Book Review: ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict’ by Gershon Shafir

Note: The following was initially written for a graduate class assignment as an analytical essay responding to and critiquing a book presentation. The presentation was by UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir, who discussed his book ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict.’

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely regarded as the longest running modern conflict in the world, with such longevity that its presence has been taken for granted in the global arena and entire industries having been developed to simply manage it, carrying the implicit assumption that all solutions have been exhausted. In his latest book, A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict, UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir attempts to revive the conversation with a fresh and unconventional approach, going beyond both theoretical discussions rife with idealized notions of radical political solutions (whether from the Left or the Right) as well as traditional analyses which are often dated and lacking in original material.  The crux of his discussion is to argue for the viability of the two-state solution based on a feasibility study of the social sciences, while accounting for these aforementioned approaches and maintaining a humane tenor toward both actors in the conflict that the approaches tend to lack.

Shafir elucidated his argument in a lecture at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University where he presented his book. In the following essay, I will first outline the argument of his presentation and then include an analysis of it. Having read parts of the book as well, I will be sure to include additional details from it that were not mentioned in the presentation.

I argue that while Shafir must be credited for meticulously sketching the granular schema and calculated legal machinery of the occupation to an impressively precise degree, and for accurately portraying the durability of the occupation itself along with the formidability of undoing the ongoing settlement gridlock in the West Bank, he falls short of convincing the audience that the settlement project and the occupation are indeed reversible. Shafir spends a considerable amount of time arguing for the feasibility of two contiguous states, and unlike many two-state advocates who operate without accounting for facts on the ground, he openly acknowledges these as daunting challenges that must be taken into consideration in order for the solution to manifest into reality. However, I believe that where Shafir falls short is not in his accounting for feasibility but in his accounting for desirability.

Shafir divides his text into three main portions. The first portion aims to set the stage for the rest of the discussion by exploring definitions, particularly around the word “occupation.” What is it? How is it perpetuated? Here he must be credited for connecting the post-1967 occupation to the broader project of Zionist colonial settlement which began decades before the establishment of the state, an analysis often missed or outright denied by liberal advocates of the two-state solution. He thus minces no words in describing ongoing settlement-building as colonization.

He accounts for the lived experiences of Palestinians – another rare feat in discussions of realpolitik – who are made to endure the daily machinery of the occupation’s violence which occurs in a continuum, manifesting from technologies as mundane as a checkpoint interrogation to as rattling as a house raid. The violence perpetrated by Palestinians cannot be seen in a vacuum and in isolation to the continuum of state violence perpetrated against them by the machinery of Israeli occupation, he argues.

He then shares the perspective of the international community, citing the ‘Law of Belligerent Occupation,’ which states that a country cannot establish sovereignty over a territory that it occupies and is entrusted to care for the occupied population. He subsequently describes the paradoxical perspective of all Israeli government administrations, which do not recognize the West Bank as occupied (the term they use is “disputed”) except when making a case against the Supreme Court, which does.

The next part of the book asks why occupation has lasted this long, and Shafir does so by elaborating on the methodical, granular, and calculated techniques and mechanisms – along with the ideological rationale – that Israel employs to sustain it indefinitely. For example, Kfar Etzion, which was a Jewish settlement in the territories that was established before the existence of the state, was rebuilt after the 1967 conquest of the territories. Its prior existence served as the legal basis and provided the ideological rationale for its reconstruction.

Other techniques include the colonization patterns of economic monopolization he describes in his previous book on land and labor, and he does an excellent job at tracing the ideological shifts driving settlement expansion, marking the juncture where the efforts took on a more religious fervor. When discussing this second component of the book in his talk, he jokingly quoted an Israeli official who commented something to the effect of occupation being temporary, but permanently temporary.

His final question aims to explore how this occupation has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in what ways it has made reversing the entrenchment of the conflict a formidable task. He tackles each one of the qualities of the occupation that make it appear irreversible, and then ultimately concludes, using maps and statistics, that a two-state solution is indeed a realistic possibility. He argues that a two-state solution would require only (emphasis mine) 27,000 settlers to be removed while the remaining (several hundred thousand) would remain where they are because they are located in territories that would be absorbed into Israel in any territorial exchange (which he calculated to be 4%). Of course, the argument takes for granted the fact that such a land exchange would even take place in any final status negotiation.

