Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Explaining the Unexplainable

There is a trilogy of texts that define Muslim belief. First is the Quran, the words spoken by Muhammad that Muslims believe were inspired by Allah via the angel Gabriel. Second is the hadith, the sayings and actions of the Prophet written down by his followers mostly after his death. Third is the sira, or early biographies of Muhammad, the first of which was written about 200 years after his death.

Muslims believe that the actions and sayings of Muhammad serve as Allah’s desired standard for all Muslims for all time. With the exception of Prophetic allowances (Muhammad had eleven wives while today’s Muslim can only have four), Muslims are to accept everything in the Quran and the hadith as not only true but divine.

With the arrival of the internet and the translation of these ancient Arabic texts into English that are available online, Muslims faced an unprecedented challenge. The fact is that some of the hadith, even the most authoritative ones in the Sahih Al-Bukhari collection, are just plain silly.

When Jews are confronted with the fact that the law of Moses called for the stoning of adulterers and Christians are reminded that Paul taught that women should cover their heads and be silent in church, they have an easy answer. They simply say, “Yes, that is written there, but we don’t do that anymore.” It’s not so easy for Muslims. They have to try to explain. It’s true that the Christianized, Westernized Muslim living in America who is your friend or neighbor or coworker and probably the nicest person in the world doesn’t take this stuff seriously. In fact, they came to America to get away from the craziness. But over here in the heartland, where mockery or criticism can get you fired, imprisoned, or killed, it’s a different story.

And so religious shaykhs go to great lengths to explain the silly hadiths. Actually I haven’t yet come across an explanation for my all-time favorite. Muhammad said that if a woman becomes pregnant, the child will resemble whichever of the parents first reached orgasm. If the woman came first, the child will look like her. If it was the man, the child will resemble him. If this were actually true, I imagine that ninety percent of American kids would look like their dads. Maybe the reason I haven’t yet heard an Islamic response to this one is simply that it is too wild to even try.

But they do their best to explain other silly hadiths. When the media picked up that Muhammad ordered some sick people to drink a mixture of camel’s urine and milk as a remedy, shaykhs rushed to explain the medicinal advantages of that concoction. When someone pointed out that Muhammad had said that a man should only be in the presence of women who had nursed him, a shaykh issued a fatwa that (unlike in Saudi Arabia where men and women never work together) men and women could work together in the same office if the man was breastfed by all the women in that office.

I was listening the other day to a shaykh on television explaining some more of the silly hadiths to the millions of people watching. He was asked about the time when Muhammad told people not to worry about eating food that a fly had fallen into because even though one wing of the fly carried harmful bacteria the other wing carried the cure. The shaykh explained that “a British doctor” had actually done a study showing that this was true. As usual, he did not give the name of the doctor nor mention where this study was available.

The same shaykh was then asked about the hadith where Muhammad stated that the Children of Israel always took communal baths. Moses, however, chose to bathe alone. One day he laid his clothes on a rock which started to run away. Poor naked Moses had to run after the rock shouting, “My clothes, my clothes!” Without a second’s hesitation, the shaykh replied that this story was indeed true. Was not Allah powerful enough to cause a rock to run?

I have to concede the shaykh’s point. If Allah is all-powerful, he can make a rock do anything he wants it to. I just don’t believe it ever happened.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Different Way of Thinking

Today my Arabic instructor was complaining about French president Sarkozy's unwillingness to allow Turkey to enter the European Union. Sarkozy had apparently commented that it was inconceivable that Europe could border Iraq and Syria. My instructor noted that in the past Muslim rulers had been proud of the fact that the Islamic Empire extended from China to Morocco. He thought that Europe should equally take pride in the concept of Europe's becoming larger by the entry Turkey into the Union.

I replied that it was possible that one reason Europe was reluctant to allow Turkey into the European Union was that Europeans enjoy personal freedoms that Turks do not. Europeans, for example, have the freedom to choose whatever religion they want. A Christian European can choose to become a Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, and no-one cares. Turks do not have that freedom.

My instructor saw it differently. He said, "But we Muslims believe in all the prophets. We believe in the Jewish prophets, and we believe in Jesus. I am as Jewish as any Jew and as Christian as any Christian. So it is impossible that someone who believes in all the prophets would want to change or could be allowed to change."

"Wa hakatha kanat nihayat al-hawar" (And that was the end of the discussion).

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Where's the Honor?

