Mustafa Akyol writes: We Muslims like to believe that ours is “a religion of peace,” but today Islam looks more like a religion of conflict and bloodshed. From the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to internal tensions in Lebanon and Bahrain, to the dangerous rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is plagued by intra-Muslim strife that seems to go back to the ancient Sunni-Shiite rivalry.
Religion is not actually at the heart of these conflicts — invariably, politics is to blame. But the misuse of Islam and its history makes these political conflicts much worse as parties, governments and militias claim that they are fighting not over power or territory but on behalf of God. And when enemies are viewed as heretics rather than just opponents, peace becomes much harder to achieve.
This conflation of religion and politics poisons Islam itself, too, by overshadowing all the religion’s theological and moral teachings. The Quran’s emphasis on humility and compassion is sidelined by the arrogance and aggressiveness of conflicting groups. [Continue reading…]
President Obama said: This is a moment when, as Americans, we have to truly listen to each other and learn from each other. And I believe it has to begin with a common understanding of some basic facts. And I express these facts, although they’d be obvious to many of the people in this place, because, unfortunately, it’s not facts that are communicated on a regular basis through our media.
So let’s start with this fact: For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace. And the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam — peace. The standard greeting is as-salamu alaykum — peace be upon you. And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity. Whoever wants to enter paradise, the Prophet Muhammad taught, “let him treat people the way he would love to be treated.” (Applause.) For Christians like myself, I’m assuming that sounds familiar. (Laughter.)
The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are as diverse as humanity itself. They are Arabs and Africans. They’re from Latin America to Southeast Asia; Brazilians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians. They are white and brown and black. There’s a large African American Muslim community. That diversity is represented here today. A 14-year-old boy in Texas who’s Muslim spoke for many when he wrote to me and said, “We just want to live in peace.”
Here’s another fact: Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.
Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)
Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: For Mr. Obama, the remarks were also an admission of how little progress has been made since the speech in Cairo [in 2009], where he called for “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” In his speech on Wednesday, he suggested that his hopes for a reconciliation had been dashed, but he called on all Americans to stick by the country’s founding ideals.
Muslims in the audience hailed the address.
“I think it was one of the best speeches he’s ever given,” said Representative André Carson, an Indiana Democrat. Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said the speech “hit me in the heart” and was a vital antidote to growing intolerance.
“I have a 19-year-old daughter who is a Muslim and wants to contribute to her nation, and it bugs me that someone who says he wants to be president would want to exclude her,” Mr. Ellison said.
But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said. [Continue reading…]
Religion News Service reports: Hundreds of Muslim scholars will meet in Morocco next week to reassert the rights of non-Muslims living among them as Christians and other religious minorities flee extremism across the Middle East for safety and freedom elsewhere.
In these times, Muslims must affirm their tradition’s true teachings on tolerance, said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S. The summit meeting, expected to attract more than 300 Muslim religious leaders, will hark back to the Charter of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad enumerated the rights of non-Muslims 1,400 years ago.
“The prophet was religiously persecuted, so he knew firsthand what it was to experience religious persecution,” said Yusuf, speaking on a pre-conference media call Thursday (Jan 21). “His religion ensured the rights of religious minorities,” and Islamic history reveals a generally strong record of tolerance. [Continue reading…]
Omid Safi writes: In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”
The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):
There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.
Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition. [Continue reading…]
Shadi Hamid and Will McCants write: Refusing to utter the Islamic State’s name … needlessly complicates the religious fight to discredit the organization. Muslims understandably feel that their religion is being hijacked. But there’s something odd about an American president or Secretary of State opining on what is and isn’t legitimately Islamic. Shouldn’t it go without saying that a murderous extremist group isn’t what Muslims are all about?
There is a place for Muslim apologetics — from Muslims. This is precisely what a group of prominent British figures did when they attempted to rebrand the Islamic State as “the Un-Islamic State.”
But when non-Muslim officials insert themselves into this debate, it sets a negative precedent. It lends itself easily to broader pronouncements on who the good, “moderate” Muslims are, in contrast to the “bad guys,” a category which presumably could include anyone who falls on the Islamist side of the spectrum, regardless of whether they’re actually “extreme.”
And when the West co-opts Muslim talking points about the “true” Islam, it makes it harder for Muslims in the Arab world to make the same claim. Western governments are widely loathed and lack credibility in the region, even when they take care to explain their policies. A 2006 study suggested Arab students’ views of American policy “worsened slightly” the longer they listened to U.S.-sponsored Radio Sawa and al-Hurra TV. When Western officials repeat religious criticisms of the Islamic State, they make it easier for the group’s sympathizers to dismiss the criticisms as mere imperial dictation. [Continue reading…]
Some regular readers here may have noticed that in headlines (the one above being an exception), I have stuck with ISIS, in spite of its official name change and the ongoing debate among outsiders over which is the most appropriate label. My choice has nothing to do with that debate. It’s based instead on the matter of usage.