Another crucial point taken for granted is that moving 27,000 settlers into Israel and dismantling their homes would be a seamless process. He preemptively answers this critique by citing the Gaza evacuation of 2005 which saw 7,500 settlers moved and notes that eventually, despite initial resistance, the settler leadership assented to it. While this may certainly have been the case for Gaza, his projected number here is nearly four times as many, spread out over a wider geographical plane, and in the context of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history in power, so the viability of such an argument deserves to be challenged.

Where he argues that settlement expansion has been limited and slow because of the constraints placed on Israel through international pressure and by Palestinian resistance, I believe his work could benefit from analysis from another text, which should be read side-by-side with Shafir’s. Nathan Thrall’s ‘The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine’ like Shafir’s text examines the last five decades of the conflict but also attends to the question of desirability. Thrall comes to the sobering conclusion that political actors and analysts of this conflict must stop operating under the premise that Israel has a genuine goodwill desire for a solution. In fact, Thrall argues, from the perspective of the United States, the benefits of a contiguous Palestinian state are small in comparison to the cost of pressuring and isolating a significant ally. I would take it further and argue that for Israel, the costs of a negotiated solution (at least initially) far outweigh the costs of maintaining the status quo, and that the occupation lasts precisely because it can.

Thrall argues that the only occasions when Israel – and the Palestinians for that matter – have come to the negotiating table were when they were coerced to. The PLO’s maximalist demand for all of historic Palestine was tempered only after tremendous losses of land after 1967. The Israelis came to negotiate with the PLO only after experiencing the pressure from the First Intifada. Recognizing that both sides will have to compromise, Thrall nonetheless places more responsibility on the more powerful of the two, Israel. Shafir’s book was released around the same time as Thrall’s, so if he were to write a new edition, the quality of his conclusions would be strengthened by taking Thrall’s work into account.

Another text I believe would either complement – or complicate – Shafir’s discussion is ‘The Bridge and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War’ by Avi Raz. Raz’s meticulously researched book examines the historical archives of every meeting and significant event that took place in the first 21 months after the Six Day War and concludes that there was a complete absence of desirability for a peace deal on part of the Israelis.

Raz’s primary argument is that in the early days and months of occupation, Israel had never intended to abandon its control over the land it acquired, and instead set up avenues for buying time to keep it. The de facto Israeli policy seemed to be that of stalling while settlement creation and the establishment of “strategic depth” in the West Bank continued unabated. Raz’s book is a powerful rebuke to Shafir’s argument. Why feasibility when there is no desirability?

Though the thrust of Raz’s book is Israel’s relationship to its Arab neighbors, the general impart of his book is relevant insofar as it relates to Israel’s overall approach to the West Bank. This brings me to another critique: Shafir comments very little, if at all, on the role of Arab states in peace negotiations. The internationalization of the conflict and the increased role of Arab states – particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – cannot be ignored in any feasibility study, especially when the “right of return” (theoretically) forms the backbone of transnational Palestinian identity and solidarity among diaspora refugees in Arab lands.

One consideration which all three authors have a consensus on is their acknowledgment of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, and it is significant: American complacency – if not outright enablement – of Israel’s intransigent and obstructive policies has forestalled any sort of resolution despite the U.S.’s occasional perfunctory condemnations of the occupation and settlements.

Shafir’s argument for feasibility, Thrall’s argument for pressure, and Raz’s historical backdrop combined would present a more multidimensional portrait of the factors and stakes involved in this conflict. Moreover, the latter two readings would provide some serious challenges to the former.

Insofar as Shafir attempts to accomplish what he intended, which in his words was a “modestly conceived feasibility study from the perspective of the social sciences,” I believe he succeeded. However, his work would significantly improve had he included some of the criticisms mentioned in this paper. Even if a two-state solution is theoretically feasible, it must also be realistically desirable.

And if not, then what next?

-Asad

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Book Review: ‘What the Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters’ by Garry Wills

In his latest book, Catholic scholar Garry Wills undertakes the arduous but noble endeavor of explaining the Quran to the average American reader. He is candid about his intellectual limitations and his lack of Arabic proficiency, so he defers to scholars to guide him along the way, but he is forthright about the need to explore the text with a spirit of graciousness and generosity. Indeed, one need not be a scholar to find inspiration in religious scripture, otherwise very few would.

