Interpretation In Free Fall

Muslims need to ask themselves: how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam? Many of us will point to ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and other forms of bigotry in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. But in reality this is much more akin to the Sudanese proverb, as Dr. Sherman Jackson reminds us, while we curse the elephant we only gaze at his shadow.

All too often we look for explanations outside of Islam instead of within. By Islam I mean the Muslim community. We assume the cause of this effect can simply be reduced to others not liking us. And while it is undoubtedly true that anti-Muslim sentiment has much of its roots in white supremacy, its efficacy is mainly due to the swinging barn door of interpretation that lets in all manner of riffraff. A riffraff that is just as likely to be composed of unqualified Muslims as much as it is of unqualified non-Muslims.

In a more obvious display of what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls the credibility gap, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic speaks about ISIS in his article, What ISIS Really Wants,

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

The first mistake Muslims most often do is attempt to discredit the validity of non-Muslim (in this case, Wood’s) claims; this is a severe mistake, because as in this case—as is the case in almost all claims made about Islam—Wood’s credentials and capabilities are never called into question. What gives Wood the qualifications and credentials to speak authoritatively on Islam? When I attempted to find any information on his background I saw that he graduated from Harvard; the extent of his academic credentials seem to only go so far as being a “lecturer in political science at Yale University”. In what field Wood took his degree is not clear. What is clear is that Wood, and many like him, have written extensively and authoritatively on Islam for some time. And we must move beyond just individuals like Wood, to the bigger implication: publications such as The Atlantic, and The New Republic also required no qualified background to write authoritatively on Islam. Before I address what I mean by proper qualifications and credentials, let me turn my gaze from the elephant’s shadow to the pachyderm himself.

One of the darlings of the media (particularly those of a more liberal bent) and of the Muslim community itself (excluding the majority of scholars and leaders) is Reza Aslan. Aslan’s notoriety stems from interviews where he is often seen as defending the faith from a rogue’s gallery of anti-Muslim haters such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, to more recent conflicts with Donald Trump supporter and political commentator, Kayleigh McEnany, over what portion of the Qur’an is considered a legal document:

McEnany’s comments, stating that the Qur’an, according to Michael Flynn (a retired general from the United States military), who quotes Andy McCarthy (Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York)—whom McEnany describes as “very respected” and who has written “extensively” on [the Qur’an]—as saying,

90 percent of the Qur’an is in fact a legal doctrine; it is Shari’ah. He’s not saying that as an insult to the religion but that it (the Qur’an) is in fact structured differently than a typical-type Christian religions or Jewish religions, the way those books are structured. So that is what he is meaning academically.”

There is much here to unpack. The claims about the percentage of the Qur’an which is considered to be “legal doctrine”, how Christianity’s or Judaism’s holy books, and the manner in which they are “structured”, are assumed to be normative (thereby Islam’s holy book, by being different than these two, is presumptively labeled as abnormal), and finally and perhaps most importantly, the claims to “academic” qualifications to make such proclamations, all beg to be scrutinized. And it is the last claim, the petition to reference academic credentials as a justification, that Reza Aslan calls out Kayleigh McEnany as well as Andrew McCarthy and Gen. Michael Flynn. But there’s an absurdity going on here right before our eyes. An absurdity ignored because it strokes the broken and shattered egos of so many Muslims today: Reza Aslan himself is unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam. Aslan reveals his own lack of qualifications with the ridiculous statement concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an,

“I mean, no offense to Kayleigh, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to either the Qur’an or the Bible. About 120 verses of the Qur’an have to do with legal matters out of tens of thousands.”

According to the most common riwayah (narration) of the Qur’an by Hafs, the Qur’an contains 6236 verses. Aslan’s statements of “tens of thousands” is disturbing as well as inaccurate, and in Aslan’s case, is nothing new. He has repeatedly uttered factually incorrect or even heretical statements about the Qur’an and Islam in general. But the issue at stake here is not simply the mistakes of one unqualified pundit, but moreover, how did Reza Aslan (and others like Zuhdi Jasser) get to be placed in positions of authority and representation? The answer may be a difficult pill for our community to swallow.

