Category Archives: Modern Muslims

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

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The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria

I just published an opinion piece on Muftah.org entitled “The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria” which begins:

The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned.  As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended.  Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized.  As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.

Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive.  The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.

(Read the article…)

Found: 1918 List of Mosul Religious Buildings

An unnamed Chaldean scribe in the city of Mosul finished a Syriac manuscript (now in the Vatican) on “the middle day” (i.e. 16) of March, 1918, in the closing months of World War I on the Middle Eastern front.  The manuscript was paid for by “the priest Peter Hakim of Amid,” who had presumably fled his home city (now called Diyarbakır) during the massacres a few years before.  There are many Syriac manuscripts copied in the early 20th C, but this manuscript has a difference: after identifying Mosul as the place where the manuscript was copied, the scribe added a list of religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim.  In particular, he lists fifteen churches, four monasteries, and over fifty mosques in and around the city.

In light of the destruction of many religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim, by ISIS in the past two months, I thought it would be interesting to give some of the highlights of the list in my own translation from the Syriac and Garshuni list (which remains unpublished):

Continue reading

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Lost in Space?

Space exploration and Islamic fatwas do not generally occur in the same news article, but a difference of opinion has emerged between Mars One, a Dutch company hoping to fund human colonization of Mars with a reality TV show, and the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE), a government agency for the United Arab Emirates which issues fatawa (sing. fatwa), or pronouncements on the acceptability or unacceptability of something according to Islamic law.  (It is only an added bonus for English speakers that the English acronym for the group opposing the Mars One mission sounds like the name of the Greek goddess of “Earth.”) GAIAE warns that Muslims going on a one-way trip to Mars may be tantamount to suicide, prohibited in Islamic law, while Mars One has responded by appealing to the “rich tradition of exploration” in Islam, and particularly the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta.  It is unusual for companies plotting science-fiction-esque adventures to appeal to medieval authors, so I couldn’t resist observing the conjunction.

The basic question is whether the planned one-way trip is tantamount to suicide.  Mars One is making no plans for the people to return home, so either they will die on the way to Mars or upon landing, or they will live the rest of their days on the surface of the Red Planet, which may be a longer or shorter duration depending on how long the machinery lasts and whether any of their fellow colonists goes berserk in the relative isolation.  But it believes the benefits will outweigh the risks.  The GAIAE cites Qur’anic verses against killing oneself, and expresses the worry that knowingly embarking on a one-way journey which will certainly end in one’s death, probably sooner than if one had stayed on Earth, also runs the risk of falling under the Qur’anic condemnation.  In other words, in this instance the GAIAE is worried to protect Muslims from the hazards of final judgment.

(Digression: Some non-Muslim observers may be surprised to read that suicide is categorically prohibited in Islam, given the news reports of the use of suicide attacks by al-Qa’ida and other Muslim terrorist groups.  In fact, even suicide missions for a good cause are prohibited according to almost all interpretations of Islamic law, a point which shows how far from mainstream Islam the jihadi ideology of al-Qa’ida really is.  Suicide missions became acceptable among the Assassin sect of Shiites in the 11th century, but remained largely absent from Sunni Islam until the 1983 Beirut truck bombing.  Even today, as a recent poll by the Pew Forum showed, the vast majority of Muslims around the world regard suicide attacks as unjustifiable, at least when targeting civilians.)

So where does Ibn Battuta come in?  Mars One’s response to the fatwa from the GAIAE cites the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler as evidence for “the rich culture of travel and exploration of early Islam.”  Moving into medieval Islamic history (and travel accounts such as that of Ibn Battuta in particular) steps into my area of specialist knowledge.  Certainly Islam has an extensive history of travel, in large part driven by the far-flung success of the early conquests and the requirement that each Muslim of possible travel to Mecca as a pilgrim for the Hajj.  It has much less of a tradition of exploration specifically.  Ibn Battuta did make a point to say that he tried to avoid traveling the same road twice, but he himself set out on his journey as a restless twenty-year-old performing Hajj to get away from home.  He also never traveled to a land uninhabited by people (although he passed through uninhabited areas).  He wanted to reach the famed “Land of Darkness” far to the north, where the sun never rises, although he was in fact unable to embark.  (The “Land of Darkness” was also thought to be inhabited.)  And Ibn Battuta’s travels across the width and height of the Islamic world were unique, hardly a “rich culture,” at least of exploration.  The dearth of medieval or modern Muslim explorers venturing “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is, I suspect, less due to a suspicion of exploration, and more due to the fact that Islam developed in the center of the Eurasian-African land mass, with lands inhabited from remotest antiquity all around them.  The fact that most modern explorers were European has to do with Europe’s geographic boundary status (indeed, most explorers came from the fringes of Europe) as well as Europe’s industrialized disposable wealth.

