More on Time: A Khutbah

In my previous khutbah, I discussed the importance of time and time management, as well as time as an object, so that we might think about the “times” we live in. All the above falls under an even larger umbrella, and that is the umbrella of religious literacy. To know and understand time and its importance to the Muslim is to increase one’s awareness of God and increase one’s understanding of Islam and its objective with mankind, God willing.

To step back a moment for before addressing the topic of time head on, I would like to bring our attention to the role that scholarship and learning plays in developing a sense of time. We often hear new buzz words such as “tradition”, both upper and lower cases being used. It is not my desire to contest the existence of an “Islamic tradition” [though I prefer Muslim as it is not quite so atemporal/ahistoric as Islamic], rather quite the opposite. But in order for that tradition to be operational, we must examine our relationship with it. I thought it would best to examine the meaning of tradition, as it relates to Muslims, by looking at it through the prism of another scenario. Below is a quote from the 19th/20th century philosopher, John Dewey:

When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

— From John Dewey’s, Art As Experience. This speaks volumes to me on modern Muslims understanding of pre-modern law [Shari’ah].

If we were to substitute Dewey’s “art” for our “tradition”, we can begin to imagine some of the problems and challenges we are faced with, many of which are by our own hands. Indeed, “Traditional Islam” has attained the status of “classic”, from which it has become quite stagnant and “isolated” from our very own lives. No longer a means of tools by which we interpret and navigate our present reality, “Traditional Islam” has become an operational substitute, relieving us of the burden of having to act, think, and behave as responsible, God-conscious Muslims. This neologism is complete with an aesthetic appearance: one’s burden to think and act with traditional morals and values is even further removed by simply allowing us to dress “traditionally”, even when most of us have no historical relationship with such modes of dress.

Dewey’s words are even more relevant in this passage:

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. Again, the analogy that can be drawn between Islamic law/studies and what Dewey calls “art” here is intriguing.

I find Dewey’s “artistic objects” a fine substitute for our “traditional Islam” as a means of diagnosing a crippling condition I see prevalent amongst Muslims today: the operational ability for Muslims to think proactively and creatively has been “separated” from our “conditions” and “experiences”; a proverbial wall has been erected around “tradition” that has the opposite intended effect: It renders the significance of that tradition “opaque” to use. We can neither see through it, into it, nor around it. Instead of a tool to a broader means, it has been supplanted as the end. Once “remitted” to this separate realm, our primary means of acting in accordance with our reality that will both please God and make our lives easier, is “cut off” with the “materials and aims” of each and every human [read Muslim] effort, undergoing and achievement. It will be necessary to see the pitfall in this so that our aims and efforts at making responsible and intelligent uses of time are not for naught.

Key Words

  • لهو/to amuse, dally, waste time, engage in excessive pleasure.
  • غفلة/heedlessness
  • زين – تزيين/to embellish, adorn, make-believe, sham, pretense, shave/put on makeup/زينت نفسها
  • عمل و أعمال و فعل و أفعال/Actions [af’al] can have the ability to take on acts of worship but they can also but non-acts of worship whereas Deeds [a’mal] have a distinct inclination towards acts of worship as they are tied to the “intention” to do so:
  • إن بطش ربك لشديد – انه هو يبدئ ويعد و هو الغفور الودود – ذو العرش المجيد – فعال لما يريد
  • قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم إنما الأعمال بالنيات و إنما لكل امرئ ما نوى
  • و هم على ما يفعلون بالمومنين شهود و ما نقموا منهم إلا أن يومنوا بالله العزيز الحميد الذي له الملك السماوات والأرض و الله على كل شيء شهيد

Time marches on, marches towards us, but how attuned are we to this fact?

