Category Archives: Notes and Reflections

In this section I share my own personal reflections on a host of issues, as well as notes from programs, events, panels, and conferences I have attended. I may also write about articles I find interesting in this section.

A Translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s “Gabriel and Satan”

Recently, I had the opportunity to publish a translation, transliteration, and commentary of a poem by Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) for The Maydan, an online publication focused on Islamic Studies for academic and public audiences alike. The poem is in Urdu, and it is called “Jibreel-o Iblees,” meaning “Gabriel and Satan.” It is a debate between these two over deep existential questions about man’s purpose of being and what drives him to act in the world. The poem is particularly subversive because it is Satan who emerges victorious in the debate. Why? You’ll have to read to find out!

In the piece, I include a preface and an introduction to Iqbal’s life, to give the reader a strong background of the subject and context. After this, the transliteration and translation follow. In my conclusion, I provide a list of further readings following my final thoughts. No background in Islamic Studies or Urdu is needed to follow along, as it is written with the assumption that the reader is completely new to the subject, though it will be of benefit to the specialist as well.

I would love to hear any thoughts and/or constructive criticisms that you may have, and I look forward to the engagement I receive on this piece.

The translation can be accessed here.

– Asad

Khabib, “Striking the Face,” and Martial Arts As Religious Devotion

There has been lots of great commentary on the UFC match between Khabib and McGregor, especially on race and power, but I’d like to make an intervention in an internal Muslim debate centering on the Islamic prohibition of “striking the face.” I believe there is a crucial component to this issue which commentators miss.

To start, I would like for us to conceive of martial arts in the Caucasus as an act of religious devotion. This framework helps to understand the deeper significance it carries and (as I argue) how it serves as a mechanism for articulating an indigenous Islam in the face of state repression.

For Muslim men in the Caucasus, martial arts and wrestling (broadly defined) are central mediums through which they are able to contest the social, religious, & political limitations imposed on them by an authoritarian state apparatus seeking to regulate, circumscribe, and/or suppress any form of Islamic symbolism, behavior, and practice in the public (sometimes even private) arena.

Because of the heavy hand of the state, martial arts becomes the chief means through which communal bonds of brotherhood are formed and strengthened; the spaces where it is practiced become centers for the preservation and generational transmission of a conscious Muslim identity; and at its core, it becomes a means of survival, affirmation of oneself, and a form of subversive activism against the state.

Now, one may say that “activism” must be deliberate & organized, with a clearly defined methodology toward a specific, tangible set of goals. But the very fact that martial arts in the Caucasus does not fit neatly into such a model is precisely the point. To apply a term coined by Middle East scholar Asef Bayat, it is a “social non-movement.” Bayat describes “social non-movement” as “the discreet and prolonged ways in which the poor struggle to survive and to better their lives by quietly impinging on the propertied and powerful, and on society at large.”

Khabib comes from a tradition where martial arts is not only a cultural inheritance, but a means to express religious devotion, and as I argue using “social non-movement” as a conceptual framework: a type of activism. For Muslims in the Caucasus, the very act of asserting this tradition in the world is thus both religious devotion and activism. Such a way to “be Muslim” is unconventional to those outside of this context, but perfectly organic to those within it.

Thus, a strictly “legalese” approach devoid of social or historical or context (citing the general prohibition on striking the face) comes off not only as dismissive, but as insufficient to serve as the final word on the issue. Indeed, I do not believe it far-fetched to suggest that Islam would have waned away from the hearts of people had it not been for the availability of this avenue of religious expression. Certainly the spiritual harm of that prospect far outweighs the general prohibition of “striking the face.”

The human experience is complex, and generalities must always account for specifics. I have yet to find an analysis that accounts for this context.


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 Bride 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?


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:


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.


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.


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.


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).


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

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

short story

The story of the three bears in Hebrew

My Teachers

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

Me and Guy

My first teacher, Guy

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

Me and Ibrahim

My second teacher, Ibrahim

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


Outside of the Program

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

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


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.


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.


My Middlebury language certificate

Final Thoughts

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

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

Our class

Our Hebrew class with Ibrahim on our last day

– Asad



Why Hebrew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s what I want to be.



A Sunni Response to the Baghdad Bombing

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

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

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

But one important detail has been overlooked in this story.

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

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

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

Act locally.

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we translate this into tangible action?

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

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

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

Remember that it isn’t always about you.

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

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

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

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

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

That love can win.

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

Sunni-Shia Prayer

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

– Asad