From burkinis to the Quran: Why Islam isn’t like other faiths

Shadi Hamid writes: parents, brother and I were on vacation in Florida, and we were talking about Donald Trump. The idea of leaving America if a scary Republican wins has always been a joke among high-minded liberals who can just fly off and find a job in Toronto or Geneva. But for my family, the joke had taken on a more sinister tone.

It was the Muslim version of “the talk,” and it went something like this: If, God forbid, it gets worse and a President Trump encourages a climate of hatred and persecution against American Muslims, then what are our options? Trump, after all, has expressed support for registering Muslims in a database and refused to disavow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch.

My dad was born and raised in authoritarian Egypt, later immigrating to Canada and then the United States.

To my surprise, he is still technically a Canadian citizen. We had a backup plan! As we played out the various frightening scenarios, my parents, after flirting with the idea of self-imposed exile, reached the same conclusion: This is their country too, and they would fight for it. They wouldn’t give up. [Continue reading…]


Muslim. Black. Women

Engy Abdelkader writes: As anti-Muslim violence persists during a volatile presidential election cycle, at least one Muslim woman recently won our nation’s hearts and minds: Duke grad and Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

By now, everyone knows Ibtihaj as the first American to compete in a headscarf at the Olympics. But, not everyone may realize how incredibly representative this newest spokesperson is for the Muslim American community.

“Muslim” and “Arab” are often used interchangeably, with many mistaking Saudi Arabia as the largest Muslim country; it’s actually Indonesia (the Kingdom doesn’t even make the top ten list). At home, at least one in three Muslims in America are actually African American. And, Muslim American women are the second most educated religious group in the country, exemplified by Ibtihaj’s Ivy League credentials. [Continue reading…]


England’s forgotten Muslim history

Jerry Brotton writes: Britain is divided as never before. The country has turned its back on Europe, and its female ruler has her sights set on trade with the East. As much as this sounds like Britain today, it also describes the country in the 16th century, during the golden age of its most famous monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.

One of the more surprising aspects of Elizabethan England is that its foreign and economic policy was driven by a close alliance with the Islamic world, a fact conveniently ignored today by those pushing the populist rhetoric of national sovereignty.

From the moment of her accession to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth began seeking diplomatic, commercial and military ties with Muslim rulers in Iran, Turkey and Morocco — and with good reasons. In 1570, when it became clear that Protestant England would not return to the Catholic faith, the pope excommunicated Elizabeth and called for her to be stripped of her crown. Soon, the might of Catholic Spain was against her, an invasion imminent. English merchants were prohibited from trading with the rich markets of the Spanish Netherlands. Economic and political isolation threatened to destroy the newly Protestant country.

Elizabeth responded by reaching out to the Islamic world. Spain’s only rival was the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Sultan Murad III, which stretched from North Africa through Eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean. The Ottomans had been fighting the Hapsburgs for decades, conquering parts of Hungary. Elizabeth hoped that an alliance with the sultan would provide much needed relief from Spanish military aggression, and enable her merchants to tap into the lucrative markets of the East. For good measure she also reached out to the Ottomans’ rivals, the shah of Persia and the ruler of Morocco. [Continue reading…]


The fatwa hotline: ‘We have heard everything’

Hamida Ghafour writes: Sheikha Naeema lifts her glass to take a sip of water, but the large grey telephone on her desk blinks again, red and insistent. It is only 9am and she has already spoken to 11 callers. The woman on the other end of the line is in distress.

“Peace be upon you, blessings be upon you,” Sheikha Naeema says in a soothing tone. The woman tells her she has given birth twice and that both babies were stillborn. Now she is pregnant again. Her doctor has said the foetus is showing signs of severe complications and will probably die. The woman wants to know if Islam will permit her to have an abortion. After clarifying a few other details, Sheikha Naeema issues a fatwa. “If the foetus is severely ill and will not survive, you may have an abortion,” she tells the woman. “You must take advice from your physician, he will guide you. Religion does not conflict with medicine.”

She explains that abortion is allowed under certain circumstances: within 120 days, or 17 weeks after conception if doctors believe the baby has life-threatening defects. The fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – is justified on the basis of a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which states that at 120 days a baby is given a soul, or spirit. When Sheikha Naeema finishes the call, she swivels in the office chair and makes a note. “Normally it’s quiet on Thursday mornings,” she says.

