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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

70 percent of Jews agree with 92 percent of Muslims that American Muslims have no sympathy for the jihadists – that was one of the findings from a 2011 Gallup Poll report called, “American Muslims: Faith, Freedom and the Future.” What is more, large majorities of American Jews and Muslims (roughly both six million) agree on the necessity of finding a two-state solution to the Mideast crisis.

That unexpected common ground between the two communities of faith was one of three rather surprising conclusions of that poll. In this second half I would like to discuss some of the challenges the US Muslim community faces in the coming years. Three challenges came out in the course of the previous blog:


a) The Muslim population is much younger than that of other faiths in America. A related challenge as second and third generations come of age is how the religious establishment – in its many different currents – can find ways to keep them religiously educated and spiritually involved.

A Philadelphia paper ran an AP article about a 31-year-old imam, Mustafa Umar, who works specifically with the younger generation at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Southern California. He is especially well equipped for that task, as he’s a native Californian savvy in the use of social media and a trained Islamic scholar in Europe, the Middle East and India.

When you consider that the great majority of imams in the USA are foreign-born, you begin to wonder how these mosques will be able to retain any hold on the children of these immigrants who grow up in a very free and secular society.

Philip Clayton, provost at Claremont Lincoln University (the first interreligious seminary in the US) now has a program to train Islamic leaders. Clayton puts this challenge pointedly: Mosques that remain insular, focus on ethnic identity, and don't engage with the realities of being Muslim in America won't survive, he said. And the more engaged imams and mosques become, the less likely confused youth are to turn to radicalized forms of Islam, the way the Boston marathon bombing suspects did.


b) On average the Muslim population is poorer than their religious counterparts. This flies in the face of what the famous imam of the Manhattan mosque, dubbed Park 51, Feisal Abdul Rauf, wrote in a 2011 article entitled "Five Myths About Muslims in America." One of the myths he seeks to debunk is that “Muslims are ethnically, culturally and politically monolithic.” That, we know from the recent Gallup poll could not be farther from the truth.

But then he adds that "Muslims are an indispensable part of the U.S. economy. Sixty-six percent of American Muslim households earn more than $50,000 per year — more than the average U.S. household.” Earlier he had been quoting from a 2007 Pew Poll. In any case, what is clear from the more recent poll is that there is a quite a gap in incomes between some of the more recent South-Asian immigrants and some of the other Muslim communities – the difference between the urban poor and the suburban middle and upper-middle class.

Omid Safi, who I introduce in greater detail later, lists this as the very first challenge of the Muslim community in the US:


“The first is overcoming the divide between immigrant and African American communities. It remains to be seen how much unity can be forged between the immigrant Muslim population in America and the African American Muslim population. There are profound class divisions between the two, which often dictate communal, social, and political participation.”


c) Finally, the 2011 Gallup Poll revealed a latent distrust among Muslim Americans of the organization meant to represent them. A 2006 special report by the US Institute of Peace on “The Diversity of Muslims in the United States” (find it here) offers a great list of American Muslim organizations in three categories – religious and interfaith, civic and political, legal organizations. In the Gallup Poll the front runner was clearly the (civic and political) Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), followed by the (religious) Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and then the (civic and political) Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

By the way, CAIR must be doing something right . . . Its Philadelphia chapter (one of 20 nationally) is led by a Jew!


I will now be listing three more challenges as seen through the eyes three Muslim American leaders.


1. For Muslims, and especially the more recent immigrants, to invest in the American political structures. The Iranian-American scholar Omid Safi, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contributed as co-editor and writer to the 5-volume Voices of Islam. In the fifth volume (Voices of Change) he has an essay entitled, “I and Thou in a Fluid World: Beyond ‘Islam versus the West.’” This is the second challenge he puts forth, particularly for the Muslim immigrants:


“Many came to this country for the same reasons that other immigrants have: the pursuit of a better life, the promise of freedom, and so on. Yet at least the first generation of immigrants have often looked back toward their origin as their real ‘‘home’’ and have not fully invested monetarily and emotionally in American political and civic structures. Many immigrant Muslims have led lives of political neutrality and passivity, seeing their primary mission as that of providing for their families. There are, however, signs that this political lethargy is beginning to change in the charged post-9/11 environment, particularly among the second-generation immigrant Muslims.”


I will come back to Omid Safi in a subsequent blog, as he’s a leading voice in "progressive Islam." I used a Friday sermon he gave at a Duke Friday Prayers service in on online course on Islam recently with great effect. You can see why Muslim students, at least the not-too-conservative ones, love to listen to him. My Christian students too found him refreshing and at some level were able to relate to his theme of “what would Muhammad do?”


2. Continue the work of empowering women. Feisal Abdul Rauf is the imam of the famous al-Farah mosque in Manhattan which after 28 years moved to its Park51 location near Ground Zero. More than that, Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan are high profile leaders in interfaith dialog in the US and many other parts of the world. They lead two influential organizations, the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim advancement (ASMA). Khan herself also founded Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) and constantly travels, speaking and organizing Muslim women conferences.

A frequent contributor to the Washington Post and other media outlets, Abdul Rauf posted a piece in 2011 that directly relates to our topic, "Five Myths about Muslims in America." The third myth he chose to debunk was that “American Muslims oppress women.” Now keep in mind that such an article is, by definition, apologetic. He is attempting to rebut a common accusation about Muslims in general. So his first paragraph highlights America’s female movers and shakers:


“According to a 2009 study by Gallup, Muslim American women are not only more educated than Muslim women in Western Europe, but are also more educated than the average American. U.S. Muslim women report incomes closer to their male counterparts than American women of any other religion. They are at the helm of many key religious and civic organizations, such as the Arab-American Family Support Center, Azizah magazine, Karamah, Turning Point, the Islamic Networks Group and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.”


Then he admits that the poor treatment of women and their relatively low status in many parts of the Muslim world remains a great challenge: “Of course, challenges to gender justice remain worldwide. In the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Gender Gap Index, which ranks women’s participation in society, 18 of the 25 lowest-ranking countries have Muslim majorities.”

My point here is simply that among the many recent immigrants from those very countries that do “oppress” women there are some hefty obstacles to overcome in this area. A number of American Muslim women write about these difficulties very openly. No doubt the scholar, mother of five, Amina Wadud is the most controversial of American Muslim feminists (read my piece on her). Have a look at her book Inside the Gender Jihad for a candid personal recounting of her own struggles as an African-American Muslim woman.


3. Overcoming the Muslim victim complex – what University of Delaware professor Muqtedar Khan calls "the globalization of Muslim victimology." Khan wrote that this piece for The Huffington Post was “was triggered by the look of sheer agony that flashed on my 14-year-old son, Rumi's face, when I told him that the alleged Boston bombers were Muslim.”

What is this victimology? It’s “The perception that every problem in the Muslim world from the civil war in Syria, the sectarian violence in Pakistan and Iraq, to unemployment in Egypt and the crashing of my nephews old laptop, is as a result of a deep-rooted Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.”

OK, so there are hot spots in the world where Muslims do feel victimized: “The main themes of Muslim political discourses, besides the Arab spring, are still the plight of Palestinians, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russian atrocities in Chechnya and so on and so forth.”

But is surely very one-sided, retorts Khan:


“We Muslims are selective in our obsessions of injustices; we ignore the plight of Shias in Pakistan, the Kurds in Turkey, Christians in Egypt, or women everywhere. But this idea that Muslims are the victims of injustice is a strong emotional trigger that seems to be built into the Islamic identity and with increased religiosity comes a feeling of Muslim solidarity and heightened awareness of geopolitical injustices. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that there are no injustices, there are many. I am trying to impress that in order to arrest the radicalization of Muslim youth, we need to find a way to enable heightened religiosity without a concomitant spike in anger, frustration and desire for revenge.”


He then writes this phrase as a whole paragraph for emphasis: “Muslims should seek change not revenge.” After all, many Friday sermons around the world end with this qur’anic verse: “Indeed Allah has ordered justice with beautiful deeds” (16:90). Here the Arabic word translated as “beautiful deeds” is ihsan – doing good, really. So here is his parting challenge:


“Ihsan, doing beautiful deeds, is according to most Muslim scholars the highest manifestation of Islam. It is time we taught our kids to take the highroad.”


This plain talk on the part of Muqtedar Khan – no defensiveness here – represents for me the beauty and strong faith I see in many of my Muslim friends. Catholics and Jews found it very difficult for so long to be accepted as genuine contributors and full-fledged participants in this great American experiment. Muslims are now finding their way. That is so encouraging to me.

An extensive Gallup Poll published in 2011 (download it here) reported that “though they continue to experience some perceived bias, both in their interactions with other Americans and in their exchanges with law enforcement, Muslim Americans are satisfied with their current lives and are more optimistic than other faith groups that things are getting better.”

Findings also show that they feel more confident about their financial situation; they have more faith than other religious groups in the integrity of American elections, though they are less likely to trust the military and the FBI – a fall-out, no doubt, of the “War on Terror.”

In this blog I offer a brief synopsis of this 132-page document, singling out what I’m guessing are some of its most startling findings. In a follow-up blog I’ll look at the challenges facing the Muslim-American community, as seen through the eyes of three prominent leaders.


The Gallup Poll’s most surprising findings

By “surprising” I only mean that it is likely to jolt what the average American thinks he or she knows about Muslims in the USA. Fair enough, it’s a human pastime and probably a needed psychological defense mechanism to pigeonhole people outside one’s own tribe. We all grow up categorizing and stereotyping others, or so we are told in any introductory sociology course.

That said, whatever the common impression Americans have of their fellow citizens who happen to be Muslims, it needs to be informed much more by personal relationships with actual Muslims and from dependable sources like this Gallup poll than from TV headline news!

The exact title of this publication is “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom and the Future,” with the following subtitle, “Examining U.S. Muslims’ Political, Social, and Spiritual Engagement 10 Years After September 11.”

This report is actually the product of three separate Gallup polling projects. The first is also the most comprehensive – a joint effort to determine a well-being index for the US population (The Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index) that already involved making 1,000 nightly calls to Americans starting January 1, 2008. In about two and a half years over 800,000 Americans were consulted and among these close to 4,000 self-identified as “Muslim-American.” And as a reminder, Gallup is the oldest and most reputable polling organization around.

So what were some of the most notable findings? I’ll single out three of them. First, Muslims despite their great diversity are generally well integrated in American society. Building on their 2009 early report, the Foreword puts it this way:


“We discovered an educated, employed, entrepreneurial, and culturally diverse community, whose strengths and struggles reflected America’s as a whole. At the same time, our researchers found that young American Muslims, who had spent their formative years during the ‘war on terror,’ were less likely than their generational peers to be classified as thriving and more likely to experience negative emotions, such as anger” (p. 2).


So there was some unfinished business. Between 2009 and 2011 was there any measurable difference in the attitudes of the youth? Two years later, they had caught up in their “thriving index” with their 18-29 year-old counterparts in the Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and Jewish communities. Youth in all categories are consistently more positive and hopeful about the future than their elders.

Now just a note of caution when you look at poll figures for any religious community, but especially for Muslims in the US, since they are the religious group with the most diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Race, along with ethnicity and national background and culture, is a factor among all faith communities:


“For instance, Asian Muslims are easily the most likely in America to be thriving. Black Muslims report more financial hardship than do white Muslims, and black Muslims are somewhat less likely than other Muslims in the U.S. to be satisfied with their standard of living. Black Muslims are more likely than white or Asian Muslims to say they lack enough money to buy what they need or to make major purchases” (p. 16).


Yet, despite the fact that as a whole Muslims struggle financially more than other religious communities, they are more likely than others “to say that national economic conditions are good or excellent and that the economy is getting better” (p. 18).

The authors speculate that this optimism might be related to the fact that 46% of respondents identified with Democrats, 35% with independents, and only 9% with Republicans. They tend to support President Obama’s policies.

