I find Nadya Suleman to be an interesting figure. She embodies what both sides of our political spectrum hate. My article was published on the Feminism and Religion blog. Read here.
Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Like many Muslims who watched the Boston bombing memorial service so many months ago, I was flabbergasted at the last minute replacement of the famous American Muslim leader Suhaib Webb, with a little-known Mauritanian-American activist named Nasser Wedaddy.
Then, Jewish-American journalist Max Blumenthal released an expose on the NGO’s financial roots in anti-Islamic, pro-Israel funders. Suddenly, it all made sense.
I have been conflicted on how to respond to this intervention of politicians into the matter of who should represent a faith community. I am not sure the American Muslim community has responded at all on this dangerous precedent. I decided to ask Blumenthal what he thought:
I am not an expert on calculating the moon, in fact I find it confusing…but then again that’s why I’m writing this. Should a person have to be an expert astronomer, or rely on one, in order to know when to begin or end an act of worship such as fasting Ramadan?
Calculation people argue that moonsighters are being unscientific and denying the role of science and reason in Islam. Yet many moonsighter’s arguments are not so much anti-scientific, but pro-spiritual, arguing that engagement with the heavenly bodies is part of worship:
“Traditional peoples everywhere are profoundly connected to the cycles of the moon and are able to use the phenomenal signs to determine the month and day at given time due to this connection. Modern people, on the other hand, have become disconnected from such marvels of creation, and this disconnection with Allah’s signs causes suffering.”
Putting aside the romanticizing about “traditional” peoples and methods that is so common in neo-traditionalist circles, it is an egalitarian argument. If, as they say, the Prophet described the observation of these phenomena as “ways of remembering Allah,” then it would seem to be a real loss to restrict this act to a few astronomers, especially when the sky is accessible to all. We already see this loss happening in North America where few people go out and sight the moon; they instead watch their email, Facebook, and Twitter feeds to see what ISNA has pronounced from on high.
The argument that this method was only a byproduct of the illiteracy of the Prophet and his early community is interesting because it suggests that such illiteracy is no longer dominant in our community. But what should be and what is are two different things. While much of the umma has emerged from illiteracy, many still have not. The argument that “we” have progressed from this state can only be seen as the argument of a privileged, urban literate portion of the umma that forgets that in many Muslim countries, the illiteracy rate among women, especially, is staggering.
While it is certainly true that we should strive for literacy, it is the literate people who have introduced a new method and contributed to disunity, not the other side. To leave such Muslims in the dust seems counter to the prospect of Muslim unity. It is possible that illiteracy will always be a problem among Muslims, indeed in the world. If so, are we not obligated to use a methodology that is not restrictive of one breed of Muslims who really need to be able to tell their boss when they need the day off? The exclusive nature of this argument is revealed in statements such as these:
“by following calculations we can facilitate the observance of the festivals and plan for them way before their time. This is a great maslahah (public interest) for those living in the West.” (emphasis added)
The second danger to reliance on calculations is that it shifts authority from the community at large, to a group of specialists and the organizations that announce their findings. Here I credit my teacher Dr. Yahya Michot, for this observation. Whereas in Christianity the popes took liberties with the calendar (imagine the power accrued to deciding the very issue of time!) he finds in Islam an anti-clerical tendency that makes available to all peoples the means of assessing when acts of worship should begin and end. For many, delegating such authority to special councils seems like a Vaticanization of Islam, that takes an unacceptable risk in terms of what this means for the future of authority in the Muslim community.
The best article I have read on the topic advocates using calculation but not as a means of determination but rather as a means of ruling out impossible sightings,
“there is no harm in using this astronomical basis to reject a claimed sighting which cannot possibly be correct. Indeed, this is similar to rejecting the claim of someone who claims to have seen the crescent-moon on the twentieth night of Shaban!”
This seems to me to be a middle way. Allahu ‘alam.
Eid mubarak…whenever you end up celebrating it. If you have any feedback/corrections to what I have said here, feel free to comment.
As some of you may know, blogging is not my full-time job (thank goodness). I am a Muslim chaplain. I hope this brief talk i recently gave on “The Question of Authority in Islamic Chaplaincy” gives you an idea of what a Muslim chaplain is and what are some of the challenges in this new profession.
Here’s a piece I did for Illume, explaining exactly what we Muslim chaplains do….and why we’re not imams.
Some of you reading this are thinking, “What in the world? She’s finally gone off the deep end.” While I’m never too far from the deep end, the rest of you know exactly why you’re here, and I’m mainly talking to you. You may have googled something to get here. If you did, why? Seems like a small part of you really doesn’t want to do this…otherwise, well, you wouldn’t be reading this now. Why else are you here? Noone to talk to? Is that really true?
Tragedies in life are funny. They suck you in; make you think that they ARE your life. And so, if I can just end my life, I’ll end this tragic moment. I’ll end the pain of being dumped, losing my job, being in debt over my head, [fill in the blank with your story]. But there’s just one problem with your thinking, my friend. The problem isn’t you; the problem is outside of you but you’re making it a central part of who you are. You’re not that job, that feeling your loved one gave you, that nagging bill you get in the mail. What you’d love, more than hanging/shooting/cutting yourself, would be to see your way out of this bleak situation and emerge stronger. You’d love that, but how?
I’m not going to tell you why you should live because that would be presumptuous of me. I don’t know what life means to you…or if it has any meaning at all. Finding meaning is gonna take some work, pal. You’re going to have to find meaning in your life other than being loved by a person, employed by a business, or in “good financial standing” with this or that agency. I suspect you know that life is about more than this, in fact there may have been a time when you knew this for a fact. But you’re so in over your head, aren’t you? Maybe you’ve even cut yourself off from others; refused to tell them how you feel. The problem has isolated you from those you love and those who love you back. The problem has convinced you that your life is about it (the problem); not about the positive experiences you’ve had, the moments of creativity you’ve had, the moments when you learned how to do something new and it was exhilarating, the moment when you saw something in nature that calmed you and made you feel connected to something larger, the moment when a baby looks at you and your heart warms. Why can’t your life be about those moments too?
Well-meaning people will try to discourage you from doing this by saying things like, “You’re beautiful/handsome.” or “You’re so smart,” or “Your family will be devastated.” (the ultimate guilt trip!)
But what if you’re downright ugly, you’re not that smart, and your parents abused you and never gave a damn about your welfare? (In which case, you might get some sort of sick joy in the idea of sticking it to them one last time.) What then?
What then? Then you join the rest of us, that’s all. We’re all here finding meaning. That’s what we’re all doing and you’re not alone; never were. We may not be contemplating suicide as you are, but we’re on a search for “Why am I here?” and “What’s worth living for?” Those of us (like myself) who belong to an organized religion will rehearse our answer, “We are here to worship God,” but my guess is we still wonder why am *I* here. Why not someone else? Why was I put into existence with all my foibles, quirks, and good and bad traits? I have this baggage, now how am I supposed to unpack it and put it to use?
That’s something only you can answer, because only you know what’s in your suitcase. But if you leave, you’ll never know. WE will never know. And isn’t that the most painful thing of all? It’d be painful to me if you left, but who the hell cares why some stranger like me thinks you should live. My whole point has been that you need to stop seeking validation outside yourself. You have to know you have value beyond what you do or whether others see your value. That’s the problem you’ve been running away from. You’ve been putting too much of life’s eggs in this basket; you have to diversify your stock a little. There are going to be crashes and economic downturns (Lord knows you can relate), but that’s no reason to kill the business. It’s about time you stopped running, turned around, and stared that big question mark down. Leave behind a life that ends with an exclamation point, not a trail of blood.
So I extend my hand to you and say, are you willing to stay with us on this journey?
1) Delegate! (the verb form)
Few things are more gratifying than seeking out talent within the community and allowing it to shine. Sometimes our desire to control outcomes causes us to become the bottlenecks for community renewal. Is there a marriage counselor in your community who might be willing to donate time each week to pro bono appointments? Is there someone with web design talent who could reengineer that stale old website? Is there someone with connections to outside programming, for example, the Alim Program, Rihla Program, Risala Foundation, who could bring these groups to town for a weekend program?
God forbid we are one of those people who have turned away volunteers. Volunteers! What a needed blessing they are and yet, many offer their help and get no response in return. How would you feel if this was your reaction to offering your time free of charge?
2) Network with other masajid.
A famous speaker is coming to a city nearby. Contact leaders there. Is it possible for the speaker to make a stop in your town if you share the costs of airfare and accommodation with that community?
There are so many amazing things happening in your mosque…but unfortunately no one knows about them. What is the point of having amazing opportunities, if you must be in the ‘inner circle’ to know about them? All masjid events should be heavily advertised in the masjid, through posters, the website, newsletters, listservs for local MSA’s, etc. Do you have an event aimed at the wider community? Local news stations often have a “community calendar” in which they announce events that are brought to their attention. Make use of it.
4) Use existing American institutions and social themes.
