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.

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

The Priceless Value of Hope

During inauguration week 2009, every day after school I would purchase multiple copies of the local papers, hoping I’d sell these soon-to-be historic documents for a fortune one day. Looking at them now, I think I’m going to hold on to them. I am certainly not the type to put any individual on a pedestal, and I have my criticisms like anyone else, but I’d be lying if I said that these last eight years were anything short of transformative and empowering. And you really can’t put a price on that.



On Islam and Reform

A question that I am asked to engage with often, by non-Muslims but even by Muslims, is about Islam and reform, with various iterations of the question asking whether Islam is reforming, if it needs reform, or even if it can reform. The questioners are usually genuinely curious as opposed to malicious, but it nonetheless always discomforts me, not because I think it isn’t worth exploring, but because it carries implicit assumptions about religion and religious development as a whole and perpetuates simplistic characterizations of the Islamic tradition and of Muslim societies more specifically.

To start, the question assumes that Christianity is the normative religion and that all other religions must be viewed through its lens; that Islam is inherently backward until it develops a counter-current to serve it in the same way Protestantism served Christianity; that the problems Islam and Muslim societies encounter today mirror those that were encountered by Christianity in the 16th century; and that the wide array of cultures, beliefs, practices, histories, and politics of dozens of Muslim societies around the world can be exclusively attributed to, or even reduced to, an essentialized “Islam.”

Signature recently interviewed Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, about his thoughts on Trump, Islam in America, and the ‘War on Terror,’ and one of the questions the interviewer posed was about this very topic.

I was first exposed to Bayoumi when I entered college as a freshman and was required to read his book ‘How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.’ It was an incredibly illuminating reading for me because it chronicled the everyday experiences of Muslim and Arab youth who were only a few years older than me (I later learned that I actually know one of the seven stories!) and how they grappled with their identities in post-9/11 America. It should be read by anyone interesting in gaining a glimpse into the real lives of young Muslims and Arabs.

In one of the chapters of his new book, ‘This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror’, Bayoumi critiques a theory put forth by Reza Aslan (though the theory itself is not exclusively Aslan’s) that Islam, like Christianity, is going through a reformation. Bayoumi was asked to expand a little bit on his thoughts as they pertained to his critique of Aslan and this theory.

The exchange is worth reading here:

SIG: In the chapter titled “The God That Failed,” you address one of the theories that Reza Aslan puts forth in his book No god but God: Islam is going through a reformation much in the same way that Christianity is. That book was published in 2005. Your commentary appears in your book This Muslim American Life, published ten years after that. Now, a year-plus later, do you think that there are still very definite parallels between these two reformations happening?

MB: I was (and remain) critical of this idea that Aslan and many others have put forth that Islam is going – or must go – through a “reformation.” For one thing, this idea places the history of Protestant Christianity as the model of all religions. Then it assumes that Islam (or any other religion) will or must follow suit, but none of that is intellectually tenable. The history of Islam is different from the history of Protestantism, which is different from the history of Hinduism, etc. Religions are born, develop, and change in our world due to a series of reasons that have to do with human society, and they won’t all travel down the same linear path.

Yes, parts of the Muslim world are in crisis today. But we would be better served by looking at the specific histories of nations and regions, understanding the legacies of colonialism and foreign interventions, examining the roles of resources and their allocations or misallocations, and more. Thinking that the problem today is that Muslims lag behind Christians in their development is much easier to do, but I think it’s just wrong.

In fact, there are so many different versions of Islam in the world, and Islam has no single central authority (such as the pope for the Roman Catholic Church) to define doctrine, so it’s also very difficult to talk about Islam as one single thing, which leads me to my other reservation with Aslan’s way of thinking in his book. It assumes that Islam is the main or sole reason Muslims act in the world, but that’s also ludicrous. When we are looking to understand other people’s motivations for their actions, we will consider politics, history, economics, psychology, and the whole panoply that makes up human behavior. But when we talk about Muslims, we reduce everything to Islam. The concept that Islam is the sole motivator of Muslim behavior is not only wrongheaded but is also simplistic, leading us to bigoted ways of thinking and not providing us with any useful answers to our questions.