The second noteworthy finding (but admittedly less surprising) is that American Muslims are the least civically engaged religious group. In particular, they have the lowest rate of registered voters (65% as opposed to 91% of Protestant or Jewish Americans).

The authors offer three possible reasons:

1. They have the highest percentage of first-generation immigrants

2. As a result, they are less established than others (they have been living where they are now at an average of 10.5 years)

3. It’s especially hard to mobilize US Muslims politically when 55% of the men and 42% of the women feel that there isn’t an organization that represents them. When asked “which Muslim-American, if any, most represents your interests” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) easily topped the list, but with only 12% votes for men and 11% for women. The largest organization came in a distant second position, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) with 4% of men and 7% of women (my take here is that women tend to be more devout). And then third, is the more secular Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), chosen by 6% of males and only 1% of females.

4. Muslims are the youngest of any major religious community in the US (average of 36 years old) – “a demographic that tends to be less politically active across faith groups” (p. 26). Interestingly, Protestants are the oldest (55) and the “no-religion, agnostics or atheists” category is closest in age (41).


The third striking result of this poll is the affinity between American Muslims and Jews. On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think this paragraph is worth quoting in full:


“In roughly the same numbers, U.S. Muslims (81%) and Jews (78%) — two of the faith groups most closely associated with the Middle East’s enduring conflict — support a future in which an independent Palestinian state would coexist alongside of Israel. Catholic Americans (83%) also strongly support the two-state approach. U.S. Protestants are the least likely of the major religious groups surveyed to back a two-state solution. Protestant Americans’ relative resistance to a two state solution is significant because of the political influence wielded by this faith group, which represents a little more than one-half of the U.S. population.”


This surprising convergence of the two faith groups most involved in this conflict is a hopeful sign indeed. Let’s hope and pray that the current effort of the Obama administration to bring both sides together, obviously building on this fact, will finally achieve some tangible results. On the other hand, the point about the US Protestant community’s resistance to the two state solution has one simple cause – Christian Zionism, a topic I treated in a longer document in “Resources.”

A final surprising area of convergence between Jews and Muslims in the US is their agreement about the loyalty of Muslims to their country and their strong opposition to terrorism. Let me offer some details.

Considering that Americans often, and very openly, believe that many US Muslims secretly support al-Qaeda and its ilk, the following comes as a surprise to many of us:


“To that end, it is worth noting that Muslim Americans are the least likely of all major religions in the U.S. to justify individuals or small groups attacking civilians. Eighty-nine percent of Muslim Americans say there is never a justification for such attacks, compared with 79% of Mormon Americans, 75% of Jewish Americans, and 71% of Protestant and Catholic Americans. Moreover, the frequency with which Muslim Americans — or any other faith group — attend religious services has no effect on whether they justify violence against civilians” (p. 31).


Keeping that fact in mind, American Jews are the least likely group to suspect American Muslims of sympathizing with al-Qaeda. Whereas 92% of Muslims themselves say that their Muslim compatriots have no sympathy for terrorists, American Jews come in at 70% on this question. By contrast, only 56% of Protestants and 63% of Catholics chose this answer. And even more telling, 33% of US Catholics and Protestants and 31% of Mormons feel there’s a possibility US Muslims harbor some sympathy for al-Qaeda.

Like in the picture above this page, Muslims are better assimilated in the United States than you might think. But of course, as American Jews have long learned, being “assimilated” can also mean, especially for the youth, a temptation to shed the distinctives not only of their family’s original culture, but also of their faith tradition. I’ll turn to some of those challenges in the second part.

Implausibly, the first Muslim to be received at the White House who was not a foreign dignitary was in fact an African slave who had endured hard labor for thirty-nine years. Through a set of amazing “coincidences” Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim (“Abraham, son of the All-Merciful”) had been released by his Mississippi master to be sent back to Africa, but to the latter’s chagrin, not before a highly publicized speaking tour from Chicago to all the major cities on the east coast.

Terry Alford, a recent graduate with a PhD in history, was poking around in Natchez, Mississippi, looking for leads on American slavery for a new book project. Thanks to an enthusiastic clerk at the courthouse, he stumbled across the story of a man who was to occupy his research from Natchez to Washington, DC, and from England to Senegal.

You can read Alford’s book, finally published in 1977, in its thirtieth anniversary edition, Prince Among Slaves.

You can also view a 60-minute documentary on Ibrahima’s life (that was its spelling at the time) or comb through a nicely crafted website on his life and times, both in the Senegambia and the American south.

I didn’t just “stumble” on the book. I was assigned to read it and lead a public library discussion on it – in fact, the first out of five altogether. This is part of a wider nationwide program called “Let’s Talk About It” co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. This unit is entitled “Muslim Journeys: American Stories.” Only 125 libraries among the hundreds in the country who applied for the grant to facilitate these book discussions and film showings were chosen. Our group of about thirty participants was proud of this fact and the hour and a half we had together happily flew by!

In this blog I’ll just focus on three elements that came up for discussion: God’s providence as seen in both the very bad but also the good in Ibrahima’s life; the wider issue of slavery in Africa and beyond; the question of proselytism between Muslims and Christians.


God’s providence and Ibrahima’s unique story

Part of my fascination with Ibrahima’s life has to do with his father, Sori. In the same century (18th) that witnessed the sweeping success of an Islamic scholar teaming up with a military/tribal leader in the Arabian Peninsula (giving rise to the revivalist Wahhabi movement), Sori became the military and political arm of the Fulbe (or Fulani) scholar from Futa Jalon, Karamako Alfa. In fact, Sori became a religious leader in his own right, initiating a long line of like-minded “imams” (almaami) ruling an imamate from 1750 to 1898 in the Senegambia – parts of today’s Senegal, Gambia, and the two Guineas.

Ibrahima followed a traditional Muslim education from seven to twelve, reading the Qur’an in Arabic fluently and memorizing large portions of it. He also mastered reading and writing the Pular language of the Fulbe. He showed so much promise that his father sent him to study in the thriving scholarly city of Timbuktu (which in the 15th century was more populated than any other city on earth).

Ironically, it was his father’s jihad activities that honed his own military skills and eventually landed him in the ambush by coastal warriors that got him sold to a British slave trader in 1788. But just seven years before that, a fortuitous event took place, which many years later would seal his own emancipation in the American south.

A hunting party landed from a British ship included the Irish one-eyed ship surgeon, Dr. John Coates Cox. Unfortunately for Cox, he was separated from his group and the ship left without him. In time he was literally saved by Ibrahima’s father Sori, who had him nursed back to health and invited to settle for a time in Timbo, the capital of Futa Jalon. He was even given a wife and fathered a son before taking leave and, well guarded along the way, found his way back to Ireland. Soon thereafter he sailed to America.

You can imagine the shock and humiliation Ibrahima felt landing on a plantation as a slave, never having to work with his hands before. He managed to run away in the surrounding forest and survive a couple of months. But since suicide was not an option for him as a Muslim, he decided to go back to his master and surrender.

As Alford puts it, Ibrahima had just “hit the nadir of his existence.” Yet, his own educated guess is that Ibrahima’s faith must have led him to that point – striving “to accommodate the will of God as he understood it”:


“Each Muslim must give an account of his life. The Qur’an makes clear that the gates of Paradise are shut to those who murder themselves. However unfair his fate seemed, Ibrahima felt his misfortune came from God. This knowledge, this ‘fatalism,’ was sustaining” (p. 47).


Years later, when Ibrahima had been put in charge of the other one hundred slaves on his plantation and was able to travel to the local market to sell some of his own produce to help with the expenses of his large family, he ran into Dr. Cox, who after a string of financial mishaps in North Carolina had just come to seek fortune in Natchez – of all places!

I’ll let you read the details of the yet tortuous road ahead of Ibrahima, but that encounter eventually led him to garner national attention and in the end settle in Freetown, Liberia, with the intention to travel the extra 200 miles to his home town, Timbo. He died in his fourth month in Freetown, but his example helped to inspire many people both in West Africa and here.


The wider context of slavery

Both the Bible and the Qur’an assume the existence of slavery in the societies to which they spoke. And both seek to mitigate its more heinous effects on people, though without ever seeking to abolish it. Emancipating a slave in the Qur’an is a meritorious act, capable of atoning for certain sins. Jesus’ call to love even one’s enemies, to forgive all those who wrong us, and the way he treated women all point in the direction of emancipation. But he was no political leader, so that question never came up. Paul in his letter to Philemon asks his friend to take back his runaway slave and treat him as a brother, since he had ended up in prison like him and had come to faith in Christ.

Raiding enemy tribes and enslaving the resulting prisoners was a timeworn practice in many parts of Africa. Yale historian, originally from the Gambia himself, Lamin Sanneh wrote in his 1997 book, The Crown and the Turban, that “[t]he penetration of Islam in Black Africa seems to have encouraged the widespread practice of slavery.” He explains:


Trade and war in this context were not mutually exclusive means of acquiring or making slaves. The high demand for slaves, which was everywhere a feature of markets at one time or another, encouraged the forcible capture of weaker neighbors in the event of a dispute” (p. 49).


On the next page, he passes on the experience of a French officer in Futa Jalon (today’s Guinea), who in the 1830s explored this issue with the brother of the almaami:


“I desired him to tell me if these wars of devastation commanded by the Holy Book, were mot more frequently instigated by interest in the great profits his Mohametan countrymen reaped from the results. I gently insinuated my belief that he himself would not undertake to storm one of the well-fortified Caffree towns if not prompted by a successful booty of slaves. After a minute’s consideration he replied with some humor that Mohometans were no better than Christians; the one stole, the other held the bag; and if the white man . . . would not tempt the black man with them, the commands of the Great Allah would be followed with milder means.”


Here then is a good statement of how human greed on both sides – Muslim and Christian – came to be justified, or simply shrug off any ethical implications.

On a slightly different note, how many slaves who survived the deadly crossing to the United States were actually Muslims? Scholars generally estimate that they were between ten and twenty percent of all the African slaves exploited in this country. The PrinceAmongSlaves website offers several testimonies of Muslims who were able to continue practicing their faith. The harshness of their environment generally, and its intolerance of their faith specifically, explains why these testimonies were few indeed, and none of these Muslim practices survived in the next generations.


Mission, da’wa, and the scourge of proselytism

The Spanish, it turns out, “had prohibited the introduction of African Muslims into the Western Hemisphere, but that policy had long been forgotten.” Still, a higher percentage of slaves were brought into the United States and slaveholders were free to regulate their slaves’ religious rituals as they wished.

One negative example has come down to us. “Ayuba Sulayman, a Pullo [Ibrahima’s particular Fulbe tribe] who was a slave on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay in 1730, was mocked and had dirt thrown in his face when he prayed.” But, adds Alford, there were signs of much tolerance as well. In fact, Muslim slaves had the highest reputation among their African brethren:


“The Muslims were to Western eyes, certainly, the most intelligent of the Africans brought to North America. ‘The active and intellectual principles of the Africans have never been completely unfolded, except perhaps in the case of the Foolahs . . . , a great part of the Mandingoes, and one or two other tribes,’ wrote Carl Wadstrom, who visited the Gambia in 1788. True or not, the planters agreed, for they turned to the Muslims for drivers, overseers, and confidential servants with a frequency their numbers did not justify . . . Sober, self-disciplined, and generally honest, a Muslim could be so useful that a planter might give him berth solely for financial advantage” (p. 56).


As for Ibrahima, all the sources point to his consistent and steadfast practice of his faith over the years, yet not without showing signs of great openness to learning from those who taught him Christianity. His wife Isabella, in fact, was active in her local Baptist church (only they and the Methodists would admit slave members) and their son Simon became a lay preacher. From 1818 on, Ibrahima even attended the Baptist church regularly with his family. Yet despite the social advantages and the promises no doubt made by the preachers he knew, he never converted.

