Mustafa Akyol writes: Various Western intellectuals, ranging from Thomas Friedman to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have argued over the past decades that Muslims need their own Martin Luther to save themselves from intolerance and dogmatism. The Protestant Reformation that Luther triggered exactly 500 years ago, these intellectuals suggest, can serve as a model for a potential Muslim Reformation. But is there such a connection between the Reformation in Christendom and the “reform” that is arguably needed in Islam?
To start with, it’s worth recalling that Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire, helped Protestantism succeed and survive. In the 16th century, much of Europe was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which had ample means to crush the Protestant heretics. But the same Catholic empire was also constantly threatened and kept busy by “the Turks” whose own empire-building inadvertently helped the Protestants. “The Turk was the lightning rod that drew off the tempest,” noted J. A. Wylie in his classic, History of Protestantism. “Thus did Christ cover His little flock with the shield of the Moslem.”
More importantly, some early Protestants, desperately seeking religious freedom for themselves, found inspiration for that in the Ottoman Empire, which was then more tolerant to religious plurality than were most Catholic kingdoms. Jean Bodin, himself a Catholic but a critical one, openly admired this fact. “The great empereour of the Turks,” the political philosopher wrote in the 1580s, “detesteth not the straunge religion of others; but to the contrarie permitteth every man to live according to his conscience.” That is why Luther himself had written about Protestants who “want the Turk to come and rule because they think our German people are wild and uncivilized.”
Surely those days are long gone. The great upheavals that began in the West with the Protestant Reformation ultimately led to the Enlightenment, liberalism, and the modern-day liberal democracy—along with the darker fruits of modernity such as fascism and communism. Meanwhile, the pre-modern tolerance of the Muslim world did not evolve into a system of equal rights and liberties. Quite the contrary, it got diminished by currents of militant nationalism and religious fundamentalism that began to see non-Muslims as enemies within. That is why it is the freedom-seeking Muslims today who look at the other civilization, the West, admiring that it does “permitteth every man to live according to his conscience.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The discovery of Arabic characters that spell “Allah” and “Ali” on Viking funeral costumes in boat graves in Sweden has raised questions about the influence of Islam in Scandinavia.
The grave where the costumes were found belonged to a woman dressed in silk burial clothes and was excavated from a field in Gamla Uppsala, north of Stockholm, in the 1970s, but its contents were not cataloged until a few years ago, Annika Larsson, a textile archaeologist at Uppsala University, said on Friday.
Among the contents unearthed: a necklace with a figurine; two coins from Baghdad; and the bones of a rooster and a large dog.
Dr. Larsson discovered the Arabic characters in February, as she was preparing some of the items for an exhibition on Viking couture in Enkoping, Sweden. She had been trying to recreate textile patterns for the exhibits — by comparing motifs on the burial dress with a silk band found around the head of a skeleton in a Viking grave at Birka, Sweden — when she discovered Kufic characters of Arabic. [Continue reading…]
Although Europe is referred to as a continent, we should always remember that as a topographical entity it is actually — as described by the Oxford archeologist, Barry Cunliffe — “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia.”
In other words, the separation between Europe and the lands and cultures surrounding it is a construct that resides solely inside people’s minds. Inside this cognitive space, it has periodically taken on a rigidity that obscures both geography and history.
While evidence of the influence of Islam across Europe might alarm some contemporary nativist Europeans whose cultural identity is only skin-deep, the location of the artifacts in question hardly seems surprising. What they reveal is open to question — their arrival might simply be the result of trade in goods. Yet intermixing is and always has been an engine that enriches cultural development.
Wajahat Ali writes: Is it permissible to take a selfie in front of the Kaaba during hajj? With spotty internet, I was unable to Google the answer. Forced to call an audible fatwa, I decided, “Yes, if indeed my intention is pure.”
Fourteen hundred years ago, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions definitely didn’t have to decide between Clarendon and Gingham filters to document the hajj pilgrimage that is recreated by Muslims each year. But then again, they didn’t have Instagram as I did when I went to Mecca to satisfy the pillar of my faith during the last days of August and the beginning of September. They didn’t have access to the air-conditioned tents that I used for shelter. And when they gazed at the Kaaba — the austere black cube that represents God’s house on earth — it certainly wasn’t dwarfed, as it is now, by the enormous luxury hotel and bling-covered clock tower that the Saudi government added to the landscape in 2012.
Awe-struck by the privilege of participating in this tradition while often agitated by the contradictions that surround it today, I made sense of the experience by sharing it — filtering the pilgrimage through the lens of my smartphone.