If we return to our opening question, how are non-Muslims able to make their unsubstantiated claims about Islam, the answer is as simple as it is painful: we, as the Muslim community, enable it, because we do it as well! That we think there can be two separate standards for speaking authoritatively on Islam as well as representing the Muslims is a living definition of hypocrisy. In truth, this devolves down into little more than some form of cultural protectionism, stemming from a legacy of colonialism where Muslims were subjugated to non-Muslim rule. As a reaction, even Muslims who either by doctrine or practice (of which certainly Aslan would fall into) do not seem to have any serious commitment to Islam outside of a cultural relationship to it, fall victim and prey to this tendency. It is also, in my opinion, why so many Muslims of an immigrant background are guilty of facemasking non-immigrant Muslims from positions of prominence, both within the Muslim community and on the broader public stage in America. To continue with our sports analogy, the most common reason a player commits a facemask is because they are simultaneously trying to prevent an aggressor from tackling them or taking the ball away, all the while trying to gain yardage; the facemask penalty applies equally to the offense as well as the defense.

Just as the diagnosis for this issue may be difficult to swallow, so will the remedy. The issue of credentials and qualifications cannot be discussed without also asking what is the role of the (unqualified) individual in interpreting Islamic sources, and more importantly, what is their scope? I am not making a clarion call to say that individual Muslims cannot read the Qur’an—indeed even interpret some aspects of it on their own—but what has to change is the scope to which individual unqualified interpretations are made. The difficult truth is that there is no other way to combat anti-Muslim hatred, whose equally unqualified practitioners utilizes Islamic sources, other than demanding a standard across the board that will equally apply to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. This may sound grandiose and even unattainable but I provide at least one plausible tactic: unqualified Muslims (those who have not received adequate training and are also not recognized by the Muslim community to be legitimate representatives) refuse to engage the media. Those who infract this rule will face social stigma from the Muslim community. We can bring this to bear on a very uncomfortable truth: the very same methodology that Reza Aslan advocates (see above tweet) is precisely the same method that ISIS and other extremist groups use to concoct their own interpretations of Islam. While the results of ISIS may be different than those of Reza Aslan and his ilk, the tactics and methods are the same. When the question is asked, “who speaks for Islam?”, the answer should be, “someone qualified”.

A Wakeup Call – This Time For Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd – White Person Extraordinaire

I have written two articles (1 and 2) on the phenomenon of Muslim pundits. To be more precise, the articles were about Muslim Muslim pundits, those few self-elected personalities that have made careers out of irresponsible critiques against Muslims and Islam, especially when Muslim do not meet their expectations. And it is the latest article from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Maureen Dowd, that provides an example of a non-Muslim Muslim pundit. In her New York Times article, Ms. Dowd uses 911 words (coincidence? You decide…) to inform us just how short her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the “cradle of Islam”, fell in how it failed to educate her about the religion that, “smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”. Dowd’s article, despite its obvious lack of respect for the subject, does manage to bring to light a glaring tendency in popular discourse, namely the general acceptance of attacking Muslims and by proxy of them, Islam, through one, convenient scapegoat: Saudi Arabia. According to Dowd and those who follow this mode of logic, to reproach Saudi Arabia is to reproach Islam in its entirety.

In one of my recent articles, I talked about the phenomenon of American Muslims and their need to travel abroad to the Muslim world in order to feel validated. Dowd has in many ways followed the exact same line, albeit for a different end goal: to denounce Islam. However, the two parties both have a misguided perception that Arab world, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are symbiotes of the same host: the religion of Islam. As we have seen in recent events, this could not be father from the case. Saudi Arabia is a country, a Muslim country no doubt, but hardly representative of Islam itself in such a way that all other expressions of Islam outside of the Arab Kingdom are merely simulacrums of Islam.

Dowd’s article, Pilgrim Non Grata In Mecca, is problematic even in its titling. From the very get go, Dowd ascribes to herself a status she does not possess: that of a (Muslim) pilgrim. A play on the Latin persona non grata, a close translation being “unwelcome person”, Dowd assumes that she is indeed on a pilgrimage (perhaps she was making ‘Umrah?), Dowd places herself within her own narrative in a role she never possessed from the start. Dowd repeatedly misses the very Muslimness of Mecca and Madīnah, especially as it relates to the necessity of those would visit the Ka’abah. Dowd fails to realize or recognize the need to be a Muslim to not only visit these places, but to perform the ritual acts for which they solely exist for. This deliberate intention, on the part of Dowd, to ignore such an overarching fact concerning the Two Holy Mosques only further demonstrates the utter lack of respect that Dowd had for her subject matter from the beginning. It is not that Dowd is an unwelcome pilgrim but that she is not a pilgrim at all.