اقترب للناس حسابهم و هم في غفلة معرضون (۱) ما ياتيكم من ذكر من ربهم محدث إلا اِسْتَمَعوه و هم يلعبون (۲) لاهية قلوبهم و أسّروا النجوى الذين ظلموا هل هذآ إلا بشر مثلكم أفتاتون السحر و أنتم تنصرون (٣) قال ربى يعلم القول في السماء و الأرض و هو السميع العليم (٤)

Mankind’s Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away (1). No fresh reminder comes to them from their Lord without their listening to it as if it was a game (2). Their hearts are distracted. Those who do wrong confer together secretly, saying, ‘Is this man anything but a human being like yourselves? Do you succumb to magic with your eyes wide open?’ (3). Say: ‘My Lord knows what is said in heaven and earth. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ (4). [Qur’an: 21: 1-5

ألهاكم التكاثر حتى زرتم المقابر كلا سوف سيعلمون ثم كلا سيعلمون

You are distracted in excessive accumulation until you visit the graves!

In the tafsir of these verses, it can mean that you either do so all your life until you “visit the grave” or that you take competition/bragging/مفاخرة to such an extent, you have to go and visit the graves of your dead as did Banu Sahm and Banu ‘Abd al-Manaf. We must be careful with what we do with our time. We will be held accountable.

Time is also critical to Muslim development. We have to not only be concerned about “impending doom”, but with how we spend our time preparing for that doom. As I mentioned in the khutbah, fear as it is discussed in the Qur’an, is not like Hollywood fear, where the victim of anxiety or dread is rendered immobile, but instead is meant to propel us into action. Actions that will bring about a favorable outcome on the Qiyamah. And while we must spend time learning and studying in all manner of so-called secular topics so that we can have a trade or a profession, so too we must spend time learning and knowing our religion so that we have a broad-based understanding of life’s function and role, not simply to memorize the rights and wrongs of Islam. This latter part is critical to the development of a healthy Muslim identity, something to which Muslim thinker Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas discusses in one of his works:

Knowledge of the truth about the world of empirical things can indeed be achieved and increased through inquiry made by generations of mankind. But true knowledge has an immediate bearing on the individual man as it pertains to his identity and destiny, and he cannot afford to suspend his judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations.

Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future by Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas.

Al-Attas’ acknowledgement of the role that sacred [here I am fine with the use of “traditional” so long as it’s understood as an operational imperative, not a laundry list] knowledge plays in the development of the Muslim is crucial. But I think just as important is his observation of the “immediate bearing” such knowledge can and should have on a Muslim. I see this as particularly valuable to the convert, who did not grow up in an “Islamic environment”, and is in need of such knowledge to be immediately beneficial to their growth and development as a Muslim. Convert or otherwise, the lesson here is none of us can, as Shaykh al-Attas says, “afford to suspend [our] judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations”. In other words, time is of the essence and we must all efforts to acquire such knowledge a priority in our lives, one way or another.

Time passing and making actions seem good to them.

تالله لقدَ اَرسلنا إلى أُمَمٍ من قبلك فزين لهم الشيطان أعمالهم فهو وليهم اليومَ و لهم عذاب اَليم

By Allah, We sent Messengers to communities before your time, but Shaytan made their actions seem good to them. Therefore today he is their protector. They will have a painful punishment. [Qur’an: 16: 63]

It is a real temptation to make one’s deeds and actions fair seeming. But as I noted above in the key words section, zayyana/زين – تزيين is thematically connected to the embellishment and self-delusion of deeds. Its root has much in common with the following actions: to adorn, make-believe, as well as to put on makeup, all of which are a means of deception, one way or another. We may not like to think of it [and I am not starting a fiqh war – for more on beauty and makeup, please see or listen to Ustadh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali’s lecture, The Fiqh of Beauty] but when we apply makeup or dress ourselves in a certain way, in part [if not in essence] we wish to imply that what’s in front of us may be better than what is really there. Likewise, in the Qur’an, those that seek to delude themselves and/or God are do so by attempting to make their deeds seem to be better than what they truly are. If left unchecked, this state of the heart can lead one to doom, as is the case of the unnamed group in s. Yusuf, verse 12:

و إذا مس الإنسان الضر دعانا لجنبه قاعدا اَو قائما فلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كأن لم يدعنا إلى ضر مسه كذلك زين للمسرفين كانوا يعملون

And when a calamity touches mankind, he calls out to Us, upon his side, laying down or standing. Yet when we have removed his affliction, he proceeds upon his way as if he had never been accosted. In this manner whatever the indignant one do seems fair pleasing. [Qur’an: 10: 12]

As we can see in the two above examples from the Qur’an, zayyana/زيّن and ‘aml/عمل go hand in hand, at least in how we try to deceive God and ourselves. This is important as ‘aml/a’mal [عمل و أعمال] are almost always associated with religious practice and deeds, whereas fi’l/af’al [فعل و أفعال] can be religious or neutral.

