A note from the International Islamic University’s president frames this TED Study on Understanding Islam. Here, he gives his heartfelt vote of confidence in the course’s curator and in the power of TED content to create understanding about the Islamic world.

Many of us who are not sold on the idea of a grand Western conspiracy against Islam strongly believe that the very problematic negative image of Islam and its followers essentially emanates from some popular misconceptions surrounding the Islamic faith, and a general lack of understanding about the basic tenets and core values underpinning the religion. No wonder, then, that the commonly used rhetoric typically employed to describe the Islamic faith in mainstream discourse tends to liken it to an ideology steeped in fanaticism and extremism. To dispel these notions, the need to facilitate the dissemination of an unbiased view of Islam has thus become vital, yet extremely challenging at the same time.

The TED Talks in Understanding Islam have been envisaged to that end — to provide a framework necessary for meeting this challenge and to serve as a medium for cross-cultural understanding centered on Islam as a faith, history and culture. This bold and highly commendable initiative offers a platform whereby the TED speakers employ the Qur'an as a point of reference and expound on the numerous similarities that exist between Islam and its two major monotheistic counterparts — Judaism and Christianity. Thoughtfully conceived and brilliantly executed, these talks also facilitate the process of making a clear distinction between the core moral and spiritual values underpinning the Islamic faith on the one hand and those motivating headline-grabbing extremists. By providing a synopsis of some of the many ways in which Muslims are striving to create positive role models and ideals for their children, TED speakers also offer hope for a future in which non-Muslims and Muslims can work together to realize their shared values.

In its highly extraordinary effort to depict Islam as it is perceived by the members of the Muslim community, the TED project offers an overview of the major themes of the Qur'an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad that are, together, undeniably central to the study of Islam and to understanding the religious motivations of hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world. Studying the Qur'an indeed renders a more nuanced appreciation of the key similarities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity, especially given the fact that the stories of biblical characters (like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc.) and events are so familiar to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The TED initiative also becomes particularly relevant and insightful in that that the need for a discourse around Islam and its role in public life has acquired new significance of late with the democratic turn taken by several Muslim-majority countries. Thus the debate, both in the Muslim World and the West, focusing exclusively on Shariah needs to move past the caricatures of Islamic legal systems as barbaric and unjust. Many Islamic thinkers see no incompatibility between the social-ethical norms of the objectives of Shariah and the spirit of modern democracy. Nevertheless the onus is on Muslim thinkers to translate these moral principles into concrete institutional structures, while taking into account the imperatives of an increasingly interdependent world. It is platforms such as TED through which these debates can come to the forefront and problematic ideas can be challenged through the lively discussion it offers.

In 2012, the anti-Islamic film on YouTube and the publication of offensive cartoons by a French magazine have once again brought into sharp focus the motivations of apparent Islamophobics in some circles of the Western world on the one hand, and the incidents of violent reaction to such provocations as a result of a deep sense of besiegement experienced by several Muslims. While images of angry mobs dominate mainstream discourse, it has mostly gone unnoticed that the overwhelming majority of Muslim political and religious leaders have called for peace and calm and have beseeched Muslims to follow Prophet Muhammad's example and endure such scandalous attacks with dignity and forgiveness.

TED offers a space in which voices similar to these religious and political leaders of the Muslim World can take center stage in order to better understand internal Muslim debate with the realization that there is no such thing as a monolithic Muslim culture or "psyche." To see 1.5 billion Muslims as constituting a single, undifferentiated, monolithic community is highly problematic, as they come from a diverse range of geographical, social, economic and political settings, each informing their worldview. This project breaks the myth of "the Muslim" by presenting a nuanced understanding of Islam and its place in the contemporary world.

The TED Talks provide a unique opportunity for an educated layman to learn about the core beliefs and practices of Islam beyond the TV sound bites. These lectures are delivered in a straightforward, lucid and accessible manner, yet are profound and thought-provoking, arousing in the audience an interest to pursue further into a more engaged study of Islam and its varied civilizational expressions across the Muslim world.

Dr. Tamara Sonn's instructor materials will not only dispel many of the misperceptions about Islam but will also help generate debate within Islamic scholarly circles, making them even more aware of their own moral and intellectual responsibilities as Muslims and scholars. I know of no scholar more competent and concerned than Dr. Tamara Sonn — one of our foremost Islamic scholars in the U.S. — to have prepared these materials. The combination of her materials and the TED Talks together provide a powerful frame for the debate regarding Islam, at a time when the Islamic world is experiencing tremendous change. Through her writings, Professor Sonn herself has successfully brought the field of Islamic studies in the mainstream of religious studies discipline and has thus earned a debt of gratitude of scholars in both comparative religion and Islamic studies.

Mumtaz Ahmad
International Islamic University, Islamabad