This weekend’s Arab News had an article entitled “Journey Into America”, by Siraj Wahab. On a recent trip to the States, Siraj visited American University in Washington DC and was invited by Islamics Professor Akbar Ahmed to give a lecture to one of his classes on issues dominating the Middle East. Siraj’s following sentence caught my attention, “I talk about why it is important to talk to Hamas and how it should be seen as a national liberation movement just as the IRA is seen now.”

Siraj likely hasn’t seen the U2 concert video (although it’s probably available online somewhere) where Bono gave a few comments at an American concert in front of thousands of fans. He said, “You know, I have Irish people coming up to me all the time here in America saying to me, Hey Bono, what do you think of the IRA? What do you think of the Revolution? And I say to them, “Fuck your revolution. Where’s the honor in breaking into a house and killing a man in front of his wife and children? Where’s the honor in lining up people on the street and gunning them down? Where’s the honor in setting off a carbomb and killing everyone around?” U2 then launched into “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

Seeing it on video is much more powerful than my description above, but I would ask Siraj, “Where’s the honor in strapping an explosives belt on a 62 year-old grandmother and sending her to blow herself up with as many Israeli soldiers as she can? Where’s the honor in teaching your children to hate? Where’s the honor in deliberately firing rockets into Israel from housing complexes so that when the Israelis retaliate and civilians are killed you can use it all as propaganda? Where’s the honor in that?”

Taking your Wife to the Doctor

The Middle East has hundreds of satellite TV stations. With a click of the remote, I can go from Avril Lavigne singing "I Wanna be your Girlfriend" to young Palestinian children singing about blowing up Israelis. Some of my favorites are the religious channels, where clerics with straggly beards and a wild look in their eyes freely dispense religious advice.

One of them the other night was talking about taking your wife to the doctor. So for any husband out there who has been neglecting his duty by not taking his wife (or wives) to the doctor and has actually been careless enough to let her go unaccompanied, listen up!

First of all, she should go to a female Muslim doctor. If that is not available, since gender trumps religion, she should go to a female non-Muslim doctor (the Qur'an calls these Kafir). If that is still not available, the next choice is a male Muslim doctor. If none of these options are possible, Allah forbid, she can go to a male non-Muslim doctor.

Rule number 2: Your properly veiled and fully-covered wife should reveal no more of her body than necessary. If her finger hurts, there is no need for her to uncover her wrist. It it's the wrist that is troubling her, she doesn't need to show her forearm. I think you get the picture.

Next rule: If possible, the doctor should examine your wife without touching her. If he needs to touch her (and that is why you are there, to give him permission) he should touch her over her clothes. If her clothes need to be removed, she and not the doctor should take them off (I hadn't realized doctors undress their patients, but that is apparently the case).

The cleric finished the lesson by saying, "I always take my wife to the doctor." Are you American husbands any less devoted?

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Riyadh Weekend

I woke up at noon on Thursday, and walked 10 minutes for my first visit to Starbucks. It's attached to a gas station, so isn't as spotless as most Starbucks are back home, or even the one I passed the other evening in downtown Riyadh, but it wasn't bad. I had a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a nice Cappachino. Then I walked home and spent most of the rest of the day working through an Al-Jazeera interview with an Arab psychologist who was talking about the high amount of depression and mental illness in the Arab world. He described mental health as being much more than the mere absense of mental illness. He said there are four aspects of mental health: 1) the ability to cope with the pressures of life, 2) the realization that you are producing in accordance with your capability, 3) this production needs to be in accordance with your personal ambitions, 4) and you need to feel that your word counts for something in the society you live in. I was wondering how that played out in a society like this one where the opportunities for women are so limited, and even for men so many positions of leadership and influence are limited to members of particular families. He also talked about the negative effects on countries when their rulers hold on to power forever.

This morning (Friday) I walked down to a weekly talk given at the British Embassy. The room holds about 130 people, and it was packed with people from all nationalities. The speaker was an American who works at the Royal Clinic. When I went two weeks ago, they were saying the speaker wasn't there that day because he had gone to meet the King. I thought they were talking about someone who had just died, but then learned they were talking about this man. He gave a good illustration today of how when he is on duty near the King, everything depends on what the King says and does. When the King is ready to move, they move. When the King is ready to eat, they eat. When the King goes to bed, they can do the same. He said this was a good example of how we should live with God.

Now I'm back at the embassy and will head over to the snack bar for some lunch; then back to work through another Al-Jazeera interivew this afternoon about Gaza. It's of course going to be very one-sided; on the other side I was thinking the other day about how Israel is probably the only country in the history of the world that provides water and electricity to an enemy that has writen in its charter its determination to end its existence.