لقد كان لكم في رسول الله إسوة حسنة لّمن كان يرجوا الله و اليوم الآخرَ و ذكر الله كثيرا

Surely in the Messenger of God is an excellent excellent example for the one that hopes to meet God, and has hope of the Final Day and remembers God abundantly. [Qur’an: 33: 21]

May God Almighty grant us success in this. Amin.

Listen to and download the audio here.

Required Reading: Explaining Islam to the Public

The following is an article that was published in the online Blog, The Immanent Frame. The piece, by Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis religious studies professor, Edward E. Curtis IV, is well worth the read. Professor Curtis highlights some of the difficulties, dangers and pitfalls to the symbiotic relationship between 9/11 and Islam in the Academy. In particular, Professor Curtis speaks about the issue of authority and the media’s demand for authoritative voices about, as he puts it, “x or y”:

The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us.

We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama’ say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

I hope you will enjoy reading his article and take away a seldom head but very much needed critique of not only the media, but also of American academic institutions.

Note: this article was originally published on The Immanent Frame‘s web site. For whatever reason, the article was down so I have republished it here. My apologies for stepping on any toes. I felt the article needed to be read. You can read it here on SSRC’s web site.

Explaining Islam to the Public

from The Immanent Frame by Edward E. Curtis, IV

Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies pecialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. Though the number of positions for scholars of Islam advertised through the American Academy of Religion (AAR) has increased only modestly, from 61 between 1996 and 2001 to 74 between 2002 and 2007, Islamic studies scholars found new funding sources through both the government and private foundations, and they scored higher publication rates in journals of record during the latter period. At the same time, all the new public attention resulted in attacks against Islamicists by the general public and, perhaps more alarmingly, systematic campaigns, led by groups such as Campus Watch, to deny tenure to scholars of Islam. In addition, foreign scholars, such as Tariq Ramadan, were prevented by the U.S. government from even attending the meetings of the AAR, which subsequently sued over the matter.

The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution. We reached for our copies of the Encyclopedia of Islam and sent out queries, sometimes quite urgently, to the AAR Study of Islam listserv. “What does Islam say about x?” was the way questions were often framed. We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama’ say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

The pressure to come up with one-liners and sound-bites was particularly acute when Islamic studies scholars were asked or permitted to participate in media outlets. Here the line between professor of Islamic studies and practitioner of Islam was often blurred, as Muslim professors offered answers that reflected, not only their considerable knowledge of the topic, but also their personal opinion or practice of Islam. Not all of them did so, of course, but autobiography was one strategy for dealing with questions about Islam’s position on x or y. At the least, these scholars could answer questions about what Islam says about love, war, life, and death by giving their own views as Muslims. It was as good as any other way of trying to answer impossible questions. But explaining one’s personal beliefs and practices was not a viable strategy for non-Muslims. In both cases, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars were forced to develop strategies, or simply to improvise, to deal with questions about veils, terrorism, churches in Saudi Arabia, Ibn Taymiyya, and a whole host of topics that were bubbling up, especially among anti-Muslim hate groups and in online forums.

My opportunity to participate in national debates over these questions came with the Ground Zero mosque controversy in the summer and fall of 2010. This controversy took the spotlight away from Islam abroad and shone it on Muslim Americans. Like many other Americans, I was angered by the intolerant tone of the debate. I was especially maddened by the idea that building a Muslim community center near Ground Zero would be insensitive to the hallowed ground of the 9/11 attacks. I didn’t like the conflation of the 9/11 hijackers with the Muslims of lower Manhattan and one of their leaders, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who happened to be the single most prominent proponent of interfaith dialogue in New York City. I decided I had to
do something.

