Sunday, December 26, 2010

America, I Don't Like You!

Soon after I posted my chance meeting with a young African girl coming from Saudi Arabia to study in America, I came across this poignant account of a Saudi woman also living in America as a student. My translation is from her Arabic blog which can be viewed here.  

"Before I came to America, the idea of independence attracted me more than anything else. Even though my father was never involved in my personal decisions and allowed me full responsibility, the lifestyle of my country forces women to be dependent for the simplest of things. Besides that, my father spoiled me so much that he would not even allow me to move a glass from its place - that was the job of the servants!

So I came to America with the dream of benefitting from the experience of freedom. I wanted this experience to strengthen and develop my personality. I wanted to learn to depend on myself, which was hard in a country controlled by masculinity.

But I no longer want this independence, nor the responsibility that I used to dream about. I want to return to my parents. I want to wake up to find my breakfast prepared and waiting for me. I want to finish eating breakfast and have my coffee ready. Then I want to get in the car and have the driver drop me off at the university, or the mall, or wherever I want to go. When I'm finished, I want him waiting to take me home.

I don't want to have to look for a parking spot. I don't want to pay the rent and the utility bills. I don't want to think about anything except my dreams. I don't want daily responsibilities that weigh me down.

Who is at fault for my fear and inability to accept responsibility? Is what I feel normal? Is the lifestyle I am accustomed to the reason for this? Should I blame myself, or the society that demands the permission of my father for everything?

I don't like the American life. I find it pushes people down. It forces you "to be or not to be". You can't be just an ordinary person living an ordinary life. You either succeed, or you are forced to work three jobs to live a respectable life. There is no place for the family. There are no boundaries placed in front of trying to get money.

This is what I have observed in my small environment, and is not a generalization. I prefer the pretense and windowdressing of my own country. I prefer the dichotomy, and the lack of freedom. I want to live my life and defend my principles, with all the limits and restrictions, but with my family. I want to be with my daddy and mommy, with my brothers and sisters and my relatives. I want to be my father's spoiled child who arranges the entire house according to her whims.

There is something about my country that makes me crazy about it. In spite of all my criticism and my rebellion, I love it more than any other country.

I know many will not agree with me, but I am speaking about my personal experience. Many people love life in America, and they have that right. Yes, there are many positive aspects, but they mean nothing to me. None of them make up for what I am missing. What I have lost is much greater than I can put into words. America, I am sorry but I don't like you!

Life in America is not right for me. That does not mean it is not right for all the women from my country. I am merely speaking for myself. I was much happier in Saudi Arabia. There is a spirituality I have lost here. What I have lost is much deeper than the feelings of independence and self-reliance, and that I am equal to a man in every way. I have lost something that all those things are not able to cover. I have been in America more than six months, and these feelings are still with me.

I still view America as being green, the color of money. Its nights are depressing, and its streets narrow. Life here is frightening. I would prefer an hour in the Empty Quarter to these dreary woods behind my house. 

This is my personal perspective, nothing more."

Welcome to America!

I was waiting at the King Khalid Airport in Riyadh to board the Swiss Air flight that would take me on the first leg from The Magic Kingdom to America. Among the usual crowd of well-heeled Saudis and bewejelled expats I noticed a young, comparatively poorly-dressed dark-skinned girl waiting to board the plane. In Zurich we went to the same gate to catch the onward flight to Washington, and I struck up a conversation with her. Her family was from Guinea in West Africa, but she had been born in Saudi Arabia and lived there her entire life. Her father was one of millions of foreign workers who did the jobs Saudis were unwilling or unable to do, and her family was far from rich. They had saved enough money, however, to send their oldest daughter to America to study where she had been accepted at the University of Washington.

She said she had never really felt at home in Saudi Arabia or welcomed there, even though it was the only country she had known. She had returned to Guinea for a few months after graduating from high school, but felt even more of a stranger there. Like millions of others have done for centuries, she was coming to America to start a new life.

I was behind her as she put her suitcase on the conveyor belt to go through security, and it set off enough alarms to raise the dead. Security officials quickly opened the suitcase to reveal the metal sauce pans and silverware, along with bags of rice and beans, that her mother had packed for her so she would be able to survive in America. I realized that if she was having that hard a time getting out of Europe she might have a real hard time getting in America, so I made sure to keep her in sight to vouch for her if necessary after we reached DC. They let her into the country, and at the luggage carousel I saw her for the last time.

When I shook her hand to say farewell I handed her a crisp 100 dollar bill. "Life's not always easy in America," I told her. "You are going to meet people who mistreat you, and some who try to take advantage of you. No matter what happens, I want you to remember that the first person you met in America welcomed you here."

As she looked at my gift her eyes got large and her mouth dropped open. She could only say three words, but they were more than enough. "Oh my God!"

A few weeks ago I learned that a young Egyptian couple was making their first trip to America to interview in hopes of being accepted at a university in New York City. At the last moment the person who had said they could stay in her apartment backed out of the invitation. Determined to make the trip anyhow, the couple sold their car in Cairo to be able to afford the cheapest hotel they could find in Brooklyn.

After they finished the interviews, I offered to host them for a few days in the DC area. I took a day off from work, and we walked around the White House and the Mall. I introduced them to the Lincoln Memorial and explained why Abraham Lincoln was such an important President that he merited his own temple. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, and watched the veterans who after all these years still shed tears as they touch the engraved names of fallen comrades. And I said to them, "This is America."

Like most of us, I continue to make New Year's Resolutions even though I usually fail to keep them. My resolution for 2011 is to be more active in welcoming newcomers to our country. Many refugees have recently arrived from war torn countries such as Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. I've just filled out the application forms to serve as a volunteer teaching English as a Second Language to some of them. It's only a two-hour per week commitment, and even I can handle that. Hopefully I'll do a good job and will be able to say to them, along with the many others involved in their resettlement, "Welcome to America!"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What Sarah Palin Has That Everybody Wants

In her December 17 interview with Sarah Palin, Good Morning America correspondent Robin Roberts noted, "I have to tell you, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the Palin home is that it's all about family."

America is a country filled with millions - perhaps tens and scores of millions - of lonely people. Many of us are divorced, or the children of divorced parents. Others stay in empty relationships long after the spark of romance and the warmth of intimacy have gone. Unmarried teenage girls choose to become pregnant and have babies just so they can have someone to love or to love them. People move from one empty relationship to another, or give up hope of a good relationship at all. Married couples choose not to have children for the sake of their careers, or carefully calculate how many children they can have without putting those careers on hold. Infants live their lives in daycare because their parents choose lifestyles that demand both incomes.

And along comes Sara Palin, a woman who loves a husband who adores her, with a big, messy family. Her critics use words such as "polarizing, fanatic, radical, right-wing extremist, Christian fundamentalist conservative" to describe her, and that's just the beginning. I don't need to mention those critics by name, and you could probably make a list far longer than mine. My suggestion is that she has something most of them are longing for.

It could well be that Sarah Palin will be the next President of the United States. If so, she will continue to be the person she has always been, a mother working out of the house balancing the needs of her family and her job. Like radio talk-show host Dr. Laura, I could imagine President Palin greeting foreign dignitaries by saying, "Good morning King Abdallah and Queen Rania, and welcome to the White House. I am Sarah Palin, and I am my kids' mom."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jihad: Doctrine and Reality

Critics were quick to notice that President Obama adeptly sidestepped the question when asked a few weeks ago by a young student in India to define Jihad. "The phrase Jihad has a lot of meanings in Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations," the President replied. Without giving any of those meanings, the President went on to assure the student that most Muslims are peaceful, and that Islam is one of the world's great religions.

For those willing to invest 90 minutes for a deeper understanding of Jihad as understood by those who take it most seriously, this link is worth following (immediately under the video, click to watch the English version). I watched the documentary when it first appeared in Arabic a year or two ago, but this link provides English subtitles. As host Rashid says, "I'm not going to say "Happy viewing", because what you are about to watch is not Happy. But it is important, and it is real."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Learning to Die in Miami (and Whale Watching in Baja California)

The other day I caught this NPR interview with Yale Professor Carlos Eire, who was discussing his new book Learning to Die in Miami. I realized immediately it was a book I wanted to read, and thanks to the electronic wizardry of the Kindle was beginning the first chapter less than a minute later.

Professor Eire was one of 14,000 Cuban children airlifted from Havana fifty years ago in the Peter Pan operation, a Kennedy era pre-Bay of Pigs historical event about which I had almost forgotten. The book is his memoir of arriving in Miami and his first years in America. One sentence that grabbed my attention was this description of the Jewish couple who were his first foster parents in America, "I've said it before, and I'll say it again and again until the day I die: such good people, such brave people, such transparent proofs for the existence of God. Little did they know what was in store for them, entangling their lives with ours."

It probably goes back to my own insecurities, but there was something reassuring about reading a distinguished professor from Yale University say his reason for believing in God is simply the good things that have happened to him. At this post, I noted that my reason for belief is not much different. And reading the Professor's statement reminded me of the day my daughters and I went whale watching in Baja California.