We are in the small, cramped office of the fatwa hotline on the eighth floor of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments in Abu Dhabi, better known by its Arabic acronym, the Awqaf. [Continue reading…]


‘Islam for Dummies’: ISIS recruits have poor grasp of faith

The Associated Press reports: An AP analysis of thousands of leaked Islamic State documents reveals most of its recruits from its earliest days came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam. A little more than 3,000 of these documents included the recruits’ knowledge of Shariah, the system that interprets into law verses from the Quran and “hadith” — the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

According to the documents, which were acquired by the Syrian opposition site Zaman al-Wasl and shared with the AP, 70 percent of recruits were listed as having just “basic” knowledge of Shariah — the lowest possible choice. Around 24 percent were categorized as having an “intermediate” knowledge, with just 5 percent considered advanced students of Islam. Five recruits were listed as having memorized the Quran.

The findings address one of the most troubling questions about IS recruitment in the United States and Europe: Are disaffected people who understand Shariah more prone to radicalization? Or are those with little knowledge of Islam more susceptible to the group’s radical ideas that promote violence?

The documents suggest the latter. The group preys on this religious ignorance, allowing extremists to impose a brand of Islam constructed to suit its goal of maximum territorial expansion and carnage as soon as recruits come under its sway. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis: Valuing money more than people ‘is a basic terrorism against all humanity’

Reuters reports: Pope Francis has said it was wrong to identify Islam with violence and that social injustice and idolatry of money were among the prime causes of terrorism.

“I think it is not right to identity Islam with violence,” he told reporters aboard the plane taking him back to Rome after a five-day trip to Poland. “This is not right and this is not true.”

The pope was responding to a question about the killing on 26 July of an 85-year-old Roman Catholic priest during a church service in western France. The attackers forced the priest to his knees and slit his throat. The killing was claimed by Islamic State.

“I think that in nearly all religions there is a always a small fundamentalist group,” he said, adding “We have them,” referring to Catholicism.

“I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence because every day when I look at the papers I see violence here in Italy – someone killing his girlfriend, someone killing his mother-in-law. These are baptised Catholics,” he said.

“If I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent,” he said.

He said there were various causes of terrorism.

“I know it dangerous to say this but terrorism grows when there is no other option and when money is made a god and it, instead of the person, is put at the centre of the world economy,” he said.

“That is the first form of terrorism. That is a basic terrorism against all humanity. Let’s talk about that,” he said. [Continue reading…]


The story of the caliph




A lesson for Newt Gingrich: What Shariah is (and isn’t)

Noah Feldman writes: Fortunately, no one is going to follow Newt Gingrich’s unconstitutional and un-American plan for an inquisition to “test every person here who is of a Muslim background” and deport the ones who “believe in Shariah.” Even Mr. Gingrich himself, a day after suggesting this policy in the wake of the terrorist attack in Nice, France, conceded that such a plan was impossible. But his proposal is a reminder of a persistent and inexcusable misunderstanding of what Shariah is, both in theory and in practice.

Put simply, for believing Muslims, Shariah is the ideal realization of divine justice — a higher law reflecting God’s will.

Muslims have a wide range of different beliefs about what Shariah requires in practice. And all agree that humans are imperfect interpreters of God’s will. But to ask a faithful Muslim if he or she “believes in” Shariah is essentially to ask if he or she accepts God’s word. In effect, Mr. Gingrich was proposing to deport all Muslims who consider themselves religious believers.

Start with a crucial distinction. Shariah doesn’t simply or exactly mean Islamic law. Properly speaking, Shariah refers to God’s blueprint for human life. It is divine and unchanging, reflecting God’s unity and perfection. It can be found in God’s revealed word in the Quran and in the divinely guided actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

In contrast, another Arabic word, “fiqh,” refers to the interpretation and application of Shariah in the real world. Fiqh is Islamic law as practiced by people. Because it’s a product of human reasoning used to understand God’s word, Islamic law is subject to debate and imperfection. [Continue reading…]


A Saudi morals enforcer called for a more liberal Islam. Then the death threats began

The New York Times reports: For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.

Some of that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a country that bans alcohol. But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.

A key offense was ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.

For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.

He even said that while women should conceal their bodies, they needed to cover their faces only if they chose to do so. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.

It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.

Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured. [Continue reading…]


Will young reformers of Islam please stand up?