The Quran isn’t a book whose translation a beginner can read from cover-to-cover without stopping often. It is thought to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years, who recited its words to believers who then recorded them on various parchments and surfaces. It was officially arranged into book-form after the Prophet’s death, though he instructed them on the order of arrangement prior to dying, but the chapters (surah in Arabic) were not arranged in chronological order of revelation, nor were they divided along any consistent thematic topics.

Muslims believe the Quran is the literal word of God, but the average non-Muslim reader — and perhaps even the average Muslim reader — would not always know, without additional commentary, which of its injunctions are speaking to Muhammad specifically or to the believers generally, or whether God is speaking to a specific situation or to a general one. Some verses abrogated others that came before it, as they understandably would, given the drastic changes that took place in the Prophet’s life and community over this short period of 23 years.

The titles of the surahs are not usually helpful, as they are often just named after a catchword or oddity in the surah. There are of course, general themes that most readers would be able to recognize and contemplate over, including stories similar to those found in the Bible, but to read the easy parts would also mean having to parse through the difficult parts.

He makes these points to illustrate how easy it is to manipulate and misquote the text, which makes it all the more necessary to work toward understanding it properly. The horrific actions of terrorist organizations such as Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda reflect this sort of textual manipulation, who find their interpretations mirrored only in the virulent anti-Muslim tirades of Islamophobic writers.

In ‘Part I,’ Wills identifies three different kinds of ignorance that are both drivers and consequences of contemporary Islamophobia: secular ignorance, religious ignorance, and fearful ignorance.

He locates ‘secular ignorance’ as stemming from political responses to 9/11, including the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. He engages in a blistering criticism of neoconservative writers and their colleagues (including the now-rehabilitated Francis Fukuyama) who built up a case for the war based on false pretenses, their own political agendas, and on reductive characterizations of the complex interplay of Muslim politics in the Middle East.

‘Religious ignorance’ on the other hand, is the driving force behind the belief in a civilizational conflict between “Islam” and “the West,” and the impetus behind legislation seeking to “ban Shari’ah law.” The false notion that Islam as a religion is exceptionally antithetical to American ideals is reminiscent of the discrimination faced by Catholic and Jewish immigrants to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Finally, there is ‘fearful ignorance,’ which Wills explains by drawing parallels to Cold War hysteria against communism and the need for the United States to have an enemy in order to shore up support for its policies. Wills stresses the importance of separating Islam and the vast body of Muslim believers from terrorism, and then aptly notes a major difference between anti-communist hysteria of the past and the anti-Muslim hysteria of today, as manifested in the ‘War on Terror’ discourse: “It was hard enough to find and defeat an ism like Communism. Terror is a tool, not a country.”

After highlighting these three kinds of ignorance, which serve to set the stage for the reader, he begins ‘Part II’ of his book, dedicated to identifying major themes of the Quran.

In true Catholic fashion, Wills describes Quranic themes with captivating and vivid imagery. He depicts “the desert culture of the Quran” and its emphasis on water not merely as a vivifying mechanism, but as a purifying one. Water is a recurring theme of the Quran: Indeed, “shari’ah” linguistically refers to a watering path; man was created from fluid; water brings life to the earth and provides sustenance to all living things; rain will resurrect the dead for judgment in the next world as rain brings life to plants in the temporal world; water can even signify death, exemplified by the flood of Noah; and the deprivation of it is best showcased in descriptions of hell, a place where the harshness of desert culture is magnified to its most extreme conditions.

The next chapter, entitled ‘Conversing with the Cosmos’ is an enchanting elucidation of theology that would give a spiritual boost to even the most secular reader. He highlights the Quran’s consistent and constant evocation of God’s beauty as manifested in His creation. God calls humankind to enter a dialogical and conversational relationship with the universe through reflecting over the marvels of celestial bodies, towering mountains, vast plains, and blue seas, in order to fully appreciate and affirm for themselves the Awesomeness of their Creator.

Contrary to modern anthropology, writes Wills, which explains religious practice as having originated with polytheism and then evolving into monotheism, the Quran asserts the originality of monotheistic message which was gradually diluted and corrupted over time as humankind became less contemplative over God’s creation and more engrossed in materialism, requiring the sending of a new messenger each time to renew the original, pristine message.

He then transitions into ‘The Perpetual Stream of Prophets,’ wherein he highlights parallels and contrasts between the Biblical and Quranic narratives of the Big Five: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, and Moses. Both Jesus and Moses have prominent roles in the Quran, with their stories described in meticulous detail and their names mentioned more often than Muhammad. The author’s intent for lending more focus to these last two Prophets serves a didactic purpose: “It is clear that Muhammad’s revelations were meant to lay a basis for peaceful relations between followers of Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an” (page 109).

