American Muslims and the Challenge of Geography

The following is a segment from Dr. Sherman Jackson’s On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam. I find this passage to be worthy of required reading status.

“As Islam moved out of its isolation in Arabia to settle among the inhabitants if the world of Late Antiquity, where geography, history, and tradition had endowed different individuals and communities with more fundamentally different ways and approaches to thinking. These different endowments would lead in turn to different attitudes towards and approaches to theology. This was the beginning and most important source of theological discord in Islam, a full appreciation of which has only been obscured by the Muslim theologians’ rhetoric of transcendence.

Yet, the typical Western approach, which prides itself on its ability to see through the claims and attributions of the Muslim theologians, has not faired much better. Rather, it too has tended to impede rather than promote understanding of the impact of these differential historical endowments.

It is common knowledge that the influence of Christian theology, the Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean traditions, and Indian and especially Greek philosophy on Muslim theological discourse was both fundamental and enduring1. Traditionally, however, Western scholars have portrayed this influence as an instance as an instance of cross-civilizational borrowing. At the same time, Muslims are said to have denied or played down this influence, based on their ideological commitment to the premise that ‘Islam is self-sufficient and that in Qur’an and Hadith it contains in essentials all the religious and moral truth required by all humanity to the end of time.’2 Under ordinary circumstances, fear of self-incrimination might pre-empt any reaction to such a view. But such depictions mask an important point that bears directly on our understanding of the nature and causes of theological discord—and thus the requirements and possibilities of theological tolerance—in Islam. Simply stated, the notion of Muslim ‘borrowing’ is based on an artificial bifurcation of the world of Late Antiquity and early Islam into Greek and Persian (alien), on the one hand, and Arab-Muslim (native), on the other, followed by the assumption that any elements of the former found among the latter must be the result of cross-civilizational borrowing. This picture becomes a bit more complicated, however, when we consider that the overwhelming majority of the early Muslims—as well as those who would become Arabs—had theretofore been ‘Greeks,’ Mazdakites, Manichaeans, Christians, and Zoroastrians. R. Bulliet goes a long way in confirming this in his book Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, and it si being pointed out with increasing frequency and clarity by historians of Late Antiquity, e.g., P. Brown, G.W. Bowersock, and O. Grabar in their recent edited volume, Late Antiquity. In fact, in that same volume, the Islamic historian Hugh Kennedy writes:

Of all the dividing lines set up between academic disciplines in the western intellectual tradition, the frontier between classical and Islamic Studies has proved among the most durable and impenetrable…[W]hereas late antiquity can be seen as part of the broader history of western civilization, the history of the Islamic world cannot. Yet reflection will soon suggest that the changes cannot have been so sudden and dramatic, especially at the level of the structures of everyday life, and that the Islamic was as much, and as little, a continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom.”

If American Muslims are to understand where they are headed, it is essential that our educational efforts work towards empowering, demystifying and in particular for those Muslims who’ve hailed from the historical Muslim world, heal the trauma of their post-colonial experiences, so that we may move beyond many of these blockades, externally and self-imposed.

References

  1. M. Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy. 1970.
  2. W.M. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Elsewhere Watt points out, incidentally, that this insistence on self-sufficiency in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary was also characteristic of medieval and early modern Christianity, which downplayed its debt to Islam and exaggerated its dependence on ancient Greece and Rome.

Spiritual Remedies with the Drexel MSA Week 2

A note on texts and “tradition”:

“When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.” — John Dewey, from Art As Experience.