How many communities have been talking about starting a youth group so long that the youth are now adults who are themselves complaining about the lack of a youth group for their children? The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America is one example of a time-tested model. It already has structure and organization– two things our communities tend to lack. Why not become a troop leader and recruit Muslim children to be part of it? Children learn survival skills and how to cooperate with each other. They even learn a bit about business by selling cookies. The Girl Scouts even have special “Islamic” medals that can be earned.
American culture has certain social events, like father-daughter dinner dances, whose themes can be appropriated easily. Mother-daughter tea party? Father -son hike (or Mother-daughter…women love hiking too)?
5) Come out of your hole.
Our masajid should not be fortresses of isolation and indifference to the communities that surround them. Odds are, neighbors are suspicious of what goes on at the “Muslim church.” Why not have a community barbecue and demystify yourselves? Or have an open door clinic like the one Muslim doctors in Tucson, Arizona established? Or have a community-clean up and pick litter off a nearby property?
6) Know your expiration date.
If everyone in your masjid leadership is over the age of 40, where does that leave the community when you all die? Instead of grooming the next generation for leadership, many imams are stubbornly keeping the reins. They are not training younger people to give khutba (if they share the minbar at all) and they are not engaging in shura with the youth. The mosques you fought so hard to build will be empty spaces in the future if you do not empower the next generation to have a stake in the mosque.
7) An Imam From Amongst Yourselves: Sponsor Talent
Odds are there is a young woman or man in your community who has a strong desire to study the religion in depth, but they lack the financial means to do so. Suhaib Webb was recently granted an ijaza to be a mufti by Ali Gomaa of Egypt. It all started when a community sponsored Webb to study at al-Azhar, which he did. Recruit donors to set up a scholarship fund and accept applications from the youth. Send one of them, or better yet, one man and one woman, to study overseas (where is an issue for a whole other article). Investing in people means investing in your future. They return and benefit you with wisdom informed by knowledge of the social context in America. That imam you imported may have book knowledge, but what use is an encyclopedia if it doesn’t speak to your context?
8) Out of Sight, Out of Mind…Where are the Women?
If you are a married man, think back to your bachelor days and remember your living space. Now look around your current living space. Odds are it has experienced a ‘woman’s touch.’ If your mosque has little to no women, or the women are off somewhere out of sight, how can your mosque begin to be a comfortable place? Plus, it’s just the right thing to do. If one leg is paralyzed, how can you stand? It is time to muster the courage to demand that women have a good prayer space, with visual and auditory access to the khateeb. This is not a woman’s issue, this is a believer’s issue. Noisy women’s areas are often the result of walls and dividers. If I cannot see who is speaking to me, I feel irrelevant. I’d rather discuss the maqlooba I made last night.
9) Tow cars.
You keep threatening to, but you never do. Tow the cars. They wouldn’t park that way at work or at home. Why does the same respect not extend to the masjid? Time to use the announcements for more pressing issues than the Nissan minivan blocking the driveway.
Pray for guidance. You are an imperfect being with many people in your charge. Ask others to pray for you, because no one needs more prayer than someone who is leading a large group of people; someone whose decisions affect them all. Even if you are not in a position of leadership, you are responsible for advancing what is right.
I hope this humorous piece I contributed to State of Formation’s website will also provoke thought.
Alright, this blog has been around just under 2 years (but who’s counting?). Time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
I have always loved words. I could reread a well-written sentence several times. I have also always loved to write. So a few years ago I sought advice from friends about whether to start a blog. Part of me felt that blogs are rather self-serving and it had been pounded into me by a certain segment of Muslims that the masses should let the authorities speak for the rabble, who are presumably not educated enough to have an opinion. (More on my epiphanies with this movement later).
Then I realized that I was not the rabble, and not uneducated, and that I observed things that I didn’t find addressed in too many places. I found few people writing about the things that I felt were important. Muslim women were writing plenty of thoughtful, polite reflections and they continue to do so, but not the type of forceful pieces some topics command. With my own penchant for politics and religion (before I chose chaplaincy—or it chose me—I had applications submitted to several think tanks and Muslim organizations in Washington), I decided that I’d be unabashedly me. And that meant being passionate. Here is my review of the best this blog has offered (do you agree?):
My most passionate(=angry) piece was on the Arab Spring. I was full of righteous indignation!
My most beautiful piece, prose and content-wise, was “Genealogy: For the Love of God.”
The piece that resounded most with readers was my look at the phenomenon of spiritual abuse in the Sufi Muslim community. I had several people comment or email me privately with stories of abuse. Many more found this blog by searching “cult” and [several Muslim figures I won't name]. I don’t know what caused them to search, but I hope they found resolution to whatever crisis they faced.
FAILS: I have not been very consistent about certain aspects of the blog. For example, there were only 2 Muslims of the Month….but obviously way more than 2 months have passed between those and this. Whoops. I also had a feature called The Next Right Thing, in which I would highlight successful projects and ideas in the American Muslim landscape, rather than only focusing on what needed improvement. I did that a few times, but not enough.
I’ll have to work on that.
In the meantime, I hope the readers will stick with me as I bombard them with more of my drivel. I have several “babies” waiting in the wings. I consider everything I write to be a ‘baby’ that needs to be born at some point. This was the only metaphor that got me to finally stop stowing my writings away like some sort of Emily Dickinson. Upcoming topics include the legacy of the Ron Paul candidacy, what Muslims can learn from the American fascination with Buddhism, and an investigative piece that shall remain hush-hush. God willing, you will find something that interests you.
P.S. Shout out to the one person in Zambia and in Croatia who visited my blog. I don’t know what in the world you googled to get here but as the Arabs say, ahlan wa sahlan.
With the news of a now thrice-divorced Tom Cruise making the headlines, I thought to dig a bit deeper into the
religion cult of Scientology which counts many celebrities among its followers. (Part 2 of this series will analyze the appeal of Buddhism among non-Buddhist Americans, God willing.)
If American Muslims are to take the nation’s pulse when it comes to religion, and da’wah (inviting to Islam) in general, then we must be willing to examine even the fringe movements. It will entail wading through a lot of megalomaniacs and spiritual ponzi schemes, but the purpose is not to imitate the methods, but to identify the void these religions/cults are filling for those whom they appeal to.
I asked myself, how can such a patently absurd UFO theology such as Scientology find its way into the minds of supposedly educated individuals? What is the appeal? Also, where do we draw the line between cults and religions? Many would argue that the major religions are merely more successful cults. It behooves us to think about this accusation so that we can indeed identify how we are NOT a cult…indeed how to avoid turning our religions into cults.
SCIENTOLOGY: The Greatest Pyramid Scheme Ever Sold
Not long ago, an overly friendly Muslim approached my husband at the mosque. Not an odd thing– friendships begun at the mosque. But the man and his wife who later visited us at our home clearly had a purpose behind their overtures….they were selling products for Amway Global, and it seemed it had become their life. So too with Scientology.
There is nothing more American than the self-made success story. Rags to riches. Pulling one’s self up by her bootstraps. Take that concept, dress it in vaguely religious attire, and you have Scientology. The actual title of their current leader, David Miscavige, is Chairman of the Board. (I am not making this up). Much of scientology’s promotional material touts the good they are doing for others in terms of concrete charitable work but also how they are mentally enlightening non-Scientologists (aka wogs) to their potential for infinite knowledge (…a groan-inducing concept if you know your aqeeda…). It must have appealed to the young Tom Cruise when fame first hit him and along with it, the questions that plague any human worth his salt, “All this wealth and fame..how can I give back? How can I help others?” but also “Who am I? Who is Tom Cruise?” Around the same time Scientology began to seriously pursue the conversion of celebrities.
I’m sure Cruise has access to Google, so I’m not sure how he explains the voluminous material portraying founder L. Ron Hubbard (LRH, as he’s known to followers) as one sick puppy. But for now, let’s just focus on what must have appealed to an up and coming Cruise.
Scientology offers a very practical, even mechanical, self-evaluation for its followers from the get-go. Kind of like that relationship compatibility test you and your spouse took. You said it was for fun but let’s be honest, part of the fun is the idea that you can gain insight into yourself. Auditing is done using a lie-detector type machine called an e-meter which detects emotional responses to questions asked. Presumably the auditor (not your IRS variety), identifies areas of turmoil in the Scientologist’s life, and they somehow work towards a “clear” reading next time around. Putting aside the question of whether emotionless responses should be a spiritual goal, or whether one should spill sensitive information to someone they barely know, there is a kind of spiritual “intake assessment” up front. It’s not a psychiatrist, it’s your own responses, which is presumably more trustworthy than what a shrink can make up…right?
There may be a sinister angle to these audits—the responses are recorded and locked in storage somewhere—for blackmail purposes by the organization? We are left to wonder its purpose. But the point is that upon becoming a Scientologist a person gets individual attention and they presumably gain insight about their inner turmoil. Most of us call this confiding…Catholics call it confession. Scientologists call it an audit….and followers pay for the sessions.
