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

David L Johnston


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


The Bright Star

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


The Light of Creation

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

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

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


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

Verily, before your Lord made any other thing,

He created from His own Light

the light of your Prophet [s]


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

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


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

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

. . .

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


Back to Christmas

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


A law journal asked me to contribute an article on Muslim and Christian understandings of human rights, so I was thinking about recent sources. Then like most of you, I heard about the Pope’s first “apostolic exhortation” last week – mostly because Francis, as the media portrayed it, was so critical of capitalism.

So, hopeful and curious about the first document authored by the new pope, I decided to read it (about 224 pages in the official pdf version).

I was not disappointed. I found several passages in the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that were helpful for my paper and, more importantly, as a Protestant Christian, I was genuinely inspired by its content and strengthened in my own faith.

But before I get into the document, let me share some of my past to help you make better sense of this blog.


My Catholic experiences in Algeria

Of my sixteen years in the Arab world I spent the first nine years in Algeria (1978-87). I served as assistant pastor for the first four years in the only English-speaking Protestant church, the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, and then five years in the French-speaking Eglise Protestante d’Algérie.

For the first eight years I lived as a single person in community with other internationals related to the church. In fact, my lifestyle was very similar to that of my Catholic friends, priests and consecrated brothers and sisters of various religious orders. We all lived simply, and I would support myself financially through occasional jobs translating or interpreting from French to English or vice versa. In community it was share and share alike and I didn’t need any regular income.

Just a five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I first lived was the White Fathers’ Diocesan Center – arguably the best Arabic language school in North Africa at the time. I first went through their 3-year course in the Algerian Arabic dialect and then attended classes with a Lebanese priest who taught modern standard Arabic to Algerian government cadres who had found themselves severely off-balance with the ongoing “Arabization” campaign imposed by the state. Like me (I grew up in France), their education had all been in French. In that setting, Father Mousali was amazingly adept at inculcating Arabic grammar and vocabulary using the newspaper and a love for the language at the same time.

Besides the fact that I made many friends among my Catholic colleagues along the way, two events stand out. The first was my official ordination into the ministry in 1982. I was associated with a small congregational denomination, which, amazingly, approved an ecumenical setting for the ceremony in Algiers. It lasted just under two hours at the Anglican church, with a variety of other clergy participating, including the Catholic archbishop Henri Tessier, who at one point offered a spontaneous prayer of blessing in French, English and Arabic.

Four years later, he attended my wedding, along with Cardinal Duval and a good two hundred other people, Algerian and internationals. Through our common efforts in the Bible Society and in other venues, these exceptional leaders had become true friends.

I have to say, I learned a great deal about spirituality and new depths of the Christian tradition from my Catholic friends in Algeria.

And yes, I’ve been teaching as an adjunct at a Catholic university for the past seven years – another good experience!


Pope Francis and “The Joy of the Gospel”

This document is no official pronouncement on theology or church law, like an encyclical or an apostolic constitution. It’s a pastoral letter by the pope addressed to his worldwide parish, in this case specifically exhorting Catholics to live out their faith so as to draw non-Christians to the love of Jesus that is for everyone. The Church as a whole should be focused primarily on its mission:


“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation . . . As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion’” (p. 25).


The reformation the Church that he proposes is entirely aligned with this objective – making the Church, from its leaders down to each faithful, truly follow its Master, who lived only for others, and in particular, the poor and disenfranchised. Instead of turning inward, it must turn outward.

Like many previous such papal pronouncements, this one was occasioned by a Synod of Bishops in October 2012 on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” So his “exhortation” follows up on the theme of the “new evangelization.” But clearly, Pope Francis feels this theme is providential. You feel it in the passion of his writing:


“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?"

“Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.”

“A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary” (pp. 196, 198, 203).


Plainly, Francis believes Jesus is for everybody. But nowhere does he say that embracing Jesus means people become Catholics or Christians. Though of course that remains an option for those who so desire, his concept of evangelism is much broader and more comprehensive. Two concepts help bring this idea into focus. The first is the framework Jesus used for his own teaching – the Kingdom of God:


“The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society” (p. 142).


In a way reminiscent of much Islamic discourse today, Pope Francis contends that religion cannot be restricted to the private sphere or be exclusively about people’s welfare in the hereafter. Rather, “the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being” (p. 144). He explains:


“Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society … And authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that [sic] we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice’” (Benedict XVI, p. 145).


The second concept that informs his view of evangelization is that of Christ’s incarnation. God who sent his Son as a human being in order to redeem the human race continues through his Holy Spirit this work of redemption both in the lives of individuals and in societies writ large. Each human being was created in God’s own image and “is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives” (p. 204). For this reason God cares too about the social, economic and political structures that bind people together. But it starts with treating our neighbor as if she were Christ himself:


“God’s word teaches us that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’” (Mat. 7:2).


God’s infinite care for every human being is what also animates his desire to see justice implemented on all levels of human society. Perhaps the word “solidarity” best captures this aspect of Catholic social teaching, and in particular the message that Pope Francis aims to communicate here.


Pope Francis and human solidarity

We already read this phrase above, “The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’” This theme must also be placed alongside another Catholic doctrine, the preferential option for the poor. Here is one helpful explanation of it:


“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salva­tion came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18).


It is precisely at this juncture that you can begin to situate the pope’s thoughts on economic issues. This is where human solidarity comes into play:


“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual” (pp. 149-50).


It is this divine call to solidarity that sparked this oft-quoted passage of the document:


“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (p. 45).


This passage too was often cited in the news – loving one’s neighbor means looking at changing unjust economic structures:


“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” (p. 46).


Francis is clear that he’s not interested in this or that political ideology. Unsurprisingly, an article in the Economist commented on this document under this title, "Left, Right, Left, Left." The truth is, he’s a lot harder to categorize than that.

My only concern in this blog is to point out his robust message of social justice based on the inalienable human dignity of each person by virtue of creation. At the very least, you can sense this kind of compassion fueling Nicholas Kristof’s recent column. What is more, following the example of Jesus will lead us to boldly stake our solidarity with the poorest of the poor:


“It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others” (p. 164).


Reminiscing about my Catholic friends who truly lived in solidarity with the poor in Algeria only reinforces the challenge I feel from Pope Francis’ exhortation. How can I – how can we, no matter what our religious affiliation might be – do more “to leave this world somehow better than we found it”?


My first blog dealt with the interpretive assumptions and methods of the Salafis (the “Neo-Traditionalists” in Adis Duderija’s book, Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam). So who are these “progressive Muslims” who stand in such contrast to the ultraconservative Salafis?

In his Introduction, Duderija announces that for the second half of the book he will be “drawing on the works of leading progressive Muslim thinkers such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omid Safi, Farid Esack, Ebrahim Moosa, Kecia Ali, Amina Wadud, and others” (p. 3). All but one (Farid Esack, and maybe Amina Wadud nowadays) are academics teaching in American universities. What they do have in common, at least in terms of this label, is that they and others contributed to a sort of manifesto in 2003 – a book Omid Safi edited, entitled, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism.

