Friday Sermon: Imagining and Constructing Community (10-27-17)

This sermon was delivered on October 27th, 2017 on the steps of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University. Note: The Arabic opening and ending prayers have been cut out for simplicity. The sermon begins after the English translation of the opening prayers below.


All praise is for God, we seek His help and His forgiveness. We seek refuge with God from the evil of our own souls and from the evil of our actions. Whomsoever God guides will never be led astray, and whomsoever God leads astray, no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no God but God, alone without any partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his final servant and messenger.

— Start of Part I —

Our tradition tells us the story of a man who lived during the time of the Prophet and was known for being a heavy drinker. He would spend his days and nights drinking heavily, often disturbing the public order and causing trouble for those around him. He goes to the Prophet and confesses his addiction, and some of the Prophet’s companions speak ill of him. The Prophet looks toward his companions and says, “Do not speak ill of him in this way for I know he is a man who loves God and His Messenger.”

In another story we are told that a Bedouin walks into the Prophet’s mosque and begins to start urinating on one of its corners without any shame or consideration for the sacredness of the place. The companions see this and are enraged, wanting to pounce on the man. The Prophet calms them down and tells them to let the man finish. He orders a bucket of water to be used to wash off the urine, and then goes over to the man and advises him on the etiquette and stature of the place that he is in, letting him know that his action was not appropriate. Later in life this Bedouin recalls the story and says, “The Prophet stood before me and neither cursed nor scolded nor hit me (for what I did).”

In a third story, we are told that two men, Bilal ibn Rabah, a former African slave who converted to Islam and Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, a wealthy Arab leader, are quarreling, and in the midst of the quarrel Abu Dharr refers to Bilal as “ibn as-sawdah,” i.e., the “son of a black woman.” The Prophet upon hearing this frowns with disappointment, and reminds him that we are all sons of a black woman, Hajar, and that what Abu Dharr said to Bilal was a statement rooted in ignorance.

Abu Dharr begins to tear upon realizing what just happened, and he becomes so embarrassed by it that he puts his face on the floor and tells Bilal to step on it to do justice, saying that “this is what my face is worth for what my mouth has uttered.” Bilal lifts up Abu Dharr and kisses him on the forehead telling him that no, “this is what your face is worth, for being one that prostrates to God.”

When we read these particular stories of our tradition, we tend to read them heuristically, looking at them the way a lawyer would look at a legal compendium, divorced from its humanizing components. While these readings inform our ethics, an additional layer we often overlook when going through them is those very human components that they have to offer, which are the most important components of all. If we situate these stories in their time and place, we can truly appreciate how radically humanizing they are.

Let’s ask ourselves, what sort of impression do we have of the community of the Prophet? What do we think when we think about his community? That they were – by default – these celestial beings with few imperfections and human fallibilities. That they in no way slipped up or fell short, or committed outright wrongs in public.

Well when we read their everyday life stories in this manner, it often erases their lived realities and the contexts they were in. It leaves us disillusioned with our own lives because we feel as though we are unable to measure up to the imagined perfection we see them to have exhibited. It makes us wonder whether we are worth it at all.

Think about it, here was a man who drank excessively, who despite his committing a major sin, was someone about whom the Prophet said that, “he is someone who loves God and His Messenger.” Then there was a Bedouin urinating in the mosque’s prayer area, who even after committing such a sacrilegious act, came back the next day feeling welcomed by the Prophet. Then there was Abu Dharr, a successful companion known for his spiritual piety who made a terrible racist remark to another companion who was once a slave, and look at how that incident made them both better people, brothers. These people too were companions of the Prophet. They too were part of the community.

What do these stories tell us?

They tell us is that the community of the Prophet was comprised of imperfect people. And we see in the way the Prophet responded to each of them that he exerted the utmost wisdom and understanding in how to deal both with the individual actors who committed the wrongs along with the larger group of actors who wanted to reprimand them. At the end, he made both those who were reprimanded as well as those who were reprimanding feel like they were a part of something greater than themselves.

What’s even more important to understand is that as you build a community, think not about those whom you feel will embody the perfectionism you have in mind, but think about people like these. Remember that the companion who drank alcohol was a member of the Prophet’s community; the Bedouin who urinated in the Prophet’s mosque was also part of the community; the companion who was not Arab, who was Black, was also part of the Prophet’s community. All the companions who sought to incur harm on these people were just as much part of the community. The Prophet did not tell either one that they were no longer part of the community.

You’re going to always have people who do things the wrong way; there will always be those whose values aren’t situated in line with your own; you will always see those who treat others poorly and those who treat people excellently. You will see people who come from different walks of life, be it varying levels of religiosity and spirituality, different social standing, divergent political views, and a wide range of racial and economic backgrounds; the idea here when thinking about community is how to build something that transcends these differences without diluting them.

How do we begin to see ourselves as a collective without compromising who we are as individuals? How do we tie together our struggles, our celebrations, and our failures?

And this is what I’d like to speak about in today’s sermon. The way we should see ourselves and those around us and how we work together toward constructing a shared sense of belonging, a shared sense of community.

Part of building a community must also involve having a positive vision of what community means. We’re not going to be able to do it if we exclusively define ourselves in reaction to something or someone else. And we will most definitely fall short if we attempt to build a community with an understanding that this is how we must define ourselves.

“We’re not terrorists. We do not want to impose anything on this country. We’re not this or that.” How much longer are we going to continue defining ourselves by what we are not? We must start defining ourselves by what we are.

The man with the alcohol addiction disturbed public order; the Bedouin was ignorant of how and where he was supposed to perform a basic bodily function; and Abu Dharr had transgressed his boundaries by making a statement of arrogance and racism. But the manner in which the Prophet handled each one of these situations reflects the way in which he imagined community as well.

Even when there were those who spoke and did acts in such a way that were contradictory to the way things were supposed to function, the Prophet did not define community as something that forms only in reaction to them. He instead reaffirmed what community is. And in each instance, all of the individuals comprising it came out to be better people through it.

