Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Conversations That Only Go One Way

Sameer stopped by my workspace the other day. He is a Muslim from a Middle Eastern country who has lived in America for many years. If you asked him, he would say I was the nicest person in the world. He wanted to talk about a CNN program he had just seen, where people were objecting to the building of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

"It's just a community center," Sameer told me, "To get kids off the streets. It will have clubs and a theater with a room for people who want to pray. And people are objecting to it!"

As I listened, Sameer continued. "The Prophet treated everyone with respect," he said. "He even said that Paradise is at the feet of mothers."

I could have asked him how many Paradises Islam has, since Muhammad also said that Paradise was under the shadow of his sword, but I didn't go there. Instead I countered, "Well, the Quran also commands men to beat disobedient wives. I'm not sure that is showing them much respect."

Sameer was quick to respond, "That's not what that verse means," he said. "I heard a Shaykh say it means that if a wife is doing something wrong, the husband can give her a gentle, loving tap on the shoulder to say, "Honey, don't do that - do it this way."

"But Sameer," I replied, "You know Arabic. The verb used by the Quran is daraba. That is the verb used when American fighter aircraft demolish an Al Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan. That's the verb used to describe Israeli gunships destroying the home of a Hamas suicide bomber in  Gaza. It means anything but 'giving a gentle tap on the shoulder.'"

An injured look came across Sameer's face. "Wallahi, by God," he said, "I don't know about that. But the Shaykh said it just means to give her a loving tap, nothing more."

After Sameer left, I turned to a friend who had overheard the conversation. "Do you know what I find frustrating about conversations like that?" I asked. "It's the realization that he doesn't really want to hear what I have to say. He's not interested in what I think about Muhammad or Islam."

"I know," she replied. "It reminds me of conversations I had with Palestinian friends when I spent some time in the Middle East. You soon learn not to even try to talk about particular subjects, because the conversations only go one way."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Al Jazeera: Christian Muslim Coexistence

Dr. Mohammed El Samak, well-known in Lebanon for his role in inter-faith dialogue, was a July, 2010, guest on the Al Jazeera TV program Shariah and Life. The subject of the program was Muslim and Christian Coexistence.

Dr. Samak began the interview by saying that the Quran makes many favorable references to Christians, and quoted three of them. Surat Al Imran states, "Some of the People of The Scripture stand for the right; they quote the verses of God through the night while engaged in prayer (3:113)". Surat al-Maidah declares, "The strongest enemies of the Muslims are the Jews and the idolaters, and those closest to the Muslims are the Christians. That is because they include monks and priests, and they are not proud (5:82)." The same chapter says, "We sent Jesus and gave him the Gospel to confirm the Torah that came before him. Let the Christians judge by what God gave them (5:46,47)."

I noted here that Quranic verses quoted by Muslims as evidence of tolerance and coexistence towards non-Muslims often come from a textual context that teaches the exact opposite. This is the case in each of the three verses read by Dr. Samak.

The first one, verse 113 of Surat Al Imran, praised Christians who spent the night in prayer. What is the context of that ayah; that is, what is the theme of the passage from which it is taken? Verse 110 declares that Muslims are the best people ever created, in contrast to the rebellious and disobedient People of the Scriptures (the Jews and Christians). The next verse declares that the People of the Scriptures are cowards easily defeated in battle, and the verse following states they have incurred the wrath of God because they did not accept the Quran. Next comes the verse quoted by Dr. Samak, ayah 113, in which it is acknowledged that a minority of the Christians and Jews are not as reprehensible as the others. The verse immediately afterward concludes that these righteous People of the Book are those who followed the Prophet Muhammad. In other words, the only good Christians and Jews are those who become Muslims. All the others, according to ayah 116, will face the punishment of Hell.

