A few days after Ebrahim Moosa, Duke University's up-and-coming professor of Islamic studies, said the United States should set a date for pulling its troops out of Iraq, the fax machine in his office spit out a letter with the United Nations logo.
Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, saw Moosa quoted on the national news services and one of his representatives wrote to ask whether Moosa would join a working group studying issues of governance in the Muslim world.
Two weeks later, the 46-year-old professor was ushered into a building near the U.N. headquarters in New York for two days of consultations with former government officials and heads of state.
These are heady days for the South African native, hired by Duke two years ago to teach about Islam. Born in South Africa and educated in India, he has quickly gained a name for himself among a small but growing network of U.S. Muslim scholars. A gregarious man with a scrubby beard and broad smile, he is increasingly sought after to answer questions about the world's second-largest faith.
Despite a hectic schedule he does so willingly, with the down-to-earth candor of a man used to the spotlight. If he's not shuttling to New York or Atlanta, Moosa is talking about his faith to church and civic groups or serving on academic committees interested in Muslim perspectives on everything from civil liberties to bioethics.
"I thought that in coming to the United States I could engage in quiet scholarship and write, but 9/11 drew me out of the academy in ways I didn't anticipate," he said in in a lyrical English accent with South African and Indian inflections.
Part of his growing stature comes from his involvement with a new group of Muslims who call themselves "progressive" and are committed to social and economic justice, women's rights and pluralism. They bristle at authoritarian Muslim regimes and recoil at societies that deny women the right to drive or vote. For this, they have earned the disdain of more traditional Muslim scholars who say the designation "Progressive Muslims" is pretentious, and the ideas they espouse a blatant effort to kowtow to a Western audience.
"It's really an attempt to approximate Islamic traditions to values that are desirable in the contemporary West," said Hamid Algar, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
But Progressive Muslims -- also the name of a new book that explores the movement -- are not thinly disguised secular humanists. They are practicing Muslims, who share with their overseas co-religionists a criticism of the West. They're particularly piqued at U.S. foreign policies that call for the use of overwhelming military force. That's one reason Moosa caught the U.N. secretary-general's attention when he said the United States should set a date for pulling out of Iraq -- preferably in no more than one year's time.
"I can't see Iraqi resistance subsiding," Moosa said over cappuccino in a Chapel Hill cafe last month. "If anything it will intensify. Iraqis perceive this not as a war of liberation but as a war of occupation. They need to own the post-Saddam era."
For Moosa, explaining Islam in its many varieties has been a lifelong journey that has taken him across four continents to the Durham campus, where he teaches classes on "Debating Muslims" and "Clash of Empires." With each successive stop, it has become a more complicated project. Though Moosa remains a practicing Muslim who fasts during Ramadan and shuts his office door for midday prostrations, he straddles a many-sided world. Unlike many other scholars of Islam who are either American-born, or reared in the traditional Islamic schooling, known as a madrasa, Moosa was brought up in both worlds.
"He's one of a rare number of people who have a command of Islamic legal texts that only come about after spending time in madrasa institution," said Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Colgate University. "At the same time, he's at the cutting edge of contemporary theoretical conversations. He's easily one of the most sophisticated thinkers I've ever had the privilege to be around."
Moosa prefers to call himself "a critical cosmopolitan." It wasn't always that way. In fact, it's a measure of how far he's come that he's willing to be a critic at all.
Moosa's life could have turned out differently. He could have been at the other end of the spectrum: A radical Muslim waging an epic battle against the West.
The son of a grocer of Indian heritage, Moosa grew up in a traditional Muslim home in Cape Town. Afternoons, he attended Islamic school where he learned to read the Quran and where he formed friendships with other Muslims.
In 1973, during his junior year of high school, a Christian classmate who had become a Jehovah's Witness approached him with some religious tracts that claimed Islam was false and the prophet Muhammad a fraud. Hurt and angered, Moosa combed through books to prove his classmate wrong. He found little solace there. In 19th- and early 20th-century books on Islam written by so-called "Orientalists," Western scholars, most of them Christian, brought their own biases to the subject.
One such scholar, William Muir, suggested that Muhammad was inspired by the devil and his prophetic revelations due to epilepsy. Others suggested Muhammad cribbed his ideas from other faiths.
For months, Moosa struggled to figure out whether Islam was genuine. Unable to come up with intellectual answers he joined a group of Muslim missionaries who offered him emotional comfort and friendship. Then he told his parents he was abandoning his plan to study engineering.
"The thought came to me that the only way to find answers was to study Islam," Moosa said. His parents weren't keen on his becoming an "alim" or a cleric. But they relented and he enrolled in a traditional, male-only madrasa -- a sort of seminary where religious scholars are trained -- in his mother's native country: India.
Cut off from the world, Moosa immersed himself in classic Arabic-language theological and legal texts.
Madrasas then and now are austere places. Movies, parties and dancing are forbidden; contact with women prohibited. Students rise before dawn for prayers and spend the rest of the day poring over texts, drinking copious amounts of tea and engaging in long discussions.
By his third year, Moosa felt restless. He read texts by Muslim reformists who called for a political Islamic state -- a subject not generally broached in the madrasa -- and yearned to engage the world through action and not just through scholarship.