But lest you think it’s all about American Islam, Safi wrote this in an article that same year:


“Progressive Muslims are found everywhere in the global umma. When it comes to actually implementing a progressive understanding of Islam in Muslim countries, particular communities in Iran, Malaysia, and S. Africa are leading, not following the United States” (quoted in Duderija, pp. 121-2).


Duderija explains that progressive Muslims share in the general reforming trend of the “classical modernists” of the 19th century – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Abduh. They also represent a clean break from that “modern” movement. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to write that Duderija himself was writing from a “postmodern” perspective (a complex idea that my book Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – now in paperback – seeks to elucidate).

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three areas progressive Muslims are most concerned about (realize too that this is a very diverse group of people with a whole spectrum of views on many things and who, additionally, pride themselves in that diversity!):


1. Postmodern hermeneutics: they believe language is fluid, evolving and giving rise to multiple meanings. Hence, a text doesn’t speak for itself. What is its literary genre? What are the circumstances of its production? What is known about the author? But equally, what are some of the lenses through which a particular reader or commentator has approached the text? Personality, culture, sociopolitical circumstances, academic discipline, school of thought and more – these are some of the filters that affect how the text is absorbed and understood. But it’s not only true that we have to investigate a sacred text’s historical context if we want to interpret it correctly, but also that no interpretation is final, since readers at different times bring different questions and concerns to the text. In the end, meaning is mostly constructed by the reader – like what I said about theology in the first blog. It too is always worked out in particular contexts and therefore remains a very tentative, ongoing, and hopefully humble enterprise.


2. Ethical values are paramount: without discarding or even disparaging the rich legacy of Islamic law (Shari’a in the sense of fiqh – the accumulated jurisprudence of the four Sunni schools of law and the Shi’i Ja’fari school), progressive Muslims view that body of knowledge as honorable but also time bound. Another way of putting this is to return to my first two of three lenses I offered in the previous blog. They reject ethical voluntarism (something is “good” because God commands it) in favor of ethical objectivism (good and evil are moral absolutes, i.e., they exist independently of God and humans). With regard to their theology of humanity, they believe that humanity’s divine calling as God’s earthly trustees equips and mandates them to rule over creation with justice, compassion and love. Specifically, they are to defend the rights of the poor, the discriminated against and the most vulnerable (especially women) and fight all manifestations of arrogant power (“empire”) so that all human beings are given the chance to live free, with dignity and the basic amenities of life.

This means that any past rules and injunctions of Islamic jurisprudence that do not meet these criteria need to be revised to fit humanity’s new understanding of a good society. After all, these values are clearly taught by the Qur’an and the Sunna. Human rights, therefore, democracy and the rule of law apply to all, Muslims and non-Muslims. International law is a necessary requirement of a world of nation-states and deserves to be continually submitted to debate and refinement by members of the international community.


3. A politics of liberation: Farid Esack is a veteran of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and Omid Safi is an Iranian-American who is outspoken in his critique of both the authoritarianism of the Mullah-driven Iranian regime and the arrogance of the global American empire. Social justice not only means liberation for those economically oppressed by neoliberal capitalist policies and the selfishness and greed of the rich. It also means gender justice, which they see as a crying need in most Muslim-majority countries. Hence, a vibrant feminist discourse runs through most of their literature and animates their activism in many places.


The progressive Muslims’ “ideal believer”

Only three authors from this perspective have written about this topic, the South African Farid Esack, the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur and the late Nasr Abu Zayd who was condemned as an apostate by a Cairo Shari’a court in 1995 and finished his career in the Netherlands. For my purposes here, I’ll stick with Esack and his book, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997) and Duderija’s general thread about how progressives see the issue of the religious Other.

Here is a summary of some of the points Duderija makes in this section of his book (pp. 169-77):


1. The Sunna is much more than a collection of hadiths, bearing in mind too that progressive Muslims are much more skeptical about the authenticity of most of these individual reports. So with respect to the “religiously hostile” hadiths quoted especially by the Salafis, “they contradict the concept of Sunna as based on the overall Qur’anic attitude . . . toward the religious Other as well as on the Prophet’s praxis [or “practice,” a term Esack borrowed from Christian liberation theology], which is an embodiment of that attitude” (p. 171, emphasis his).


2. The Qur’an embraces a position of inclusivism, even of pluralism, with regard to other faith traditions. Term like islam (submission to God), iman (faith in God), kufr (unbelief), ahl al-kitab (people of the book), din (debt, obligation, but later used at “religion”) and the like do not point to a particular “reified” religious identity and institutional framework (as “Islam” came to be known subsequently), but rather are dynamic and “multi-dimensional, i.e., having a number of meanings and connotations ranging from an intensely personal/spiritual to doctrinal, ideological, and sociopolitical, but all of which are inextricably intertwined.” Those meanings change over time, he adds, and “they are linked to issues of righteous deeds and conduct, i.e., to orthopraxis [“right action,” as opposed to orthodoxy, or “right doctrine”).

Some Qur’anic verses are often cited in this regard:

“To each of you We have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed He would have made you a single people but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of all matters in which ye dispute” (Q. 548).

“If it had been the Lord’s Will they would all have believed all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind against their will to believe!” (Q. 10:99).

[The immediate context is the permission to fight in self-defense] “Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure?” (Q. 49:13; see also 22:40).

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an) and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians and who believe in Allah and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve” (Q. 2:62; 5:69; 22:17).


3. Faith in God is tied to good works, and especially the mandate to bring about social justice. This is one of the main points of Esack’s book based on his own experience of nonviolent struggle against the evil apartheid regime in the 1980s alongside people of other faiths, and in particular Christians steeped in liberation theology (its origins go back to Marxist-inspired Catholic groups in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s; it then attracted many Protestant theologians in South Africa and elsewhere).

This connection is clearly drawn in the last verse quoted above, yet it can be seen consistently taught throughout the Qur’an, as in the Bible, of course (consider Jesus’ teaching that a tree is known by its fruits and James’ emphasis on the idea that faith without works is dead). In this respect Duderija quotes from Khaled Abou El Fadl’s hard-hitting book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. Abou El Fadl, who is also the editor for the series of books in which Duderija’s was published, draws a stark contrast between the “Puritans” (or extremists, of Salafis of all types) and the “moderates":


Moderates argue that not only does the Qur’an endorse [the] principle of diversity, but it also presents human beings with a formidable challenge, and that is to know each other [Qur’an 49:13]. In the Qur’anic framework, diversity is not an ailment or evil. Diversity is part of the purpose of creation, and it reaffirms the richness of [the] divine. The stated goal of getting to know one another places an obligation upon Muslims to cooperate and work towards specified goals with Muslims and non-Muslims alike” (quoted in Duderija, p. 177).