It should give us pause that people are willing to pay for what should be the right of every human being: to be heard, to be probed in those tender spiritual spots, to be given attention and insight into their problems.
Let us contrast this with the oftentimes highly impersonal reception new Muslims encounter upon entrance into Islam. A sweaty palm-inducing shahada (profession of faith) that is pronounced in a large room full of very foreign-looking people, followed by a loud “Allahu akbar” (“God is great,” which has interesting connotations in this culture, to say the least).
Then, a handshake or two (if you’re male)…and off you go. It’s not that the welcome is insincere. It’s just highly impersonal, and there is little follow-through. Maybe you are assertive enough to try to find a class in the mosque (if they are even available) or, at the very least, you might get invited over for some good biryani. But clearly, there needs to be a personal reception, in addition to a public one, that is enduring and meaningful. It can be as simple as a question posed in a private setting,
“Are there any life issues that we can be of immediate assistance about? We do not have professionals in every field, but we will try our best to help direct you to resources.”
“Where are you living? Do you have a place to go home to?”
“Are there any fears or concerns you have now that you are Muslim?”
Of course, the best reception is a friendship that forms in which a person earns trust enough to where the convert is willing to reveal any issues they may have. I believe I heard that Ta’leef Collective’s CCC component (Convert Continuum of Care) entails someone assigned to call the convert daily for the first three months after conversion, just to check on them.
Here, of course, we must be careful not to blur the line and become cult-like in our pursuit of this person. Allah guides and misguides. It is not our job to keep someone in the fold. But that said, it is upon us to offer a fold in the first place. If the fold resembles a bear hug, even better.
My understanding is that the UFO theology (LRH began as a sci-fi writer, after all) gets gradually introduced after many auditing sessions and hard-earned dollars have been shelled out…and also after many secrets have been spilled and recorded for the Church of Scientology’s “safekeeping.” At this point we have “consumer lock-in”…a concept I love to overuse, and here is no exception. It perfectly describes any situation where despite cognitive dissonance, a person feels so invested in a matter that they do not leave it, despite their misgivings.
It is easy to make fun of Cruise in his couch-jumping, Scientology-preaching intensity. But I believe he was victimized at the highest, and most vulnerable, point in his life. Some even say three marriages have ended because of his devotion to the church. Whatever the case, I want to know what makes Tom Cruise tick, what turned him from the good old Abrahamic stand-by religions and onto something completely new and untested by previous generations. I admire his devotion and his desire to act on what he believes to be true…he reaches an evangelical intensity when he speaks about his beliefs. While we cannot dress our faith in every new fad and trend, we can certainly draw lessons about where the spiritual holes are, and how we might fill them.
With Allah is all success.
Spiritual abuse is about the betrayal of trust. One trusts a person to be truthful with one, and when that trust is betrayed, the control of information entailed by such betrayal is used as a tool to hide the nature of the breach of trust.
To the best of my recollection, my first spiritual guide – the authentic one – never lied to me or, to the best of my knowledge, anyone else. Within the context of what could and could not be talked about with respect the mystical path [and as Prophet Moses – peace be upon him – discovered in relation to the spiritual being, Khizr (may Allah be pleased with him), there are certain knowledge which is above our spiritual pay grades], my shaykh was very forthcoming with his comments, even if those comments were, on occasion, not always pleasant to hear. Sometimes he was upset with me for some of the mistakes I made, and sometimes he was happy with me for those instances in which, somehow, I got things right. He offered guidance, but he never told me what to do … the choice was mine. When it came to matters of prayer, fasting, zikr, seclusion, and so on, I was the one who asked him about such issues. They were explained to me, but they were never imposed on me. The information and knowledge that he shared with me were intended as guidance. I took as much, or as little, as I was able to manage at the time, and I sought to inculcate such understanding into my life as best as I could and to whatever extent God permitted.
The Prophet once counseled a person that if the latter individual wanted to know whether, or not, to trust someone, then they should have some business dealings with such an individual or go on a journey with that person. Such situations often cannot be scripted and, therefore, one has an opportunity to see how a person responds under difficult or problematic circumstances. I never had that kind of cross-situational confirmation when it came to the second, fraudulent shaykh.
When the topic of spiritual abuse is raised, many people become uncomfortable because they are being asked – or induced — to think about an issue that has potential ramifications for their own lives, and, yet for a variety of reasons they don’t want to take the time or make the effort or spend the resources that will be necessary to properly address such issues. Spiritual abuse is all around us. The problem is not restricted to merely certain spiritual charlatans that serve as pretenders on the Sufi path, but, as well, spiritual abuse is given expression through many of the khutbahs that are delivered on Fridays and on other occasions.
My counsel for those who might have encountered spiritual abuse – whether at the hands of a fraudulent shaykh or some other portal of ignorance – is to seek out a compassionate witness … someone who is willing to empathetically listen to one’s experiences and, without judgment, attempt to help one to sort things out. This compassionate witness might, or might not, be a professional counselor, or it could be a friend, relative, or a spouse.
Moreover, I have seen many people lose their faith completely following an encounter with spiritual abuse. Everything which comes into our lives has been placed there by God and has the potential for serving as a vehicle for spiritual growth or spiritual dissolution … the choice is ours. Life is a contact sport. God contacts us in many ways, and it is our responsibility to work our way through the enjoyable as well as problematic dimensions of such contact. Among all of Creation, the Prophets were the most severely challenged in relation to the manner in which they were contacted by God in the form of difficult life situations. However, the Qur’an has promised us that we each will be challenged with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in order to test us with respect to the purpose of life … that is, to learn about the truth that is given expression through all life events and to use such truth to enhance our understanding of our relationship with ourselves, God, and all of Creation.
As far as the issues of back-biting and hiding the faults of others is concerned, the Qur’an is replete with many examples in which people are warned about the faults of individuals who are specifically named – e.g., Iblis — and are used as illustrative examples to teach people about the sorts of individuals who are to be avoided or engaged with extreme caution. Where possible, the faults of others should be concealed, but there are circumstances in which the need to warn someone outweighs such considerations. Like so many things, this is an issue of discernment, and one must exercise considered judgment in relation to these sorts of matters.
*From al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism: “After the aspirant has given up his property and rank, he should make good his pact with God Most High and not oppose his master in anything that the latter prescribes to him. For opposition to one’s master during one’s novitiate is a grave deficiency, because one’s initial state is the best indicator of [what will happen to him] during the rest of his life. One condition for success is that there should be no opposition to the master in his student’s heart. If it occurs to the aspirant that he has any value or power in this world and the next, or that there’s on the face of the earth someone who is more lowly than he, he has no right to [aspire to God]…Should he happen to disagree with what the master has commanded to him, he must confess this in front of his master immediately. He then should submit himself to the master’s judgment as a punishment for his transgression and objection. ” p. 406“If the aspirant cannot find someone who could instruct him in the place he lives, it is incumbent on him to travel to someone who is renowned in his age for [his] guidance of novices. He must stay with this teacher and never leave the door of his house except for the canonical prayers.” p. 410“When the hearts of the Sufi masters accept an aspirant, this is the clearest proof that he will achieve salvation.” p. 411——————————–
Have you been the victim of spiritual abuse by a religious authority? Tell us your story. You can remain anonymous.
As salaamu alaikum Dr. Whitehouse, and thanks for taking the time to speak to readers of The Civil Muslim. Just to clarify for people for whom this is important, are you a “universal Sufi” for whom the laws of Islam are not considered important (prayer, zakat, etc.) or would you consider that Sufism goes hand in hand with the law (shar’)?
With respect to the facet of your first question which raises the question of whether, or not, Sufism goes hand in hand with the shar’ (law) of Islam…many people seem inclined to translate ‘shari’ah’ as meaning law in a legalistic sense. The Qur’an is not a book of law. It is a book of spiritual guidance. The journey toward God is not an exercise in legal hermeneutics. It is an exercise in coming to understand the truth about ourselves, our relation with the universe, and our relationship with Divinity.
The word shari’ah appears only once in the Qur’an. In Surah 45, verse 18, one reads: “O Prophet, We have put you on the right way (shari’ah) concerning the deen, so follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant people.” The etymology of shari’ah indicates that one of its root meanings – as a noun — concerns a place where animals come to drink water. A related verbal derivative from the same root – shar’a – refers to the process of taking a drink. Another word that is derived from the same root is shari’, and this term can refer either to a lawgiver, legislature, or one who determines the law. However, the same word also can refer to a street, path, or way.
Truth is the water to which God invites all Creation. In other words, God is the lawgiver in the sense of natural law, not legalistic conventions.
I have had two spiritual teachers in my life. One of those individuals was, in my opinion, an authentic shaykh, while the other person was, in my opinion, a fraudulent shaykh … a charlatan.
