Accessing the Divine Presence

For Professor Eren Tatari, surrendering to God requires heart and intellect.

Assistant Professor of Political Science Eren Tatari opened the Nur Spirituality Institute with her husband. (Photo by Scott Cook) Assistant Professor of Political Science Eren Tatari opened the Nur Spirituality Institute with her husband. (Photo by Scott Cook) If you don’t know exactly where you’re going—even if you rely on a GPS, which is somehow confounded by this particular address—you’ll probably drive right past the Nur Spirituality Corner. And then turn around and drive by it again. But it’s there, on the second floor of a business center off 17-92 in Casselberry, more or less across from a Home Depot.

And there, on many days, is where you find Rollins College assistant professor of political science Eren Tatari, who, with her husband opened the center on May 26. You might also find her husband there, and her six-year-old daughter, Yasmin, and soon enough the family’s newest addition, who should make his debut this fall. There’s a coffee bar off to one side, and a long, rectangular prayer room. In the back there’s a playroom for children, not unlike what you’d expect in, say, a Sunday school classroom. Over to the side there are a few chairs, and then a bookshelf, which is lined with copies of Tatari’s 5 Little Muslims children’s book series, as well as her most recent work, aimed at an adult audience, called Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age.

Tatari, as you’ve probably surmised, is a Muslim, though like most Muslims not an Arab. She was born and raised in Turkey, the last of four siblings, in a household that encouraged education. “We had to speak five languages and go to the best schools,” she says. That meant going to an American high school in Istanbul, after which she earned a scholarship to Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and from there she went to Purdue University for her master’s degree and Indiana University for her PhD, before finally moving to Florida to work at Rollins three years ago. Her teaching focuses on Islam and the Middle East.

“I am a very idealistic person,” Tatari says. “I can’t sit still. I become depressed if I’m not doing anything.”

She originally envisioned herself being more explicitly politically active. However, she says, “I noticed you can do more by educating people than being in active politics, which could get dirty.”

In that vein, Tatari wants to be a “public scholar,” one whose scholarship and writing isn’t confined to the halls of academia. That’s what this center and the nonprofit Nur Spirituality Institute are all about. That, too, is the driving force behind Surrendering to God, a collection of Tatari’s essays and writings from the past decade.

“Its audience is anybody who wants to approach a tradition intellectually,” she says. Her goal is to “shed light on misconceptions about Islam for non-Muslims, and for Muslims it can do the same thing.”

Tatari’s view of Islam is based on reason and questioning. “Islam doesn’t see itself as the one and only true tradition,” she says, though “it has been taught very dogmatically” in recent years, thanks to the fundamentalists. There is an outsider’s view of Muslims as being homogenous—as well as homophobic and anti-woman, as if the Muslim population of Indonesia, the largest in the world, shared DNA with the Taliban in Afghanistan. She’s encountered that attitude not just from students, but from professors with PhDs, which she found rather disheartening.

“I blame the Muslims for the misconceptions as well,” she says. “In my opinion, those people are the ones who hurt Islam the worst—the literalists.” Specifically, Tatari’s talking about the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, the ultraconservatives commonly associated with things like morality police and burqas and public beheadings. “Many Muslims don’t agree with that—they are very frustrated with the fundamentalists,” she says. Still, it is influential in many corners of the Muslim world.

Just as importantly, she says, she wants her book and her outreach through the Nur Spirituality Institute to counteract another misconception: Muslim is not an identity. That word, however, is actually an active verb—“to submit”—not really a noun. “If you’re not submitting, it doesn’t mean anything,” she says. “It won’t give you peace.”

In too many places in the world, both Muslims and non-Muslims see being a “Muslim” as a brand, an identifier, a binary divider of people. But Islam, she says, is about personal submission to the will of God upon questioning and confirmation by heart and intellect, not about cheering for your team the way you would at a football game.

At the Nur Spirituality Corner, Tatari wants to reach out to not just the 75,000 Muslims in the Orlando area, but spiritual people of all stripes. “The heart of all traditions emphasizes the same things,” she says. “There’s a need for spirituality.”