Ibrahima remained loyal to his Islamic faith, though he professed to love the stories of Jesus and his ethical teachings, in particular. He was clear, however, that he could not accept Jesus being divine or the concept of the Trinity. Cyrus Griffin, a young attorney in Natchez whom Ibrahima visited often, wrote this about “Prince” in 1827:


“Prince speaks of the Christian religion with strong evidence of mature reflection. I have conversed with him much upon the subject, and find him friendly disposed. [He] admires its [moral] precepts. His principal objections are, that Christians do not follow them. . . . He points out very forcibly the incongruities in the conduct of those who profess to be the disciples of the immaculate Son of God” (p. 81).


This said, several influential people on this tour of the eastern seaboard put some effort into trying to "proselytize" Ibrahima. Perhaps I shouldn’t use that word. It has a negative ring to it, conjuring the idea of pressure, material enticements and other unethical behaviors with the goal of inducing someone to change their religious affiliation.

Let me be clear. As I understand their respective sacred texts, Muslims and Christians are called to witness to their faith, da'wa or mission, firmly convinced that their version of God’s revelation is true and that where differences are found, their faith brings correction to the other. That right to make known one’s faith to others in ethically acceptable ways and the real possibility that one’s interlocutor might switch his/her allegiance is protected by basic laws of religious freedom (e.g., Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And in real life, many do switch on both sides.

It may well be that the effort, for instance, of Reverend Thomas H. Gallaudet, known to us today as “the founder of deaf-mute education in America,” and who expended a great deal of his prodigious energy and influence to help Ibrahima raise money to free the rest of his family, might have stepped over the line. Not knowing all the details, I cannot say. But he did reward Ibrahima’s search for an Arabic Bible with a copy he acquired himself, along with an Arabic translation of a well-known book on Christian apologetics. He no doubt hoped and prayed that “Prince’s” return to Africa would “be the means of opening into the very interior of Africa ‘a wide and effectual door’ for the diffusion of that Gospel to which we are indebted for so many invaluable blessings” (p. 157).

My guess from reading Alford’s account is that the combined efforts of several benefactors to his cause amounted to the charge of “proselytism.” I personally suffered from this in Egypt (not in Algeria nor in Palestine). Perhaps it’s the Egyptian proud belief that they are still at the center of the world or their tendency to be passionate in all that they do. But dozens of times Egyptians would crowd around me in twos, threes or more and try to convert me to Islam. “You speak Arabic, you’re half way there!” they would often insist. One whole evening once in a Salafi home I was subjected to a 2 or 3-hour intense, one-way harangue to convert. To say it was an uncomfortable experience is an understatement. So I’m very sensitive about this issue, no matter who is trying to convert who!

Ibrahima never gave in to the “intense pressure to convert” (p. 193), as I said. In the end, Gallaudet saw Ibrahima in the same light as some of the Jewish believers in the early church of Jerusalem – “I made the same allowance for [his Islamic faith] that Paul did for the Hebrew converts, who still retained some of their Jewish notions and prejudices” (p. 161).

In his Afterword, Alford says this about Ibrahima’s faith, and I’ll let this be the closing thought.


“Friendly to [Christianity’s] moral teachings, he still adhered to his own religion. His return to Africa gave him the freedom to practice it openly. Once there he also resumed his religious studies. He read and wrote a great deal during the closing months of his life in Monrovia. When his widow Isabella showed the manuscripts to a visitor from Timbo, the man wept when he read them and begged her to go immediately to Futa Jalon with him” (p. 193).

When thousands upon thousands of Europeans were slaughtered during the Thirty Year War in the 17th century was it about the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants? Or more recently, when these two Christian sects were bombing each other in Northern Ireland, was it really about “religion”? Theology did have a bearing on the conflicts somewhere in the very beginning, but it was mostly about political alliances, economic power and influence, and the acting out of deep-seated prejudices about “the other.”

If you say, “religion makes people violent,” you can certainly point to examples where this is plausible, but you would also miss other equally important factors in the equation. Human conflicts, particularly at the communal or national level, are always complex phenomena.

What is certain is that religion has often been used to enlist militants for a cause. This is obviously the case with jihadis today. Youth angry about western foreign policies and seething with rage at injustice around them are vulnerable to the call of self-sacrifice in the path of God. But so were the million or so peasants who in 11th and 12th-century Europe left everything to “fight for Jesus” in the Holy Land (never mind that the Crusaders’ symbol, the cross, was an instrument of torture that killed their Master, “the Prince of Peace,” at age 33!).

The thousands of nobles and knights, we surmise, were often more attracted by the prospect of glory and treasure. And so likely were the early conquests “in the name of Islam” by tribal Arab bedouins in 7th-century Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and from Iraq to India a very mixed-motive enterprise. They knew very little about the new faith, except that vast amounts of booty awaited them on the road to empire.

I write these lines a couple of days after Pope Francis led a 5-hour prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square attended by over 100,000 faithful calling the world’s billion Catholics to oppose western military intervention in Syria and urging both sides to engage in peaceful negotiations to end a very bloody civil war.

In the meantime Italian Muslims had organized a prayer rally of their own and one of their leaders told the Reuters news agency that “Praying for the intention of peace is something that can only help fraternity and, God willing, avoid more war.” He continued, “As Muslims who want peace we have to work so that the values of faith and dialogue prevail over the destruction of peoples.”

But to complicate things even more, the news of an attack by al-Qaeda related Syrian rebels on the Christian town of Maaloula has just bolstered President Asad's claim that he has always been the protector of Christians and stymied President Obama even more in his bid to strike the Asad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. True, Christians since the Arab Spring have been attacked as never before in the modern period. And before that, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has had the unintended consequence of sending half the Christian population into exile. Saddam Hussein too, it turned out, had been more protective of Iraqi Christians.

In terms of numbers, the victims of the Syrian civil war are overwhelmingly Muslim – Sunni in the opposition and Shi’i or Alawi on the government’s side. Religion is just one of the layers of a multifaceted, centuries-old, bundle of tensions.

In this blog I have, therefore, two modest goals. First, I want to alert you to a humanitarian disaster that the media have kept all too hidden. Second, even as this alarming crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) shows definite signs of religious conflict, one should not reduce it to that. It is much more about political power, socioeconomic grievances, ethnic tensions, a grievous colonial legacy and a deplorable history of corrupt and heavy-handed governance.


CAR’s colonial and post-colonial burdens

Adam Nossiter of the New York Times put it this way: “the Central African Republic became independent in 1960 after a brutal six-decade colonial reign by France.” I don’t need to go into detail. All the colonial regimes were “brutal” (though perhaps the British were a bit less so than the French). I know from the stories I heard during my nine years in Algeria (1978-87) that particularly in that country, which the French simply took over as their own, Algerians (literally) as second-class citizens suffered great humiliation and hardship. Naturally, the war of independence (1954-62) was especially violent and vicious. A million and a half Algerians died in that 8-year period, most of them civilians on the sidelines.

If you want to get a feel for the insatiable human penchant for greed, lust and the determination to use one’s power to satisfy those desires, have a look at a long interview with the former Emperor Bokassa 1st shortly before his death in 1996 (sorry, it’s in French). True, Bokassa had committed a long list of crimes during his short reign (1976-79), twenty of which were eventually prosecuted in court with irrefutable evidence. Yet here we find him speaking as a patriot who genuinely, it seems, tried to develop his country, but was blocked at every turn by French and Swiss companies intent on pillaging its treasures without giving anything in return, much less pay any taxes.

What must be particularly galling for Central Africans are the details Bokassa divulges about his friendship with French President Giscard d’Estaing who clearly used him for hunting wild game once or twice a year way beyond the legal limits, for buying up loads of treasures at a steal, and in the end for seducing his own wife. That said, she was the official wife. He did have at least fourteen other wives, having fathered close to fifty children!

It must be said that to understand the context here, the CAR has significant reserves of oil, gold, diamonds, uranium and lumber, but remains one of the poorest countries in the world. What is more, the 4.6 inhabitants of this beautiful country have inherited a dreadful history of political instability since 1960. The CAR has witnessed one democratically contested election (2005) and four military coups – which brings us up to the current crisis.


A borderline “failed state”

Decades of military coups, ethnic tensions in several places but especially in the north, potential incursions by the Lord’s Resistance Army (of Joseph Kony infamy) are among the factors that have crippled the CAR for decades. As a result, the United Nations in the early 2000s set up an agency to help stabilize the CAR, BINUCA (the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic). But the situation rapidly went from bad to worse since December 2012. I’ll let the UN website tell the story:


“Turmoil last broke out when a loose rebel coalition called Séléka – meaning alliance in the local Sango language – overthrew democratically elected President François Bozizé. After seizing large parts of the country in an initial push in December, rebels and the Government reached a cease-fire agreement and other deals in January 2013, in Libreville, Gabon, under the aegis of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

“Hopes for a peaceful settlement of hostilities were short-lived, however. The agreements faltered in March, when thousands of rebels flooded the riverside capital Bangui, sending Bozizé into exile and pushing the country into another vicious cycle of violence, looting, sexual violence and other abuses.”


Against a backdrop of mounting chaos since March 2013, the UN’s goals remain clear: “The priorities are to strengthen the political dialogue for the implementation of the Libreville Agreements, to restore security throughout the territory and create a conducive environment for holding credible elections, as well as to ensure the respect of human rights and provide humanitarian assistance.”

Reaching anyone of these goals remains difficult at best, however. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, addressed the UN Security Council in August, warning that the CAR is “not yet a failed State but has the potential to become one if swift action is not taken.”

Specifically, reports the UN, “About 1.6 million people are in dire need of food, protection, health care, water, shelter and other assistance. More than 206,000 people are displaced within the country, with many hiding in the bush. Nearly 60,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring states, two-thirds of them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The UN envoy to the CAR also warned that without the establishment of a proper political order, “the country runs the risk of descending into chaos and anarchy.” His advice to the Security Council was to provide a peacekeeping mission with 3,500 soldiers with additional troops provided by the African Union.


The religious dimension

First of all, who are the rebels who took over the CAR in March? Who is part of this “loose coalition”? Back to Adam Nossiter’s careful background article:


“The rebels emerged from the barren, more-Muslim north, angered at the neglect of a region inaccessible from the capital for half of the year because of heavy rains and poor roads, accusing the president of reneging on an agreement to integrate some of their fighters into the army.

‘No schools, no roads, really — it’s chaos,’ said Abdel Kadir Kalil, a Seleka commander, explaining why he had taken up arms. Carrying an elaborately carved ceremonial cane on the terrace of the Libyan-built five-star hotel where he lives here, he added, ‘We wanted to develop the country, but the ex-president, Bozizé, he ignored our projects.’”


The ousted president who had first entered the political scene via military coup, François Bozizé, told the French media in August that he hoped to regain power. Apparently, as of this writing, he has sent troops to counter the rebel Séléka forces and contest on the battleground the legitimacy of their self-declared president, Michel Djotodia, also the country’s first Muslim leader, who has promised to step down after elections in 2016. Already, Djotodia’s spokesman has accused the pro-Bozizé soldiers of attacking Muslim villages.

If true, it would be an act of retaliation for the many attacks on Christians and their institutions since March. A Catholic website, for instance, deplored the renewal of hostilities against their own: “Muslims join Seleka Rebels in anti-Christian killing spree.” The short article begins in this way:


“More violence and looting against the Catholic Church in the Central African Republic has been reported by the Fides news service. On Sunday, August 18, missionary priests and nuns of the Sœurs de la Charité at Bohong were forced to take refuge in Bouar some 60 miles away after an attack by the Seleka rebel coalition.”


