Times of Youth: Tell us a little about your background and your research. How did you get interested to preach Islam?
Dr. Bilal Philips: My preaching, promoting and propagating Islam activities started with my conversion to Islam. Naturally, any new convert is driven to want to share Islam with those around them. With your parents, your brothers and sisters, your other family members, your neighbors and your friends. You could say that was my basic drive to want to share, propagate, and promote Islam.
I immediately began to seek knowledge, from the time that I first entered Islam in 1972. I sought to understand Islam more in depth, because the more I could understand, the better I could explain it to others. Within the first year, I quickly ran out of local sources for Islamic learning in Toronto, Canada, and I decided to go overseas to Saudi Arabia to study there. While studying there I used to come home in during the summers, to Canada and to the USA in order to share what I learned. After graduation from Madeenah University in 1980, I went to Riyadh and started my Masters there and at the same time became a High School teacher of Islamic Studies. This became the new arena in which I became engaged in propagating Islam to Muslim youths. During this period I was also forced into writing. I wasn’t originally a writer but I used to read a lot. However, when I started to teach Islamic Studies, I found that there were no Islamic studies textbooks available in English, so I had to create something. I began the process of preparing material based on my studies in Madeenah which I would teach from. The students used my notes as texts from which they could revise for their tests and exams. With the help of my parents, father in particular who was an English language expert, I soon developed effective writing skills. My parents guided me, and taught me, not only how to write, but also teaching methodology and classroom management.
My high school career lasted for over 10 years during which I completed my Masters and began a PhD in Islamic Theology from the University of Wales, UK. After completion of my doctorate in 1993, I moved to the UAE where I became a University professor in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Dubai. Naturally, the university became another avenue for propagation and promotion of Islam to young adults. In UAE, I also set up the first Da’wah Center for propagating Islam to non-Muslims in Dubai, The Islamic Information Center. Through that avenue I was full-time actively involved in teaching, preaching, and promoting Islam and thousands accepted Islam from the Center over the subsequent years. I also became the head of Darul Fatah’s English press and published a number of my books through them. In 2001, I developed a department of Islamic studies at Preston University, Ajman, to further preach and teach Islam from an educational institution. A few years later, after moving to Qatar where I was a consultant for a Da’wah Center, I again moved to Chennai, India where in 2009 I set up my own University, Preston International College, and Al Fajr International School. These were additional channels for promoting, propagating and preaching Islam. In 2010, I took my boldest step to preach Islam globally by setting up the Islamic Online University (IOU), which now has over 2,00,000 students from 225 countries of the world. The IOU has the most diverse student body of any university in the world; a unique platform from which I continue my preaching, teaching and Islamic propagational efforts. That is where I am today.
I was also given the opportunity to propagate Islam through the television, in Saudi Arabia Channel 2. I did a program there called “Why Islam?” in which I focused on the new Muslims. I had different new Muslims each episode who described their journey to Islam and focusing on the turning point. I would use that as a means of inviting non Muslims who would be watching the program who may share common backgrounds to want to share the message of Islam. In UAE, I was invited to do 3 programs a week, on Sharjah television. All of them da’wah oriented, some of them question and answer types. One related to the Quran in particular, and the other one related to contemporary issues. Of course, a lot of people know me through Peace TV, so this is the channel I also utilize, as well as Islam channel in the UK, Guide US TV in the US, etc.
Times of Youth: How would you describe your work to someone who has never known about it?
Dr. Bilal Philips: It depends on what you mean by my work. If by my work you are referring to my current main focus, the Islamic Online University, it is a University available on the Internet fundamentally Sharia based, which using English medium, teaches the basic Sharia courses normally taught in classical Arabic Universities. It has additional modern courses, which I feel a Sharia graduate should also know to be able to effectively utilize his or her discipline in the Muslim community. So, I added to the curriculum the areas of counseling, teacher training, psychology, management, Islamic banking and finance, IT as well as other areas. We are also offering degrees in Education, Psychology, and Islamic Banking and Finance, all taught from Islamic perspectives. Furthermore, I have made university education accessible at the lowest possible price cost for students globally. Students do not pay tuition fees. They only have to pay between $60 and $150 per semester according to the Gross national product (GNP) of their home countries. We also have a free diploma in which 1,95,000 of our 2,00,000 are enrolled. Thus, only 5,000 of our students are enrolled in our accredited bachelors programs and actually pay registration fees.