We’re sitting here in Columbia University, one of the most decorated academic institutions on earth. Think for a second about how this institution works. Who is allowed to enter these spaces? Who is seen as an outcast? When you as a student go to a networking event, what sort of people and personalities do you find? What makes Columbia what it is? The fact of the matter is that an institution like this one, and many others, is that they define themselves in exclusion to those who don’t fit the mold. The students who attend schools like this one go on to become major public figures, writers, politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, and more, each field with its own community and language.

But what makes a spiritually-grounded community like ours stand out is that even in an exclusive and insulated institution like this one, we don’t have to define ourselves in the same way. We can have the potential to shape the consciousness of those around us and to speak their language, be they Muslim or not.

The Prophet of God began his community with three people: his wife Khadija, an elderly man by the name of Abu Bakr, and his young cousin Ali. In the beginning, his message attracted mostly those from the lowest rung of society, but he gave his final sermon to a community of 124,000 people. Today we stand at 1.6 billion.

This was because he had a vision that accounted for all the unique qualities of those around him. He exercised empathy, even to those whom he disagreed with, and he allowed his community to exercise empathy amongst each other. He sought unity, but he didn’t demand uniformity, he didn’t want Islam to become a cult. Empathy was the key here.

What does it mean to empathetic toward those who are different from you? How do we contextualize it in our day?

It means that if your understanding of religion is more of a liberal persuasion, to recognize that those conservatives whom we often dismiss as reactionary are in fact coming from a place where they’ve tasted the fruits of the work done by our ancestors and want us to inherit the joy of continuing that work by sharing it with the rest of us; recognize that they want us to be grounded in a tradition that has a substantive meaning, a tradition that transcends time and place, a tradition that requires anchoring ourselves in broader ideals.

And you know what? While we mock them for being “too traditional,” they will still wake up every night at 3 o’clock in the morning to pray and cry to God for our collective well-being, because deep down inside, they love and care our community.

And if your understanding of religion is of a more conservative persuasion, recognize that many of those liberals whom we exclude from our sacred spaces for not looking like us, fasting like us, or praying like us are going through their own tribulations; that they have their own complicated stories and circumstances; and that they really just want an opportunity to be heard. They too want us to be grounded in tradition in a way that speaks to them.

And you know what? When our rights are trampled upon or threatened, they are always the first ones to put their bodies on the line for the very people that excluded them. They too cry for us, because deep down inside, they love and care for our community too.

These may indeed be two broad categories, and a good number of people – in fact most people – do not fit neatly into either box, but I use these caricatures to illustrate the simple point of what it means to be a community: that the real test of our commitment to God is measured not by how loving and welcoming we are to those who already look, talk, act, and think like us but how loving and welcoming we are to those who do not.

Listen to them. Listen to everyone. I promise you that when you engage in the process of listening and having multiple entry points to cater to the plethora of voices you will be hearing, you will have people come to you crying, breaking down in amazement that for once, someone is listening to them. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met folks who’ve come to me saying exactly that. It doesn’t cost you any money, only time.

Create gatherings where people can come and feel as if they’re being listened to, and regardless of whether or not it goes in the specific direction that they want they can feel as if they have a place where they can participate. Think about how you are responsible. When you empower a community and you let every single person believe that they have something to offer, they will offer it.

 — End of Part I —

The last time I stood here to speak to you [1], on this place, at this very spot, was back in February, a few short weeks after the Presidential Inauguration. I had mentioned that we must all engage in some sobering reflections about where we are at this critical juncture in time, and that these reflections should serve the purpose of preparing us to resist what is to come. I now stand before you now one week before the anniversary of the Presidential Election.

Whether you were in attendance at the time I last spoke or not, ask yourself now, how have you held up a commitment to build community that works together?

Where do we stand as a community today? Are we still defining ourselves exclusively in reaction, in response, and in a defensive way to the powers that be? Or have we developed the internal cohesion, the spiritual audacity, the institutional potential to define ourselves with a positive vision, one that does not require a defense of what it is?

In our prayers when we recite our opening prayer , the fatiha, we say “Iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’in ihdina as-sirat al-mustaqim” (“Only You do we worship and only You we beseech for help; guide us to the straight path”)

In our world today, which is often refracted through the prism of individualism and capitalism, even our understanding of daily liturgical prayers can become individualistic and all about the self. When we recite the fatiha, are we not affirming that we collectively worship God and that we are collectively asking for guidance? This is proof enough that we were meant to be a community.

If we are asking for collective guidance, then it means we must work together collectively to pursue that guidance, to pursue the betterment of our souls, and to ensure that each and every single one of us is part of that struggle.

You know, a lot of times we ask the question of where God is in our life. That’s because our understanding of God is once again rooted in an individualistic notion of what it means to be God-conscious; we go about seeking God on our own, and when things go wrong, we tend to blame the results on God being absent in our lives. But what if God’s presence demands that we be present for each other?

What if my works, my guidance, and even my repentance affect not just me, but those around me? What if we are all obligated to do what it takes in our own individual capacity to influence the broader collective?

I’d like to quote a Rabbi [1] whose writings I read often, her name is Danya Ruttenberg. She recently wrote a piece directed to her Jewish community in the context of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish tradition, and she asked them to reimagine the concept of “repentance” and “responsibility” by looking at it in a collective way. As I read this excerpt, I want you to think of it in context to Muslims:

“Each of our culpability, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad is tied inextricably with the actions of our community … with all people. It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental and social well-being — and to not pass the theological buck to a deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will, the power to heal or to hurt, to push for climate accords or to push for corporate interests, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them — or to stand idly by and do nothing.

What if the reason that a person develops cancer is not because he or she personally did something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence? What if the reason a person was hit harder by the hurricane is because that person’s city invested more infrastructure in neighborhoods wealthier than their own? What if the reason that they don’t survive their illness is because senators took away their health care — because we, in a fit of resistance fatigue, stopped calling? Didn’t make it out to yet another town hall?

The deeper we get into prayer, returning and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is — rather than being isolated and individual — intertwined with the well-being of our culture as a whole. The more we try to bring our actions in alignment with our greatest ideals, the more we find that every aspect of our lives is inextricably impacted.