The progressive Muslims’ “ideal woman”

On this this topic the literature is vast indeed. Yet apart from some differences in emphasis and methodology, these feminist writings agree on the essentials. As Duderija puts it, the views of the Neo-Traditionalist Salafis (NTS) are “sociologically contingent and tainted.” He continues,


“Thus, they reject the classical view of the inherently active female sexuality and the concept of the female body being innately morally corrupting . . . They also consider the NTS conceptual linking of women to the notion of causing social chaos (fitna) is based on flawed assumptions concerning the nature of female (and by implication male) sexuality.”


The misogynistic hadiths often quoted by NTS writers are “considered essentially as remnants of the patriarchal nature of the interpretive communities in the past.” In the words of Indian scholar Muhamad Ashraf, “Progressive Muslims have long argued that it is not religion but the patriarchal interpretation and implementation of the Quran that have kept women oppressed” (p. 178).

Specifically, these are some of the hermeneutical strategies this school uses to “construct” an egalitarian theology of gender (a very partial list):


1. Keeping the historical context in mind, while separating the contingent from the universal: take this verse that tells the believing women to cover themselves with a jilbab (large, loose cloth like a cloak):


“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful” (Q. 33:59).


Asma Barlas, in her book, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, shows that the cultural context in 7th-century Arabia was that of slavery:


“[In] mandating the jilbab, then, the Qur’an explicitly connects it to a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse by non-Muslim men was normative, and its purpose was to distinguish free, believing women from slaves, who were presumed by jahili men to be non-believers and thus fair game. Only in a slave-owning jahili society, then, does the jilbab signify sexual non-availability, and only then if jahili men were willing to invest in such a meaning” (quoted in Duderija, p. 180).


So the command to wear a body-covering veil was not meant for women at all times and places. Khaled Abou El Fadl agrees with the slave woman/free woman distinction but also comments on Q. 24:30 (“let women cover their bosoms with their head cloths”). He argues that that the khimar (like a large scarf) worn around the neck was often thrown back leaving the head and chest exposed. In fact, women in Mecca and Medina at that time, he adds, often had their chest partly or wholly exposed, even if their heads were covered. Also the phrase “and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent” points to the prevailing societal custom, a category in fact within Islamic jurisprudence. In that context, it was often to include current practices as perfectly acceptable, except that with the passage of time these conventions became sacrosanct and unchangeable.


2. Focus on the equality verses: if you decide that verses cannot be taken out of context and that the context includes the whole of the sacred text, then you can take a further step by stating that those verses that exemplify the overarching ethical values of the Qur’an are the only ones meant to be universally applicable. I’ve written elsewhere about the popular movement in Islamic law today that is focused on the “purposes of the Shari’a” (maqasid al-shari’a). Those are first and foremost the wellbeing (maslaha) of humans in this world and the next; but then also all the values of justice, equality (including gender equality and justice), compassion and love (especially in the context of marriage). So the following texts become the standards by which all other verses are classified (given here in M. A. S. Abdel Halim’s Oxford World’s Classics translation):


“Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect” (Q. 30:21).

“It is He who created you all from one soul, and from it made its mate so that he might find comfort in her” (Q. 7:189).

“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all-knowing, all aware” (Q. 49:13).

“To whoever, male or female, does good deeds and has faith, We shall give a good life and reward them according to the best of their actions” (Q. 16:97).



“Women are but sisters (or twin halves) of men.”

“The best of you are those who behave best to their wives.”

“The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect in faith he is.”


These and other verses, argue progressive Muslims, repudiate the wrongheaded assumptions of the classical jurists (and many transmitters of hadiths before them), according to which women are “essentially sexual rather than social beings,” and therefore inferior by nature to men. As in other cultures of the ancient near east – all strongly patriarchal – gender inequality was assumed to be part of the natural order of human existence. For all these peoples a “woman’s biology determined her destiny” and marriage contracts included elements common to slave-owner relationships (“in essence, a woman’s reproductive rights are exchanged for her maintenance,” p. 183).

Duderija cites a publication by an Indonesian progressive think tank, Fahmina (Hadith and Gender Justice: Understanding the Prophetic Traditions, by F. Qodir – unfortunately I couldn’t find any trace of it online). This provides an example of how a growing number of Muslims worldwide are rethinking the traditional Islamic legal norms relative to marriage:


The Qur’an has outlined several principles that guarantee the achievement of successful marriage. One of these requires that a husband-wife relationship ought to be joint or two-way relationship in which one side is equal to the other. In such as [sic] even and equal relationship, one side acts as a companion who completes the other, with no superiority or inferiority issues involved. The picture of such a harmonious and parallel relationship of husband and wife is portrayed in an extremely beautiful poetic language by the Qur’an as in “your wives are a garment for you and you are a garment for them (Al-Baqarah, 2:187).


3. Concept of the text’s moral trajectory: if you look at qur’anic injunctions regarding women in the context of its time, you will notice a divine design going far beyond that particular socio-historical context. The principles of equality, justice and love are enunciated in the text and the specific guidelines that are given clearly correct some of the worst practices of the time – for instance by forbidding female infanticide, by guaranteeing female property rights, and so on. But one shouldn’t stop there. God couldn’t drastically change those cultural practices in one blow. He’s a gracious pedagogue who knows that change among humans can only be best achieved in a progressive manner. So he gives each new generation the responsibility to transform the social order more and more in conformity with the ideals revealed in the sacred text. In Abou El Fadl’s words,


The thorough and fair-minded researcher would observe that behind every single Qur’anic revelation regarding women was an effort to protect the women from exploitative situations and from situations in which they are treated inequitably. In studying the Qur’an it becomes clear that the Qur’an is educating Muslims how to make incremental but lasting improvements in the condition of women that can only be described as progressive for their time and place” (quoted on p. 184).


I’ll stop here, hoping that if this is a topic you find interesting, you will do more reading on your own – starting with Duderija’s book! Here's an excellent summary on Islamic feminism by one top scholar, Margot Badran. Also, I have dealt with the issue of religion and patriarchy from a wider angle in three blogs, showing that gender issues are a challenge to people of all faiths today. Finally, in “resources,” I went into much greater depth exploring the theology of the most controversial of Muslim feminists, Amina Wadud.

More than anything, however, my hope is that in taking our lesson from Duderij’a’s important book, you have grasped how crucial hermeneutics are in reading sacred texts and thus in shaping one’s theological orientations. Indeed, hermeneutics go a long ways in explaining why Salafis and progressives seem to be living in different worlds.

This is the first of two blogs based on my review of Adis Duderija’s book, Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Duderija picked two Islamic movements that are polar opposites. OK, so the jihadis are more extreme than the Salafis, but only because of their recourse to violence as the means to establish God’s reign on earth. Nevertheless, their way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an and Sunna are very similar. Just keep in mind that as within any religious movement there are multiple factions and nuances (see my blog about Salafis).

On the other end, you can find many “secular Muslims,” that is, non-practicing but still tied to the cultural trappings of their Muslim upbringing, and handfuls of free-thinking Muslims who work hard at keeping their “heretical” views under the radar, who are more liberal than “progressive Muslims,” the topic of the next blog.