What is the context of Dr. Samak's second quote, that says in al-Maidah verse 82 that those closest to the Muslims are the Christians? Ayah 72 of the same Surah declares that Christians are Kuffar for believing in the Divinity of Jesus. (Muslims often deny that the Quran describes Christians and Jews as Kuffar, but the Arabic verb used in this text unmistakedly indicates that they are). The following verses deny that Jesus was more than a Prophet, and declare that he cursed his own people for believing he was the Son of God. Hell will be the eternal abode of the Christians and the Jews, unless they accept the Prophet Muhammad and believe what was revealed to him. Next comes the verse quoted by Dr. Samak, acknowledging that some Christians espouse the values of loving-kindness and humility towards Muslims. The verse immediately after adds that these good Christians are those whose eyes overflowed with tears when they realized the true message of Muhammad, and the following verse agains warns that those who did not believe Muhammad would be the Dwellers of Hell. Again, as in the first example, the only good Christians are those who convert to Islam; all others are damned.

The final quote, ayahs 46 and 47 from al-Maidah, which states that "Christians should judge by what God gave them", comes just after a passage stipulating that the hands of both male and female thieves should be cut off (5:38). The Quran continues that Christians and Jews refused the message of Muhammad because they claimed they had their own messages. It acknowledges, in the verse quoted by Dr. Samak, that Christians who do not convert to Islam can live according to the dictates of their Gospel, but warns in the next ayah that these Christians will try to subvert Muslims and are not to be trusted. The section continues by warning Muslims not to take Christians or Jews as friends or allies, and declares that any Muslim who does so is no better than them.

Dr. Samak said many good things in the remainder of the interview. He reminded his Arab viewers that Christianity had existed there long before Islam, and that Christians were an indispensable part of the fabric of Arab society. He deplored the violence that targeted Christians in Iraq as well as parts of Egypt, and reminded his fellow Muslims that Christians in Arab countries often migrated to the West because of the professional ceilings placed over them in their own homelands.

What struck me, however, was that the favorable things said by Dr. Samak are because he is an educated human being, a humanitarian, not because he is a Muslim. As a follower of Muhammad, he is forced to recite verses from the Quran that presumably reinforce his positon, even though a child with a 6th grade education can read those same verses in context and realize they say the opposite of what Dr. Samak wants them to say.

There are two ways to look at both the Quran and the life of Muhammad. The first is to do as Dr. Samak did in this interview, to choose specific phrases from the Quran or selected stories from the life of Muhammad to prove the point the individual is trying to make. As with all religious texts, this is easy to do. One could even use this method to argue that the Bible teaches atheism, because a phrase taken from Psalm 14:1 says, "There is no God."

The other way is to look at the trajectory of the entire book, as well as that of Muhamad's entire life. It is difficult to deny that even though the first revelations claimed by Muhammad were religious in nature, the final revelations as exemplified in the Verses of the Sword in Surat al-Tauba (surah 9) are military actions against non-Muslims. It is also impossible to deny that during Muhammad's life the entire Jewish population of Medina, tribes who had lived there for centuries, were expelled or murdered simply for refusing to accept him as a Prophet, and that within a few years of his death all the Christians and Jews of Arabia were annihilated for the same reason.

I believe many Muslims are truly interested in the rights of non-Muslims living in Muslim countries and  are aware of the limitations of these rights. I also believe these Muslims face a dilemma. As Muslims they must believe that Muhammad was a Prophet from God and the Quran is a text from God, and are unable to publicly criticize either. It's very difficult for them to look objectively at how their own Prophet and Sacred Texts treated non-Muslims, and as a result move in an opposite direction. In other words, comparatively few Muslims (although the number is dramatically increasing) have the courage and honesty to really leave Muhammad behind.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Challenge of al-Qaeda's Inspire Magazine to the Muslim Community

No-one seems to know how to respond to al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine. Stephen Colbert tried to be funny, as comedians always do. Peter Hoekstra tried to be blustery, as politicans always do. But the real challenge posed by the magazine and the ideology it represents is neither to American comedians nor politicians. It is to the Muslim Ummah, the community of Muslims worldwide, a challenge to look honestly at who Muhammad really was and how he responded to those who resisted his claim that he was a Prophet sent from God.

