Campus CloseupDecember 2003: Vol. 83, No. 1

Surrendering to God

In the wake of 9/11, religion professor Alan Godlas created a website that helps bring a new perspective on Islam for Internet pilgrims

by Phil Williams (ABJ '72)

American music lovers in 1977 were surprised to learn that pop star Cat Stevens was converting to Islam, turning his back on fame and fortune for something he considered both necessary and more abiding:


The calligraphy above in Arabic reveals a primary tenet of Islamic law: "Refrain from causing harm to one's self and others." Calligraphy by Mohamed Zakariya
If Americans had been asked back then what Islam was, they might have said it was a religion practiced mostly in the Middle East, that it was not even close to Christianity in numbers of believers, and that there were few Muslims in the U.S.

They would have been wrong on all those counts.

Today, 1.3 billion people—a fifth of the planet—practice Islam. Less than 20 percent of Muslims are Arabs, and half of them live in South or Southeast Asia. Islam is second only to Christianity, which has an estimated 2 billion followers. And in America, there are about 5.7 million Muslims, a number roughly equal to the Jewish population of the U.S.

And yet, until Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans barely gave Islam a second thought.

Alan Godlas—a man who is playing a key role in explaining the true essence of Islam to a nation of frightened and suspicious Americans—sits in his over-stuffed office on the top floor of UGA's Peabody Hall. Munching peanuts and sipping a soft drink, he overflows with energy, speaking so rapidly a guest has to pay close attention to understand the full meaning of his carefully crafted sentences. This is a man who thinks a great deal, a man who has a passion for ideas. Most of all, Godlas wants to share a lifetime's study of Islam and to communicate to Americans—and to the world—that this ancient and honored religion is not one represented by the fierce mugshots of the 9/11 terrorists.

Godlas is a scholar-writer and teacher, of course, but in the past few years, his Web site on Islam and Islamic studies has captured international attention and drawn him into a cultural discussion that goes far deeper than the tenets of religious faith. A professor in the department of religion, Godlas finds himself in the center of a storm—and from that center, his main goal has been to shed light.

"His is far and away the best Web site for the study of Islam in North America," Amir Hussain, a professor of religious studies at UC-Northridge, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, which did a story on Godlas less than two months after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, his Web site was nominated as one of five worldwide in the category of "spirituality" for the year 2002 Webby Awards, which are the equivalent of the Oscars for Web sites. Among the other nominees in the category were the Vatican's Web site and Beliefnet, a commercial interfaith website that won the award.

Islam is an ancient and honored religion whose followers lead spiritually centered lives similar to Jews and Christians. It is not represented by the fierce mugshots of the 9/11 terrorists.

A faculty member at UGA since 1991, Godlas has been increasingly involved in explaining Islam to others. In January 2003, he was chosen by the U. S. State Department to give two presentations on Islam for a bilateral conference in Nigeria between State Department officials and Northern Nigerian leaders. He has also delivered lectures on Islam to organizations all over the country and presented papers in Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, among many other venues. In short, Alan Godlas lives his life in any place but the ivory tower.

"Most Web sites about Islam are heavily biased," he says. "But I knew that for Muslims and the rest of the world to live together in peace in today's global village, at the very least there needed to be somewhere on the web to which people could turn for information on Islam that was balanced and fair. After 9/11, people all over the world began wondering just what Islam is. The hits on the Web site rose dramatically, and it helped when President Bush said that Muslims are not our enemy—terrorists are."

Godlas became interested in Islamic studies after graduation from UC-Davis, when, during nine months of study at a psychotherapy institute in Berkeley, he met a Persian psychiatrist who shed light on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of Islam. Godlas knew instinctively that this was the bridge between East and West, between psychology and mysticism, that he had been seeking. In short order he found out about the Program in Persian Literature for Foreign Students at the University of Tehran in Iran—a place where he could learn Persian and Arabic, read the texts he was looking for in their original languages, and thereby get to the roots of Islamic philosophy and psychology.

"Two problems, however, were that I knew very little about Islam, and that my courses were going to be taught only in Persian, which I did not know," says Godlas, laughing. Nevertheless, he immediately obtained a passport, flew to Tehran, and in less than three months, before classes began, he taught himself enough of the language to understand his lectures.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought visitors from all over the world to Godlas' Web site (, which explains the true nature of Islam. It was getting 4,000 hits a day at one point, and was nominated for a Webby Award.
After spending three formative years in Iran (during the last years of the Shah), he returned to the U. S., earning his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under the eminent scholar of Islam, Dr. Hamid Algar. He also spent extended periods of time in Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco, where he studied original manuscripts relating to Islam with the same passion he brought to environmental activism in his early years.

he reason Alan Godlas is eating peanuts and drinking a Coke is that he's been running since the moment he got up this morning and hasn't stopped. His life is a sometimes chaotic mix of teaching, studying in manuscript libraries of the Near and Middle East, and writing about the Qur'an, Islamic mysticism, and the relationship between Islam, modernism, and postmodernism. He reads and writes Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and can be found in such places as Uzbekistan, where he traveled on a Fulbright-Hayes fellowship in 1997 and in Morocco as co-director of the UGA-Morocco Summer program.

He recently developed a secondary web page called "Muslims, Islam, and the Iraq War," which is the only web site devoted to the relationship between Islam and the conflict last spring. (One particularly interesting aspect of this web page is his survey of the reasons why leading experts on Islam in Iraq have been optimistic that the Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims will be able to establish themselves as a moderate political bloc that will be largely independent of the influence of Shi'ite Iran.)

In addition, he is busy with another pet project, the development of the UGA Virtual Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Islamic World, which will bring together all UGA faculty members now working in areas that involve Islam and the Islamic world and make them and their work accessible on the Internet. Godlas wants to make it clear that, despite bombs on one hand and Islam's critics on the other, Islam is a world religion of more than a billion followers—people who lead spiritually centered lives similar to observant Jews and committed Christians. After 9/11, worldwide hits on his Web site reached 4,000 a day.

The Arabic word islam, Godlas notes on his Web site, "literally means surrender, implying surrender to God. And a Muslim, literally, is one who is surrendering to God." From that initial premise, Godlas links website visitors to hundreds of sites that give a fair and balanced picture of Islam—and how it continues to be a major force, not only in religion, but in culture and society as well.

"The particular question that has fascinated me . . . is the problem of self-transformation," says Godlas. "The religions of the world are a rich source of knowledge for understanding how we can change. And the need to answer this question is becoming increasingly urgent in these times when we have the power to destroy or save our world. Our fate may depend on our ability to understand and change ourselves."

Phil Williams (ABJ '72) is editor of The Franklin Chronicle, from which this story was adapted with permission.

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