Interestingly, a Muslim website (www.onislam.net) reports that the Muslim rebel leader’s coup has raised religious tensions “in the Christian-majority country.” On March 31 Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of Bangui, told Agence France-Presse that “We are sitting on a bomb. An evil sorcerer could blow up the whole house. I don’t want us to underestimate the problem.”

The article states that 15% of the country is Muslim (most figures I’ve seen say 10%) and that Christians should not panic: “The different religions have always coexisted peacefully and leaders from both sides have urged people not to confuse the fact that there is a Muslim leader, with the ‘Islamization’ of the country.”

Still in the aftermath of the coup, other Christian leaders appealed for calm. Pastor Nicholas Guere Koyame, head of the Alliance of Evangelicals in the CAR, said in particular, “The new authorities are not there for a religious goal but a political goal. They must present their political agenda to convince the population.”

In the same way, the top Muslim leader, Imam Oumar Kobline Layama, urged the rebels not to be swayed by those “who want to turn this change into a religious problem.” But the Christian community was nervous, and for good reason.

In a long and meticulous Wikipedia article on the 2012-13 CAR conflict, we read that among the parties that signed on to the Séléka alliance was the Chadian FPR, though based in north-east CAR. Rumors have it that others have come in from the Darfur area of the Sudan which borders the CAR. And of course, the worst fear with an ongoing, intensifying struggle is that groups loosely associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (who were active in the 2012 war in Mali) will find an easy foothold in the CAR.

It's not surprising that Christians have been targeted, especially because one of the grievances behind the Séléka takeover was about the corruption of the Bozizé regime and its near total neglect of the northern region which is mostly Muslim. In August the Catholic Herald announced that 15 people had been killed by Séléka and a thousand driven from their homes as five villages in a gold mining area were attacked.

A Carmelite Father who has been in the CAR since 1992 was very worried:


“The situation remains fragile and the killings are continuing near my mission. Thank God, most refugees are being accommodated by local families while temporary shelter is sought for them. But what’s most worrying is that mostly Muslim villages are left in relative peace, while those with Christian or animist populations face harsh treatment.”


Last thoughts

Are there underlying – age-old, perhaps – religious tensions in the CAR? Indeed there are. That said, as I hope to have shown here, there is much more at play. Besides its weighty colonial legacy, the CAR struggles with its own patterns of military interventions, corruption, ethnic favoritism, and as a result poor governance.

One hopes and prays for the success of the UN’s BINUCA program and for peacekeeping forces to provide a sufficient buffer and incentive toward peace and productive negotiation. That of course is the key element: that CAR regional leaders representing the major factions of the political class can come together and hammer out a common solution.

I started out with the way religion can lead to violence, but I want to end with its equally proven potential for peace and understanding. So I leave you with the evocative conclusion in the Catholic Herald piece:


In a peace appeal from Bouar [the district of the Carmelite priest] on Monday, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders said they feared the country now faced “the nigmwo4mare of ethnic or religious war,” and warned that “no creed, either Christian or Muslim, allows violence, murder, theft, robbery and rape.”


May these religious leaders find the will and the way to create together a way forward!



(Sept. 21) I was waiting for more news, but this Associated Press communiqué is all I have. Self-proclaimed Michel Djotodia, presumed leader of the Séléka alliance that took power by military force, issued a decree on September 13 officially dissolving Séléka. We can only guess at this point why he did this. In order to rule, Djotodia needs legitimacy, and no foreign power has recognized his rule. What is more, Séléka has earned an international reputation for pillage, rape and murder. It's not hard to see why he wanted to distance himself from the very group that put him at the helm of the country.

But will he succeed in bringing together the dispersed units of the CAR's army in order to effectively push the various factions within the Séléka alliance back into the north? That would be nothing short of a miracle without some foreign intervention by the AU and others. But if this happens and Djotodia keeps his word about democratic elections, then there is clearly hope for this country that has suffered for far too long!

Robert Fisk, veteran correspondent and skilled raconteur of the region’s ongoing sagas, said it best on the day when the Egyptian army mowed down over 600 mostly peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators:


“The Egyptian crucible has broken. The 'unity' of Egypt – that all-embracing, patriotic, essential glue that has bound the nation together since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and the rule of Nasser – has melted amid the massacres, gun battles and fury of yesterday’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.”


Egypt will no doubt descend into a more violent phase, but it isn’t likely to do so with the brutality and savagery of today’s Syria, or of yesterday’s Algeria or Lebanon. Still, think about it: Egypt was always the symbol of Arab pride, especially under Nasser. Sadly, Fisk concludes, “something died in Egypt today”:


“Not the revolution, for across the Arab world the integrity of ownership – of people demanding that they, not their leaders, own their own country – remains, however bloodstained. Innocence died, of course, as it does after every revolution. No, what expired today was the idea that Egypt was the everlasting mother of the Arab nation, the nationalist ideal, the purity of history in which Egypt regarded all her people as her children. For the Brotherhood victims today – along with the police and pro-government supporters – were also children of Egypt. And no one said so. They had become the 'terrorists', the enemy of the people. That is Egypt’s new heritage.”


In this last blog on the Egyptian crisis I am focusing on the religious dimension. But religion is never a “cause” in itself. It is always tied up with specific, historically determined, sociopolitical conditions. Political Islam (“islamism”) suffered a great setback, certainly; but it won’t go away. And the revolution too, despite the iron clad military regime of General Sisi (and perhaps because of it!), will continue to simmer and hopefully bring about justice for all.


About Muslim Brotherhood violence

What we know with certainty is that Egyptian society has become more violent across the board since the 2011 revolution. If you add to the scaling back of security forces the reality of weapons smuggled in from Lybia, Syria and Sudan, you have a volatile situation. On both sides there is evidence of vigilantes at work, some even with automatic weapons. On the fateful day when the army razed the two pro-Morsi sit-ins (Aug. 14, 2013), there were also reports of killings perpetrated by anti-Morsi citizens groups. In the current climate those are unlikely to be investigated or prosecuted. After all, the police was going after the “terrorists” – the official Egyptian press’s label for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)!

For a balanced and well-researched report on the state-perpetrated violence that day, I recommend the one published by Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Security Forces Uses Excessive Lethal Force.” Here’s a summary:


“Egyptian security forces’ rapid and massive use of lethal force to disperse sit-ins on August 14, 2013 led to the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.

“The ongoing Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the decision to use live ammunition on a large scale from the outset reflected a failure to observe basic international policing standards on use of lethal force and was not justified by the disruptions caused by the demonstrations or the limited possession of arms by some protesters. The failure of the authorities to provide safe exit from the sit-in, including for people wounded by live fire and needing urgent medical attention, was a serious violation of international standards.”


And then to add insult to grievous loss, Cairo journalist Sherief Graber spills out in heart-wrenching terms the unspeakable indignities of the morgue where all the bodies of the past few massacres have ended up. Bodies are piled up like so much rotting flesh, relatives are discouraged in every possible way in their quest to retrieve corpses, and the deaths are officially labeled "suicide":


“Now that the police feel free to admit that they are using live fire and automatic weapons against civilians in the streets, deaths are not accidents but suicides; the hundreds killed in Rabea, we are told, not only took their lives into their own hands standing up to the police raid but were intending to die, surely hoping the bullet would hit them. The morgue gives 'scientific' justification to the official state narrative that the Brotherhood is a cult of death, that killing them is not a crime but is actually what they wanted, strengthening them, and if it was suicide as the medical examiner tells us, who can blame the police for merely facilitating?”


Then when 25 off-duty policemen were shot execution-style four days later in the Sinai peninsula, Cairo papers all said it was the work of the MBs. UK scholar Shashank Joshi called these cycle of events “a dark omen” of things to come in Egypt. Morsi himself as president was unflinching in his fight against these al-Qaeda-allied fighters in Sinai. He had to be, as they killed 16 Egyptian soldiers there on his watch. This is an old problem that only got worse after the 2011 January revolution. That particular attack was claimed by one of the militant groups operating in that region, Ansar al-Jihad. Morsi responded by destroying the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, in coordination with his Israeli counterparts.

With time, however, Morsi did start flinching, likely due to his close relations with Hamas. He later vetoed further operations in Sinai and named a governor who had been a member of the Gamaa Islamiya in his youth (the militants who were responsible for many terrorist attacks in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s; amazingly, their leaders in prison renounced violence in the late 1990s and up to now have kept their word).

Perhaps this more than anything else turned the military brass against Morsi. But again, what about General Sisi’s claim (and that of the puppet government he put into place) that the MBs are terrorists and a national threat to be eliminated at all costs?

As mentioned in the HRW’s report, there clearly were some weapons in the two pro-Morsi camps the army cleared on August 14th and some definite signs over the weeks of the sit-ins of beatings and torture. But as two respected scholars after several visits to these camps on my “Sociology of Islam” listserv testified (and I cannot quote them for copyright reasons), they found no evidence of weapons. They also discovered that most of the people there were not directly affiliated with the MBs, but were angry about the army’s coup. Also, as you might know from your own reading, many families had settled in those camps and these festive communities coming out of Ramadan were beginning to project an aura of permanence – no doubt one of the reasons for the army’s determination to remove them.

Speaking of the climate of violence, I have to mention the horrible backlash against the Christians of Egypt (over 8 million, or about 10% of the total population). Attacks had markedly accelerated after the revolution, but they exploded in the wake of the coup. These were presumably MB members or sympathizers who resented seeing the Coptic Pope Tawadros II standing with the head of the al-Azhar University alongside General Sisi while he told the nation he had just removed president Morsi from power.

Just two days before the August 14 massacre, the BBC ran an article on the Christians, “Egypt’s Coptic Christians Dread Further Backlash.” Then a longer article from the Associated Press on the 17th described some of the over fifty attacks on churches and monasteries in the wake of the Cairo massacre. Both the Gamaa Islamiya and the MB denied any link to the violence – another indication that deep-seated prejudices combined with rage over government cruelty are a poisonous mix. What is most troubling perhaps is that the traditional pattern of police non-intervention in sectarian violence has continued. Christians are an easy target for islamist scapegoating and it’s getting worse.

Still, that may not be the whole story. A Washington Post article reports that after a week not one investigation into these attacks has been launched. Their own investigation at the sites of the attacks casts some doubts on the state’s claim that these were carried out by MBs:


“‘We have seen zero indication that the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization is organizing these attacks,’ said a high-ranking Western official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The official said the blame more likely rested with Islamist vigilantes rather than Brotherhood members acting on orders.”


There are even indications that in some cases in Upper Egypt the police may have been directly implicated in the attacks:


“Egypt’s security forces have rarely stood in the way of the country’s explosive sectarian violence, and the senior Western official said it was not out of the question that the security forces — who typically do not wear uniforms and sometimes carry weapons concealed in their long, flowing galabiyas — had played a role in stirring last week’s violence.”


In spite of these longstanding sectarian tensions, Christian-Muslim solidarity in Egypt, and especially coming out of the January revolution, is not dead. Perhaps some of you have seen this picture by a Muslim girl posted on Facebook. She imagined a mosque consoling a dejected and weeping church. Those feelings too are present in the mix, as seen in the AP article which informs us of “a rare solidarity”:


“Hundreds from both communities thronged two monasteries in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo to thwart what they had expected to be imminent attacks on Saturday, local activist Girgis Waheeb said. Activists reported similar examples elsewhere in regions south of Cairo, but not enough to provide effective protection of churches and monasteries.”


The longstanding enmity between the MBs and the army

After the July 3 2013 coup, the MBs found themselves isolated, as even the Salafis (ultraconservative islamists) openly supported the army’s intervention. But the government’s increasingly violent and heavy-handed repression of the MBs is now helping to recruit more volunteers for the militants’ cause. While the MB leadership condemned the killing of the two dozen policemen, they are less likely able to hold back some of their followers from turning to a violent jihad mode.

