Sunday, February 27, 2011

Egypt at the Crossroads

Muslim apologists including Shaykh Yusuf Al Qaradawi often allege that the Copts of Egypt welcomed the invasion of Muslim Commander Amr Ibn Al Aas in 639 AD or 17 AH (Islam's calendar begins with Muhammad's Hijrah from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD). The fact that Amr could conquer Egypt with an army of only 4,000 men, said the Shaykh on a recent Shariah and Life interview, indicates that he was welcomed by its Christian population.

As with Muslim apologists across the board, Dr. Qaradawi is misleading and deceptive even when he is partially correct. The reality is that some Egyptian Christians initially welcomed the Muslim invaders. Far from a cakewalk, Amr completed his conquest of Egypt only after many months of bitter warfare with a reinforced army three times its original size.

The Copts at the time of Amr's invasion were not a free people. Their country had been torn apart by an ongoing struggle between two great external powers, the Byzantines and the Sassanids, both eager to exploit Egypt's agricultural wealth as well as protect their kingdoms from enemies who could penetrate Egypt's southern border. The Byzantines were Christian as were the Copts, but theological differences caused bitter rivalry between the two groups and as I discuss here the Christian church has not always dealt with dissension in a Christlike way.

Although Egypt's Christians welcomed the forced expulsion of the Byzantines, they did not equally welcome their new conquerors and as the Muslims forced their way south they met with increased and stronger resistance. The warriors of the southern Christian kingdom of Nubia were skilled archers, with the Muslim commander Uqba bin Nafe initially forced to retreat after Nubian arrows took out the eyes of hundreds of his soldiers.

It did not take the Copts long to realize one oppressive system had replaced another, and they were trapped between a rock and a very hard place. The only remaining history of the entry of Noor Ad-Deen (the light of Islam) to Egypt from their perspective was written by John of Nikiu, a Coptic bishop who in 696 AD was appointed head of the monasteries in the Nile Delta (comment: the Nile river splits near Cairo and forms a triangle as it proceeds north to the Mediterranean Sea. The fertile soil within this triangle is known as the Nile Delta).

I find it interesting that Muslims consider the first two generations of Islam, the Sahaba and Tabieen (the Companions of Muhammad and their Followers)  the closest period to heaven on earth ever known to man. But hearing Yusuf Qaradawi explain the life of Egypt's Copts during that time is like hearing a 19th century Georgia plantation owner describe the wonderful life of his slaves. A much more realistic picture will be gained by listening to the slaves themselves, and the only way to understand the fate of the Copts is to listen to their story.

How did Bishop John describe life under Muslim rule? Only fragments of his book remain, available here. His fascinating account of the 639 AD Muslim invasion begins with chapter 111 (CXI), and I will quote a few verses beginning with chapter 120:

120-34. Amr subdued the land of Egypt and sent his men to war against the inhabitants of Pentapolis. After he had subdued them, he did not permit them to dwell there. He took from thence plunder and captives in abundance.

120-36. The patriarch Cyrus was greatly grieved on account of the calamities which had befallen the land of Egypt. Amr had no mercy on the Egyptians, and did not observe the covenant they had made with him, for he was of a barbaric race.

120-69. The general Valentine and his troops were not able to give any assistance to the Egyptians; but the latter, and particularly the Alexandrians, were very hard pressed by the Moslem. And they were not able to bear the tribute which was exacted from them.

121-1. The Coptic Patriarch Benjamin returned to the city of Alexandria in the thirteenth year after his flight from the Romans, and he went to the Churches, and inspected all of them. 2. Every one said : 'This expulsion (of the Romans) and victory of the Moslem is due to the wickedness of the emperor Heraclius and his persecution of the Orthodox through the patriarch Cyrus. This was the cause of the ruin of the Romans and the subjugation of Egypt by the Moslem.

121-3: Amr became stronger every day in every field of his activity. He exacted the taxes which had been determined, but he took none of the property of the Churches, and he committed no act of spoliation or plunder, and he preserved them throughout all his days. When he seized the city of Alexandria, he had the canal drained in accordance with the instructions given by the apostate Theodore. 4. He increased the taxes to the extent of twenty-two batr of gold till all the people hid themselves owing to the greatness of the tribulation, and could not find the wherewithal to pay.

121-10. Many of the Egyptians who had been false Christians denied the holy orthodox faith and lifegiving baptism, and embraced the religion of the Moslem, the enemies of God, and accepted the detestable doctrine of the beast Mohammed. They erred together with those idolaters, and took arms in their hands and fought against the Christians. 11. One of them, named John the Chalcedonian of the Convent of Sinai, embraced the faith of Islam, and quitting his monk's habit took up the sword, and persecuted the Christians who were faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.

122-1. Let us glorify our Lord Jesus Christ and bless His holy name at all times; for unto this hour He hath preserved us Christians from the errors of the erring heathen, and from the transgressions of the apostate heretics. 2. And may He also strengthen and help us to endure tribulation through hope in His divinity. And He will make us worthy to receive, with a face not put to shame, the inheritance of His eternal (and) incorruptible Kingdom in heaven. And (let us bless) His Father, (pre-eminently) good, and the Holy Lifegiving Spirit for ever and ever, Amen.

As Egyptian Christians rejoiced to see the departure of the Byzantines 1300 years ago, they celebrated the departure of Husni Mubarak on Tahrir Square this month. But will they again find themselves between the hammer and the anvil as they did then, or has anything changed?

A few years ago at the American University in Cairo on Tahrir Square, I heard Saad Eddin Ibrahim give an impassioned appeal for a Egypt and an Islam led by enlightened Muslim liberals. As I looked around the hall and saw the hundred or so elderly, English-speaking, Western-educated, European-dressed Egyptians who had turned out for his speech I thought, "He must be dreaming." I couldn't help but compare that audience with the thousands of young hijab-clad (hip-hugging long black skirts nevertheless) Egyptian girls and young Egyptian men I saw packed into the metro every morning. No, it's not going to be Dr. Ibrahim's version of enlightened Western-educated Muslim liberals who will lead the new Egypt. I'm just not yet sure who it will be. I've always considered myself an optimist, but my fear is that in Egypt things might get much worse before they get better. And I'm particularly concerned for Egypt's Copts.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Loonwatch vs. Translating Jihad - Part Two

In defending himself against critics, the Apostle Paul regretted in 2 Corinthians chapters eleven and twelve that his enemies forced him to adopt the same methods they used to attack him. "Since you are boasting about how much you have accomplished and how great you are," he said in essence, "Let me do the same thing."

Similarly in defense against a critic who points out a mistake, one is at times obliged to note that the critic makes the same type of mistake. Loonwatch recently went to great lengths to "expose" an innocent grammatical mistake committed by Arabic translator Al Mutarjim, but the writing of Loonwatch itself leaves much to be desired. At one point Loonwatch wrote:

Just imagine if a Chinese immigrant applied to be a fifth grade English teacher in Texas and if he stated that “I was official translated at other school I work for.” Immediately the employer would know that this applicant has very poor English and would not be appropriate for the position of English teacher.

I find it curious that a writer who just spent pages and pages criticizing an American who mistakenly chose an Arabic passive participle instead of the active participle for his screen name has no understanding of the use of the subjunctive case in English grammar. The subjunctive is used in "contrary to fact" sentences, or "what if" sentences. As soon as the writer began with "Just imagine if a Chinese immigrant applied...." he put his sentence into the "what if" category. The English rule of maintaining case is to continue using that case as long as the writer continues in the "what if" scenario. English uses past tense verbs in the subjunctive tense so that instead of  "has very poor English", as Loonwatch wrote, it should be "had very poor English".

Loonwatch is also unaware of the difference between direct and indirect discourse. The same paragraph read, "....and if he stated that "I was official...." Loonwatch had the choice of either using indirect discourse with the word "that", or direct discourse with quotation marks in the first person, but he couldn't do both. In other words, the sentence could correctly read ..and if he stated that he was (indirect discourse). It could also read...and if he stated, "I was..." (direct discourse) But you can't have both.

While we're at it, Loonwatch does not even know how to use the simple English article. He can either write "for the position of an English teacher" or "for the position of the English teacher", but he can't just leave it out.

A correct (although still not very-well written) paragraph would have read:

Just imagine if a Chinese immigrant applied to be a fifth grade English teacher in Texas and if he stated, “I was official translated at other school I work for.” Immediately the employer would know that this applicant had very poor English and would not be appropriate for the position of the English teacher.

So a writer who does not understand the use of the subjunctive case, has no awareness of the difference between direct and indirect discourse, and cannot even correctly use a simple English article criticizes an Arabic translator who mispronounced a single vowel in his screen name. Brilliant!

I am sure that Loonwatch would assure us that he understood English grammar perfectly well, but was just writing bil-ajalah (hastily). Haram alaykum Loonwatch! Have you no shame?