It was one of those spur of the moment trips. I was back in California from working overseas, and we decided to jump in the car and head south. A few days later we were on the southern tip of Baja California (for overseas readers this is not the state of California, but an 800 mile strip on the Western coast of Mexico). We enjoyed the beach and art colonies for a few days, and then headed back home. We stopped in a small coastal hotel for the night, where my daughter noticed a sign advertising Grey Whale watching and suggested we do that the following day. Having learned at least one important lesson in 25 years as a parent, which is never to say No to your children unless necessary, I agreed.

I was sceptical, however. I'd seen the tourists lined up on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey California to lay down their money for a "whale watching trip" that involved going out into the bay for an hour or so and if they were really lucky seeing something at a distance their guide told them was a whale. But I was willing to give it a chance, and at seven the next morning we were waiting for the van to take us down to the boat.

My first surprise when we arrived and saw the old motorboat waiting for us offshore was that we were not alone. It was a local holiday, described by our guide as Mexico Family Day, and he had brought his extended family to go with us. Little children were dressed up in their Sunday best, with the girls wearing ribbons in their hair, all excited about the trip out in the water. We all piled in the boat, he started the engine, and off we went.

It was about an hour later that we noticed the huge grey lump on the surface we had come to see. The guide cut the engine until it was barely purring and we moved slowly towards the whale. To our surprise, rather than submerge itself and swim away, the gigantic grey whale moved towards us until it was parallel to our boat, rubbing itself against the side.

And that's when it all began. From out of nowhere - well, actually, from underneath the surface of the ocean - another whale emerged and then another. Soon there were half a dozen surrounding our small boat, engulfing it from all sides, pushing against it and spouting all over us. We reached over the sides pushing our hands into their rubbery skin, and the children went wild. The whales remained for what seemed like hours, swimming around us, spouting on us, pushing against us, having as much fun with us as we were with them. Then it ended as quickly as it had begun, with the whales giving one last push against the boat and then submerging themselves once again into the ocean to swim away.

That evening we stopped to fill up the car at a gas station. I recounted the adventure to an American couple who was there, and their jaws dropped open. "We've been coming here whale watching for the past 30 years," they said to me. "We've never seen anything like that."

Well - and here is where I know the atheists, agnostics, and sceptics will all have a field day - I think God gave my daughters and me that special experience just because he likes us. It was simply an unexpected gift from a friend.

Would I still believe in God had I been born a cripple, a refugee, homeless, or unloved, or all four at the same time? I don't know. Would I still believe in God if, at this stage in my life, I became an unloved, crippled, homeless refugee? Absolutely.

In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes the moment she first dared to utter aloud the words, "I don't believe in God." The sentence came after months of struggling with the fact that the 9/ll suicide bombers had carried out their operation in the name of Allah.

I often wonder if Ayaan hasn't thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In one fell swoop, she went from "Allah is not God" to "There is no God".  She seemed to dismiss the possibility that God does exist but he is not Allah. What is interesting to me is that as I follow the course of Ayaan's life from being an oppressed Muslim girl in Somalia to becoming a voice for the oppressed in America, I visualize the hand of God guiding her just as clearly as that wonderful day he brought those grey whales to our little boat in Baja California.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Coming Out of Bishop James Earl Swilley

A dozen or so years ago my daughter and I were taking highway I-20 across Georgia (no, it wasn't the sad Highway 20 Ride) when just outside Atlanta we noticed a church with a huge cross and the unusual name of Church in the Now. Seeing some cars in the parking lot, we realized a service was going on and whipped off the highway to check it out (life's adventures often come from these little whims). As we walked in, I realized that it was trying to be as "modern" as it could be to attract as many of "the lost" as possible. My daughter remembers the large disco strobe lights in the center of the auditorium, and I remember thinking that, like many churches, it seemed to be centered around the personality of its leader, Bishop James Swilley.

I hadn't thought much about it afterwards until my daughter told me a few weeks ago that Bishop Swilley was in the news; he had just informed his congregation he is gay. The sermon in which he did so, available here, is well worth hearing. A few days later he and his business partner, who is also his ex-wife Debye, were on the Joy Behar show on an episode, available here, which is also worth watching.

As I watched them on Joy Behar I realized that what they were saying needed to be analyzed and interpreted to a non-religious audience just as I usually analyze and interpret Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The Bishop, of course, did not describe Debye as his "business partner", but as his "ministry partner". This in itself requires an explanation that was probably lost to Joy Behar.

Religious people who belong to comparatively small groups often see those groups as larger than they really are. From their vantage point at the center of the group, it is not just a small sub-set of American religious culture, but a main ingredient. Many of them adopt the name of their founder. Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, and Kenneth Copeland are only a few of dozens of examples that could be given. It's not coincidence that the name of Bishop Swilley's business is JESM, James Earl Swilley Ministries.

If I were to define the word "ministry" in a religious context, it would be "a non-sustainable religious  enterprise centered around the personality and vison of its founder and supported by his followers." It is non-sustainable because the founder will inevitably die or become involved in a crime or scandal and lose the financial support of his followers. The exceptions are people like Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell who founded successful universities, or Billy Graham whose legacy lives on in his son's international relief organization Samaritan's Purse. The ministry is an enterprise because it is a business and its bottom line is money. Without financial support, the ministry collapses. This support is given by followers who are often convinced they themselves will receive spiritual and financial blessings by giving money to the ministry's CEO.

In the Joy Behar interview, Debye described her abiding love and respect for her now ex-husband. If she ever asked my advice, I would encourage her to take a deep step back, forget the "ministry" for a long while, and give herself lots of time to think about what really happened. She might begin by looking a little more deeply at the religious beliefs or psychological motivations that led her to marry a man she knew was gay. She might ask herself what was so compelling about this "ministry" that caused her to sacrifice the values of honesty and intimacy for so many years.

I wish both Debye and Jim Swilley the best. You don't get many shots at happiness in this life, and I hope they both get another one. I especially hope they open themselves to the possibility that this happiness could lie outside their acclaimed "call to the ministry" and all that that entails.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi and the Sahaba, the Companions of Muhammad

Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi devoted a recent Sharia and Life program on Al Jazeera to the Sahaba, the Companions of Muhammad. Islam divides the earliest Muslims into several categories including the Muhajireen (the immigrants who migrated from Mecca to Medina with their Prophet), the Ansar (those supporters who accepted Islam in Medina), and the Tabieen (the followers, or Muslims of the generation following Muhammad's death). Those who personally knew Muhammad are accorded the highest category of Sahaba.

The occasion for Dr. Qaradawi's discussion was the fatwa (I wrote about it here) pronounced against  Kuwaiti Shia dissident Yasser Al Habib for suggesting that Muhammad's wives Aisha and Hafsah killed their husband so their fathers (Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab) could take charge. Qaradawi praised the fatwa, but regretted that Kuwait had withdrawn Al Habib's citizenship. "Anyone who insults the Umahat Al Mumineen (the Mothers of the Believers, or wives of Muhammad) deserves to be punished," said Qaradawi. "Rather than withdrawing his citizenship, Kuwait should have brought him back for a public trial, so that everyone can see what happens when someone speaks against the wives of the Prophet."

Even this sentence is interesting on a number of levels. Qaradawi seems to think that the United Kingdom, where Al Habib now lives, would be interesting in extraditing one of its residents back to Kuwait to stand trial for what the West has traditionally understood to be an expression of free speech. Secondly, Qaradawi obviously believes that speaking critically of even those associated with Muhammad is worthy of a public trial. Thirdly, Yusuf Qaradawi wants Yasser dead but is very skilled at not publicly saying exactly what he means. Ask any of the estimated 40 million Arabic-speaking people who watched this program what he meant by the comment, "So that everyone can see what happens when someone speaks against the wives of the Prophet," and they will unanimously tell you he is calling for Yasser's death. Ask a Muslim or non-Muslim apologist on CNN, FOX, or any of the other Western channels if Qaradawi was advocating the death sentence and they will deny it.

Some additional background information might be helpful. Some of Muhammad's followers thought the first three Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar bin Khattab, and Uthman usurped the position that should have gone to the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali. They became known as the Shia, who are even today given the derogatory title of the Rafideen, or Rejectionists, because they rejected the idea that Muhammad's successor should be chosen by a Shura council rather than following his blood line. Some modern Shia clerics have been quite vulgar in talking about the early Caliphs and their families, using the Arabic and Farsi equivalent of English four-letters obscenities to describe them. Recent Shia pilgrims to Medina have gone as far as to desecrate the graves of the Umahat Al Mumineen to show their contempt for the women buried there.

Dr. Qaradawi defined the Sahaba as "any Muslim who saw the Prophet, met with him, or heard him speak even once in their lives". They represent a unique generation that can never be repeated, he said, because they were "the students in the school of Muhammad". No other generation will have a better teacher, and no Muslims will ever again equal the Sahaba. Their relationship to Muhammad was different than the relationship of other followers to their prophets. They were willing to follow him to the death, whereas the Children of Israel continually rebelled against Moses and were unwilling to follow him into the land of Canaan (Qaradawi then quoted the relevant verses from Quran 5:20-26. The fact that the Bible indicates the "two spies" were sent into Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, not Moses as recounted in the Quran, seems irrelevant to Muhammad who never was a stickler for historical Biblical detail).