That said, Shashank Joshi notes that their rhetoric is often inflammatory:


“But their public narrative - that ‘the struggle to overthrow this illegitimate regime is an obligation’ - chimes with the jihadists' historic opposition to a military that they have fought for decades and whose return to power they fear.”


This is because even though the MBs had conspired with the “Free Officers” to bring about the October Revolution of 1952, they were brutally repressed by the junta two years later – the date for the “great persecution” (mihna). They officially renounced violence at the time and managed to flourish mostly underground in the decades that followed. Though officially banned, they maintained wide public appeal through their social services in poor neighborhoods and gradually dominated most of the professional unions – even winning about a fifth of the seats in Parliament by running as independents. At the same time, as a movement they have also been regularly rounded up, imprisoned and tortured.

Remember too that Nasser, Sadate and Mubarak were all top military officers. These were all authoritarian regimes propped up by a liberal elite that was in fact quite illiberal (read Coptic scholar Samuel Tadros’ short but brilliant historical argument, “Pity Egypt, It Has No Liberals”)

Not surprisingly, therefore, on the heels of the 2011 revolution the MBs were the best organized mass movement poised to reap the benefits of the new order. But their forte was also their greatest weakness – years of persecution had turned them into a secretive and authoritarian movement that thrived under duress but was not prepared for governing.


Morsi’s mistakes

I don’t have the space to take up this discussion, though I was surprised that the Cordoba Foundation, founded by the articulate interfaith-activist and scholar Feisal Abdul Rauf (see his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West), published a paper defending Morsi’s policies written by his senior adviser, Dr. Wael Haddara, entitled “Egypt Narratives: A Brief Critique of the Reasons to Justify the Egyptian Military Coup of July 2013.” Read this and you will see that Morsi did actually try to reach out to other parties and constituencies a lot more than he is usually given credit for.

On the other hand, the Tamarod group, as I explained in my last blog, had no trouble collecting over 20 million signatures from all over Egypt to call for Morsi’s resignation one year into his term as president. He obviously managed to alienate many, many Egyptians.

The best analysis I’ve found is by senior scholar Nathan J. Brown in a short piece published in the New Republic, “Where Does the Muslim Brotherhood Go from Here? Reckoning with Morsi’s Failure.” And if you want a more detailed analysis, see Duke professor Mbaye Lo’s piece in Mondoweis, “Morsi, the Last Caliph-President of Egypt.” Lo, who was in Cairo interviewing various parties after the coup, clearly sides with the Egyptians who did not consider this a “coup,” but rather the army applying the will of the people. For Lo Morsi’s failure was to see that he operated on a concept of legitimacy different from the Egyptian people. The solution will have to come through a political process that spells out what political legitimacy is:


“Morsi’s problem is a clash of legitimacy – his own, which was reduced to procedural democracy, supported by a tacit religious contract, and that of the majority of the Egyptian people, whose revolution had brought him to power. Morsi longed to be the great Islamist leader, while most Egyptians wanted a President for the impaired Arab Republic of Egypt. As the battle continues for a more sustainable democracy in Egypt, crafting a well-defined political contract on the decrees of democracy and the mandates of legitimacy has become indispensable.”


The future of political Islam

I have already gone longer than I wanted . . . Like many others, I’ve all been captivated by the events unfolding over the past couple of months. I just have two quick remarks before I close this series of blogs. One has to do with “political Islam.” The other one I offer as a person of faith.

I said earlier that political Islam as a project will always be present in some form or another. One of the stunning findings by the 7-year in-depth Gallup Poll in over 35 Muslim countries (see Who Speaks for Islam?) was that just about the same percentage (44%) of Iranians and Americans want to see either Qur’an or Bible applied in the political sphere. Majorities in Muslim states are not very different from many Christians who long to see more religious values evidenced in the way laws are debated, enacted and enforced in political life. This is what “Shari’a” stands for in the minds of most Muslims: a corruption-free government, justice meted out in the courts, and human dignity respected for all strata of society.

Note too that Nour, the Salafi party that received the second highest number of votes in Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections and that early on backed the army’s removal of Morsi from office, has been changing its tune as well. Turns out, they’ve been feeling the heat from the crackdown on the MBs … just about any bearded man gets harassed, arrested and beaten up these days. But that’s not likely to persuade (at least) a third of the Egyptian population that they are wrong about wanting God to have a say in the way their country is run.

“But islamism is much more than just that,” you might be objecting. You’re right, and I’ve gone into much more detail on this subject elsewhere on this site. To what extent Muslims feel traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh, or the general rules agreed upon by the major schools of law since the 10th or 11th century) should be followed today is a matter of interpretation – do you follow the Qur’an and Sunna to the letter (see "Severe Penalties and Human Rights"), or should one allow that many of the past rules only applied to the sociopolitical conditions of the past and therefore should be revised in order to take into account the 21st-century context?

Naturally, there’s a spectrum between the two extremes. See, for instance, “Shari’a: Can It Be Outlawed?” and “Emerging Voices in Islamic Jurisprudence” for an overview of some of these issues.

But it’s not all about theology and hermeneutics (interpretation of texts) either. Those are very much tied up with the push and pull of social movements in real-time local politics – which in turn are affected by shifts in the cultural realm (like the impact of western-dominated globalization). These are the dynamics that social scientists study, as I tried to show in a blog about “post-islamism” and another on fundamentalism.

Political scientists studying the role of religion are especially relevant here. See what Harvard’s Jocelyne Césari has to say about the return of the military dictatorship and the longevity of political Islam, as well as U.C. Berkeley’s Cihan Tugal’s about “The End of the ‘Leaderless’ Revolution.” Mohamed Fahmy Menza, a political economist who published a book on the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, offers a great insight into their network of patronage in Egyptian society. His use of “post-islamism” is something he owes to Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat who spent at least a decade in Cairo and now teaches at the University of Illinois (he’s more supportive of the “coup” but still worries about the military’s will to hold on to power). By far the most eloquent testimony to Bayat’s theory of post-islamism is the short interview with the phenomenally smart and articulate 12-year-old Cairene boy Ali Mohamed.


Pray for Egypt!

If you believe that God answers prayer and especially that he hears the cry of the poor and oppressed, then pray for peace in Egypt. Pray for national reconciliation and especially that General Sisi will experience the fear of God – and then stop killing his own citizens and promptly fulfill his promise to set up a civilian government.

Pray for the economy that was tottering before the revolution and is now completely in shambles – an absolute catastrophe for a third of the Egyptian population living on less than $2 a day.

Pray that Muslim-Christian solidarity would spread dramatically as well and that justice will be done for the Christians robbed and killed, and for their houses of worship to be rebuilt.

Now on a more personal note, my wife and I were so grateful that God protected our son and his teammates at a Coptic Orthodox home for the disabled in Cairo last month. Back in the early 1990s we were teaching school in Ismailiyya when he was born (and where Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928!). Hence, we named him “Marc” – after St. Mark, the evangelist, who founded the church in Alexandria around 50 CE. So this was a chance for him to visit the country of his birth.

Marc and his friends came away very humbled by the generosity of their Egyptian hosts. They were especially touched and definitely awed by their determination to protect them with their own lives. Several times, the ruckus and chaos swirling around came ominously close and they truly believed they would die. There had been many taunts and threats in the streets. So they flew out of Cairo relieved, but also with a heavy heart, fearing for their newfound friends. One had been to a demonstration three days before and had not been heard of yet. And they worried about the vigilantes circling the area, most likely bent on making Christians pay for the removal of their president and the subsequent massacres of their own.

I leave you with a 3-minute video of Egyptian evangelicals (called “Coptic Evangelicals” there) interceding for their country right before June 30th, 2013. May their example inspire our own prayers!

Dr. Safi Kaskas is CEO of Strategic Edge, a management consulting firm in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He resides in the US and has been on the board of East-West University in Chicago for many years. More than anything, however, Dr. Kaskas is passionate about reconciliation between the Abrahamic faiths, and especially between Muslims and Christians. Have a look at (and consult regularly!) his Reconciliation Facebook page.

In my first blog I wrote about the different parties to Egypt’s current political crisis in the aftermath of the military coup that deposed President Morsi. I also tried to provide historical background to make better sense of the present dynamics.

This crisis has generated so much commentary on all sides that I decided to write three blogs on the Egyptian crisis. This time it’s about the revolutionaries, who they are and how they see the country’s future. Next time I’ll come full circle asking about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and the role of Islam in general.


Picking up loose ends

I’m thinking of two “loose ends” from the first installment and in light of developments since then: the army’s shocking violations of human rights and role of the US since the coup.

First of all, I will have to agree with John Esposito who wrote a scathing article  in the Huffington Post accusing the army and its secular allies of returning the country to “a military backed authoritarian rule” – what he terms “Mubarak Redux.” General Sisi’s call for people to flood Tahrir Square Friday July 25 in support of the army’s effort to rid the country of “terrorists” is both divisive and dark. How might this pave the way for national reconciliation, the only realistic path away from either a civil war or naked military rule?

The fact that millions answered the call does not justify the tactic. Sisi was obviously playing on a deep-seated loathing of the Brotherhood on the secular side. Tamarod’s (or closer to the Arabic, Tamarrud, “Rebellion”) website before the event called on all Egyptians to come out to support the army “in the coming war against terrorism and cleansing the land.” Fighting words indeed!

By all credible accounts, the aftermath of the parallel protest by Morsi supporters was a second massacre. The army apparently went on a killing rampage in the wee hours of Saturday morning with over seventy dead (no soldiers killed). The Guardian reported that “The crush of dead and injured in the field hospitals was so intense that exhausted doctors struggled to cope”; and that the doctor in charge of the medical supplies said of the victims, “There were bullet holes in the centre of the forehead and right in the back of the skull. It was not just shooting to injure. They were shooting to kill.”

Naturally, this excessive use of force was immediately condemned by the US and EU, and Western countries have continued to call for restraint and for the transitional government to make an effort to bring all parties to the political table to break the current stranglehold. Even before July 27 first the UK and then Washington announced they were delaying  the shipment of promised weapons to Egypt. The Obama Administration in particular said it would put off the shipment of F-16 fighter jets. This is no doubt too little too late, as Americans are now hated by both sides – by the anti-Morsi side because the US supported Morsi until the coup, and by the pro-Morsi side because it didn’t condemn the coup.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Catherine Ashton, had been allowed to visit President Morsi in an undisclosed location. She reported that he was flanked by two advisers, in good spirits and well taken care of. She also seemed cautiously optimistic that in her conversation with all sides some progress could be made despite the drastically different starting points. The EU, plainly, is just about the only outside party that could potentially mediate between the two sides.

Let me add here that, despite my critical tone with regard to US or Saudi involvement in the events leading up to the coup in my first blog, I was not saying these outside influences caused the coup. As National University of Singapore scholar (and Middle East soccer blogger) James Dorsey writes , “It is too simplistic to reduce events to a conspiracy in which the United States and Saudi Arabia together with the military decided that it was time for Morsi to go.”

Perhaps the best piece I can offer you for a more objective – yet still insider – view of the events unfolding in Egypt is a long interview with Sameh Naguib, a leader of the Revolutionary Socialist party. First, despite his own polar differences with the Muslim Brotherhood, he denounces the way in which they are being repressed by the army, by the remnants of the Mubarak regime, and with support from many of the revolutionaries. What happened on two occasions already was “a terrible, terrible massacre.”

Second, as I had indicated earlier, the army had planned to step in and was thrilled be given such a perfect fig leaf in the form of the June 30 Rebellion:


You have on the one hand what is clearly a revolutionary wave involving millions and millions of the Egyptian people. On the other hand, the army and the old regime have used that unprecedented upsurge to get themselves back in the saddle and to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“. . . the coup, in order to legitimate itself both within Egypt and outside - particularly for the west which is important - has a kind of liberal front.  So, all these people who have very good democratic credentials, like El Baradei, have been placed at the forefront as if there were an actual democratic process taking place. And importantly those people, and the financiers behind them, control the media in Egypt. They have big private media at their service, controlled by the billionaires who are supporting these two parties.”


