The Sacred

Today’s world is a cynical world. How often do we see the deepest, the most egregious problems dealt with a cynical hand? I heard once from a modern scholar that the only people in today’s society that have the power to critique are the comedians. But they loose their impact because they trivialize the issue by making a jest of it (whether or not that make a jest of it).

I recently gave a talk at Rutgers University, to a group of students who were taking a class on spiritual autobiography. Like many people I’ve talked to this year in regards to Islam, “why did the Muslims react the way in which they did towards the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad” has been been one of the more popular questions. My answer has been long coming to me – but the answer I gave that day and the one I’ll give again today is because of The Sacred. I will outline what I mean by sacred so that one will not conflate my words to mean that I condone actions of violence. I most certainly do not. But in an effort to break away from the certain perspectives (Orientalist, Islamophobes…) that these violent reactions are a result of the Eastern Mind or something inherent in Islam and instead, people’s (misguided, and I’ll get to that as well) frustrations towards The Sacred being violated. For many people who had issue with the cartoons (myself included), we were told that Freedom of Speech trumped our concepts of The Sacred. Being able to say whatever comes to one’s mind supersedes that of moral, ethical and public judgment. With this reckless abandonment of wisdom as a system, then there will always be people who will lash out (hopefully in a proverbial way) against having that which they hold as Sacred, trampled underneath someone else’s belief system. The final part of this short essay is the re-examination of what is and isn’t Sacred for Muslims, or if I may be so bold, what aught to be Sacred and the re-prioritization of The Sacred for Muslims based on what the Prophet and his companions held as Sacred, as a guide for Muslims living in this “Western” part of the world.

Before we can clear the deck for me to leap into this topic I’d like to clarify a few short topics. In a recent interview I was quoted as being a “progressive Muslim”. In today’s world of headlines and sound-bites, one little word, one little phrase can pigeonhole a person. To state it for the record, I never used this word “progressive” to describe myself or any of my ideologies. Islam in the 20th century has a seen a vast array of movements: Reformists. Traditionalists. Jihadists. And yes, Progressives. While it is not the focus of this post to target any of those groups or to even say that they are not legitimate, I will say that I am not a reformist, a traditionalist, a jihadist or a progressive. Now that isn’t to say that I may not share specific sentiments with some of these groups but I do not want my labeling as a Progressive to be conflated as consensual.

The most sacred thing for Muslims is God. That is a simple fact. And it is not just simply that there is a god but that there is no god except God (La ilaha illallah). This simple phrase, known as the Testimony of Faith (al-Shahadah) is the foundation of Muslim theology and belief. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the key aspects of his mission was to reintroduce Monotheism back to the world. The majority of the Arabs living in the Arabian peninsula during the time of the Prophet had slipped into idol worship, despite many of them being descendants of great prophets of God themselves (Abraham, Jonah, Shu’aib to name a few). The center of interest in Makkah was the Ka’bah, the house that Abraham built as a place of worship. And while the Qur’an was revealed throughout the 23 years of the Prophet’s stay in Arabia, it dealt theologically with Sacred Ideologies, chief amongst them was not ascribing partners or association with God. God admonishes those that say God is three or that Jesus the son of Mary, the Messiah, is God himself [Q 5: 72-75]. I state this here not polemically – that is not the point of my argument. But rather to reinforce what is sacred to Muslims. God is the most sacred – one of God’s names is al-Quddus, or The Holy or The Sacred. So with this understanding, why is it that Muslims aren’t jumping off at every Christian for wearing a cross on their necks or building churches that have Jesus on the cross, worshipped as God or the son of God? Because of another sacred source for Muslims – the Sunnah.

That the Prophet Muhammad is sacred for Muslims goes without saying. His life is a holy example for all Muslims in terms of morals, permissible actions and so forth. Many rulings for Shari’ah or Islamic Law, comes from his life. But if we were to examine the Prophet’s life and look at what he considered sacred, would it coincide with what Muslims hold as sacred?

To take the example from above, referring to Christians and their theological stance that they proclaim Jesus the son of Mary is the Son of God, this would contradict the teachings that the Prophet was preaching. And yet, while going against the grain of God’s theological bounds, the Prophet never proclaimed the life of the Christians forfeit. No churches were burned down on his order. No representatives of Christianity were assassinated. To take it a step further, the pagans were not indiscriminately slaughtered. Their idols were not even allowed to be desecrated. Why? Because the Prophet knew that Jesus was holy, sacred to the Christians even while he believed it wrong! The pagan Arabs (who, on a scale, ranked much lower than Jews or Christians because they were people who had received Divine Revelation) were still treated with respect and treaties were signed with them. If Muslims would but take the time to study their own “traditions”, we might see that that which we hold as sacred and that which the Prophet held as sacred are not one and the same. And further, even when something this is sacred to us is violated, are actions are woefully unacceptable.

