taught the longest. I have taught other places – in McGill University in Montreal for a while, and I also taught here in the UK at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.
How would you describe in a nutshell the deepening considerations of our humanity which many years of teaching this subject has brought you?
One of the main things I have learned is the enormous debt that society, humanity and civilisation at large – to the degree that it is civilised and humane and social – owes to Islam and the Islamic venture. This has been my ongoing interest. Growing up where I did, being born where I was, going to school in Indiana, we knew nothing of Islam or Muhammad or Muslims, and I think we never even heard those words mentioned the whole time I went to school or was at university. Even in history courses, in college or high school, these subjects never came up.
Christianity was of course the default ‘spiritual water’ and we celebrated Christmas, went to church periodically and so forth. But when I got to Canada in January of 1968, the first people I met were Baha’is. I had the name of one of the group from a friend in Indiana, and had been advised to get in touch. They were very kind to me and hospitable, helping me to situate myself in the country. Baha’is by teaching, doctrine and belief are apolitical, so they were not active anti-war people, but they were very sympathetic human beings and looked after me. In the process, they also introduced me to the Baha’i religion, and it was through reading some of the texts that I eventually came to realise that they were full of references to the Quran, and to the Prophet Muhammad and to Islamic spirituality. This really spoke to me somehow.
Was it the Baha’i pronouncement of the end of Jihad (holy war) that appealed to you?
Well, I didn’t know enough to know how important that was, at the time. I was completely innocent of anything to do with Islam. And actually, as you know, Baha’is do not call themselves Muslim and they do not call the Baha’i faith Islam. The Baha’i faith identifies itself as having acquired a new ethos, one that is distinct from Islam, even though there is much Islamic DNA in the Baha’i message – the Baha’i daʿwa (invitation) one could call it. What struck me at the beginning was that within the Baha’i articulation of its own specific vision was the interesting idea that there had been a new manifestation of God, a new prophet ‘sent to earth’. I thought at first: this of course is absurd, this is an old mythic way of thinking about the way life goes on. We don’t deal with prophets anymore in the modern age. But then as I read more and I thought about it and looked at it, I said to myself: Well, why not keep an open mind? Ultimately, I don’t know enough to say that it’s impossible.
Because it was a relatively recent prophecy, was this process of evolving revelation something you felt you could participate in?
In a sense, what got me was that it was too easy to say no. It was too easy to just say: these people have their heads in the clouds. So I decided that I was not going to do that. I was going to think about it and look into it. Certainly everything Baha’u’llah spoke about and said is something that humanity can use: the abolition of war, as in the abolition of jihad; the abolition of prejudices of all kinds – racial, sexual, economic; and the breaking down of barriers between people. This all sounded good to me and felt like a healthy thing for the world to be engaged with.
This was in the context of huge turmoil in the culture that you had come from?
There is no doubt that it was a refuge, both psychologically and socially, and also individually, because I had left my family. When I left Indiana I was just 19, and thought that I would never see my family again. The Baha’is I met were as lovely as people could possibly be and had the right idea about the world. I felt I had been guided and felt grateful. Then, as I became more involved in the Baha’i faith, I became more and more interested in the Islamic connection. Where does the Baha’i faith acquire its new identity? Where does the Islamic identity end? What are the differences and what are the similarities between the two faiths? I felt this was, for me, a very important area of research.
How did you set about making an intelligent enquiry into what was going on?
This interest took a while to form. In fact, it took five or six years to become articulated in the way I have just spoken about it, and it happened after I had become a Baha’i and been active in the community. It came to a head when I returned to university after being out of education for a while. In the meantime, I did all sorts of things; I was a taxi driver, a printer, I worked in a steel mill. I was even a lumberjack. I had a family, was married and had a daughter. But one day I decided that life could not go on like this, I had to do something else, and so I went back to university with the idea of becoming a lawyer.
Then in the process of finishing my degree at the University of British Columbia, I became interested in studying Islam. It just happened. I took a course in Islamic studies and there was a teacher called Hanna Kassis who is well known in Islamic studies for his concordance of the A.J. Arberry translation of the Quran. He was one of the first people to apply computer know-how to texts. Kassis was a literary man, and he was also deeply spiritual and especially sensitive to the faiths of others. His classes were very popular because he was an excellent teacher. He was a Palestinian Christian but he loved the Quran. He glowed at the mention of the Quran, and he glowed when speaking about it to the class. His enthusiasm was contagious.
From that point I dropped the idea of law, and enrolled at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Montreal. I did my Masters’ degree there and then my PhD. I was interested in the Quran from the beginning and so I did work in Quranic commentary in both degrees, and in the process began to formulate my ideas about the relationship between the Baha’i faith and Islam. Now and then, from time to time, I have taught courses in the Baha’i community on Islam and the Quran within the Baha’i faith. Baha’is all know there is an Islamic component to the religion, and there is great interest in it, especially these days, given the way in which Islam is portrayed, and the culture in general. Due to political events and biased news reporting, the general image of Islam these days is highly distorted, and Baha’is feel just as uncomfortable about this as Muslims themselves.
In the ’70s, the Islamic presentation to the West, at least in the UK and Europe, was all to do with the beauty and environmentally sound practicality of Islam. This became identified with a kind of utopian ideal. In the ensuing 40 years, the day to day perceptions of Islam have changed from the very positive and appealing image associated with, for example, events such as the World of Islam Festival in London, and seem to have reverted to an almost siege-like mentality.
It’s true that things have turned upside down. Although in Europe and England, for geographic reasons, you have had more connection with Islam. In Canada, we had nothing like the World of Islam Festival. When I first started taking courses, I would get a thrill at finding the odd article that mentioned Islam in a newspaper. I would cut one out about every three months. So we didn’t have the appreciative phase in North America that you had with the World of Islam Festival. Rather we had groups like the Black Muslims, who were largely misunderstood by the general populace and terrified all ‘good’ middle-class people whether black or white.
Read the rest of this interview online at beshara.org/magazine/the-unity-of-humanity-an-interview-with-todd-lawson.