Some of us have monetary resources, some have resources of talent, or time, or connections. And when we invest in ways that fuel us personally, we find ways to make our work sustainable. There are a lot of ways to invest in the well-being of our community, country and world. You can help inscribe us all into The Book of Life.”

This was the way of your Prophet.

I end with the story of when he was attacked [by the polytheist tribes of Arabia] to the point where blood was gashing from his mouth as he was calling them to be better people. When the blood flew out of his mouth, he caught it with his hand out of fear for the people who attacked him. He was afraid of what God would incur upon those people if his blood were to touch the floor. In another instance, when he was attacked, he proclaimed “O God, forgive my people for they do not know!”

Think about that for a second. Who is he referring to as “his people?” Those same people who were attacking him, harming him, causing him to cry. He called them his people. He saw them as community just as much as everyone else. He cared for them. Ask yourself, have you developed a connection with the people around you to the point where you can call them “your people”? If not, ask yourself why not, and begin to see them as part of your community.

I pray that Allah bless and guide us all, forgive every one of us of our shortcomings and our sins, and allow us all to become the answers to our own prayers so that we may truly embody what it means to be a community.

— End —

References

[1]: https://asaddandia.com/2017/10/25/a-sermonkhutbah-for-our-trumpian-world/
[2]:
 http://forward.com/life/faith/383080/what-this-rosh-hashanah-liturgical-poem-means-in-trumps-america/?attribution=author-article-listing-2-headline

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A Sermon/Khutbah for our Trumpian World

I was asked to give a sermon (khutba in Arabic) at Columbia University this week as part of their ‘Charity Week’ and am in the process of writing it, but as I was looking through older sermons, I found one which I gave earlier this year that I am particularly proud of and wanted to share here.


The following is a transcript of a Friday sermon that I delivered at the Islamic Center of New York University on January 13, 2017, one week before Donald Trump’s inauguration. I also delivered a slightly edited version of the same sermon at Columbia University on February 3, 2017, where it was followed by a demonstration. Portions of this sermon appear on my personal blog page as well. With the exception of one quoted Qur’anic verse in the sermon, the traditional Arabic prayers in the beginning and end have been edited out. Photos of the prayer at Columbia are attached at the bottom this document.

The sermon begins below with a translation of the standard opening prayer of Islamic Friday sermons, followed by the actual sermon.


All thanks and praise are due to God, and we seek His help and forgiveness. We seek refuge in God from the evil within ourselves and from the consequences of our actions. Whomever God guides will never be led astray, and whomever God leads astray will never find guidance. I bear witness there is no God but God, alone without any partners, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and His Messenger.

—START—

Many people in the country and in the world right now are in deep pain and fear over what is to come to our nation. This pain and fear extends beyond ideology and party; it isn’t just about an election, but about the reality that every value we held close to us is under attack. The institutions that we trusted would protect us are faltering, and it feels as if our very system is collapsing. The evils of racism, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia have skyrocketed, and their purveyors have become more unapologetic.

Hate crimes have been spiking all over the country, and even if the outcome of an election were different, we all know we would have to live with the reality that the most malicious elements of society are now at the forefront of becoming mainstream.

And thus, against this backdrop is the subject matter of our sermon today. It is about how we are to resist what is to come, how we develop a renewed and sustained sense of urgency and resilience, and how we can maintain our hope in these troubling times.

This reality that we are facing is something that we’ve come to learn has already existed. It is bad, it is real, and the truth of the matter is that it has always been happening. The poor black woman has always been aware of it. The transgender woman has always been aware of it. The undocumented teenager has always been aware of it. It is simply now more visible to the rest of us.

Many of us have been protected from these realities by the color of our skin, or by our income, or our education, or our gender, or our sexual orientation. And the truth is, some of us will continue to be protected from it.

But given the sheer magnitude of what we are facing, we cannot afford to be anything but supportive of one another despite the very different identities and circumstances we have. It is the only way to overcome today’s climate.

We must ask ourselves now, will we meet today’s climate with fear? Because if we do, we will be beaten by it. But if we meet it with a certain type of strength and a set of values that allow us to reaffirm our relationship with our Lord and our purpose for being here, we will win. And to do that takes real love, real hope, real commitment to equity and justice.

Sometimes what it takes is a complete and absolute disaster of our lives in such an epic, unavoidable way that only afterwards can it suddenly become clear to us what we have been doing and where we have failed all along.

And our process of healing, growing, and coming together will require more than just words. It will require us our taking deliberate action to understand that what today is bringing us should not prevent us from building what it is we want for tomorrow.

And if there’s ever a moment where you are in despair or at less, remember that we have the example of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to look to.

This was a man who was informed of the many trials and tribulations his community would face until the end of days; a man who told his companions that a day would come when holding on to the religion would be like holding on to burning hot coals; a man who narrated to us that a time would come when killing would increase to such an extent that the killer would not know why he was killing and the one being killed would not know why he was being killed; a man who told his companions that, “if you knew what I knew [about the world], you would weep much and laugh little.”

He witnessed his friends tortured to death for simply professing and espousing their faith. He was abused and attacked, humiliated by some of his own family members, persecuted to the point where he had to flee the city of his birth because the people would not accept him and his message.

And yet, at the same time, he was a man whom Anas bin Malik, a companion of his, described as someone who never once complained; someone who was present in the lives of each and every one of his companions so much to the degree that they each felt that they were his best friend; who was so beloved by God that the tree branches would sway in his direction and the clouds would shade him when he walked.

And even with all that he knew and all that he witnessed, he would bring glad tidings to his companions as to not terrify them, smiling so broadly that his molar teeth would show.

In our tradition we are taught that when he was asked to invoke God’s wrath on a people, he responded by saying that, “I was not sent as an invoker of curses, but as a mercy.”

So, we can allow our responses and our reaction to today’s sociopolitical climate make us reactionary, or we can take the example of the Prophet as a model for us to follow.

And yet at the same time, words cannot be minced. We must not be charitable with how we characterize the situation we find ourselves in today. What we have witnessed until now: the erosion of democratic norms and institutions, the denigration of women, the potential evisceration of healthcare, the dismantling of civil rights, the potential deportation of millions of undocumented Latino citizens, the indiscriminate profiling and the brazen demonization of Muslims, immigrants, and refugees; the atmosphere that has been created – or rather, revealed – as a consequence of all of this, may remain for decades to come, and we have to be brutally honest in accepting all the challenges that we must face.