Our modern age is one of false universals and failed utopian ideologies. And while the Muslims are not alone in perpetuating such rhetoric, ironically, they are just as guilty as their Western counterparts which they blame of the same crime. Often wrapped in the guise of “tradition”, this one-size fits all mentality has and is causing grave harm to Muslim communities across the globe and I have personally seen its insidious affects in my 14-year career as a Muslim. For those who call for an Islamic state to be raised in America I say that you would have to obtain the rights from Roberta Flack for its national anthem, for surely this is “killing us softly”.

So what are some other things that the Prophet held as sacred? Human life would most certainly rank high on his list. Caring for the poor. Visiting the sick and caring for the old. As Muslims, where do these categories rank on our lists? This is where Muslims fail in my opinion. As a group that believes it should uphold high moral standards, how are we caring for the poor? How many Muslim organizations have we developed that care for old and sick people in our neighborhoods, regardless of race, creed or religion? How many Muslim organizations have we built that care for the poor? Are we involved in urban development? Big brother, big sister organizations? I’m sure I will receive many emails confirming that we do partake in such actions. And while there may be a few why are they absent from the public spot light?

As it stands now, Muslims are not known as a group that participate in the greater society (and yet we want people to sympathize with us when we have problems). At a recent meeting between myself and other fellow bloggers, astonishment would be the word that would best describe the reactions of others when they found out that I was a Muslim and that I desired to participate in society. This is not a PR statement for myself but rather a reflection on the status of Muslims in society. If Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man today he’d have to re-title it Invisible People.

So in the end I believe we as Muslims are in need of a serious revamping of what is and isn’t Sacred to us. We need to seriously reevaluate what is important to us and what isn’t. The military developed a term called triage – we need to stop the bleeding and then reexamine what we’re about. I believe this reexamination starts with the basics – Qur’an and Sunnah. It may surprise you that I would choose such a sloganized answer but none the less, I do believe the answer lies there in. By Qur’an, I mean we should actually spend time reading it. Many of us do not. We rely on regurgitated quotes from people who have little formal training and short intellects. The Sunnah of the Prophet is also do for a serious reexamination. What did he say? What did he do? How was he both simultaneously stern and flexible? How could he proclaim no god but God and yet make concessions with idolators? Muhammad was a complex man – revisiting his life and his prophethood will no doubt turn up many unknown gems for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This is a topic which deserves deeper introspection – an introspection that cannot fully be dealt with in a small post as it is here. Rather, it is my hope that we may ponder this questions, these situations and feel moved to do something about it. And in the words of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, “Allah and His Messenger know best”.

Apology Theory – The Cycle of Inferiority

You know, it’s tempting to give in to the various conspiracy theories out there. I mean, when you look at events that are unfolding before us these days, it really seems as if this is so scripted, so purposeful, that it’s just gotta be a conspiracy.

I’m gonna warn you right now – this post may ramble a bit, but, like any chase worth the take, just try and stay with me.

I was leaving class yesterday evening when I picked up a copy of the Financial Times and on its cover was a picture of Iranian Muslims signing up to volunteer themselves as suicide bombers in the event of a U.S. or U.K. attack. My first reaction is, “God damn. Here we go.” Is this for real? It’s as if we’re caught in some really bad Apocalyptic, Orwellian B-movie countdown sequence. The U.S. continually threatens Iran; Iran makes these insane, chest thumping reactions which seamlessly seem to fit and play into the rhetoric of the Islamophobes here in the West. [Ding]. That’s where the light goes on that says, “Don’t let ’em fool you, brother, it’s a conspiracy.” Conspiracy? How, you may ask. Well, am I the only one that wonders how does some one like Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, come into power and precisely at the right moment? It’s as if someone in either the White House or some D.C. think tank said, “Enter stage left, Mr. Ahmadinejad.” I feel that if I look close enough, I can see the markers on the ground so he doesn’t step out of focus for the camera man. The Greeks couldn’t have written a better Comedy/Tragedy (well, yes, actually, they could have). But on a serious note, this is disturbing and I will try to illustrate why I think so.