Times of Youth: At what age did you start preaching? Has your family always been supportive of this choice of yours?
Dr. Bilal Philips: I accepted Islam at the age of 25, so that’s when I started. In terms of family support, my family has always been supportive. I didn’t have any problems. They respected my choice of Islam and my parents later converted to Islam also.
Times of Youth: What would you say to those who think Islam degrades women by keeping them behind the veil?
Dr. Bilal Philips: I would say that they are probably mixing up Muslims with Islam. It is true that some Muslims may oppress women by imposing the cultural veil and what’s connected to it. However, the teachings of Islam do not oppress women by veiling. If by veiling we mean the most common veil which most Muslim women wear (head scarf and loose outer garment), this form of veiling is for the protection of women, not for their oppression. The nuns of Christianity, and females in orthodox Judaism, and in all the major religions we know about, cover themselves up. Exposing the physical charms of a woman is exposing her to physical danger, abuse and harm. The veiling instructions in the Quran for women to cover themselves is stated as being for her to be known for chastity and to protect her from physical harm.
Times of Youth: Can you clarify the difference between a Muslim and Islam?
Dr. Bilal Philips: A Muslim is somebody who claims to follow Islam. Whether he or she actually follows it or not will depend on their level of knowledge, the cultural influences that may be on them, and a variety of other factors. So what they may end up doing in the name of Islam, may or may not agree with the actual teachings of Islam. In order to judge the various principles and teachings of Islam, one needs to understand them from their authentic sources rather than from the practices of Muslims in different countries. In summary, Islam is not necessarily what Muslims do, but what they are ideally supposed to do. People might ask, ”How are we non-Muslims supposed to know what is cultural and what is actually from the teachings?” The basic rule of thumb to follow is that what Muslims do everywhere in the world, like praying five times per day, fasting in Ramadan, Hajj, etc., you can be almost certain that it is a part of the teachings of Islam. But what you find in some places, like FGM (female genital mutilation), females giving dowry to males and “honor killing”, and not in many others, you can almost be sure it is cultural and not from Islamic teachings.
Times of Youth: In the light of your knowledge, if you were given a choice to abolish one thing/act in the world forever, what would you choose?
Dr. Bilal Philips: Oppression. This is a major and dominant evil which affects all human societies. The Prophet (pbuh) quoted Allah as saying, “O my servants, I have forbidden Myself from oppression, so do not oppress each other.” The Quran calls us to justice and prevention of oppression. The Prophet (pbuh) warned, “Beware of oppression, for it is layers and layers of darkness on the day of Resurrection.” I would say that oppression is the biggest thing plaguing human society on all levels, so it should be abolished as all human laws in general seek to prevent oppression and establish justice.
Times of Youth: Despite all Muslims follow one and the same Holy Qur’an, why are there so many sects and different schools of thoughts among Muslims?
Dr. Bilal Philips: First and foremost, it is not correct to refer to the Quran as the Holy Quran. That is an imitation of the Christians reference to their scripture as the “Holy Bible”. The Quran has not been described as “holy” in any of the texts of the Quran, or the Sunnah or statements of the Sahaabah. This term only came into vogue in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent after the period of Christian European colonization of the Muslim world. So it is proper to refer to the Quran as the Noble Quran (Al-Quran Al-Kareem), or the Magnificent Quran (Al-Quran Al-Atheem), and so on and so forth. Better to use the descriptive terms which were used by Allah in the final revelation.
In terms of the actual question, “having only one Quran, why do we have so many different sects”, this goes back to people’s interpretations instead of strictly following the Quran and Sunnah. Where people have strayed away from the Quran and Sunnah, either denying the Sunnah all together, or denying parts of the Quran which don’t agree with them. These are factors or modernist interpretation of the Quran. Extreme views. So we have all these factors which can create different lines of thought, but those who follow the Quran and Sunnah as it was understood by the early generation of Muslims, they represent the main body of Muslims and they are one.