That last statement about the media is a theme I picked up elsewhere as well, and I have now added the new media in the hands of the wealthy industrialist class to the list of “players” in my last blog. As elsewhere, big money seeks to dominate politics no matter the context.

So much for the slight update from the last blog… As the crisis continues to unfold, my purpose here is to step back and give a brief synopsis of the social dynamics of the youth who, after all, triggered the “Arab Spring.”


Who are these revolutionaries?

Mohammed Bamyeh is a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who also happened to be on sabbatical doing research in Cairo the year the January 2011 revolution broke out. I am referring here to his recent piece  in Jadaliyya (an online journal published by the Arab Studies Institute in Beirut and Washington, DC) entitled “The June Rebellion.” Bamyeh has been in Egypt in the last month and interviewed people on the streets. Let me pass on three important points he makes about the revolutionary dynamic.


1. The January revolution is an irreversible social movement with the June rebellion as just one more manifestation of it. As new events unfold, people apply what they learned before. In this sense, we can speak of a revolutionary “unconscious.” In Bamyeh’s words, “What is clear now is that the events we now know as the Arab Spring will constitute a long historical process. It will take many years to arrive at a stable destination defined by a new social consensus.” What one activist told him (“I’m here because I believe in harakat al-shari’ – the “street dynamic”) is indicative of a sea change in the average Egyptian’s involvement with politics. Here Bamyeh expresses both its social impact and its current limitation:


“During the struggle over the constitution at the end of 2012, with millions of people on the streets and the country on the edge of civil war, the most elementary observation of all appeared to escape all concerned: that this was the first time in modern Egyptian history that ordinary individuals actually cared about a constitution in such large numbers. That care was itself a profoundly new social phenomenon, indicating a great social transformation and the entrenchment in society of a perspective that no longer saw whatever happened at the level of high politics as external to ordinary people. But ordinary citizens do not know, yet, how to normalize this high politics, that it to say, how to bring it closer to them.”


Still, I want you to notice how two intelligent and articulate individuals (both “secular,” by the way) can interpret this social dynamic so very differently. Bamyeh is one of the very few sociologists in American academia who is a self-described anarchist (no, Bradly Manning and Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange of Wikileaks, don’t come close to defining a view that favors grassroots movements and mistrusts state power!). Keep that in mind as you read this excerpt commenting on the same phenomenon but seen through the lens of socialist party activist Sameh Naguib. He had just mentioned that this was a revolution that had brought “direct democracy” to millions of ordinary Egyptians. Asked whether this was simply about numbers, he answers: 


It involves sheer numbers in the squares, but many people have the idea that these are a leaderless kind of process. There’s always a leadership in these revolutions. There’s always a method of taking decisions. It’s extremely democratic and people who take part learn about direct democracy, about being involved directly.  Where will the demonstration go to? Will we use violence or not? How will we defend a demonstration? All these questions are up for democratic debate and decision. Again, it is a similar thing with the strike movement.  What do we do with the owner if he closes down the factory? Should we occupy the factory? Should we run the factory instead? There are all sorts of decisions that people learn how to take. In the process they develop a kind of democratic engagement that goes far beyond the very limited framework for democracy that we have worldwide.”


For both Naguib and Bamyeh, the Egyptian people are indeed avid democracy apprentices, learning as they go and eager to find more effective ways to bring about change.


2. We are witnessing the power of “revolutionary legitimacy” at work. This certainly phenomenon fluctuated after the initial January revolution, but its logic was unquestionably at work through the collection of signatures by the Tamarod campaign leading up to June 30. As Bamyeh put it,


Thus the success of the Tamarod campaign in enlisting more than one quarter of the total population of this enormous country in a petition demanding the removal of the president, was a clear indication that the demand possessed more legitimacy than whatever the constitution or any law or court said. Without this campaign and the feelings it generated of the power of society over and above the state and its laws, it is possible that 30 June may have passed as just another day. Revolutionary legitimacy therefore first needed empirical proof of its existence, after which its work became easier.”


Bamyeh notes that it’s like an underground volcano with “episodic eruptions” and that “we should expect revolutionary legitimacy to be our subterranean but sometimes very noisy companion for a long time.” This is because of the contribution of two factors: 1) “acute alertness to all dangers and developments”; 2) a strong suspicion based on past experience that the state and its institutions are corrupt.

I’ll insert a piece to corroborate that second point from the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Egyptian journalist Wael Iskander reported on a movement that was born in December, 2011, after the army brutally attacked peaceful protesters outside the parliament building and then denied using any excessive force. An activist by the name of Sally Toma combined a YouTube video documenting soldiers dragging, beating and stripping a woman while kicking another woman with the audio background of an army spokesman denying any wrongdoing. That was the beginning of a movement called “Liars” (Kazeboon) that has taken Egypt by storm (at the last minute it declared common cause with Tamarod). It has exposed the hypocrisy of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) that ruled Egypt for over a year after the revolution, of the Morsi regime, and now of the military-propped up transitional government.

I say “movement,” because activists who belong to various political parties (and mostly to no parties at all) show these short films projected onto walls or sheets hung up – often in poor neighborhoods across the country. Because they can be downloaded from the internet, they are widely available and very suitable for this kind of grassroots campaigning.

Iskander wraps up his article by summarizing their aim: “Kazeboon will continue to counter the regime's narrative when it distorts the facts, irrespective of who is in power.” And then this more specific addition as a parting word:


“Now that Morsi has been deposed by the military, Kazeboon is exposing lies and violations on different sides. It is preparing to take on whatever remains of the “liars in the name of religion,” such as the Nour party [the Salafists], along with the state apparatus that continues its brutality, impunity, and flawed narrative.”


This is clearly symptomatic of a people shaking their collective apathy, building on their newfound revolutionary consciousness, and awakening to the urgency of telling the state that it cannot make decisions without their consent.


3. Finally, the June 30 crowd – up to 20 million around the country, some say – was extremely diverse and consciously thought of themselves as representing the “Egyptian people.” In the early stages of the project it was the vital energy of the youth activists that carried forward the signatures campaign; but on June 30 the crowd was of all ages and segments of society. Since the target of the protest was an islamist regime, “it could not have succeeded without the mobilization of ordinary conservatism and traditional piety against the idea of a religious government,” comments Bamyeh.

Sarah Eltantawi, a fellow in Arab Studies at U. C. Berkeley doing research in Cairo these days, spent a whole day interviewing and photographing people in Tahrir Square right after the coup (that’s her picture on top of this page). In her blog (look up "Dispatches from Cairo by Sarah Eltantawi") she expressed it this way: “I saw a great, wide variety of people today, from the very poor to the very rich, Muslims of all stripes including several niqaabis [full-face veils, a Salafi marker], Christians (I assume) – really just everyone – a genuine slice of the country.”

Though the final blog in this trilogy is focused on religion, let me just end this one by picking up on this last statement. If many traditional, conservative Muslims joined the rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood, on what ground were they so opposed to them? Eltantawi would agree with Bamyeh that it was a crowd whose anger stemmed from a wound inflicted to their collective Egyptian psyche. Bamyeh writes that “anarchy in June [note his positive use of this term], just as in January, seems closely associated with a patriotic, rather than a nationalistic conception of peoplehood.” It’s revolutionary mostly because it believes itself to embody a “social consensus.”

Eltantawi, for her part, explains that Morsi had tried to rule from his own party only and that the people felt left out. She noted that his political speeches always started with “Ahli wa-‘ashiirati” (“My family and tribe”) – quite the opposite from Sadat who used to address the nation as “My brothers and sisters.” As a result, they feel “rescued” by the army’s intervention and deeply resent the fact that the US (and the international community in general) even considered calling it a “coup” and curtailing their regular funding as a result. As the picture above earnestly conveys, these people see the people calling on the army to intervene – not the other way around.

And then this observation that sums up much of what she heard that day:


People are really and truly insulted that their religiosity and Islamic theology and practice has been questioned by people who seem to think they are better Muslims and thus better people than them. This is hardly a way to win people over. I was on the Qasr al-'Ayni bridge when fitar [the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast] time came; it was eerily silent with people breaking their fast despite the fact that thousands of people were there. Church bells rang at the same time as the ithaan [Islamic call to prayer].”


On this warm note of Muslim-Christian solidarity and with a question rising in our minds about why deeply religious Muslims could be so adamantly against the Muslim Brotherhood, I’ll end here my thoughts about this revolution that, after all, may not be in jeopardy – if only General Sisi keeps his word about truly handing power to a civilian government and a way is found to woo the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political process.

In the run-up to the “June 30th Rebellion” I was already reading everything I could get my eyes on. Then in the aftermath of the military coup that toppled President Morsi on July 3rd, I read even more voraciously. By then, our son and his group of students had been in a poor Christian neighborhood of Cairo for a week and their service project of six weeks looked seriously compromised. In fact, after three weeks they were whisked out at four in the morning in five private cars by the Coptic Orthodox bishop to be sent back to the US. As parents, we were relieved!

So what did I learn from all this reading? For one thing, I noticed both among pundits and scholars that there was an immediate polarization between those who applauded the army’s intervention because it had shored up the popular will (e.g., Khaled Fahmy  and Sarah Carr) and those who decried the army’s “coup” which had ostensibly destroyed the legitimate workings of the democratic process (e.g., Esposito and Voll, Noah Feldman, Fawaz Gerges). This is a return to the repressive “deep state” that the revolution had aimed to sweep aside two years before, they argued.

My title seems to indicate that I side with the second group. Actually, as the days passed, I came to see a wider, more complex reality at work. In fact, it’ll take me another blog to finish my thought on this. Now I’ll start with the protagonists in this unfolding drama and then move on to an analysis on two levels – the longstanding and uneasy political dance between the secular elites, the army and the Islamists, and next time the sociological implications of the emergence of the young revolutionaries.


Players on the Egyptian political chessboard

In this and the next section I’ll lean mostly on the perceptive analysis of UCLA’s Khaled Abou El Fadl not a trained political scientist but a human rights lawyer and a specialist in Islamic law. El Fadl’s concern in his essay, “The Collapse of Legitimacy,” is to highlight the blind and self-serving role the “secular intelligentsia” has played since the 1952 October Revolution (which in a couple of years brought Gamal Abd al-Nasser to power) up to today’s military coup. So here are some of the players in this high-stakes game of chess:

1. The secular-leaning elite, who like their forefathers in the nineteenth century were educated in Western schools and steeped in Western intellectual, civic and political values. They have no faith in the masses; in fact, they are convinced that they only hold the keys to civilization and progress.

2. The “guardians of the state”:

a) First, the army, because ever since the 1952 “revolution” they brought into being by force of arms, all the presidents were from their ranks (Abd al-Nasser, Sadate and Mubarak).

b) Next, the judiciary, mostly represented by its Constitutional Court, whose leader, Adly Mansour, was immediately named by the army as the interim president.

c) Finally, the police, which falls under the Ministry of Interior. Morsi had named Mohammed Ibrahim as Minister of Interior, probably hoping that a leftover of the Mubarak regime would offer him some loyalty in return for the favor. That obviously backfired, as Ibrahim has now been named “transitional Minister of Interior.” Tellingly, even the Republican Guard, sworn to protect the president, didn’t lift a finger to keep him from house arrest but rather killed scores of Morsi protesters by shooting in the crowd.

3. The mostly young, well-educated revolutionaries behind the tamarrod (“rebellion”) movement are the third party to this unfolding drama. More on them in Part 2.