Loonwatch also states that students of Arabic learn the difference between Al Murtajim and Al Murtajam in Arabic 101, and proves this by showing a vocabulary list containing the word Al Murtajim "the translator". Loonwatch is being deceptive and misleading. The student might learn that particular vocabulary item in the first semester, but will not be taught the intricacy of the difference between an active and a passive participle in the derived verb measures until much later. Ayb alaykum Loonwatch! Shame on you!

American students, on the other hand, do learn how to use the definite and indefinite article in English in first grade, and the difference in direct and indirect discourse as well as the correct use of the subjunctive tense not much later. I wonder where Loonwatch was during those classes? Maybe his mind was wandering and he was thinking about his Hot Mama. Perhaps a friend just told him he looked like his mother, and he remembered his Prophet had stated a child would resemble the parent who first achieved orgasm in intercourse!

Hopefully Loonwatch is more proficient with Arabic grammar than he is with English. If so, I look forward to his grammatical explanation of the mistakes in ayah 56 of surat Al A'raf. Why is the ta in rahmat an open ta and not a ta marbutah as it should be? Why does qarib have tanween in the nominative case, rather than the accusative case as it should with an open ta? And if rahmat is being used as an adjective in the feminine gender, why is qarib masculine?

Loonwatch could scurry to find online sources that provide an explanation, but I can assure him none of them will be satisfactory. As is always the case, Muslims will do anything to avoid the issue. Rather than honestly answer my question, Loonwatch will probably pour over my blog to find something to attack me. After all, that's what he did with Al Mutarjim.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Loonwatch vs. Translating Jihad - Part One

A number of years ago reading Foreign Policy Magazine, I came across a scathing review by a Muslim Arabic-speaking professor of a State Department diplomat who had delivered a lecture in Arabic. The criticism was not directed at the ideology of the diplomat, nor the content of his lecture. What aroused the ire of the professor was that the speaker had mispronounced an Arabic word; he had pronounced it with a fatha (the short "a" vowel), when it should have been a kesra (the short "i" vowel). "What could he possibly have to say of value," fulminated the professor, "When he cannot even speak Arabic properly?"

It takes a lot to shock me, but I remember being astounded by the emotional immaturity and intellectual dishonesty of that professor. He was totally unable to grasp the import of the diplomat's lecture because he could not get beyond the fact that he had mispronounced a word in Arabic.

I had forgotten the incident until I noticed today that the website loonwatch did the  same with Translating Jihad, whose author calls himself Al Mutarjim (the translator). When he first began the website, he made the grammatical mistake of calling himself Al Mutarjam (that which is translated). Ironically, he made the same mistake as the diplomat by using a fatha when he should have used a kesra. And just as the professor in his immaturity was unable to see beyond that mistake, loonwatch is the same.

I find it interesting that the mistake Al Mutarjim made is the same one Arabic speakers make all the time. Since words are usually unvowelled in Arabic, the words Al Mutarjim and Al Mutarjam in the Arabic press look exactly the same, AL-MTRJM. I can't tell you how many times I have been listening to an Arabic lecture or interview and heard the speaker self-correct as in, "wal-mutarjam la la, al-mutarjim" - "and the, I meant to say the Mutarjim."

After spending pages attacking Al Mutarjim, loonwatch then mocked the fact that after he recognized his grammatical faux pas he went back and corrected it. Hello? Is anybody home? That is what makes America great. When we make mistakes we correct them.

And that is the very thing Muslims are not allowed to do - recognize mistakes and self-correct. Muslims are the only people in the entire world who live in voluntary enslavement, unable to criticize their Prophet, his book, or their religion. Ask a Saudi archaeologist why the Quran describes the dwellings carved in the rocks at Madayn Salah as houses built by the Thamudians when he knows they were tombs dug out by the Natabeans, and sense his discomfort. Ask an Indonesian embryologist why the Quran describes the fetus as an initial skeleton when her sonogram informs her that is not true, and watch her response. Ask an Islamic scholar why Muhammad promised heavenly rewards to those who killed geckos with one strong blow, and listen to him try to explain. Ask a doctor if it is true that you don't need to worry about insects dropping in your soup, because "one wing carries the illness, but the other carries the cure".

And if you are an intelligent young 17 year old Muslim girl, ask yourself if you could imagine yourself falling in love with the 62 year old man who had exiled your family from their home, beheaded your father and brother on the same day, tortured and beheaded your husband, and then raped you that night? Then ask yourself how you could possibly believe that about Muhammad's wife Safiya.

These are hard questions Muslims don't even allow themselves to think about, much less discuss. It's much easier to just kill the messenger. Or, in this case, attack Al Mutarjim.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Family United

Many Muslims who leave Muhammad behind leave their families behind as well. Khaled was an unusual exception in that his wife Rena chose to remain with him after he left Islam, and eventually joined him in crossing the bridge to a new life. Their story was given in Arabic here.  I would like to repeat it, and then add a few comments.

Khaled introduced himself as originally from the Shemer tribe in northern Saudi Arabia  although he was born and raised in Jeddah. As a youth he was a serious Muslim, memorizing over 20 suras of the Quran and regularly practicing the Arkan Al Islam (the pillars of daily Salat or prayer, Sawm or fasting the month of Ramadan, giving Zakat or charity, and fulfilling the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca).

Rena is from a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus, and was the first woman in her family to wear the hair covering of the Hijab. After hearing a well-known Shaykh say that even his place in Jannah or heaven was not guaranteed, Rena wondered what chance she had and decided that wearing the veil might help gain Allah's approval.

When host Rashid asked the obvious question of how a Saudi man and a Syrian woman had came together Khaled replied he and his first wife, a Saudi woman, had divorced. Syrian women were known for their beauty and compatability, many of his friends and relatives were happily married to Syrians, and he decided to try his luck. Saudi men must receive a special license to marry an Ajnabiya, or foreign woman, but one of Khaled's friends knew the Emir who could grant the required permission. Armed with permission to marry a woman from As Sham, or Syria, Khaled made the trip. Rena, for her part, wanted a husband who was as serious a Muslim as she was. When she learned that Khaled not only prayed regularly but worked in Jeddah, she decided that someone who lived only a few miles from Mecca's Kabah was as close to Allah as one could get and gladly married him.

The couple spent a three-month honeymoon in America, and during that time met a lawyer who suggested they migrate to the United States. Although they did not take his proposal seriously and returned to Saudi Arabia, they made several more visits to America and deepened their friendship with the lawyer. He began to talk to them about his Mormon faith, but Rena was unimpressed. "How could they believe," she asked, "In a God that ate and drank and had lived as a human being?" She visited his church, but to show her contempt tore off a long strip of toilet paper in the restroom, wrote all her questions on it, and took them to their friend.

"Toilet paper?" asked an astonished Rashid. "Why would you use that?"

"I'm embarrassed to admit I did that," replied Rena. "It was just to show him that I was superior to him. I was raised to believe we Muslims were the best people raised up for mankind (Quran 3:11). In Saudi Arabia I had begun to wear the Niqab and I even wore it in America.  When we flew from Jeddah to the States, I was the only woman on the entire plane who did not remove her Abaya during the flight.

"When I handed him the strip of toilet paper and told him these were my questions," continued Rena, "I was sure he would be shocked. But I was the one to be shocked when he just smiled and said, "I hope I have the answers." They then sent missionaries to our house to try to convince us, but I refused their message."

"Why would you go with him to church in the first place?" asked Rashid.

"I was curious," replied Khaled. "I had never been to a church. There are churches in Syria, and Rena had attended the Christian weddings of her friends. But there are no churches in Saudi Arabia. I had no interest in what they believed, but was curious to see the inside of a church.

"After I returned to Saudia Arabia," continued Khaled. "I had a dream in which Jesus appeared to me. I knew immediately that he was God."

"Just like that?" asked an astonished Rashid. "You had never read the Bible or anything?"

"The only thing that had happened," replied Khaled. "Was that in America my friends had asked me to pray about whether Mormonism was true. When I next performed my prayers, I asked God to show me the truth and protect me from error. Nothing happened, except that after I returned to Saudi Arabia I had this dream and thought God was telling me to read the Bible. It is impossible to obtain the Bible in Saudi Arabia, but I found it online. Since I was interested in Jesus, I began to read the New Testament."

"My response," interrupted Rena, "Was to tell him the Bible was Muharraf (corrupted), as we learned in Islam. He insisted on reading it, and to my amazement when he reached the crucifixion of Jesus he began to cry. "Why are you crying?" I asked him, "That is just a fairy tale."

When Rashid asked Khaled why he was crying, he had a simple response. "Can anyone read the story of the crucifixion and not weep? I was the one who should have been on that cross, not him. He gave his life for me."

"You understood that?" asked a surprised Rashid. "And you knew nothing of Christianity?"

"I understood it from the first instant," replied Khaled. "I realized that he had the option not to die, but he choose to die for me."

"And I was laughing at him," interrupted Rena. "I didn't believe a word of it."