So in the middle you have this hodge-podge of “mainstream Muslims,” a term impossible to define unless you point to a particular country and a particular socioeconomic context. That said, one good indication of what majorities of Muslims think on a variety of issues comes from the 2008 book based on a very extensive Gallup Poll in over 35 different Muslim nations (Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, eds., Gallup Press).


Duderija’s postmodern methodology

For Duderija and many other progressive Muslims, “late modern” or postmodern theories of hermeneutics (how texts are read and interpreted) give us the best tools to study religion and the people that subscribe to them. In this vein, “theology” (how we construe God to be and how humans are supposed to relate to him, her or it, if you’re Buddhist) is “constructed” by “communities of interpretation.”

By the way, this was very much the perspective I used in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. Here’s how I defined theology in the Introduction:


“an ever-growing and evolving reflection—in the light of sacred texts and in interaction with a specific religious tradition—that leads people to better articulate their relationship to God, provides answers to the ultimate questions of human existence, and gives shape to a life-style in the world as community that best reflects that understanding. As such, theology must always be constructed within a particular socio-political, historical and cultural situation.”


In light of this, Duderija is looking at two very different schools of thought among Muslims and trying to dig up the theological and philosophical assumptions that make them interpret the sacred texts so differently. To simplify a bit – hopefully even to clarify his position, I hear him making three interconnecting points. As I put it in my review, Duderija uses three different lenses to highlight these two schools’ interpretive assumptions:


1) A theology of humanity, and in particular, what it means for humans to be God’s representatives or trustees on earth. Are they empowered by God with a moral compass enabling them to discern a righteous path based on the ethical imperatives of the texts amid the changing conditions of human societies? Or are they morally disabled, needing therefore to apply literally the teaching of the hadiths (like the early ahl al-hadith movement), or the body of rules laid out by the jurists of the classical period (Islam of the madhahib, or the various schools of Islamic law)?


2) A philosophical position on the status of the good: first, an ontological statement – is an act good in and of itself (ethical objectivism), or is it good only because God commands it (ethical voluntarism)? Then an epistemological statement, connecting to the first lens: can humans access that knowledge in the first case? In the second case, by definition, this knowledge cannot be attained apart from revelation.


3) A philosophical position on the status of language and meaning production: all premodern (and even modern) views proffer a positivistic view of language. Its external signs, from philology to syntax to grammar, represent an absolute and immutable signifier that, if carefully adhered to, yields for every reader of every place and time the same meaning. Starting with the 19th-century Romantic thinkers and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher language became identified with the human being in history. In other words, a significant gap appeared between historical events and the language used to depict them – a gap, I would add, which grew wider with the work of 20th-century philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, and even more so with postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty and Edward Said.


What’s behind the Salafi method of interpretation?

For the sake of space, I’ll address this question in bullet form. A useful complement to this, and particularly the Salafi view of history and their own evolution over time, see my blog, “Whence the Salafis?”


1) The Salafi version of “true Islam” is rooted in their particular Sunni vision of early Islam. In fact, this is not only true of Sunnis versus Shia, but also of groups like progressive Muslims. This is so because the Prophet Muhammad ruled only ten years in Medina (622-32) and the four Companions who succeeded him in Medina (the so-called “Rightly Guided Caliphs”) were all assassinated, except for the first one, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, who died two years after Muhammad himself. There was a great deal of turmoil in the first sixty or so years of the early Muslim community and the way one chooses to tell the story hugely impacts one’s theological orientation.

The Salafis derive their name from the Arabic “al-salaf al-salih” (the righteous forbears), who naturally include all the Prophet’s Companions (as a title it’s always capitalized), some from the next two generations and a select few scholars over the ages, almost all of them harking from the Hanbali school of Islamic law (Saudi Arabia being the only country where it’s the official ideology in tandem with its 18th-century revivalist version, Wahhabism).

All these salaf are “righteous” – for one specific reason: they are the people who collected reports about what the Prophet said and did (hadith) and, as many of you know, the two sacred texts of Islam are the Qur’an and the Sunna (the Prophet’s righteous model that all believers are called to emulate as much as possible in their own lives). For the Salafis, the Sunna IS the body of hadiths that have been sifted and authenticated in the six main collections (with three others often referred to as well) and they are the direct heirs of the early movement to collect these hadiths in all corners of the Islamic empire in its first two centuries. These pious individuals are collectively called ahl al-hadith (“the people of hadith”).


2) They are primarily focused on the hadiths (in their view Sunna), secondarily on the Qur’an. For them any hadith in the official, semi-canonical collections clarifies, amplifies and settles the meaning of the Qur’an – not the other way around.


3) For them, the meaning of these texts is both clear (to any reader in whatever age or context) and attached to the letter itself. No need for any theory of interpretation, they say. Just do what the text says. This is theological literalism or textualism. It’s the position that most rules out any role for human reason. Humans don’t know right from wrong, even though they think they do. They need revelation, which God has made available in great detail for questions of daily life.

In philosophy, as mentioned above, it’s called “ethical voluntarism”: an act is good only because it is commanded by God. Being kind to one’s neighbor is only good because either you find it commanded in the Qur’an or in the body of hadiths. Of course, this is an extreme position, and in fact Islamic law as it developed in its various schools in the classical period (10th-13th centuries CE), was more flexible than that. And that’s the point: the Salafis condemn the jurists of the schools (ahl al-madhdhahib, “people of the schools of law”) for using too much human reasoning in their development of the law. Tools such as qiyas (analogical reasoning) or considerations of maslaha (public good) are actually tools of the devil. They draw you away from what God and his Prophet commanded.


4) Theirs is an ahistorical reading of the texts. By this I mean that the detailed admonitions and advice given by God in the Qur’an and the Prophet during his 22-year ministry (the hadiths) was not just addressed to a 7th-century Arab Bedouin audience but to people of all times. There is no contextualization of the message whatsoever here, and no distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law.


There are many other points I could make, but I just want you to get the main idea. My last two sections are the most interesting (though you need the first two to make sense of the whole), as they give you two fascinating case studies – what the Salafis teach about salvation and women.


The Salafi “ideal believer”

Whereas the qur’anic data can seem to point either to pluralism (sincere Christians and Jews will go to heaven) or to exclusivism (only Muslims – and the “right” kind – are saved), the hadiths are almost totally on the exclusivist side of the spectrum. So instead of seeing the qur’anic passages which are especially harsh on the Jews as a reflection of the very real political tensions between the Muslims and the Jewish community when Medina was at war with Mecca, any and every verse applies to the Jews at all times.

Let me give you three examples of hadiths on this topic:


“Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘Suhayl ibn Abu Salih said: “I went out with my father to Syria. The people passed by the cloisters in which there were Christians and began to salute them.” My father said: ‘Do not give the salutation first, for Abu Hurayra reported the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) as saying: Do not salute them (Jews and Christians) first, and when you meet them on the road, force them to go to the narrowest part of it’” (Abu Dawud collection, 5186).

“Narrated ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar: ‘Allah’s Apostle said, ‘You [i.e., Muslims] will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, O ‘Abd Allah [i.e., slave of Allah]! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him’” (Bukhari collection, 4.176).

“Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) observed, “By Him in Whose hand is the life of Muhammad, he who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me, but does not affirm his belief in that with which I have been sent and dies in this state (of disbelief), he shall be but one of the denizens of Hell-Fire”” (Muslim collection, 284).


As it turns out, this mistrust and even hostility toward members of other faiths also stems from a particular Salafi doctrine called al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and severance). In a nutshell, it involves surrounding oneself with “true” believers and shunning all unnecessary contact with those outside. A contemporary Salafi writer, Qahtani, puts it this way:


“When Allah granted love and brotherhood, alliance and solidarity to the believers He also forbade them totally from to [sic] allying themselves with disbelievers of whatever hue, be they Jews or Christians, atheists or polytheists” (Duderija, p. 92-93).


From a sociological perspective this “enclave mentality” is typical in many religious communities of various faiths in our age of globalization – “it’s us the true believers against a hostile world.” For more detail on this see my blog on fundamentalism.


The Salafi “ideal woman”

Duderija indicates three important assumptions both Salafis and classical Muslim jurists brought with them in pondering this question. It’s important therefore to note that most of the following is common to the traditional writings of the jurists in their various schools as well as to the more puritanical Salafis today. These assumptions fall in three areas:


1. The nature of female (and male) sexuality: males and females are essentially different and their differences revolve around their sexuality. Male superiority over the female is both ontological and sociomoral – the man is more intelligent than his female counterpart, and more capable of leadership and wise ethical judgment. But the assumption with the most consequences for Muslim societies is sexual in nature: the female body is morally corrupting for men who find women impossible to resist. Here is Duderija interacting with the work of Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (she will reappear in the next blog):


“On the basis of classical Muslim literature she argues that Muslim civilization, unlike the modern Western one, developed an active concept of female sexuality regulating female sexual instinct by ‘external precautionary safeguards’ such as veiling, seclusion, gender segregation, and constant surveillance. What underpins this view is the ‘implicit theory’ based on the notion of the woman’s kayd power, that is, the power to deceive and defeat men, not by force but by cunning and intrigue. This theory considers the nature of woman’s aggression to be sexual, ‘endowing [the Muslim woman] with a fatal attraction which erodes the male’s will to resist her and reduces him to a passive acquiescent role.’ As such women are a threat to a healthy social order (or ummah), which, as we shall subsequently see, is conceptualized as being entirely male” (Duderija, pp. 101-102).


The following two hadiths stress the danger that women pose to society:


“Abd Allah b. Masood narrated that the Prophet said, ‘[The whole of] the women are ‘awra [first meaning is “deficiency” and second meaning applicable here is “female genitals” – a good example of how language reflects culture] and so if she goes out, the devil makes her the source of seduction.’”

“Abd Allah b. ‘Umar narrated that the Prophet said, ‘I have not left in my people a fitnah [meaning ranges from temptation, enchantment and infatuation to intrigue, sedition, and civil war] more harmful to men than women.’”


It is this category of hadiths that gives fuel to Salafi scholars to place all manner of restrictions on women. Shaykh Ibn Baz (1910-99) was an influential Saudi jurist and Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti for the last six years of his life. He was also a self-declared Salafi. Just to explain: all of the Saudi jurists, and especially those with some kind of official function, follow the Hanbali school of Islamic law, the most rigorous and literalistic of the four Sunni schools of law. These jurists are also Wahhabi, that is, giving allegiance to the puritanical movement of reform initiated by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), which has now become the kingdom’s official ideology (Wahhabism). But some Wahhabi clerics have also identified with the wider (and much more recent) movement called Salafism, which can tend to be even more puritanical and exacting in its rules than Wahhabism.

Ibn Baz leans on these kinds of hadith to say that women may not drive cars; that they may not sit privately with any man; not work with any men; not receive any visits from a man not in their family and not travel anywhere without a male-guardian. Concludes Duderija, “Thus, religiously ideal female Muslim identity, as we will argue subsequently, would be constructed along the lines of their complete ‘invisibility’ in the public domain of males” (p. 105).


2. Women and the public sphere: as mentioned in the last sentence, classical Islamic law and certainly Salafis today impose a number of rules and regulations limiting women’s social participation, including the religious obligation of hijab (headscarf, but also requiring a modest, form-covering shawl over the rest of the body), niqab (some kind of veil covering the face; in typical Salafi fashion women are totally covered in black, including gloves), segregation of the sexes and seclusion of women in particular.

On that last point, here are two hadiths to support that view:


“Narrated by Abd Allah b. ‘Umar that the Prophet said, ‘The prayer of a woman in her room is better than her prayer in her house and her prayer in a dark closet is better than her prayer in her room.’”

Narrated by Abu Bakrah, the Prophet is reported to have said, ‘Those who entrust their [sociopolitical] affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.”


Here I have to interject: in the picture on top of this page you have a Salafi couple, but you know for sure this picture could not possibly have been taken in the Muslim world, and certainly not in the Arabian Gulf countries. There couples would never have any physical contact in public (even holding hands); the man would likely be walking ahead of his wife; there would never be any display of affection in a public place. This is Europe, and in light of the article, I would guess Germany. Read these two women’s stories – how they were transformed from club hopping socialites with a string of male relationships to becoming deeply satisfied (from what they say) Salafi wives, by way of a born-again like experience.


3. Marriage and spousal rights: “the premodern Islamic jurisprudence developed a system of sharply differentiated, interdependent, gender-based spousal rights and obligations” (p. 103). Duderija leans on a book by Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University (a progressive Muslim), to say that “marriage, in essence, was a type of ownership (milk) based upon a contract between the parties giving rise to mutually dependent gender-based rights and obligations.” The key word here is “ownership” – the context, let’s not forget is a patriarchal society with sharp social stratification built on slavery. Here is a longer quote that is mostly taken from Ali’s book, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence:


“At the core of this contract was a transaction whereby a wife’s sexual availability was exchanged for her right to be financially supported and maintained by her husband. Furthermore, she states that ‘at its most basic, the [classical] jurists shared a view of marriage that considered it to transfer to the husband, in exchange for the payment of dower, a type of ownership (milk) over his wife, and more particularly over her sexual organ (farj, bud’).’ Based on this concept of marriage, women’s constant obligation to be sexually available to her husband resulted in granting to her husband a total control over his wife’s mobility so much so that it could prevent her from going to the mosque, family, visiting her parents, or even from attending the funeral of her immediate family, including her parents and children. This view of marriage, in addition to other laws pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the strictly associated gender differentiated marital rights and obligations, resulted in the creation of a hierarchical, authoritarian marital relationship and the creation of a classical Islamic tradition based on male epistemic privilege” (p. 103).


Now that you see those three areas of assumptions clearly spelled out, you can imagine where that mindset focused on a literal application of hadiths might lead Salafi clerics. Whereas Muslim countries, particularly in the postcolonial period, have made great strides to mitigate the worst of this legal framework so as to promote the participation of women in all sectors of society (recall that six Muslim-majority countries have had female heads of state), there has also been a growing tide of conservative religiosity in Muslim circles as happened among other faith traditions since the 1970s. This of course – combined with all the instability and wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and especially the impact of Saudi petro-dollars used to spread the Wahhabi gospel to all continents – has been fertile ground for the growth and spread of Salafi-like doctrines and practices.