Whichever happens to be the most commonly used label is “correct” by that virtue alone. That’s why even though ISIS is actually an ambiguous term, you will rarely find yourself in a conversation during which you’ll be asked to clarify whether you’re talking about the terrorist organization, ISIS, or the Egyptian goddess, Isis.
When it comes to determining who’s saying what, where, Google Trends is an indispensable tool.
Wilson Fache writes: New York City is well known for its numerous ethnic quarters, like the tourist-packed Little Italy or the oddly authentic Chinatown. Far less well known however is a small neighbourhood that locals used to call “Little Syria”.
From the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, that enclave was the economic and cultural centre of the Arab diaspora in the US; that is before it was demolished in order to build a tunnel and then later, in the sixties, the World Trade Centre.
These few blocks were home to a large number of immigrants mainly coming from what was then known as “Greater Syria” (Bilad al-Sham), a region ruled by the Ottoman Empire that nowadays includes Syria as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and a part of southern Turkey.
Civic associations like the Washington Street Historical Society have been advocating for years to raise awareness about the largely unknown quarter and preserve the few buildings that are left, such as St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, which is located on Washington street.
For many years is was assumed that the neighbourhood was only ever inhabited by Christians. Since there was no record of a place of worship dedicated to another faith, it was assumed there had never been one. Then a few months ago, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver doing research on early Islam in the US came across an article entitled “Mohammedans now have a place of worship here”. [Continue reading…]
Mustafa Akyol writes: The recent massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., demonstrated, once again, the so-called Islamic State’s ability to win over disaffected Muslims. Using a mixture of textual literalism and self-righteous certainty, the extremist group is able to persuade young men and women from Pakistan to Belgium to pledge allegiance to it and commit violence in its name.
This is why the Islamic State’s religious ideology needs to be taken seriously. While it’s wrong to claim that the group’s thinking represents mainstream Islam, as Islamophobes so often do, it’s also wrong to pretend that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam,” as many Islamophobia-wary Muslims like to say. Indeed, jihadist leaders are steeped in Islamic thought and teachings, even if they use their knowledge to perverse and brutal ends.
A good place to start understanding the Islamic State’s doctrine is by reading Dabiq, the digital English-language magazine that the group puts out every month. One of the most striking pieces I have seen in it was an 18-page article in March titled “Irja’: The Most Dangerous Bid’ah,” or heresy.
Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing.” It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate.” Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate. [Continue reading…]
Daniel Burke writes: On a warm November night in Washington, a small group of American Muslims gathered at Georgetown University to celebrate “The Study Quran,” new English translation of Islam’s most sacred scripture.
By the next evening, several said, the need for the book became painfully apparent.
After the attacks, President Barack Obama renewed his call for Muslim scholars and clerics to “push back” against “twisted interpretations of Islam.” Some U.S. presidential candidates fed anti-Islamic flames, creating the most hostile environment since 9/11, American Muslims said.
“The whole program of ISIS is to turn Muslims against the West and the West against Muslims,” said Joseph Lumbard, one of the five scholars behind “The Study Quran.”
“They want the West not to understand Islam.”
Thus far, many English translations of the Quran have been ill-suited to foiling extremist ideology or introducing Americans to Islam. Even after 9/11, when interest surged and publishers rushed Qurans to the market, few of the 25 or so available in English are furnished with helpful footnotes or accessible prose.
Meanwhile, Christians or Jews may pick up a Quran and find their worst fears confirmed.
“I never advise a non-Muslim who wants to find out more about Islam to blindly grab the nearest copy of an English-language Quran they can find,” Mehdi Hasan, a journalist for Al Jazeera, said during the panel discussion at Georgetown.
Ten years in the making, “The Study Quran” is more than a rebuttal to terrorists, said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian-born intellectual and the book’s editor-in-chief. His aim was to produce an accurate, unbiased translation understandable to English-speaking Muslims, scholars and general readers.
The editors paid particular attention to passages that seem to condone bloodshed, explaining in extensive commentaries the context in which certain verses were revealed and written.
“The commentaries don’t try to delete or hide the verses that refer to violence. We have to be faithful to the text, ” said Nasr, a longtime professor at George Washington University. “But they can explain that war and violence were always understood as a painful part of the human condition.”
The scholar hopes his approach can convince readers that no part of the Quran sanctions the brutal acts of ISIS.
“The best way to counter extremism in modern Islam,” he said, “is a revival of classical Islam.” [Continue reading…]
Since capturing swathes of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has embarked on a cyber-offensive to spread its message through social media. A great effort has been made to block and remove the content, to understand how this information spreads – and to understand why some find it so convincing.