"As I continued reading in the New Testament," contined Khaled, "I saw references to people with names like Daniel and Isaiah. I didn't know anything about them, so began reading the Old Testament. I am a scientist, and was looking for evidence that what I was reading was true. One day I reached the sentence, "You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews (Job 10:11)."

"I was in the kitchen," said Rena, "And I suddenly heard him shout Allahu Akbar!"

"Which is our Arabic Hallelujah!" added Khaled."

When Rashid asked why that verse caused such a strong reaction, Khaled explained. "I have studied the human embryo. The Quran says that Allah first created the bones, and then clothed them with flesh (Quran 23:14). I had always realized this Ayah did not make scientific sense, but never challenged it. When I read the description in Job, it was much more precise and correct."

"He called for me," added Rena, "And told me to come see where the Quran was wrong. My immediate response was, "Allah forgive him for this great sin." I told him that the Quran must be correct, and that he should ask a scientist. He went to a professor of human development who told him, "I know that the Quran is wrong, but as Muslims we must accept it.  If I ask you about the embryo on a university exam, however, I want you to reply scientifically and not according to the Quran." I was upset when Khaled told me what the professor had said, and told him to ask a religious Shaykh."

When Rashid asked Khaled what the Shaykh said, he replied, "He simply said he did not want to talk about it and suggested I ask the author of a Saudi university textbook that tries to relate the Quran to science. I sent him an email, but of course never received a response. I also asked the popular preacher Amr Khaled, who also did not reply."

"I was terrified," said Rena, "To realize my husband no longer believed in the Quran. He had become a Murtedd bound for Jehenim, an apostate going to hell. We were in Saudi Arabia, where he could be killed. He stopped saying his prayers and going to the mosque. When I told my mother that my husband was thinking about leaving Islam, she told me that if he did so I should leave him and return to Syria. It would be Haram and Zina (forbidden and adultery) for me to stay with him."

"I began to express my doubts to my work colleagues," continued Khaled. "Soon some of them made a formal complaint about me to the authorities and I was questioned. At that time I denied everything, and swore I was a good Muslim. I returned to the mosque and started saying my prayers. I became a coward. I was interrogated three times, and I denied each time."

"I've interviewed many people who left Islam," said Rashid. "Some of them are very bold, and others like you buckle under pressure. Why do you think there is this difference?"

"I was frightened of the sword," replied Khaled. "If you saw the public executions that take place in Saudi Arabia, you would understand. It is a terrifying sight to see people beheaded in the public square."
"I perhaps had a role in this," added Rena. "I told him to be quiet, and not to admit his doubts about Islam. I would say things like, "I love you...think of me and your children...don't leave me a widow." I wanted him to return to Islam and receive God's forgiveness. I did not want him to die a Murtedd."

When Rashid asked how Khaled's family responded to his doubts, he replied they took him to a psychologist. It was at this time that he decided to leave Saudi Arabia. He informed Rena that he loved her and wanted her to stay with him even if she did not believe as he did, showing her the Biblical instruction that Christian husbands were not to divorce wives who did not share their faith (1 Corinthians 7:12). Rena recalled American movies she had seen in which husbands and wives committed themselves to each other "for better or for worse, until death do us part". She realized she would rather leave with Khaled, even though the marriage would be considered Haram, than stay in Saudi Arabia without him or return to Syria as a divorcee.

Khaled then told the amazing story of how they left the country. Having been investigated three times, he realized he was probably on the Saudi no-fly list. Remembering the Biblical story of Moses and the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14), Khalid prayed, "Lord, miraculously take us across the Red Sea as well (comment: the Red Sea crossed by Moses becomes much wider as it extends towards Jeddah and into the Arabian Gulf)." As they stepped up to airport passport control, the officer informed them the computers were down but he would write down their passport information and enter it into the computers later! They gave him the required information and an hour later were flying away. Khaled had not informed his family he was leaving the country, and when he called his mother the next day she informed him the Muhabarat (the Saudi Intelligence Service) had come to the house looking for him.

Rena then described the family conflict they experienced after they left Saudi Arabia. They first went to Jordan, where she knew no one and felt completely alone. She was determined to raise her children Muslim, and included them in her daily prayers and Quran reading. When asked if he objected to this, Khaled replied that the most important thing to him was his relationship with his wife, and he would not stand in the way of the religious training she gave the children. He jokingly commented that one of the reasons Saudi men like to marry Syrian women is that they have the reputation of being willing to put up with a lot, and Rena had certainly done that with him!

They remained in Jordan for three difficult years, with Khaled unable to work and their children not allowed to attend school. Rena continued to argue with Khaled about Islam, and when she was unable to win the arguments because his background in Islam was stronger than hers she decided to do a comparative study between Muhammad and Jesus. She suddenly discovered that all the questions she had harbored in her heart since childhood about Muhammad and Islam, questions Muslims habitually repress and do not persue, rose to the surface.

She gave the example of Muhammad ignoring the blind Abdallah bin Umm Maktum while he was trying to impress the leaders of the Quraysh (Quran 80:1,2). How would she have felt, she asked herself, if she were Abdallah? She read the story of Muhammad ordering the stoning of an adulterous woman, and listened to Khaled's explanation of Jesus forgiving the woman taken in adultery. She was still unwilling to read the New Testament for herself, feeling strongly that it was not "her book", but began to allow herself to question Islam's Prophet.

"One day," continued Rena, "I decided to have a long conversation with God. I told him the story of my life, with all my dreams and fears. I felt him telling me to open my heart to him, and I asked my husband to pray with me. I asked God to come into my life, and for the first time in my life I ended my prayer with the words "in the name of Jesus, amen." As soon as I said those words, I felt God's Spirit fill me from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. My immediate reaction was to take off my Hijab and never wear it again."

"As soon as I removed the Hijab," said Rena, "Threats and persecution began to come from our neighbors. We were forced to move six times in Jordan, three times because of poverty and three times as the result of threats. Each time we moved to a smaller and poorer residence."

"I know that you came to the United States through the United Nations as refugees," asked Rashid. "Was that difficult?"

"When we first applied for refugee status in Jordan," replied Rena. "I was still a Muslim wearing the Hijab. The Muslim lawyer who handled our file informed me he would not allow my husband to travel to the United States. He could either return to Saudi Arabia, the lawyer said, or remain in Jordan and experience a moderate Islam far removed from Wahhabi influence. When I informed the lawyer that if my husband returned to Saudi Arabia they would cut off his head, he passed me to another UN official. This person asked me if I was proud of my husband for leaving Islam. They were both lawyers, but acted as if they were the people whipping us. We complained to the UN in Geneva, and they offered us an interview. Following the required procedures, we were admitted to the United States."

At one point in the program, Rashid opened the phone lines. "I wish," said one caller, "That all the terrorists who travel from Saudi Arabia to Iraq via Syria could follow Khaled's example. He also went from Saudi Arabia to Syria, but eventually to America for the sake of freedom."

"I've always had a negative opinion of Saudis," said another caller, "Until I heard Khaled's story. He is a wonderful example of a noble Saudi man."


1. Muslims love to boast that the Quran explained embryology hundreds of years before modern science. As Khaled pointed out, the Quranic explanation (which, by the way, was copied from a Greek physician named Galen who lived 450 years before Muhammad) that the fetus is first a skeleton on which flesh is added makes no scientific sense. An aborted fetus is made up of flesh and tissue, not a sack of bones.

2. The response of Saudi scientists to the Quranic myth of the embryo is the same as the response of Saudi archeologists to the Quranic myth of Thamudians building houses in rocks at Madayn Salah (it was the Nabatians building tombs, as I have discussed here). In both cases the response is, "We know it is not true, but we dare not question the Quran."

3. Were the American ambassador in Riyadh to ask a Saudi official whether Khaled would have been mistreated, imprisoned, or killed had he remained in Saudi Arabia, the official would probably say No. He might even quote "there is no compulsion in religion" (Quran 2:256). Whether Khaled or the official is lying is up to you to decide.

4. Were the American ambassador in Amman to ask a UN official whether Muslim UN lawyers would discriminate against individuals seeking refugee status because they had left Islam, the official would probably deny it. Again, whether that official or Rena is telling the truth is yours to decide.

Muslims and Mennonites Defecting

I recently attended the funeral of an uncle who lived his entire life in the Pennsylvania Dutch country among the Mennonites and the Amish. Fifty years ago, however, my uncle and his young wife made the step, unusual at the time, to leave the Mennonites and join the local Methodist church in which his funeral was held.

By coincidence (although I don't really believe anything happens by coincidence), my young cousin is now the pastor of the Mennonite church my relatives left. He was asked by the family to deliver a eulogy. During his speech, he looked directly at our bereaved aunt and said the following:

"The Mennonite church has many strengths, but it also has weaknesses. Among our weaknesses has been a tendency to judge those who leave us. I know that you and your husband experienced pain by the way we treated you. I want to apologize for that, and ask your forgiveness for our judging you when you left our faith community many years ago."