Islam is on the defense. There can be no doubt about this. Muslim scholars and intellectuals have been in a virtual horse race since 9/11 to preach an almost Ghandi-like message to the world that Islam is “a religion of peace”. “Islam means peace”. “Muslims are peaceful people and the vast majority simply want to live out their lives in a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, be the Christians, Jews, or other”. And while this may certainly be the case for large numbers of Muslims here in the West and across the world, there are consequences for this rhetoric. I will try to lay out a few in the following paragraphs.

To begin, I am not trying to ignite a debate on the “meaning of Islam”. To be reductionist if I may, Islam means many different things to many different people – and many of these people (present company included) may indeed be entitled to their interpretations. So for the sake of this post, I will accept a person’s definition that Islam is a religion of peace. What I’d like to do is examine the potential externalities of such an outlook. For more information on permissibility in Islam, I highly recommend Dr. Sherman Jackson’s article, From Prophetic Actions To Constitutional Theory.

If one says that Islam is a religion of peace, then this would, to many people, mean that the objective of the religion is to establish peace versus peace being a side effect of the practice of Islam. We must also look at when such slogans are used. While I do not proclaim to be a historical scholar in any fashion, when Islam did exist in a state of peace with its neighbors (say, Muslim Spain for example – I am simplifying for the sake of argument) there are not any identifiable records that Muslims went around to their Jewish and Christian neighbors and said, “Islam is a religion of peace”. The fact was that for the most part during that epoch of when Muslims ruled Spain, Muslim, Jew and Christian coexisted without significant strife until much later (the Inquisition and expulsion of Muslims). So my question and counter argument is that if Islam’s mission statement, as it were, was that of a religion of peace, why did we not see or hear it then?

Well, we are most certainly hearing it now. And I believe that it is out of a reaction to specific events in modernity and because of generalized events in history that Muslims feel that Islam is peaceful, that Muslims wish to live in peace and that the rug has been yanked out from many of us and all we wanna do is set the rug back in place. The only problem with trying to put the rug back in place is that the place in which it used to fit has changed in shape and dimension. Perhaps the rug no longer belongs there or we’re told that it no longer belongs there.

Like other peoples throughout history, Muslims now suffer at their (our/mine) own ignorance. Muslims have become emotionally reactionary and anti-intellectual despite long traditions that would counter the latter. So how do Muslims justify sloganizing Islam as a religion of peace and perhaps more importantly, what happens when one gets his foot caught in the bear trap of apology? The Muslims, like any good animal caught in such a trap, must do one of two things: moan horribly about one’s wound until infection and disease bring about a painful death. Or bite off the crippling limb to escape the confines and inevitable death of the trap (a potential third option is to wait for someone to come along and free you, indebting them to you; some would say this is the current situation – you decide). As it stands currently, gangrene is setting in. But while the disease threatens to lay the animal low, a small contingent seeks to triage the caught limb and apply a tourniquet in preparation for amputation.

Apology in the modern sense (not in the classic Greek sense) is a defensive position. And once one starts apologizing, it is hard to gain back ground – to regain respect, because one will inevitably be seen as inferior to the one whom you attempt to apologize. It also has the potential to be cyclical – once it starts it’s hard to stop. In my humble opinion, if Muslims are to regain footing in the public arena, they (we) must stop apologizing for the misgivings of small minorities that have been given undue authority to speak for the Muslims as a whole. And devil’s in the details. No other religious majority group in the West (i.e., Christians and Jews) are taken to task when extremist minority groups decide to act upon interpretations they come to (which their majority co-religionists do not share) and do something that is considered abominable (many groups come to mind here: the IRA, the Basque separatists, and Israeli settlers come to mind). Neither British Protestants, Irish Catholics, Spanish separatists or Israelis would call these other groups “extremists” because of the actions of a few Irish, British, Spanish or Israeli participants. And yet, when a group of Muslims acts on their own, all Muslims are communally held responsible for their actions and therefore can even be held legally responsible, vis-a-vie Guantanamo Bay. Muslims, regardless of their lack of affiliation with any known terror groups, are being held in detention, without rights or access to due legal process, simply because they’re Muslim (the travesty continues that many of the Muslims in Guantanamo have been proven innocent but have yet to be released as in the case of two Chinese Muslims that were acquitted of any involvement in terrorist activities and yet remain detained permanently).

I had mentioned that the practice of apology by the Muslims has engendered the perception of inferiority. This is especially true in our modern context. Recent polls have shown us that roughly 50% of Americans have a negative view of Islam, post 9/11. Talk radio and entertainment news shows (not by any means true or accurate) consistently mock Muslims and Islamic traditions. The satirical caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) could well be used as further proof that Islam suffers from an inferiority complex (as well as the reactions of Muslims to the cartoons) in the public arena.