My first – authentic – guide had asked me to conduct a weekly session concerning the Sufi path at the University of Toronto. I did this for about twenty years … including four, or so, years that followed the passing away of my guide. Somewhere early on during the aforementioned four-year period, a woman phoned me and asked if I was the one conducting the weekly Sufi meetings at the University of Toronto. I indicated that I was, and she replied that she would be at the next meeting…and she continued to do so for the next several years. She didn’t say much, but, from time to time, she would make references to her own spiritual guide.
Through a set of gradual steps which occurred across several years, I eventually had the opportunity to meet with her shaykh who was visiting from the United States. Following several more lengthy meetings with him, I indicated to the woman who had been coming to the weekly discussion group concerning the Sufi path that I wanted to be initiated and would she broach the subject with the teacher.
Although nothing had been intimated to me during the previous several years of association with the woman, nor during any of my several discussions with the ‘shaykh,’ it seemed – as I later found out – that the alleged shaykh had instructed the woman in question to find me, babysit me, and wait for the alleged ‘shaykh’ to make his way to Toronto in order to meet with me.
The unexpected twist to the initiation ceremony is that after that process concluded, the gathering was informed by the ‘shaykh’ – and there were about approximately 50 or 60 people who had assembled for the ceremony – that I was being made a ‘shaykh’ in the silsilah into which I had just been initiated. I had not come to the ‘shaykh’ for that purpose, and even though I had had a very close sixteen-year relationship with my first teacher and was something of a ‘right’ hand man for him, I went to the second ‘teacher’ with no expectations other than to continue on with the learning process concerning the Sufi path.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Seven or eight years into the relationship, circumstances led me to spend some time with the ‘shaykh’ in the United States. Although the people in the household were very observant with respect to holding ‘fatiha’ sessions — during which the Qur’an is recited, thanks is given to God, and blessings are sought for the different shaykhs in the spiritual lineage, as well as for the people who have gathered for the session — the people in the household seemed to be less observant when it came to prayers and fasting. It seemed that while, on certain occasions, they did perform salaat, more often than not, this did not seem to be the case … although it is quite possible that they observed the prayers by themselves in their own rooms.
The fasting issue – at least in the case of some individuals – was more overt. I was up for fajr during Ramadan, and after eating something prior to the beginning of fasting, I would say the morning prayers. After I got done, I noticed that some of the people were continuing to eat despite the fact that the time for eating had long since passed by. People – whether Muslim or non-Muslim — come to the Sufi path from all different conditions and with different spiritual capacities and different levels of commitment. What such people do is not necessarily a reflection of, or on, their spiritual guide.
Manipulating the Impressions of Others
I heard in a round-about way that people within the silsilah had been told by my ‘teacher’ to not bother me because I was in a state of jazb – or intense spiritual attraction, often characterized by a sense of spiritual intoxication – and, therefore, they should not disturb me or contact me. Although we often are not the best judges of our own spiritual condition, I did not feel that what people were being told correctly described my spiritual station.
Certain allegations were made by various individuals that were critical of my ‘teacher.’ Yet, without facts which can be substantiated – and such facts are not always easily accessible — what is one supposed to do with those kinds of allegations?Unfortunately, life does always permit itself to be parsed in clearly understood terms. Sometimes our lives are left hanging in the interstitial spaces between what can, and cannot, be proven.
The final straw – the proverbial one which breaks the ‘camel’s’ back – came in the form of someone who was an initiate of mine…on one occasion, we had taken a trip to another state to visit with my ‘shaykh.’ Not too long after our return from that trip together, the individual began to behave in what I considered to be rather anomalous ways. Among other things, the person was going to take another trip to visit with the ‘shaykh,’ however, my ‘teacher’ had not said anything to me about the upcoming journey – despite his claim that he was under an obligation to tell me everything that took place in conjunction with the silsilah, and despite the fact that the individual who would be making the trip was supposedly my ‘student’ and, therefore, part of the spiritual adab or etiquette of the situation entailed that both my ‘shaykh’ and the student should ask my permission concerning the proposed journey. When that person returned from the journey, the individual indicated that I was no longer the student’s ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual guide.’
A little later on, I followed up with a further investigation of something else that the ‘teacher’ had told me when I and my student had last visited with him the previous November. I checked with official sources – including the state police and the local police where the ‘shaykh’ was living – and uncovered indisputable facts indicating that my ‘shaykh’ had been lying to me about the event in question.
During subsequent investigations, I discovered that the ‘shaykh’ had been lying to other people about me. I began to understand that the reason why it seemed to me that I was being moved to the periphery of ‘silsilah’ activities was because this was, in fact, what was happening … but it was all done by the shaykh’s manipulating and managing the impressions that others had concerning me.
(To be continued…Subscribe to this blog (located in the lower left portion of the page), to receive an email notification of Part 2.)
A few thoughts from me, an avowed Paul supporter, and then the poll:
-Ron Paul called out Santorum for supporting the prescription drug benefits while claiming he is against government in healthcare
-called Santorum “overly sensitive”…bingo. [see Ron Paul highlights]
-continued Ron Paul blackout: audience demanding Paul be allowed to answer, camera cutting away early from Paul during final camera pan of the candidates, etc.
-CNN falling all over itself to appear self-critical during post-debate punditry after Gingrich took John King to task for opening debate with personal muckraking question; I felt bad for John King who basically became an effigy for the media
-Santorum banking on alliteration: he is a “clear contrast” to Obama. In other words, he is banking on being the polar opposite of Obama ideologically…but how would that bring America together? And his unabashedness on social issues…[whispers in microphone to mock Romney's wussy pro-life stance)--do we really need another culture war? Paul's libertarianism allows him to make this a state issue, which means the mores of each state would determine the issue.
-Romney banking on a positive message of American exceptionalism (AKA inflating American egos)...Paul banking on 'the truth hurts and I'm here to tell it.' Stylistically, should Paul be less doomsday and end his responses with some positive catchphrase or is 'liberty' sufficient?
-And at the end of the day....none of them has a plan to avoid national bankruptcy by making serious baseline cuts, they are touting cuts only on proposed increases! All except Dr. Paul.
I must say, I was impressed with the tough questions from the Fox News moderators. Perhaps other networks can follow suit. What’s more, instead of having gobs of debates where each candidate has a mere 30 seconds to answer gargantuan questions, why not have fewer debates with more time alotted to allow real substantive debate? Just a thought.
The makers of Butterball turkeys recently came under fire for an obscure reference on their website which stated that all their turkeys are “halal processed.” This fact would probably have gone under the radar of most people if anti-Islamic blogger Pamela Gellar had not sounded the dire warning of stealth jihadist turkeys in our midst. In response to the onslaught of criticism, Butterball posted the following on their Facebook page, “Today we’ve received many questions regarding halal process. Butterball facilities follow the USDA guidelines for halal process. You can find additional information by calling the USDA hotline 888-674-6854 and hitting 7. The USDA hotline is provided by the department to address food safety, product and labeling questions.” There are currently 456 responses, many of them stating their objection to eating turkeys that have been the product of ritual slaughter.
So why are Butterball turkeys not labeled halal certified? Butterball is a major company. It is not, for example, like the many small organic farms that follow organic agricultural practices but can’t afford the labeling. My only guess is that Butterball wanted to capitalize on the Muslim market, while keeping it under the radar. I guess that failed.
We’ve been down this road before…a saffron one, to be exact. In August, Whole Foods’ introduction of Saffron Road’s line of frozen halal meals created “ backlash that prompted one regional manager to question whether some signs that had been created for stores in her area in relation to Ramadan should be changed.” (“Ramadan Becomes an Issue for Whole Foods, msnbc.com, August 10, 2011) Many Muslims haphazardly accused the entire Whole Foods Corporation of what was actually the action of one regional manager, whose doubts about the promotion were dismissed by headquarters who were forced to reiterate their support of Saffron Road promotion.
Is Butterball the only manufacturer that makes its halal products “stealth by design”? It appears that the manufacturers of Saffron Road are themselves vague about the Islamic nature of halal. The following is taken from the back of a Saffron Roads meal carton:
“Halal is a tradition that has nourished billions of people over the last 1,400 years. Halal promotes the sacred practices of respect for the land, fair treatment for farmers, humane treatment of livestock and wholesome food to eat. You’ll be amazed how good such carefully prepared food tastes and how it genuinely replenishes the body and soul!”
How very Zen. Who are these billions of people nourished by halal? A person unfamiliar with halal would never guess from this description that they were Muslims, and perhaps that was the point. Saffron Road’s founder, Adnan Durrani,
is a Muslim, but it appears even his marketing team determined that an Islamic mention might scare away customers. Any introduction of halal is to be praised; as Durrani states in that video, American Muslims spend 3 billion a year buying kosher, more than Jews! But it is a testament to the political environment that its Islamic origins cannot be made explicit.
