Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

As I turn to the “Muslim” side of the equation in this two-part blog that summarizes some of the findings in my article for the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, we have to ponder the rapid advance of the jihadi group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham, or “Levant”) in Iraq, as they are now within striking distance from the capital and have erased the border between Iraq and Syria.

As veteran Middle East correspondent David Kirpatrick astutely observes, jihadist forces have been on the rise, and especially after the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood by the military government in Egypt since July 2013. Shortly after those events, ISIS, one of two powerful jihadist groups fighting in Syria, declared that islamists (Muslims wanting a more robust role for Islam in the public sphere) should now have learned their lesson – they must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballet boxes.” Should we negotiate with the powers-that-be? Yes, but “in trenches rather than in hotels.” The Muslim Brotherhood, said the document, were merely “a secular party in Islamic clothing”; and because of that, they embody “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”

To say the least, we are witnessing spirited debates among Muslims (and especially islamists) on the issue of human rights and democracy!

That said, before we look at three Muslims on the other end of the spectrum, I have to point out a very insightful article byJocelyne Cesari (Harvard and Georgetown universities) on why some form of political Islam is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Leaning on the thesis of her recent book, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State, she argues that the Muslim states that arose out of the ashes of Western colonialism were founded by secular leaders who turned Islam into a modern nationalist ideology. This is what happened in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Turkey. As a result, Islamic symbols have been and will continue to be bandied about by both political elites and their opponents.

Keep this fact in mind as we look at some of the conservative push back on the UDHR after the 1970s “resurgence of Islam” and then briefly fly over some of the writings on human rights by three key Muslim scholars based in the US.

 

The 1980s flurry of Islamic Human Rights Schemes

In the first blog I signaled a movement in Asia and in Muslim states more generally to question the universal application of the UDHR and the International Bill of Rights. From a more secular perspective too – mostly from within the social sciences – the objection of cultural relativism was beginning to erode what for many had been the perceived stellar nature of human rights standards.

This too was the time when Muslim societies were becoming more religiously observant – across the board. On the heels of the shocking Arab defeat in the 1967 “Six Day War,” the secularist, nationalist and socialist ideology of Egypt’s influential leader Gamal Abdel Nasser started to ring very hollow among the masses. Instead, people started to pay more attention to religious leaders preaching every Friday from the mosques that the reason God had allowed them to taste poverty and defeat was because they were no longer following his Straight Path. His Shari’a must once again be the law of the land (for more on this, see my two blogs on Islamism and the veil). Of course, added to this was the windfall of petro-dollars that enabled Saudi Arabia to spread its arch-conservative Wahhabi ideology far and wide.

It was in this atmosphere that the following “Islamic” versions of the UDHR came into being – what Ann Mayer calls “human rights schemes”:

 

- conservative European Muslim leaders issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981);

- then, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990);

- finally, the Arab League’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR, 2004).

 

To different degrees, these documents pay lip service to the UDHR and the concept of human rights (and democracy), but with regard to religious freedom and family law they add that nothing may contravene what has been established by the Shari’a. In essence, the idea of human dignity and all the rights that flow out of that are praised, but only within the framework of the traditional jurisprudence of Islam’s five main schools of law. That said, there are plenty of internal Muslim debates – even in conservative circles, which represent the majority I must add – about many of the details involved. There is a growing consensus, for instance, that capital punishment for apostasy and the duty of women to stay in the home, are outdated rules not in line with the “real” teachings of Islam.

Still, there is a discrepancy between the general aspiration of Muslims worldwide for civil and political freedoms, for equal rights for men and women with regard to education, the workplace and politics, and the conservative discourse of Muslim scholars standing behind those documents mentioned above. For the masses, Shari’a remains both a symbol of social justice and accountable government, and a symbol of the high standard of God’s rules to which the believer submits – from the “Five Pillars” to inheritance laws, from the modalities of divorce to the treatment of apostates.

The three men whose views I touch on here all believe that any contradiction between current human rights standards and traditional interpretations of Islamic law should fall away when Islamic law is applied according to the ethical and theological norms put forward in the Qur’an and Sunna. Here I brush over the bulk of my article only to highlight two themes that all three men develop – human dignity emanating from creation and the priority of values over man-made rules. [I will make the whole article available after it’s published in January 2015].

 

Human rights flow out of God’s creation

All three of these men are eminent scholars whose writings touch on Islam and human rights. Two of them are activists as well. Khaled Abou El Fadl directs the Islamic law program at UCLA but is also a practicing human rights lawyer in the US who frequently speaks to Muslim audiences around the Muslim world. Granted the Oslo Human Rights Award in 2007, he was also nominated by President George W. Bush to serve on the US Commission for Religious Freedom.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im directs the Islam and Human Rights Program at Emory University’s School of Law, which is specifically designed to support and train Muslim human rights activists in various parts of the world. Originally from the Sudan, he was a disciple of the Sufi sheikh, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and his Republican Brothers party in the Sudan in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of his inclusive interpretation of the Qur’an, Sheikh Taha was executed for apostasy in 1985 by the military strongman, General Numeiri.

The third scholar, Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor at George Mason University, is originally from Iran and hence, a Shia thinker. For that article I looked at his 2009 book, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. He had already done much work on Islam, democracy and pluralism (see his 2001 book).

In a 2004 book, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Abou El Fadl explained – what I frequently mention on this website – that God called Adam his trustee on earth (Q. 2:30) and that alongside other verses using this root in its two plural forms, this means all of humanity is called by God to peacefully manage together creation’s bounty on earth. This trusteeship of humankind on earth (or “vicegerency,” an older a more awkward English term Muslims often use) also has implications for human rights:

 

1) Human beings are God's vicegerents on earth; 2) this vicegerency is the basis of individual responsibility; 3) individual responsibility and vicegerency provide the basis for human rights and equality; 4) human beings in general, and Muslims specifically, have a fundamental obligation to foster justice (and more generally to command right and forbid wrong), and to preserve and promote God's law; 5) divine law must be distinguished from fallible human interpretations; and 6) the state should not pretend to embody divine sovereignty and majesty.

 

Notice too that points 5 and 6 draw a distinction between “God’s law” and “fallible human interpretations” of it (the distinction Sharia/fiqh, or the applied jurisprudence of the five main Islamic schools of law – see this blog of mine).

He makes the creation connection in other writings, even tying it to the image of God in human beings (which, by the way, is mentioned in some authoritative hadiths). Here in a 2005 book chapter in Does Human Rights Need God? he explains how the divine origin of humanity grounds its sanctity: “. . . there is no question that [in Islam] human life is sanctified . . . There is also a recognition that the sanctity of human life creates demands that, in turn, create duties, which become compelling rights.” In other words, it is only just and right that human persons are treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings.

In fact, argues Abou El Fadl, the human rights concept at its core is the idea that a human person’s life is inviolable and sacred. Each human being is inherently precious – precisely because he or she is a human having been created by God to be his deputy on earth. If that is so, then we must do everything to make sure people’s basic demands are met, so they can live a decent life and flourish.

Sachedina too builds his case around the creation of humanity, but he concentrates on the notion of fitra – the good nature God instilled in humans at creation (Q. 30:30), which acts as a moral conscience for all people, regardless of their religious or non-religious background. He, like Abou El Fadl and An-Na’im, insist that a democratic government be “secular” in the sense of granting all its citizens equal civil and political rights – again, by virtue of God’s good creation:

 

“The rights-based discourse is not a religious one, though the ethical claims it makes are universal in nature and share with religion an evaluation of innate human worth . . . The process and progress of secularization is critical because to a great extent most Western ideas of universal human rights rest on a secular view of the individual and of the relations between such individuals in a secularized public sphere. The idea of individuals as bearers of something called rights presupposes a very particular understanding and reading of the self essentially as a self-regulating agent (2009:148).”

 

Values should trump man-made rules

Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft is no doubt his most popular one to date, but not simply because it’s written for a more general audience, but too because in it he confronts the religious extremists head-on. The problem with the “textualists” (those who are adamant about applying the texts literally), he says, is that they’ve bought into the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence that has been “voluntarist.” That means that ethical values have no existence in and of themselves; they only exist as attached to God’s commands in the texts. So an act is good or bad only if it is qualified in that way in the Qur’an or Sunna. What is more, since ethical values like justice, kindness, mercy and righteousness don’t have any objective existence (the position of ethical objectivism), they can only be known from the text and extrapolated from there to new situations arising only with the greatest care. So by definition, a non-Muslim political entity could never deliver a just or righteous society.

Abou El Fadl writes, “In my view, God’s moralities and virtues are inseparable from God, and they are unalterable because God is unalterable. As such, God’s morality is binding upon all, in the same way that God is present for all.” Then this statement, which aims to undercut the textualists: “Divinity is approached, in my view, through studying the divine moral imperatives rather than the rules of law, because morality is prior to law [my emphasis], in the same way that God is prior to anything, including the text or law.” Human rights, therefore, flow out of God’s creation of humanity and, as a result, are inherent to them. Equally, people can grasp the truth of their own dignity by looking beyond the sacred texts. Doesn’t the Qur’an in dozens of places call its readers to meditate and reflect on the signs of God’s creation?

Peace, justice and goodness, then, are values that all people share, though they can disagree on how they apply in different contexts! But that does mean that the ethical ideals expressed in all the holy books are common to all. The Qur’an itself explicitly recognizes the divine origin of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, though there has been some disagreement among Muslim scholars about whether or not they were corrupted, or to what extent.

Add to that the distinction Abou El Fadl makes between the ideals in the sacred texts (Shari’a) and their human interpretation in works of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Picking up on these themes in the very first sentence of his book, Islam and the Secular State, An-Na’im announces his book’s main point:

 

“In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By a secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’a – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Shari’a cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.”

 

In other words, no religion can survive if it’s imposed by the state. And if the state imposes some particular version of a religious tradition, it will doubly betray the tradition – by imposing it (“There is no compulsion in religion,” Q. 2:256), and by potentially forcing people to act against their own conscience by following a particular human interpretation of their faith with which they disagree.

But how do you convince a majority of Muslims worldwide, who are mostly conservative and believe in some kind of literal application of the texts, that God holds out an ideal of justice and goodness for societies, which people should follow, even if that means going against certain commands in the scriptures (because, presumably, circumstances are vastly different today?

Muslims need to see that human rights norms are basically in harmony with Islamic principles, writes An-Na’im. Apart from “some specific and very serious aspects of the rights of women and non-Muslims and the freedom of religion and belief,” “Shari’a principles are basically consistent with most human rights norms.” That’s important, because if any Muslim is confronted with the choice between Islam and human rights, he or she will have to choose Islam. So what is called for is negotiation, not confrontation.