The Sahaba, explained Qaradawi, were not Maasoum or protected from sin as was Muhammad, but they had a strong sense of Adalah, or justice. They read the Quran with such devotion that they insisted the punishment of Hadd, or death, be imposed upon them if they broke its commands. Qaradawi then recounted the Hadith of the Sahaba woman from Juhaina who became pregnant as a result of Zina (either adultery or sex outside of marriage) and asked Muhammad to put her to death because of her sin. The Prophet replied that only she could be judged, not the child growing in her womb, and asked her to come back after giving birth. She did so, again pleading with Muhammad, "Please purify me now." Islam's Prophet told her to wean her child, and then return to him. She returned a few years carrying the child in her arms, fed him a piece of bread in the presence of Muhammad to prove that it could eat, and said, "Oh Apostle of Allah, the child has been weaned." At that moment Muhammad pronounced judgment upon her and she was stoned to death.

It's difficult to find a more vivid contrast between the message of Jesus and that of Muhammad than to simply read Jesus' encounter with the adulterous woman in John 8 and compare it with the above story. Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi would have us believe that the woman from Juhaina wanted to be killed because of her sensitivity to God's law, and that the Prophet of Islam carried out the sentence in obedience to the same law. I find this really hard to believe. It is true that Islam has produced a shame-based society, and I can imagine this woman's sense of shame being so strong she would see no advantage to staying alive. But Islam has also produced a very judgmental society, and I can also see Muhammad killing her simply because she had transgressed a rule he established for that society. In either case I, apparently unlike Dr. Qaradawi, don't see in the story a model for life and behavior to be followed in the 21st century.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Revolution Sunday

I've recently joined a Lutheran Church so am now learning something about Lutheranism. Today was Reformation Sunday, the anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing his convictions to a church door that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

The pastor caught my attention when he pointed out that the famous verse in Habakkuk 2:4, "the just shall live by faith", later taken by Paul as the linchpin of his understanding of the Gospel and still later picked up by Luther as the foundation for the Reformation, does not quite mean what the English translation indicates. The verse more accurately reads, "the just shall live by faithfulness". Even more significantly, the same Hebrew word used throughout the Torah or the Old Testament always refers to God's faithfulness, not ours.

Why did that catch my attention? Assuming there is an afterlife, millions of Christians as well as Muslims are hoping to reach Paradise by believing the right thing (faith) or doing the right thing (faithfulness). But just like the spiritual struggle of Martin Luther, how can you ever be sure that you have the right faith, or enough faith, or that you have been faithful enough? The realization that one's eternal destiny is determined not necessarily by my faithfulness but by that of God really could make this a Revolutionary Sunday!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi and the Slippery Path of Jihad

Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi has just published a 1400 page, two volume Arabic text entitled Fiqh Al Jihad, The Correct Understanding of Jihad. He has been working on the book for the past eight years, and discussed its contents on two recent Al Jazeera programs of Shariah and Life. I would like to summarize what Dr. Qaradawi said during those programs, and then add my comments.

Jihad Al Qital, which is Jihad carried out by military means, is a Sunnat-Allah, one of God's principles. It falls under the rubric of Sunnat Al Defaa, the principle of self-defense or the defense of the weak.

Jihad was revealed to Muhammad in three stages. When Muslims were first persecuted in Mecca, Allah's instructions were to be patient, pray, and not retaliate (Quran 4: 77). After the first Muslims migrated to Medina, Muhammad was authorized to "fight against those who are fought against" (Quran 22:39). Jihad was allowed to defend not only Muslims but "the churches and synagogues that would otherwise be destroyed" (Quran 22:40). In the final stage, Muhammad was ordered to fight the unbelievers until there was no more Fitnah (Quran 2:193), defined by Qaradawi as persecution or oppression of the believers, and until Allah alone was worshipped (Quran 8:39).

The purpose of Jihad is not political, economic, or military gain, but to protect the weak who call out, "Oh Lord, protect us from the oppressors" (Quran 4:75). Although the enemies of Islam claim that Islam was spread by the sword, that is not true. "The sword may open a new territory, but it will never open a heart," said Dr. Qaradawi, and Islam spread peacefully throughout much of Africa and Asia by Arab traders and Sufi preachers who persuaded multitudes of its truth.

Muslims today adopt three attitudes towards Jihad. These are Tafrit (neglecting its true meaning), Ifrat (taking it to the extreme), and Wasat (the moderate and true meaning). Those guilty of Tafrit water down the true meaning of Jihad. They love to repeat a weak Hadith (meaning it is inauthentic) in which the Prophet allegedly informed his soldiers on their way home from a battle that they had completed Al Jihad Al Asrar, the lesser Jihad, and were now to perform Al Jihad Al Akbar, the struggle for holiness and spiritual purity.

Many of the Jihadist or Salafist groups go to the other extreme and are guilty of Ifrat. They want to fight everyone who is not Muslim throughout the entire world, but do not understand that Allah wants Muslims to live in peace with those willing to live in peace with them. Great Muslim theologians such as Ibn Taymiyya and Shaykh Qayyim argued that Muslims should live in Musalamah, peaceful coexistence, with peaceful non-Muslims.

The correct approach to Jihad, the Wasat, is between these two extremes. It recognizes that Jihad Al Qital is necessary to defend against aggression, but does not advocating attacking non-Muslims everywhere.

Muslim scholars have traditionally divided Jihad into two categories, Jihad Al Talab (offensive Jihad) and Jihad Al Defaa (defensive Jihad). In Jihad Al Talab, the Muslim  is the invader. He attacks the enemy in his territory and fights him there. This is considered Fard Kifayah, meaning not everyone is obligated to go off to war as long as there are enough warriors willing to go.

Jihad Al Defaa is different. Here the Muslim is engaged in a war of resistance, fighting the enemy who has attacked, invaded, and occupied his country. This is Fard Ayn, meaning every single Muslim must be involved. Even the servant who cannot leave his field without permission of his master, and the woman who cannot leave her house without permission of her husband, are excused from seeking that permission when they are exercising Fard Ayn, involved in defensive Jihad to attack the enemy who has invaded them.

"Muslims," said Dr. Qaradawi,  "Are never allowed to initiate hostilities." The Prophet never began a battle, but always sought peace with those willing to live in peace with him. Muhammad's Ghazawat, or raids, were never started by him. His first attacks against the Qafilat, the Quraysh caravans carrying foodstuffs back and forth between Mecca and Syria, were to recover the goods confiscated from the Muslims who had migrated with Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. The later raids, including the famous battles of Badr, Uhud, and Al Khandaqah (The Battle of the Trench), were all struggles of self-defense. Even the first battles against the Byzantine Empire were defensive. When the Prophet sent letters to Byzantine rulers inviting to them to "Islem wa Tuslem", accept Islam and live in peace, they responded by tearing up the letters and planning traps against him. His invasions of their country were only to defend the Muslims from their plots.

The Prophet was so peace-loving that he hated even the word Harb (war). When his son-in-law Ali announced he had named his first-born son Harb, Muhammad persuaded him to change the name to Hasan (good). When Ali announced he had given the same name, Harb, to his second son, the Prophet told him to change it to Hussayn (goodness). When the persistent Ali stated he would give another son who did not survive the same name, Muhammad told him to change it to Muhsin (better)!

My comments:

1. We've all heard Muslims living in the West expound upon the "greater Jihad", the struggle for moral purity and spiritual self-improvement. It is significant that this so-called greater Jihad is given no significance by true Islamic scholars living in the Arab world.

 2. Any military historian looking at a historical military figure, such as Napoleon Bonaparte or Rommel "The Desert Fox", has the freedom to examine both his successes and his failures. He can determine which moves were brilliant and led to victory, and which were misguided and resulted in failure. Only the Muslim historian is not allowed that freedom. He or she is obligated, literally under penalty of death, to do nothing that could be construed as museeat al-nabi, insulting or criticizing the Prophet.

For this reason, Dr. Qaradawi has to construe all of the Prophet's raids as defensive. He must find not only justification but also victory in some of Muhammad's failed battles, such as the raid of Mutah, in which Muslim armies were both out-manned and defeated by their non-Muslim enemies. I find it impossible to objectively read the earliest accounts of these battles and see them as defensive, much less always victorious, but Muslims scholars are not allowed that objectivity. They must defend their Prophet at all costs.

3. But that is only a small gripe with Yusuf Qaradawi's position; my second concern is much greater. Dr. Qaradawi arbitrarily draws the line, not based upon the Quran or the Hadith but simply upon his own Ijtihad, or personal conclusion, between which manifestations of Jihad are legitimate and which are not at the present time. He says that Jihad Al Defaa, or defensive Jihad, is permissible in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Mujahideen are fighting the American aggressors. At the same time, he argues that Jihad Al Talab, offensive Jihad, is not allowed at the present time meaning Muslim Jihadists are not allowed to attack Americans within the United States. But where is the basis of his argument? How is his position more defensible than that of Usama bin Ladin, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, Anwar Al Awlaki, or Anjem Chaudary who argue that Jihad Al Talab is not only permissible but required at the present time and who encourage Muslims in America to engage in terrorist acts to kill Americans here? If Jihad Al Defaa is permissible against Americans in Afghanistan, why is not Jihad Al Talab allowed against Americans at home?