"I ask your forgiveness...for judging you when you left our faith community." What incredibly powerful words. I couldn't help but compare them with the experiences of Muslims I have written about, such as Ibrahim, Youhanna, Ruba, and Wajdi, who were criticized, threatened, disowned, imprisoned, and tortured for their decision to leave Muhammad behind. And those are just the lucky ones who made it to America! They have certainly never heard the words from the Imams of their former "faith community", known in Arabic as the Ummah, that my aunt heard from the Mennonite pastor last week.

There is a reason for that. My cousin understood that the jugdment inflicted by the Mennonite church on those who left was an aberration of true Christianity. The message of the Prodigal Son, one of Jesus' most famous and enduring stories, is that you give people the freedom to make important decisions even when you disagree. The Mennonite church of my uncle's day had abandoned that message, as the broader church has at times throughout its 2000 year history, but the hope is that it will always return to its roots.

There is also a reason ex-Muslims never hear the words my aunt heard. The message of Muhammad was clear, "If anyone leaves Islam, kill them." As I discuss here, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi believes this punishment for Ridda, or apostasy, is to be applied today. The only condition, according to Dr. Qaradawi, is that the structure of an Islamic state must first be established in which the Hudud, or physical punishments of Islam, can be carried out.

Dr. Qaradawi recently addressed hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Square. As could be expected in his first public sermon in Egypt in 30 years, it was relatively low key. But make no mistake about it - the Egypt envisoned by Qaradawi is one in which the commands of Muhammad concerning those who leave Islam will be taken very seriously. If Qaradawi's dreams come true, it will be a long time before any of them ever hear what my aunt heard last week, "We want to apologize, and ask your forgiveness for judging you when you left our faith community."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

From the Muslim Brotherhood to Jesus

Immediately after Egypt's Facebook revolution culminated in the resignation of President Mubarak, Rashid at the Arabic TV program Daring Question had this interview with a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is now a Christian. Ibrahim's demeanor and speech might correspond with his background as a simple Egyptian villager, but he is an intelligent man with the famous stubbornness and humor of Egypt's fellaheen. What I found interesting from a linguistic point of view is that, as is often the case in similar interviews, he started out speaking his best formal Arabic but quickly lapsed into his rural dialect as he excitedly became immersed in his subject.

As could be expected, Rashid's first question was what Ibrahim thought of recent events in Egypt. "What is happening in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world brings much joy to our hearts," replied Ibrahim. "Egyptians are revolting against political oppression as are other Latin American and non-Arab countries that have lived under oppression. Men and women are standing together for their human dignity, which makes me feel happy and proud as an Egyptian and an Arab. The true meaning of Arabism is when Arabs rise up for their honor and refuse dictatorship and repression. You only get one life. If you live it in freedom, you can truly be said to have lived a life of dignity."

When asked about his background, Ibrahim said he was a simple Egyptian villager surrounded by people struggling to make a living. His education began in the village Kuttab, where he learned to read by memorizing the Quran. "If I could meet today the Shaykh who taught us," said Ibrahim, "I would bow before him and kiss his hands. He taught me to read and write, and how to follow my conscience. He awakened in me the sense of right and wrong, and people rarely leave the life principles they learn as a child."

"I then began elementary school," continued Ibrahim, "Where we learned many  beautiful Ayahs of the Quran that caused us to reflect upon God's creation, such as "In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, and in the ships sailing through the seas carrying cargo beneficial to mankind ....are signs for people of understanding (Quran 2:164)".

Rashid's next question whether his parents were ordinary or fervent Muslims led to Ibrahim's analysis of the word Mutashedid (definitions of this word range from "fervent" to "extreme"). "My parents were not extremists," said Ibrahim, "But actually to be Mutashedid is not a part of the Egyptian personality. The term Islamic extremist is a very fluid expression. We describe people as "extremists" or non-extremists".

"What I meant," interrupted Rashid, "Was your father fervent in the practices of Islam, such as growing his beard but shaving his moustache, wearing Islamic dress, saying the prayers five times a day including the Salat Fajr (dawn prayer), and regularly reading the Quran?"

Ibrahim replied that his parents were not fervent to that extent, but continued with his definition of Mutashedid. "We have limited the word "extremist" to particular Islamic organizations," he said, "But the fact is I can be a moderate Muslim but have attitudes that are extreme. I can simply hear the word Masihi (Christian), and feel a strong negative feeling rise within me. A Masihi? He is Najis (impure) and a Mushrik (unbeliever)! May God protect me from him! A Muslim can be moderate, without a beard and wearing Western clothes, but still have these automatic reactions when he hears the word Christian. He has been raised to believe the best people are Muslim."

"In high school," continued Ibrahim, "I met two young men at the mosque who were extremely polite, well-cultured, and deep thinkers as compared to the general public. They befriended me and invited me to some Quran memorization sessions. I still remember the first Sura we memorized. It was Al Mulk (Dominion) which begins, Blessed is the One in whose hand is dominion, who is able to do all things, who has created life and death to test which of you have the best deeds (Quran 67). Then we memorized Al Maarij (Quran 70), which describes the tortures of hell for all who do not believe in Muhammad.  Surat Ya Sin (Quran 36) was our favorite, because it compares the joys of Paradise with the torment of those who reject Allah's Messenger.

"Did you know then," asked Rashid, "That they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood?"

"I had never heard of the Muslim Brotherhood," replied Ibrahim, "And they made no mention of the organization. It was only when some Sufis began to complain to my father that I had left them to associate with the Muslim Brotherhood that I learned who they were."

"I had gone a few times to Sufi meetings," continued Ibrahim, "Where we sat and practiced Dhikr (repeating aloud the names of God). I thought they were nice people, but shallow in comparison to my Muslim Brotherhood friends. We would sit and repeat again and again the names of God - Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim, Allah al-Rahman ar-Rahim, Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim (God the Compassionate, the Merciful One). I thought, This is fine, but then what? I was also upset that they had gone behind my back to complain to my father."

When Rashid asked if his father was upset with him, Ibrahim replied, "Yes, indeed. He told me not to associate with the Brotherhood anymore, and I told him I would. He then beat me, which made me even more determined. I am very stubborn in everything."

"I can see that," commented Rashid.

"Well," countered Ibrahim, "If you are going to believe in something, then believe in it! I began to read the books of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the 18th century Saudi founder of Wahhabism) and really liked them. People say they are extreme, but they are only interested in going back to the Asl (source) of Islam. They argue that the Salaf (original) is better than Takleed (imitation). Isn't having the original of anything better than having the imitation?"

"So," asked Rashid, "You became more extreme?"

"You can call it Mutashedid," replied Ibrahim, "But I saw it as imitating the Prophet in everything he did. It all depends on how you see things. When I meet someone now who sees things differently than I do, I don't get upset. I realize he sees things from his Zawiah (perspective), which is different than mine"

"My father threatened to disown me if I continued to meet with the Muslim Brothers," continued Ibrahim. "But I did. This was the most severe thing - I couldn't see how my father could threaten to cut me off just because of my association with them."

"Then one of our neighbors, with my father's permission, took all my Salafist books and burned them. This was extremely difficult for me - to this day I feel sad when I think of how he burned those books (comment: like the day my brother burned my Elvis records). That was the greatest crime anyone has ever committed against me. Why? Because you don't end a person's thinking by burning his books. You give people freedom to spread their ideas, and if you don't like them you argue against them. I tell Salafists today I welcome their spreading their ideas. But how can ideas spread if you destroy the books of those who oppose you? At the same time I criticize Salafists who take copies of the New Testament and throw them in the garbage. Brother, accept the humanity of the other, and may he accept your humanity as well."

"But now you are a Christian," noted Rashid, "How did you first become interested in Christianity?"

"Even though I was with the Muslim Brotherhood," replied Ibrahim, "Something about Christianity attracted me from the inside. I would see the cross on churches, the smiles of the Copts, their humility and calm, their lack of shouting and fighting. They were hated and oppressed, but they were kind."

"Is that true of all Copts?" asked Rashid.  "They aren't all like that, are they?"

"I'm talking about the Copts I saw in the villages," replied Ibrahim. "The Copts I knew among the fellaheen were like that. You felt you were with the Christians of the first century. Their quietness and inner beauty attracted me. When I first asked them what in their religion made them like that, they replied, "God is love." I was shocked - the idea that God is love does not exist in the Quran. The teaching about God in the Quran is completely different than that of the New Testament. The entire Injil can be summarized in one phrase - God is love. If you read only that one phrase, you have understood the entire New Testament."

"I wanted to convince Christians of the truth of Islam," continued Ibrahim. "I was eager to spread Islam. I began to correspond with Christians, and send them Islamic books. I wanted to turn Christians into Muslims, and have other Muslims more committed to Islam."

"Wait a minute," interrupted Rashid. "You just said you were attracted to Christians."

"It's not that simple," replied Ibrahim. "It's not black and white. Even though you like them, you feel you have to convert them. Your religion tells you it is the only religion accepted by God (Quran 3:19), and everyone else is condemned. You think, Ya Haram, (Oh my goodness) all those nice people are going to hell. I have to do something."