But more than anything, concludes An-Na’im, what needs to change is Muslims’ perception of Shari’a. That’s a tall order, though many seem to intuit that Shari’a actually includes the ideals embodied by human rights standards. According to the most substantial polling ever conducted in 35 Muslim nations from 2001-2007, large majorities of Muslims believe that women should have . . .

 

. . . the same legal rights as men

. . . rights to vote

. . . the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home

. . . the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels.

 

The conversation about Islam and human rights is ongoing, just as the sociopolitical landscape in Muslim nations is evolving and the opinions of Muslims living in the West are becoming increasingly influential. I’ll just end with this fascinating piece of research by two Muslim scholars at the Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, Hossein Askari and Shehrazade Rehman, called the Islamicity Index. First published in an article in 2010, they have now included a variety of political, civil and economic factors to match what they consider “Islamic” values. What is striking is that according to this scale Muslim countries score very low: the top two, Malaysia and Kuwait, are respectively in the 38th and 48th position. The first ten in order are, Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, and Belgium.

Perhaps this quip by the lead author, originally from Iran, best summarizes some of the tensions and debates among Muslims raised in this blog:

 

“We must emphasise that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, and underdeveloped and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination.”

The Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, with links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), recently rocketed into global infamy after their abduction of over 250 school girls and their threat to sell them into slavery or forced marriage in exchange for the release of their jailed companions. They’ve also been known to kill scores of policemen and civilians in the northeast of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians. Less publicized were their latest brazen attacks on villages, in which, dressed as soldiers or policemen, they gather everyone in the center square and systematically massacre men, women and children.

Then some of you might have read a NY Times Op-Ed, about how Junaid Hafeez, a young poet, Fullbright scholar and English professor, was arrested on the charge of blasphemy against Islam, and how Rashid Rehman, the special coordinator of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, had courageously undertaken to defend him in court. Rehman was soon gunned down in front of his colleagues and the attackers have still not been apprehended.

With items like this in the news daily, no wonder many westerners assume a fundamental contradiction between “Islam” and human rights. Much of this comes, of course, from a western media bias against Islam since 9/11, and also, let’s be honest, from news services eager to increase their profit margins by publishing (in print or on TV) what is most extreme and sensationalist.

You probably would never hear stories like this one published last week in Pakistan, “Ulema’s Council Fatwa Declares Honor Killing Un-Islamic”. Yet these issues are being debated among Muslims all the time, and even here in Pakistan, which has witnessed countless suicide bombings (with fellow Muslims by far the most numerous victims, both Sunni and Shia), the highest ranking Muslim clerics are condemning all politically and religiously-motivated violence. No young single woman in particular should ever be killed. What’s more: “No Muslim sect will be declared non-Muslim and no Muslim or non-Muslim will be declared worthy of being killed.”

That’s Pakistan and its religious establishment, and that’s newsworthy. But all mainstream Muslim institutions and scholars have been condemning violence in the name of Islam long before, and especially after 9/11 – in the west, of course, but also most everywhere in the Muslim world. You might ask, “Why is there still so much violence that seems to be motivated by religion?” There are many reasons beyond the jihadis’ simplistic yet terrifying single mindedness. Social and political unrest account for most of it, but explaining violence isn’t my topic here. If you’re wondering about the topic though, just look at this one frustrated Pakistani-American Muslim's article shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (“Do You Even Hear Muslims When We Condemn Violence?”).

My task in this and the next blog is to unpack the main points of an article I just finished, which will appear in January 2015 in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “Islam and Human Rights: A Growing Rapprochement?” In this blog I deal with the contested nature of religion and human rights – along with the fuzzy concept of “human rights” itself! Then I’ll turn to the special case of Islam and human rights.

 

What on earth are “human rights”?

With so many agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world purporting to further the cause of human rights (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), this may seem like a silly question – something scholars would ask, because their livelihood seemingly depends on making everything more complicated than it really is! I assure you, though there is some truth to this (though I would add too that reality is really a lot more complicated than appears on the surface!), the notion of human rights is quite slippery. Here are just a few thoughts you might pursue:

*** Philosophically (and theologically): the dominant current has been the idea of “natural law,” that is, human beings have an innate sense of justice, which posits that laws in society ought to respect the dignity of each human person. This idea can be traced back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and then to the Stoics, who taught that the universe is purposeful and that human reason applying itself to virtue can discover these natural laws. Natural law was then forcefully articulated by Cicero (1st century BCE) in a Roman context – so much so, that these ideas endured and were passed on to the Muslim philosophers (like Ibn Rushd, or Averroes in the 12th century), then to Thomas Aquinas, often called the “Father of Roman Catholic Theology,” then to the Renaissance and finally to 18th-century Enlightenment.

So, for instance, the American Declaration of Independence declares the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Creation” is mentioned there. Even in the United States today, this is controversial. The dominant ideology is secular – because of the (not-so-clear) "separation of church and state" – and, though most Americans are at least nominally Christian and would agree with Muslims and Jews that human rights accrue to all humans by virtue of creation, many others are agnostic or atheists, or Hindu, Buddhist or of some other faith that does not believe in a Creator God.

This was the case of the United Nations General Assembly’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which begins with this phrase,

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …”

This is the assumption that seemed to capture the consensus of a wide variety of people from many ethnicities, religions and nationalities, who at the time were reeling from the horrors of two world wars. True, as you can read in the text from which I took the above picture, the formulation comes straight out from the European Enlightenment. Still, this quasi-natural law formulation (the UDHR studiously avoids any reference to the divine) won the approval of all nations present in 1948, including the Muslim states of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey (only Saudi Arabia abstained).

Since that time, however, much has been written from many angles to find some kind of philosophical backing for this notion of inalienable human rights. Do they stem from “nature” (another contested term), or are they a logical imperative, much as Kant would have argued? Also in terms of ethical theory, you can read many articles and books published in the past decades seeking to ground human rights theory from either positivist or utilitarian positions.

 

*** Legally – how do you establish a universal right binding on all states?

So then, what about the nature of “rights”? One influential theorist, Wesley N. Hohfeld, has pointed to a number of complexities in this area. Does “having a right” mean one is entitled to something, and does this not also impose a duty on another person to give it us? Or is it simply an immunity for keeping one’s legal status safe? Or is it the privilege to do something (like voting)? Or is it the power to alter existing legal relationships? This might all sound abstract or too theoretical, but it creates some real conundrums in practice, particularly for the “right to life.” Of all the rights, this one seems the most likely candidate for “an absolute right.” Yet, while the European Union has banned the death penalty, the United States and many other countries still have it on their books. Definitions and boundaries related to human rights are routinely disputed.

 

*** The list of rights – the so-called “generations of rights”:

Since the eighteenth century the drawing up of constitutions in the West is seen as a way to curb government power and enhance individual rights. The UDHR, despite its great moral authority was not a legally enforceable document, though it is the first of three main documents in what is now called the International Bill of Human Rights. The other two documents were signed in 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). The ICCR represents what many call the first generation of rights, based on the notion of freedom and political participation. These are also called “blue rights,” meaning civil and political in nature. They are “negative rights,” in that they serve to protect individuals from the harmful incursions of the state.

Of all rights, those listed in the ICCR are the most legally enforceable, unlike the second generation of rights, those concerned with human equality, as spelled out in the ICESC – or “red rights,” so-called because they are “positive rights.” As opposed to the negative rights, these rights are claims on the government to fulfill people’s needs. Those include the right to health care, the right to employment, rights to science and culture.

Finally, the third generation covers group and collective rights (like minorities, indigenous rights, etc.), environmental rights (starting with the 1992 Rio Declaration), women’s rights (the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW) and intergenerational equity and sustainability rights. Naturally, these rights are even more difficult to enact in a legally binding way. Yet you can imagine that, from the perspective of this website and the views of many people of faith (and many very secular, left-leaning people too) these rights form the backbone of a sustainable human colonization of this planet. We can’t survive as a species in the long run if we don’t agree together on some basic ground rules for the way we treat one another and the "commons" we inherited from our ancestors.

That said, these rights are controversial and contested. The United States, for instance, took years to ratify the ICCR, and when it did, it registered several reservations; and it never ratified the ICESC, nor CEDAW, nor any environmental treaty to date. Muslim countries were much more involved in the committee work leading up to the International Bill of Rights than the US – something to keep in mind for the next section.

 

Some historical background

I want to make three quick points here. First, Muslim representatives to the UN at this stage were western-educated and rather liberal in their outlook. For instance, though Article 18 on religious freedom stipulates the right to change one’s religion and therefore directly contradicts traditional Islamic law, not one Muslim state voted against it. They didn’t see this as terribly important and would rather not go on record for opposing it. The Pakistani representative, for his part, Sir Muhammad Zafrulllah Khan, was adamant about the Qur’an supporting religious freedom – a position taken by all the more liberal-minded Muslim reformists today.

Surprisingly too, no Muslim nation in the end voted against Article 16, which requires equal rights for spouses in marriage. It was debated more passionately by Muslim representatives than Article 18, mostly because in all five schools of Islamic law a Muslim women is forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim man, and, additionally, her rights to initiate divorce are much more limited compared to her husband's. Interestingly, the United States did vote against this clause, as interracial marriages were still forbidden by law on its territory.

Second, according to Ann Elizabeth Mayer (her book on Islam and Human Rights is now in its fifth edition), this was the period of decolonization and though Muslim nations often voted differently on many issues, in general they all tended “to identify with the victims of human rights violations.” As many Muslim people groups were fighting (sometimes militarily) for their independence, Muslim nations in the UN often found themselves systematically opposing western nations that were holding out on minority rights and anti-discrimination laws. As she puts it,

“Coming out of periods of subjugation by European powers, they were naturally enthusiastic backers of the principle of self-determination and were united in denouncing the human rights violations that European colonialism had perpetrated as well as the hypocrisy of European states that gave lip service to human rights that they were unwilling to grant to subjugated populations in their colonies.”

Third, starting in the 1980s observers note a wave of resistance to the universal character of the UDHR and the International Bill of Human Rights. This push back came mostly from two regions, Asia and Muslim states, in the first case for reasons of cultural specificity (this coincides with the rise of cultural relativism in the social sciences), and in the second for religious reasons. In the Muslim case several initiatives emerged. First, conservative European Muslim leaders, mostly from Paris and London, issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981); then, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990); finally, the Arab League’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR, 2004).

This will be my starting point for the second blog. As it turns out, the world was becoming “furiously religious” at that time, as sociologist Peter Berger put it in his 1999 book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics.