A reminder on what this course is about:

إنما يعرف فضل الشيء بثمرته

“The excellence of a thing is known by its fruit.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

What are desires/Hawa?:

الهوى ميل الطبع إلى ما يلائمه ولا يذّم هذا المقدار إذا كان المطلوب مباحا

“Passions are the inclination of one’s natural character or disposition to whatever pleases it, and should not be vilified in as much as what is being sought is permissible.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

وإنما يذم الإفراط فيه, فمن أطلق الهوى فلأن الغالب فيه ما لا يحل أو يتأول المباح بإفراطه

“However, that being said, passions should be disparaged when one is excessive in following desires. Things being what they are, when passions are criticized, it is either because the object or action is impermissible, or because people often interpret lawful means to excessive (unlawful) ends.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Virtues and Components of the Mind:

واعلم أن النفس منها جزاء عقلي فضيلته الحكمة

“Know that part of your soul possesses the virtue for wisdom.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

ورذيلته الجهل

“And likewise possesses the capacity for ignorance.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Are you ever amazed at yourself, both in your capacity of good and bad, for intelligence and stupidity, for morality and depravity? Ibn al-Jawzi points to what God has said in Surah al-Shams:

ونفس وما سوها فألهمها فجورها وتقوها قد أفلح من زكها وخاب من دسها

“And (swearing) by the soul, which He made balanced: He inspired its depravity and its morality. The one who succeeds is the one who purifies it and the one who fails is the one who covers it up.” – Qur’an, 91: 7-10.

Interestingly enough, the verb dassa/دسّ can mean to cover up but it can also mean to poison something (دسّ السمّ لفلان).

وجزء غضبي فضيلته الحدة

“Another aspect is anger, of whose virtue is keenness.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

For “al-hiddah”, we see the meanings of keenness, sharpness, but also of fury and irascibility.

ورذيلته الجُبن

“And its depraved attribute is cowardice.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

وجزء شهواني فضيلته العفة

“And to that part which is lustful, its virtue is chastity.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

ورذيلته إطلاق الهوى

“And its depraved attribute is unbridled passion.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

فالصبر عن الرذائل فضيلة للنفس, بها يحتمل الإنسان الخير والشر

“And its depraved attribute is unbridled passion.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

A note on “sabr”:

Sabr is commonly translated as “patience.” And while it certainly includes that component, the verb sa-ba-ra encompasses much more than that. Like many verbs, its meaning is reflective of its circumstance: To tie, to fetter, to shackle; to put up with. It also conveys the meaning to withstand something which you have no power to remove. In the Muslim context, it also means to show and express praise (hamd) and gratitude (shukr) in trials and adversity.

وَإِذْ قُلْتُمْ يَا مُوسَىٰ لَنْ نَصْبِرَ عَلَىٰ طَعَامٍ وَاحِدٍ فَادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُخْرِجْ لَنَا مِمَّا تُنْبِتُ الْأَرْضُ مِنْ بَقْلِهَا

“And when you said, ‘Moses, we will not be tied down to just one kind of food so ask your Lord to supply to us some of what the earth produces – its green vegetables’…” – Qur’an, 2: 61.

أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ اشْتَرَوُا الضَّلَالَةَ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَالْعَذَابَ بِالْمَغْفِرَةِ ۚ فَمَا أَصْبَرَهُمْ عَلَى النَّارِ

“Those are the ones who have sold guidance for misguidance and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they will endure (or shackled to) the Fire!” – Qur’an, 2: 175.

وَلَمَّا بَرَزُوا لِجَالُوتَ وَجُنُودِهِ قَالُوا رَبَّنَا أَفْرِغْ عَلَيْنَا صَبْرًا وَثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَنَا وَانْصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

“When they came out against Saul and his troops, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour down steadfastness upon us, and make our feet firm, and help us against this kafir people’.” – Qur’an, 2: 250.

This last verse shows that sabr is something real and not simply an abstract notion, as God is asked to “pour” steadfastsness on to them.

A note on “habituation”:

  • Habit – the habits we have and the habits we’d like to form.
  • What affects the formation of our habits, in both positive and negative ways? What about the impact of technology?
  • “We become habituated to what we have and eventually not so interested, and soon dissatisfied, once again.” Bruno Cayoun, Mindfulness-Integrated CBT.
  • Piety can be habituated. Sin can be habituated as well.