But it is also important to look at the message itself. Islamic State’s claims are not plucked out of the sky. As unpalatable as they may be, they are framed by religious narratives and debates about Islam that have spanned centuries.
A look at Islamic State’s online magazine, Dabiq, reveals arguments built on Wahabbism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam. There are invocations of the founder Ibn Taimaya, “Sheik al Islam”, and references to Ibn Abbas, Ibn Masood, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Hajar, Muhammad Ibn Abdil-Wahhab, Bukhari, and Sahih Muslim – Muslim scholars either collecting, interpreting, or narrating Hadith (the words of the prophet). The broader message is blunt: “Kill whoever changes his religion [Sahīh al-Bukhārī]“.
To claim that Islamic State is not related to Islam is therefore naive, even wilfully dismissive. It ignores the interpretations of Islam that IS presents in its videos, statements and other communication.
Arguing that IS is comprehensively Islamic, on the other hand, is simplistic, too. That is to see the group as representing all Muslims and the different and competing readings and interpretations of Islam around the world. Clearly, they do not.
Grabbing either of these easy, polar explanations for what IS represents will not provide a solution to the problem. We need to consider some controversial issues upon which most of the varying sects of Islam agree in order to understand IS, and subvert its narratives.
Shadi Hamid writes: Every time the Islamic State commits yet another attack or atrocity, Muslims, particularly Western Muslims, shudder. Attacks like the ones in Paris mean another round of demands that Muslims condemn the acts, as if we should presume guilt, or perhaps some indirect taint.
The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is understandable, and it often includes statements such as ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” or that ISIS is merely “using Islam” as a pretext. The sentiment is usually well-intentioned. We live in an age of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, where mainstream politicians now feel license to say things that might have once been unimaginable.
To protect Islam – and, by extension, Muslims – from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause.
But saying something for the right reasons doesn’t necessarily make it right. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it.
If you actually look at ISIS’s approach to governance, it would be difficult – impossible, really – to conclude that it is just making things up as it goes along and then giving it an Islamic luster only after the fact. [Continue reading…]
Carla Power writes: When I told a Muslim friend of mine that I was to be studying the Koran with a sheikh [Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi], she had one request. “Ask him,”she said, “why Muslim men treat women so badly.”
When I did, he said it was because men weren’t reading the Koran properly.
All too often, people read the Koran selectively, the Sheikh explained, taking phrases out of context.
“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”
In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to report on life for women under the Taliban. During their five-year reign in Kabul, the Taliban’s major policy initiative was to ban anything that they deemed to be un-Islamic, including kites, nail polish, and the public display of women’s faces.
The most devastating of the Taliban edicts, however, was the ban on women’s education.
At one point during my trip I asked the father of a ten-year-old girl whether she ever went out. His answer: “For what?”
In the years that the Taliban were busy keeping women at home and uneducated, Akram was uncovering a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.
Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. Another woman in Akram’s research discoveries: the fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.
It had begun by accident, he explained. Reading classical texts on hadith (the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), he kept running across women’s names as authorities. He decided to do a biographical dictionary—a well-established genre in Muslim scholarly culture—that included all the women experts of hadith.
“A short book, then?” I teased.
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Akram. “I was expecting to find maybe twenty or thirty women. I was planning to publish a pamphlet. But it seems there are more.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, like how many more?”
Akram’s work, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote. [Continue reading…]
Ayesha S. Chaudhry writes: Since the days of colonialism, Muslim women have become hyperpoliticized pawns in larger ideological struggles, and women’s bodies bear the burden of marking which “side” a society belongs to, by either donning the veil or removing it. Europeans are not the only ones politicizing women’s bodies – Muslim-majority countries have engaged in similar tactics, expressing their commitment to Islamism (e.g. Iran today, Saudi Arabia) or secularism (Iran under the Shah, Turkey) through forced veiling or de-veiling.
Neither forced veiling nor de-veiling actually serves the interests of women, though secularists argue that de-veiling “saves” women from patriarchal oppression, and Islamists argue that veiling “saves” women from an objectifying male gaze that turns them into sex objects. In both arguments, a woman’s emancipation or subjugation is measured by the amount her body is covered or uncovered. Both arguments infantilize women, expressing a profound mistrust in their ability to make decisions in their own self-interest. Caught in the middle, Muslim women simply cannot win.
In this context, it is especially important to put women first, to give women space to chart their own journeys, and to allow the veil and lack thereof to have meanings beyond their patriarchal origins. [Continue reading…]
Sabreena Razaq Hussain writes: With 2 million people gathered in one small city for the hajj, some discomfort was to be expected. And putting up with it was, I initially thought, an opportunity to exercise the patience so very valued by our faith of Islam and in the holiest of cities. So we marched on hopefully.