What seems to be lost in the Butterball controversy is that demand for halal turkeys suggests that a lot of American Muslims celebrate Thanksgiving, an American holiday through and through. This fact does not serve the interests of Gellar and her ilk, who wish to portray Muslims as a monolithic den of anti-Americanism.
What a turkey.
Location, location, location. Not only is this the mantra of real estate, this (used to be) the mantra of issuing fatwas. Not only did the location (and therefore culture and context) of the questioner affect the answer, but the answer was usually asked of a local Muslim authority familiar with the questioner’s context and able to ask follow-up questions for clarification. We believe that our access to a world wide web of scholars gives us more access to knowledge than the Muslims of the past. But in many cases we are only being more exposed to provincial attitudes, authoritarian opinions (versus authoritative opinions), and lines of questioning which the Prophet most certainly would have discouraged as meticulous nitpicking. Such questions likely would have been answered by early scholars with, “I don’t know,” or perhaps, “I dislike these kinds of questions.” While we hear the story of Imam Malik answering 36 of 40 questions posed to him with “I don’t know,” held up as an example of scholastic humility, I have never witnessed a modern scholar, online or offline, saying “I don’t know.” This is not to say that it never occurs, but with the proliferation of questions on increasingly minute questions, one would expect to see it employed a bit more often. Allah knows best.
With the advent of the Internet in the last decade or so, Muslims should not take for granted that the business of fatwa-giving and taking has remained unchanged. Like many aspects of modern society, the process has become dislocated, decontextualized, and depersonalized. It is not uncommon for the average Muslim to consult the Internet for a fatwa purporting to be similar to their own situation. In many cases, several pieces of vital information are omitted. In most cases, we do not know the location of the questioner. We do not always know the location of the answerer. Many times the answerer is not a person, it is “Fatwa Committee,” or there is no entity given whatsoever. It is not an individual who can be held accountable or whose qualifications can be ascertained. We also do not know anything beyond what the questioner was able to fit in the text box allotted to him or her. The answerer does not appear to ask any follow-up questions…leading us to believe that a short paragraph summarizing a custody dispute sufficiently captures the situation. Surely, if we were researching a topic for an academic paper, this situation would not suffice. Yet this is the format into which questions pertaining to our religion is being squeezed.
I dislike online fatwas and have come to shun them completely in favor of a carefully thought out email or phone call placed to a trusted scholar. My reason for shunning online fatwas is that they assume uniformity in the umma. This leads to the body rejecting the foreign fatwa transplant.
Unity is not the same as uniformity, which presumes that the umma is the same everywhere. By publishing fatwas online, organizations that do so are in effect saying that a fatwa given to Sister X in Malaysia, regarding her particular marital dilemma, should be shared widely because it may assist Sister Y in Brooklyn who has a similar situation. The intention to globalize such information is noble. But the subtitle of this piece, “The McDonaldization of Islamic Knowledge,” summarizes the one-size-fits-all attitude being imposed on fatwa discourse. However, I must be fair to McDonald’s. McDonald’s in Cairo carries the McArabia sandwich to cater to its locale; I should think that the much more profound matter of advice concerning custody and marriage, should also address context. Local laws differ. The obligation to “ask those who know” has been repeated in a time of dislocation where many Muslims mistrust their knowledge of Islam and feel that they must learn it from the ground up. “Culture” is seen as the antithesis of Islamic knowledge, even though a legal maxim states, “Custom has the weight of law.” Obviously this applies to custom that does not violate core Islamic tenets…but how many of us bother with this distinction? It is too unwieldy, and therefore appears unIslamic to our modern minds. Like our food, we want things prepackaged and labeled halal for consumption.
One final lesson on the detrimental impact of fatwas transplanted from foreign locales comes to us from the Salafi community. One cannot speak of Islam in 1990’s America without speaking about this movement. Here is a group that stresses going back to the sources and “consulting those who know.” Surely such a group of dedicated daleel-seekers would be saved from sectarianianism and division, right? Umar Lee (who did a masterful microhistory of the Salafi movement but whose new love affair with a certain group raises eyebrows) noted the effect of the “ecclesiastical tribunal” that governed the Salafis here through telelinks and other virtual sources of information, and the subsequent downfall of the movement. My strong suspicion is that few, if any, of the scholars issuing these edicts ever visited the Salafi Muslims in America to see how their fatwas played out on the ground. This was to prove fatal to the Salafi community, which disintegrated under the divisive impact of finding out “who was on the right manhaj” and who had “deviated.” Splits among their body of scholars overseas created splits here. (Shadee El Masry has written a wonderful academic article about the causes of the Salafi movement’s downfall, he relies on Umar Lee to some extent). In short, Saudi Arabia, through their generous funding of books, pamphlets, mosques and schools, succeeded to a great extent— but the fatal flaw was, as it is now, an assumption that textual Islam covers all the realities and that matters of culture and context could be sufficiently addressed under one concept: bid’a.
Calling for accountability from scholars is not only necessary since we are talking about the weighty subject of religion; it keeps their wits sharp. Any scholar who makes you feel uncomfortable asking for proofs is probably someone to be dispensed with. One thing we can thank the Salafis for is that asking for daleels has become commonplace. Whether you’d know a daleel if it slapped you in the face is another matter. It is at the very least, a symbol of transparency demanded of a body that can devolve into a carefully-guarded fraternity if this tension between authority and those who have given them authority is not left in place.
The Revolution’s Deserving Victims: Western Warmongers, Narcissistic Despots, And Tunnel-Vision TerroristsIn Politics, Religion on February 22, 2011 at 7:50 pm
One by one the world has seen what the residents of many Middle Eastern states have experienced for decades. For a region whose inhabitants have been characterized as violent and fanatical Muslims, it is a vindication that they have instead beamed across our TV screens nothing but peaceful protests, and a few men engulfed in self-imposed flames of despair. The Sean Hannitys of the world are robbed of their ideological go-to images, and instead struggle to find a lurking Islamist in the shadows who might serve as a rebuff to such displays of, quite frankly, American revolutionary behavior.
And it is also a vindication that leaders like Mubarak, respected in the West for keeping stability (read: stifle political dissent) and brokering the Palestine-Israeli peace process (see Egyptian stall tactics, Wikileaks) are now pulling back the sheepskin and revealing the sneering faces of wolves. Wolves who invoke “the nation” but fail to see that a nation is its people. It is not some God-like entity that exists as a theoretical given: this kind of nationalism is long-defunct as internationalism and a heightened religious consciousness play a bigger role in the region. Yet as one after another leader marches up to a podium, he invokes defunct concepts that no longer stir the hearts of the people. These remnants of postcolonial nationalism speak from a political time capsule of sorts…they are the last Ataturks, willing to sacrifice anything, even religion to the nation. In the process, the nation becomes their religion. That is why, when Mubarak invoked Egypt and the sacrifices he had made to it, I believed he was sincere. But he was sincerely dedicated to a concept that, for him, no longer had any connection to the actual people that compose it. It was, instead, deeply connected to himself. This is the wisdom of the American founding fathers who recognized that the longer a leader stays in power, the greater the tendency to say, as King Louis XIV of France reportedly said, “L’État, c’est moi,” “I am the state.” It is ironic that the pronoun “I” has factored heavily in the rambling defensive statements issued by Mubarak, and now Gaddafi.
Many American people, in their beautiful yet tragic simplicity, support the aspirations of the Egyptians, Tunisians, and others, and then puzzle in bewilderment as to why their leaders are so reserved in their comments on the situation. They are learning the ugly truth; that we have long known about, and tolerated, such regimes. We did so because the regimes skillfully played into Western fears of political Islam. And now these men, who claim to stand for lofty ideals, in the end stand only for themselves, and are pulling out every last trick in their outdated handbooks of governance. ‘If they do not support me, let me invoke the ever-meddling foreign powers…surely a good Libyan will respond to that.’ But the good Libyan has not responded to such paranoia, for unlike Gaddafi, after 42 years the good Libyan now speaks a different language.
Another group has lost out as the dominoes of despotism continue to fall. These are the violent so-called Islamic groups who have long told us (the Muslims) that violent resistance was the only way. They played down Mecca in favor of Madina, although the situation of the Muslims today is more like the tiny band of Muslims in Mecca, asserting their belief from under a heavy rock placed there to torture them into submission to another god. Gaddafi, Mubarak, and their like have placed another rock on our chests, and asked us to submit to them and their humiliation. Yet these terrorist groups did not serve us well either, in violating basic wisdoms of jihad by calling people to warfare when they do not have the means so that they became merely expendable ammunition in the arsenal of doctors and engineers-turned-“sheikhs.” I speak of Bin Laden and Zawahiri. Where is Bin Laden? Where are his statements supporting the people of the Middle East? He is strangely silent, perhaps marveling at how many young men were sent to self-implode and harm others….when all it took was a man from a Tunisian village who harmed himself before he harmed others, even those who deserved his harm. In truth, the Quran speaks of retaliation, but repeatedly says that it is better to forgive. It is better to give up one’s right to retaliate and to forgive. The martyr of Tahrir Square is a martyr in the true sense that he gave of himself, and only himself…in a way quite unlike those who take innocent bystanders with them.
