Posted Online: Nov. 05, 2012, 9:37 am

Repaying debts by relaying Muslim, Islam beliefs

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By Leon Lagerstam,

Cyrus Ali Zargar
ROCK ISLAND -- When people in the Middle East only see stories of Occupy Wall Street protests, they may get the idea Americans spend all their time arguing and rioting.

''It's not so different anywhere else in the world,'' Cyrus Ali Zargar, an assistant professor in Augustana College's religion department, told a recent gathering of students.

''When you only hear about a place through a major, horrible event, and all you know about that place is only what you got from a television news perspective, you're going to miss out on the day-to-day interactions and a much richer cultural context,'' he said.

Dr. Zargar, 34, with a doctorate and master's in Middle Eastern studies from the University of California Berkeley, talked to students about ''Religion and the Middle East in the News Today'' because students "had questions about Muslims, particularly following a series of protests by people feeling a film had negatively reflected the prophet Muhammad.''

Dr. Zargar will be a guest speaker at a 9:45 a.m. adult education program Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church, 1140 E. High St., Davenport, to ''introduce the congregation to the basic background of Islam,'' he said.

During similar presentations, audiences often are surprised to learn ''how much their beliefs have in common with Muslim beliefs,'' he said.

For example, Jesus and Mary are highly revered figures in Islam. ''That usually surprises them, but is important to note,'' Dr. Zargar said. ''In these presentations, I often spend time answering lots of questions people have about things that make Muslims distinct, such as modes of dress. And the issue of 'jihad' often come up.''

''Jihad'' can be referred to in terms of a ''just-war'' theory but has a common ''struggle against one's self'' secondary meaning many Muslims believe is actually the primary definition, Dr. Zargar said.

His greatest hope from talking to students and groups is to eradicate major misconceptions or stereotypes people may have about Muslims and Islam.

''Muslims are a quarter of the world's population, but is a part of the world many people know the least about,'' he said.

Dr. Zargar hopes his presentations encourage people to read and study more about Muslims, and become more comfortable talking openly to Muslims about issues facing them.

Dr. Zargar and Augustana College religion department colleague, Dr. Jason Mahn, are developing a spring "Vision and Visionaries: Christianity and Islam in Dialogue" class for honors students.

"Dr. Mahn's a Christian theologian, and I study Islam,'' Dr. Zargar said. ''This class would explore interfaith dialogue in an academic way and will give students the opportunity to study and think about important issues regarding morality, ethics, diversity, pluralism and tolerance from a richer, wider perspective.''

The class will include a service element, requiring students to use what they learn in community projects, such as giving public lectures or writing papers to be published in newspapers or other public forums, he said.

The class would be the third part of a three-part ''Visions and Visionaries'' series designed for honors students.

Dr. Zargar, in his fifth year at Augie, also is a Muslim Student Association adviser and has written a book about Muslim mystical poetry. He embraces public speaking opportunities, saying it's a way to repay a debt or pay a tax to people he feels indebted to for teaching him.

Dr. Cyrus Ali Zargar bio box

Address:  Davenport
Birth date: July 11, 1978
Home town: Villa Hills, Ky., 
Family: mother, in California; wife, Shirin, a daughter, 3 1/2, and a son 2 1/2
Hobbies: likes to read,  exercise, write a little bit, but mostly spends time with his  kids
One thing I feel strongly about: Equality, human rights, and diversity
I wish I knew how to: fix a car