From here, the next chapter progresses into relationships and responsibilities between Muslims and the “People of the Book.” This is where complications begin. Does the Quran obligate “People of the Book” to upgrade to the newest installment of Abraham 3.0? Or are they asked to maintain honesty and fidelity to their own traditions to the best of their ability? How are Muslims called to engage with their Abrahamic counterparts?

Wills goes through the various Quranic verses discussing these questions and focuses on those verses that urge the Prophet to remind Christians and Jews to refer judgment of their personal and legal affairs to their own scriptural texts.

In instances where the Quran criticizes Jews and Christians, it does so on account of them failing to hold true to their own respective scriptures and escaping commitments to their own respective Covenants. God subjects Muslims to the same kind of harsh criticism, which makes it clear, argues Wills, that each tradition was meant to follow its own Covenant and set of laws.

His knowledge as a scholar of Roman Catholicism shines here, as he is able to deftly reconcile Islamic polemics against Christianity by demonstrating that the Quran isn’t so much “anti-Christian” as it is “anti-Nicaean,” which was a council arranged by Emperor Constantine I to establish a uniform church doctrine. The Quran isn’t criticizing Christianity so much as it is criticizing the corruptions and distortions of self-identifying Christians who came later.

However, his scholarship on Christianity and his bias favoring Christians exposes his limitations on his understanding of how the Quran engages with its other Abrahamic counterpart, Judaism. Because of this, he concludes that Judaism receives harsher criticism from the Quran than does his own faith. This deficiency in analysis of course isn’t blameworthy, as everyone has shortcomings and biases, but it is one worthy of noting nonetheless.

The more informed reader would also note that he doesn’t sufficiently cover all of the verses that relate to Quranic engagement with Christians and Jews, including those that suggest that Islam is the only way toward salvation. If he were to cite these verses, and then argue, as many Muslim theologians and scholars have, that “Islam” as a verb, to submit, is inclusive of “People of the Book,” it would bolster his claims that all three members of the Abrahamic family have a share in God’s salvation. By not engaging with these verses at all, Wills does not give the topic its due justice, though one can still appreciate the path he takes toward addressing it.

To his credit, Wills notes that the Quranic marriage laws permitting Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women, the Quranic dietary rules permitting food prepared by “People of the Book,” and the Quranic injunctions for all three to come to common terms are all instructive: Muslims were meant to establish meaningful social relations with People of the Book.

The next chapter is on jihad, which he defines as “zeal.” I found this to be a particularly unique translation that I haven’t encountered before. Similar to the word “crusade,” he argues, “it would be a mistake to brand all kinds of zeal as fanatical” (page 130). When George W. Bush uttered the word “crusade” to describe the ‘War on Terror,’ there was a shudder in the Middle East, but Wills suggests that Bush came from a culture that attaches a positive connotation to the word “crusade”: a crusade for democracy (however misguided it was).

“That shows how the same word can be revered by some groups and reviled by others. That is true, now, of ‘jihad.’ For one culture it means a striving for moral discipline and observance of the Qur’an, sometimes (but not always) while waging a just war. In another culture, it always means ‘holy war,’ though there is no word for that in the Qur’an,” as he notes (page 132).

He cites the few verses which are often deployed to endorse the idea that Islam is a religion of violence and undertakes a discursive endeavor to contextualize them, while also pointing to ways in which Christian scripture can just as much be misquoted to indicate that Christianity is inherently violent. He points out that the concept of “holy war” is nonexistent in the Arabic language, and that even the “verse of the sword” doesn’t mention anything about a sword.

However, when he makes the claim that the Quran is a book of peace, it appears that he separates “the Quran” from “Islam” and “the New Testament” from “Christianity.” He doesn’t elaborate on this distinction beyond making the claim that the actions of believers do not align with the morals of their books. He clarifies that Islamic imperial conquests, like Christian imperialism, were unfortunate departures and abuse of the true nature of these faiths, which was peaceful.

One understands from this that by “Islam” and “Christianity,” he is not referring to abstract belief systems, but to the actions of believers. While in this chapter he writes that the question of Islam being a religion of peace is an “entirely different matter,” in other parts of the book he states plainly that Islam “favors peace over violence,” exposing an inconsistency in definitions. Is “Islam” what the Quran says, or is “Islam” the actions and behavior of its believers?