Tania Rashid writes: I recently completed a short documentary about Islamophobia in America’s heartland, Texas. I got to know members of a gun-toting anti-Muslim group called the Bureau on American-Islamic Relations, or B.A.I.R.

I recall standing in the middle of them preparing for an “Arab rising.” Each practice shot they let out had me thinking that I could be an apparent target. One of them yelled “don’t mess with white people,” and proceeded to show me how he would complete a mass killing if he saw a group of Muslims.


I thought of my father, the most secular Muslim I know, who was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and interrogated for hours before a flight to Arizona. Could these men shoot me or other innocent people in my family?

But as much as I was repulsed by the group and their violent response to Muslims, it made me wonder: Were they all that wrong to feel so scared? [Continue reading…]


Muhammad Ali taught me to be proud of my skin and Muslim faith

Omar Musa writes: Once, when I was a child growing up in Australia, I got teased by another kid because I had brown skin. The kid told me my skin was the same colour as shit. I went home in tears and, for the only time in my life, I said to my parents that I wished I wasn’t brown.

My parents sat me down and told me to be proud of my skin and of being Muslim, even if other people put you down for it. I don’t know if it was connected but soon afterwards my dad began to show me tapes of a charismatic, handsome black boxer from America, a proto rapper who spat rhymes and cracked jokes, who drove a pink Cadillac, who stood up for his people and his convictions, all the while dancing on the canvas like no one before and no one to come.

And he was Muslim, like us, and proud of it! And a poet! And he had even fought in Malaysia (where my dad came from) once!

I went to the Queanbeyan library and photocopied pictures of him to stick in my school diary and on my wall. I could never be a boxer but I could have that unfuckwithable attitude.

Ali taught me to be brave, to stand up for myself, to fight for the underdog and that, even if society was against you, your conviction for what was right would be vindicated by history. That there was something radical in being completely and utterly yourself. That my brown skin was not the colour of shit – it shone brighter than gold. He taught me to be proud. [Continue reading…]


Shadi Hamid on the past and future of political Islam

William Armstrong interviews Shadi Hamid and discusses his new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World:

This new book follows your previous book, published in 2014, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” Back then, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, you described how Islamist participation in democracy was inevitable and should be facilitated. Obviously the landscape has changed a lot since then. What big shifts did you want to address in the new book?

I really wanted to address the question of how much religion matters. How much of this has to do with “Islam” and how much of it has to do with political or economic factors. That’s the question that I’ve gotten so much from American observers. This book is an attempt to situate the role of religion, at a time when we’re trying to understand the rise of ISIS and the region’s descent into violence and civil war.

I make an argument that I’m slightly uncomfortable with. I realize that some people will misinterpret it and some will abuse it for purposes that I’m against. I argue that Islam is in fact exceptional. Islam is fundamentally different than other major religions in important ways, primarily in how it relates to law, politics and governance. What that means in practice is that Islam – historically but also today – plays an outsize role in public life, and also that it appears to be uniquely resistant to secularization. There have been many attempts to neutralize or privatize Islam, or make it less relevant in everyday life. But those attempts have failed. This forces us to reckon with the possibility that we aren’t all the same. We don’t all necessarily want the same things.

I’m trying to challenge the liberal determinism that is implicit in so many of our conversations about Islam: That all peoples cultures and societies follow a linear trajectory toward a reformation, then an enlightenment, then secularization, then the “end of history” of liberal democracy. As an American, it is so much part of our culture to just assume that these things are inevitable. But what if they’re not? It’s hard for people to take on the prospect that in Muslim-majority populations there is a general unwillingness to push religion aside. That has major implications for how we understand not just the Middle East but also the future of Muslims in the West.

There’s a danger that this idea of “exceptionalism” plays into the hands of both the most fundamentalist Islamists and the worst Islamophobes.

Exactly. But I have to be faithful to my findings. What I’m saying is that the “difference” of Islam isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whenever we hear that Islam is different and it can’t be extracted from politics, we assume it means that Islam is backwards, bad or problematic. But we have to move beyond this presumption that religion always plays a negative role in politics and that the solution is always to move to secularism. That’s why I self-consciously chose the word “exceptionalism.” For me that is a word that should be value-neutral. Exceptionalism can be good and it can be bad. We also talk about American exceptionalism – which can be seen in a negative or positive light. So I hope people will resist the temptation to just say “Islam is different and that is definitely a bad thing.” I argue that difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing. [Continue reading…]