Stephen Colbert along with the rest of Western media might laugh at "How to Build a Bomb in Your Mom's Kitchen", but a much more serious editorial was written by American turned Jihadist Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki. Entitled "The Cartoon Crusade - the Dust Will Never Settle Down", the editorial contains a list of Western non-Muslims, as well as former Muslims who have left Muhammad behind, who deserve to be killed because they criticized  Muhammad. The reason for this death sentence is simple and straightforward. "The medicine prescribed by the Messenger of God," writes Shaykh Anwar, "Is the execution of those involved. A soul that is so debased as to enjoy the ridicule of the Messenger of Allah...does not deserve life, does not deserve to breathe the air created by Allah, and enjoy a life provided for by Allah. Their proper abode is hellfire. The Messenger of Allah called for the assassination of Kab ibn Ashraf, and there are other incidents of his companions killing those who spoke against him. There was a blacklist of names of people in Makkah that were to be killed even if found hanging onto the clothes of the Kabah, the holiest site in Islam. This list included, among others, women who sang poetry defaming Muhammad."

And here is the challenge posed by Anwar al-Awlaki to Muslims everywhere. Muhammad killed people who criticized him. As noted here, the social critics of Muhammad's day - the Bill O'Reillys and the Arianna Huffingtons - were the poets. They were our bloggers, cartoonists and film-makers, the cynics and the skeptics. And those who did not believe Muhammad was a prophet of God and who expressed their views in their poetry were killed. Anwar's simple proposition is as follows. Muhammad is our Prophet, our model and our example. He killed those who criticized him. Why should we not do the same?

There are two important things to notice here. The first is that Muhammad's earliest biographers, in contrast to writers such as Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan, Muhammad Haykal and Omid Safi today, rarely tried to explain the actions of Muhammad and his companions. They simply recorded what they did. In one example from Ibn Ishaq's The Life of Muhammad, a warrior named Amr bin Umayya recounted that Muhammad sent him to Mecca to kill an enemy named Abu Sufyan. Amr was recognized before he could carry out the mission and forced to flee the 250 miles back to Medina. While spending the night in a cave he encountered a one-eyed shepherd tending his sheep. When Amr identified himself as a follower of Muhammad, the shepherd replied, "I will never become a Muslim nor pay any attention to their religion."

Amr's unspoken response was, "I'll teach you." He continued, "As soon as the shepherd was asleep, I killed him in a more horrible way than any man has ever been killed. I put the end of my bow in his one eye, and bore down on it until I forced it out at the back of his neck." The next morning Amr came across one of the shepherd's companions. He tied his thumbs together with a bow string and took him as a prisoner back to Medina. When Muhammad saw the prisoner, he "laughed so hard one could see his back teeth". When Amr told him the rest of the story, "the Prophet blessed me".

Why did Amr kill the shepherd in such a gruesome manner? Why did Muhammad find the story so hilarious? The biographer does not tell us, but simply recounts the event.

The same is true of the poets and poetesses killed by Muhammad for criticizing him in their poetry. Modern writers go to great lengths to try to explain and justify Muhammad, but his original biographers did none of this. They merely recorded what he did.

The second thing to notice is that many Muslims do not even bother to try to explain what Muhammad did - they simply deny it. Google Asma bint Marwan, the Jewish poetess killed by Muhammad as she lay sleeping with her nursing child because Islam's Prophet felt threatened by her poetry. Muslims such as this one argue the story never happened because her name is not collaberated in the Hadith. Rather than honestly deal with the unsavory aspects of Muhammad's character and behavior, they simply deny them.

And here is the problem. Most Muslims believe in the Prophet they wish had existed. The Jihadists follow the Muhammad who really existed. When confronted with the arguments of the Jihadists, the so-called moderate Muslims have no answer. The Anwar al-Awlakis of this world are the true Followers of Muhammad. And the willingness or unwillingness of ordinary Muslims to critically confront their own Prophet could determine, in my opinion, the future of Western civilization.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Islam and the World Cup

I'm sure many Muslims were included in the thousands of Spainiards who crowded Madrid's Plaza de Colon today to celebrate their team winning the World Cup. They would have been part of millions of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and human beings of all stripes and colors who watched the final match together in cafes and sports bars from San Francisco to Kathmandu. And that's the way it should be. There's nothing like a major sports event to bring people together in spite of religious, political, racial, and cultural differences.