The next chapter focuses on shari’ah, where he notes that the word itself is mentioned only once in the Quran referring to a watering path, not to a set of laws. Here, he argues correctly that there is no book of shari’ah which lays out explicit and unchanging commands of what Muslims can and can’t do, and lambastes the absurdity of attempting to ban it: “If a foreign country were to ban Christian law, what law would they mean? There are many bodies of Christian laws, accumulated over a long and contentious history. Would it be canon law? If so, which body of law from which era would they be singling out? Or the Westminster Confession? The Thirty-Nine Articles? The Canons of Dordt? The Ecclesiastical Ordinances? Or how would one ban Jewish law? What would be outlawed? Deuteronomy? Halakha? Israeli government law?” (page 147).

He correctly notes that the Quran, like the Old Testament, does indeed prescribe brutal penalties, but that the penal code is a very minor aspect of Islam, and the conditions for their implementation cannot possibly be met in today’s world. Moreover, he emphasizes that the Quran allows ample opportunity for repentance and forgiveness that would render such codes meaningless, citing a litany of verses about the constant opportunities that God offers believers for penitence, forgiveness, and mercy.

He quotes Edward Gibbon, who wrote that the practice of Islam as a faith is primarily manifested in three ways: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which constitute very basic duties that do not contradict principles of liberal democracy. He is right to say that the word “shari’ah” mentioned in the Quran refers to its linguistic meaning but doesn’t sufficiently clarify that Muslims do indeed have a discursive tradition of Islamic jurisprudence that engages heavily with legal questions. This may leave the new reader with the impression that law is a minor matter for Muslims. Because the Quran is his sole tool of analysis, his own defense of Islam as a religion is handicapped.

His chapter on commerce sheds light on the economic conditions of the Prophet’s time, clarifying that they were neither agrarian or industrial but commercial. While Quranic verses on economic ethics were reflective of such a time, they are nonetheless applicable more generally, as modern Muslims search for ways to navigate finance through their religiously-prescribed ethical means. His mentioning of the strong Quranic prohibition of riba, often insufficiently defined as usury, but can include misleading others in the statement of values or punishing late payments cruelly, is noteworthy.

The final three chapters are dedicated to women: ‘Plural Marriage,’ ‘Fighting Back,’ and ‘The Veil.’ He posits a fresh perspective on the issue of Quranic legal rulings on marriage and sex, namely that they would only fully make sense in the context of the structural arrangements and social norms that were in place in 7th century Arabia, including polygyny.

Polygyny, though permitted under certain circumstances (like treating all wives equally), was not required. In fact, it was discouraged in the Quran precisely because one would not be able to treat all his wives equally. Polygyny served primarily to place a limit on the number of wives in pre-Islamic Arabia, and the Prophet, who married many wives, did so for pedagogic and diplomatic reasons. Indeed, many of the rules that Muslims have for marriage stem directly from the Prophet’s own marital difficulties.

He opens up the chapter entitled ‘Fighting Back’ with strong words: “Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an are all patriarchal, and therefore misogynist — as were the societies in which they took shape. But misogynism is not all that all of them are. In all three of them there are traces of dignity and worth intended by the Creator when he made women. The task for feminists is to identify, investigate, and develop these traces” (page 187).

To undertake this task, he references Quranic stances on women that are relatively more progressive than their Biblical counterparts: the Quranic view on Adam and Eve which holds them both equally accountable in contrast to the conventional Biblical view which lays the blame squarely on Eve. He notes that the Quran was revolutionary in that it granted women the right to own property, and that the “bride-right” (dowry) was a monetary gift that the groom’s family owed to the wife.

In Islamic law, women are “agents with negotiable assets,” which may sound obvious to us today, but the idea that a woman was entitled to her own assets was revolutionary leading all the way up to even 20th century America.

The chapter on the veil discusses the few parts of the Quran which vaguely describe the code of dress along with multiple interpretations of those parts. For some Muslim women, veiling is empowering; for others, removing it is empowering, all depending on context. He points out what may seem obvious to many readers: Muslim feminists exist. However, his engagement with this broad topic is minimal.