An additional point. What I’m trying to say is that, Prophet Muhammad May God’s Peace and Blessings be upon him, had predicted that Muslims would be divided up into 73 different sects. Only one of them was going to Paradise. These 72 sects are the product of satanic deviation. Satan whispers and you have several groups that have clearly deviated from Islam to varying degrees. That one group of the 73, in my view, is not a narrow single group. So we can’t say it’s only so and so people. All of the modern movements and certain groups that have come up, are part of the same one out of the 73 that are generally on the correct path in general. Though they may have individual errors amongst them. Some may be closer to the perfection, and some further from the perfection. We’re not going to say that it’s only these particular individuals, and everybody else is going to hell. That’s what the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said. The 72 are going to hell. Only one is going to paradise. Are you ready to say that a person who’s so and so and because he’s not of the other sect, that he’s going to hell? That’s a very difficult claim to make. Very difficult claim. A more inclusive approach is to look at the one going to Paradise, the one correct path, as having people within it who have different opinions, but they are firm on Quran and Sunnah, and are trying to follow it the way the forefathers did. The earlier generations, such as Abu Hanifa, maybe they slipped up here and there. They don’t realize today that Abu Hanifa wasn’t a Hanafi, but as far as they are concerned they are trying to follow Abu Hanifa who was one of the pillars of that generation, who were interpreting the Quran and Sunnah as it was understood by the earliest generation. When we look at that group which are going to Paradise, the right group, we need to be a little more open minded than many of us tend to be today.
Times of Youth: Considering that a lot of people think that Islam oppresses women, and there is a boom of supporters of feminism and women’s rights and liberation in today’s times, would you enlighten us on what Islam says about educating females and ‘women empowerment’?
Dr. Bilal Philips: First and foremost, the Prophet (pbuh) called the Ummah to educate itself. Saying seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim. That every Muslim means both male and female. That’s why it’s not surprising to find among the leading scholars of the sahabas were women. Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was the fourth most prolific narrator of Hadith . Some huge portion of the Sunnah, of the Sharia that we know, was narrated by her. Umm Salamah as well, and others among the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) and female sahabees. They were teachers. Five of Imaam Malik’s hadeeth teachers were women. So the idea of women being educated was never an issue among the early generations. I think as time passed, corruption spread, and misunderstandings grew and women became sidelined. Women became barred from the mosque, like in Pakistan and India women can’t go to the Mosque. Something so basic. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had clearly said do not prevent your women from going to the mosque. So now if you’re blocking women from going to the mosque, something as basic as that, then of course other areas that the women should be free to participate in, they would have no opportunity. It’s not surprising that we have a situation now, which is a result of ignorance fundamentally of what the true teachings of Islam are.
The issue that women should be empowered, Islam empowers women. When Islam said to the women when you get married, you don’t change your name to your husband’s name, that was empowerment right there. 1400 years ago that even till today the west hasn’t reached. You have some female movie stars who when they get married they don’t change their names, but for the rest of the women of the west they change their names right away. Where did that come from? That came from the Roman concept of the man’s possessions. The man would put his name on all of his possessions. He would put his name on his villa, on his chariot, on his slave, and on his wife. Islam said stop that. The woman has her own name, that is her own identity, capable of owning and disposing of her property herself. This was only something given to women in the 20th Century. So, there are so many elements that Islam has provided in terms of women female empowerment 1400 years ago at a time when it didn’t even cross people’s minds. It’s modern times that they’re looking back and saying, “Wow. Amazing.” They were doing it from back then.
Times of Youth: A lot of conspiracy theories with appealing proofs are being propagated over the internet regarding ‘Free Masons’ and the ‘Illuminati’ cult. Your views about them?
Dr. Bilal Philips: My view is avoid conspiracy theories, and cults. It’s a waste of time, energy, and brain cells.
Tell us the first thing that comes to your mind for the following-
- Youth: The future of the Ummah depends on the education of the youth
- Love: Love is from Allah Subhana wa Tala. Love should be between husband and wife. Love makes the world go around
- Freedom: Freedom is the right of every human being within the boundary set by revelation.
- World: The world is our home. Allah created us for this world. Nationalism, and tribalism, is against the norm. There should be open borders, where humans can go wherever they want to live. The world is ours.
- Afterlife: We need to be focused on the afterlife, because this life is only a bridge to it. Whatever we do here, we should be thinking how it’s going to affect our afterlife.
Things we’d like to know about you-
- First thing you do in morning: Salatul Fajr. After salatul Fajr, I exercise. I do Tai Chi.
- A thing you never forget to do: I never forget to eat, but what I should never forget to do would be to read Quran every day.
- Your day is incomplete without: My day is incomplete without gaining some knowledge, passing it on, and practicing it.
- In your closet, we’ll definitely find: My computer.