[On this topic, I received this week my copy of Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, to which I contributed the chapter entitled, “Fundamentalism Diluted: From Enclave to Globalism in Conservative Muslim Ecological Discourse”]

As human beings we are constantly navigating the multiple layers of our (fluid) identity. I am still a son, though my parents have been gone for a while. I am a husband and father, a teacher in several contexts, a former pastor in Algeria. For sixteen years I lived as a Christian in three different Muslim-majority countries. I’m a white American male, with all the power, pride, derision and guilt that you, the reader, might read into it. I inhabit many other personae, depending on where I am and what I’m doing. And so do you.

This is the story of an African-American man, Zain Abdullah, who was born to Christian parents and mostly raised along with two older sisters by his mother. My task is simply to whet your appetite, so you will read his story in the latest issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “A Muslim’s Search for Meaning.” Here are several themes that struck a chord in me as I read.

A quick aside: I featured another convert to Islam (or “revert,” as Muslims like to put it – “Islam” for them is the natural state of creation) back in January, a white female American, G. Willow Wilson, while highlighting her fascinating book, The Butterfly Mosque. Why don’t you present Muslim converts to Christianity, you might ask? Of course, there are many examples there too, like my friend, Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, born and raised in the Gambia (here’s the best introduction). My answer is this: I have more Christian than Muslim readers (I think), and because my aim is to break down barriers between the two communities, it is Muslims who bear the brunt of our western societies’ stereotypes and prejudice.

 

What is religion? What is Islam?

This is a question I challenge my students in “Comparative Religion” to grapple with throughout the semester. When one of them writes in her/his final essay, “it’s a complicated issue,” I breathe a sigh of relief, and say to myself, “mission accomplished.”

In this piece, Zain Abdullah opens up his heart to us. I’ll get to that more personal tone below. But for now, he also writes as a professor of Islamic Studies, whose research draws a good deal from the social sciences (his PhD is in cultural anthropology). Yes, he’s been an imam and a university chaplain, but this article is framed by his concern to articulate a view of Muslims and Islam that breaks the prevalent western stereotypes.

So I’ll skip the more confessional definition of “Muslim” you read on the second page. This is about the way it’s used in the Qur’an and how it’s only the first step in one’s personal spiritual development (muslim, “submitter”; mu’min, “believer”; muhsin, “perfected believer,” or literally, “one who does good”). But this does raise the vexed problem of how one might “translate sacred meanings properly from one religious context to another.” Unfortunately, that natural impulse to oversimplify and stereotype leads people to reduce Muslims to Sunnis, Shi’a, or Sufis.

But then Abdullah adds this, which I find very helpful:

 

“When we consider the deeper implications of words like Islam, din, Muslim, mu’min, and kafir, we find that the Qur’anic message is essentially a call to belief in a new worldview, or a way of envisioning a world that is different from the one we currently have. This approach will necessarily alter our sense of who Muslims are and force us to rethink their place in today’s world.”

 

I do think that “religion,” however else we may define the term, is about a comprehensive model of reality, a way of looking at the world and human experience that explains those basic questions that science can never answer: How did this world come into being? How do we humans fit into it? Where do we come from and where do we go after death? And, perhaps most importantly, how ought we to live? In one word, religion gives “meaning” to human experience.

But to this rather abstract definition, you have to immediately add the notion of community, taking into account the social nature of homo sapiens. This is where the idea of culture fits in. So on page 28 Abdullah reflects on the American mosque, shaped as it is by the individualistic ideology of American culture. Another way of putting it is “the Protestantization of Muslim life in the United States,” with the mosque structured on “an ecclesiastical model.” The imam, like his Protestant, Catholic (or Jewish) counterpart, is expected to run an administration that cares for the needs of his flock – often walking recent immigrants through the maze of American bureaucracy and translating new cultural idioms and practices. And they will also marry and bury all those entrusted to their care.

Further, you run into this paradox, says Abdullah, as both anthropologist and theologian. Having traveled to many parts of the Muslim world, one could lament (and he does) that “Muslims around the world tend to be somewhat balkanized. Most maintain strict parameters for socialization and only marry within their ethnic group.” On the other hand, Muslims globally share this ideal of “the single ummah.” That’s the community of Muslims, the “mother,” or literally “the womb.” So the paradox is, much like it is for any other global religious tradition, the belief in the ideal unity (ummah) of all Muslims despite the formidable variety of their beliefs, practices and identities. In his words:

 

“Muslim religiosity—in many respects, the whole idea of being Muslim—is centered on the notion that we share a type of communal globalism, which in reality is an imagined community. Still, the group sense of what it means to be Muslim constitutes an overlapping of three very distinct relationships: matrimonial, familial, and communal. The shape of these associations, however, varies and will result in multiple ways of understanding Muslims. But the tendency for both Muslims and outsiders to view Islam as a monolithic entity is clearly untenable.”

 

The challenge of conversion and identity

When Abdullah was twelve, he heard about the Nation of Islam. He wanted to know more about it. His older cousin's take on it was that being black was already one strike against him. Embracing Islam would be a second strike. That sounded “really bad,” he remembers thinking. That impression struck with him.

By chance – or so it would seem – his parents gave him a name that sounded nice to them. In fact, “Zayne” really comes from the Arabic for “good,” or “one who beautifies the believers.” Next, while in the eleventh grade, a female classmate dressed in the full Nation of Islam garb, asked him, “Do you know you have a Muslim name?” That was his first clue, though the young woman’s demeanor didn’t attract him in the least to her faith. Yet somehow that epithet dovetailed nicely with the cultural and ideological mosaic he grew up with – “Black and immigrant Muslims, Christian evangelicals, integrationists, Black nationalists, and a Black working and middle class.”

In my reading of the essay, I’d say two factors most favored his conversion to Islam. The first was a genuine spiritual interest along with an innate intuition that God was one, though not in the New Testament sense. Still, in college he would often read the Bible into the wee hours of the night. But he was also studying Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism.

The second factor was his meeting a Black Muslim from Panama who was selling jewelry in the student center. After several conversations with him, Zayne found himself repeating the Shahada (the Arabic for “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger” and also the first of Islam's "five pillars"). He had just embraced Islam and would change his name to Zain Abdullah. In fact, the turning point had come through a human instrument, Abdul-Malik, a man with whom he could identify and hence could persuade him.

But that was only the beginning of a much longer quest – still continuing in some ways – to understand what it meant for him to be “Muslim.”

 

Islam, marriage, and young people

Abdullah opens for us a window into one fascinating characteristic of the Muslim worldview. Since “marriage is half of religion,” as Muslims are often taught, new converts in the US are often paired off as soon as possible. His own marriage lasted only two years and he never tells us whether he remarried or not. But he does point to this as a wider phenomenon -- particularly for converts in the west -- and an unfortunate pattern that “results in a high divorce rates and a succession of serial marriages.”

Since extra-marital sex is so strongly reproved, it leaves young people, the lion’s share of Muslim-majority societies, in a bind. As you can imagine, the high rate of unemployment and widespread poverty in many of these countries s create tough dilemmas for the youth, as is well documented in the sociological work by Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, Being Young and Muslim .

This is a good example of a cultural practice nicely suited for traditional societies (arranged marriages in a strong extended family context) that is then reinjected with new religious meaning into an entirely different context (contemporary urban society). The result is not a happy one:

 

“If marriage constitutes half of our religion, what does being a Muslim mean for an expanding population of the perpetually unmarried? And since any prolonged celibacy is equally prohibited, there is a strong tendency that millions will fall into deep states of depression and guilt, especially if they are unable to reconcile the tension of being a single Muslim in a family-oriented religion.”

 

Being a Muslim today

Remember the older cousin’s quip about being black and Muslims as two strikes against you? That certainly turned out to be true, particularly after 9/11. But this piece isn’t all about Islamophobia, though he touches on it near the end. Again, it’s complicated, like when his own mother told him out of the blue one day, “You Muslims kill.” She had read the Qur’an and books by Muslims, but she watched the daily news on TV and a good many evangelical programs as well. Here is part of his reaction to that statement:

 

“Still, my mother isn’t entirely wrong. Muslims do kill. Christians kill. Jews kill. Sikhs kill. Buddhists kill. Hindus kill. States kill. God kills. And people kill in the name of God. This is one of the most perplexing points about religious terrorism: How can otherwise pious people, bent on being good, cause so much suffering in the world? . . .

Muslims do indeed kill. And they also kill fellow Muslims, as four Muslim suicide bombers proved in a Muslim section of London in 2005. Grappling with these realities is part of what being a ‘Muslim’ has come to mean today. Furthermore, the deployment of the term as a political category impacts us all, forcing a realignment of how we must now navigate our surroundings.”

 

But just like western Europe grappled for two centuries with the “Jewish Question,” they are even more preoccupied with the “Muslim Question” today. On the other hand, when one considers the overwhelming impact of western colonialism in Muslim lands, "the line separating Muslims and the West is more imaginary than real."

This is where Abdullah’s own spiritual pilgrimage is so indicative of much larger currents and trends in the Muslim world over the past decades. Yes, Abdul Malik did offer him compelling reasons to become Muslim. But he also discovered Abul A‘la Maududi's book, Towards Understanding Islam. That’s when he truly decided to convert. Maududi was by far the most influential islamist writer and activist of the twentieth century. Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, might easily clinch that title, except that he didn’t write much. The South Asian Maududi, as Abdullah experienced, had a knack for writing clearly, persuasively, and with the black and white certainty of the fundamentalist.

Also crucial to his formative years as a Muslim, Abdullah sometimes frequented a Newark mosque that was run by another South Asian movement (this one from the 1920s), the Tablighi Jama‘at. Tablighi men traditionally dress in long white robes, baggy white trousers and white skullcaps. They usually go door to door seeking to win other Muslims over to their more conservative doctrine and way of life. But don’t confuse them with Salafis, whose robes come down midway between the knee and ankle. Sociologically, however, both groups nicely fit into what French scholar calls "neofundamentalism" (more on this in my blog on religious fundamentalism).

During those years Abdullah practiced a very conservative, regimented and communalist type of religiosity. As he puts it, free will was not part of his vocabulary or worldview at that time:

 

“Then, when I became Muslim in the late 1970s, everything came under the command of divine will (qadr), requiring that all human behavior begin and end with the phrases insha’Allah (If God wills it) and masha’Allah (God has willed it).”

 

Graduate studies changed that, and he’s been finding his way as a Muslim ever since. So read this piece for yourself. And if you are a person of faith yourself, I think you’ll be able to identify with much of what he says. One thing is for sure. Abdullah’s “search for meaning” is a rich and delightful introduction to what it means to be Muslim today.

 

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose almost twice as fast in the 2000s than they did in the couple of decades before, says the latest report by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Comprised of several hundred experts from all over the world, including scientists and economists, the IPCC regularly distills the latest and most authoritative scientific findings on global warming and its impact on our planet.