"I ordered a New Testament through the mail and began to read it to find its mistakes. I listened continuously to Anasheed (hymns) about Muhammad, as well as poems and lectures about him. I myself wrote poetry praising him. Then I began to listen to Christian radio programs and loved to mock them. Look at what they are saying...they say Jesus is the Son of God....hahaha!"

'I began to read the Old Testament as well, and made a list of all the contradictions I found. I soon had a list of 23 questions. I said, If they can answer all these questions to my satisfaction I will become a Christian, but if they can't they need to become Muslim."

"My questions weren't new question," continued Ibrahim. "They were the same questions Muslims have been asking for centuries, such as how could Jacob wrestle with God (Genesis 32:24)? How could a mere human being wrestle with Almighty God?"

"But something unexpected happened. The more I read the Bible, the more I found myself confronted with the personality of Jesus. I felt as if I was in front of an indescribable light. It seemed as if I were reading a living book, with Jesus speaking to me face to face. I realized the purpose of the words I was reading was not merely to give me instruction, but to change my heart."

"Even the great Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi (1869-1932) experienced this," continued Ibrahim. "He wrote in one of his poems,

"Mercy began with the birth of Isa (Jesus),
Isa, your way was mercy, love, perfection and peace to the world,
You did not come to shed blood,
The weak and orphans were not insignificant to you,
You are the bearer of the sufferings of the world,
And yet sufferings are multiplied in your name.
You made the world into one family,
But in your name relationships are severed."

"I faced a great struggle," said Ibrahim. "The person of Jesus attracted me, but I did not want to be a Murtedd (apostate), a Kafir (unbeliever). I realized I had to choose, because the Jesus of the Gospel is much different than the Isa of the Quran. My religion told me that when I prayed with my face on the carpet, I was as close to God as I would ever be. I prayed in that position continuously, "God show me the truth. If it is in Muhammad, show me. If it is in Jesus, show me."

"After a week of intense prayer," continued Ibrahim, "Jesus appeared to me in a dream and said, "I love you" (comment: I commented on another ex-Muslim and his dream here). What shocked me was that this love was his initiative, not mine. Islam tells me what is Halal and what is Haram, what to do and what not to do, but the message of Christianity is, "This is my life and I offer it to you." I woke from the dream with tears on my face. Even today, years later, I consider this dream the turning point in my life."

"I realized I was no longer a Muslim," continued Ibrahim, "But I continued going to the mosque because I did not want people to consider me a Murtedd, an apostate. One day, however, a friend said to me, "What has happened to you? You have changed, and become like one of them." When I asked who was the "them" he was talking about, he replied, "The Christians. Your speech betrays you."

"I began to pray," said Ibrahim, "And it seemed as if God was answering many of my prayers. One person began to give me a really hard time, and I asked God to help me. Soon afterwards, he was transferred to another location. I began to write down my experiences and my answered prayers in a journal I kept in my room. One day someone took my journal, made copies of all I had written, and distributed it all around the village. The next Friday I was beaten up in front of the Mosque. National Security arrested me and tried to persuade me to return to Islam. They showed me the same problems in the Bible as if they thought I was seeing them for the first time. But I remembered the words of my Savior - what is said in darkness will be shouted from the rooftops. Now I am shouting my experience from the rooftop. They lost, but I won."

"So you left Egypt?" asked Rashid.

"I was forced to," replied Ibrahim. "I left Egypt, never to return."

"Was it difficult?"

"Of course it was," said Ibrahim. "A person is torn from his roots. I've discovered that no matter how much I master English, it will never be my language."

Comment: Egypt now stands at a crossroads. No one knows how many people, like Ibrahim, have been forced to leave simply for exercising a freedom of choice that we in the West take for granted. Will Egypt continue to oppress those who decide that Muhammad is not their flavor of choice, or will it continue to practice his 7th century dictate that those born Muslim have no choice but to follow him?

May 21, 2011 - The End of the World As We Know It

In a remote corner of Saudi Arabia a few years ago (referred to here), I met a young Saudi who informed me that every day he listened online to an American preacher named Harold Camping. I was unfamiliar with the name, but did some research and discovered that he believes the end of the world will occur in just a few months, May 21 to be precise. Mr. Camping believes all churches have gone apostate and warns Christians to leave their churches to avoid the upcoming judgment. He encourages them, as could be expected, to follow him.

I hadn't thought much about Mr. Camping and his predictions since then, until I noticed a few trucks driving around town today with his message emblazoned brightly upon their sides. Since Camping is a strict predestinist, meaning God chooses those who he will save and who he will damn, and there isn't a damn thing you can to turn the tables, I'm not sure what anyone could do to avoid this judgement (except perhaps not using the word "damn").

At any rate, I have a proposition for Mr. Camping. I have been looking for a good investment opportunity. I am willing to contribute ten thousand dollars to his ministry - on condition that he pay me back twenty thousand on May 22. If he accepts my offer, I'd even be willing to take out a huge loan and contribute some more. I could retire a millionaire after all!

James Clapper and the Secular Muslim Brotherhood

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper raised eyebrows all over the place the other day when he stated before a House Intelligence Committee that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was a "largely secular organization".

The Arabic word for secular is Almani, and  secularism is Almaniyah. This is anathema to a committed serious Muslim. For a Muslim Brotherhood leader to describe himself as Almani would be like the Pope announcing he was agnostic. Had I been at that Senate hearing, I would have loved to ask Mr. Clapper to name one Muslim Brotherhood leader who has ever publicly stated that he was secular.

As could be expected, conservative columnists are already calling for the DNI to resign. But I think the issue is much broader than one official minimizing the religious element of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a failure across the board throughout our government - Republicans as well as Democrats - to understand the religious motivation of organizations such as the Brotherhood. To interpret the fact that they build schools and stock clinics as meaning they are "secular" is to miss the point completely.

Not many of our government officials are sitting in church Sunday morning. That's not a problem to me; what I find difficult is their conclusion that because religion is not very important to them as secular people, it must not be that important to everyone else. Because they are not religious, they find it difficult to understand the significance religion plays in the lives of others. And that includes every single member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a reason it's not called the Egyptian Secular Brotherhood.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Jesus and Muhammad

"I have read and reread with great interest your Impossible Task thread," wrote a reader recently (that post and the following dozen or so gave reasons I do not think Muhammad was a Prophet from God). It would seem to me plenty of scholars might come up with a similar list about any of the prophets you speak of, including Jesus, that's all."

Actually you don't need to be a scholar to come up with a similar list about Jesus; I could do so in a heartbeat. Here is a baker's dozen, just off the top of my head.

1. Jesus was a narcissist who thought he was God - John 10:30
2. Jesus was suicidal, mesmerized with thoughts of his own death - Matthew 16:21
3. Jesus had dreams of invincibility, convinced he would not remain dead - Mark 8:31
4. Jesus was hallucinatory, imagining armies of angels coming to rescue him - Matthew 26:53
5. Jesus advocated violence, telling his followers to purchase weapons - Luke 22:36 
6. Jesus practiced violence, damaging public property - Matthew 21:12
7. Jesus was racist, calling a Canaanite woman a dog - Matthew 15:22
8. Jesus was misogynistic, calling a Canaanite woman a dog - Matthew 15:26
9. Jesus was gay, with John as his lover - John 21:20
10. Jesus was homophobic, advocating human castration - Matthew 19:12
11. Jesus was sadistic, encouraging his followers to mutilate their own bodies - Matthew 18:8
12. Jesus was sarcastic, describing rabbis of his own faith as vipers - Matthew 12:34
13. Jesus was disrespectful of even his own mother - John 2:4

You can make Jesus into anyone you want him to be, and you can do the same with Muhammad. The question is, where is the truth?

The same reader asked, "Something has been troubling me about your post What I Believe. You wrote that God used Noah in spite of his drunkenness and Lot in spite of his incest. How do you reconcile the fact that God may in fact use people like those, but not Muhammad?"

Another good question that requires a thoughtful response. There are two ways to look at the life of any individual, including Muhammad. One is to choose anecdotes, incidents, quotes, and stories from that individual's life and use them as representative of their entire life. Muslims love to do this with their Prophet. Ask a Muslim about Islam's relationship with the Jews and she will quote a Hadith about Muhammad being nice to a Jewish neighbor who threw trash in his yard. Inquire about Islam and education and listen to a Hadith about seeking knowledge even if you have to go to China. Ask about Islam's relationship to non-Muslims, and hear the Quranic verse "there is no compulsion in religion".

The second and much more important way is to look at the trajectory of the individual's entire life, from birth to death. I believe that Muhammad learned the stories of the Biblical Prophets from his uncle Waraqah bin Naufal, who wanted Muhammad to succeed him as leader of the Ebionite Christian community in Mecca. Muhammad's 25-year marriage to Khadija, a monogamous relationship as far as we know, was performed by Waraqah and was essentially a Christian marriage. Muhammad's call for 13 years in Mecca was not to a new religion, but a return to the monotheistic faith of Abraham, Moses, and David.