How do progressive Muslims counter this textualist and unabashedly patriarchal reading of the Qur’an and Sunna? That will be the topic of my next blog.

Still, I can’t close on this rather somber and depressing picture of men and women. Just a week ago, a young Saudi comic, shortly back from his university studies in the USA, decided to register his own satirical protest against the Saudi ban on women driving in a song that went absolutely viral on the internet.

Just two things you need to know: Wahhabis forbid musical instruments and one Wahhabi/Salafi shaykh gave a fatwa saying that driving could make women infertile. Read too this short commentary in a British paper; then watch it again and laugh! When the youth rise up with such creativity, humor, and insight, you know that change is in the air!

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).

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.

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 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, suffering, 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 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 both communities.

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).

Here I begin a three-part comparative look at the theme of God’s glory in the Qur’an and the Bible. I haven’t seen this done before, but the idea came to me recently as I was meditating on II Corinthians 5. God as light is a central concept in both traditions and extending this metaphor to God’s glory will enable us to tease out some fascinating convergences and contrasts.


The divine light in the Qur’an

The Qur’an never states “God is light,” but two verses speak of his light illuminating the heavens and the earth. The lesser-known of the two verses describes the Last Day. I’ll quote the whole passage to give you a feel for the wider theme of God’s glory – a combination of ultimate power, righteousness and justice:

“These people have no grasp of God’s true measure.

On the Day of Resurrection, the whole earth will be in His grip.

The heavens will be rolled up in His right hand – Glory be to Him!

He is far above the partners they ascribe to Him! –

The trumpet will be sounded, and everyone in the heavens and earth will fall down senseless except those God spares.

It will be sounded once again and they will be on their feet, looking on.

The earth will shine with the light of its Lord; the Record of Deeds will be laid open; the  prophets and witnesses will be brought in.

Fair judgment will be given between them; they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done.

He knows best what they do” (Q. 39:67-70).

God’s absolute sovereignty is underlined through the images of the earth being in his hand (“in his grip,” heavens “rolled up in His right hand”); his loftiness (“high above the partners they ascribe to Him”); people knocked down senseless by the first sound of God’s Trumpet; the second blowing of the Trumpet brings them to their feet; the radiance of God’s light illuminating the earth. Notice too the expression, “Glory be to Him!” (subḥānahu). The noun subḥān is one of the words for glory, though it is more in the sense of “praise ascribed to God.” That expression is found 41 times in the Qur’an, and the verb “to praise,” or “glorify” God (sabbaḥa ) occurs 38 times.

[There are two other words in Arabic often translated as “glory” in the Qur’an. The first is ʿizza (but it leans more toward the idea of power). Four times you find the expression, “Glory altogether belongs to God!” (Q. 4:139; 10:65; 35:10; 63:8). And once you find this title for God: “Your Lord, the Lord of Glory, is far above what they attribute to Him” (37:180). The word most used for “glory” in the Arabic Bible (majd), however, doesn’t appear in the Qur’an – just its derivative, the adjective majīd : twice used for God, the All-glorious (Q. 11:73; 85:15); and twice used for the Qur’an: “the glorious Qur’an” (Q. 50:1; 85:21)].

Now the second verse, by far the most famous one on this topic – and undeniably one of the most beautiful verses in the Qur’an – is the “Light verse” (Q. 24:75), giving its title to that sura (chapter), “Light” (nūr) Here it is in the most common English translation for at least two generations, that by Yusuf Ali:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.”

Volumes have been written on this one verse, partly because of its poetic beauty and evocative imagery. That said, it is also open to many possible interpretations. God is beyond all human description; he is “transcendent,” since he is infinitely greater than anything he creates, including humankind, the pinnacle of his creation and his earthly trustees. Hence, you don’t read “God is light” (though this verse is the source for nūr  – Light – as one of the Beautiful Names of God). Instead, he is “the Light of the heavens and the earth.” Put otherwise, his luminous brilliance infuses all his creation.

Then follows the parable of the recess in the medieval wall of a house (the niche) wherein an olive oil lamp was placed to light up the house. The lamp in turn is encased in beautifully chiseled glass, which allows the glow of the flame to be refracted in multiple gleams. Hence the image of a “brilliant star”; then also the flame’s source, olive oil, leads to the picture of the olive tree, perhaps even the original tree in the Garden of creation, the Tree of Life. So light allows the earthly pilgrim to travel on the straight path that leads to life, and thus avoiding the side paths marked for destruction. So many images and symbols all wrapped together in such a short passage!

Referring to the context of this verse, Yusuf Ali comments, “Embedded within certain directions concerning a refined domestic and social life, comes this glorious parable of Light, which contains layer upon layer of allegorical truth about spiritual mysteries. No notes can do adequate justice to its full meaning.”

The word “allegorical” is intentional. Ali adds all manner of detail which I cannot reproduce here. So is the word “mysteries” – in fact, it’s the mystical side of Islam, the seekers of hidden knowledge (gnosis) in the Sufi tradition who have made the most of this verse. Arguably the greatest Sunni scholar of all, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), was able to bring together in his own person and writings three hitherto incompatible currents – mainstream Sunni theology and law, the mystical tradition of Sufism, and Islamic philosophy (though significantly trimmed down). Ghazali wrote a famous book on this verse, Mishkat al-anwār (“The Niche of Lights”), using Neo-Platonic philosophy in a Sufi vein and a hadith about God saying to Moses that he speaks to him through 70,000 veils. If you peel through the layers of his esoteric mysticism, you encounter a man who through years of ascetic practices and spiritual disciplines is hungry to know God intimately. The Sufi saint (walī) is indeed the person who has achieved a high degree of union with God.

The Shi’i branch of Islam, as opposed to the majority Sunnis, has consistently kept open the doors of philosophy and rationalism. It is mostly in that vein that the Shi’i scholars have kept alive the Sufi tradition. By far the largest segment of Shia are Twelvers – think of Iran and Iraq. But the next branch is that of the Seveners, or the Ismailis, who are led by the Aga Khan, the Harvard-trained scholar and philanthropist extraordinaire. When it comes to the Qur’an, the Ismailis are known for their esoteric interpretations – that is, digging to find the secret meanings beneath the more obvious surface ones.

Here is an excerpt from the Aga Khan’s interpretation of the “Light verse.” Notice his style, an interesting combination of rationalism and mysticism. For him the niche is the human body, “whose function is to transmit to the human mind through its five sensory mediums, the external world. The Lamp is the entire life-force or the living spirit, whose first layer is the Glass or the mind, which is subtler than the body.” This leads him to see the olive tree as the heart, because it “manufactures” the oil. It is the reasoning spirit, but also “the seat of human emotions and feelings.” As such, the heart places man as a participant in two worlds – the physical world and the elevated spheres of the spiritual world. The oil it produces is “the essential fuel to ignite and enkindle the light of divine illumination in man.” So the human being is the lantern, which remains dormant until set alight by the divine spark:

“That moment is a moment of awakening, when man sees himself as Himself. That moment is a moment of rebirths, for man is reborn a superman, a prophet. That is his true birth, the birth of an ever living spirit, the dawn of Cosmic Consciousness, in which his past, present, future all become one. In that moment man achieves his ultimate Destiny – the Spiritual union with God.”