Pilgrim Non Grata continues its bull-in-a-china-shop critique of Islam by attacking not how Islam views sacredness, but in how Islam is not Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Dowd’s smug rant about how Mecca is not as open as the Vatican or how one can have their picture taken with the Dalai Lama only further illustrates how absolutely biased and ignorant Dowd is on the subject of Islam. By holding up Islam to a fit it was never meant to wear, Islam can only but fall short of appearing to be “civilized”. In essence, Dowd’s main axe to grind with Islam (which during the course of Dowd’s article is difficult to discern where she’s more concerned with getting access to the country of Saudi Arabia or learning anything in particular about Islam the religion) is how it’s not Christian, or Buddhist, than it is about understanding how Islam views the sacred. Here, Dowd reveals her true colors (literally) as a white, western woman, whose only particular historicized notions of freedom, access, equality, etc., are theorized into ontological truths that can be used to demonize Muslims (by proxy of Saudi Arabians) and Islam as a religion as a whole. I must admit I am sorely disappointed that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could either be so woefully ignorant or so unabashedly crude. Perhaps that prize, along with western white privilege, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It would seem that much of Dowd’s ignorance stems from a complete lack of understanding of Islam on its own terms as well as the few, highly questionable sources she draws upon. Aside from her own trumped up cosmology, Dowd refers to Sir Richard Burton, the British “adventurer”, who translated “The Arabian Nights”, referring to himself as a “amateur barbarian”. Perhaps if Dowd had done some research she may have found that the Arabian Nights in no way shape or form has any relation to the religion of Islam. No all things Arab constitute a running commentary on Islam. Perhaps if Dowd had simply talked to a few recognized, educated and reputable Muslim figures on the religion, she may have accomplished her goal of trying to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”.

Part of understanding Islam on its own terms would entail learning how Islam views the sacred. In fact, it is perhaps in Islam’s view of the sacred that continues to distinguish itself from other religious expressions in modernity as the quintessential pre-modern religion. In other words, the sacred, for the main body of Muslims, was never rendered into the profane; the secular. Aside from the anomaly of modern thought as expressed by a few pro-modernity Muslim thinkers, there has never existed the concept of Les Belles Lettres. Beauty, in the body of Muslim thought, has always been connected to the Divine. It is even one of the Attributes of God in Islam, where all other emanations of beauty only point back to the source of Ultimate Beauty. This notion of sacredness extends to the mosque – any mosque, not solely the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Madīnah – as well to the Qur’ān. Art in the Muslim world (and in pre-modern Europe as well) was viewed as religious: the decorating of mosques, the illumination of the Qur’ān and other classical texts and so forth. These artistic endeavors were done not out of a desacralized sense of beauty, but rather as a mode of religious devotion. In fact, if Dowd had spoken with a body of Muslims before hand, she may have heard voices from the Muslims who dismay over the very secularness of the Blue Mosque, in that what once used to be a place of worship has now been reduced to a museum of historic architecture; the belle lettre of buildings. So when Muslims wish to keep and preserve the sacredness of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madīnah, perhaps Dowd could see that this decision is informed by a very specific thought process that has very specific goals, namely the preservation of the sacred for all Muslims.

As for the three faith traditions that Dowd lists, she misses a key point: you may not have to be Catholic to go to the Vatican, but you may have to be Catholic to really understand what it means to be Catholic. You may be able to learn some very interesting facts about Catholicism as a non-Catholic, but without having the experience of being a Catholic, especially in a modern mindset, you will only have accumulated a collection of details that may or may not have the same meaning for the viewer as it does the object of their viewing. Similarly, as above, simply because Catholics have chosen to open up the Vatican does not mean that Muslims should open up Mecca. The Vatican is not Mecca, nor vise versa. Perhaps Dowd should consider doing some research on her topic before flailing about wildly with her pen.

Finally, I will depart with commenting on the methodology of Dowd’s inquiry. In her own words, Dowd stated that, “It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam”. Another in a long line of presumptions, I would challenge Ms. Dowd on just how she arrived at this observation. Much akin to Africa being the cradle of civilization, going back to Kenya and walking around the dusty streets of Nairobi will not, cēterīs paribus, give me any epiphanic understanding of what life is like in New York City. Further, the analogy of a “cradle” is also not without critique, as a cradle, according to the dictionary, is a small bed, often for infants, during which they are nurtured in their early existence. Islam was born in Mecca, but it grew up and moved out the house, expanded in Madīnah and eventually flew well beyond its borders. While learning about Mecca will indeed teach one about certain aspects of Islam, but it cannot give the whole picture. In the end, my advice to Maureen Dowd would be: if you want to learn about Islam, become a Muslim. If you wish to know some “facts” about Islam, well, you could visit Wikipedia. Or for that matter, continue reading this blog.