4. The new media, most secular-leaning TV stations, financed by some of Egypt's tycoons; they've bolstered the anti-Morsi sentiment. But the Salafis have received generous donations from Saudi Arabia and they have at least two influential channels. That said, the Muslim Brotherhood has benefitted from Qatari largesse in this area as well. On all these fronts you are witnessing the impact of money made by a few at the top in a capitalist, neoliberal type of economy -- which was certainly favored by the Mubarak regime but also Morsi's. Since top military brass owns close to 40% of the pie, don't look for any changes on the new horizon.

4. The masses – by which I mean the rural and urban poor for whom Islam is central to their daily lives and the core of their identity. Cairo sociologist Saad al-Din Ibrahim likes to call them the “lumpen proletariat.” They voted overwhelmingly for islamist candidates, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. One would have to add to their number, however, the urban middle classes who handsomely benefitted from President Sadate’s sudden turn to neoliberal capitalism in the mid-1970s and who to a large extent supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

That fourth group is terribly important – Egypt as a whole, including its ten-percent Christian minority, is very religious. Islam, for the foreseeable future, will have to figure in some shape or fashion in the political landscape. This is the point made by John Esposito and John Voll, both senior islamicists at Georgetown University. For that reason they both decry the army’s July 3rd forceful takeover and warn all who supported it about their shortsightedness:


“It is wishful thinking on the part of the old Mubarak regime holdovers and the disorganized secular elite in Egypt to think that their counter-revolution will change the general popular Egyptian identification with Islam. The goal should not be to oust those Islamists who are working within the system, it should be to find bridges of accommodation in which the secularists and those identified with the old military regime people will make as many compromises as they demanded from President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless this is done, the risk is the creation of a cycle, more military repression and bloodshed and a return to military backed authoritarian rule in Egypt.”


Ignoring the people’s “identification with Islam” guarantees that the revolution hasn’t yet found its balance. [For a great discussion between a top Brotherhood leader, a secular-leaning political scientist, and an Egyptian-British sholar on islamist movements, see this debate on al-Jazeera]. All these players will have to somehow figure out a way to come to the table together and discuss these issues face to face. That is the only sustainable solution. Either way, the road looks very steep up ahead.


These players and the external pressures on them

It was in fact the young, mostly secularist revolutionaries, who spearheaded the June 30 Rebellion. At the same time, the army had been looking for an excuse to overthrow Morsi for some time (The Daily Beast). Washington was also nudging it in that direction (both Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey had repeatedly been on the phone with their Egyptian counterparts for the last week, according to Garikai Chengu; Abou El Fadl writes, “the military stated negotiating with Washington, D.C. to remove Morsi from power”). The US military and the Egyptian one have been working closely since the 1979 Camp David Accords. Unfortunately, some of the leverage Washington counts on in return for their cash gets diluted through lucrative deals with US arms dealers.

And then too, since the 2011 Revolution the State Department’s “democracy assistance” initiative has been channeling funds to a variety of anti-Morsi politicians and activists. Al-Jazeera obtained documents from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program to show that some of this money had gone to some rather unsavory characters. Nonetheless, acting like a typical colonial power, the United States, while simultaneously upholding the legitimacy of the Morsi government on the international scene (angering many of the secular elites), also earmarked clandestine aid for the opposition. Egypt’s location makes it very strategic, especially for the US and Israel – its military will receive $1.3 billion in 2014, if Obama gets his way. The Suez Canal too is a key passageway for oil tankers.

Moreover, US interests in the affair nicely dovetailed with those of the Arabian Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia, see The American Conservative on this – but definitely not pro-Brotherhood Qatar!).

These facts are all interesting, to be sure, but despite outside pressures from several quarters, as I said, Egyptians will have to come to terms with their own future. And for this, knowing the past is always a useful starting point.


Some useful historical perspective

Here’s Abou El Fadl’s basic thesis:


“The military coup, even if it came in response to widespread grievances, is a fatal blow to the Egyptian Revolution. It is a fatal blow because it reaffirmed the politics of the old guardians in Egypt. It confirmed the traditional polarized, mutually exclusivist and equally supremacist politics that has prevailed, not only in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East since the colonial era. Unfortunately, the military coup and the return of the repressive security forces in Egypt came as a natural conclusion to the elasticity of the claims of legitimacy made by so many parties after the revolution.”


He then adds, “But more than anything else, it is the Egyptian secular intelligentsia and the revolutionaries themselves that forced the revolution to commit suicide.” Why is that? The root of this age-old conflict to the death about legitimacy is found in the attitude of the secular elites, argues El Fadl. Since the 1950s Arab dictators from Gamal Abd al-Nasser to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (and his son Bashar) have dismissed (arrested, tortured and killed as well!) members of any and all islamists movements, accusing them of being agents of foreign powers.

Though the nineteenth century did see an Islamic reform movement that tried to reconcile modern notions of freedom and human dignity (like the great Muhammad Abduh in Egypt), these elites were “thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought” and “knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition. Indeed, this intelligentsia saw their own native tradition largely through Western eyes.” This prejudice hardened even more with the advent of the socialist Pan-Arab agenda adopted by the intelligentsia from the mid-1950s on. For them, religion was clearly an obstacle to “progress.”

The secular Arab state tolerated religion, but only as fenced-in within certain parameters. Observe in the following quote from El Fadl how the state take-over of al-Azhar University in Cairo (the most prestigious seat of Islamic learning worldwide) in the 1960s had repercussions in the events of July 2013:


“The secular state created officially sanctioned podiums for religion and, in effect, created an official state religion that rubber-stamped and legitimated state politics. At the same time, this state-sponsored religion lost its legitimacy on the ground as the clergy of Azhar became salaried employees of the state. With the domestication of the native Azhari clergy, critical Islamic thought drifted into stale apologetics that placated and satisfied only the most uninspired and unchallenging intellects. This helps explain the powerful symbolism invoked when El-Sissi placed the Shaykh of al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church on either side of him when he announced his coup.”


The 1967 Arab defeat at the hand of Israel was the watershed moment for the masses, however. Preachers in nearly every mosque begin telling them that this humiliation came directly from the hand of God who was now punishing them for abandoning his ways (or his “shari’a”). This marked the beginning of a populist islamist opposition movement that only gained greater momentum with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, despite its Shi’i origin. [I was living in Algeria at the time, and I saw the mosques which had been nearly empty save a few old men fill up over night with young people].

But even as the people became more religious and the call for the state to shed its secular agenda more strident, the rulers simply multiplied their repressive measures in a bid to hold on to power. They did so, however, by claiming for themselves the ideals of the Western-led international order: democracy, pluralism, and human rights. The fact that a faction of islamists had become violent, especially in the 1990s, was a boon to their cause. Western nations were only too glad to call Mubarak an ally in the “War on Terror.”

Now for the 2011 Revolution: “The Egyptian revolution was sparked by an idealistic group of youth who had lost faith in all the institutions of power. This youth was defiant, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted. But it was successful because the destitute masses had suffered enough.” So the secular elites were now forced to practice what they had preached all along, and without the power of the repressive state (mostly the army) to back them up. As El Fadl puts it,


“For the first time, they could not simply dismiss the Islamists with contempt and arrogance, and they would have to figure out a native language – a language that does not simply transplant Western concepts, ideas and historical movements, but would actually empower these ideas with meaning to the Egyptian people. Would the secular intelligentsia be capable of working through the will of the people without guardian state institutions such as the army, police, or judiciary to package this will and present it in a palatable fashion?”


You can read all the details of Abou El Fadl’s essay for yourself. Let me add just two more points he makes near the end:

1. He thinks the Saudis were deliberately sabotaging Morsi by turning off their oil spigot and causing power outages and gasoline shortages. They certainly had the power to do so.

2. The June 30 Rebellion was a gift to the secular intelligentsia, who were already calling on the old guardians of the state (military and judiciary) to step in. As he puts it, “Reminiscent of the role they have consistently played since the colonial era, they called upon old guardians to save the country from the follies of its natives.”

Well, you can see where his argument is going – the revolutionaries were naïve enough to rely on the army. Indeed, they unwittingly brought back the old regime and the revolution is no more. Or is it?

I will continue in my next blog by analyzing the revolutionary movement from a sociological perspective.

There are times in the history of God’s dealing with humanity when the wall between the human world of time and space and the invisible, supernatural world of God and angels becomes paper-thin. That’s when angels appear. Think of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels walking up and down. God, at the top of the ladder, begins speaking to him, renewing the promises made to his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac. Upon awakening in the morning Jacob declared, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!” (Gen. 28:17 NLT).

Fast-forward more than a millennium and a half to a starry night in the countryside below the village of Bethlehem where shepherds were watching their sheep. Luke, the only Gentile author in the Bible, tells the story:

“Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. ‘Don’t be afraid!’ he said. ‘I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.’ Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in highest heaven,

and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.’” (Luke 2:9-14 NLT).

Finally, Matthew takes us to a little mountaintop where Jesus had taken his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Here the allusions to Moses and Mount Sinai are meant to strike the reader:

As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, ‘Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.’ The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus. As they went back down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mat. 17:2-9 NLT).

You can almost hear Matthew whisper under his breath, “Pay attention to the symbols of this Jewish Messiah!” You have the mountain, terror and awe, the voice of God, the cloud (Shekinah glory), and – most importantly – two of the greatest representatives of Israelite prophethood: Moses, who presided over the Exodus and received the Law; and Elijah, the greatest prophet in the days of the kings who was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot.

But you also have one greater than the prophets. His whole being radiates with light and God’s voice intones, “This is my dearly loved Son.”

This is the message passed on by all the New Testament writers in different ways. Heaven bursts open with the jubilation of angels – the time had finally come for the revelation of the Son and his ushering in the kingdom of God, and for the wonderful news of salvation not just for Jews but for all humankind. In the opening words of the book of Hebrews:

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names” (Heb. 1:1-4 NLT).

Though the idea of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s glory on earth is present throughout the New Testament, I’ll limit myself to just two instances, which perhaps best highlight the commonalities and contrasts of Islamic and Christian understandings of God’s glory.

Moses’ veil and the surpassing glory of the New Covenant

Moses climbed the mountain three times. First, there was a brief meeting with God who then gave him instructions on the procedures for the revelation of the Law (Ex. 19:3-6). Then there were the two extended stays on the mountain (both “40 days and nights”; the first, Ex. 24:13 to 32:7, after which Moses smashes the first set of tablets, v. 19; then the second stay, Ex. 34:1-29). It was on that last descent with the second pair of tablets in hand that the scriptures mention, “he wasn’t aware that his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the Lord” (Ex. 34:29).

As noted in the last blog, once the tabernacle was built, Moses would come out from one of his meetings with God with his face glowing. Because this instilled fear in the people, it seems, Moses would then veil his face.

The Apostle Paul had his own interpretation of these stories in his second letter to the Corinthians. Traditional Jewish interpretation sees Moses’ face shining till his dying day. Paul apparently knew of a different tradition, because his argument is based on the progressive fading of that glow on Moses’ face. He sets out to prove that however “glorious” the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai had been, the New Covenant through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is much more glorious. The Old Covenant, written as it was on stone tablets, led to death – no one can be saved by obeying the commandments, because it is humanly impossible to live so perfectly. But, just as the prophets Jeremiah (31:33-35) and Ezekiel (36:26-27) had predicted, the New Covenant would be written on people’s hearts through the Holy Spirit. Here’s his reasoning:

“If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way . . . We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away. But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ . . . But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (II Cor. 3:9-10; 13-14; 16-18 NLT).

Yes, says Paul, Moses did talk with God face to face. But he was only the mediator of a transitional covenant – one that was to prepare for the coming of Messiah who through his vicarious death wiped away our sins and reconciled us to God. What is more, the New Covenant releases the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, bringing true freedom -- (s)he is now free to live for God and reflect his glory more and more each day. Thus we read in Chapter 5 of the same letter, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:19 NIV). He also puts it this way, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21 NIV).