But there is a thin line here; there is a thin line between accepting the reality and normalizing what we see today. Acceptance absolutely does not mean normalization. On the contrary, it means quite the opposite. Yes, we have witnessed an upsurge in abuse from the most dangerous, menacing, and fringe elements of our society, and it has been coupled with a tremendous display of hubris that has emboldened and empowered these elements to openly proclaim their virulently racist, supremacist ideologies. This cannot be overlooked and must be fought against, but anyone who tells us to accept the situation as it is today without also coupling it with the imperative call to action is undoubtedly committing an injustice.

A companion of the Prophet Muhammad named Abu Sa’id al Khudri said that, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, “Whomsoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue, and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest level of faith.”

As one of my mentors, the Muslim Chaplain of NYU Imam Khalid Latif always says, we cannot allow any situation to put us in a place of passivity or complacency.

And thus, at every step will make it unequivocally clear that we will not allow bigotry to become normalized; make it clear that even when we are not surprised by what we see in the news, that we will remain outraged; make it clear that we will not flinch for a second when we are asked to stand up to the daunting forces of bigotry, hatred, racism, and oppression; make it clear that we will do what we must, using every mechanism and means at our disposal, to confront these various threats, and we will not be fooled by fleeting moments of a false normality, as if what we are witnessing today is at all normal.

We must now, at this critical moment in time, engage in a sobering reflection about where we are, and with a renewed impetus, recognize our responsibilities, not just as citizens, but as human beings, to push back against what is to come.

But this necessitates stepping out of our insulated friend circles and social media bubbles that only reinforce what we already believe and grant us the delusion of audience. President Obama said it very well earlier this week, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.”

I have to recognize that the world is much bigger than my personal needs and desires, and that I can take my strengths, my credentials, my talents, and my resources for the sake of a community, a country, and a world that is in dire need of me thinking about others before I think about myself.

I have to be bold enough and audacious enough to ask of the Divine to make me the answer to people’s prayers.

If I am part of an older generation, I should get in touch with young students and ask them how I can invest my wealth and your resources toward their development; if I am young, I should spend time with the elderly and gain from their wisdom because they’ve been through what I have and worse.

I need to ask myself: When was the last time I went to a church or a synagogue to build relationships with different faith communities? When did I last visit a soup kitchen? A funeral? A town hall meeting?

Look at the allies standing around you. Do not leave this space until you’ve met at least one of them and gotten to know their name.

If you work on the board of a mosque, ask whether your mosque has any women representing on its board? Ask the women of your mosque about the status of their prayer spaces, if even there is space at all. If your mosque is racially diverse, ask whether the board is representative of that diversity.

Ask what you and your mosque have done to reach out to our black brothers and sisters in solidarity? If you were born Muslim, ask whether you have reached out to the converts you know, who often have to endure isolation from their own family in addition to the trauma of Islamophobia.

If you are sitting here right now, recognize that you are sitting in one of the most diverse institutions on the planet.

You have the opportunity right here and right now, using all the resources at your disposal, to be the change you wish to see. Do not allow this moment to be one that gives you a quick sense of urgency during a Friday sermon and then wears off after you’ve left this space.

My last message in this sermon, and it is the most difficult one of all. I do not ask you to look back to an imaginary utopian past, or to a time when things may have seemed to have been better. No, I ask you to look forward and to have hope.

You must look forward to organizing locally, among your family, your friends, and your community, to build power that will defend the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the targeted.

You must look forward to using your positions of privilege to amplify the voices of those who may not have access to the same platform as you. Offer your platform to such individuals and stand as an ally to them without putting any conditions on your allyship or expecting anything in return.

You must look forward to fighting back against all harmful legislation that ill-minded lawmakers attempt to pass, whether it be unlawful profiling and surveillance, the deportation of thousands of undocumented immigrants, or the evisceration of health insurance for millions of people.

You must look forward to supporting organizations and institutions that are working to make the world a better place. You must look forward to reading, writing, educating, and sharing whatever knowledge you have that will contribute to making the world a better place.

You must look forward to punctuating your mark in history by fighting and resisting against all forms of oppression with every fiber of your being.

Today, at this very place, in this very moment, at this very juncture in time, look forward to counting yourself as part of The Resistance.

And as far as hope is concerned, there is the verse from the Qur’an where God says:

“Wa idh Qala Rabbuka lil Mala’ikati Innee Ja’ilun fi al-Ardhi Khalifah Qalu a-taj’alu fi ha man yufsidu fi ha wa yasfiku dimaa a wa nahnu nu-sabihu bi-hamdika wa nuqaddi sulak Qala innee a’lamu ma la ta’lamun” [Transliteration of the Qur’an 2:30]

When God was creating humankind, he said to the angels that “Indeed I will make upon the earth a “Khalifah,”” or a successor, an authority, an inheritor, a caretaker, and the angels responded, “will you place upon it those who cause discord and shed blood, while we praise you and sanctify you?”

Look at our God’s response to the angels when they asked him this.

“Qala innee a’lamu ma la ta’lamun”

“Indeed. I know that which you do not know.”

Our God had hope in us, so we must have hope in ourselves. Have hope in God but also have hope in yourself and in others, because more often than not your hope will be confirmed. Have hope, because hope makes a better world possible.

God rebuked the angels for us, so make the intention to be the manifestation of that rebuke. Be evidence of His mercy, love, compassion, and justice in this world. How do you embody that mercy? How do you embody that sense of justice?

And how will you resist what is to come?

—END—

Photo of CU Friday prayer

The Friday prayer commences on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library (February 3, 2017)

Photo 1 of CU Sermon

Muslims prostrating in their Friday prayers with non-Muslim allies standing by the side in solidarity (February 3, 2017)

Moses Mendelssohn and a Question on Islamic Reform

Last week I attended a lecture at the Center for Jewish History in New York entitled, ‘Why Moses Mendelssohn Matters,’ and I’d like to briefly share some of the notes I took during the program as well as a follow-up question I had which I unfortunately wasn’t able to ask, because by the time I had finished constructing it, the Q&A panel had ended.