But with the 40-plus degree heat of Mecca, the harsh policing, the aggressive crowds, the chaotic organisation, the pressure was relentless. As the days went on, I couldn’t have felt a starker contrast between the spiritual tranquillity and contentment experienced within the confines of the Grand Mosque and sites, and the anxiety and distress caused by those policing it. Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia, accompanying my parents on pilgrimage, my ignorance had led me to believe that one of the richest Muslim countries in the world would be well organised in facilitating the rites of hajj. Now, back in the UK, I am grateful to be alive and still horrified by what I witnessed. I fully understand why hundreds of people were crushed to death and I don’t believe that “God’s will” can be used an excuse. [Continue reading…]
Haroon Moghul writes: If you think the Islamic State’s war on antiquities is horrifying, you are right. But it is not exceptional. It has its roots in a perverse and excessive iconoclasm, which has seen Saudi Wahhabist mandates literally crush, demolish, smash, erase, and break down the very sites and landscapes that Muslims worldwide know so well. If you think I am exaggerating, don’t. Several years ago, I helped lead a small group of American Muslims on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. We had a Saudi guide with us who, during our bus tour around Mecca and Medina, refused to let our driver stop at mosques of historical significance, because he thought we might cross the line and worship in a manner unbecoming of an austere and hardheaded Wahhabist. He treated us like children.
Which, of course, none of us were: Wahhabists, or children. (In revenge, I spent the ride back happily pointing out sites of Ottoman significance, while describing the House of Saud’s unseemly alliance with non-Muslim powers against their fellow Muslims.) My fellow pilgrims were incensed. They had paid, scrounged up and saved, and here they were, in their holy city, and they weren’t allowed to stop at, for example, the mosque where Mohammed was commanded by God to turn away from the first direction of prayer, Jerusalem, to the current direction of prayer, Mecca. (It matters if you’re Muslim.) They felt outraged. They felt they were denied the chance to experience their Islam because someone else had decided their interpretation of Islam mattered more.
And that is precisely the point. Mecca and Medina are ruled by Saudi Arabia, but they belong to the Muslim world. They are our collective sacredness. They shouldn’t be an individual possession. Islam is a very egalitarian religion. (As some Muslims joke, people who dislike organized religion should join Islam, because we’ve mastered disorganization.) Islam has few hierarchies, and those that exist are not widely shared. Why then does a regime which represents a sliver of Muslims, exports and enforces an ideology that is historically antithetical to Islam’s rich traditions of pluralism, spirituality and cosmopolitanism, allowed to control our holy cities? Why don’t everyday Muslims get a say? [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: At least 717 people were killed and 863 injured in a stampede near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday morning…
In a statement, the Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, said the stampede may have been “caused by the movement of some pilgrims who didn’t follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities.”…
Madawi al-Rasheed, an anthropologist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said: “There is no accountability. It’s shocking that almost every year there is some kind of death toll.”…
A vast majority of pilgrims are not from Saudi Arabia and have not been able to exert pressure on the government to improve crowd control or public safety around the hajj. Professor Rasheed said that officials in the kingdom had avoided responsibility in part by citing the Islamic doctrine that anyone who dies during the pilgrimage — one of the five pillars of Islam, and a duty for all able-bodied Muslims with the means to make the trip — goes to heaven. [Continue reading…]
Mustafa Akyol writes: Earlier this month, on the Muslim holy day of Friday, a horrible accident took place in Mecca near Islam’s holiest site — the Kaaba. A huge crane fell on the mosque that encircles the cube-shaped shrine, killing 118 pilgrims and injuring almost 400. This tragedy was the deadliest crane collapse in modern history, and thus it begged for an investigation. Yet, in a highly religious country, the technicians that operated the crane, the Saudi Binladen Group, had an easy way out. One of them spoke to the press and simply said: “What happened was beyond the power of humans. It was an act of God.”
To their credit, the Saudi authorities did not buy this argument. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud immediately suspended the company from work, ordered an investigation, and offered compensation for the families of victims. The investigators soon concluded that the company was responsible for the accident, because it did not “respect the rules of safety” and violated the manufacturers’ operating instructions.
While this factual investigation is a step forward, we must still ask why the technicians publicly absolved themselves of responsibility, and probably in their own minds as well, by evoking “fate.”
This is not the first time that this metaphysical excuse has come up in such circumstances. Worse accidents have happened near the Kaaba before, during the overcrowded season of pilgrimage, the Hajj, and the blame was reflexively placed on the divine. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede caused mainly by a lack of ventilation. Nonetheless, the king at the time, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then argued: “It was God’s will, which is above everything.” “It was fate,” he added.
This isn’t just a Saudi problem; it is a global Muslim problem. Fatalism is constantly used as an excuse for human neglect and errors. [Continue reading…]