The victims are not those who lost their lives in the streets. No, those are the victors. The deserving victims are the merchants of violence and their spinmasters, and every egotistical leader who now fears his people. But even here, they are still in error. They should fear God, who answers the prayers of the oppressed no matter their creed.
“Oh believers! Eat what We have provided for you of lawful and good things, and give thanks for Allah’s favour, if it is He whom you serve. (Qur’an 2:172)
Recently, Muslims celebrated Abraham’s obedience to God through his willingness to sacrifice his son. To Abraham’s relief his son was miraculously replaced by a lamb. Muslims celebrate this ultimate act of obedience by slaughtering an animal on Eidul Adha. This holiday also occurs as the consummation of the hajj rituals, with pilgrims performing the same slaughter as their counterparts worldwide.
My love of cooking has interested me in the ethics of eating. Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and documentaries like Food Inc. and The Future of Food, further contributed to my revolution in thinking regarding how we treat animals, how this in turn affects the food we eat, and how the food we eat affects us. But in many ways it merely expanded on what I was already taught as a Muslim: It was reported that the Prophet Muhammad said to a man who was sharpening his knife in the presence of an animal he was about to slaughter: “Do you intend inflicting death on the animal twice — once by sharpening the knife within its sight, and once by cutting its throat?”
For Muslims who grew up overseas, encountering large animals may be as simple as walking down the street where donkeys compete with cars for streetspace. But for people like my husband who grew up in Mauritania, the sight of animals being slaughtered was as frequent as every Friday. Such children grew up knowing that blood was shed that they might eat, and that chicken doesn’t exist from birth as a nugget. Yet with such knowledge also comes apathy, as the sight of an animal slaughtered evokes little sympathy, given the regularity with which it is seen.
On the flipside, I grew up in America, only encountering chickens in their pre-packaged form, butchered into neat portions, or worse, as nuggets. This is the polar end of the eating spectrum where the slaughtering is kept out of view. It is its own form of apathy; sterilized.
This Eidul Adha, the two poles united. My husband, the “apathetic Eastern slaughterer,” and myself, the “hypersensitized Western consumer.” Like Pollan, I wanted to see for myself what had happened so many times before in order that that I might eat meat: an animal being slaughtered. So after more than an hour’s drive, we arrived at a plot of farmland that was country enough, were it not for the dumpy grey building it contained. Here, I learned, was the slaughterhouse where much of the meat that Saint Louis’ Muslims eat is slaughtered.
A strange space it was. On the left side of the building, a grassy area backed up to a pen containing lambs and goats. Children offered them bits of grass. The scene resembled a petting zoo. But on the other side of the building, grass turned to gravelly driveway, men stood around, and there, on the pavement, was the bloody red head of a goat.
I wasn’t as distraught as I thought I would be. But I was definitely struck by the paradox of this slaughterhouse. On the one side, a pastoral scene played out, while on the other, the utterly human work of processing nature occurred. This processing struck a climax when the dump truck pulled up. Huge garbage cans filled with guts and lamb wool were mechanically emptied into the back of the truck. It was waste in two senses: waste as in trash, and waste as in, ‘hey, couldn’t someone make a sweater out of that wool?’ Or ‘Couldn’t those guts be composted somewhere?’
The behavior of the men was also paradoxical. Some clearly hadn’t slaughtered before, or were rusty at it. One bravely took up the knife, although in front of the other men I sensed from him the same nervousness you might expect of a young boy on a dare. He proceeded to slit with the wrong knife. Failing to make the cut, (no pun intended) another man observing this slaughterhouse faux pas looked at me and sighed as if to say, “Amateur.” Or perhaps, more optimistically, he sighed at the failure to make a clean cut and spare the animal any extra pain, according to Islamic slaughter guidelines.
A long line of people awaited their meat. A group of men (clearly with an eye to freshness) proceeded to barbecue their recent slaughter on the grounds. I thought that there must be something criminal about the wafting odor of barbecued lamb making its way to the actual lambs. I privately disapproved of what I considered poor behavior on their part. They disrupted the clear mental cut that the slaughterhouse provided: on the one side, animals grazing in farm-like tranquility, on the other, animals turned into food product. And here, in the middle, men engaged in the primitive act of barbecuing. Perhaps it was their primitiveness which bothered me or their impatience to eat. But perhaps my own stealth eating, back in the privacy of my apartment, was less honest than their finger-licking barbecue within thirty feet of the living animals.
What are the slaughter house rules? We may find an indication in how the world religions treat animal slaughter as an event where a little ceremony and respect is in order. For me, as I stuck my fork into the same lamb we had slaughtered that day, it was finding that balance between apathy and stealth eating: the recognition that we, like many animals, are carnivores. Unlike other animals, we (should be) carnivores with rules.
Muslims are never reluctant to identify oppression. You might say we are experts in discussing it. This year, Thanksgiving brought with it the entirely appropriate reminder of the destruction of the indigenous people of the United States and beyond. But unfortunately, too many of us became, for a day, the vanguards of the historically oppressed, pitting ourselves against those despicable celebrations of genocide: Thanksgivings. Because after all, what better signifies disrespect to Native peoples, than to remember a day long ago when whites participated in a festival that was not of their own culture, but that of the American Indians, who ate of the fall harvest and celebrated its bounties? How dare we celebrate such a unique moment between two peoples who wavered between cooperation and mutual distrust, when doing so upsets our dichotomous, comic book view of morality and history?
How dare those Pilgrims frustrate our caricature of them as the conquerers, who in their advanced 17th century knowledge of germ warfare, passed diseased blankets to Natives on purpose! They hated Natives! Except when they needed to know how to adapt to the new environment. Except when they married them. Except when they made treaties (the ones that were kept).
And how dare we celebrate Natives as anything other than the Che Guevaras of the New World, exemplifying unwavering resistance towards the Pilgrim oppressors! Well, except when they sat down with the oppressor. And taught the oppressor to grow corn. And intermarried with the oppressor. Those inconvenient facts can be explained away by saying that we are not as naive as those Natives were. Boycott Thanksgiving!
My point is not to level the field. There was clearly a winner and a loser, and this is shown by the existence of Indian reservations. But my point is, history is not a comic book. Despite numerous attempts to recast Thanksgiving’s true origins, all will fail. Why? Because it’s not about the veracity of whether and how it occurred. It’s about the underlying story and the promise it provides.
When we strip away the who’s who of cast characters we come down to a moral story. Two peoples; two religions inform their existence. One people fled from a position of political weakness, having been religiously persecuted in their home country. They find themselves in a new position of power as possessors of firearms among peoples who have none. Despite their apparent prowess they are utterly dependent on the other people whose form of knowledge is knowledge of the land. Military prowess and supposed religious superiority are both put at bay when the most humbling of lessons are needed: how does one grow corn, anyway?
It seems it is us who have forgotten the lessons of Thanksgiving. You see, it is easy to be ‘anti-establishment’; who wouldn’t condemn the disease and all those wars that decimated the Natives? But what about looking at the current situation of the Natives? These are not simply victims of history, but people who are alive today and share many of the same social problems that occur off the reservation. Focusing on the most romanticized and easily condemnable aspects of history reinforces the notion of their historicity as distant peoples.
Reminding us suggests that we forget. I grew up in an area where it was difficult not to remember. The first street I lived on was Iroquois St. Our zoo was named Seneca. I grew up not far from towns with names like Cheektowaga and counties with names like Onondaga. We lived on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, the Ontario. The Indian reservation, beckoning you with tax-free cigarettes and gasoline, was a few hours’ drive.
Our once-a-year hand-wringing about past injustices seems like so much do-gooder nonsense when Native Americans face the same problems we face, amplified. Alcohol abuse and unemployment are rampant on reservations. Why not focus on solutions to these problems? Why not volunteer our time and efforts in these arenas?
This would be better than to paint the Rockwellian scenes of family around a turkey as some insidious continuation of Native oppression. If we can make it out of our comic book worlds, where good and evil are easily identified, we may find the chance to transform victims into actors…and enjoy some turkey in the process.
Kids are little adults. In spiritual terms, the same diseases of the heart that we see in adults, begin to manifest at an early age. At age five, one can already identify leaders and followers. One can already see racism (learned at home), and manipulative behavior. There are also positive traits, like generosity and compassion. When a child falls down, why do some children stop and ask “Are you OK?” while others run and play? Why does one child share cookies while another hoards them to himself?
As I embark on my second stint teaching in an Islamic school, I am compelled to recollect the methods and lessons learned when I accidentally became an Islamic school kindergarten teacher last year. As someone who had no children and had never even babysat prior to the job, my introduction to children was a baptism by fire. This forced me to learn in a very short timespan, what many teachers were taught over years of methods courses and teaching practicums. I make no pretension to knowing the names of these techniques. These are the time-tested methods that got this amateur through a year of kindergarten madness, and turned me into someone who is now confident in her ability to handle children.