The event’s speakers presented Mendelssohn’s impressive accomplishments, contextualized the questions he grappled with in the epoch of his time, and explored how those questions can be applied to our current sociopolitical moment today. Below is a photo of the event flier itself:

image2

I walked in a few minutes late as Professor Michah Gottlieb was speaking. He was describing the ways in which Mendelssohn was both appreciated and criticized by Jews of all stripes both during his time and after. For the Orthodox, he wasn’t religious enough; for Zionists, not nationalist enough; for Marxists, too embracing of the free market; and so on.

In Mendelssohn’s age, the Jewish commitment to Liberal Enlightenment was interpreted by Protestants as a deceptive ploy. Jews were criticized for not being sufficiently committed to the societies in which they lived, of seeking to defraud Protestants, and of being too engulfed in their own religious dogmatism. Gottlieb described a three-pronged approach to how Mendelssohn dealt with these and other issues of his time:

  1. He recognized that non-Jewish criticism of Jews was not always entirely wrong. A minority of Jews were in fact involved in crime and saw it as legitimate to defraud Christians. Some were in fact driven by dogma. Mendelssohn saw this as doing Judaism wrong, and believed that Judaism at its core was in fact even more liberal and tolerant than Protestantism because it did not demand a commitment to irrational dogma and did not necessitate being Jewish as a prerequisite to enter heaven. Mendelssohn thus saw it as vital to reform Jewish education, but for him, the process of reform was rooted in Judaism itself.
  2. Mendelssohn also sought to define what it meant to be “German.” In the 18th century, there did not exist an accepted definition of what it meant to be “German.” Professor Gottlieb argued that for Mendelssohn, being German was not a question of blood or religion, as there were Catholic and Prussian Germans, but that being German was then something to be defined by the “grand matter of philosophizing.” To be German was to be cosmopolitan and to ascertain truth from multiple perspectives. To contribute to German philosophical discourse, Mendelssohn contributed to translation projects of literature that were both religious and secular in nature, be it the Hebrew Bible or the works of Plato and Rousseau.
  3. Mendelssohn argued that Judaism was of value not just for Jews but for Germans as a whole, because Judaism married rational Enlightenment philosophy with faith, provided the formulate for social cohesion, and tempered religious division.

Professor Gottlieb then went on to describe how the anxieties that Germans in the 18th century felt were very much like those that White Americans feel today: “There is a temptation to long for an idyllic and imagined past when society was supposedly more homogeneous, peaceful, and prosperous.” How did Mendelssohn advocate moving forward then? Through an enlightened cosmopolitanism, and through recognizing that hatred was not a sign of courage and strength, but of fear and weakness.

Gottlieb ended his portion of the talk by arguing that for Mendelssohn as a Jew and a German, the path to reconciliation was to, in Gottlieb’s words, “bear both burdens,” by adopting the mores of your land but also holding on to the tradition of your fathers.

After Professor Gottlieb was Professor David Sorkin, who began his talk by mentioning that the very characteristics that made Mendelssohn a formative figure for Judaism in the 18th century are what make him a formative figure today. He quoted the Mendelssohnian scholar Alexander Altmann, who described Mendelssohn as the archetypal German Jew because of four specific characteristics:

  1. He had acculturated, by mastering the German language and culture.
  2. He was a Jew by conviction, not just by birth.
  3. He was a philosopher of Judaism in modern times, and aimed to fulfill the commandments (mitzvot).
  4. He was an advocate for the rights and emancipation of Jews.

Because of these four characteristics, Mendelssohn was the “patron-saint” of German Judaism in the 19th century. For Reform Jews, his emphasis on morality and reason were essential; for Conservative Jews, i.e., ‘positive-historical’ Jews, he deftly balanced reason with the commandments; for Orthodox Jews, he represented an observant Jew who identified the commandments with morality; thus, every major stream of Judaism could lay claim to Mendelssohn.

Professor Sorkin also noted that Mendelssohn wrote one of the best-selling Hebrew books of the 19th century and that his translations of the Bible and commentary went through at least two dozen editions.

He mentioned that Mendelssohn “was an advocate of a form of radical individualism and a rejection of religious authority. He saw religion as being a necessarily voluntary society in which any member who wants to participate or belong should be allowed to do.”

He quoted a few prominent articles where Mendelssohn was cited as an inspiration, but the one that stuck out to me was one written by Muslim liberal thinker Mustafa Akyol, published in the New York Times, which can (and should be) read here. Akyol, a “Twitter friend” of mine, appears to cite Mendelssohn as a workable and exemplary model to emulate for Muslims seeking to reform their faith. This moment was what I was waiting for, and it is what triggered a series of jumbled thoughts in my mind about Islam and reform. After discussing Mendelssohn’s influence on a diverse array of classic and contemporary writers and thinkers, Sorkin ended his presentation.

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This was the crux of the presentations, after which followed a panel discussion and Q&A sessions. I did not take notes for these but paid close attention to what was being discussed. I then mustered the courage to ask a question but wanted it to be precise and impactful, so I started typing it out quickly on my iPhone to do exactly that. This is what I wrote (slightly edited):

“Coming from the Islamic tradition and being Muslim myself, I find this panel to be very enlightening, especially as an outsider. The question I have to ask then, pertains to the applicability of the Mendelssohnian approach to the Islamic tradition. It was mentioned that Mendelssohn could serve as a model for Islamic reform, and Professor Sorkin, you quoted an interesting article written by Mustafa Akyol.

One of the critiques of Akyol’s argument is that it uncritically adopts modernization theory, i.e., the idea that all societies must and will progress in a linear path following that of industrialized and post-Enlightenment Europe. Well, people argue that one of the reasons Muslims societies didn’t ‘reform’ was because Islam didn’t encounter the same tensions between “church” and “state” in the same manner that the other Abrahamic traditions may have.