4. Dr. Qaradawi draws another arbitrary distinction between Israel and other non-Muslim countries. Although Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian and Jewish women, Qaradawi says no Muslim is permitted to marry an Israeli woman. Although he condemns suicide bombings in Europe, he encourages them in Israel. And although he tells Muslims they are not allowed to engage in Jihad Al Talab in America, he encourages them to do so in Israel. Again, why is the voice of the aging Qaradawi any more  authoritative than those voices of younger, more radical Muslims who do call for offensive Jihad within the borders of not only the United States but also all other countries that do not follow Islam as they want it to be followed?

Is there an answer? I think there is. It is for individual Muslims, one by one,  to give themselves the freedom to look at their Prophet critically and determine whether the actions he took, the beliefs he held, and the decisions he made were conducive with freedom for all in the 21st century. Some Muslims are taking that step, but many more need to come on board.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on NPR: Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

I noted here that non-Muslims often do not fare well in debates with Muslims. Fortunately, liberated Muslims do much better. At this link is a recent debate on the subject "Is Islam a Religion of Peace?" with participants Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Douglas Murray, Zeba Khan, and Maajid Nawaz. I invite you to watch the entire debate, and then to my comments as follows:

1. One of the problems with debating Muslims about Muhammad and Islam is that they insist on talking about anything except Muhammad and Islam. Ask a Muslimah about the high rate of female illiteracy in the Muslim world (a subject that I discussed here and here). She will quote a Hadith about "seeking knowledge even if you have to go to China" and tell you how her parents came to America (to escape the craziness of living in the Muslim world) and sacrificed so she could go to Harvard. She won't tell you that the Middle East pays little attention to the education of women for the simple reason that Muhammad paid no attention to the education of women.

Ask her about Islam's relationship to the Jews. She will tell you a story about Muhammad's concern for the Jewish neighbor who threw garbage in his yard and inform you, as Zeba does, that her parents sent her to Hebrew school for nine years. She won't tell you (if she even knows) that Medina was a Jewish city when Muhammad first went there with Jewish tribes who had lived there in peace and prosperity for hundreds of years. Ten years later, they were all exiled or beheaded simply for refusing to accept him as a Prophet of God. Nine hunded males, including boys as young as 10 years old, were beheaded in one day. She won't tell you about the vicious murder of Asma bint Marwan, the Jewish mother of five, at the Prophet's command for writing poetry he found threatening. She certainly won't tell you about the rape of the Jewess Sofiyah bint Huyayy the night after Muhammad tortured and beheaded her husband for refusing to reveal the location of his treasure. Sofiyah was 17 and Muhammad was 62.

She will tell you that the Quran states "there is no compulsion in religion". She probably doesn't know that according to the Quran's greatest expositor, Ibn Kathir, that verse was a response to the Muslim women of Medina who gave their sons to Jewish women to raise (since the Jews followed the dietary and hygenic laws of the Torah, their infant mortality rate was much lower). When Muhammad expelled the Jews from Medina, some of the Muslim mothers wanted their sons back. The Prophet's response? "They cannot come back, because there is no compulsion in religion."

Ask her about Jihad, and she will quote a Hadith about the greatest Jihad being spiritual self-improvement. She won't inform you that Jihad is mentioned well over 100 times in the Quran and that 97% of those references are to its primary meaning, the spread and domination of Islam.

Ask her about terrorism. She will inform you, as Zeba did, that only a small minority of Muslims espouse violence. She probably won't tell you about the first victim of Muhammad's terror, a caravaneer named Amr bin al-Hadrami  who was carrying foodstuffs back to Mecca when Muhammad's warriors  attacked. I'm not sure if the terror he felt when they descended upon him shouting Allahu Akbar is any different than that experienced by those who leapt to their deaths from the Twin Towers on 9/11.

2. Muslim debaters love to erect straw figures they can demolish, rather than discuss the main subject of the debate. Maajid Nawaz was quick to respond when his opponents referred to Usama bin Ladin as an Islamic scholar. "He's an engineer," scoffed Maajid, "He's only an engineer. How can you describe him as an Islamic scholar?"

I doubt if Maajid has carefully read The Al Qaeda Reader, or Al Qaeda In Its Own Words. Both books document the hundreds of references to the Quran, Hadith, Sira, and Tafsir in bin Ladin's speeches. A full fifty percent of Ayman Zawahiri's voluminous writings are expositions of the same texts. Maajid chose not to go there, preferring to simply mock Ayaan Hirsi Ali for not stating that by training UBL was originally an engineer.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, non-Muslims often perform poorly in debates with Muslims. Ex-Muslims who are well familiar with the modus operendi of their former co-religionists do much better. At the beginning of this debate in front of a New York City audience, only 25 percent of the audience believed that Islam was not a religion of peace. By the end of the debate, that number had risen to 55 percent. In the end, truth trumps fantasy every time.

Feeding the Homeless

I live in a county that takes pride in its wealth, high standard of education and low unemployment, and enviable standard of living. It was a lesson last evening to take part in providing dinner for 35 of its homeless women.

(For readers outside America, that's "county", not "country". America is divided into 50 states, and each state has dozens of counties).

My impression of the homeless has always been someone sleeping over a grate to keep warm, an alcoholic with mental problems trying to hit you up for some change to buy the next beer. This was not the case with these women. Some of them were professionals, college educated. I talked to a few who had migrated to America from English-speaking countries for purposes of employment. But along the way something happened. It could have been a layoff, a company closure, or a divorce. Sometimes it was a personal problem - alcohol or drug use - that began as a hobby and ended as an addiction.

One of the staff members informed me there were 30 women living there last year, and  this year there are five more. If you are a single adult in America, even professional and well-educated, a layoff with not enough money to pay the mortgage can easily and quickly be followed by foreclosure and no place to live.

What I felt most keenly was the sense of shame in the women as I handed them their dessert. Some tried to cover it with bluster, "What do you mean I need to wait until everyone has eaten until I have a second serving of ice cream?" Others were unable to hold their head high or look me in the eye. Life had dealt them a hard, unexpected blow, and now they were reduced to accepting dinner from a stranger.

I know the phrase "There but for the grace of God go I" can sound like an empty cliche, but as I got in my car after dinner to drive home I realized anew that there was not that much difference between those women and me. I also understood why it's important for me to be part of a faith community. The shelter is in partnership with 52 churches in the area. Each church takes one week per year to provide meals to the women residing there, and this week it was our turn. It was an honor to participate.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Ebionites, Muhammad, and the Quran

In an article well worth reading about the religious practices of the Ebionites found here, author Stephen Tomkins notes, "... it sounds not unlike Islam in all those respects."

There is a reason for that. The Ebionites followed a text known as the Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews. Although most scholars would say it was lost to history, it is possible that its precepts can be found today in the early suras of a text far more famous known as the Quran.

If true, this could be a fascinating study. Two of the major controversies in the early Christian church were the nature of the divinity of Jesus (how could he be both a man and God?), and the extent to which Christians were to follow Jewish practices and traditions. Although the Apostle Paul's conviction that Jesus was both fully God and fully man and that being Christian meant leaving everything Jewish behind eventually won the day, many groups disagreed. As they and their gospels were declared heretical by early Church councils, they were forced away from the Christian geographical centers of power and some of them ended up in Arabia and Yemen. Two of these were the Nestorians and the Ebionites. Although they are sometimes lumped together, they are distinct in that the Nestorians believed in the divinity of Jesus whereas the Ebionites saw him merely as a Prophet.

One difference between those declared heretics and the orthodox church was that the former often followed only one text, or gospel, rather than all the books that became the New Testament. The Ebionites followed The Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews (called by some scholars simply the Gospel of the Ebionites). It is probably a second-century compilation including passages from Matthew, Mark, and Luke that emphasizes the compassion and humanity of Jesus while denying his divinity. The Ebionites believed that Jesus was a man, not God, and that a presence called the Holy Spirit descended upon him at his baptism and remained with him until just before his crucifixion. They followed the dietary and health practices of the Jews and placed much emphasis on rituals such as ablution, fasting, and circumcision.

Available online studies of the Ebionites found here and here seem unaware of their continued history  after persecution possibly forced them from the Levant into Arabia in the early centuries of the Christian era. There are several reasons for this historical lack of knowledge.  One is the fact that the Ebionites were less significant and less known than the Nestorians, the larger Christian sect in Arabia at the time that did accept the divinity of Jesus. Another is that Christian historians typically had little access to ancient Islamic history, until recently only available in Arabic, that made scattered references to the Nusraniyah (taken from the town of Nazareth, this is the Quranic word used to describe the non-orthodox Christians in Mecca at the time of Muhammad).

There is another and more significant reason. After Muhammad, Muslims paid little or no attention to the beliefs of Christians and Jews in the Arabian Peninsula other than to compare them critically to Islam. Muslims believe the Quran was revealed directly to Muhammad from Allah via the angel Gabriel.  They historically had little interest in the beliefs of others, and even less interest in the possibility that their religious texts and practices influenced Muhammad and the formation of the Quran.