In other words, a combination of accelerated use of coal-fired power plants in rapidly emerging economies (especially China) and lots of foot-dragging on the part of rich countries in their commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions is pushing us dangerously close to the brink of severe disruptions to the life we’ve known so far as humans on this planet.

Yet there is both good news and bad news I want to share in this blog. The good news is that technological advances are quickly bringing down the production of renewable energy like wind and solar. The bad news is that the formidable barons of the fossil fuel industry (coal, gas and oil) are fighting back, desperately trying to resist the inevitable turn to clean energies.

 

The certainty of human-induced climate change

I’m sure you’ve been reading about the scientific consensus on global warming yourself for several years now. You can also read my own summaries of what’s been published in the “Faith and Ecology” section of my blogs. But in the last nine months the IPCC has produced even more convincing data on global warming and its human footprint.

The IPCC was born as an international body in 1988. Its first milestone was the famous Rio Summit of 1992, which brokered the first environmental global treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This was the result of the IPCC’s First Assessment Report (AR1) in 1990, which pinpointed the rise of greenhouse gases as the cause of the Earth’s accelerated warming.

Three assessment reports followed, the fourth being published in 2007. Three years later, the US National Research Council published a report broadly supportive of the IPCC’s conclusions, saying that “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems.”

2007 was also the year the Noble Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and Al Gore for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Many will remember too that there was a backlash, particularly in political circles on the right, alleging on the basis of emails made public that some of the top scientists had exaggerated some of their claims for political purposes. There was much talk of “Climategate.” But that also led to reforms of the IPCC structure and its work has been ongoing.

Finally, the Fifth Assessment (AR5) will be finalized this year in September. As always, there are 3 successive Working Group reports followed by a Synthesis report. The working groups have now issued their reports:

 

WG1 (Stockholm, September 2013): the probability that climate change is caused by human activity is now rated between 95 to 100 percent.

WG2 (Yokohama, March 2014): “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” was one of the report’s most striking phrases.

WG3 (Berlin, April 2014): unless the international community can muster the political will to dramatically reduce its current level of emissions in the next decade, the window for achieving a tolerable level of global warming might well be closed.

 

The Synthesis report is scheduled to come out in September 2014.

Like I said, there is some good new as well. Justin Gillis, reporting for the New York Times, put it this way:

 

“The good news is that ambitious action is becoming more affordable, the committee found. It is increasingly clear that measures like tougher building codes and efficiency standards for cars and trucks can save energy and reduce emissions without harming people’s quality of life, the panel found. And the costs of renewable energy like wind and solar power are falling so fast that its deployment on a large scale is becoming practical, the report said.

Moreover, since the intergovernmental panel issued its last major report in 2007, far more countries, states and cities have adopted climate plans, a measure of the growing political interest in tackling the problem. They include China and the United States, which are both doing more domestically than they have been willing to commit to in international treaty negotiations.”

 

That last sentence about China and the US, the two greatest polluters on the planet, is good news indeed! But so is the fact of falling prices of renewable energy – a solar panel costs 75 percent cheaper today than it did in 2008!

Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman wrote about this in his column last week, stating that sound environmental policy is good for business. Folks on the left and the right – for different reasons – are adamant about green policies shrinking the economy. They’re dead wrong, he asserts. The IPCC panel’s report about “decarbonizing” electricity generation is true, simply because clean energy is booming.

But there are some obstacles. As Krugman wryly concludes his piece,

 

“So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.”

 

“Ignorance, prejudice and vested interests” are the topic of the next section. Sadly, the battle lines are clearly drawn.

 

A weakening Goliath fights back

For years now, billionaires Charles and David Koch, owners of the second largest private oil company, have been the target of environmentalist ire. Greenpeace USA published online a large file on Koch Industries – “still fueling climate denial.” I’ll let you peruse the list of think tanks and organizations they have funded in their bid to roll back state and federal incentives for clean energy development. From 1997 to 2011, they spent $67 million, and that pace has accelerated of late.

This past week, the New York Times published an editorial, “The Koch Attack on Solar Energy.” They’ve been funding initiatives, chiefly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to cancel or limit a mandate in twenty-nine states to increase renewable energy production by 10 percent or more by 2015.

In a particularly hard-hitting article, the Los Angeles Times painted the ongoing political storm in these terms:

 

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation's largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

Alarmed environmentalists and their allies in the solar industry have fought back, battling the other side to a draw so far. Both sides say the fight is growing more intense as new states, including Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, enter the fray.”

 

That the Big Carbon advocates worry about the renewable revolution is obvious. It’s really a battle of two paradigms. For over a century the US government has supported large power plants owned by capital-intensive corporations. In turn the utilities sell the power to their customers. But what if individual households that collect solar energy could sell their surplus to the wider grid? The new paradigm, one would think, should be a conservative favorite. Yet the Tea Party and the Koch brothers are its main opponents, and, of all things, want to add a tax for people using solar power!

That procedure is called “net metering,” which is practiced in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes explains it this way in an investigative article in Sierra magazine:

 

“. . . a policy that requires utilities to purchase energy from homeowners at retail prices. Investor-owned companies hate that; they want to pay the wholesale rate, or less.”

 

What’s been happening in Hawaii, for instance, is disheartening. Electricity there costs about five times what it costs in many other states, and as a result many have installed solar panels in their homes. In fact, it has a higher proportion of solar users than any other state (1 in 10 on the largest island, Oahu). The largest utility, Hawaiian Electric, resenting the loss of so many customers, has fought back. It simply stopped connecting new solar installations to the grid, under the pretext that these could wreak havoc with the whole system. They would first have to conduct a study, customers were told.

But six months later the study hasn’t been completed and people who’ve invested so much in their solar systems continue to pay exorbitant electric bills while in limbo. Meanwhile, the grid hasn’t shown any wear or tear . . .

You can find summaries for how this battle is shaping up in twenty other states in the Sierra Club article.

But there is one model that threatens utility companies even more than net metering. It’s taking shape in California, as SolarCity partners with electric car company Tesla to build specialized batteries enabling people to bypass the grid altogether. As Humes puts it,

 

“Even more than net metering, battery storage threatens the utility business model; it could, for instance, allow homeowners to form small, super-efficient neighborhood microgrids that huge, costly utilities could never outcompete . . . More than 300 California households are awaiting the commission’s decision [CA Public Utilities Commission] so they can flip the switch on the solar-battery systems waiting in their garages.”

Meanwhile, solar-generated electricity keeps becoming more reasonable, and citizens groups lobbyng for it are multiplying. One particularly effective one is the Solar Action Alliance.

 

A short theological postscript

When it comes to the issue of climate change, despite many challenges that vary from place to place, as inhabitants of our one planet we are all equally concerned. But whereas battles rage between Big Carbon, renewable initiatives and many American homeowners, research has shown that it is the poor worldwide who already suffer the most from a warming Earth.

People of faith should see this as a theological – and of course, moral – issue. For western Christians this year, Earth Day and Earth Week followed Holy Week. Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote on that occasionthat “creation is not just a unique witness to God’s glory — it is, as the apostle Paul wrote, ‘groaning’, waiting also for its redemption.” Resurrection and renewal is not just our hope as people; it is also the hope of a creation marred by human greed and selfishness.

Though Muslims and Jews cannot identify with the “redemption” theme, they certainly buy into the theology of humanity as God’s trustees of creation, called to care for each other and for the beautiful creation we all share. And for this we will each give account on the Last Day.

 

[The day after I posted this, Justin Gillis was reporting on the National Climate Assessment prepared by a panel of scientists and just released by the US government. That report only brings home with greater urgency the message I was trying to convey above. Also of interest is an article that compares public opinion worldwide on climate change. Just to give you an idea, South Koreans are the most likely to say that climate change is "a major threat to their country" (85%), while Americans are the least likely (40%). In between you find Japan at 72%, Germany at 56%, France at 54%, and Britain at 48%.]

This is a short paper I delivered at the annual meeting of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (part of the Association of Vineyard Churches), held in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2014.

Herein I examine some of theologian Stanley Hauerwas' views in light of a wider discussion about the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom of God. Though I find much to sympathize with his positions, I conclude that, surprisingly perhaps, he ends up with a position similar to Calvin's "Two Kingdoms" theology. The Kingdom of God seems to merge with the Church and the kingdoms of human society seem depraved beyond any possible redemption.

Yale law professor Steven Carter addresses some of my concerns in an article he wrote on Hauerwas. For Carter, who published a book on war the same year as did Hauerwas (2011), Hauerwas' pacifism distorts the reality of violence in the liberal democratic state. Furthermore, his critique undercuts any meaningful role for social justice activism.

As I argued in my blog about Pope Francis, the new pope's discourse about Jesus and the Kingdom of God offers a more biblical view of the work of God's Spirit on the world. The notion of human rights, anathema to Hauerwas, connects organically to both creation and redemption in Christian theology, and it opens the way for Christians and people of all faiths (and no faith) to come together in a brave fight for human dignity wherever people are oppressed and beaten down.

 

 

Adis Duderija, currently a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the University Malaya, Gender Studies, is the author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 -- see my two-part review of his book on this site).

I highly recommend his blog on issues of Qur'anic hermeneutics, particularly as it pertains to gender. You will also find other excellent blogs on issues pertinent to contemporary Islam. It is entitled, "Critical-Progressive Muslims: On Islamic hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue."

 In the previous blog reviewing Leila Ahmed’s book The Quiet Revolution we covered the role of colonialism in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and how these islamists succeeded in reversing a two-generations trend of women unveiling. Only this time, the veil (hijab) adopted by university students in the 1970s and 1980s (and then by women generally) was different in appearance and bearer of multiple meanings.

By the way: “islamism” is the term for political Islam, a distinctly modern phenomenon, started by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (1928), but then merging in time with a general resurgence of religiosity beginning in the 1970s all over the world and within many religious traditions (see my blog on fundamentalism). In my publications I’ve always written it with a lower case “i,” to mark it off as a political ideology much more than a simply religious one.

After a brief examination of the sociological work done on this reveiling phenomenon, I’ll turn to the wider impact of this movement and its particular impact on Muslims in the United States after the attacks of 2001.

“Why did you take up hijab and Islamic dress?”

Egypt was the first Muslim country where this style of female attire appeared in the 1970s on university campuses, where easily half the population was female. More and more men were growing beards and wearing a variety of looser clothes, like long shirts or the tunic-like flowing djellabas. But they weren’t nearly as noticeable as their female counterparts who were donning newly styled head coverings and a variety of looser clothes that only showed a woman’s hands and face. This was the origin of today’s “Islamic dress” (zia islami), a multi-billion dollar industry flaunted in shops from Marrakesh to Kuala Lumpur and eagerly traded on the Internet.