The most painful aspect of hajj wasn’t the physical toll that came with navigating cramped space with my two million diverse fellow pilgrims, or the intense spiritual concentration. It wasn’t the hiking-induced blisters and chafing. It was witnessing the erasure and razing of my religion’s culture, history and narrative by the House of Saud. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: In the early days of December 1805, a handful of prominent politicians received formal invitations to join President Thomas Jefferson for a White House dinner.
Such entreaties were not uncommon: Jefferson frequently hosted lawmakers for political working dinners at the White House, almost always commencing them about 3:30 in the afternoon, shortly after the House or Senate had adjourned for the day.
But this gathering, scheduled for Dec. 9, would be slightly different.
“dinner will be on the table precisely at sun-set — ” the invitations read. “The favour of an answer is asked.”
The occasion was the presence of a Tunisian envoy to the United States, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who had arrived in the country just the week before, in the midst of America’s ongoing conflict with what were then known as the Barbary States.
And the reason for the dinner’s later-than-usual start was Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims in which observers fast between dawn and dusk. Only after sunset do Muslims break their fast with a meal, referred to as an iftar.
Jefferson’s decision to change the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadan has been seized on by both sides in the 21st-century debate over Islam more than 200 years later. Historians have cited the meal as the first time an iftar took place in the White House — and it has been referenced in recent White House celebrations of Ramadan as an embodiment of the Founding Father’s respect for religious freedom. Meanwhile, critics on the far right have taken issue with the characterization of Jefferson’s Dec. 9, 1805, dinner as an iftar.
Whatever Jefferson could have foreseen for the young country’s future, it appears the modern-day White House tradition of marking Ramadan with an iftar dinner or Eid celebration has come to an end. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: More than 130 imams and Muslim religious leaders have said they will refuse to say funeral prayers for the perpetrators of Saturday’s attack in London.
In a highly unusual move, Muslim religious figures from across the country and from different schools of Islam said their pain at the suffering of the victims and their families led them to refuse to perform the traditional Islamic prayer – a ritual normally performed for every Muslim regardless of their actions. They called on others to do the same.
They expressed “shock and utter disgust at these cold-blooded murders”, adding: “We will not perform the traditional Islamic funeral prayer over the perpetrators and we also urge fellow imams and religious authorities to withdraw such a privilege. This is because such indefensible actions are completely at odds with the lofty teachings of Islam.” [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: In the week before President Donald Trump’s Islam-focused speech in Saudi Arabia, American Muslims collectively cringed over the big question: Just how bad could it be?
Not as bad as imagined, it turns out, but still unimpressive.
US Muslims said Trump’s address Sunday at a summit in Riyadh was remarkable mainly for its blandness – shopworn lines about good versus evil from a president who once blamed his Saudi hosts for 9/11, who floated the idea of shutting down mosques, and who said, “I think Islam hates us.”
American Muslims also noted a glaring omission in the half-hour speech: themselves. There was no acknowledgment of the contributions of the athletes, doctors, actors and tech entrepreneurs who are among more than 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States.
“You don’t mention them once in your entire speech?” said Adnan Zulfiqar, a Philadelphia-based Truman National Security Project fellow who studies foreign policy in the Muslim world. “What that tells me is that Trump’s conception of America is not only Muslim-free but, in many respects, minority-free. He easily engages with Islam as a foreign ‘other,’ as opposed to Islam and Muslims as part of the American fabric.” [Continue reading…]
Zareena Grewal writes: “I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world,” President Trump said in Riyadh on Sunday, in a speech billed as a call to Muslims to promote a peaceful understanding of Islam and to unite against terrorists.
Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, but it is not the capital of the Muslim world. In fact, it’s worth remembering that “the Muslim world” is not actually a place. It’s a Western idea built on the faulty racial logic that Muslims live in a world of their own—that Islam is an eastern, foreign religion that properly belongs in a distant, faraway, dusty place. (This is arguably the logic that underlies Trump’s Muslim travel ban, currently held up in the courts: Islam is foreign, “Islam hates us,” Islam cannot possibly be a real American religion and that is why we can ban its adherents. Stephen Miller, an architect of the travel ban, was also reportedly among the writers of Trump’s Islam speech.)
If the Muslim world were the modern equivalent of the premodern concept of “Islamdom” (lands ruled by Muslims), it would refer only to Muslim-majority countries; countries where Muslims are national minorities, such as China and India, would be left out. If the Muslim world is a euphemism for the Middle East (sometimes Afghanistan and Pakistan are mistakenly lumped in, too), what to make of the fact that 80 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live outside the Middle East, including American Muslims like me?