So, I wrote an op-ed.

Rather than discuss issues of freedom of religion or the politics of contemporary Islamophobia, I wanted to stress the idea that Muslims have lived and worshiped in Lower Manhattan since the Dutch first arrived in the New World. I don’t know, in the end, if shedding light on Muslim contributions to the history of the United States helps to reduce contemporary prejudice against Muslim Americans or Muslims more generally; but if I am to participate in public scholarship, this is one area in which I can do so with intellectual integrity. Even if history is boring to a lot of folks—as some people have gingerly admitted in response to my speeches about Muslim-American history—I also know that this is a novel approach to Islam in America, and I still get a lot of “I didn’t know thats,” “wows,” and “goshes” when I outline the imprint of Muslims on the thirteen colonies and the United States in both public and academic forums.

The editorial that I penned included descriptions of the Muslim slaves who lived and worked either on or just blocks away from the Ground Zero site when New York was still New Amsterdam. It mentioned the escape of Muslim slave Mahommah Baquaqua from a Brazilian ship on Manhattan’s docks. It reminded New Yorkers of the Arab-American Muslims who lived in the very neighborhood where the twin towers were eventually built. I sent it to a few papers and heard back from the New York Daily News—to be sure, not the New York Times, but still, a New York daily with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The editor didn’t think he could run it, but he did ask if I had references for all of my claims. Yes, I told him, I did, and I sent him a very long list of peer-reviewed references. The take-home line of the piece was, “It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

The first draft that I sent to the Daily News was informational. It largely avoided direct criticism of the anti-Muslim activists who opposed the building of the community center. My goal was to make it impossible to talk about Muslims as new or foreign, thinking, perhaps, that if Americans thought of Muslims as part of their shared past, they would be less inclined to perceive them as threatening. But my editor encouraged me to take a stronger stand and to criticize the Islamophobia that animated much of the opposition to the community center.

Thus, my third draft used the word “troubling” to describe how politicians had exploited the pain of 9/11 victims to advance their own anti-Muslim agendas. I even used the word “lie” to label the argument that the community center would be a “9/11 victory mosque.” But this still was not enough for the editor, who added the following lines himself: “Comments by [Gubernatorial candidate Rick] Lazio and [Sarah] Palin are mere drops in an ocean of right-wing vitriol over this issue.” And: “Rhetoric that treats Muslim Americans like hostile foreigners fundamentally—and intentionally—skews the story of New York and its Muslim community.”

My reaction to these edits was, “Yes, exactly! But … I didn’t know that I was allowed to write that way.” My first draft, which attempted to relate the long history of Muslims in Manhattan as an antidote to Islamophobia, assumed that the reader would understand my larger purpose. I was writing history without explaining why I thought that history was so urgent to expose, and I had forgotten that I was writing for an editorial page. It was a form of self-censorship. In order to find a publisher, I had unconsciously written in the dispassionate tone of the so-called objective academic, trying to avoid the expression of my own feelings. I never expected that an editor for the New York Daily News would help me find my voice, but he did, and he made the op-ed better as a result.

But if working with the Daily News helped me to find my voice, my next experience with a major media outlet, the Washington Post, was a different story. In this case, I lost my voice, or at least a part of it. The Post contacted me to become a one-time contributor to a regular feature of the “Sunday Outlook” section called “Five Myths.” They wanted me to identify and then correct five myths about mosques in the United States. I pointed out that religious studies scholars use the word myth to meanmore than misconception, but that was just the name of the feature, they said. I accepted their offer and submitted the five myths that I wanted to correct.