This was also the time when feminist studies were appearing in American universities. It wasn’t long before researchers came to do their fieldwork in Egypt. Among these, Arlene E. Macleod arrived in 1983 and Sherifa Zuhur in 1988, just as Macleod was finishing her project. By then sixty-nine of her interviewees had begun to wear hijab, and all of them as adults. This change was both a recent and “dramatic” one in their lives – a conversion of sorts.

To illustrate how fast the social scene was changing in these years, Ahmed proposes to contrast the two studies focusing both on veiled and unveiled women.

Macleod first asked women why they thought some women were starting to wear hijab. These are some of the representative answers:

- There was a “general sense that people in their culture were turning back to a more authentic and culturally true way of life”

- In the past people were “thoughtless and misled” but now came to see they had been wrong

- “In the past people didn’t understand that these values are so important, but now everyone has come to see that they are good and strong. So we know we have to act like Muslim women, that is important.”

- One woman now covered said, “Before I didn’t know what I was wearing is wrong, but now I realize and know, thanks be to God.”

- Representing many other women, one put it this way, “We Muslim women dress in a modest way, not like Western women, who wear anything . . . Muslim women are careful about their reputation, Egypt is not like America! In America women are far too free in their behavior!” (119-120)

Still, many of the women were puzzled and not a little worried about these new trends. Sixty percent of the women interviewed admitted they didn’t know why things were changing. Fifty-six percent even opined that it was simply a matter of fashion. I love this answer:

“I don’t know why fashions change in this way, no-one knows why, one day everyone wears dresses and even pants. I even wore a bathing suit when I went to the beach . . . then suddenly we are all wearing this on our hair!” (120)

Over her five years of research, Macleod found no correlation between “increased religious observance” and wearing hijab. To begin with, the lower middle class community that she was studying was religiously observant. In fact, “nearly everyone prayed on Fridays” – though the women mostly prayed at home. One reason that women began to adopt the veil at this stage was because it facilitated their moving around unhindered in public.

Though Macleod admits that this reveiling trend was simultaneously occurring with a general resurgence of “fundamentalist Islam,” she insisted there was no simple correlation between the two phenomena. She also found that it was a women’s “voluntary movement,” “initiated and perpetrated by women.”

Still, there’s more to say, she concedes toward the end of her five-year project. She was noticing that with time men were increasingly putting pressure on their women (daughters and wives) to wear hijab and dress “Islamically.” Religious leaders were proclaiming it from the mosque. Women were feeling the pressure from their peers as well, but throughout this period women always believed that in the end it was their individual choice to wear hijab or not.

This is the context with which Sherifa Zuhur’s study begins. Mosques and Islamic schools had been multiplying in the 1980s and the government, not to be outdone by its islamist opposition, hired many of these recent graduates to beef up existing religious programs in its public schools. By the end of that decade as well, all the top leadership of the professional organizations were islamists, notably among the engineering, law and medical associations.

Zuhur interviewed women who were unveiled and compared their attitudes with believers in “the new Islamic woman” on the issue of women’s rights. Surprisingly perhaps, there were no differences on this matter. Even the most conservative of respondents agreed with the others, that “women should be given equal opportunities with men, and equality under the law so long as principles of the sharia were upheld” (127).

The veiled women strongly believed that unveiled women were disobeying God’s revealed will on the matter and “they saw their own adoption of the hijab to be a sign of their social and moral awakening.” Zuhur found that these women were particularly impressed by the islamist emphasis on “cultural authenticity, nationalism, and the pursuit of ‘adala, or social justice” (127).

What is clear is that a shift had taken place since Macleod’s study: now veiled women didn’t mention practical reasons for adopting the veil, but focused entirely on religious requirements and even activism in the islamist cause. While both sets of women seemed just as religiously observant, they practiced their religion in noticeably different ways. The veiled women were more focused on the “outward” and “visible” practices of their tradition, while the unveiled ones prided themselves in living out the essence (jawhar, or inner reality) of their faith. Even those who might not fast during Ramadan would answer that Islam is about good deeds and much more about how you treat other people than anything you wear or following any public ritual.

The new wave of Islamism was the key behind the changes, notes Ahmed. The Muslim Brotherhood had from the very beginning tried to educate the masses to leave aside their traditional practice of Islam and instead adopt “the engaged, activist ways of Islamism along with all its attendant requirements, rituals, and prescriptions, including veiling” (130).

These were some of the salient features of the new ways of “being Muslim” in the Egypt of the late 1980s and early 1990s that Zuhur picked up in her study. I mentioned Carrie Wickham’s research in the last blog and how it narrowed its focus to the islamists who were energetically winning converts here and everywhere. No doubt there were plenty of sociopolitical factors aiding them in this pursuit – Mubarak’s repressive regime being on top of that list.

I turn now to the United States where this movement was actually given a boost by the anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11.

The veil’s resurgence in post-9/11 United States

Right from the start, both the authorities and the American Muslim community were braced for an anti-Muslim backlash. Two men were shot and killed on September 16, 2001, because they “looked” Muslim (one in fact was a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona). President Bush visited the mosque at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., remarking publicly that the “face of terror is not the true face of Islam” and that “Islam is peace” (200).

Yet in the following months and years hundreds of attacks on Muslims took place and dozens of mosques were vandalized. Several thousand Muslims were arrested under the suspicion of terrorism, with many of them kept for months without charge. A whole cottage industry of hate discourse directed against Muslims developed too – which I described in a blog as “McCarthyism returns in the 2010s.”

At the same time, thousands of Americans bought Qur’ans and poured into mosques to hear imams tell about Islam. Ahmed tells of a secular Jewish woman attending one of these open houses. Totally turned off by the very concept of monotheism, this lady nonetheless wanted to express her solidarity with a group so wrongly targeted for discrimination and hate.

“Such as scene was unimaginable in any Muslim-majority country,” exclaims Ahmed. “Nor could it have unfolded in this particular way in Europe.” Ahmed felt she was living “a new moment in history.” Many Americans and their Muslim counterparts were now entering a privileged window of time when dialogue and mutual understanding might prevail.

Meanwhile, journalists were reporting that some Muslim women had stopped wearing the veil (several Muslim jurists had given them permission to do so – this was a case of “necessity”!) and that others, not particularly observant before, had been jolted into a conversion experience of sorts and were now wearing hijab and/or Islamic dress.

Why? Reasons varied, but perhaps the common link was pride – one way despised groups often fight back. Also, recall that one of the justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan was to save Muslim women from the oppressive practices of the Taliban that were beating them down. First Lady Laura Bush stated that this was a war “for the rights and dignity of women.” Many American Muslims found that reasoning preposterous: as “collateral damage” in Afghanistan and Iraq their country was killing thousands of women and children, all in the name of name of women’s rights!

That sounded a lot like the old colonial mentality we documented in the last blog. No one wants to be told by a dominant culture that your own is inferior and that you need to adopt foreign values. So this kind of reasoning is reflected in the following responses to “why did you adopt hijab?” But it’s not just pride, as you will see. For many the veil takes on unmistakable political meanings as well:

- For one woman, “putting on the scarf coincided with her spiritual awakening as a devout Muslim, but it was also a reaction to what she perceived to be a growing fear among Muslims in this country” (207).

- For another, she “had taken up the hijab after 9/11 precisely as a way of ‘negating’ the widespread stereotypes about the hijab and Muslims.” She now felt ‘liberated,’ adds Ahmed, “presumably by wearing hijab, from having to passively acquiesce in the face of negative stereotyping” (208).

- Another woman comments, “I felt this is my culture and my heritage. This is something I have to represent. I have changed so much after 9/11, and I think a lot of Muslim women who felt we were being called terrorists really found ourselves researching our own religion and wanting to wear hijab” (208).

- One of the most common answers was “to support the Palestinian cause” – something Ahmed herself discovered in her own interviews with young women in 2002-2003.

- One of those Ahmed interviewed answered this way, “I don’t believe the Qur’an requires it. For me, wearing it is a way of affirming my community and identity, a way of saying that even as I enjoy the comforts we take for granted here and that people of Palestine totally lack, I will not forget the struggle for justice” (211).

            Then paradoxically – Ahmed admits that growing up in Egypt when she did this kind of answer was extremely puzzling for her at first – many women wore the veil as a sign of protest against gender biases in their society. Hijab, as a call to justice, included not only protesting the discrimination of minorities but also the suffering and injustice they face as women. For many who wear this post-1970s Islamic dress, walking dressed this way in public is saying to those around them, particularly men, “I chose to wear this because I believe it’s right. Respect me if you respect yourself.”

Leila Ahmed’s takeway

You can find several interesting subtexts in Ahmed’s book, but I’ll focus on her central thesis. After the “unveiling” movement in Egypt from the early 1900s to the 1960s, which was strongly influenced by Western colonial powers, the “reveiling” wave starting in the 1970s was both an anti-Western statement and a practice initiated and defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamism’s ascendency at just that time provided a new way of being “Muslim,” particularly as a woman.

Yet the phenomenon of the zia islami, which has now spread to Muslim communities across the globe, is in no way controlled by islamist leaders and their organizations. Even in the US in the 1970s and 1980s it was Muslim Brotherhood members, or at least MB sympathizers, who founded the Muslim Student Association (MSA) on university campuses and eventually the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But since then, these and other Muslim American organizations have evolved into much more inclusive and diverse bodies. Women who choose Islamic dress, therefore, do so for a number of reasons.

The same holds true elsewhere – and nowhere more so than Egypt, where an MB president just one year into his tenure found himself barraged by millions of protesters countrywide, with nearly all the women in these protests wearing hijab. Of course, Ahmed could not have known this since her book was published in 2011. But her thesis still applies here: religion and culture, historical events and evolving sociopolitical realities prove often tough to disentangle.

What we can say is that the hijab and the zia islami from the 1970s on were a brand new phenomenon in Egypt. True, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations from the 1930s to the 1950s had used the veil as “an emblem of resistance to colonialism and of affirmation of indigenous values.”

But with the Islamic resurgence in the 1970s “the hijab’s meanings began to break loose from their older, historically bound moorings.” In her own words,

“Today all of these meanings, old and new, are simultaneously freely in circulation in our societies, depending on which community the wearer or observer belongs to. Certainly for some it is still a powerful sign of the Otherness of Muslims . . . a sign of the oppression of women. For many of the hijab’s wearers, on the other hand – who do not live in societies where the veil is required by law – the hijab does not, as their statements typically indicate, have this meaning. For its wearers, in societies where women are free to choose whether to wear it, the hijab can have any of the variety of meanings reviewed in these pages – and indeed, many, many more” (212).