Trump will also visit Jerusalem and the Vatican on his Abrahamic religions world tour, but we certainly do not imagine him addressing all Jews or all Christians from those cities. We understand Israel to be a modern, Zionist nation-state, not the representative of all Jews worldwide. Similarly, we understand the Vatican as the institutional center of a global Catholic network, not the heart of Christendom. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: President Trump is in Saudi Arabia this weekend to meet with Arab leaders, visit the birthplace of Islam and give a speech about religious tolerance with the hope of resetting his reputation with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. But it’s unclear if a two-day visit is enough to overshadow his past statements about Islam and its faithful, with his rhetoric becoming more virulent as he campaigned for president.
Here’s a look back at some of the comments that he has made: [Continue reading…]
Peter Beinart writes: On March 6, the zoning board in Bayonne, New Jersey, turned down a request to convert an old warehouse into a mosque. Such denials are happening with increasing frequency in the United States. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, the Justice Department intervened seven times against local communities that prevented Muslims from building mosques or other religious institutions. In the six years between 2010 and 2016, that number jumped to 17.
At the zoning board meeting, one woman called Islam a “so-called religion.” Residents claimed the Muslim Brotherhood would control the mosque. The Facebook page of the group “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne” features a man holding a sign that says “Democracy or Sharia Law.”
This is the language of Frank Gaffney. For a decade and a half, Gaffney, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official who heads a small Washington think tank called the Center for Security Policy, has been making two interrelated arguments. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood—which he claims seeks to replace the United States Constitution with a Caliphate based upon Sharia law—secretly controls most American mosques and Muslim organizations. Second, that Islam is not actually a religion. It is a totalitarian political ideology. Thus, its adherents should be treated not like Christians or Jews, but like American Nazis during World War II.
For years, Washington conservatives ridiculed these arguments and stigmatized Gaffney for making them. In 2003, after Gaffney attacked two Muslim staffers in the Bush White House, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist banned him from his influential “Wednesday meeting” of conservative activists. In 2011, according to sources close to the organization, the American Conservative Union informally barred Gaffney from speaking at CPAC, the ACU’s signature event. In 2013, the Bradley Foundation, which had backed the Center for Security Policy since 1988, cut off funds. That same year, Gaffney lost the Washington Times column he had been writing since the late 1990s. As late as December 2015, The Daily Beast declared that, “Frank Gaffney has been shunned by pretty much everyone in conservative intellectual circles.”
Yet less than 18 months later, America is led by a president, Donald Trump, who has frequently cited the Center for Security Policy when justifying his policies towards Muslims. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called Gaffney “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—who has said “Sharia law fundamentally conflicts with our magnificent constitutional order”—in 2015 won the Center for Security Policy’s “Keeper of the Flame” Award. Trump’s CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, has appeared on Gaffney’s radio program more than 24 times since 2013. Sebastian Gorka, who runs a kind of parallel National Security Council inside the White House called the Strategic Initiatives Group, has appeared on Gaffney’s radio program 18 times during that period. He’s called Sharia “antithetical to the values of this great nation” and recently refused to say whether he considered Islam a religion.
In truth, conservatives never actually marginalized Gaffney’s ideas. Even when shunned in Washington, they grew steadily on the grassroots right in response to conservative disillusionment with America’s post-9/11 wars. Gaffney’s theories represent an effort to “denationalize” American Muslims—to strip them of their national identity and legal protections—with chilling precedents in American and European history. And although these theories have opponents, as well as supporters, in the Trump administration, they are already changing the relationship between American Muslims and their government in frightening ways. [Continue reading…]
On Feb. 16, 2017, a bomb ripped through a crowd assembled at the tomb of a Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in southeastern Pakistan. Soon thereafter, the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
In recent times, such attacks have targeted a variety of cherished sites and individuals in Pakistan. These have ranged from the 2010 bombing of the tomb of another Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, to the murder of a popular Sufi singer, Amjad Sabri, in 2016.
As a scholar of Muslim and Hindu traditions, I’ve long appreciated the various and influential roles that Sufis and their tombs play in South Asian communities. From my perspective, the repercussions of such violence go far beyond the scores of bodies strewn around the damaged shrine and the devastated families in one geographical region.
Many Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe celebrate Sufi saints and gather together for worship in their shrines. Such practices, however, do not conform to the Islamic ideologies of intolerant revivalist groups such as the Islamic State.
Here’s why they find them threatening.
Rashid, a veteran, who calls himself as the “Muslim Marine,” sent out a tweet on Monday offering to stand guard for any Jewish synagogue, cemetery or organization.