"I suddenly realized the time spent in the madrasa equipped me for certain things, but I didn't see how I could put it to good use," he said.
In 1978, on a trip home to visit family, he noticed that South African clergy did not normally wear the jallabiyya, the long tunic preferred by the Indian and Pakistani clerics, which he took to wearing himself. Unlike what he was taught, clerical dress was a matter of local custom and not a religious rule. It then dawned on him that Islam was not monolithic. There were multiple Islams -- and varieties he didn't even know about.
On a shopping trip downtown, he peered into a clothing store and, on the spur of the moment, shed his clerical garb for a safari suit -- slacks with a matching button-down short-sleeved shirt. A few weeks later when he returned to India, his break with the madrasa's parochial version of Islam was complete. He entered the school grounds wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"The earlier ticket I had was one-way," Moosa said referring to the expression of Islam he was studying. "Now I bought a ticket to go around the world."
In the modern world
If there was one overarching Muslim value that has guided Moosa's life it has been a concern for justice -- wherever it was threatened. When he completed his madrasa studies in 1981 and left India for Great Britain, that's what he took with him.
Thirsty for the world and anxious to understand it better, Moosa covered Islam globally as a reporter for a London-based Muslim magazine. He studied journalism at the City University of London, interned at the Financial Times and, for a time, wrote for the Middle East Economic Digest.
But eventually, reading about South Africa groaning under its apartheid shackles, he found the work he had been searching for.
In 1984, he returned to his native land and carved a role for himself as an activist in the Muslim community, then 1 million strong. His goal was to persuade Muslims to line up in opposition to the strict system of racial segregation that was tearing the country apart.
"We had to confront racism within the Muslim society," he said. "My position was that racism was immoral and we had to defend the rights of the dispossessed."
But opposing apartheid wasn't enough. He also pushed for women's equality, pleading with the courts to recognize Muslim marriages, and with the community to allow women the right to petition for divorce. During this time, he met Nisa, his future wife, through friends and enrolled in the doctoral program in Islamic studies at the University of Cape Town. By the time he earned his doctorate, he had two children, a girl, Lamya, and a boy, Shibli.
Although Moosa sometimes clashed with the South African Muslim establishment, who did not always see eye to eye with his reformist approach, relations remained cordial if cool. But when he began speaking out against a Muslim group organized to rid its neighborhoods of drugs and violence, things took an unexpected turn. The group known as People Against Gangsterism and Drugs or PAGAD, had increasingly became confrontational -- and, Moosa thought, violent.
On July 13, 1998, Moosa and his family had just returned home from an ice cream parlor and had settled down in one of the rear bedrooms to watch a video when a powerful explosion rocked the living room.
"At first I thought a car drove into my house," Moosa said.
In fact, it was a pipe bomb planted by members of PAGAD for speaking out against them. Though the house was nearly destroyed, no one was hurt.
Within two months, Moosa and his family relocated to Palo Alto, Calif., where he took a position as a visiting professor at Stanford University. Three years later, with his move to Duke University, Moosa expected to settle into a life of a scholar. But two months after he bought a suburban home in the southwest corner of Durham, 19 hijackers boarded planes for New York and Washington. Nothing would ever be the same.
CNN and al-Jazeera
Having experienced Islam as a madrasa student and as an activist, Moosa now follows the main events on TV.
In the den of his comfortable home -- sparingly decorated with Asian and African art -- is a four-foot TV set linked to a satellite dish from which Moosa monitors world affairs. At 8 p.m. each evening, he settles in for a furious hour of remote-control clicking that brings him two distinct perspectives: from the United States and from the Muslim world.
His favorite channels are CNN and the Arabic-language satellite channel al-Jazeera. One night earlier this month, the news shows couldn't have been more different.
CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" led the hour with federal judges blocking the new ban on late-term abortions, followed by the latest from the D.C. sniper trial. It then aired a long segment on heroes and cowards.
Al-Jazeera led with a Bush speech, in which he acknowledged that Western countries have contributed to Middle East instability by propping up oppressive regimes. It followed with a segment on Bush's signing legislation providing $87.5 billion for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I think the foreign news networks are more informed of American policies," Moosa said. "I see more White House news on al-Jazeera than on CNN."
And much of what he sees he doesn't like. The United States and its allies, he said, have imposed their culture and values on the world and have turned a tin ear to the legitimate critique of Western hegemony coming from the Muslim world.
"I'm looking for a time when every culture and every civilization can retrieve its values and no one will feel threatened," he said.
He winces at the notion that all countries must follow the secular democratic and free-market mold and says Muslim societies should choose their own direction -- even if it means electing Islamic parties.
"The West doesn't want anyone to speak back to it," he said. "Anyone who challenges the West's universality is either demented, violent or phantasmagorical."
He jokes that Americans could benefit from a class called "The Other Half 101." But he also wants to see that other half develop forms of representative government that ensure all its citizens equality and the freedom to practice religion as they see fit. That, he acknowledges, is part of the bind of being a Progressive Muslim. It calls for multiple critiques -- of oneself and the other. And so he lives on what he calls the border -- a place his favorite Muslim thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali called the "dihliz," the space between the house and the door.
"You're an outsider and an insider at the same time -- never comfortable in any of these zones," he said. "But it's also a space I wouldn't trade for anything else."