If nothing else (and besides the wonderful historical overview Ahmed provides), this book is a timely reminder that “l’habit ne fait pas le moine” – that, according to the French proverb I grew up with, “the robe doesn’t make the monk.” Or, don’t judge another person on the basis of what she’s wearing.

Like other cultural artifacts, the hijab appeared in a specific cultural and historical context and its meaning evolved as those conditions changed. Part of that context was the modern value of individual agency, and particularly for women. So let us not generalize as to why Muslim women choose to cover their bodies they way they do. A bit of humility and respect, after all, will go a long way to create more meaningful dialog between our various communities of faith.

This is the last blog (1 of 2) on one of the books discussed in our public library within the “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” series: Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.

First it was the Christian and Jewish women of Egypt and the Levant who cast aside their traditional head coverings in the early 1900s. A decade later, sparked by Qasim Amin’s controversial book, The Liberation of Woman (1899), Muslim women were beginning to unveil, starting with the upper classes. This was a movement that continued to gain strength, so much so that our author, growing up in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s, rarely saw any women donning the veil in any form.

Ahmed’s “quiet revolution” is about a groundswell of religiosity accompanied by new “Islamic dress” (al-zay al-Islami) for the women, which took over Egypt in the 1980s while spreading throughout the Muslim world, including to post-9/11 America.

A winner of the 2012 Grawmeyer Award in Religion, A Quiet Revolution, is a stimulating read. Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School’s first professor in women’s studies in religion, taps into her own personal memories, into her own knowledge of the religious dynamics of her home country, into her years of diligent study of women and Islam, and finally into the wealth of sociological research about the reappearance of the veil in Muslim societies.

I first dig into the colonial background to this issue, then into Ahmed’s thesis about the connection between the veil and Islamism, then in the next blog into her observations of Muslim American flagship organizations, primarily the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

The Colonial Legacy

Ahmed’s point of departure is Oxford historian Albert Hourani’s 1956 article in the UNESCO Courier entitled, “The Vanishing Veil a Challenge to the Old Order.” Besides chronicling the gradual but irrepressible unveiling movement in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, largely sparked by Qasim Amin’s book, Hourani unwittingly reveals the attitudes of the region’s intellectuals of his time. As education was offered to both men and women, the latter were less and less willing to submit to the traditional norms of veiling and seclusion. He adds, “In all except the most backward regions polygamy has practically disappeared and the veil is rapidly going” (20).

Hourani tips his hands especially in the following statement: it is “only in the Arab world’s ‘most backward regions’ [my emphasis] . . . and especially ‘in the countries of the Arabian peninsula – Saudi Arabia and Yemen,’ that the ‘old order’ – and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy – still ‘persist unaltered.’”

Egypt and the Levant in the 1950s were a different world. “Today, in our postmodern era,” notes Ahmed, “it would be almost unthinkable that an Oxford academic would casually use such terms as ‘advanced’ or ‘backward’ to describe cultural practices.” Yet in the mid-twentieth century such sentiments were shared and taken for granted by the ruling classes both in the West and in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, “Hourani’s narrative is grounded in a worldview that assumed that the way forward for Arab societies lay in following the path of progress forged by the West.” The colonial project, though mostly over politically in 1956, was still in full swing culturally as the modern/Western myth of progress had been internalized by the elites and many others as well.

A bit of history is useful here. Taking advantage of Egyptian king (Khedive) Ismail’s mismanagement of state funds and a popular rebellion against him, the British landed troops in 1882 and began a military occupation that would only end in 1954. They forced him to abdicate in favor of his son Tewfik and though the new Khedive remained on the throne, it was the British who made all the important decisions of state. The next year they sent Lord Cromer as consul general – a euphemism for master colonial puppeteer.

Indeed, Cromer left an indelible mark on the country during his 24 years “rule,” and shortly after his departure, wrote a best-selling book, Modern Egypt. In it he gives voice to the common beliefs of the colonial elites (the French as well): it was now a matter of fact (anthropology used skull sizes to “prove” this) that “the dark-skinned Eastern” is inferior to “the fair-skinned Western.” A biographer of Cromer remarks that his book’s popularity “reflected the spirit of the age: a pride not only in empire but also in the management of subject races” (30). This of course spilled over to his conviction that Christianity was superior to Islam.

So then, coming to our topic about women, Cromer was curiously (we might add, “outrageously”) unaware of his own contradictions. On the one hand, he deplored Islam’s “degradation” of women – veiling and seclusion were the chief manifestations of that, while Christianity “elevated” women. On the other hand, Cromer served for a time as president of the Society Opposed to Women’s Suffrage. Men and women ought to stay in the roles God gave them, he reasoned. Clearly in his mind the very notion of British Empire reflected the God-willed hierarchy of white men in charge of white women, while both oversaw lesser races subject to them.

Despite all his agitation for the advancement of women in Egyptian society during his tenure, he did little to allocate funds to one sector that could have made a difference – schools. Cromer even refused to fund a school set up in the 1830s to train women doctors, dismissing the preference of Egyptian women to be treated by a female doctor with the quip, “I conceive that in the civilized world, attendance by medical men is still the rule” (32).

Though much of Ahmed’s discussion of this era is fascinating (like Cromer’s facilitating Muhammad Abduh’s career), let me just close with this quote as a suitable summary:

“Unveiling would become ever more clearly the emblem of an era of new hopes and desires, and of aspirations for modernity: of the possibility of education and the right to work for both women and men, and of equal opportunity and advancement based on effort and merit instead of inherited privilege be it of class or race” (39).

Thankfully, as elsewhere, colonialism had the unintended effect of intensifying the “subject people’s” thirst for freedom and dignity. We now move on to the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 – a movement that was largely a reaction to the hegemonic presence of the British, and, in particular, of western missionaries and their schools and clinics.

Islamism and the rise of the veil

Here we reach Ahmed’s central thesis. Though the unveiling movement had never signified a rejection of Islam, those calling for the reveiling of women saw it just as that. For them, unveiling was to kowtow to western secularism. Still, when the veil came on again, it looked quite different and it acquired many new meanings.

Some women of the middle and upper classes, recalls Ahmed from her youth, would wear an expensive western style scarf over their head and tie it under their chin. Though it was uncommon, it did point to more conservative individuals who thought a woman’s head should be covered in public. This was very different from the Muslim Brotherhood women whose head coverings (hijabs) stood out from both the westernized conservative women’s scarves and the traditional veils. Ahmed seems to remember that their distinctive dress was meant to send a message – at least this is how she perceived it: “they were both different and opposed to us” (49).

I have no space here to deal with the history of the Muslim Brotherhood – if anything, before and after President Morsi’s one year in office (2012-2013), much has been written about this movement in the country of its origin. But Ahmed helpfully adds one more element in her historical sweep: Saudi Arabia’s crucial role in using its petrodollars to spread its own conservative and puritanical brand of Islam. And since many Brotherhood leaders, while fleeing the great “persecution” initiated by President Nasser in 1954, ended up in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, there was a definite convergence of interests between them and their Wahhabi hosts.

What was often dubbed the “Arab Cold War” by scholars was precisely this fierce struggle between the Saudis (who in 1961 founded a university in Medina to train missionaries and the next year the Muslim World League) Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt and other Arab nationalist rulers and elites in the region. Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s founder Hasan al-Banna, was named to the 21-member council of the Muslim World League, as was the great leader of South Asian islamism, Maulana Abu’l Ala al-Mawdudi.

Understandably, the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of the Israelis rang out the death knell of pan-Arabism and its secular ideology. From then on, political Islam would become the ubiquitous oppositional discourse throughout the Mideast and beyond.

Intriguingly, as Ahmed points out, this defeat sparked a mood of unprecedented religiosity across confessional boundaries. As a scholar of religion, I cannot resist quoting the following paragraph, even though as I wrote in my fundamentalism blog, I have no plausible explanation to offer for this resurgence of religion. As a Christian, I would simply say that the Holy Spirit was moving with power, albeit in mysterious ways:

            “Soon after the defeat an apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen beside a small church on the outside of Cairo. Muslim as well as Christians flocked by the thousands to see it, camping out overnight to watch for her appearance. Miracles and cures were reported. Some interpreted the Virgin’s appearance as a sign intended to draw Muslims and Christians together into unified opposition against the Zionist enemy. Others saw it as a divine sign offering comfort to the Egyptians, as if to say that despite their defeat God was on their side. The mood of religiosity had palpable and tangible consequences too. Quranic reading groups now multiplied, and monasteries, which had long been closing for lack of applicants, were deluged with applications” (66).

Then came the 1973 war with Israel that gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt. This seems to be the watershed event after which the new Islamic fervor, now with unmistakable islamist overtones, gradually began capturing the imagination and allegiance of the masses. That said, the emerging movement in the 1970s was only a university phenomenon, as Fadwa El Guindi’s sociological research demonstrates.

What were their characteristics? Just as the Muslim Brotherhood’s goal had been from the beginning, these young activists aimed “to bring about the ideal Islamic society based on the Quran and Sunna,” fighting the three main foes of “communism, Zionism and feminism” (79). Though the membership was informal, as a movement it included “sororal/fraternal collectivities, which offered separate and parallel opportunities for involvement and leadership among both men and women.”

One of the characters that pops up in several chapters is the “unsung mother” of the Brotherhood, Zainab al-Ghazali. Her single devotion to the cause, her vast energy and organizational skills helped keep the movement afloat, especially in times of dire persecution. When in 1964 the government ordered the dissolution of her women’s organization, it counted 3 million members. She then survived an assassination attempt but shortly after was imprisoned with the other Brotherhood leaders (including Sayyid Qutb) and condemned to 25 years of hard labor. Her memoir came out shortly after six “brutal years” of torture and deprivation. She called it Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prison.

I mention her, because she modeled the values and ideals that the female members of the Muslim Brotherhood internalized and embodied. This was an activist’s Islam, producing a vanguard of Muslim society, which sought through its “gradualist nonviolent means of the jihad of education and da’wa [spreading the message, here to other Muslims] to bring about the transformation and re-islamization of society” (138). In these extraordinary times, she would say, no sacrifice is too great to reach our God-given mission. She herself divorced a husband who didn’t support her commitment to the cause. And she told her second husband from the start that she would leave him too, should he stand in the way. He died during her years in prison; and fortunately, she would later admit, she had never had any children.

In a rare interview she gave Kristin Helmore of the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, Ghazali, who agreed with all her male colleagues in the Brotherhood that the veil is a divine commandment for all Muslim women, explains in greater detail her viewpoint on the issue. Helmore writes that Ghazali presented the “iron determination of one who has given her every waking moment to a cause, and the inner stillness of one who is wholly convinced that she is right” (113).