Muhammad was ambitious, however, with dreams far greater than leading a flock of poor followers and slaves in Mecca. He began to promise them that if they followed him they would hold the treasures of Caesar and Khosrau, leaders of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires. He understood that the Biblical heroes he longed to emulate were not only religious leaders, but held political and military power as well. After Khadijah and Waraqa died close to the same time, Muhammad migrated to Medina where he had persuaded members of the Khazraj tribe to accept him as leader. Medina was a Jewish majority city, and Muhammad had the naive idea that its Jewish rabbis would accept him as the Prophet he wanted to be. It was only when they rejected him that he changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca and the day of prayer from Saturday to Friday, laying the basis for a new religion.

The rest of Muhammad's life was an unceasing campaign of battles to extend his new empire. He expelled the Jews from Medina, apart from the 900 men and boys he beheaded and whose heads were thrown in trenches. His final act of conquest was to rape the daughter of one of his Jewish opponents in Khaybar the same day he tortured and beheaded her husband Kinana for refusing reveal the location of the family treasures. At the time Sofiya was 17 and Muhammad was 62.

It is possible, of course, that Muhammad was indeed being used mightily by his God. It's just that that isn't a deity I want anything to do with.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tawfik Hamid and Islamic Reform

The War on Terror has made a number of sharp turns as it has lurched forward over the past decade or so. Even the acronym WOT now seems so retro, so Bushie, so yesterday. For a short time it was the War on Extremism, but even that expression carried a negative connotation for some people. Radicalization is the new buzzword and the now defunct War on Terror has become the campaign to counter radicalization.

Professor Quintan Wiktorowicz, discussed here on NPR, is the new radicalization czar at the National Security Council, and his "broad tent" approach will certainly include moderate Muslims such as Tawfik Hamid who is the Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Tawfik recently gave this lecture at the Institute, and also appeared as a guest on the Arabic program Daring Question. His subject on both programs was his plan to deradicalize Muslims by presenting them with a new approach to the Quran. What caught my attention was that none of the attendees in the English lecture, even though they are educated and influential people, knew enough about Islam to counter anything presented by Tawfik. It was quite different in the interview with ex-Muslim Rashid, and I would like to concentrate on Rashid's comments. The material presented by Tawfik was basically the same in both lectures and readers can watch the English lecture to fully understand his perspective. I'll add a few comments at the end.

Rashid began the discussion by asking Tawfik to define moderate Islam. Tawfik said his definition was, "I love you; I don't hate you because you are different than me, and I leave the final judgement to God."

The next question was what it means to reform Islam. Tawfik responded that the relationship of a believer to his religion contains three basic elements. First is the Nuss, the sacred text, second is the Tafsir or interpretation of the text, and final is the thought process of the believer. A radicalized person can take even a peaceful text and reach a violent conclusion based upon his interpretation of that text and the way he thinks.

"We cannot change the original texts," said Tawfiq, "But we can change the way people interpret them by changing the way they think."

"Where does your role come in?" Rashid asked. "Do you begin with the text, or do you teach the radical to interpret the text and think in a new way?"

Tawfik replied that he began with the text itself. The Quran, he said, does not teach Hudud (capital punishment) for Riddah (leaving Islam), and no Ayah commands Rajam for Zina (stoning for adultery). On the contrary, it declares "there is no compulsion in religion"  (Quran 2:256), and "whoever chooses can believe, and whoever chooses can disbelieve" (Quran 18:29). No one has the right, asserted Taufik, to deny anyone the freedom of belief that has been given them by God. By placing our priority on the Nuss of the Quran itself, rather than the Hadith and Sira (sayings and biography of Muhammad), we avoid many problems.

Does this mean, asked Rashid, that you are a Qurani, a "Quran-only Muslim"? (comment: I have discussed this group here). Tawfiq replied he did not follow their ideology because of the Quranic verse "those who listen to the Word and follow that which is good are guided by God and given understanding" (Quran 39:18).

"All truth is the Word," said Tawfik, "Even if it comes in the writings of a Buddhist. I accept what is good in any text. My only criterion is that it not contradict the Quran."

"Does that mean," asked Rashid, "That you accept the peaceful and tolerant Hadith that go along with the Quran, but refuse the violent ones that are not in line with the Quran?"

When Taufik said that was correct, Rashid continued, "Do you reject the saying of Muhammad, "If anyone leaves Islam, kill him."

"I absolutely reject that Hadith," replied Tawfik. "The Quran says that God did not choose to make all people Muslim, and you cannot force anyone to be a Muslim (Quran 10:99). That Hadith contradicts the plain teaching of the Quran."

"But the Ulama," replied Rashid, "Have determined that "if anyone changes his religion, kill him" is an authentic Hadith and its Sanad, or train of transmission, goes directly to Muhammad. It is something that Muhammad said. Even if the scholars agree this is true, do you still refuse it?"

"Of course," replied Tawfik. "I am not refusing anything the Prophet said, but I am suggesting that he did not really say it. There is always room for human error in the Sanad, and just because the scholars agree that Muhammad said something it does not necessarily make it true. The Quran tells us not to think that we are above mistakes (Quran 53:32). The Ulama are great scholars, but they can still make mistakes. I am not denying anything the Prophet actually said, and I am not even questioning the integrity of the Ulama. I am simply stating there is always room for human error."

"But the first Caliphs after Muhammad," countered Rashid, "Were the Sahaba, the companions of the Prophet. They were close to him and received his instructions. They practiced the Hudud for Riddah (capital punishment for leaving Islam). They certainly didn't make this up themselves. They knew that Muhammad said this Hadith, and they carried out his instructions. It sounds to me as if by refusing the Hadith you are saying that Caliph Abu Bakr did not understand, and neither did Caliphs Umar or Uthman or Ali. No one has understood for 1400 years except Dr. Tawfik Hamid!"

"No," replied Tawfik. "I look at it from another perspective. Those generations are gone, with their accomplishments and their mistakes. They have nothing to do with me. On Judgment Day, God is not going to ask me what so-and-so did many years ago. They were not perfect. The Quran says, "Muhammad is no more than a messenger, and there were many messengers before him. If Muhammad dies, will you turn away from him? (Quran 3:144). Who am I to say whether the Sahaba followed him correctly, or turned away from him to use Islam for political purposes? My methodology is to examine the text in front of me, and to understand it irregardless of its traditional and historical context. I set history aside and look at the text as if it were revealed to me just now."

"But that is exactly what the first Muslims did," replied Rashid, "They practiced the Quran as it was revealed to them, with the result that they enforced the punishments of Hudud (capital punishment) including Rajm (stoning)."

Realizing he was on shaky ground, Tawfik quickly shifted direction. "They weren't all the same," he said. "There were always people who disagreed. For example, the poet Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) wrote,

My heart is capable of everything.
It is a pasture for gazelles, and a monastery for monks.
A temple for idols, and the Kabah of the pilgrim.
It holds the scrolls of the Torah, and the text of the Quran.
I follow the caravan of love, wherever it may take me.
Love is my faith and my religion."

"Dr. Hamid," said Rashid. "Ibn Arabi was rejected by the Muslim majority, who considered him a Sufi Kafir (Sufi unbeliever). Sufism is the result of Christian influence on Islam. When you study the Sufi books, you see the deep influence of Christianity. I am not talking about individuals outside the mainstream who were influenced by other ideologies. I am talking about Orthodox Islam. The first four Rightly Guided Caliphs were not ordinary people. They were the successors of the Prophet and they ruled in his name."

Tawfik simply repeated his earlier assertion that no Muslim could justify his actions before God on the Day of Judgment on the basis of what these Sahaba had done, because they were not perfect.

"Let's look at the verses you mentioned," said Rashid, "That say there is no compulsion in religion and everyone has the right to believe as they choose. The Ulama say these verses are Nasikh wal Mansoukh (abrogated). They were revealed in the early Medinan period, soon after Muhammad arrived from Mecca and before he instituted Jihad. Some of these verses were given for extenuating circumstances. For example, Quranic Mufassir (commentator) Ibn Kathir gives the historical context for the phrase "there is no compulsion in religion." The Arab women of Medina had a high infant mortality rate, and would sometimes give their infants to the Jewish woman to raise (comment: The Jewish tribes of Medina followed the dietary and sanitary laws of the Torah and as a result were more healthy than their Arab neighbors). When the Jews of Medina refused to accept Muhammad as a Prophet, he exiled them from the city. The Arab women wanted to bring their children back but Muhammad refused saying, "There is no compulsion in religion; you cannot force your children to return." (comment: rather than being a verse of tolerance, this phrase resulted in the disruption of families). That verse was revealed for a specific situation, but the general rule was to kill those who left Islam."

Dr. Tawfik suddenly looked like a deer caught in the headlights, and it was apparent he did not know the context of the very verse he was quoting. "If you say that verse was revealed for an extenuating circumstance," he said. "You can say the same about the verses of violence. They were also given for specific situations, and are not applicable today."