Muslims have placed much emphasis in creating an imaginary genealogy for Muhammad that passes through Abraham all the way back to Adam. Of more historical relevance is that Muslim scholars emphasize his lineage from his ancestor Qusay to Muhammad's grandfather Abdel Mutallib, but ignore that same lineage from Qusay to grandson Assad who was the grandfather of Khadijah, Muhammad's first wife, and Waraqa bin Naufal, the Prophet's distant uncle. The reason Muslims have deliberately ignored that side of the family is that it included relatives including Waraqa and possibly Khadijah herself who were members of the Nusraniyah.

Ancient historian Abu Faraj Al Isfahani noted in his Kitab Al Aghani that Waraqa bin Naufal converted to Nusraniyah, and biographer Ibn Ishaq describes him as a Hanif, one who believed in only one God.
Hadith compilers Bukhari and Sahih Muslim both state that Waraqa bin Naufal translated the Book of the Hebrews and the Gospel into Arabic. It is possible the book they meant was the Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews.

Among the characteristics of the Ebionites was compassion for the poor and the orphaned. Waraqa bin Naufal, who was both a scholar and the leader of the Ebionites in Mecca, took a special interest in his young relative the orphaned Muhammad. He saw in him qualities of leadership, spent much time with him, and over the years taught Muhammad the Gospel of the Ebionites as well as the contents of the Torah. Waraqa bin Naufal performed Muhammad's marriage to Khadijah, and groomed Muhammad to replace him as the Ebionite spiritual leader in Mecca.

(When presented with criticism of Muhammad's later multiple marriages, Muslims often point out that the Prophet remained in a monogamous relationship with Khadija for 25 years. The reality is that Muhammad's marriage with Khadijah was essentially a Christian marriage, with both divorce and having more than one wife not allowed to the Ebionites).

When Muhammad first announced that he was receiving revelations from God, the revelations were in large part the stories he had learned from Waraqa bin Naufal. Waraqa encouraged Muhammad to consider himself a Prophet, with the understanding that just as Abraham had been the Prophet to call the Jews back to Allah, and Jesus the Prophet who called his generation back to Allah, so Muhammad would be the Prophet who could call the Arabs back to Allah. It is interesting to note that at this time Muhammad did not see himself as founding a new religion, but only in calling people back to the Islam of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

The influence of Waraqi bin Naufal upon Muhammad and his revelations continued until Waraqa died. It is not accidental that the Hadith writers note that "revelations ceased for some time" following the death of Waraqa. The reason, of course, is that Muhammad was no longer learning from his Ebionite uncle.

The presence of the Gospel of the Ebionites in the short, poetic Meccan suras with their vivid descriptions of hell and Muhammad's repeated claim that he is a Prophet just like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus is something most Muslims are not allowed to even think about, at least publicly. It's much easier, and safer, to just toe the party line. I would encourage Muslims to be a little more open in their thinking and scholarship.

(Acknowledgements to Joseph Azzi, author of The Priest and the Prophet, for much of the above material).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Challenge Facing Thinking Muslims

Saudi journalist Saleh Ibrahim Al-Turigee, who writes for the Arabic newspaper Okaz (his article is available here), is upset that the Saudi Ministry of Justice is unwilling to ban the marriage of young girls. A spokesman from the Ministry announced they were only prepared to study "stipulations and limitations on marriages to minors". 

"What does the phrase stipulations and limitations mean?" Saleh asked indignantly. "Does it mean they will never forbid these marriage, but will simply lay down some regulations before signing the marriage certificate of a little girl to a man in his thirties, or sixties, or eighties?"

"Many argue," Saleh continued, "That the Apostle of Allah married Aisha when she was nine. OK, let's look at Islamic history and see how old Aisha really was when Muhammad married her."

Saleh then quoted a study he had apparently just come across that has been floating around the Internet for several years. Entitled Hazrat Aishah Saddiqah, the study uses flawed evidence to suggest Aisha was 19 or even 24 when Muhammad married here. Articles at numerous websites, including here, have painstakingly proven the study false.

Following Saleh's presentation of the evidence that he seems to believe has eluded Islam's greatest scholars for the past 1400 years, he continued, "We need to reexamine our history. Perhaps we will discover there were some who wanted to introduce harmful customs and traditions into religion. We also need to ask ourselves what it means to rape and molest a child. Does it not mean that a man in his 30's who engages in sex with a child, with or without the permission of her father, is raping and violating the rights of that child?"

I don't think Saleh understands the dilemma he faces. He acknowledges that sex with a young girl is rape. He realizes this was as true 1400 years ago as it is today. But he cannot - he is not allowed - to take the next logical step and consider the possibility that his Prophet was guilty of this crime, and this same Prophet was the one who introduced those "harmful customs and traditions into religion". All he can do is float a bogus theory that Aisha was older than nine and therefore the Prophet cannot be accused of child molestation and rape (about which I have written here).

I have a theory. It is that many thinking Muslims and Muslimahs - perhaps millions - are beginning to recognize the answer is not to be found in this or that theory justifying Muhammad's behavior, but instead in honestly confronting that behavior. They have been taught all their lives that the practical definition of being a Muslim is to defend Muhammad at any cost. For the first time in Islamic history, these intelligent young people might realize there is more to faith than defending their Prophet.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Yusuf Qaradawi: Is There More than One Islam?

A common refrain heard by those who adopt a critical approach to Islam is that there is not one but many Islams. Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi, probably Sunni Islam's best-known theologian and apologist, discussed that question on a recent Al Jazeera TV edition of Shariah and Life. The broadcast in Arabic is available here.

Host Uthman informed viewers at the onset of the program that the Quran states in Surat Al Imran (3:19) that Islam is the only religion accepted by Allah, and that those who follow any other religion will be condemned (3:85). But what is this Islam, and is it possible to speak of many Islams?

Dr. Qaradawi quoted Surat At Taghabun (64:8) and Surat An Nahl (16:44) to say the Quran was revealed from Allah as a clear and plain light, and there was no religion in the world more clear than Islam. He gave the classic definition of Islam as not the religion founded by Muhammad, but the only true religion that has existed for all time. Since the beginning of history Allah sent his Prophets and his Messages to call people back to Himself. Just as there were not many Prophet Abrahams or many King Davids, so there are not many Muhammads and many Islams. Just as there were not different Islams for different eras throughout human history, there are not different Islams today.

Dr. Qaradawi then took a moment to illustrate the Quranic teaching that all the Biblical heroes were Muslims who followed one single Islam in their submission to Allah. Noah said (10:72), "I have been commanded to be among the Muslims." Surat Al Imran (3:67) states that Abraham was neither a Christian nor a Jew, but a Muslim. Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham, encouraged his offspring to be Muslim as he was (2:132). Joseph declared that he was a Muslim (12:101), and Moses commanded his people to follow Islam (10:84). Jesus and his Disciples bore witness to the fact they were Muslims (3:52). The only difference between Muslims today and then is that Islam is now complete, having been perfected by Muhammad, as demonstrated in Surat Al Maidah (5:3), "I have now perfected and completed Islam for you as your religion."

The Quran, continued Dr. Qaradawi, defines Islam in 4:136 and 2:177. The Muslim is one who believes in Allah, his Angels, his Books, his Messengers, and the Final Judgment (by contrast, the one who does not believe those - including belief in Muhammad as a Prophet and the Quran as Revelation - is a Kafir). These five Quranic statements of faith are accompanied by the five Pillars of Islam (exemplified not in the Quran, but in the life of Muhammad), the Shahada (I testify there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah), the Salat (five daily prayers), Sawm (Ramadan fast), Zakat (almsgiving), and the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

As Uthman pressed for the reason some claim there are "many Islams", Dr. Qradawi reminded viewers of the Quranic teaching that "some verses are clear and others are not" (3:7). The "unclear" verses allow for various Islamic schools of thought, and difference of interpretation about minor issues, but cannot be construed as different Islams. "Everywhere I go in the world," Dr. Qaradawi said, "I see Muslims praying at the same time and fasting at the same time. I see Muslims avoiding pork and alcohol, and eating only with their right hand. The laws of inheritance and the prohibitions against usury are the same. It is true that some Muslims follow their whims and ignore some of the rules of Islam, but that does not mean there is more than one Islam."

"There are two circles within Islam," continued Dr. Qaradawi, "An open circle that represents rulings open to interpretation, and a closed circle with rulings that are not. The Quran, for example, is within the closed circle and there can be no question about its rulings. The person who commits adultery is to be lashed exactly 100 times. It cannot be changed to 95 or 105 lashes. The open circle represents differences of opinion on how to apply, for example, different aspects of Shariah."

Uthman asked who were those insisting on many Islams. Dr. Qaradawi replied they were Western Orientalists who insisted that the Islam of Europe was not the Islam of Africa, and both of these were not the Islam of Asia or the Middle East. These same Orientalists separated Islam into the Islam of the Prophet and the Early Caliphs, as well as that of the Umayyid, Abassid, or Ottoman Empires, and "Modern Islam". They also tried to separate Islam into that of the Sufis, the intellectuals, or folk Islam. All these are vain attempts by the enemies of Islam to divide the one Islam accepted by God.