When asked how a devout woman was different from one who is “more modern,” Ghazali unflinchingly replied,

“If you don’t go back to your religion and dress the way I do, you’ll go to hell. Even if you’re a good Muslim and you pray and do what is right, if you dress the way you do all your good deeds will be canceled out” (113).

One sociologist who did a great deal of research into the mainstream Islamic movement of Egypt in the 1990s is Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Her book, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt, captures the mood and values of this movement that has now become dominant in Egyptian society (though severely repressed once again). To start with, the militants who believe in the use of violence represent a very small fraction of its members and their ideology is repudiated by the vast majority of society.

On the positive side, what most characterized the people she interviewed was their understanding of Islam as a call to actively serve those in need and influence all others to enter into that same devoted lifestyle:

“Some of them held jobs in Islamic institutions, but the majority had their main job in unrelated areas and worked part time in service of Islamism, often for very low pay or on a volunteer basis. Lawyers, engineers, doctors, and other professionals offered their services in Islamic health clinics, day-care centers, kindergartens, and after-school programs; or they taught religious lessons or (if they were men) preached at the mosque” (148).

How did these activists succeed in persuading their fellow citizens to adopt their version of Islam, and in particular women accepting to don the zia islami (“Islamic dress”)? There were a variety of methods employed:

1. Provide help to people through islamist networks, like finding jobs, receiving funds from a mosque in time of need, obtaining visas for working abroad, and even suitable marriage partners.

2. A psychological boost and a sense of “moral authority” coming from one’s membership in a tight knit society. Paradoxically, as Wickham shows from her interviewees’ answers, and especially for lower class ones, “adopting a strict Islamic code enabled women to be freer to flout traditional limits to their autonomy.” They “gained an aura of respectability that enabled them to move more freely in public spaces without fear of social sanction” (151).

3. Sometimes “hijab and Islamic attire were also being deliberately, actively promoted by Islamists.” Through their networks of friends, particularly if they were able to persuade them to attend religious classes or come to a mosque with a charismatic preacher, these activists could get them to “convert” and start wearing hijab or even niqab (the full-face veil). Of course, it helped when an outfit was offered free of charge for them to wear.

4. Along with this, on the basis of several stories Ahmed recounts from Wickham’s book, she summarizes the tactics of da’wa to which these young activists resort: “Peer pressure and gentle albeit insidiously powerful coercion toward social conformity and the acceptance of ‘correct’ religious practice (‘Isn’t it proper, following the path of the Prophet?’) clearly were all brought into play in the process of Islamist da’wa and outreach in regard to Islamic dress” (153).

I close here the first half of this blog on Ahmed’s book. I hope you see, once again, that religious movements don’t spring out of thin air – they're born in specific historical, cultural and sociopolitical contexts. That is certainly the case with the modern birth of the Muslim Brotherhood. The limited backdrop of colonialism offered above might also give you a glimpse into why people in the region see the state of Israel as a western colonial intrusion and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as more of the same. It also helps to explain, at least in part, the strong anti-American feeling felt on all sides before, and especially after the 2013 military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt.

With all that in mind, we still have to look more closely at the resurgence of the veil in Egypt and then in the United States coming into the 2000s.

21 January 2014

Willow Wilson's Egypt

I have now finished leading the five (well attended) public library discussions in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I devoted blogs to the first two books (Prince Among Slaves and Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith)

I now turn to the last two, and here, The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson.

I don’t believe you are serious about interfaith dialog unless you can sincerely understand people who convert to another faith and you can see how that faith enriches their lives. If you’ve followed my blogs, you know I don’t subscribe to theological pluralism – all religious paths go up the same mountain and ultimately lead to the summit. Rather, I believe that all religions make truth claims, which often clash with truth claims made by other traditions. Islam and Christianity have much in common, but they disagree about each other’s central claims – Jesus and the cross on one side, and Muhammad and the Qur’an on the other.

But true respect of the religious "other" demands an effort to listen with great emphathy. That’s why, whatever your faith commitment, you should read conversion accounts in order to understand as much from the inside as possible how others live their faith. And if you’re a Christian, in particular, you should read The Butterfly Mosque. Well, I’ll give you three other reasons to read it:

 

1. It’s beautifully written, and if you like a good romance, you’ll definitely like this one! Wilson is an artist, and a very accomplished one at that despite her young age (b. in 1982), in three genres so far: 1) her graphic novel Cairo (2007) was named one of the 2009 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens by the American Library Association; 2) her comic series Air was nominated for the Eisner Award; 3) her first novel, Alif the Unseen, won the 2013 World Fantasy Award (see picture above). Then one more award: this autobiography was named Best Book of the Year by the Seattle Times (Wilson now lives with her husband and two daughters in Seattle). She’s now writing a Marvel comic series whose heroin is a Muslim teenage girl.

 

2. Wilson leads you deep into the cultural recesses of Egyptian society. As someone who lived there three years starting in 1989, I was completely fascinated. Within weeks she falls in love with an Egyptian fellow teacher and, with the blessing of his clan, is married to him the next year.

 

3. Here is a finely textured reading of Egypt’s diverse Muslim currents. During the months Willow and her roommate Jo lived in the poorer and xenophobic neighborhood of Tura, they had ample opportunity to explore their feelings toward the islamists – whether the more puritanical Salafis or the more political Muslim Brotherhood types. As a journalist, she was twice given the chance to interview Egypt’s highest cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa; and on another occasion, deep into the desert near the Libyan border, she interviewed the female leader of a Sufi order.

 

Without spoiling the book for you – I do want you to read it – let me expand a bit more on what I just wrote. And because it’s such an intimate story, I’ll use her first name, Willow.

 

The Islam Willow embraced

Raised in a staunchly atheist home in Colorado, Willow felt deep down that there must be some kind of higher power. A prolonged illness that ate up a good part of her college career at Boston University only sharpened the gnawing questions in her soul. Just a few days into her treatment, the three people who best cared for her were Iranians:

 

“Semidelirious, I took this as a sign. Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim. As it happened, the adrenal distress lasted a year and a half” (p. 7).

 

What her bodily weakness did for her, however, was to open her eyes to the infinite. “My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me,” she discovered. She goes on,

 

“I had a faint attraction to Buddhism, but Buddhism wasn’t theistic enough; the role of God was obscure or absent. I would have liked to be a Christian. My life would have been much easier if I could stomach the Trinity and inherited sin, or the idea that God had a son. Judaism was a near perfect fit, but it was created for a single tribe of people. Most practicing Jews I knew took a dim view of conversion. To them, membership in the historical community of Jews was as important as belief.

            In Islam, which encouraged conversion, there were words for what I believed. Tawhid, the absolute unity of God. Al Haq, the truth so true it had no corresponding opposite, truth that encompassed both good and evil. There were no intermediary steps in the act of creation, God simply said, Kun, fa yakun. “Be, so it is.” I began to have a feeling of déjà vu. It was as if my promise to become a Muslim was not a coincidence but a kind of inversion; a future self speaking through a former self” (pp. 12-13).

 

As you read through the book, you discover a woman who has “surrendered” to God (the meaning of islam), but is wary of human authorities. She remains a practicing Sunni Muslim woman, conservative in some ways, yet always willing to probe deeper and farther afield. She even convinces her husband to let her travel alone for a 3-week reporter’s trip through Iran (two chapters in the book), providing an evocative encounter with Shia Muslims in a land of beautiful gardens over which a pall of sadness seems to hang.

 

Willow’s Egypt

You will love the people seen through Willow’s eyes, warts and all. You’ll envy the layers of communal protection and kindness that extended families provide – reservoirs of wisdom, and at times, of bigotry. But here I focus on Willow’s depiction of the “fundamentalists” – I think that is relevant to what I’m trying to do on this website. I want to provide as much context and inside perspective for you (especially western Christians), in order to understand how incredibly diverse the world of Muslims really is, culturally, theologically, and religiously (e.g., its mystical practices, like Sufism, and many of its local, pre-Islamic folk practices). Not all Muslims are of the same cloth, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Willow comes to the conclusion, fairly early on, that she should inform her colleagues, whether Egyptians or internationals, about her conversion to Islam. “There would be no avoiding the crisis when it came, so I decided to force it. I ran up the flag, so to speak, by putting on hijab,” she tells us.

This deliberate act of “coming out,” as she puts it, did cause quite a stir. Many Egyptian Muslims were thrilled, as you might imagine, but not all. That is because the scarf she chose to wear that day, in typical Willow fashion, was “apple red, a color that ensured my ultra-conservative colleagues [I add, those identifying with the Salafi movement] would be as shocked as my non-Muslim ones” (p. 107).

Then she chooses to contrast “moderates” and fundamentalists” (or “ultraconservatives” – but prior to 2011, the Salafis had not yet entered politics, and many continue to shun it). In her words, “My moderate Muslim colleagues and friends – moderate is a terrible word, since many of them are very passionate about their religion – accepted me without a batted eye . . . They simply began to greet me with as-salaamu alaykum instead of ‘hi’, and included me in the silent glances that would go around the room when secular or western coworkers launched into critiques of religion.”

The next paragraph is so very illuminating, as it could be easily transcribed into many other religious contexts. Converts are “sitting ducks” for well-meaning archconservatives, who relish the opportunity to reengineer the lives and identity of these hapless souls:

 

"Converts are a favorite prey of fundamentalists; they are often isolated, confused, and in need of reassurance, which radical Muslims are only too happy to give. In my case, they were confused. The way I wore my scarf, and the colors I chose, made it clear I was not crying out for help or seeking support … It must have been disturbing to radicals that a convert could find mere Islam more appealing than their tight-knit community. This is the death knell of radicalism: Muslims who have achieved a personal understanding of the religion can inspire doubt in extremists simply by standing in front of them. It’s a simple fact, but one with the potential to change the world” (p. 108).

 

Tura, the above-mentioned section of Cairo, is home to the infamous prison that houses (and routinely tortures) political prisoners in the thousands. In those days they were mostly Muslim Brothers – as they are still today, ironically. That’s also where Mubarak stayed with his two sons after the revolution toppled him. This is the setting where Willow is led to meditate further on the “fundamentalists.” For one thing, the neighborhood mosque was excruciatingly loud. Here I have to quote her witty, satirical prose:

 

“This mosque we quickly came to hate. Its muezzin announced the five daily prayer times in gravelly shrieks, broadcast at full volume over a set of speakers that were comically expensive and well-maintained when compared to the degree of poverty in which so many of the mosque’s attendees lived. To call this institution a fundamentalist mosque sounds almost tongue-in-cheek; it was rabidly conservative, and if it had been situated in a less neglected neighborhood, there’s a chance its leaders would now reside in the prison just half a kilometer away. As it was, Tura was a convenient location for extremism to fester, and so we awoke promptly at four a.m. every morning to the screams of the muezzin, who rattled windows and set dogs to howling for a considerable radius. Few people ever complained. Most were too afraid of the extremists to speak up; the rest were too worn down by the brutality of daily life in a poor neighborhood in a police state to be bothered. And daily life was brutal. There is no kinder word for it” (pp. 122-3).

