Tag Archives: Islam

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 was 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 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, and cites 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 both 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 of 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.

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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.

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

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