So why were two Somali Muslims recently killed and dozens arrested by Hizbul Islam, the Party of Islam, for the crime of watching Kas al-Alim, the World Cup? Ask any Western-educated Muslim, and they will assure you the Hizbul Islam is a small, radical, extreme group that in no way represents the true teachings of the peaceful religion of Islam. The reality is that Hizbul Islam takes the example and sayings of their Prophet Muhammad very seriously, and he is the one who ruled 1400 years ago that watching the World Cup is Haram, prohibited for Muslims.

Those who follow the Arabic media and are interested in such things might have observed over the past few weeks that Shaykhs and scholars throughout the Arab world have been preaching sermons and issuing fatwas condemning the World Cup and forbidding Muslims from watching it. They gave at least nine reasons for their rulings:

1. The Standard Committee on Issuing Fatwas ruled here that watching the World Cup is prohibited for Muslims because prizes are won and gambling takes place. According to an authentic Hadith in the Sunnan Abu Daud collection and noted elsewhere, Abu Huraira relayed that Muhammad said the only types of competition for which Muslims are permitted prizes are archery, and horse and camel racing. The reason, of course, Muslims could compete and win prizes in these areas is because they are included in warfare and Jihad. Al Qaeda recently produced a propaganda film on Jihadist websites that asked the question, "Which of these two goals is the best, scoring a goal in football, or fighting the Infidels in the Jihad of God?" The first scene was of a player scoring a goal in the World Cup, and the second was an IED obliterating an American military vehicle. The film left no doubt which goal its producers deemed most noteworthy.

2. Responding to a question from a TV viewer as to whether it was permissible to watch matches of the World Cup, Shaykh Abu Ishaq al-Huwayni replied it was not. The Prophet of Islam, said the Shaykh, allowed Muslim men only two types of enjoyment. He could enjoy his wives, and his horses. Enjoyment of his wives, of course, meant sex, and enjoyment of his horses was related to going to war and practicing Jihad. Any other form of amusement was Haram. In another authentic Hadith, Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab commanded the Muslims of the Levant to train their sons in archery and horsemanship to prepare them for Jihad.

3. Football players in the World Cup wear shorts that reveal their thighs, and Muslim men are not allowed to wear clothing over the knee. In his Arabic TV show, Shaykh Abdallah Shakir warned Muslim men against bringing immorality into their homes by allowing their women to watch these improperly dressed men on the soccer field. Included in the many authentic Hadiths that do not allow men to show their legs is one from al-Bukhari in which Zurah bin Abdel Rahman relayed that the Prophet passed in front of him and saw his thigh. Muhammad's admonition was, "Shame on you. Do you not know that the thigh is part of your private parts?"

I would imagine that you (and as I) were not concentrating on the thighs of the Spanish and Dutch players battling for the World Cup victory this afternoon. We were concentrating on their teamwork and skill of handling the football. Only the deranged hearts of mentally and morally bankrupt Shaykhs could imagine that Muslim men and women around the world  were lusting after the exposed upper legs of the players as they raced up and down the field. As they have veiled their women, the Ulema would cover the arms and legs of the players in the World Cup as well. In another Arabic TV show, Shaykh Nabil al-Awdi argued that it was improper to watch World Cup matches because sometimes the cameras panned the spectators and showed unveiled women. Again, only people such as the Shaykh himself would be fixated on the women watching the match rather than the match itself.

4. Shaykh Yusuf Hamd argued on his TV show that watching the World Cup contradicts the important Islamic principle of Al Wala Wal Bara. "Wala" means establishing allegiance with Muslims, and "Bara" means standing against the Kuffar or non-Muslims. Muslim soccer fans might, God forbid, admire non-Muslim players and this is not allowed in Islam. Even worse, the Muslim might prefer a non-Muslim player over a Muslim player. Muslims are commanded to "love other Muslims in God", and to "hate the Kuffar in God".