Attention is Itself a Reward
Sometimes keeping silent about bad behavior is the best way of censuring it. Attention is a reward to be given to those who deserve it. Sapping all our energy on zeroing in on bad behavior is not only counterproductive but unfair to other kids who do behave and who see all the attention go towards the misbehaving.
At storytime, some children will continue to talk and squirm while others sat attentive and ready for the story. One by one I zero in on the positive, “I see Abdallah sitting nicely. Wow, I see Aisha quiet and ready to hear the book, thank you Aisha. Muhammad is ready. Who else?”
Like magic, the offenders straighten up and copy those who got the positive attention. One could say this is manipulative, because I purposefully ignore the other children, however, what is discipline other than the careful manipulation of human responses to create a better human being? This is also a way of avoiding embarrassment of the offending children, who are given attention but only when they do something positive.
This method takes time and practice. It is almost counterintuitive and you may find yourself reverting to calling out the negative behavior. But stick to the method as much as possible. The tone of the classroom will change to one of harsh scolding to constant praise.
Explain Things Simply, And Use a Logical Order
Many of us lecture children with complex themes and difficult words. We are not talking to them at their level. They are so caught up in their simple object of desire (a toy) that sometimes all we need to do is remind them what they just did, and appeal to their human compassion.
For example, a boy takes another boy’s toy. I say,
“Ahmed was happy with his toy and you took it from him. How do you think he feels now?”
“If I take your toy how will you feel?”
“How can you make Ahmed happy?”
“Give him the toy.”
You are also teaching compassion. When we say, “It’s his, give it back,” we are teaching simplistic property rights, not the essential quality of sharing.
Humans like to turn their heads away from the shameful things they do. Most of the time, the toy-stealer will be involved in explaining to you why they are right. They don’t look at the crying child at all. I tell the toy-stealer to look at the other child (usually crying.) This by itself can have an effect.
Go Beyond Scolding and Use “Instead”
Sometimes we are a “Don’t Factory.” Don’t do this, don’t do that. We give children (especially Muslim children) a long list of don’t and “harams.” “Don’t run in the musalla,” we say, but we don’t give them an “Instead” such as “Sit down and ask Allah for good things. Pray for me, your parents, friends, etc.”
We tell a child, “Don’t take things from others.” But we don’t give them the social skills of how to get what they want. Nine times out of ten, when I ask the child, “Did you ask to use it?” they say No.
I teach them the 3 Sharing Steps.
2) (If they say no) “Can I Use it When You’re Done?” (most of the time the kid says yes)
3) Wait (if you wait a long time, go to the teacher)
Most of the time the first kid will eventually hand the toy to the kid who wants it. Or the kid who wants it goes on to play and forgets his request for the toy. If the kid comes to me after significant time waiting, I then tell the other child to give him the toy.
Sometimes they do step 1 and not 2. I ask them, and they recall step 2. Or they do step 2 and fail to wait. I make them recall what they should have done next. Without the 3 Step Rule, kids don’t know how to get what they want.
One boy was an only son and spoiled by his family. He was very bossy at home and at school. When playing a game, if something went wrong he exclaimed, “Cheater!” This obviously put the other child on the defensive and paved the way for yet another argument.
I wrote these bossy statements on the board alongside better statements:
“Cheater!” becomes, “I think you made a mistake.”
“Gimme!” becomes, “Can I have that?”
“Move!” becomes, “Excuse me.”
Everytime he used a bossy statement, I pointed to the better one and read it for him. After a while his speech became less bossy. He had a better way to say what he wanted to say, and the others responded better to him. He seemed noticeably happier using these statements instead of the old ones. He must have felt relieved to not have to fight tooth and nail anymore, and I felt the same!
Don’t Make Allah an Extension of Yourself
If you are accustomed to zeroing in on negative things, you may attribute the same behavior to God. You think that by invoking someone higher than yourself, the kid will listen even if they don’t listen to you. You are actually using the same faulty method, just trying to up the stakes.
When kids do positive things, do we say, “Allah likes it that you do that,” or “I bet Allah is very proud of you,” or “Wow, the angels must be really busy writing down your good deeds!”
Or do we only mention Allah for negative behaviors, “ Allah doesn’t like that,” “Allah will be angry with you,” etc. You can use this, but do justice to reality: Allah notices good and bad.
Don’t reduce Allah to a big parent who only sides with mom and dad. If you do something wrong, be honest. “Mommy did something wrong. Now I have to tell Allah I’m sorry.” Now the child realizes that Allah is above sides; he is al Haqq (the Truth!), and he sides with whatever is truthful and good. You are also modeling repentance, not some unrealistic ideal.
Problems Unique to Islamic School
Most Islamic Schools are diverse, and all of them place a heavy emphasis on learning Arabic. This of course, is because we want to empower all Muslims to be able to read the Quran in its original language. But for children who speak Arabic at home, they see other students who can’t and feel superior.
I saw two Arabic-speaking boys tell a Somali boy, “We speak Arabic. Do you?” The answer, of course, was no. The boys then asked him what various words in Arabic meant (they knew he would not be able to answer). The other boy did his best to guess, but naturally, he didn’t know. The intended effect of excluding him was achieved and the other boys felt proud of their Arabic (language of the Quran after all). I stepped in,
“Abdul raheem, can you teach me a Somali word? Whisper it in my ear.”
He then whispered the Somali word for ‘food’ in my ear.
I pronounced the Somali word to the Arab boys and asked, “What does it mean?”
They didn’t know.
I said, “Why not? Me and Abdul raheem know what it means.”
Abdulraheem then told them what it meant. I told them that Allah made all kinds of people and languages. In this way I signified to the other boys that there were things they didn’t know either. As the teacher I also lent some importance to the Somali language by showing an interest in it. This boosted Abdulraheem’s confidence and opened the other boys minds to how they had treated Abdulraheem and how it must have felt for him.
Immigrant parents, especially, pride themselves on creating docile girls. One parent had a problem with how much his daughter laughed and spoke loudly, by his standards. Parents need to understand that in the American context a girl who is docile can be considered weak and a pushover. I don’t think anyone wants their daughter to grow up and model vulnerability, especially if she eventually ends up in a co-ed middle or high school. We need to probe the deeper meanings of modesty, and not just be satisfied with its supposed outward signs. Also, we know that the Prophet was so modest he was chided for being feminine. But do we require this same modesty from our sons? If we applied this standard of modesty from our sons then maybe we would have an argument for demanding so much of it from our girls. For now, I am not seeing much logic in creating a nation of soft-spoken girls, while the boys brag about who “owned” who in the latest videogame. Male modesty seems theoretical, at best!
Also, little girls see that it is the boys who lead the prayer. We are shy to say that little boys will be expected to be leaders of their homes and that we even have this concept in Islam. This responsibility includes the opportunity to “mess up” and be held accountable, so this perceived advantage is a double-edged sword. We are also shy as women to lead the other girls in prayer, even though this is something girls should know is permissible by most schools.
Which of these methods are new to you? What will you apply? Happy parenting/teaching!
See my latest article, “Defending the Muslims Should Not Entail Idealizing Them.”
The recent hysteria about the “Blocks From Ground Zero Mosque,” is playing well into Bin Laden’s assertion that America is not at war with him but with Islam, and is mocking Bush’s reassurance that it is otherwise. The American people in their hysteria oppose the building of a mosque. They defend this by saying they are a majority. In the aftermath of humiliating defeat in WWI, the German people in their hysteria supported Hitler…by a majority. The stakes are not that high…yet. But we already hear the argument of “might makes right.” We associate mosques with terrorism and expect those who attend peaceful ones to do the same. We ask Muslims to split themselves down the middle: between being American and being Muslim. We have valid feelings, but illogical conclusions. We need to send a strong message overseas that we distinguish between Islam and terrorism. Until we do so, we are unknowingly doing the bidding of Bin Laden, who is rejoicing at the divisions this is causing between blue and red, Muslim and non. The America I remember pre 9/11 is better than that. Muslim Americans need to continue reaching out to their neighbors and doing the kind of public relations that we as a community were never equipped to do the morning of 9/11. In return, all Americans need to navigate the pundits critically, read multiple news sources, and meet actual Muslims. 9/11 did not discriminate between its Muslim and non-Muslim victims. Neither should we.