Jesus, the final revelation of God’s glory

It’s the passage in between those two chapters in II Corinthians that launched me in into this 3-blog series in the first place. Here Paul speaks of the Jews (including also the Gentiles) who refused his message of “Good News” (or “gospel”) as blinded by a veil. So in the same passage, Paul transitions from Moses wearing a veil to the Jews continuing to wear a similar veil – similar because it shields them from seeing the glory of God in his Messiah Jesus: “Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand” (II Cor. 3:15).

Paul, the first great Christian missionary, had consistently endured hardships, persecution, and narrowly escaping death on many occasions while planting churches all over territories now occupied by Turkey and Greece. For him the great opposition to the gospel was spiritual in nature – Satan jealously defending his earthly kingdom from the advances of God’s expanding kingdom through the preaching of Jesus’ followers. In his own words,

“If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God” (II Cor. 4:3-4 NLT).

With the next two verses I will close this series on God’s glory. Notice already the correlation between God’s light and his glory – something we also pointed to in the Qur’an. What is more, an influential Sufi tradition well attested in the Sunna associates God’s light with the preexisting “Light of Muhammad.” Still, there is no hint that the Prophet might also be divine.

Here by contrast, Paul rejoins John and the other New Testament writers in affirming that Jesus shared God’s glory because in some sense he is God. In the famous prayer Jesus prays moments before he is arrested, he addresses the Father in these words, “I brought glory to you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began” (John 17:4 NLT).

So the common ground is God’s glory and light, graphically pictured in the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai. Included in that are all the ethical values that go along with the metaphor or symbol of light: truth, integrity of character, justice, and the like. Light dispels darkness and overcomes it. All God’s revealed books, says the Qur’an, are light – including of course the “gospel.” And much of what it affirms about Jesus the prophet can also supported from the New Testament. But Jesus or Isa as “word from God” or “spirit from God” will necessarily be interpreted differently by each community.

In fact, the commonalities veer into opposing views on the nature of revelation. As I mentioned in the beginning of this series, for Muslims, God sent down a book; for Christians God sent down his Son. Muslims and Christians will need to keep on preaching what they feel God revealed to them. My hope is that this will happen increasingly in a spirit of humility and respect, and with ears attuned to what the other is saying too. But preaching and “invitation” (da’wa) must always be part of the mix of Muslim-Christian relations. So I end with Paul:

“We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:5-6 NLT).

I find it fascinating that God’s glory in both Qur’an and Bible revolves around Moses and his prophetic role at Mount Sinai – except that, as we will now see, this theme thoroughly permeates the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament – I’m hoping Jews will enter this dialog as well!). As we learned from the Ayatollah Khomeini in the first blog, God’s glory is actually more tied up with his “Beautiful Names,” one of which is “glorious” (majid, Q. 11:73; 85:15).

We’ll start with Moses, looking both at the light that shone from his face (leading him to wear a veil) and at God’s “Shekinah glory,” the supernatural combination of light and cloud that accompanied the Israelites through the desert after the Exodus and later manifested in the Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple.


The word kabod in the Hebrew Bible

Though there are other words for “glory” in the Hebrew Bible, by far the one most used to convey the idea of honor and dignity (189 times) is kabod. Literally, it means “to be heavy or weighty.” One of its rare negative connotations relates to sin: something or someone “heavy with sin.” Almost always though, kabod conveys the weight of honor and value (think of gold or a person with great influence).

Here we immediately run into a theology of humanity. Look at Psalm 8 that begins with this Semitic connection between a person’s name and his/her very being and dignity: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory fills the heavens.” Then the psalmist reflects on the human being, the crown of God’s creation:


“[W]hat are mere mortals that you should think about them,

human beings that you should care for them?

Yet you made them only a little lower than God

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You gave them charge of everything you made,

putting all things under their authority—

the flocks and the herds

and all the wild animals,

the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,

and everything that swims the ocean currents” (Ps. 8:4-8 NLT).


Think too of the Bible’s opening page:


So God created human beings in his own image.

In the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them and said,

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.

Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky,

and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Gen. 1:27-28).


So God imparted a small portion of his indescribable light (his “image”) on his human representatives, those empowered by him to rule over the earth’s creatures in his stead. Hence, the common Muslim-Jewish-Christian theme running through this website: all of us together on this planet are mandated by our Creator to manage well the affairs of this Good Earth … and for this we will be held accountable on the Last Day.


Moses’ shining face

The story of Moses’ amazing experience in the Exodus picks up this theme of God’s tangible and luminous presence among his people. The next section deals with the “pillar of cloud by day” and the “pillar of fire by night.” Here we move directly to Moses’ third experience on Mount Sinai after he had smashed the first set of stone tablets out of anger at the people’s idolatry and debauchery.

Just as the second time Moses climbed the mountain to receive God’s law, the sight of God’s glory was spectacular, even terrifying:


Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:15-18).


Perhaps not surprisingly, those many days of intimate communion with God left a physical mark on Moses. As he comes down the mountain, says the text, his face was shining, causing fear in his brother Aaron and all the people (Exodus 34:29). So after his initial instructions to them, he put a veil over his face. This became a pattern:


When Moses finished speaking with them, he covered his face with a veil. But whenever he went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with the Lord, he would remove the veil until he came out again. Then he would give the people whatever instructions the Lord had given him, and the people of Israel would see the radiant glow of his face. So he would put the veil over his face until he returned to speak with the Lord” (Ex. 34:33-35).


Here I pick up a commentary by a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah (from a large but diverse movement called “Messianic Judaism” – most definitely not recognized by mainstream Judaism). John Parsons cites a midrash (like tafsir for the Qur’an, or “commentary”), writing that “the radiance on Moses' face was a reflection of the Divine Light God created on the first day - a light that was 60,075 times brighter than the sun.”

Allow me to interject here a tantalizing parallel in the Islamic tradition. According to Q. 7:172 all human souls were brought before God in Adam’s presence and made to swear their allegiance to God as their Lord. This is the basis of the Islamic belief that everyone is born “muslim” (submitted to God). At that point, all the future prophets stood out from the masses as shining lights, but none as bright as Muhammad, whose substance had been created first (hence, before Adam), yet who was sent to earth as the last prophet. Even before his lifetime, Muhammad’s father’s forehead shone already – or, according to one tradition, “a light rested between his eyes.” Then his mother Amina witnessed several miraculous visions while pregnant with him.

Legends often grow up around great religious figures. Muhammad is no exception. In the body of hadith (reports about what the Prophet said or did, written some 2 or 300 years later) we read that during his 22 years as prophet light consistently emanated from his body. “Whenever he went in darkness,” says one hadith, “light was shining around him like the moonlight.” At other times on a dark night his fingers would light up the way for his disciples. In all these instances, what is at stake is the “proof” of Muhammad b. Abdallah’s prophethood – the Nur Muhammadi, the primordial light of Muhammad. I find it likely that this idea originated in the Jewish-Muslim-Christian dialogs and debates in Medina during the period of the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” (632-661) and beyond.

Back to Moses and his radiant face coming down from the mountain. Have you ever wondered why medieval art represents Moses with horns jutting out of his head? John Parsons tells us that Jerome in his 4th century Latin translation of the Bible mistook keren (horns) for karan (shone). Aside from the humor of a whole iconographic tradition originating in a confusion of terms, it must have been frustrating for Jerome to explain what the veil had to do the horns!

On a more serious note, in the next blog we will have to disentangle another knot with regard to Paul’s midrash of Moses and the veil.


The Shekinah glory of God

God’s dramatic deliverance of Abraham’s descendants from their enslavement to Pharaoh – the Exodus – culminates with the covenant on Mount Sinai. As the Israelites vow to obey the law given to Moses on their behalf, God commits to being their God. As he says to Moses on his first encounter on the mountain, “Now if you obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6 NLT).

Thus begins God’s tangible self-disclosure in the physical world. This is the “Shekinah glory” of God, though not a term in the biblical text itself, but used by later Jewish sources to refer to God’s visible presence particularly in the tabernacle and first temple. Coming from the verb meaning “to dwell” (cognate of the Arabic verb sa-ka-na), it denotes God’s glory resting among his people in the place he chooses to dwell.

Its first instance is the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night – God’s guiding and protecting hand over the Israelites as they fled Egypt in the Exodus (Ex. 13:21). Its “consuming fire” even kept Pharaoh’s army from reaching them when they were backed up against the Red Sea the night before God parted it to let the Israelites through.

This Shekinah presence of God next manifests with the completion of the portable desert sanctuary, the tabernacle:


Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:33-34 NIV).


The early pattern of the Exodus continued throughout the forty years in the wilderness:


In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels (Ex. 40:37-38 NIV)


 In the same manner, when King Solomon has completed the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, he initiated a solemn ritual involving thousands of animal sacrifices and loud praises performed by the priestly musicians, in the midst of which he and Israel’s elders followed the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred vessels of the old tabernacle into their new sanctuary. Then we read:


When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple” (I Kings 8:10-11 NLT).


My Muslim readers may recall that the word Shekinah appears twice in the Qur’an but with a different meaning and a different function. The context is the minor pilgrimage to Mecca (‘umra) that Muhammad led with a few thousand Muslims in 628. The Meccans stopped the peaceful procession in the plain of Hudaybiya, just a few miles away. After two days of negotiation, both sides signed a treaty stipulating that the Muslims will be allowed to make the full pilgrimage the next year. In the meantime, they must now return to Medina, but a truce between Mecca and Medina will stand for ten years. On the same occasion, Muhammad’s followers, despite many of them being dissatisfied by what they perceived as their leader pacifying the enemy through compromise, nevertheless pledged allegiance to him under a tree in the plain of Hudaybiya. In the sura devoted to this topic (Fath, “Triumph”), we read:


“God was pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance to you [Prophet] under the tree: He knew what was in their hearts and so He sent tranquility (sakina, Arabic cognate of Hebrew shekinah) down to them and rewarded them with a speedy triumph” (Q. 48:18 Abdel Haleem).


So in that first instance, the sakina was a peaceful willingness to submit to their leader as they submitted to God. And as it turned out, this treaty proved to be a boon for the Muslim side, for it allowed Muhammad to rally most of the other Arabian tribes to his cause. Two years later, he rode victoriously into Mecca with 10,000 soldiers. Islam had indeed triumphed.

The sakina also applied to Muhammad personally at Hudaybiya. In the second instance this word is used, the tranquility that is “sent down” (recall that this is the qur’anic way of depicting revelation) is meant to reassure Muhammad and bind him to his followers  as a new nation distinct from the “ignorance” (jahiliyya) of pagan Arabian society:


“While the disbelievers had stirred up fury in their hearts – the fury of ignorance – God sent His tranquility down on to His Messenger and the believers and made binding on them [their] promise to obey God, for that was more appropriate and fitting for them. God has full knowledge of all things” (Q. 48:26 Abdel Haleem).


The people’s pledge (bay’a) to Muhammad offers some intriguing parallels to the Sinai covenant, albeit much less dramatic. But the text unquestionably points to God’s “sending down” his sakina at this pivotal moment in the formation of a new people under God.


Hints of the incarnation to come

From a Christian viewpoint, the Shekinah glory of God points to the coming both of the Son in Bethlehem and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So much could be said about all of this, but let me just remind you of John’s Prologue with which I ended the first blog. In the time of God’s choosing, the Word – “who was with God and was God” – “became human and made his home among us” (John 1:14). The Greek literally reads, “pitched his tent among us.”

As God’s Shekinah glory filled the tabernacle and then the temple as it was inaugurated, so God took a more radical step and pitched his tabernacle among his people in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He actually became one of them, though born without a human father and the stain of sin so as to become on the cross “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).