Dr. Qaradawi acknowledged that some who called themselves Muslims, such as the Black Muslims of America who thought that Satan was the White Man, or the Druze who did not pray in mosques, or the Qadaris in India who followed their own Prophet, were not really Muslims at all although some of them were open to reconciliation. Groups such as these, however, represent only a small minority of the worldwide Ummah.

A second guest, University of Lebanon Professor Ridwan Sayyid, added that a new generation of Western Orientalists had influenced even some Arab scholars to consider the existence of differing Islams. He agreed, however, with Dr. Qaradawi that the vast majority of Muslim scholars rejected the idea. When Uthman asked how Muslims could confront the false notion of various Islams, Dr. Sayyid replied they needed to recognize the power of a united Islam throughout history, and speak out against those whose interests lay in advocating a divided Islam.

My comment: As I noted at the beginning of this post, those in the West who are critical of Islam are often told they are being unfair because there are many Islams. Perhaps the many-Islam-Muslim-proponents in the West are the Arab scholars referred to by Ridwan Sayyid who are themselves influenced by Western Orientalists (why do I have a feeling that those whom Qaradawi and Sayyid unfavorably describe as "modern Western Orientalists" would include the many non-Muslim professors in our universities who see themselves as moderate and unbiased scholars of Islam?). At any rate I think it is noteworthy that, at least according to Qaradawi and Sayyid, those who speak of "many Islams" only represent a fringe of Islamic scholarship in the Muslim world.

Another common refrain recently heard in the West is that Shariah is such a massive and unwieldy subject it cannot even be spoken of as a united whole. It is worth noting that, according to Dr. Qaradawi, there are elements of Sharia that are open to application and interpretation. That is much different, however, than saying that Shariah is so broad it cannot even be discussed, or the application of Shariah to Western society cannot even be brought to the table.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Teaching Muhammad

The church I attend offers Wednesday evening classes on a variety of subjects. Dinner is at six, followed by the class of your choice.

A few months ago, they asked me if I would be interested in leading a book discussion of the Bernard Lewis book The Crisis of Islam. I replied that merely discussing a book about Islam could be boring, but a study of the life of the historical Muhammad would be fascinating. They then asked me to teach a three-hour class, one hour per week for three weeks, on the life of Muhammad.

The response was amazing. The turnout for the class was higher than any the church has ever offered, and the attendance increased week by week. This was not due to my being a fantastic teacher (well, to be honest, I hope I did a good job) but because this is an important subject that has caught the interest of a lot of people. Whether it's burning Qurans in Florida or building mosques near Ground Zero, things just keep popping up to peak people's interest in things related to Islam.

The class was only about the life of Muhammad; it was not about the Quran, or Islam and Muslims today. Three sessions is actually a good amount of time to devote to the Prophet's life, since it naturally divides into the three time periods of Jahiliyah (the ignorance that prevailed before his first revelation, Dawah (preaching Islam in Mecca), and Jihad (spreading his empire from Medina).

If I taught it again and had some more time, I would incorporate more of the Quran. Many people do not realize the Quran was not composed as, for example, much of the New Testament where Paul or other authors simply sat down with a quill at a desk to write. The Quran is a series of  "revelations" given to Muhammad in response to particular events in his life. When Muhammad was rejected by the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, he received revelations to confront that rejection. When the Jews in Medina refused to accept him as a prophet, he was given revelations to challenge them. When he wanted to marry his daughter-in-law Zainab, Allah gave him a revelation authorizing him to do that. When his wife Ayesha was suspected of adultery, he was given a revelation declaring her innocence. When he promised his wife Hafsah he would never again sleep with her slave Mary the Copt, Allah sent him a revelation absolving him of his promise.

People often try to make sense out of the Quran without understanding this historical context. Knowing the events in Muhammad's life that prompted the individual revelations over the last 23 years of his life can make it much more interesting. Relating those biographical incidents to current events today can also help understand how Muslims today - moderates as well as Jihadists - interpret the Quran and its impact upon their daily lives.

A Fresh Look at the Bible and the Quran

My trio of Charlie's Angels - that is, my greatest heroes - are Dr. Laura Schlissinger, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Wafa Sultan.

Propaganda plug: Until the end of the year, Dr. Laura can still be heard on Sirius XM radio, channel 155 from 4-6 pm EST if she is not on your local talk radio station. Ayaan's most recent book is Nomad, and Wafa has written A God Who Hates.

For most of my life, I would have had a problem with my trilogy of heroes. The problem would not have been that they are regularly skewered, diced, roasted, and hung out to dry by media favorites such as Jon Stewart and the New York Magazine. It was a more serious problem than that. My problem was that according to the theology in which I was born and raised, they were all going straight to hell forever because they have not "accepted Jesus Christ as their Personal Lord and Savior". Dr. Laura is Jewish by conversion, Ayaan is atheist by choice, and Wafa simply says she follows no organized religion. I'm not sure any of them have asked Jesus to forgive all their sins, which according to the way I was brought up is the only way to escape the flames.

To this day evangelical leaders step around the question of hell. I've never once heard Larry King interview any of them - whether it was Oral Roberts, Tammy Faye, Billy Graham, or Joel Osteen - without repeating the same question, "Do you believe that I and everyone else who do not personally accept Jesus as Savior are going to hell?" And I've never heard any of them simply reply, "Yes, that is what the Bible says and I believe it." They always take the escape clause of, "Well...God is the final judge and we will leave that question up to him."

I think it's time to take a step further and admit, "Yes, that is what the New Testament clearly teaches. But we don't take that literally, nor do we believe it is true."

After all, that is what we are asking Muslims to do with the Quran. The descriptions of hell in the Quran are just as vivid and even more so than those in the Bible. The overwhelming message of the Quran is that all those who do not follow Muhammad as a Prophet of Allah will be punished in hell. Just as some Christians try to wiggle around hell by arguing that some good non-Christians (especially if they are observant Jews) might make it through the Pearly Gates, so some Sufi Muslims find vague references in the Quran and the Hadith to justify their belief that a few good non-Muslims might also reach Paradise. I think in both cases they are trying to step around what their Holy Books really say.

We're challenging Muslims to leave that all behind. We're encouraging them to move away from, and not towards, Muhammad. We're asking them to consider the possibility that the Quran is just a text written and compiled by human authors in the generations before the first text that still exists. In response I suggest we as Christians must also be willing to admit that not everything the Bible says really makes sense.

There is, of course, one fly in the ointment, one major weakness in my argument. The believing Muslim will reply, "But my book is 100 percent from Allah, every single Arabic letter and dot, and yours is corrupted." And the Christian could respond, "No, every jot and tittle of my book is the perfect Word of God, and your book is wrong."

Describing her atheism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali simply says, "When I die I'll rot." If she's correct, any discussion at all of the afterlife is simply a waste of time, a moot point. If she isn't, I guess we'll all have to just wait and see.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Rise of Islamic Capitalism by Vali Nasr

I recently read The Rise of Islamic Capitalism - Why the New Muslim Middle Class is the Key to Defeating Extremism by Vali Nasr.

The author's name brought back memories. At the dawn of the eighties I was studying Islam at Temple University in Philadelphia. My two main professors were Dr. Ismail Al Faruqi, perhaps America's best-known professor of Islam at the time, and a relative newcomer named Sayyed Hossein Nasr who had fled Tehran from the Iranian Revolution. He is Vali's father.

I still remember Dr. Nasr describing what it felt like to walk the streets of London alone during his first days of exile, and in particular saying he had left his entire library behind. As a young scholar and an academic, his future held more possibility that that of many other refugees, but he was a refugee nonetheless. His family followed him later, never again to return to the life they had enjoyed in their own country.

Although I was only an undergraduate, I was able to take a few graduate seminars with Dr. Al Faruqi and the Muslim students who had come from all over the world to get their PhD from him. He was much more open in these seminars than in his regular classes, and I recall him saying, "We are all hoping and praying for the complete demolition of Israel." I also remember him saying, "We thank God for the Iranian Islamic Revolution. We need to wait 20 years to see how it will develop, but we praise God for allowing it to happen."

Dr. Al Faruqi never got to see the Iranian Revolution 20 years later, because he and his wife were both brutally murdered in their North Philadelphia home (the police report concluded it was the result of a botched robbery, but rumors circulated that it was the work of the Jewish Defense League). Dr. Nasr (Shia, Sufi, and Persian) and Dr. Al Faruqi (Sunni, Conservative, and Palestinian) never mentioned each other in their respective classrooms, and I still wonder what Dr. Nasr really thought of the colleague who so praised the revolution that had cost him everything.

Vali Nasr believes that the end of imperialism in the Muslim world during the 20th century was followed initially by a failed attempt of secularism (exemplified by Kamal Ataturk in Turkey and the Shah of Iran), that in turn was followed by a failed attempt of fundamentalism. He believes the future - if we in the West properly nurture and feed it - will be a successful moderate capitalistic Muslim Middle Class. The industrial growth experienced recently in the southern region of Turkey known as Anatolia is a precursor of what could happen all over the Muslim world - again dependent upon the proper Western response. And similarly to Dr. Al Faruqi, Vali cautions the overly impatient that it might take 20 years or so for this prosperous new world of Islam to break out.