The Trouble With Muslim Pundits Part Two

Back in May of 2008, I wrote a post for this blog entitled, The TroubleWith Muslim Pundits Today, in which I, using Irshad Manji as an example, attacked and exposed the self-serving and selfish tendencies of many a Muslim pundit who would seek to “reform” Islam without actually contributing anything to it, let alone actually understanding Islam. Since then, the trend has not lessened and Muslims (so-called) of varied stripes continue to find employment as moles and trojan horses. It appears to be one of the few sectors of the economy that is still growing.

The reason for this short quip is a note that came across my GMail screen from writer and author, Ali Eteraz, in which his status update stated: “I feel bad for the Muslim scholars against Valentine’s Day. One is afraid of the reaction against him, the other one (last line), is just plain lonely”. He then proceeded to link to the following link which gives the standard display of a Muslim country and its army of clerics who seek to subjugate and psychologically terrorize its citizens into some imagined expression of Islamism: http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=270724. As with Manji, my biggest objection is that these attacks and critiques come from a specific mindset that is set on maintaining its own form of hegemony, not to mention its overall mean-spiritedness. Never is there any attempt to understand how and why these scholars come to their conclusions. Nor is there any admittance that the goals of these scholars have very different goals than those of the pundits, if indeed they have any goals at all aside from furthering their careers as “reformers” who pass off their own personal experiences as ontological truths.

The latter part is what I would like to bring to the table here, both for Mr. Eteraz, as well as others like him. Is it not conceivable or permissible that a scholar of Islam might stand against certain practices that s/he may deem unhealthy for Muslims? Can any one of these pundits answer with 100% assurance that the changes and reforms they call for are truly looking out for Muslims? Or are they simply ways to either mock or berate? I am increasingly revolted at this small but vocal constituency within our ranks. Not for their dissenting opinions, but the spirit in which they dissent. I have yet to see from a single so-called pundit a viable alternative or solution to the rulings scholars deliver. For one who has spent 17 years studying Islam in a thorough and systematic way, who is seeking the scholar’s path as a career, I am offended by such cynical treatments of heavy and important matters. For me, it is the lack of respect for, not the domination of, scholars and religious authority that plagues Muslims today. And comments like these only add a bit more gasoline to the fire.

I remember having a conversation this past year with a young Muslim who was quite upset about Halloween. I told him that there have been differing opinions on the permissibility of Halloween from the scholars point of view. I said myself, that I could not see a 100% irrefutable proof that it was not permissible to dress up in a costume, so long as the strictures for dress code were obeyed, and go door-to-door collecting candy. And before he could wag his tongue, I said that while I can’t find a Prophetic reason against it, it still doesn’t mean that I would recommend for Muslims to do so, especially Muslim children. The young man paused with a confused look on his face as asked how I could object to it if I didn’t think it was haram. I explained to him that even though it may not be haram (i.e., irrefutable evidence or unanimous consensus on the subject) still did not mean that I might not consider it detrimental to the health and development of Muslim youth. That I would argue against Halloween, not based on a sound hadith, for example, but because of its context and it being culturally detrimental to young Muslims. The point of this example is that a scholar of Islam has a moral obligation to protect and guide the community. S/he should and must struggle to find ways for Muslims to participate in society. I, though not quite a scholar myself yet, have comfortably signed off on the permissibility of Thanksgiving precisely because it is good for Muslims to spend time with their families.

I do not fear for that scholar or group of scholars who made a decision to protect the dignity and continuity of Muslims within their ranks. Nor do I think they will be lonely. The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophet, may God grant him peace, and will never be lonesome. My challenge to Mr. Eteraz and to other pundits would be this: if you wish for Muslims to participate in St. Valentine’s Day, what will you give them in return? What obligations do you have? And to those scholars who would say no to St. Valentine’s Day, what would will you give the Muslims in return? Ali – I know you will feel this is a personal attack on you but I feel to sit back and watch this mean-spiritedness brew is unacceptable.

The conversation is much deeper than cheap cynicism.

Ali Eteraz can be reached at eteraz@gmail.com.