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Patronage of intellectual endeavor is nothing new to Muslims. The caliphs of the past endowed many educational endeavors, and subsequent discoveries were made possible, in part, by their financial patronage. There are awqaf (Islamic endowments) that have been in effect since the Middle Ages until this very day, including an endowment to care for the stray cats in the city of Fez, modern day Morocco. We are probably the most wealthy Muslims who have ever lived. A pious Muslim once saw fit to care for stray cats; surely we hold our children and future Muslims in higher regard than a stray cat. Why not revive this tradition? Here are some institutions that should command our support:
Zaytuna College (formerly Zaytuna Institute) Berkeley, CA
Since its humble beginnings in Hayward California, where American Muslim theologian and convert Hamza Yusuf broke the ground (both figuratively, and literally) to build a site for traditional Islam in America, Zaytuna scholars have provided American Muslims with a crucial combination: knowledge of the faith, coupled with the contextualization needed to produce an authentic indigenous practice of Islam. This alone has helped many American Muslim youth avoid the dual identity that often plagues the children of immigrants who (sometimes with great difficulty) navigate the American culture and their own ethno-religious culture.
Zaytuna’s co-founder, Hamza Yusuf, has not only been instrumental in translating traditional texts that would otherwise be lost on American Muslims for some time to come, he has personally taught future imams like Usama Canon and Yahya Rhodus. In addition to its intellectual offspring, the institute has various institutional offspring such as Deen Intensive Foundation and Taleef Collective.
Co-founder Zaid Shakir has been a mainstay of Zaytuna and a relevant voice for American Muslims, including African American Muslims. He maintains a blog: newislamicdirections.com
Originally the outreach wing of Zaytuna Institute, Taleef Collective provides the social space for the education and contextualization of seekers and converts. While many American Muslims experience alienation in those mosques that exclude youth or women from decisionmaking, Taleef has provided a stepping stone to the mosque for Muslims who would ordinarily give up on the mosque as a source of moral support. Taleef is not the fly-by-night operation we have come to expect from youth programming. The organization has faithfully held programming since its inception and continues to draw a loyal crowd of young people with enthusiasm for the faith. Importantly, it does not “dumb down” youth or exist solely as an entertainment provider. Taleef exposes its attendees to traditional texts such as Imam al-Haddad’s The Book of Assistance. Taleef is a model that should be seriously studied by Muslim communities who have tried and failed at traditional “youth programs.”
Deen Intensive is a non-profit organization which endeavors to expose Muslims to intensive religious instruction, similar to what might occur in a madrasa or mahdara in traditional Muslim countries. Its tiered approached provides weekend programs for those just beginning, week-long programs for the more dedicated, and monthlong programs for the adventurous. Financial aid is available and several monthlong attendees reported success by writing letters and raising money from local Muslim sponsors to support their study.
Founded by Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah, Chicago-based Nawawi Institute models Zaytuna and Deen Intensive in many ways. It is an academic institute which produces research papers on Islam in America (including the influential “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”), as well as trips to Spain and the Holy Cities for intensive study and site visits. The Midwest needs an institution comparable to Zaytuna’s offerings on the West Coast, and Nawawi Institute is worthy of our renewed support.
Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Moroccan Muslim law student whose travels brought him further than Marco Polo, is the subject of “Journey to Mecca.” The film captures his travels across North Africa on his way to perform the hajj rituals.
The hajj rituals, such as stoning of a pillar and circling a building draped in black, can seem empty and meaningless to those who are unfamiliar with their meanings. The film is important in its explanation of rituals that reveal the Muslims’ descent from Hajar, the slave wife of Abraham, through the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad.
The film is also important in fulfilling a long-recognized need within the Muslim community to be more involved in self-definition through the media. Yet there will be the usual grumbles from the Radical Islam-watchers that the film was funded in part by Saudi royals. This criticism is valid insomuch as it points out the need for North American Muslims to fund projects of great beauty and professionalism on their own. Any criticism of the movie as Islamic triumphalism and supremacy should be taken for what it is: an inability to portray Muslims through anything other than the lens of 9/11.
Visually, the desert from on high humiliates you; pointing up your total dependence on water, and the tiny physical space you inhabit. Sound-wise the film is stunning in IMAX format. A loud “whoosh” emanates from a crowd of a million Muslims; it is the mere sound of their garments moving as they sit up from prostration. The viewer imagines how that must feel in person. And that is precisely what the film does; allows non-Muslims into a holy city they are barred from. The latter is a valid discussion but one that should not detract from the importance of Ibn Battuta as an important figure of study. What does it say to the modern world, for example, that Ibn Battuta could travel from Morocco, to Arabia, to China, and elsewhere, while today travel to this extent would entail navigating the modern nation-state with its visa applications and border hassles? A modern Ibn Battuta would, of necessity, have to be wealthy.
Content-wise, Ibn Battuta’s journey across North Africa should have received more time in the film. His eventual arrival in Mecca would have felt more appreciated if this were the case. The film is mostly a male affair. Ibn Battuta married several women in his travels, and undoubtedly had many more children. The pain of a marital departure would have given the film more depth, revealing a man who pursued his own travels but not without expense to others; on the other hand travelling in this period meant months to years of danger and difficulty. Would it be unfair to ask Ibn Battuta to remain celibate for his thirty years of travel? Classrooms would benefit from such discussions of morality in different historical contexts and the website provides an educator’s guide. For Islamic schools in particular, Ibn Battuta should provide a wealth of activities for the teacher, for example, pinning each destination he visits on a map and discussing the diversity of creation.
Journey to Mecca is a timely film. It is an unfortunate fact that too many people will shy away from viewing the film, seeing it as a ploy to normalize Muslims. If this is its greatest crime, then that is all the more reason to see it.
It is common to hear people make the argument that Islam is inherently violent, and therefore true Muslims cannot be peaceful. I was going to google search for examples of this type of speech because it would make my blog look more professional, it would be in line with my academic training, etc. But then I thought, “Is it really that hard to believe that people are saying negative things about Muslims?” So I am counting on the current tide of ignorance to continue and serve as my reference. How sad.
Now if we accept their premise (which I don’t) that Islam necessitates its followers to be in a perpetual state of war, then it appears most of us are doing a bad job of being Muslims. So shouldn’t these people be happy that we are such “non-practicing” Muslims? I mean, come on, not even a sword or dagger to my name? Shame on me. The truth is these people will not be happy until Muslims renounce the very thing that makes them Muslim: Islam. Somehow, I don’t see 1.4 billion people committing apostasy en masse. Which means that these people…the very ones who say Muslims call for perpetual war…are themselves calling for perpetual war. Or at least until 1.4 billion Muslims change their mind. Which is exactly never.
The problem is this: a long time ago Muslim scholars divided the world into a geopolitical framework which seemed to represent the world as they knew it. They called these ‘the abode of Islam’ and ‘the abode of war’: dar ul Islam and dar ul harb. You were either with us, or against us (sound familiar?) OR… (here’s the interesting part) you had a treaty with us. That meant we stayed off your turf and you stayed off ours. In gang parlance, “Respect.”
This sounds a lot like what empires used to do. Wait a minute. That WAS the age of empire. I don’t recall a medieval Kofi Annan scolding each people to stay within their borders. Borders were fluid. Power was defined not by how many contracts you had overseas or how many Golden Arches spanned the globe in a display of soft power. It was expansion in a quest for land resources which would then feed the capital of the empire until it became necessary to expand and raid some territories again. Empires were volatile things that required a lot of resources to keep them running…which is why the most revered leaders had names like William the Conquerer. The idea of staying put was not even fathomable at the time. Thus it is not surprising that Muslims viewed the world through this lens, along with the dominant form of ID at the time: religion. Christendom was a reality that allowed a lot of little European warlords to settle their beef and band together under its banner. In theory at least. Come to think of it, the world religions did a lot to put local squabbling to rest.
Fast forward to the age of Google. People discover books of medieval Islamic jurisprudence which described the world in such a way, and they assume that modern Muslims view it in the same way( and not just the ones who live in caves and have accounting degrees). They mean you, me, and “Mo” down at the 7-11. But alas! Geopolitical realities change. Would anyone argue that Hosni Mubarak is caliph and Egypt represents dar ul Islam? That Heineken billboard I saw in Cairo is definitely not helping that theory. Furthermore, would anyone argue that the United States is the abode of war? A country that makes a covenant with whoever comes here that they can freely practice their religion, and this includes Muslims?
You know, it seems that our modern day political scene requires a different discourse that better serves the realities of our time. It seems that “the abode of Islam” is limited to individuals, not governments. I think I have hit upon something folks. In fact, I think I am a genius…
Wait…darn. There are Muslim scholars who have already come to the same conclusions?! More than one?
So how come people, some Muslims included, insist that medieval political theory should be forced to fit current realities? God asks us to practice religion in every time and place….he doesn’t ask us to practice the same form of government in every time and place. We cannot say Islam is practicable in every time and place, and then not adjust for time or place. I am not talking about changing the 5 pillars here…..yeah, I know some of you Muslims were about to write me an email: “How can you say ISLAM must change?! Astaghfirullah! (May God forgive you).” All I am saying is, there’s a Heineken billboard in the middle of the world’s most populous Muslim city, and Muslims openly praying in a park somewhere in New York.
The world changes; that’s why I recently put on 10 pounds. God is unchanging; that’s why He’s God. Now if we would only accept those two realities…