One of the chapters of Vali's book is devoted to "The Prophets of Change", in which he discusses popular preachers with a vast following in the Arab and Muslim world. His first example is Amr Khalid, an Egyptian who has both amassed a personal fortune and created a media empire by presenting Islam's version of the Prosperity Gospel. I've listened to Amr's Arabic lectures and could have sworn I was simply following a translated presentation of Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When America's home-schooling mothers adopted the idea of home-school co-ops - the Spanish-speaking mother teach Spanish to the neighborhood homeschoolers, and the mother who is good at mathematics do the same in teaching math, Amr enthusiastically encouraged Muslim moms to get together with their Muslimah neighbors and develop the same type of child-centered activities (although I don't recall him ever mentioning Steven Covey by name, or acknowledging he had gotten the co-op idea from American non-Muslim homeschooling mothers).

Vali's next example of a Prophet of Change is Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, whose message is also directed to the Arabic-speaking world. Vali is not pro-Qaradawi, but presented him as an example of the pluralism, or the competing voices, calling for the attention of Muslims today. I am personally even less accomodating of Qaradawi than is Vali. As I listen to him on Al Jazeera's weekly Shariah and Life program, I can't help but think he has not had a creative or original idea in the last 30 years, if indeed he ever did. He simply repeats the hard-line Muslim approach towards non-Muslims that followers of the Sunnah have believed for the last 1400 years. The Jews are the sworn enemies of Allah, dialogue with Christians is non-productive because they are untrustworthy, and if we are all faithful Muslims Allah will one day establish his kingdom based upon his law (or, in Islamic terms, the Caliphate will return and Shariah will rule).

The third Prophet of Change emphasized in the book is a Turk named Fethullah Gulen, whose website is here, and who I would guess is the Prophet of Change with whom Vali Nasr most closely identifies. Gulen teaches, quoting Vali, "that pious Muslims can and should be full members of modern society and that there is nothing in the shariah that bars them from excelling in it or coexisting with the West".

The sentence I just quoted brings up something interesting. In his book, Vali Nasr repeats the word "pious" or "piety" again and again. It got to the point I thought it was on almost every page; when it popped up anew I would think, "Here it comes again!"

It took a while to realize what Vali Nasr means by "pious". It is not necessarily honoring your wife, loving your enemy, sharing profits with your employees, or dealing respectfully with the competition. Piety is observing the external appearences of Islam. The pious Muslimah dresses modestly, says her prayers at home if not in the Mosque, and reads the Quran. Her pious husband also reads the Quran, attends the Mosque, and gives his children Muslim names. Their neighbors can look at them and know they are Muslims.

I realize I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, even to myself, but I keep repeating the same thing, "I don't think it is going to work." When Karen Armstrong travels to the UAE and encourages university students to just follow the Golden Rule I think, "It's a great idea, but it's not going to happen." When a young Palestinian and a young Israeli stand side by side and share their dream of a two-state solution by 2018, I think, "I'm sorry, but the only difference between today and 2018 is that we will all be eight years older." And when Vali Nasr presents his vision of a prosperous, peaceful, pious, Muslim middle class leading us all to a more peaceful tomorrow, I have the same response, "Unless you are truly willing to leave Muhammad behind, he will always come up and grab you from behind. Unfortunately it won't be to lead you ahead, but always to pull you back."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Critical and Devotional Approach to Religious Belief

I am indebted to Professor Bart Ehrman for pointing out the difference between the devotional and the critical approach to religion.

Most Christians and Muslims take a devotional view of their faith. The Christian who goes to church, takes the Lord's Supper, and listens to a sermon wants to draw closer to God. The Muslim who attends the Masjid, prays Salat, and listens to the Khutbah desires to Irda Allah, or please God. The motivation for both is the same.

A critical approach is quite different. A Christian or Muslim who looks at their belief system critically is willing to examine the evidence as objectively as possible and go wherever that evidence takes them. It is much less comfortable than a devotional approach, with a less certain outcome.

Imagine a Christian and a Muslim who would each describe themselves as moderate and educated being confronted with questionable texts from their respective Sacred Scriptures. How might each respond?

Emily, a committed and conservative Christian, has often said that the story of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery as told in John 8:1-11 is her favorite Gospel story. She had noticed, of course, that her Bible contained the footnote "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11", but she never paid any attention to it. Until, that is, the day when her curiosity led her to examine that footnote more carefully and she learned that ancient texts dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries contain no mention at all of the story which first appears 200 years later.

How might Emily respond? She could take the devotional approach and insist the story must have been in the original text because it is in her Bible, after all, and has to be true. She could become disillusioned, conclude that if she can't believe everything she can't accept anything, and jettison her faith completely (believe it or not, more than one Christian minister has done this and continued his quest for the perfect book which he eventually concluded to be the Quran). Or she could take a critical approach, use the occasion to grow in her understanding of faith, and realize that even if the event never historically happened it is still a beautiful story that expresses in many ways the heart and attitude of Christ.

Now imagine Fatimah, a devoted Muslimah, who believes the Quran was revealed in perfection from Allah to his Prophet. She is familiar with the account repeated in Surat Al Araf and Surat Al Hijr about the Thamud tribe carving their houses out of rocks thousands of years ago in the third generation after Noah in the area of Saudi Arabia known today as Madayn Saleh. The story of the Prophet Saleh and his miraculous camel that provided milk for the entire tribe was one of her favorites.

Until, that is, the day Fatimah came across my blog and learned here that the impressive structures dug into the rocks were not the houses of the Thamudians at all but the tombs of the Nabateans. The Thamud tribe did not even live in that region but further north and first appeared in history much later than the alleged time of Noah. The story of the Prophet Saleh and his magic camel was not a revelation given from Allah to Muhammad, but a local folk tale learned by Muhammad from one of his relatives, the poet Umayyah Ibn Abu Salt.

How will Fatimah respond? Questioning the Quran or Muhammad is condemned in Islam as Museeat An Nabi, speaking ill of the Prophet or criticizing the Muqaddasat Ad Deen, the sacred things of Islam. In much of the Muslim world, Fatimah literally is unable to express her doubts or voice her questions, but forced to lock them all inside.

Let's go back to another Christian, Frank, who read one day the Elton John statement that Jesus was "a super-intelligent gay man". Frank decided to do some research and reach his own conclusion about Jesus' sexuality. He realized that Elton, himself gay, might have a personal bias for wanting Jesus to be gay, but for the sake of objectivity put that on the back burner. Frank carefully read the original documents, analyzed the relationship and interaction of Jesus with both men and women, and finally made his personal decision. What was it, you might ask? The simple answer is, Who cares? Frank, as is Elton John, is free to believe whatever he wants about Jesus.

We'll next consider Ahmed, who learned with all sincere Muslims that all of the Prophet's marriages were sacred and honorable unions, including his marriage to the Jewess Sofiya. He agreed with Omid Safi in Memories of Muhammad that "Muhammad offered her a choice of remaining Jewish and going back to her own people or becoming Muslim and marrying him. Her answer was: "I choose God and his Messenger."

One day Ahmed made the same fatal mistake as Fatimah; he came across this blog and read my account of Sofiya here and here. He was challenged to ask himself this simple question, "How could anyone possibly believe that a sane, 17 year old girl would willingly climb into the bed of the 62 year old conqueror who had just tortured and beheaded her husband, along with her father and brother? Is this a beautiful love story, or a brutal rape?"

What can Ahmed do with his newfound questions and doubts? Like Fatimah, who can he talk to? His local Imam? University professors? His friends?

I believe there are millions of Fatimahs and Ahmeds living in the Muslim world today. They realize that many of the things they were taught to believe just don't make sense. They don't really believe it anymore. They don't yet have the courage to leave Muhammad behind, but they are questioning him. And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Arab Theology : Youssef Zeidan

A new book entitled Arab Theology is leaping off the shelves of Arabic bookstores in the Middle East. The first copy of 5000 copies disappeared in a few days, and subsequent printings went almost as fast. Five thousand copies might not seem like much for a Middle East population of over 300 million people, but Arabs don't read a lot of books. The Oprahesque concept of curling up in a comfortable chair with a good book on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not your average Arab's idea of a good time.

Author Youssef Zeidan notes that the Arabic word for theology or divinity, Lahout, is of Syriac origin. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that was spoken by the Christians who lived throughout Arabia until they were exterminated by Islam in the seventh century. Numerous other theological words present in today's Arabic, such as Malakout (the Kingdom of God), Jabarout (omnipotence), and Nasout (human nature) also derive from Syriac.

Youssef argues that the Nestorian Christians of Arabia developed the only true Lahout, or study of God, whereas the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Orthodox and Catholic congregations of Eastern Europe and Near Asia were sidetracked by the person of Jesus. The Nestorians saw Jesus as a Prophet, not as God, and as the Syriac language was gradually replaced by Arabic the Nestorian concept of God found its way into Islam through Muhammad. According to Youssef, what are commonly described today as the Three Great Monotheistic Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are in fact a single current of thought and belief that stretches across several thousand years.