Space colonization would raise other issues for Muslims to figure out, of course, such as how to pray in the direction of Mecca (the present system relies on the surface of a globe) and what to do with the requirement of Hajj where there is no means for travel to the Earth.  I suspect Islamic legal scholars have already tackled that latter question for Muslims stranded somewhere on Earth with no means of travel, which could be generalized, and I have no doubt that they could reach satisfactory answers to the other questions as well.  If we live long enough to see substantial human colonies outside of Earth’s gravity well, it will be interesting to see how these issues develop.

In the meantime, it strikes me that Mars One has made an attempt, but not a very convincing one, to respond respectfully to the GAIAE’s fatwa.  They misunderstand what Ibn Battuta did, and he is the only Muslim “explorer” whom they name; for other examples they turn to Marco Polo (also no “explorer” in the modern sense, but certainly an adventurer and something of a free-lancer), and then modern American astronauts.  The response also quotes the Qur’an apart from the tradition (sunna) of interpretation, as if anyone can quote it and claim its meaning for themselves.  While some conservative Protestant Christians believe that Bible should be read and quoted with just its simple words, Muslim legal scholars always interpret the Qur’an in light of the long commentary tradition (tafsir) on each verse.  (I also don’t see how this particularly Qur’anic verse, which says simply that the creation of the sky and the ground is one of God’s signs, “encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation” – emphasis mine.  It’s more the fact of creation, visible from anywhere, which is the single sign.  When the Qur’an encourages Muslims to do something, it uses a verb, typically in the imperative, like every other medieval text.)  I doubt the GAIAE will be persuaded by this response, although they may take up the invitation to review the plans more closely.  For now, the disagreement remains whether a one-way journey away from Earth, certainly ending in death before returning home, but perhaps (if they did everything correctly and everything lines up well) only after a number of years living in a new abode on a new planet, is morally equivalent to suicide.

A Middle Eastern Perspective on Evangelii Gaudium

Today I read a commentary by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir on the sections regarding Islam in Pope Francis‘s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium from last November.  Fr. Samir is a well-regarded scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic Studies, as well as a Jesuit from Egypt.  As usual, I do not agree with everything he says about Islam, but he does have more experience than most people in actual inter-religious dialogue.  It is necessary to warn that the summary at the top just under the title significantly skews the balance of Fr. Samir’s remarks as a whole, so do not judge the whole based solely on the abstract.  I link to the article here as a thought-provoking perspective.

Needed: Egyptian Definition of Freedom

Yesterday’s ouster of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi was greeted by jubilant crowds celebrating in Cairo’s Tahrir (or “Liberation”) Square.  It was also greeted by tears from Mursi’s supporters staging a sit-in around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية).  It was described as a military coup by members of the deposed government, while international heads of state such as US president Barack Obama were hesitant to call it a coup, due to the political ramifications.

So the question is: is the ouster of Muhammad Morsi a return to the dark days of undemocratic military rule under Hosni Mubarak, as Morsi’s supporters allege?  Or is it the renewal of the stalled 2011 revolution by the removal of Morsi the “mini-Mubarak”, as his opponents claim?  Is the intervention of the Egyptian army to depose the elected president in response to massive public protests a step forward for freedom, or a step back?