Other glimpses of God’s light in the Qur’an

As we learned above, God’s light can only be perceived by humans as it is reflected in creation. But this idea makes it very suitable for describing divine revelation. Ten verses use the metaphor of light to refer to the Qur’an itself. It is “an illuminating book” (munīr) (Q. 3:184; 22:8; 35:25). Then seven other verses use the word nūr, light (Q. 4:174; 5:15; 7:157; 9:32; 42:52; 61:8; 64:8). One example: “People, convincing proof has come to you from your Lord and We have sent a clear light down to you” (Q. 4:174 Abdel Haleem).

Notice that revelation in the Qur’an is always a “sending down” (nazzala). Part of that idea is due to the ancient near-eastern idea of eternal tablets in heaven that are then brought down to humans. Another reason relates to the symbol of light – just as the sun’s rays illumine and bring life to the earth, so God’s revelation brings down his blessing and salvation to humanity.

Notice too that the Qur’an uses the word “light” to describe the Torah (5:44; 6:91) and the Gospel (5:46). But we have to look elsewhere to find the idea of God’s glory.


God’s glory in the Qur’an

As you might have guessed, light is related to glory in both Qur’an and Bible. One of the most common Qur’anic words is aya (pl. ayāt), meaning either a verse in the Qur’an or a sign of God in Creation. In this respect, there is one interesting story that deals with the theme of glory – Moses called by God to climb Mount Sinai in order to receive the law. One detail in the Qur’an is conflated with an event in the Bible that happens later, when the people are just about to embark on their trek to the Promised Land. In both cases, Moses asks God to show himself to him – but in the Exodus narrative Moses specifically asks to see God’s glory.

Here I will follow an unlikely guide into this topic – the Shi’i scholar who ignited and then led the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini. I invite you to read the article in its entirety, taken from a Shi’i digital library based in Pakistan.

The title is “The Relationship between Allah and His Creation” and at the heart of his meditation is the long passage about Moses in Sura 7 (“The Heights,” al-Aʿrāf). Recall my earlier statement that a hadith mentions 70,000 veils standing between Moses and God. Yet Moses is the only prophet who spoke directly with God, his title being the kalīm Allāh. Though Khomeini mentions this at one stage, his aim here is to explain the relationship between Creator and the created. It is nothing like father and son, or like the sun and its rays, or a person and her mental states. Rather, an infinite chasm separate the two; nevertheless, in this encounter between God and Moses for forty days on Mount Sinai, God replies to Moses’ request in the following manner:

“‘You will never see Me, but look at that mountain: if it remains standing firm, you will see Me,’ and when his Lord revealed Himself (lit. “was transfigured,” or “glorified”) to the mountain, He made it crumble: Moses fell down unconscious. When he recovered, he said, ‘Glory be to You! To You I turn in repentance! I am the first to believe!’” (Q. 7:143 Abdel Haleem).

As we will discover in the next blog, this is very close to the notion of God’s glory in Bible – except for the details of when and how this took place. In both cases, though, God is infinitely greater than humanity or any other element of the created order. There is therefore a powerful radiance to his presence when he appears in any form. In a similar expression to the one used in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, when God displays his glory to the mountain, it disintegrates and Moses is knocked out. Still, this is a unique episode in the Qur’an.

What strikes Khomeini is the prophet Moses’ mystical experience. Leading up to this, he writes about the names of God, best exemplified in the besmallah (the formula that precedes all 114 suras but one): “In the name of the Raḥmān and the Raḥīm.” He puts it this way:

“The glory of Allah's Exalted Name is revealed in everything. Allah's name Raḥmān (Beneficent) is the reflection of His beneficence in the state of action and His name Raḥīm (Merciful) is the reflection of His mercy in the state of action.”

Now follow his Sufi meditation on these names. For him they represent stages, steps that climb upwards, as each stage of spiritual initiation is successfully completed. This points to a “higher philosophy,” one that only the Sufi saints, “the friends of Allah, can grasp and put to use. Hence his own mystical interpretation of this verse:

“As for the Prophets the Qur'an says at one place: And when his Lord revealed His glory to the mountain, He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless (Surah al-Aʿrāf, 7:143). When Allah imparted special spiritual training to Moses he said to Allah: 'My lord, let me see you.' Obviously an eminent Prophet cannot ask for seeing Allah with his physical eyes. Therefore his request must have been for a kind of seeing appropriate to the seer and the object to be seen. But even this kind of seeing was not possible, Moses said to Allah: 'My Lord! Let me see you.' The answer was: 'you will not see Me.' Allah further said: 'But gaze upon the mountain.’

What is meant by the mountain here? Does it signify Mount Sinai? Was it that the glory that could not be revealed to Moses, could be revealed to this mountain? If some other people had been present at the Mount Sinai at that time, could they also see the revelation of Allah's glory? The sentence, 'Gaze upon the mountain' implies a promise. Allah said: 'You cannot see Me. But gaze upon the mountain. If it stands still in its place, then you will see Me.' (Surah al-A'raf, 7:143) There is a possibility that the mountain here might have meant the remnant of egoism still left in Moses. As the result of the revelation of glory the mountain was smashed. In other words the egoism of Moses was completely done away with. 'And Moses fell down senseless.' That means that Moses reached the stage of completely passing away of his human attributes [sic].”


Final thought

Such a short article cannot do justice to the topic. I hope, however, to have uncovered for you at least the main idea of God’s light in the Qur’an – how it emanates from his person as rays from the sun and turns all of Creation into signs (ayāt) of his glory. Again, it is so appropriate that in Arabic ayāt refers both to God’s Signs embedded in Creation and the verses of the Book which he sent down to humankind.

The other point I have stressed is the persistent mystical strain in the Islamic tradition. Sufism is much more central to the Islamic experience historically than even many Muslims realize today. The Light Verse sits at the heart of it, and the prophet Moses represents the archetype of the person who leaves everything behind in order to climb up the arduous steps of spiritual purification and training, aiming to reach one day the glorious goal – union with God. That said, the Prophet Muhammad, as the Seal of the Prophets, is even greater. In his Night Journey he was taken up to the very presence of God above the seven heavens (though it’s not by chance that Moses was on the top level and that he is the one who prods him to bargain with God from 50 required prayers a day down to 5!).

Nevertheless, the idea of God’s glory in Creation also reveals the biggest contrast between Qur’an and Bible. Whereas the created order is indeed a collection of signs pointing to God’s glory (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20), and whereas the Bible sees itself as God’s inspired word, in the person of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, God enters creation as the Eternal Word. John in the Prologue of his gospel puts it this way:

“So the Word became human and made his home among us.