Having established his theory that there is really only one monotheistic religion which finds expression today in the trilogy of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, Youssef develops his main argument which is that the real sources of violence and religious conflict come from competing sects within each faith.  The battles of the Crusades between Muslims and Christians, he argues, were nothing in comparison to the wars between Israel and Canaan in the Old Testament or those between Protestants and Catholics in 17th century Europe.

The reason for these Biblical and European religious conflicts, believes Youssef, is the concept of Harb Al Muqaddasah or Holy War. The Hebrew soldier who annihilated the Philistines in Canaan three thousand years ago was convinced he was serving God in Holy War, and the Israeli soldier who kills a Palestinian in Israel today is convinced he is doing the same thing. God promised Abraham the land for his descendants, and the Israeli soldier is making sure the promise is fulfilled.

I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this book, but listened to the author's description of it here on Al Jazeera TV. As he spoke I had the sense that I so often have in listening to similar presentations. It is as if a thick cloud surrounds the speaker, permeating his every thought and word. He thinks he is thinking objectively and speaking logically, but the cloud that influences every part of his being is Islam.

I was reminded of another Al Jazeera program I described here, where people were calling in to give their opinions of who was responsible for the slaughter of Christians in Iraq. Some people thought it was the Kurds, and others the Iranians. A surprising number were convinced it was the Americans. Only one person, Edward the Saudi, had the courage to say that we, Arab Sunni Muslims, are the ones who are killing Christians there.

I was reminded of the interview I translated here, where Ahmed Mansour interpreted the statement of a Coptic Priest that Christians in Egypt were prepared to die for their faith as a call for war.

They all think Islamically, which means they apply an Islamic understanding to everything they talk about. Because militant Jihad is a part of Islam emphasized repeatedly in the Quran, Youssef thinks that Israeli soldiers are gleefully killing Palestinians to carry out Holy War. Because the Islamic concept of martyrdom is the Shahid dying in war for Islam, Ahmed believes that Christian martyrs do the same thing. They are all unable to truly see reality from the viewpoint of the other, but only from the perspective of Islam.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Iran's Fatwa Against Yasser Al Habib

Iran's Supreme Guide has just issued a fatwa calling for strict punishment (that means a death sentence) against Kuwaiti Shia dissident Yasser Al Habib, who is living in the UK, for insulting the Mothers of the Believers. Kuwait has stripped him of his citizenship for the same reason.

OK, this calls for some explanation. Insulting the Mothers of the Believers is a bit more complicated than shouts of, "Yo Mama!"

Muhammad's wife Ayesha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's first followers and the first Caliph after his death. Wife Hafsah was the daughter of Umar bin Khattab, another Meccan convert  and Islam's second Caliph. Along with another dozen wives, Ayesha and Hafsah are known as Umahat Al Mumineen, the Mothers of the Belivers. Abu Bakr and Umar bin Khattab, as well as the other Meccans who migrated to Medina with Muhammad, are the Sahabah, or companions of the Prophet.

Ayesha was nine years old when Muhammad consummated his marriage with her. Hafsah had been married at ten but widowed eight years later, and was twenty when Muhammad married her. Their young age in comparison to Muhammad's other wives and the fact that their fathers were both friends of the Prophet and leaders in the community led to a close friendship. When Muhammad slept with one of Hafsah's slaves, as I have described here and here, Ayesha was the one in whom Hafsah confided. As a result they were both the temporary object of their husband's wrath.

Muhammad died on Ayesha's lap and her father, Abu Bakr, was chosen as his successor. Some Muslims believed Ali, a cousin who had lived with the Prophet since he was ten years old and was married to Muhammad's daughter Fatimah, should have been the next leader. Abu Bakr died two years later and Ali was again bypassed as Umar bin Khattab, who was Hafsah's father, was chosen as the second Caliph. The same thing happened with Caliph number three, Uthman, but after he was stabbed to death Ali finally got his chance to lead. Ayesha, who by now carried quite a bit of influence in the Muslim community which had quickly become an empire, accused Ali of not seeking to prosecute those who had killed Uthman. Ali and his two sons (the Prophet's grandsons) were themselves killed soon afterwards and Muslims split into the Sunnis (who follow the Sunna, or example of Muhammad), and the Shia (who believe the Ahl Al Bayt, or relatives of Muhammad, should have succeeded the Prophet).

Fast forward 1400 years to Yasser Al Habib, who claims that Ayesha and Hafsah conspired to murder their husband Muhammad so their fathers could become the leaders of the Muslim empire.

There is something important to understand here. The first 200 years of Muslim history were transmitted via oral tradition until Hadith writers such as Bukhari and Sira biographers such as Ibn Hisham first wrote them down. Even the earliest copies of the Quran date from that later time period. There is no reliable way of knowing what happened in the first 200 years of Muslim history. It is all a matter of faith.

You might be asking the obvious question. Why would Iran, a Shia country, issue a sentence of death in abstentia (otherwise known as a fatwa) against a fellow Shia in London who is saying nothing different than the Shia have believed for 1400 years? What did he do that was so egregious even his own country would take away his citizenship?

Well, Shia and Sunnis are now trying to "come together". Iran wants to assuage the fears of its Sunni neighbors about its nuclear ambitions and territorial aspirations. What better way than to issue a fatwa against a Shia dissident in London? Kuwait, on the other hand, does not want to aggravate its powerful neighbor who resides just a few miles across the Arab or Persian Gulf (even the name depends on which side you live).  What better way than to deprive Yasser Al Habib of his citizenship?

I have an idea. Rather than issuing fatwas in which religious leaders arbitrarily decide what is right or wrong and determine the life or death of another person, why not have an academic conference? After all, we are living in the 21st century. Invite the world's greatest scholars, Muslim as well as non-Muslim, to present their research as to the role Ayesha and Hafsah played in the early struggles of Islamic power and leadership, and be willing to go wherever the evidence takes you.

It will never happen, of course. And for the same reason an academic conference will never be held to examine the historical evidence whether or not Muhammad was a Prophet of God and the Quran is a text from God. That would be too much for Muslims, who cannot even imagine life without Muhammad. It's much easier to just issue another fatwa.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The One Voice Movement and the Two State Solution

I recently heard two young men, Danny Shaket and Ahmed Omeid, present their vision for an independent Palestinian state and a secure Israel living side by side by 2018. Danny is from Tel Aviv and Ahmed lives in Tulkarem near Jerusalem. They are traveling in the States with the One Voice Movement.

The audience was mainly enthusiastic young students in their twenties and I felt out of place. Not because of my age; there were other older people there who looked and spoke like the activists-formerly-known-as-peaceniks. The estrangement I felt was ideological; I don't think the plan is going to work.

One of the questions raised was, why not a one-state solution? Danny replied that as a Jew he felt Israel needed to retain its Jewish identity; it needed to remain a homeland for the Jews. "I'm not religious," he said, "To me the Bible is just another book and Moses was just another man. But we Jews need a place that is our own."

I don't think he was being honest. There are as many Jews in America as there are in Israel. We also have African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. We've had more than our share of problems and failures, yet none of them are demanding a two-state solution for America. What do Jews in Tel Aviv need that Jews in Brooklyn are fine without?

Ahmed would never be able to say, at least publicly back in the West Bank, "I'm not religious. To me the Quran is just another book and Muhammad was just another man." Not if he wanted to keep his head.

And that's the problem no one is willing to talk about. I can just imagine the response I would have received had I brought it up today. The heart of the Muslim identity is Islam, the heart of Islam is Muhammad, and the spirit of Muhammad is the way he treated the Jews in Medina and Khaybar and the way the Quran instructs Muslims to relate to non-Muslims today.

The reason Jews in Israel want a two-solution while Jews in the West are happy with their one-state solution is that the Jews in Israel do not trust the Palestinians. They know what would happen to them as soon as the Palestinians became a majority.

Fine, you might say, so the answer is the two-state solution. The problem again is that does not correspond with the heart of the Prophet. Islam is not intended to surrender territory it once possessed. There is no way Palestinians can be faithful to the Prophet and wish the best for Israel. One or the other has to go.

During his presentation, Ahmed noted that he received much opposition from friends and family for his involvement with One Voice. "Loving your enemies is hard," he said. "It goes against patriotism and nationalism."

I would agree with the first part of his statement. It is hard to love one's enemies. But it doesn't necessarily go against patriotism, it goes against Islam. Again, there was no love demonstrated by Muhammad to the Jews in Medina, and he is the model for Muslims today.

There was one interesting moment in the presentation. Danny mentioned that he had met an Indian in Germany who was virulently anti-Israel. They agreed to give each other a book, and the Indian gave Danny a book by Norman Finkelstein. Danny said he had not found a book to give the Indian.

After the meeting I suggested Danny give him a copy of Son of Hamas, about which I wrote here.

A few weeks ago I exchanged a few emails with a Palestinian studying in the UAE. After I referred the same book to him, he told me that he had downloaded it and spent the entire night reading it nonstop. "That book has the answer," he told me.

I think he is correct. But Mosab Hassan Yousef had the courage to leave Muhammad completely behind. Only then could he truly love his enemy. Leaving Muhammad behind is a lot different than just stepping around him, as we all did in the meeting today.