He cites scholars of Islamic feminism like Leila Ahmed who grapple with these issues, and briefly touches on instances where feminism served colonial oppression, like Lord Cromer promoting feminism in Egypt but suppressing women’s rights at home in Britain. More recently, he references Laura Bush who spoke about liberating Afghan women through the war, but again, Wills does not adequately give the topic the comprehensive engagement it deserves.

As I read the book, I did my best to imagine myself as a non-Muslim reader approaching the Quran for the first time. It is clear in reading the book that he is attempting to appeal to a certain misinformed audience and that he is speaking to them at their level.

He aims to tell the reader that the Quran is an inspiring, illuminating, and meaningful text containing a plethora of wisdom, and a small degree of problematic notions, but that these notions are not much different from any other ancient text, and that they are mitigated by the overall thrust of the Quran: “The overall tenor is one of mercy and forgiveness, which are evoked everywhere, almost obsessively (page 213).

One can identify the Protestantism in his approach, which can be seen either as a positive or a negative. It is positive in the sense that it allows for fresh interpretations that challenge conventional problematic ones. It is negative in the sense that it restricts his ability to fully engage with the Islamic tradition and to mount a stronger defense of it.

The view of the Quran as the sole determinant of proper Muslim beliefs and actions, as sola scriptura, is ironically evocative of the originalist and literalist approach taken by those Muslims who disregard Islam’s discursive tradition and scholarship by looking directly and exclusively at the primary texts.

A serious student of Islamic Studies may not be satisfied after reading this book, but this student should do well to recognize that they are not its intended audience. While I would not recommend this book as a scholarly text, I believe it serves as a good starting point for those less familiar with the Quran’s mechanics and modes of interpretation.

Had Wills included a wider range of additional readings and scholarship, I believe his case would have been stronger. While he does not cite enough scholarship to leave the reader sufficiently informed on the intricacies of jihad, shari’ah, and women’s issues, he does a commendable job at introducing them to the new reader nonetheless. Wills hopes not to speak to scholars however, but rather to laity, hoping to bring them toward a new goalpost in their understanding. In this sense, he accomplishes his goal.

Against the backdrop of widespread misinformation, fear, and outright hatred of Islam and Muslims, Wills’ book should be taken as a welcome addition to the muddled discourse.

Let us hope that it brings us all closer to understanding and embracing one another.

Book Review: ‘The Idea of the Muslim World’ by Cemil Aydin

The assumption that there exists a monolithic “Muslim world” is one that is often taken for granted by both those who seek to criticize this imagined world and those who seek to advance its imagined collective interests.

On the one hand, totalizing questions like “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” and “Can the Muslim world undergo reform?” pervade in the arenas of political discourse and punditry in western countries.

On the other hand, if one travels to Muslim-majority cities like Cairo, Istanbul, or Islamabad, it would not be out of the ordinary to hear questions like “Why is the Muslim ummah [collective body of believers] so divided today?” or “How can the Muslim ummah earn victory if it doesn’t unite?”

Underlying both of these discourses is the sustained myth of a timeless, singular, essentialized “Muslim world” that must necessarily have always existed and a concurrently existing “Western world” that must always have existed in perpetual conflict against it.

While the notion of this “Muslim world” has been thoroughly repudiated by scholars and academics in a variety of fields, it has primarily been done through a Saidian approach that critiques representation in film and literature. In his timely new book, boldly entitled, “The Idea of the Muslim World“, Cemil Aydin bolsters the repudiation through the angle of history. He locates the origin of the notion of the “Muslim world” in 19th century colonial politics and in the consequential and reciprocal pan-Islamic (or pan-Islamist, used interchangeably) discourses that came about as a result.

In the 19th century, the existing empires operated within a nebulous web of alliances and enmities as they competed for influence and power. Each one of these empires — be they British, French, Russian, and Dutch, or Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman — ruled over vast numbers of minorities who, despite enduring unequal treatment at times, were not subject to inequalities on the basis of being seen as subordinates in a necessary civilizational religious divide. Simultaneously, these minorities were nonetheless seen as fundamentally inseparable from the empires under which they lived.

This is the central thrust of the book: That throughout history, competing cosmopolitan empires neither saw themselves as operating in a religiously-divided binary of “Muslim world” vs. “Western world” nor imagined “the other” as operating under this paradigm. The imperial rulers of various kingdoms and empires would conduct their domestic and foreign policies based not on assumed religious loyalties, but on political interests and expediencies. However, as time passed and colonial powers began to lose their influence, or as they reneged on their word toward their Muslim subjects and allies, these powers began to fear the potential of a shared “Muslim solidarity” that would emerge and undermine the otherwise-accepted legitimacy of their rule.