"Just as others have the right to interpret the Quran as they choose," continued Tawfik, "I have that same right. The Quran testifies that if it were not from God, it would contain many contradictions (Quran 4:82). When there are differences in interpretation we must return to the original text to remove the contradictions. The text does this by saying "there is no compulsion in religion".

"I also do not believe in the principle of Nasikh wal Mansoukh (aprogation)," said Tawfik. "First of all, the Quran says that the Word that comes from God cannot be changed (Quran 50:29). Secondly, the traditionalists say the fighting verses of Medina cancelled out the peaceful verses from Mecca. But the famous phrase "kill the unbelievers wherever you find them" (Quran 9:4) is followed by the verse "if any of the unbelivers ask you for protection, grant it to them so they may hear the Word of God" (Quran 9:6). If the verses of mercy were cancelled out, why would a verse offering mercy immediately follow Quran 9:4?  Even the Medinan suras contain messages of mercy."

"The problem," replied Rashid, "Is that the Quran is not arranged chronologically. The fact that verse 6 follows verse 4 in the text does not necessarily mean they were both revealed at the same time."

When Tawfiq repeated his earlier assertion that he was only concerned with the words of the text and not its historical context, Rashid replied that the trajectory of the entire Quran moved from from the peaceful to the violent. In Mecca, Muhammad tried to gain converts by "preaching that which is better" (Quran 16:125). When he went to Medina he began to fight the Quraysh of Mecca, and by the end of the Quran he was preparing to attack neighbouring countries. The violence followed a pattern of escalation.

"If that were true," replied Tawfik. "Muhammad would have slaughtered the citizens of Mecca when he returned ten years after leaving. Instead it was a peaceful conquest."

"It was not a peaceful return," replied Rashid. "There are many Hadiths that speak of Muhammad's return to Mecca. He was determined to kill his enemies there, and he ordered they be seized even if they were clinging to the Kabah. Why would he kill all the people? He had an army surrounding Mecca of 10,000 soldiers. As soon as he killed the leaders, the city was his."

"The problem," continued Rashid. "Is that Muslim scholars who look at Islam from a historical perspective have evidence for their positions. They have the Hadith and the Sira. You come with just your opinion, and there is nothing historically to support you."

Tawfik responded that those scholars were not always in agreement with each other, and repeated his earlier assertion that if the verses of the Quran were all placed side by side, without bringing in extraneous texts, they would present a peaceful message. He then continued with his reasons for not believing abrogation.

"One of the justifications for the principle of abrogation," he said, "Is the verse that reads "Whenever we Nasikh (abrogate) a verse, we bring a better one (Quran 2:106).  The word Nasikh has two meanings in the Quran. One is to erase, or abrogate. The Quran uses this meaning when it says, "Whenever we give a message to a Messenger, Satan comes and tries to Nasikh (remove) it (Quran 22:52)."

"But there is another definition of Nasikh in the Quran," continued Tawfik, "That means to confirm. The Quran says that on the Day of Judgment the angels will open the books on which they have written down, or confirmed, all our good deeds (Quran 45:29). The verb "to write down" is from the same root as Nasikh.

"If we think of Nasikh as confirmation and not abrogation," said Tawfik. "And apply that to Quran 2:106, it means that the message God gave to Muhammad was a confirmation of earlier messages God gave to Moses and Jesus and all the other Prophets. It is not speaking of abrogating Muhammad's peaceful revelations, but confirming all that was said by the previous Prophets."

"I can appreciate this Tafsir (explanation)," replied Rashid. "But the problem is that you are simply expressing your own opinion. You have nothing to support your exigesis. If we look at Islamic history and all its texts, whether in the Sira or Tafsir or Hadith, we find them in agreement on the principle of Nasikh as abrogation.

"Let's look at alcohol," continued Rashid. "In the beginning Muslims were allowed to drink but commanded to not perform Salat (the prayers) when they were drunk (Quran 4:43). The scholars have explained that Muslims were coming to the Mosque so drunk that when they tried to recite the verse, I do not worship what the unbelievers worship, and they do not worship what I worship (Quran 109:2,3), they got the words all turned around. For that reason the verse was revealed they were not to pray if they were drunk. In a later revelation, Muhammad stated that alcohol was a work of Satan and was to be avoided altogether (Quran 5:90), and this has been applied throughout Muslim history. No scholar would argue today that a Muslim can drink as long as he does not come to the mosque drunk, because that verse was abrogated by the later one forbidding alcohol. The principle of abrogation is an essential part of Muslim theology."

"I completely agree with you, said Tawfik, "That this is the traditional approach. Any child who reads the Hadith and the Sira and the Tafsir will find the principle of Nasikh wal Mansoukh. But even in the verses you mentioned I find a ray of hope. For example, the first verse you quoted said that believers were not to say their prayers when they were intoxicated. Not only alcohol, but some medications and even a lack of sleep can give one a sense of intoxication. So the verse might not have been referring to drinking alcohol, but the intoxication that can result from other things."

Tawfik quickly responded to the look of incredulity he saw come across Rashid's face. "I don't disagree with you," Tawfik said, "Muslim scholars have always looked at that verse in reference to people coming to the Mosque drunk. I'm just saying there could be another way to look at it."

"Dr. Tawfik," responded Rashid, "You are making things up. You are trying to make the text say what you want it to say. Scholars throughout history have made a connection between the revelations given in the Quran and the Sabab al-Nazoul (reasons they were revealed). Do you believe in the Sabab al-Nazoul?"

"No, I don't," replied Tawfik.

Rashid was astonished, "So you want to completely strip the Quran from its historical and cultural context," he asked, "And give it a 21st century meaning as if it were revealed today!"

"I am talking about the meaning of the Quran," Tawfik replied, "I agree with you that Ibn Arabi was persecuted as a Sufi, but his poetry reflects the meaning of the Quran. That is why I said in the beginning I do not rely on the Nuss only, but on a new Tafsir (interpretation) of the Quran."

With this segue Tawfik introduced his second element of deradicalization, a new way of interpreting the Quran, by telling a story from his younger days in Cairo. "I was reading the Quran," he said, "And I came to the verse, "Kill Al Mushrikun (the non-believers) wherever you find them" (Quran 9:5). The verse startled me. Even the thought of harming our Coptic neighbors was impossible to me. I went to a friend who was involved in Islamic Jihad to ask him what the verse meant. He replied that even if we could not kill the Christians now, we were to harbor enmity against them in our hearts for their refusal to accept Muhammad. I could not accept his explanation and went to see a Sufi Imam. His response was simply that we were to love all people and leave the final judgement to God. This was a better answer, but it still seemed as if he were evading the actual text."

"One day I was pouring over the verse," Tawfik continued, "And I realized it was not addressed to Mushrikun in general (an indefinite noun), but to Al Mushrikun (a definite noun). The Quran was not addressing unbelievers in general, but a particular group of unbelievers."

When Rashid asked who the verse was referring to, Tawfik replied it was the Quraysh who had opposed Muhammad in Mecca. He then explained how he used that verse in his work, "If I am speaking to a young radical, I show him this verse and ask him why Allah was angry at those unbelievers. He will reply it was because they persecuted Muhammad and his followers. I will then remind him that at the time the Muslims were the minority, and God was displeased with the Quraysh for mistreating this minority. If you mistreat Christian or Jewish or Buddhist minorities today, God will similarly be angry with you. I turn the verse around, and use it to teach a lesson."

Rashid had a perplexed look on his face at Tawfik's explanation. "In the first place, Al Mushrikun is always used in the Quran to refer to unbelievers everywhere. If the text mentioned the Mushrikun of Quraysh, or the Mushrikun of a certain time, I could accept your interpretation, but it doesn't."

When Taufik defended his argument by quoting that Muhammad "was granted permission to fight those who persecuted him" (Quran 22:39), and that this was a reference to the Quraysh, Rashid noted this was only the first stage of Jihad. In the final stage, Muhammad was ordered to fight unbelievers everywhere "until Allah alone was worshipped" (Quran 2:193).

Rashid then noted that the verse saying Al Yahoud (the Jews) were the strongest enemies of the Muslims (Quran 5:82) was also a definite noun, but Muslims have always interpreted this to mean that Jews in general are enemies of Islam. "If Muhammad would have specified "the Jews of Medina", or "the Jews of Arabia", said Rashid, "I could agree with you. But the Quranic reference is to all Jews."

Taufik responded by repeating his assertion that this reference was only to the Jews of Medina during the time of Muhammad. "How can you hate and insult all the Jews," he asked, "When the Prophet Moses was a Jew, and many of the other prophets mentioned in the Quran were Jews?"

Rashid replied that official Islam excepted the Prophets in its condemnation of the Jews, and then added, "It seems to me that you are an anomaly, a lone wolf in your understanding of Islam. You do not represent official traditional Islam."

"That is true," Taufik responded, "And I am proud of that."