For example, pre-modern shari’a, like halacha, consisted of a malleable and flexible corpus of general principles from which law and ethics were derived, and it was only after the introduction of modern notions of statehood, which demanded conformity to a uniform, bureaucratized, top-down structure of governance, that shari’a became stagnant and frozen in time. In Islam’s encounter with modernity, this system of dynamic principles was reduced to immutable positive law for the sake of modern efficiency.

My question then is, would Mendelssohn’s philosophical and legal approach be truly universally applicable or would it apply solely for a Western/European context?”

Now while I certainly do not have the answer to this loaded question, what I do know is that I need to work harder on mastering the skill of writing and articulating the deeper questions in a deft manner. Now there’s a lesson I definitely have to learn from Mendelssohn.

-Asad

Reflections on Hebrew School at Middlebury

Note: Before this, it may be helpful to go through my “Why Hebrew?” piece to get a better understanding of why I chose to study the language in the first place.

So I spent most of my summer 2017 in the small town of Middlebury, Vermont, studying Hebrew. It’s a quiet town with not much going on besides having a stellar private liberal arts college with a spacious and beautiful campus, a setting that makes it so conducive to study well.

As part of an intensive immersion summer language program, we pledged to only read, write, and speak in Hebrew. This is initially hard for those who begin with zero knowledge of the language, but “survival” sessions early on and the methods by which it is taught in the first week (similar to teaching a young child using symbols, gestures, and images) made it easier.

Because of the constraints of the pledge, many of us were in a constant, often tiring effort to communicate even the most simple of ideas, which made bonding throughout the weeks much more meaningful. As the time passed, I became part of a small community consisting of people from all walks of life on this gorgeous campus isolated from most of the clutter of the outside world, and through it all, I made friends with whom I hope to remain in touch for the rest of my life.

Pledge

My Middlebury language pledge form

My Typical Day

Class began at 8 A.M. sharp and went on until 1 P.M. There were breaks in between, and the last hour was usually spent reviewing together or doing homework. In 7 weeks, we covered a 500-page textbook. Before class there was breakfast in the dining hall where our school ate together, and then right after class was lunch. Dinner was in the evening at 7 P.M., and in between lunch and dinner were activities including tutoring, sports, dance lessons, yoga, additional lectures, parties, film screenings, events, and of course extra time to study or relax. There was always something to do, and time management was of extreme importance given the structure of the day.

I spent a few hours doing homework with friends and taking additional grammar classes to help me learn faster. The three daily meals were part of our educational experience, because we had to eat together with students from all levels and had to adhere to the pledge even then. It was immersion in the fullest sense. In addition, getting a good amount of sleep was very important if you wanted to maximize your time. It took me a week or two just to adjust a good routine for sleeping, and some nights I was up long past midnight doing homework (bad idea).

board

Studying Hebrew verb forms, roots, categories, tenses, and infinitives in class

A typical day would look like getting up and ready by 7:30, having breakfast until 8 and then walking over to class. In class, our lesson would break every hour or so for about ten minutes until the class ended. Then there was lunch at 1, which went on for about an hour, and then either I’d head to the library to study or to a grammar class, classical Hebrew class, yoga, or to my room to catch up on sleep, depending on the day. In the evening we had dinner, and thereafter I’d join a study group in our dormitory hall or get some other work done. If there was a film screening or lecture I’d usually always go to that.

short story

The story of the three bears in Hebrew


My Teachers

For me, this is what made my learning experience so phenomenal. Few people are able to enter your life for a short period of time and have such a tremendous impact on you that it stays with you. Guy, my first Hebrew teacher, was one of those people. I will always remember the passion, humor, and energy with which he taught our class. He never once failed to respond to our questions and to give each of us (a class of almost 15 students, which is large for a program like this) the time we deserved.

Me and Guy

My first teacher, Guy

Ibrahim, my second Hebrew teacher, was another one of those people. His commitment to his students and to the craft of teaching combined with his endearing charm and finesse made the language so fun to learn. I personally appreciated having him as a teacher because entering the program, I was initially worried I wouldn’t fit in, so having someone to connect to so easily meant the world to me.  It isn’t often you have an Arab-Muslim Sufi who teaches you Hebrew, debka (a Levantine-Arab cultural dance), performing arts, and more all in one go, but Ibrahim did it.

Me and Ibrahim

My second teacher, Ibrahim

Both Guy and Ibrahim had an enchanting way of teaching with all of who they were, and the depths of their knowledge were matched only by the sizes of their hearts. I’ve always cherished all my teachers, but I keep a special memory for those who taught me with their hearts before they did with their minds. For anyone considering doing an intensive language program, be sure to bond well with all of your teachers inside and outside the classroom.

 

Outside of the Program

I did have time to do things outside of the Hebrew program and to explore some of Vermont.

I went hiking on Snake Mountain with some friends, which was a reprieve from uninhibited language study. On another day, I attended a county fair with some friends, and on a weekend I had the opportunity to make pilgrimage to the Sacred Factory of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream to see where the enterprise all began. I got to visit maple farms, which Vermont is nationally renowned for, and met a farmer named Bernie (not Sanders) who taught me about the delicate craft of producing the state’s signature product, pure maple syrup.

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Entrance to the original Ben & Jerry’s factory

He gave my friends and I a tour of the farm, showing us how he and his wife have created an elaborate system of tubing that connects four-to-six thousand trees to machinery on his farm which then processes the sap after it is collected. He then sells it to partners like local communities and companies alike to earn his income. All of it is homegrown, environment-friendly, & fairly traded. Learning about it all was a really eye-opening experience for a rural-illiterate, lifelong urbanite like me.

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Maple syrup produced on Vermont’s farms

My Goals

I’ve thought deeply about what I want to do in life, and while I don’t have a pinpointed answer that I can give to that question, I know that I want to maintain a constant curiosity for acquiring meaningful skills, an insatiable hunger to explore new frontiers, and a yearning to expand my horizons. I know that as I get older, the time, access, and opportunities I have to do these very things will grow increasingly limited. This year I worked my first full-time job and was fortunate enough to have two months off to be able to enroll at Middlebury.