My Night with al-Nukhbah (the elite)

I wasn't going to go to the Ambassador's National Day party (4th of July celebrated 3 months early because of the summer heat and everyone getting out of Dodge) because the embassy announcement said "business dress" and I don't have a suit. But a young coworker said to me, "Just wear what you have and say that's your business dress. I'm just going for the food and free drinks." So I changed my mind, put on my best shirt and my new slacks (which were 2 inches tight when I bought them but after getting back into the gym I can now squeeze into them) and walked over.

It was a great night. The ambassador's house is immense but the whole event was held outside. They covered over the tennis court, had tons of food, a not-too-bad band singing everything from the Eagles to Alabama, and I rediscovered the diplomatic beverage of choice gin and tonic. They had invited at least 1,000 guests, most of them Saudi and from other embassies. Whether by chance or by providence, I met and talked to at least four very interesting people, all of whose English was perfect.

The first was Khalid Al-Saeed (they all give you their business cars) who is director of the Western Press Communication Center. His job is to write rebuttals or responses to things that are written in the Western media about Saudi Arabia. He said his articles have appeared in many American newspapers, and they are all translated into Arabic and read to King Abdallah. When I get to work (where the computer connection is better than from my house) I'm going to google him and see what I can find. He said that some of his articles but not all can be googled. I asked him if he had seen the Human Rights Watch report that had just come out about Saudi women (which I had read that day). He said he hadn't but would like to, so I'll email him the link. I The key to meeting Saudis is first, when you shake hands let them release the handshake first (they hold the grip longer than we do which can be a little disconcerting initially). I realized last night that a second key is to continue the conversation until they decide to stop it. So after talking to Khalid for 20 minutes or so, another person walked up and greeted Khalid. Khalid1 introduced Khalid2, and then Khalid1 slipped away.

Khalid2 is a professor of Hospital Administration at King Saud University (a good future contact perhaps for Edward if you decide to work out here). We chatted for awhile and he told me likes to have parties at his house "for ambassadors and people like that". He asked me to email him, so I'll drop him a line. He then slipped away with, "I have to met a couple of friends", and a few minutes later I greeted a young man named Awwad who works for Chevron.

Something about Awwad just blew me away. His English was absolutely perfect, he had gotten a BA from the States, and was thinking about going back for a degree in corporate law. I told him about the Saudi I had met in Jeddah when we were there who started to work for a foreign bank in Jeddah. When he realized that the Saudis had a reputation for being lazy and doing nothing (which is still the case and apparently often true), he determined to be the opposite. He started at the bottom and worked his way up to being the VP of the bank. He then realized he wanted to expand his experience, and switched over to another bank dealing with a different financial aspect. He again began at a low level and worked his way to VP of that bank. We talked about the possibilities of change in Saudi society and the "tipping point" theory of change. He had read the book, but believed it would take a long time here. I told him about the interview I had seen a few nights before on TV with a young Saudi woman who had gone to Dubai against her family's wishes and gotten a job as a TV announcer. She now received calls and emails every day from Saudi girls desperate to leave the country just for the sake of having a real job. I also told him about the conversation I had the previous week (at the embassy's happy hour) with a Palestinian/Saudi woman who works in a woman's bank here (which are the only banks women can work in). She said that the 25 or so Saudi women who work with her are almost all between the ages of 23-29, unmarried, and live for their jobs. They come an hour early in the morning, and leave an hour late. Awaad told me that what she hadn't told me was that those women would likely never get married because many Saudi men are unwilling to marry working women. He said he had two sisters who were both dentists. One of them was unmarried and the other had been divorced.

Awwad then slipped away to meet a friend, and I gorged myself on shrimp and lamp chops for a few minutes, with some Jim Beam and coke to help it along. I was so impressed by the people I'd met and my conversations with them that I thought I wouldn't meet more new people but just wait to see what happened. A few minutes later I saw my boss and his wife sitting under a tree on a nice long stone bench area. I chatted with them for a few minutes, and then greeted a Saudi man who was sitting next to them. I ended up sitting and talking to him the rest of the evening. He is an assistant professor of Management at Prince Sultan University. Three of his four children were born in the states, and his son is now studying in California. He is thinking about sending his daughter, now a senior in HS, to the States as well. He said he would prefer her to be in Washington, near the Saudi Embassy, because "it might be more secure there". He said all his children spoke better English than he did, and his seemed perfect to me.

So...that was my evening. It's strange that as much as I enjoy meeting with and talking to Arabs, I have a job that allows me to do it only rarely. I'm glad I went last night, even if I was the only American there not wearing a black suit and tie.