 

This harsh living experience for Willow and Jo did offer some insights on “why they hate us,” as Americans were asking after 9/11. The antiwesternism that is endemic to the Middle East (as I can attest myself) goes like this: “the vast majority resent [the West] because they perceive it to be a military and economic juggernaut bombing countries into rubble, putting local industries out of business (though this title is slowly passing to China), and succeeding and succeeding where the Middle East fails. Religion never enters the discussion” (p. 135).

This is in complete contrast to the islamists (she doesn’t use that term):

 

“On the other hand, the fundamentalists we could see from our bathroom window hated us for very religious reasons. It became clear to me, living in the shadow of that brainless minaret, how little the anger of our local extremists had to do with military America. While the situation in Iraq gave them political legitimacy and direction, and a dangerous amount of emotional leverage with average Muslims, it was not the reason they were angry. They hated the America that exports culture. They were aghast at the suggestion that enlightenment could be bought on tape, and that right and wrong were fluid and could change from situation to situation. They hated being made to sympathize with adulterous couples in American movies. They hated the materialism that was spreading through Egypt and the Gulf like a parasite, turning whole cities – Dubai, Jeddah – into virtual shopping malls, and blamed this materialism on western influence

 

All of this is true, I concur. But there is more to it, at least if you want to include the jihadis – which you should. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence after their “great persecution” in 1954 (the fitna) and as an organization it has kept to that course. That they are losing many younger elements to a more radical ideology since last summer’s military government’s massacre of more than a thousand of them is clear as well. But my point is that Sayyid Qutb’s more radical ideology hatched in the 1950s and early 1960s in the shade of the 1954 fitna harkens back to centuries past when the world was truly divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War (see my two blogs on jihad, “Holy Wars: Israelites versus bin Laden,” and “Jihad Revisited”). So there’s a way theology and law got tied up in the past to justify aggressive military campaigns and Sayyid Qutb’s revamping it in modern garb stands ready to use for the more radically inclined among islamists.

Despite that needed addition, I wholeheartedly recommend The Butterfly Mosque. It will open for you a captivating window into the lives of Egyptians, their hopes, their dreams, the kindness they dispense so naturally, and the brutal hardships that come with their territory. And, more importantly, you’ll get to know Willow herself. That, you won’t regret!

 

As Christmas nears, my thoughts turn to Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories, where I taught three years (1993-96) at the Bethlehem Bible College (BBC). The family of its founder, Bishara Awad, is a wonderful example of Palestinians who, having lost their father to a sniper in their West Jerusalem neighborhood in 1948, found the grace to forgive and engage in nonviolent peacebuilding.

Bishara’s son, Sami, founded the Holy Land Trust , that is making its mark in the wider Palestinian society and abroad. Dedicated to the spiritual principle of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the center . . .

 

“aspires to strengthen and empower the peoples of the Holy Land to engage in spiritual, pragmatic and strategic paths that will end all forms of oppression. We create the space for the healing of the historic wounds in order to transform communities and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model for understanding, respect, justice, equality and peace.”

 

This is particularly appropriate, since Jesus, whose birth all Palestinians proudly celebrate this week, Christians and Muslims, was foretold as “the Prince of Peace” (as well as “Mighty God,” Isaiah 9:6).

Another personal connection is that Sami Awad launched his initiative as part of a wider project set in motion by Robin Wainwright in his millennial celebration of Jesus’ birth through the Journey of the Magi (read about the details of this “pilgrimage for peacehere). Robin was a good friend of the BBC and that is how I heard about this reenactment of the ancient journey of the wise men.

So here I was with Robin and a dozen others from various countries holed up in a Baghdad hotel for a couple of weeks after the outbreak of the second Intifada, early October 2000. Still, despite a delay of a week, we started off with our camels and pilgrims' gear (reminiscent of the white Hajj garments) from the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon. I walked with them for the next week, passing through the Sunni Triangle, first Falluja, then Ramadi.

Partly because we were protesting the sanctions imposed against the Saddam regime, we were welcomed with great enthusiasm by Muslims and Christians along the way. But more to the point was that, though this journey two millennia ago is not found in the Qur’an or Sunna, it certainly is part and parcel of the region’s collective memory. Everyone knew exactly what we were trying to relive and how our own pilgrimage was intimately connected with that message of peace.

 

The Bright Star

Matthew 2 speaks of Magi coming to Jerusalem (“wise men,” or “royal astrologers”) from the east saying to King Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him” (2:2). They are told that, according to the prophecy (Micah 5:2) the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. When they arrive by night in this little village (10 kms from Jerusalem), Matthew tells us that the star went ahead of them and . . .

 

. . . stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mat. 2:9-11).

 

If we turn to Luke’s gospel we have some close parallels with the Qur’an, as the birth of Jesus is announced by the miraculous birth of John to an elderly couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife (Q. 3:36-40; 6:85; 21:89-90; 19:1-15). At the end of Luke’s first chapter, we read Zechariah’s song, which ends this way:

 

And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”

 

The theme of “the morning light from heaven” echoes the earlier passage in Isaiah, which states that the coming of Messiah will shine God’s light into the darkness: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light, for those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isaiah 9: 2).

The previous verse spells out who those people are: “Galilee of the Gentiles” – all those mixed peoples (as a result of forced immigration by the Assyrian overlords just before the time of Isaiah). Certainly from the perspective of the religious elites of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, the poor, mostly landless, Galileans who directly benefited from Jesus’ teaching and miracles, were “lost in darkness.” The irony, of course, is that many of "the lost" embraced the light of Jesus the Christ (Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah”), while precious few among the religious leaders seriously pondered Jesus’ astounding statement:

 

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).

 

The Light of Creation

Here we run into a vexing yet hopeful chapter of Muslim-Christian dialog. For all the reasons I mentioned in my Christmas blog two years ago, this celebration of Christ’s birth is the one feast with the most commonalities between Christians and Muslims. The Qur’an’s veneration of Jesus and Mary, particular his virgin birth, Mary’s strong piety and purity of heart, Zechariah and his son John's connection to the event – all this and more point to striking convergences.

At the same time, as we all know, this common ground veers quickly into our most striking divergence. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Muslim conviction about the “light of Muhammad” (nur muhammadi), which God created before anything else. It’s not just that Jesus in Islam is no more than a prophet, his miraculous birth notwithstanding. It’s that Muhammad, who in the Qur’an is certainly no more than a man, has acquired with time some of the attributes of Christ.

No, there is no trinity in Islam, no eternal preexistence of Muhammad at God’s side, no direct role for Muhammad in God’s creation – unlike Christ (“all things were made by him and for him,” Colossians 1:16). But according to a hadith, his soul was created 360,000 years before God began the creation of the world – a soul in the form of a primordial light:

 

One Day Sayedena Ali [as] Asked . O Muhammad [s], I pray you tell me what the Lord Almighty created before all other beings of creation. This was his blissful reply:

Verily, before your Lord made any other thing,

He created from His own Light

the light of your Prophet [s]

 

You can find this teaching in many sources, as this belief is near universal in Muslim circles of all stripes. But let me point my readers to a Sufi website belonging to one of the oldest and most widespread orders, the Naqshbandi order. Its name, appropriately, is "Nur Muhammadi." There you will find many other details, some of which no doubt will be peculiar to the Turkish source from which they are quoting.

Yet, lest you think this idea of Muhammad’s preexisting soul and light is only a Sufi one, let me quote briefly from a beloved poem written about the Prophet and read aloud by Muslims in many lands on his birthday feast (the Mawlud) for the last seven centuries. The Egyptian scholar al-Busiri (d. 1294) was said to be gravely ill with a high fever when Muhammad appeared to him, threw his cloak (burda) around him and healed him. In gratitude he wrote this famous poem, al-Burda. Here is a small excerpt, an eloquent illustration of some of the popular piety that has arisen around the person of the Prophet:

 

“Muhammad is the lord of the two worlds, the earth and the heavens and the animated beings, spirits and men of every sort, from the Arabs to the foreigners . . .

He is the confessor, the form and meaning which have been completed; finally the Omniscient placed him apart to be the beloved of the Generous . . . Leave off speaking, I forbid you, the word of praise of the Christians for the prophet Jesus . . .

. . .

Every miracle that came with every prophet could only come true because of the light of the prophet, that is why they too received the gift to perform miracles. He is like the sun because of his virtues, and they are like stars, this we know, in order for their light to shine, it is necessary that the sun has not yet come out, that there is darkness . . .”

 

Back to Christmas

I remember with fondness the time Prof. Chandra Muzaffar invited me to be one of two respondents to his keynote address at the 2008 international conference he had convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the theme, “Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace.” It was indeed a great privilege. One thought I included in my ten-minute response is relevant to this blog.

Speakers during that conference came from many religious traditions, and in particular, Buddhism and Hinduism. Since Muzaffar was espousing a form of theological pluralism (see the last part of my blog on Eboo Patel for a discussion of this), I had decided to push back a bit:

 

“Yet, as believers of all faiths will testify, some truth claims will necessarily remain incompatible, although admittedly not verifiable today. They concern the nature of the divine or the hereafter. At some point beyond history as we know it now, for instance, Jesus Christ will come back to this earth, according to both Muslim and Christian belief. Will he marry, kill the pigs and burn the crosses (according to well-attested hadiths), or will every knee bow to him and confess him as Lord (Philippians 2:10)? We shall have to wait and see. Or none of this at all will happen, as Buddhists and Hindus believe. But in the meantime we certainly can lock arms and put to work our common ethic of love, compassion, courageous denunciation of all forms of evil and injustice and risk our very lives for peace. This we can agree on and that’s why we’re here!”

 

The same of course can be said of Christmas in a circle of Christian and Muslim friends. Just as I wholeheartedly congratulate my Muslim friends on the occasion of Id al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), for instance, so our Muslim neighbors and friends have always congratulated us on the occasion of Christmas.

Yes we share a good deal of respect and admiration for Jesus, son of Mary. But only we Christians bow down with the Magi come from ancient Persia and Babylon to worship the newborn child.

So … a very happy and blessed Christmas to all readers to whom this applies! And much love and good wishes to everyone for the year ahead!

Regarding 2014, my own prayer in the name of the Prince of Peace – and all of our prayers – should go especially to those suffering from the cruel ravages of war in Syria and to the couple of million refugees trying to keep warm in camps in nearby countries. May God have mercy and bring peace to Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and to all those places so much in need of it!

 

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

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  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

    Read more...