- Most prized possession: My computer.
- Last thing you do every night: I check emails from the Islamic Online University administration coming from the other half of the world that is just waking up.
- Your Most cherished day: The day both of my parents accepted Islam.
- A person who is most dear to you: My mother.
- A place you’d visit recurrently: Makkah.
- Best advice you ever received: The advice of the Prophet (pbuh) to love for your brother, what you love for yourself.
- An utterly awesome experience for you: in 1991, when I led a team of brothers giving dawah to the American troops, after the first Gulf War. After 5 ½ months, over 3000 of them accepted Islam.
Times of Youth: Being a teacher of Holy Qur’an, what is your advice to parents and educators to initiate the teaching of the Holy Qur’an in the daily life of their kids and the youth?
Dr. Bilal Philips: I can’t say I’m a teacher of the Quran, though I teach Quranic teachings and hadeethic teachings. For a teacher of the Quran, you may think of a Qari, a person teaching the memorization of the Quran etc; I would say in teaching the Quran, the understanding of the Quran is critical. We tend to focus on the memorization of the text, which was not the focus in the time of the Prophet (pbuh), even though the need for it’s memorization was most critical then. Instead as Abdullah ibn Masood narrated, they used to memorize the Quran 10 verses at a time, having understood its meaning and trying to implement it, they would move on to the next 10. I would say in the course of teaching we should follow that methodology as that was the way of the Sahabah.
In terms of memorization, rather than making the whole of the Quran the goal for everybody, as the Sahabah had narrated, one who had memorized the whole of Surah Al-Baqarah was called a ‘Hafiz’. That was the goal. Surah Al Baqarah contains virtually everything that you’ll find in the Quran. This would be a worthy goal for everybody. Rather than trying to take 30 people and trying to make them all memorize the whole Quran. Out of that 30 maybe only 5 do. The other 25 you’ve lost along the way, and when you lose them you lose everything. They haven’t gained anything. You only stressed they must memorize the text, by beating them and doing all sorts of things, so when they drop out, how do they drop out? With a body of knowledge that they can utilize or do they just drop out and don’t want to hear anything about Quran after that? I think we need to rethink our approach to the teaching of the Quran.
Times of Youth: In your opinion, what are the main themes and topics that Muslim speakers, mentors and educators should focus on when addressing the Muslim community (whether in Friday sermons, conferences, etc.)? What areas need their special attention at the moment?
Dr. Bilal Philips: The area of Tawheed is a perpetual need. The area of learning the deen, again another perpetual need. Everybody needs to learn the deen. The primary subjects of education should be in areas that will benefit the Muslim community, to serve the Muslim community, and make their work ‘Ibadah’. This should be the emphasis. The emphasising of the responsibilities of parents, to ensure that children get a proper Islamized education. Of course, also the basic acts of ‘Ibadah’ that they be done according to the spirit of Islam, and not merely according to the letter.
Times of Youth: If you could give one piece of advice to Muslims worldwide, what would that be?
Dr. Bilal Philips: The biggest piece of advice that I’m currently focusing on, besides the motto of my University (Islamic Online University), changing the nation through education, is the importance of bringing morality back to the classroom. The Prophet (pbuh) had described Islam in terms of morality. That was the essence of the message he brought. We need to bring that back in the classroom where morality has been removed. Western secularized education has removed religion from the whole educational process. They are coming from a humanistic perspective, that human beings can decide for themselves. People are studying various courses, physics, science, math, etc., but without a moral compass. They are capable of doing anything. The biggest problem plaguing the Muslim ummah globally is that of corruption. If we can’t produce graduates from our institutions who are morally sound, who can’t be bribed, then we can never change the situation that we are in.
Times of Youth: Any message to your students and followers via Times Of Youth?
Dr. Bilal Philips: My message would be to learn about Islam, apply it, and convey it. Make whatever you are doing Islamically relevant, a means of Ibadah for yourself, so that you can succeed in this life and in the next.
Times of Youth: Do tell us how can admirers contact you to share their appreciation/feedback/suggestions.
Dr. Bilal Philips: They can contact me on my Facebook page. Dr. Bilal Philips – the official page. Whether they will get a response from me is another question, but this is where I am in contact with the general global public. We have 2.7 million followers on the page. If there is something important, or some new issue, then I come in and post there. I also post regular reminders. I would say my Facebook page is the best point of contact.