Bayoumi acknowledges that parts of the Muslim world have some soul-searching to do, but that in order to find the answer to their crises, we need to take a multidisciplinary approach that sees Muslim societies through their own unique circumstances, as opposed to trying to understand them by  situating their situation(s) in relation to Christianity. His incisive answer does not only aptly elaborate as to why Aslan’s theory is problematic, but also goes further by demanding of us to be more critical of our approach.

I would still suggest reading Aslan’s ‘No god but God’ nonetheless. I think it is an important contribution to the conversation and serves the purpose of enriching the dialogue around this issue. A final additional reading which explores the nexus between religion and violence (or lack thereof) is Karen Armstrong’s ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.’ I haven’t finished this one because it is quite dense, but because it dramatically transformed the way in which I viewed religion in relation to the modern world, I think it’s also worth delving into.


Syria Is Not the Antithesis of “Never Again.” It Is the Embodiment of “Never Before.”

The unfathomable horrors unraveling in Syria can only be described as a theater of destruction in the most literal definition of the term. An entire country’s population has been largely uprooted or displaced, millions of lives have been irreversibly damaged, and an entire civilization has been erased. The people of Aleppo have begun to make their final pleas for help from a numb, indifferent, and complicit international community, and every time you think the depths of barbarity and violence cannot possibly get any worse, a new episode of the civil war proves you wrong.

Humanity once again grapples with the question of how we allowed this to happen on our watch, with so many concluding that the slogan “never again”- coined after the world shamelessly witnessed or stood idly by in the face of one too many genocides – has now been rendered meaningless.

When we look at Syria, it is true that “never again” seems like nothing more than retrospective posturing.  The phrase is now commonly invoked ironically, to expose the world’s incapacity to learn from history, or to make an indictment against the notion that the trajectory of humanity is one of moral progress. It is easy to take morally unequivocal positions on humanitarian crises, ethnic cleansing, and genocide when you’re decades detached from them and do not have to go up against the prevailing political and ideological zeitgeists of the time.

But to describe Syria as proof of the vacuousness of “never again” cheapens the unprecedented circumstance that the world find itself in today.

The following words by Syrian activist Rime Allaf on Facebook have forced me to fundamentally refocus how I view humanity’s relationship to the Syrian crisis:

No, actually, Syria is not an “again” but an absolute first. It is nothing like Bosnia or Rwanda or Chechnya or any other “never again” genocidal event in history. It is a macabre Truman Show, an uninterrupted 6-year long live reality TV program watched globally 24/7 on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, on Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.

“Never again” doesn’t apply to us, for what has been done to Syria has never been done before. Our tragic fate is to be the modern age’s “never before.”

Never before has the world been able to observe – in real time – the destruction of a nation and the extermination of a people who dared to demand freedom. Never before has a civilian population been filmed under attack with Scud missiles, barrel bombs and chemical weapons by its “own” illegitimate authorities. Never before have starvation sieges and old-fashioned barbaric massacres been so documented as they happened. Never before has mass torture been so evidenced. And never before has the world’s indifferent silence been so loud, save for perfunctory condemnations and erasable red lines.

Indeed, never before has the mightiest superpower the world has ever known shamelessly pretended to be impotent, and never before has it had the temerity of falsely pleading with the Syrian people’s executioners for grace and mercy, the same grace and mercy it denied Syrians by rejecting their desperate appeals for protection.

Never again? You mean never before. Hell of a legacy.

This is a uniqueness to the Syrian tragedy that the world has never seen, and one that it can only hope to never see anywhere else. Indeed, Syria is not the antithesis of “never again.” It is the embodiment of “never before,” and that is to our eternal shame.