The way that I see an apologetic stance driving an inferiority complex is simple (for the sake of this post): parties that are indentured or indebted to another are put in a stance of inferiority. This debt allows the superior party to not only subjugate the former but it leaves the potential for the latter to remake or re-determine the former’s worth and value. Such is the case with Islam in the West. By being put on the defense (I believe this is in effort to seek peer-level recognition from their Christian, Jewish or non-Muslim Western counterparts), Muslims are subjected to ridicule they would normally not have to accept. But precisely because they are open to apology, non-Muslim thought process is allowed to come in the fold and out of context, dissect, examine, ridicule or even condemn Muslims on theological, secular and humanitarian levels. Classic examples that come to mind of this is that “Islam is an evil religion”. “Islam seeks to dominate the entire world and subject all non-Muslims to horrific, blasphemous deaths”. “Islam is a system and modality of oppression, especially for women.” All of these should sound familiar. It is my belief that these criticisms come partly from the Muslims allowing themselves, in misguided or misplaced hope of gaining favor from their Western counterparts, to fall into a tar pit of apology.

A second consequence of the apologists is the enraging of the radicals and extremists. For those who are disenfranchised, in many ways, the Muslim who apologizes and explains away the ills of his or her religion ignites the ire in these groups almost to a further extent that does the West. The apologists are seen as both corroborators, conspirators and innovators (bid’ah/بدعة) of the religion. In a sort of Manichean way, any Muslim who seeks to “water down” the religion in trade for gaining forgiveness, respect or other from the infidel, is seen as someone who is corrupting the religion. This then gives rise to the call for the “true believers” to rise up and defend Islam from both without and within.

Not to toss the Salafis in to this conversation for no good reason, but they are an example of a group in which I have had first-hand experience listening to their rhetoric in which various groups of Muslims who have tried to at once condemn violence committed by Muslims or even just defend wearing of headscarves by women (hijab), and who through various means are seen as “selling out” (shaving of the beard, not adopting the Middle-Eastern style of dress code, etc.) are described as hypocrites, innovators and it is then incumbent upon the “real Muslims” to take up this charge to rite their wrongs. I am not saying that all or any Salafi groups here in the States have gone to the extremes that either the 9/11 hijackers did or what is happening in Iran with suicide bomber volunteers, but is does present the possibilities of a slippery slope.

So with the issue of apology tackled, I will now examine the other options I spoke of: triage, amputation and rehabilitation.

Using the word triage may seem a bit dramatic but in many ways the Muslim world, in its various locales and manifestations, is like a body that has suffered trauma. Some of that trauma is akin to the blunt trauma of colonialism. Other trauma can be more subtlety diagnosed as psychological. Either way, I find the medical analogy applicative so bear with me.

As with any medical condition, the symptoms must be analyzed so that they cannot just be treated but will hopefully lead to the cause of the problem so that the appropriate diagnosis and treatment can be made. In the case of the Muslims, this is as varied as disease is, depending on when and where the Muslims are. For this post, we will deal with Muslims in the States.

To make a concise summary for the sake of argument, Muslims here are caught between two competing histories. The history of the West (especially for indigenous converts) and the history of Islam in the East. For indigenous Western Muslims, we are often told that our innate Westerness is some how inferior and inherently unIslamic. Much of this opinion is informed by peoples who have generationally suffered at the hands of colonization and radical nationalist movements in their native countries. In a manner, this superior/inferior dialog between Muslims in America leads to its own form of apology on behalf of American Muslims (to their foreign Muslims coreligionists), but this is for another topic.

To say that the challenge facing Muslims here in the West is the reconciliation of these two histories is to make a grand understatement. Muslims in America must find a way of having that all-important conversation with the Sacred Tradition if they are to have a legitimate legacy here in the West (see Dr. Sherman Jackson’s speech at the Western Knight Center For Specialized Journalism – watch the video). Potentially, out of that conversation come a sense of self, so affirmed, that theoretically, never again would Western Muslims need find themselves delivering apologetic hand-outs (and simultaneously quelling the ire of the extremists).

This process of having a dialog with the Sacred History is what I would term the rehabilitation period. It is where the Muslims here in the West could heal and recoup from the effort that it will have taken them to reach this lofty, but not unobtainable, goal. This process will require both academic and intellectual endeavors as well as grass roots application of those endeavors. But above all, it will take honesty. Muslims in America will need to be honest with themselves in order to have and benefit from the dialog. And in addition, in order to have that dialog, Muslims will need to stop apologizing, so that they may hear what that Sacred History is saying. And like any other dialog, one cannot carry on two conversations at once.