Other Readings

  • The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
  • The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
  • Mindfulness-Integrated CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) by Bruno Cayoun.

Spiritual Remedies with the Drexel MSA Week 1

A note on texts and “tradition”:

“When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.” — John Dewey, from Art As Experience.

A note on “spirituality”:

وما تقرب إليّ عبدي بشيء أحبّ إليّ مما افترضْت عليه

“My slave does not draw closer to me with anything more beloved than by what I have made obligatory upon him.” – al-Bukhari.

Raison d’être:

وهذا الكتاب موضوع لاستعمال قانون الصواب من خلال الباطن وكفّ كفّ الهوى عن المؤذى منها وعلاج ما خرج لموافقة الشهوة عن القانون الصحيح

“The purpose of this book is to put to work the law of good sense through the channels of the heart and mind so as to constrain unbridled passions from causing harm as well as to treat habitual actions of passions which contradict sound law.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Introduction:

اعلم أن جميع ما وضع في الآدمي إنما وضع لمصلحته إما لاجتلاب نفع كشهوة المطعم أو لدفع ضر كالغضب

“Know that the entirety of what God has allotted mankind is for his benefit; either the acquisition of some benefit, such as the desire for food, or the warding off of harm, such as the capacity for rage.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

 A note on “destroying the nafs:

Desire itself is not the enemy here, and thus “killing your desires,” or “killing your ego,” is not only not the goal of all of this, but most certainly unobtainable. Many of these phrases have come from Greek sources (philosophy, logic) and have crept their way into the Muslim discourse on tazkiyyah, or self-purification, without being asked to “show their papers.”

Continuing:

فإذا زادت شهوة المطعم صارت شرها فآذت

“However, if one’s appetite for food should increase unchecked it becomes gluttony, and thus harmful.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

 Similarly, Ibn al-Jawzi adds:

وإذا زاد الغضب أخرج إلى الفساد

“And if anger is increased it will manifest as perversion.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

A reminder on what this course is about:

إنما يعرف فضل الشيء بثمرته

“The excellence of thing is known by its fruit.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Part of all this is to train one’s “nafs” like one would train one’s reflexes or impulses so that they become instinctive. So much of sin is wrapped up in our impulses yet we as a faith community seldom talk about, one, the need for impulse control, and two, practical and behavioral methods by which the average Yusuf and Mariam might implement them.

One of the goals of tazkiyyah is to train your “nafs” to “feel the right action” instead of either being overwhelmed by troubling scenarios or reacting to every difficult encounter with a set of Sahih al-Bukhari.

Part One – The ‘Aql:

(يعني العقل) يترك العاجل للآلج, وبه فضل الآدمي على جميع الحيوان الذي فقده

“(The mind) taught enabled man to relinquish this hasty life for The Next (to where you will tarry). For this reason, man has superseded all of the animals, who have been deprived of having it.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

What are desires/Hawa?:

الهوى ميل الطبع إلى ما يلائمه ولا يذّم هذا المقدار إذا كان المطلوب مباحا, وإنما يذم الإفراط فيه, فمن أطلق الهوى فلأن الغالب فيه ما لا يحل أو يتأول المباح بإفراطه

“Passions/Hawa are the inclination of one’s natural character or disposition to whatever pleases it and should not be condemned in as much as what is sought is permissible. However, it should be disparaged when one is excessive in following desires. That being said, when passions are criticized altogether, it is because either the object or action is impermissible, or because people often interpret lawful means to excessive ends.” – Ibn al-Jawzi.

Stay tuned for Week Two’s notes.

Religion and Secularism: A Conversation with Robert Bellah

The following are a series of Youtube videos which feature famed sociologist Robert Bellah in conversation with Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of global and international studies as well as sociology and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In it, professor Bellah provides an number of worthwhile insights on the topics of secularism, religion, public space and more.

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