While there, I noticed that those who came in with intrinsic motivation to pursue learning the language, with passion and purpose, did much better than those who were doing it to merely fill a requirement. I think this is really important. You need to have a passion for it and you need to really want to do it for more than just a grade or a piece of paper. My goal right now is to continue my Hebrew study as I go on in life and to reach a point where I can be confident enough to write papers and give lectures in the language.

certificate

My Middlebury language certificate

Final Thoughts

I’ll be honest, if it weren’t for my background in Arabic I probably would have not done so well, but the program was still very challenging. The pledge was frustrating at times, especially in the beginning when I needed to get around, but without it, I wouldn’t be nearly as competent in all of these faculties as I am now.

Today when I speak to people about studying languages, I tell them from the very beginning to look for immersion programs. Immersion is the best, if not the only way to truly internalize a language if you ask me because it’s closest to the natural way we’ve all been taught our first languages. I began with zero knowledge of Hebrew, minus learning the alphabet a week before, to reaching an early-to-intermediate level competency in all language skills. I’m proud of myself for that accomplishment and I fully believe that the sacrifice of an entire summer to get there was worth it.

Our class

Our Hebrew class with Ibrahim on our last day

– Asad

 

 

Why Hebrew?

There’s a question that’s been routinely posed to me as of late: “Why Hebrew?” I spent summer of 2017 at Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in Vermont whose summer language schools are globally-renowned for their rigor, efficiency, and most notably, their famous (and often frustrating) “Language Pledge.” The language I chose to study was Hebrew, and in this post I’d like to write a little bit about that.

To start, I think that learning another language properly and effectively is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. Aside from the utility of bilingualism, there is also a therapeutic and empowering feeling that comes with being able to articulate your words through different tongues. In addition, lots of articles have been written about how being bilingual makes you experience time differently; how knowing a second language can benefit democracy; and how it can expand your capacities for self-awareness, rationality, and empathy, all of which further illustrate the importance of learning one.

However, these tremendous benefits can just as easily apply to learning any second language, so why Hebrew specifically?

I’ll start with the academic and/or professional answer that people would expect to hear from me when asking the question, i.e., the “utility” answer: This fall I start graduate school as an incoming M.A. student in New York University’s Near (Middle) Eastern Studies program, which requires that I reach an early-advanced level proficiency in one language of the region. I could probably have waived this requirement knowing both Arabic and Urdu (though Urdu is not a Middle Eastern language, my program allows it to pass), but chose not to. I wanted to learn something new.

I enjoy learning about the intersections between religion, politics, and law, and in my program, I would want to examine the historical trajectory of Islam and Judaism by exploring how these two faiths negotiated complex communal, philosophical, legal, theological, and political issues in relation to their traditions, leading up to the modern, contemporary era. I want to know how these communities imagine[d] themselves through their own eyes, in their own languages, and on their own terms.

Because part of my program necessarily entails “area studies,” I would want to look at Israel/Palestine as one of my models (both pre- and post-1948), because of its centrality for both faiths, its location as the epicenter of both religion and politics (historic and contemporary), and its symbolism of both fear and hope, anxiety and comfort, and peace and war, whether imagined or real.

At the same time, I’d like to become an academic of the modern Middle East, the history of Muslim societies, and of the Islamic tradition; one who is able to keep a sharp and critical outlook toward all of these broadly defined fields, with a focus on subfields within them. I haven’t specified a focus yet, but I think that’ll become clearer very soon. Thus, to have Hebrew as part of my linguistic repertoire would frankly give me the edge toward being a more versatile scholar.

The second reason follows my first: I want to use my studies to advance advocacy work. As American Muslims gain a foothold in the mainstream fabric of American life, they will begin to grapple with an assortment of complex issues from political engagement to intermarriage to institution-building to denominational disputes. On what terms will these conversations take place, who will dictate them, and what will be their outcome?

For me, I think it would be interesting to dig deeper into how American Jews dealt with these issues and if Muslims can — or will — follow that same path. While I’m not sure that knowing Hebrew is a requirement to explore these things, it’d certainly be a huge plus if one day I want to study the Hebrew Bible in order to understand how Jews negotiate[d] traditional texts with modern challenges, as a model (or, to be objective, as a caution) for Muslims.

In my Statement of Academic Purpose, I wrote that, “[a]s an aspiring scholar, I would synthesize my informal training in Islam and my formal training in social work with my graduate school research to reify the theoretical concepts and develop an Islamic social justice praxis. My goal is to produce scholarly work that promotes Islam within a social justice-centered framework, through an interdisciplinary, human, and moral lens that is both well-rooted within traditional scripture but also well-attuned to contemporary norms. Through my research, I hope to make a direct impact on policy both domestic and foreign as it pertains to the Muslim community.”

The ultimate goal is for me to be a better advocate for Muslims; one who synthesizes practical experience with academic training in order to produce tangible outcomes for communal betterment. I do not believe this is possible without me having an eclectic background, interdisciplinary training, and a comprehensive understanding of the history of Muslim societies and the societies they’ve interacted with.

But there’s a deeper meaning behind why I picked Hebrew, and when thinking of my decision in a more abstract way, I can’t really answer it with the same prepackaged answer. My first real exposure to the language — and probably the most visceral — was in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where I was interrogated for hours on end before being allowed entry into the country, after which I went directly to Hebron, Palestine, and didn’t engage with the language further (with the exception of hearing it at the checkpoints).

While I was there, I taught English to Palestinians while learning, for the first time, an Arabic dialect (I am familiar with classical Arabic because of my childhood Qur’an study sessions). I soon became fascinated with the language in a way that I never was before, because acquiring it enriched my appreciation of a culture, a history, a story, and a narrative. Suddenly, I saw language as more than just a different way to express the same things. This experience soon led me to dig deeper into the power of human connection and its ability to break down barriers and build meaningful relationships, and I immediately fell in love with the transformative power of language to do exactly that.

Hebrew, being the language of a religion, a people, and of prophets, may just as well end up enriching my understanding and appreciation of Arabic and Islam, but I feel that it would also enhance my capacity for building profound connections. And as someone involved in interfaith work, Hebrew acquisition would make it easier to build those connections with those that I work with.