I'm a #MuslimMarine in Chicagoland area. If your synagogue or Jewish cemetery needs someone to stand guard, count me in. Islam requires it.
— The Muslim Marine (@MuslimMarine) February 27, 2017
Rashid knew he had to do more to help out his Jewish neighbors and that’s why he fired off his now-viral tweet.
“As I watch this horrible thing unfold here, I felt terrible about what happened in St. Louis and this heinous event in Philadelphia,” Rashid, 40, said in a phone interview. “I was moved to tears. This is absolutely not right.” [Continue reading…]
Shibley Telhami writes: Four polls during the election year revealed extraordinary, progressive and unexpected shifts that cannot be explained by events during that year. Attitudes toward “Muslim people” became progressively more favorable from 53 percent in November 2015 to 70 percent in October 2016.
Even attitudes toward Islam itself (generally more unfavorable than attitudes toward Muslims) showed significant improvement: favorable attitudes went from 37 percent in November 2015 to 49 percent in October 2016, reaching the highest favorable level since 9/11.
This kind of large shift does not normally take place in one year unless there are extraordinary events taking place. In fact, there were some consequential events that would have led one to expect the opposite shift: terrorism in the name of Islam in San Bernardino and Orlando, as well as a heated campaign year during which the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, voiced much anti-Muslim rhetoric.
So, how are these kind of shifts possible in a single year?
One hint comes from the partisan divide on these issues. Almost all the shifts came from Democrats and independents, not Republicans. Among Democrats, the shift was significant enough to impact overall results. Favorable attitudes toward Muslims improved from 67 percent to 81 percent. Favorable attitudes toward Islam went from 51 percent to 66 percent. [Continue reading…]
Brent E. Sasley writes: President-elect Donald Trump has set the foreign policymaking world on edge with his and his team’s repeated insistence that as president he will move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The goal: support Israel’s claim to the city as its “undivided, eternal capital.” By nominating David Friedman — who agrees with that position — to be ambassador to Israel, Trump apparently emphasizes this commitment.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resisted resolution for decades. But Trump has insisted that “a deal is a deal” and that because he is “a negotiator,” he will be successful where others were not. In this case, presumably Trump plans to offer the Palestinians compensation to accept Israel’s claims to Jerusalem.
But it is not that simple.
The “let’s make a deal” approach assumes that each negotiating party has a series of material things that can be traded off. In this approach, both sides understand they will be better off with more than they currently have.
But that doesn’t apply to a place like Jerusalem, or to conflicts like it. Over time, territorial conflicts between ethno-national communities have become more about ideological and emotional attachments than about material interests. Recent research shows that groups can’t trade off material gain against territory that they consider to be part of its national homeland — territory that’s important to everyone who identifies with that ancestral homeland, wherever they actually live. Jerusalem is a prime example: Its existence is loaded with cultural, spiritual, religious and national meaning.
Jerusalem’s layered history is so important to both Jewish and Muslim religious practice as immovable “sacred spaces” that even when Israeli and Palestinian leaders hold similar attachments, they can’t decide its disposition alone. They must account for the emotional commitments of publics outside the Middle East. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The Islamic State is being crushed, its fighters are in retreat and the caliphate it sought to build in the image of a bygone glory is crumbling.
The biggest losers, however, are not the militants, who will fulfill their dreams of death or slink into the desert to regroup, but the millions of ordinary Sunnis whose lives have been ravaged by their murderous rampage.
No religious or ethnic group was left unscathed by the Islamic State’s sweep through Iraq and Syria. Shiites, Kurds, Christians and the tiny Yazidi minority have all been victims of a campaign of atrocities, and they now are fighting and dying in the battles to defeat the militants.
But the vast majority of the territory overrun by the Islamic State was historically populated by Sunni Arabs, adherents of the branch of Islam that the group claims to champion and whose interests the militants profess to represent. The vast majority of the 4.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes by the Islamic State’s war are Sunnis. And as the offensives get underway to capture Mosul, Iraq’s biggest Sunni city, and Raqqa, the group’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria, more Sunni towns and villages are being demolished, and more Sunni livelihoods are being destroyed.
Most Sunnis played no part in the militants’ rise. All are paying a heavy price for the sake of those who did, accelerating and deepening a reversal in the fortunes of the majority sect of Islam that had ruled the region for most of the past 1,400 years.
“ISIS was a tsunami that swept away the Sunnis,” said Sheik Ghazi Mohammed Hamoud, a Sunni tribal leader in the northwestern Iraqi town of Rabia, which was briefly overrun by the Islamic State in 2014 and is now under Kurdish control. “We lost everything. Our homes, our businesses, our lives.” [Continue reading…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]