This question, like so many questions that matter, is difficult to answer not only because the future is unknown, but also because the question is poorly framed.  As it stands, this question presumes that freedom is a thing which can be possessed or lost, or perhaps a substance which one can have more of less of.  But freedom is neither, nor is it an agreed-upon concept, but rather notions of freedom vary widely.  Even leaving aside Janis Joplin‘s dictum, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” the situation in Egypt throws into sharp relief how one person’s freedom is another person’s tyranny.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (such as ex-president Mursi) want to be free to enact laws in accordance with the system of government which they have constructed with the mandate, such as it is, of the 13 million voters who voted for Mursi over his opponent Ahmad Shafiq in the run-off election in June 2012.  Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood want to be free from the sorts of laws enacted by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.  At its most basic form, freedom is always freedom from something or freedom to do something (although it is often, more perniciously, freedom for someone to do what they want at the expense of someone else).

These desired freedoms in Egypt are not compatible, any more than the clash between the French government (founded upon the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité“) banning the hijab in public schools in the name of freedom of religion, while some French Muslims desire freedom of religion to be able to wear the hijab.  Similarly, at the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, Ataturk’s notion of freedom of religion in a secular state involved closing the madrasas which train Islamic religious scholars, while some Turkish (and Kurdish) imams still desire the freedom to attend a madrasa in their own country.  The Turkish military staged repeated coups to bring down governments considered too Islamic, although the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have sufficiently curtailed the power of the military through his earlier purges of senior generals on charges of plotting a coup.  This is not a problem facing only Islamic society, but a challenge facing all human society: my getting what I wish (my freedom) may prevent or hinder you from getting what you wish (your freedom).  In the crass terms of the old saying, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.”  Nobody’s freedom is complete freedom, and all freedom in actual societies restricts the freedom of other people.

Indeed, some people attack others in the name of exercising their personal sense of freedom.  One aspect of both the 2011 and 2013 popular demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo which is only now receiving increased news is the spike of sexual violence in the unstable situations of the protests.  Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN a thoughtful opinion piece which argues that the increasing numbers of rapes on Tahrir Square are a political message telling women that they have no place in Egyptian politics.  (A small quibble: I accept the feminist critique of the old view that rapes are about excess lust; feminists instead pointed out how rapes are about power.  But I doubt the rapists on Tahrir Square are self-consciously using rape as an articulated political tool to send a conscious message.  Instead, a culture which encourages sexual harassment of women in public mixes with the heady optimism of successfully ousting the president, leading some men to feel empowered to take whatever they want with impunity, even to the point of raping women.)  As Burleigh points out, rapes in the atmosphere of the demonstrations are not merely “an unfortunate byproduct of mob violence,” but a pervasive and culturally condoned crime for which the victim is falsely blamed while the perpetrators go free.  But if I analyze the causes subtly differently than Burleigh, the take-home message for many Egyptian women is certainly the same: the freedom of Tahrir Square may be an exclusively male freedom, which comes at great cost to certain women.

So if freedom is not a thing to be had or not had, nor simply a quantity to be increased or decreased, what is it?  It is a set of societally and culturally defined parameters by which the society regulates those aspects of individual life which are explicitly allowed to vary.  It is, as it were, the regulation on the regulations.  Egyptians need to work out what sort of freedom Egyptian freedom will be.

In that regard, it is telling that when Egyptian defense minister ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi read the army’s statement announcing that President Mursi was deposed on national television, among the people shown by the camera as seated beside him were former director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the Coptic pope Tawadros II.  This image of al-Sisi with the seated leaders of Egyptian society sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will be welcoming of secularists and of Christians.  The placing of Mursi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders into “political isolation” (an odd euphemism for military arrest) sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will not be welcoming to Brotherhood-brand Islamist policies.  The lack of any women depicted in the video of al-Sisi reading the army’s statement (here in Arabic) was hardly a surprise, but itself reinforces the possibility that free Egyptian society may be a man’s world.  The individuals depicted in that video, broadcast alive across the country and onto big screens in Tahrir Square, is no accident: the army has taken a stand on what free Egyptian society should look like, who should be excluded and who included, and who should stand at the podium speaking for all Egypt (namely the defense minister al-Sisi himself).  It remains to be seen whether Egyptians accept the army’s definition of Egyptian freedom, or rather which Egyptians accept it and to what degree.