This led to the “racialization” of various Muslim populations who were aggregated under one static category where their unique particularities were interpreted as incidental. While this was happening, colonial politics caused Muslims to see themselves under this same racialized paradigm, which led to them mounting defenses of “Islam” and the “Muslim world” using the same civilizational discourses.

Aydin uses various examples throughout history to illustrate the initial absence of the “Muslim world” vs. “Western world” dichotomy. One such example is the issue of slavery. The gradual disappearance of slavery in Turkey and Egypt in the early twentieth century was not done out of consideration to grand ideas of religious or civilizational conflict, but out of political pragmatism and new ideas of morality. “Pragmatic and ethical state policies, new moral ideas about human equality as well as the capitalist labor market ended slavery in modernizing Muslim societies, all without any claims on behalf of the Islamic world and the Western world,” writes Aydin (page 47).

During the Siege of Vienna in 1683 fought between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, Muslims fought on both sides, and the Ottomans fought on the side of Protestant Hungarians. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, it was he, not Muslims, who described Egyptians in terms defined exclusively by religion, even willing to convert to Islam to curry their favor. Though even then, Napoleon’s intent was rooted in political pragmatism and not in ideological fervor.

In 1798, when sultan Tipu of Mysore in southern India looked to the Ottomans to help him fight the British by appealing to a shared Muslim religious solidarity, the Ottomans refused. The notable Ottoman reforms known as “Tanzimat” were also not necessarily interpreted as “pro-Western” or “anti-Muslim” argues Aydin. Even in the late-1800s, when British and Ottoman interests began to diverge,  Muslim religious clerics in India required Muslim subjects to maintain political loyalty to Britain over the Ottomans.

When cracks began to emerge between the British and their Indian subjects in the lead-up to World War I, the British assured their subjects that in the case of war, Muslim holy sites under Ottoman control would be protected. In this case, Indian Muslims did not necessarily see a tension between recognizing the British as a political authority and the Ottomans as a spiritual one, and many indeed fought alongside the British against the Ottomans (who were allied with the Germans) in the war.

Aydin also presents instances when both western and non-western powers exploited the idea of a “Muslim world” if it suited their interests: “[W]hen American colonial officers in the Philippines faced armed Muslim resistance in 1898, they consulted Istanbul. In response, Sultan Abdulhamid sent a message to Philippine Muslim leaders instructing them to refrain from rebellion as long as American rule respected their religion,” he writes on page 95.

On the other hand, Istanbul also leveraged its status as a Muslim metropole to vie for the support of other Muslims whilst simultaneously balancing political alliances with the concert of western empires.

In both of the above instances, the idea of the “Muslim world” was exploited not because it was one that was necessarily believed in, but because it was politically convenient. Once again, pragmatism trumped ideology. Though this gradually changed as alliances shifted and signs of inconsistency began to emerge.

As Indian Muslim subjects under British rule received news that the British were supporting Christian Greeks seeking independence from the Ottomans, they began to question why they, as Muslims, were required to accept British rule. As Christian nationalist armies drove Muslims out of places like Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, the Ottomans responded by brutalizing Christian minorities, particularly Greeks and Armenians, in their own empire. The ethnic cleansing and massacre of the Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915 was directly motivated by such politics, and consequentially ended the cosmopolitanism of the Ottoman empire as it had existed for centuries.

Another instance of inconsistency was when the British made promises to Arabs in Mandate Palestine that they would inherit the land as sovereigns after the Great War, but instead reneged on this promise by producing the Balfour Declaration which favored the Zionist project for a Jewish state. Once this happened, the mufti of Jerusalem sought the help of Muslim intellectuals and activists, convening a conference in Jerusalem in 1931 to deal with the crisis of Palestine,  which became the “symbol of enduring Muslim humiliation” (page 175).

Gradually, through the work of imperial powers, the writings of public intellectuals, and the discontent of the broader masses, civilizational discourses became more solidified.

Even as Muslim states gained their independence and modernized, such processes were done no longer on their own terms, but against the idea of Islamic backwardness, with Turkey ironically being the prime example: Ataturk’s logic was that he was abandoning the stagnancy of “the Muslim world” for the modernization of “the West.”