This brings me to my final point about language: If you see it exclusively for its utility or material benefits, you will never fully grasp it. Think of language as more than just a different way to express the same thing, but as a key which opens the door to explore wholly new frontiers which teach you, challenge you, and transform you into a new person who is appreciative of the subtleties of the human condition and the nuances of life. I fully believe that if a new language is pursued with a noble and higher intent, it will make you a more loving person.

And that’s what I want to be.

-Asad

 

A Sunni Response to the Baghdad Bombing

In the third night of Ramadan 2017, men and women, both young and old, gathered at a bustling ice cream shop in the Karradah neighborhood of southern Baghdad during what should have been an ideal night out with the family to cool off from the long, hot day of fasting.

But the joyful night abruptly turned into a scene of death and destruction, as has too often painfully been the case in Baghdad, when the families were met with a car bomb, detonated by an ISIS fighter, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more.

It sent a tremor to a neighborhood that was known as one of the more secure areas in the city, yet one that was still healing from deep wounds, and the attack resurfaced a kind of trauma that Baghdad has endured one too many times. Muslims, in their most spiritually significant month, were again targeted by an extremist group , nay, a nihilistic death cult, claiming to operate in their name.

But one important detail has been overlooked in this story.

And it is that while Muslims are certainly both the primary fighting forces against ISIS, as well as its primary victims, the attack in Karradah was a deliberate attack on a predominantly Shi’ah Muslim community, calculated for a time when the attacker believed he could reach maximum casualties. This cannot and should not be omitted from the narrative.

This was an attack on a minority denomination that ISIS views as non-Muslim, subhuman, and thus worthy of death. While ISIS is the enemy of all Muslims, it is hard to ignore the fact that it engages in the disproportionate demonization and subsequent targeting of some groups before it does others. To defeat ISIS means to be honest about this, and to overcome its effects in the long-term means to confront this reality.

So what are we, as Muslims, and specifically as Sunnis, to do besides give our “thoughts and prayers?”

Act locally.

I do not believe all Sunnis should be held accountable for the actions of a few, for the same reasons I do not believe that all Muslims should be held accountable for the actions of a few. That we denounce such heinous, callous, reprehensible, and inhumane actions should be a given, and by principle, I do not buy into the notion of collective guilt — for anyone.

However, I do believe that while few are guilty, all are responsible. We each have an individual responsibility to make the world a better place and to work toward healing the wounds that our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity have endured, and our Shi’ah brethren deserve to know that we stand with them at a time like this one.

I speak as a Sunni, and to Sunnis, because it is the manhaj [methodology and denomination] with which I identify.  I know it’s not easy, and I fall short on this quite often, but at the very least, I think we need to take a moment to put aside the Middle East politics, the theological polemics, the whataboutism, and just submit ourselves to the humanity of the other.

To mourn with a community that has mourned alone for far too long.

I am not asking you to agree with any school of Shi’ah theology, to adopt Ja’fari or Zaydi jurisprudence, or to accept that Iran, or that any other entity that lays claim to an entire denomination, is a harbinger of good. I’m asking you to listen, to learn, and to embody the empathy that our Prophet (s) would want from us.

So how do we translate this into tangible action?

Well, on a local level, break bread at a Shi’ah mosque at least once this Ramadan, and use it as an opportunity to build meaningful relationships with the community that transcend superficial or forced bonds. Don’t make your relationship with the people you meet a transactional one that says we can only be friends so long as we work to fulfill our mutual interests; don’t make it a conditional one that says that until they condemn such-and-such that we will not talk to them; and don’t start with politics or theology. That’s not what this is about. This is about human empathy, brotherhood, and communion, which requires transcending transactions, conditions, and limitations.

Yes, you may notice they break fast at a different time, and that they pray slightly differently. You may speak to people who come from vastly different worldviews from yours, and you will not agree with all of it. They may have different experiences than ones that you are familiar with, despite coming from the same broad Muslim community.

These moments will both make you uncomfortable and liberated all at once. It’s up to you however, what you make of it, and which path you choose to take. Remember that unity is not uniformity, and agreeing or disagreeing isn’t the point: Learning and embracing are. And this process will discomfort you.

Remember that it isn’t always about you.

You are not going to untie the knots of the exceedingly complicated politics of the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, and you won’t arbitrate or solve centuries of theological disputation (for the record, I do not believe that the former is a result of the latter. I believe that contemporary Sunni-Shi’ah conflicts are political in nature and are driven along the fault-lines of sect and tribe, not theology, though that’s a different conversation), but you will emerge from the gathering a more wholesome human being, capable of shifting the discourse in your locality, even if it be one person.

Allow the experience to be something that deepens your humility and broadens your horizon. Take that first step, break that barrier, even if you’re alone in doing so.

ISIS targeted the same area last year, also during Ramadan, killing over 300 people in a shopping center. It was one of the deadliest attacks in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. It tore apart whatever little semblance of security so many Iraqis thought they had. People are hurting.

The attack tragically showed us the depths of depravity that humanity is capable of. But what happened next showed us the heights of love that humanity is just as much capable of.

Iraqis of all stripes — Sunnah & Shi’ah — came together for a joint Eid prayer in response, partaking in an extraordinary display of unity and solidarity in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. There was profound meaning in that action. It showed us all that this doesn’t have to be the way, and that another way is possible.

That love can win.

Let us work toward building a world where something like that no longer has to be seen as an extraordinary feat.

Sunni-Shia Prayer

Sunni and Shia Muslims offering Eid prayers side-by-side in Karradah, Baghdad, at the site of the car bombing attack in July 2016. [Khalid Al-Mousily/Reuters]

– Asad

Readings: Week of 4/16/17

The weekly readings blog posts are coming back after a long hiatus. I regret that I wasn’t able to stay up to pace with them, but the first quarter of 2017 came with significant developments in my academic and professional life, which kept me extremely occupied. I hope to discuss those developments in a future post.

As always, readings are split into categories for ease of access.

Required Readings 

Readings on American Politics and Culture

Readings on International Politics

Readings on Syria

Readings on Turkey

Readings on France

Readings on Israel-Palestine

 

Reading on Muslim Americans and Islam in America

 

 

Readings on Religious Thought, Religious Life, Theology & Ethics

Personal Essays