One was that “all Muslims pray in mosques.” I hoped to point out that Muslims also pray in private homes, Sufi lodges, Shi‘a imambargahs, Isma‘ili jamatkhanas, and Nation of Islam temples. There was too much focus on mosques, I thought, and not enough on other Muslim-American sacred spaces. But this suggestion was rejected on the grounds that it was “interesting, but maybe not worth devoting a full myth to.” In its place, a new myth was suggested by the editors: “Mosques seek to spread shari‘a law in the United States.” One editor wrote that “this one has been coming up so much in conversation … in particular, people have been raising the status of women under shari‘a law.” I went to work correcting the five myths—in 1200 words or less.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life

But my answer had sidestepped the question. In retrospect I realized that I was trying to respond to the negative feelings of Americans toward shari‘a by downplaying its importance in American mosques. I didn’t want to leave people with the idea that lots of Muslims were busy learning when and how to take the law into their own hands and apply hudud penalties, such as the stoning of adulterers. Working on a deadline and with space for two paragraphs or so, perhaps this was the best I could come up with. I was much more pleased with the other parts of the piece, but I had to move on.

In any case, it did not seem to hurt the piece’s reception. Whereas the Daily News op-ed about the history of Muslims in Manhattan received about 500 likes on Facebook and a few dozen comments, this piece received 4000 likes on Facebook and 523 comments. It was syndicated in papers around the world, and more people read this short piece than anything else I have ever written. It led to two subsequent interviews on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Tell Me More with Michel Martin; a harrowing call-in to a show on a Pittsburg Fox radio affiliate (during which my wife almost took the phone away from me to tell off some callers); several speaking engagements; some severe criticism by Stop Islamization of America leader and professional Islamophobe Robert Spencer; and some very angry emails. I got a lot of compliments, too. All of this attention and feedback made me nervous, excited, and scared.

I also received an email from a colleague who wanted to quibble about my claims regarding the teaching of shari‘a in American mosques. Yes, he said, I was technically right that the whole shari‘a is not taught in mosques. That would be impossible. But some of it is, he said. That’s how Muslims know when and how to pray, how to observe Muslim holidays, how much money to give to charity, etc.

He was right. My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

During the brief course of my five minutes of high-profile public scholarship I came to realize just how difficult such work is. Many of the topics on which I was queried and the ways that I could write about them were already determined in such a way that I felt like I was making an appearance in a largely pre-written script. Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do. But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Post piece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

The final point I should have made is that public discussions about shari‘a and other aspects of Islam are inevitably influenced by and reflect anxieties about the nation’s war-making in Muslim lands. A supermajority of the American public thinks that Islam is more violent than any other religion. As I wrote the original version of this piece, which I delivered as a talk at a recent meeting of the Midwest AAR, Congressman Peter King was holding hearings on what he calls the “radicalization” of the Muslim-American community, demonstrating that it is far easier to project blame onto either the Muslim foreigner abroad or the Muslim other in our midst than it is to acknowledge and reflect on American culpability for the deaths of thousands.

To be sure, foreign Muslims who resist U.S. dominance in their own countries utilize their religious traditions in so doing. But analyzing this religious violence in isolation from U.S. foreign policy, economic dominance, and military interventionism renders us mute as critics of our own societies and serves—however inadvertently—to normalize the secular nation-state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991 when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power

It may be tempting for religious studies scholars to take advantage of this historical moment by deploying one-dimensional explanations of religion to justify our own usefulness to the academy and to the nation. But even if we have to admit our ignorance, or just say that it’s complicated, it is better to resist further propagating or reinforcing simplistic conceptions of Islam, or of religion in general. Instead, we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

Islam in Global Perspective

I had the pleasure of being invited to Dr. Zain Abdullah’s course, Islam in Global Perspective, at Temple University. The course was welcoming a selection of Fulbright scholars from abroad to discussed a number of issues such as what is Islam to Muslims, how do Muslims relate and form identities in a global cultural context and how is Islam experienced [symbolism] by Muslims, to name a few. Two of the books being discussed in the class were Mehran Kamrava’s The New Voices of Islam: Rethinking Politics and Modernity and Mark Levine’s Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, a book that deals with religious/cultural permissibility, the impact of globalized values and its influence [Egypt was discussed in tonight’s session] on Muslims. Afterwords, there was a very pleasant reception where I had the chance to engage a few of the visiting scholars and exchange thoughts and ideas. Many thanks to Dr. Abdullah for inviting me. A few images from the exchange.

I will try and upload these images again.