Once the idea of a “Muslim world” had become thoroughly cemented in public imagination, competing nations began to leverage it to their advantage for better or worse: Be it in World War II, Cold War alliances, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, or the post-9/11 War on Terror. These discourses continue up until this day.

Aydin argues that six themes have characterized pan-Islamic thought up to the current era:

1) The idea of an “Islamic civilization.”

2) A notion of Islam as a singular “world religion” defined in response to Christian and secular polemics, e.g., frequent usage of the expression “XYZ according to Islam.”

3) The interpretation of every aspect of Muslim history as a product of Western humiliation.

4) A new historical consciousness positing eternal conflict between “the Muslim world” and “the Christian west.”

5) A growing awareness of the extent of Muslim-majority territory and its populations.

6) Anticolonial internationalism.

As I read the book, a few questions came to mind:

  1. While there is no way that over 50 “Muslim countries” can be boxed into one, is there still a possibility for their peoples to use a shared Islamic vernacular to achieve liberation and dignity without reinforcing racialized and civilizational discourses?
  2. Is it possible to appeal to Islam’s emancipatory and revolutionary ethos that transcends nation and tribe without subsuming all Muslims into one monolithic category?
  3. Is it worth exploring the potential for an inherent unifying power in Islam at all and can Muslims base their solidarity with other Muslims upon it?
  4. If my pursuit of justice is inspired by the Qur’an, would I be a pan-Islamist?
  5. Does the racialization of Muslim societies fully negate the existence of an Islamic international polity?

Surely there a distinction between the pursuit of freedom and justice inspired by Islamic ethics and the pursuit of the modern political project of Islamism. In this regard, I believe Aydin could have done more to delineate between the two and more deeply engage with these questions in his concluding remarks.

At the same time, what Aydin has presented is more relevant now than ever. Our world today is experiencing profound tectonic shifts that threaten to shatter the current global order, and political polarization has exacerbated this process of disruption. Our situation today appears very similar to the conditions in the lead-up to World Wars I and II.

We must then ask ourselves if we — not as a “Muslim world” or as a “Western world” — but as a human civilization, are yet again willing to buy into the same grand narratives that led to the violent destruction of the previous order that devastated entire peoples that came before us.

Indeed, my first time being exposed to the terminology of the “Muslim world” wasn’t by Islamophobic writers or even by well-intentioned non-Muslims. It was by local leaders of my own community. A common grievance today is that the stagnation “of the ummah”, i.e., a collective body of Muslim believers, is because of our division, infighting, and abandonment of Muslim international solidarity.

I grew up learning that the occupation of Palestine and Kashmir, the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the dictatorships across the Arab world, and the rampant corruption, inequality, and stagnancy of Muslim countries as different from each other as Egypt and Indonesia was all a consequence of the “Muslim world’s” collective failures.

It is because of this upbringing that I found this book to be an enlightening and refreshing read. It was a powerful remedy for me because it provided me not merely with relief from spiritual guilt, but with deeper insight into the dynamics of our current international arena and how it came to be the way it is. Do I completely reject every aspect of what I was taught growing up about the Muslim ummah? Not necessarily, but I appreciate knowing that things are a bit more complicated than I have always imagined them to be.

To learn the nuanced mechanics of historical alliances and the particularities that characterized their composite parts allows us not only to counter dangerous myths and assumptions about a divergent range of populations, but it also empowers us to surmount more meaningful and focused ways to pursue justice for those populations. Aydin seeks not just to expand the reader’s understanding of history, but to persuade the reader to act.

This text does not only do an excellent job at undoing the racialization of Islam but also of “the West.” Those seeking to counter orientalist narratives about Muslims should be cautious as to not fall into what the late Syrian academic Sadiq Al-Azm described as “Orientalism in reverse” of the West, as Aydin aptly notes.

To point out that “the Muslim world,” and for that matter “the West,” are contingent constructs born out of certain political trajectories is not enough; one must take it further and understand why this point even has to be made. Indeed, to recognize contingency of contemporary politics and to work from there as a starting point is the most effective way to apply the antidote that will counter and defeat both Islamophobia and radical Islamism without harming Muslims or non-Muslims in the process.

Only then can the idea of the Muslim world finally be undone.

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 transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and the Arabic opening and ending prayers have been cut out for the sake of simplicity. The sermon begins after an 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

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:

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Our Hebrew class with Ibrahim on our last day

– Asad