He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.

And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT).

More on this shortly.

For over a year now I’ve added to this file labeled “drones.” Yes, I’m distraught at the thought that the White House with the advice of intelligence agencies systematically kills people deemed “terrorists” with missiles fired by drones. Our president just made a policy speech on the issue this week and despite the good news that there will be better oversight by other branches of government (and his clarifying that this is no “war”), drones will continue to be the weapon of choice for fighting al-Qaeda and their ilk.

First, I’ll make some comments about drones and then widen the debate about “empire” itself.


Why Drones are a very bad idea

Here are four of some of the most salient reasons I’ve gleaned from my readings:

1. Targeted killings outside of war: this is the legality issue. With 52 strikes in Pakistan under the Bush Administration and over 280 during Obama’s tenure, scant attention was ever given to established rules of international law. War has to be declared, and then very specific standards apply for lethal engagement. Afghanistan is the only country out of four where drones are being used that is officially at war. That said, most of the strikes have been in Pakistan, with others in Somalia and Yemen. Worse yet, there have been many “double tap” strikes – strike once and when people come to rescue the wounded, another missile goes off. This only multiplies the number of civilian casualties, a point to be made later.

In September 2012 Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, announced in a speech at Harvard University that the UN would set up an investigations unit in Geneva to gather more facts about these secretive operations and determine their legality. Emmerson said,

The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

The most extensive study of this issue was jointly made by Stanford University and the State University of New York. It demolished the prevailing narrative of surgically precise strikes with minimal collateral damage. You can read all the details on their dedicated site (sorry, no longer available; great stats here). Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

“Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.”

2. Civilian deaths and terrorized populations: the Stanford/NYU study claims that “there is significant evidence that drone strikes have injured and killed civilians”:

“The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports  that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.”

That of course has been a reoccurring complaint and source of great anger in Afghanistan as well. But think of the populations, like in northwest Pakistan, where most of these attacks have taken place. Recall in your mind the panic and terror of New York residents in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and multiply that several times. This is a bit long, but it’s essential for us to try and put ourselves in these people’s situation:

“Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.”

See also the chilling interviews in an article published by The Atlantic.

3. Their effectiveness in keeping the US safe is seriously in doubt: for one, the percentage of terrorist operatives killed in these strikes in relation to total casualties is around 2%. But too, drones have proven to be a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and associates. Undoubtedly this was one of the reasons that led President Obama to announce a new drone program with more oversight and transparency .

4. Such flouting of international law could set a dangerous precedent: this is how the Stanford/NYU study put it:

“US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments. As drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop lethal drone technologies, these risks increase.”

China and Japan are already jostling for position in an ominous “drone race” in their conflict over the Diaoyu (Chinese) or Senkaku (Japanese) islands. The new conservative (and bellicose) administration of Shinzo Abe in Japan is ratcheting up military spending and is acquiring US drones. Meanwhile, China’s defense budget has skyrocketed – over 600% from 2002 to 2011 and it is now developing its own drones. According to The Guardian, “A 2012 report by the Pentagon acknowledged long-standing rumours that China was developing a new generation of stealth drones, called Anjian, or Dark Sword, whose capabilities could surpass those of the US's fleet.”

If that isn’t alarming enough, you can peer into the future of warfare, when robots will definitely rule. A BBC article  quotes Brookings Institute warfare specialist Peter W. Singer. For him, the arrival of drones, or “robot warriors,” “raises profound questions”:

“Every so often in history, you get a technology that comes along that's a game changer. They're things like gunpowder, they're things like the machine gun, the atomic bomb, the computer – and robotics is one of those. When we say it can be a game changer, it means that it affects everything from the tactics that people use on the ground, to the doctrine, how we organise our forces, to bigger questions of politics, law, ethics, when and where we go to war."

These “profound questions” are also about the wider context of the US deployment of drones in the “war against terror.” President Jimmy Carter wrote a candid and courageous OpEd in the New York Times a year ago, “A Cruel and Unusual Record.” The opening salvo is his thesis: “The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.” Targeted killings – and especially of US citizens, indefinite detaining of suspects in places like Guantánamo Bay, torture, warrantless wiretapping and government surveillance of its citizens – these are some of the human rights abuses Carter notes that have come on the heels of 9/11. He adds,

“At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”


Musings about a waning empire

A columnist for the British daily The Independent, Owen Jones, waxed eloquent about the world’s “last remaining superpower now at its weakest since World War II” (the war, I might add, that sealed the fate of the moribund British empire):

“Coupled with the US's ongoing failure to pressure Israel into accepting a just peace with the Palestinians, no wonder there is rising global anger at Obama. But of course, the issue isn't Obama, any more than it was Bush before him. The issue is US power. But despite its best efforts – and as menacing as it can be for Pakistani villagers and Bahraini democrats – its power is in decline. The US share of global economic output was nearly a quarter in 1991; today, it represents less than a fifth. The financial crash has accelerated the ongoing drain in US economic power to the East. Latin America, regarded as the US's backyard since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine claimed it for the US sphere of influence, is now dominated by governments demanding a break from the free-market Washington Consensus. And the Iraq war not only undermined US military prestige and invincibility, it perversely boosted Iran's power in the Middle East.”

I’ll close with a startling book review by a young and fiery Christian scholar, Eugene McCarraher, whose book, The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination, will soon come out. Amazingly, several phrases of his review appear on the cover of the journal in which it is published, Books & Culture (May/June 2013 issue), an evangelical publication. McCarraher is here commenting on a widely acclaimed book, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011).

Just a quick parenthesis on Graeber … He was an assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at Yale, widely popular with students and with a string of publications in his field. In 2005 he was told his contract would not be renewed – most likely for political reasons. For one thing, he wrote about anthropology as an anarchist. Also, he’s a veteran of the antiglobalization movement and more recently the scholarly voice of the Occupy Wall Street Movement internationally (see this article for more details).

Back to our associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University, Eugene McCarraher, whose work closely parallels that of Graeber’s. They both see capitalism as an insidious tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie (the “Plutocracy”), a tool that in the case of America has also enabled it to extend and bolster its far-reaching empire. That is the point of my own “Resources” entry on this site, "The Dark Side of Empire."

In this blog dealing with the drone war, I have emphasized the violent nature of the American empire. Here I end with a sobering reminder, not just that empires wax and wane – that’s been a staple of human history – but that our religious leaders are either eerily silent about its moral abuses or enthusiastically cheering them on. I think President Carter (still teaching Sunday School, I believe) would agree with much of this stinging indictment of the church’s endorsement of “the Chrapitalist gospel”:

“Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of ‘American exceptionalism.’the sanctimonious and blood-splattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal founts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.”

Certainly, this is not the Jesus I know. Human Trustees as a project is a vision of Jesus calling all peoples to love God and love their neighbors – and in so doing, care for the earth and all its creatures entrusted to them. That also means promoting peace and conflict resolution wherever possible. There’s got to be a better way than killer drones.


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