5. Shaykh Muhammad bin Salih al-Uthaymeen pronounced during his televised Friday sermon that watching the World Cup was not allowed for Muslims because it meant aggrandizing the Kuffar. No matter how much non-Muslims have advanced, said the Shaykh, they cannot be admired because they are still Infidels. No matter how good the non-Muslim player is, he cannot be praised by a Muslim; this is against Islam. In another impassioned Friday sermon, Shaykh Abu Talhah was in tears when he proclaimed that the worst thing about the World Cup matches was that Muslim youth were admiring unbelieving, immoral, ungodly players (in other words, non-Muslims). Some of them have even cursed the Prophet, bemoaned the Shaykh, reminding his audience that Caliph Umar bin Khattab said that he hated Christians because Christians had cursed the Prophet. How could young Muslims admire Christian or Jewish players who did not follow the Prophet or love his Quran?

6. Shaykh Abu Talhah gave another reason in the same sermon why watching the World Cup was forbidden to Muslims; spectators were trying to be like the West, whereas Muslims are to oppose the West in every way. Soccer was a Western sport, said the Shaykh, and the World Cup was organized by Western countries. How could Muslims possibly participate? The World Cup did not follow the laws of Islam in its rulings, so how could Muslims take part? The Prophet, declared Abu Talhah, announced that he was taking his sword against the Kuffar, and that those who shared their lives in any way were the enemies of Allah. The clear message of the Shaykh was that those who fought non-Muslims were better than those who did not. (One wonders if the Shaykh refuses to drive an automobile, fly in an airplane, use the Internet, or watch TV since to do so would also make him like a Westerner?).

7. Numerous Shaykhs bemoaned the fact that watching World Cup matches was a waste of time that kept Muslims from performing the daily prayers. In a creative way to counter this (and in accordance with an Islamic principle that sometimes Muslims must choose between the lesser of two evils), the Society of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Evil in Saudi Arabia (the Mutawa) organized vehicles and volunteers to spread carpets in front of cafes and coffee shops at prayer time so that Muslims watching World Cup matches could run out, quickly say their prayers, and return having lost only five minutes of viewing time!

8. The next reason is, as could be expected, the most important of all. Muslims are forbidden from following the World Cup because it is (drumroll please), a Zionist Jewish plot to distract Muslims and lead them astray! Shaykh Yusuf al-Ahmad said during a televised discussion of the World Cup that the Protocols of Zion clearly teach Muslims that Jews are continually devising schemes against them; the World Cup is just another example. Jews were determined to win any competition at any cost, said the Shaykh, and this was what happened in the World Cup.

9. The Shia have another reason to avoid the World Cup. According to Shia tradition, after Sunnis killed Muhammad's grandson Hussein during the Battle of Karbala in 640 AD, they beheaded him and kicked his head around like a football. For this reason some Shia scholars dislike soccer in general and the World Cup in particular.

How would Western Muslim writers such as Reza Aslan (No god but God), Tariq Ramadan (In the Footsteps of the Prophet), Omid Safi (Memories of Muhammad), or Sunbul Ali-Karamali (The Muslim Next Door) respond if you told them that Muhammad would not allow Muslims to watch the World Cup? Let me venture a guess. They would first tell you this was a lie. If you presented the evidence I've given above, they would change their tune to say this is only an extremist one-sided view of Islam; the beauty of Islam is that it allows many viewpoints and differences of opinion.

I think a more realistic understanding is to acknowledge this is one of many examples that Islam, as envisoned and practiced by Muhammad, is incompatible with 21st century Western civilization. If Muslims are willing and able to ignore the commandments and instructions of their Prophet that no longer make sense, more power to them. I just think they would be better off completely leaving him behind.

(The material given above was presented by Rashid on the TV program Daring Question. Arabic-speakers can watch the original program here.