Rashid continued, "To understand how the Ulema have interpreted Islam's relationship to the Jews, we must take it in its historical context. In the beginning Muhammad had no hostility against Christians and Jews, and even sent some of his followers to Ethiopia which was a Christian nation. When Muhammad migrated to Medina he thought the Jews would accept his ideas. It was when he put pressure on them to accept him that the conflict began. At that time, the attitude of the Quran changed towards the Jews and the Christians. It is true there is a verse that says "preach to them nicely", but that verse was from the early Meccan period."

When Taufik countered there were also peaceful verses in the Medinan suras, Rashid replied this was in the first two years of Muhammad's time there, when he was still trying to persuade the Jews to accept him. It was only when they rejected him that he turned against them by changing the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca and the holy day from Saturday to Friday. "But you don't believe any of this," commented Rashid, "You refuse the Hadith and the Sira and the Tafsir and say there are no problems in anything the Quran says."

Taufik reiterated that he did not believe any of the Hadiths that went against his understanding of the Prophet, including Muhammad's marriage to Ayesha when she was nine years old, the benefits of drinking the Prophet's urine, and the need for a woman to nurse adult men if she wanted to be in the room with them.

"That goes against my logic," he said. "How can I believe it?"

"But what are the things you accept?" asked Rashid, "And what are the things that you reject?"

"What I believe in," replied Taufik, "Is freedom of belief. Because the punishment for Riddah is not in the Quran, I reject it completely. I reject stoning for adultery, because that is not in the Quran. I reject the description of Jews as "monkeys and pigs", because that reference was only directed to the Jews of one particular tribe. I reject the choice between accepting Islam or paying the Jizya tax, because the Quran says God does not like aggression. Killing homosexuals is not mentioned in the Quran and I reject it. I reject the idea that Muslims must fight the Jews before the Day of Judgement because that is not in the Quran."

"But Jald (whipping) is clearly mentioned in the Quran," said Rashid, "And so is the amputation of hands. Do you reject that as well?"

"There is another verse," countered Taufik, "That enjoins Muslims to follow the Uruf (Quran 7:199) (comment: English Qurans translate this word as "good", but the Arabic conveys the meaning of the common good or common law). The Uruf in our day is the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention, and we want Muslims to follow this. Even the Caliph Umar suspended amputations for theft during the Year of Poverty, when many Muslims were suffering from hunger. Is anyone going to accuse Umar of Kufr (unbelief)? He did not follow the letter of the law at that time, but adapted the law to the situation."

"The Quran allows men to have four wives," said Rashid. "What is your position on that?"

"When God first created Adam," replied Taufik, "He told him to live with his wife, not wives, in Paradise (Quran 7:19). He created Adam and Eve, not Adam and several wives. For that reason we say God's plan is for men to live with one wife. But when Muhammad lived, polygamy was common. The situation is similar to a man who becomes a Christian in Africa today and has multiple wives. Is he to divorce them, when divorce is not allowed in Christianity? In the same way in Islamic history, there was a time when it was necessary to deal with the problem of polygamy, and Allah allowed men to have more than one wife."

"The example you gave of Africa is different," countered Rashid. "It is one thing for someone to become a Christian when he already has multiple wives, and quite another to tell a man he can marry four. Muhammad did not find men with multiple wives, as the missionaries did, but he told them they could marry four women."

"Let me use this example," replied Taufik, "To move into my third main point, which is to develop a new way of thinking. It is well known that women feel oppressed and mistreated when their husbands take additional wives. The Quran warns that God will severely punish those who oppress others (Quran 25:19). If a Muslim marries a second wife and his first wife feels oppressed, he is in danger of God's punishment. My opinion is that oppression and mistreatment is present in multiple marriages and God hates oppression, so polygamy is not good."

"What about the command to beat disobedient wives?" asked Rashid. "That is a clear command in the Quran (Quran 4:34)."

"First of all," replied Taufik, "There is another verse that commands husbands to treat their wives reasonably (Quran 2:231) (comment: since this is a verse telling husbands how to treat divorced wives, it seems to me Taufik is stretching a little). If the Quran has a general amicable approach for marital relations, the "beating" verse must have another meaning. If a man finds his wife in bed with another man, the Quran orders him not to beat her but to produce four witnesses (Quran 4:15) (comment: Taufik does not mention the second part of this verse, which is that the adulterous woman is to be sentenced to life imprisonment within her house). If a husband does not even have the right to beat a wife he finds in bed with another man, how could he beat her at any other time? I admit, the beating verse presents problems, but there are other ways to look at it."

"Let me be frank with you," asked Rashid. "Is the problem just with the way people interpret the text of the Quran, or is it with the Nuss itself? I am looking at Quran 4:34. It says clearly in classical Arabic, "Beat them."

Taufik repeated his earlier argument that if a man was not allowed to beat a wife in bed with another man, there must be another explanation to Quran 4:34. He suggested that since the verse referred to "women" and not specifically to "wives", it might mean that Muslims at the time of Muhammad were allowed to beat disobedient women in the society, but this did not refer to husbands and their wives.

"I agree with you," said Taufik. "If we take the texts literally there are problems. But we must reinterpret them in light of today. I encourage people to not take the text literally, to not think only in black or white, but to take a deeper approach. The problem in traditional Islam is that every situation is viewed from the perspective of whether it is Halal (allowed) or Haram (forbidden). With polygamy, for example, Muslims have traditionally not questioned it because according to the literal text it is Halal. A Muslim can look at a Christian or a Jew and conclude he is a Kafir bound for Jehenim (hell) based upon the text of the Quran. I want people to look at others from a different perspective."

"Are you trying," asked Rashid, "To establish a new Fiqh (system of Islamic law)? Traditional Fiqh in Islam was built upon a particular way of interpreting the texts. Do you want to do this again?"

Taufik replied he was not necessarily trying to do that, but wanted Muslims to look at their own religion and at non-Muslims in a new and different way.

"But who," asked Rashid, "Will lead this reformation of Islam? Is is you? Al Azhar University? The official organizations of Islam?"

"The leaders of a reformed Islam," replied Taufik, "Do not need to come from Al Azhar University. Although I don't agree with them, the fact is that the most influential Muslims of the past century, men such as Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Sayyid Qutb (a writer who has influenced violent Muslim organizations) did not come from Al Azhar. Current popular preacher Amr Khalid is not from Al Azhar."

"Do you believe," asked Rashid in the final moments of the interview, "That everything Muhammad did was right and he never made a mistake? Do you believe in Usmat Muhammad (the infallability of the Prophet)?"

Taufik replied that Muhammad at times needed to be corrected and guided by God, but that the Prophet always responded to the correction. The Prophet once turned away from a blind man to give his attention to a rich man (Quran 80), but received God's correct guidance and never repeated the same mistake. The Muslim world, he concluded, made a great mistake by concentrating on the externals of Muhammad's behavior such as how he brushed his teeth, washed his hands, or went to the bathroom.


1. I believe that Dr. Taufik Hamid is between a rock and a hard place, and it's not just because his interpretation of Islam differs from that of Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Muhammad has a iron tight grip on Dr. Taufik. As a lifelong believer, he is intellectually incapable of leaving Muhammad behind as Rashid has done. On the other hand, as a upright and moral person, he is unable to accept the Muhammad of history. His solution is to create the Prophet he wishes had existed, the Islam he wants to believe in, and the Quran he wishes were true.

2. Because American policy makers are not themselves scholars of Islam, they rely on people such as Taufik Hamid to teach them about Islam. They rarely realize the extent to which the fanciful information given them differs from the reality of Islam as it exists throughout the world.

3. Taufik's exegesis of Arabic grammar leaves much to be desired. He bases his conclusion that Quran 9:4 refers not to unbelievers in general but only to the unbelievers of Muhammad's day on the fact that the Arabic uses the definite article Al Mushrikun. A grammatical rule of Arabic, however, is that definite nouns are regularly used to express indefinite meaning. To say in Arabic, "I don't like American foreign policy", one says "Ana la uhibb Al siyasah Al Amrikiyah Al Kharijiyah" which is literally "I don't like the American foreign policy." The definite noun is used to express an indefinite meaning.

The reality is that the Quran consistently uses the definite noun to deal with all classes of people. Believers are Al Mumineen, Christians are Al Nasarah, Jews are Al Yahoud, the people of the book (Jews and Christians together) are Ahl Al Kitab, infidels are Al Kuffar, and unbelievers are Al Mushrikun. For Dr. Taufik to argue that the definite article in Quran 9:4 means it refers only to the unbelievers in Mecca is not only bad grammar, but also nothing more than wishful thinking.

4. Dr. Taufik also stated that husbands were not allowed to beat adulterous wives, but commanded to produce four witnesses against them. Apart from the obvious ridiculousness of finding four eyewitnesses of adultery, unless she was sleeping with the entire hockey team, Dr. Taufik ignored the law of Sharia that a husband cannot be prosecuted for murdering a wife who has committed adultery. Taufik's response, of course, would be that even if the entire Muslim Ummah followed this ruling it would mean nothing to him unless he could find it in the Quran.