Mu’min and Kafir – Negotiating Shared Space

In continuing with the theme of religious literacy (or in the immediate case, illiteracy), another important component in this issue I wish to touch upon is the shared space between Muslims and non-Muslims. To be frank, Muslims in America are long overdue for an overhauling of how they conceptualize and approach the very possibilities of Muslim/non-Muslim engagement. Part of this was addressed in a recent series of khutbahs, Da’wah & Fraternity in Islam, as well as in the previous post, Tackling Religious Literacy: Lexical Empiricism. For this article, I will examine the word kafir, its uses in pre-modern and early modern sources, as well as highlight one example from ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf, a Companion of the Prophet ﷺ and his struggle to negotiate his own shared reality as a believer.

To say that the post-colonial period is still haunting Muslim thought to this very day would be a feat in understatement. One of the debilitating byproducts of colonization is that the colonized lose sight of dimension: What I would call the dementia of colonization. This disease renders its victims incapable of recognizing three dimensions or space. Like physical dementia, this version “affects memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior”. In this condition, all objects within an individual’s frame are compressed into one-dimensional objects, stripped of any human characteristics the victim might be capable of sympathizing with. For Muslims today this has resulted in the word kafir being de-contextualized, from where it once stood to demarcate the boundary of belief and disbelief, to one in which kafir is hurled about with impunity. Dr. Sherman Jackson, in his invaluable work Islam and the Blackamerican, gives an elegant breakdown of this malady:

“(The) dehumanized Post-Colonial Muslim, on the other hand, tends to objectify his target and view him as a thing to be conquered, dismantled, and controlled. In contradistinction to his premodern predecessors, he transforms the category “kafir” (i.e., “non-Muslim) into a reference to an almost subhuman species who is inherently and utterly different from Muslims, not only religiously but culturally, ethnically, and civilizationally as well.” Islam and the Blackamerican, pg. 94. (see footnote #72 below)

As we can see here, kafir is a word that clearly, in its modern use, indicates more than the boundary of belief and non-belief. Its contemporary use is more often implemented to draw the line on what has and does not have human value. And while Dr. Jackson’s observation reveals the genealogy of the word, it would be unfair to lay this change solely at the feet of post-colonial immigrant Muslims. Its use amongst Blackamerican Muslims has also been a code word for “white”, itself an epithet of sorts. In both uses, kafir comes to connote an feeling of anti-establishment. But how is all of this important to the article at hand? I will tie this into the story of ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf and his relationship with Ummayah Bin Khalaf, one of the major opponents of Islam at the time of the Prophet ﷺ.

In the nearly two decades I have worked in the Muslim community as an educator, adviser, and casual observer, one note that strikes me significantly is the need for a new fiqh. By fiqh I mean a new comprehensive understanding of Islam particularly as it relates to the daily existence of Muslims in America, not a necessarily a new school of jurisprudence. This of course may set many on edge who feel that their commitment to a legitimate and authentic expression of Islam is jeopardized by such utterances. And yet, I continue to watch American Muslims flounder under a practice of Islam that is detrimental to the healthy development and prosperity of Muslims in this part of the world. To be precise, what I am talking about here is the relational dynamic between Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly in relation to familial and fraternal social ties. Unlike many parts of the historical Muslim world, Muslims in America, particularly indigenous Muslims, have families where they may themselves to be the minority if not the only Muslim in their family. The demands that are put on Muslims here to navigate these sometimes-murky-waters are made even more perilous with a fiqh/comprehension of Islam that is antithetical and unresponsive to their needs. Such Qur’anic versus as the following are often conjured up to support this self-imposed exile:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تتخذوا اليهود و النصرى أولياء بعضهم أولياء بعض و من يتولهم منكم فإنه منهم إن الله لا يهدى القوم الظلمين

”You who have iman! do not take the Jews and Christians as your friends; they are the friends of one another. Any of you who takes them as friends is one of them. Allah does not guide wrongdoing people.” Qur’an 5: 51 — Aisha Bewley translation

”O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily God guideth not a people unjust.” Qur’an 5: 51 — Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation

I have purposely chosen to show two of the most common translations here as they are representational of the dominant view on the contemporary meaning of this verse. Of main interest here is the plural, awliya’/أولياء; its singular being wali/ولي. Ali and Bewley translate awliya’ as “friends”. While I consider Ali and Bewley to be fine translators, I do question the choice of wording here. I find considerable evidence to support changing “friends” for “guardians as a translation for awliya’, especially given its Madinan context (where the verse was revealed). What is missing here, which interestingly enough, Muhammad Asad’s translation seems to find, is the call for political independence and responsibility on the part of the growing Muslim population in Madinah. Asad’s translation breaks ranks with Ali and Bewley, hinting at the contextual meaning, not solely the lexical one:

ولي الوالي البلد

ولي الرجل البيع

“The wali is the patron of the state/country.” Walia al-Wali al-Balad.

“The man secures the transaction,” Wali al-Rajul al-Bay’. — Mukhtar al-Sihah, pg. 306

From these sources, I feel there is more than enough evidence to support a revisiting of the definition of awliya’/wali as “friend”.  Not from the position of wanting other than what God has intended, but precisely because the current entrenched methods and approaches Muslims are currently engaged in are in contradiction to this Divine edict. But finally, to bring it back to the story of ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf and Ummayah Bin Khalaf, we’ll examine a hadith that recounts their relationship in a way that will, I hope, help to illustrate how tenuous this endeavor was, and still is.

In the story of Revelatory Islam (i.e., Islam at the time of the Prophet ﷺ), there were few greater opponents of Islam than Ummayah Bin Khalaf.  Know as the master of Bilal Ibn Ribah, Ummayah’s name is famous as one of the staunchest opponents of monotheism.  Before the advent of Islam however, Ummayah had developed a friendship with ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf. This friendship of theirs became strained and was put to the test upon the conversion of ‘Abd al-Rahman, whose name before his conversion was ‘Abdu ‘Amr (lit. “the slave of ‘Amr”). Eventually, ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf migrated to Madinah to join the Prophet ﷺ. Despite ‘Abd al-Rahman’s growing commitment to Islam, the two men still tried to maintain civility and even entered into a pact with one another:

كاتبت أمية بن خلف كتابا ، بأن يحفظني في صاغيتي بمكة ، وأحفظه في صاغيته بالمدينة

“I entered into an agreement with Umayyah Bin Khalaf, where Umayyah would protect my affairs (property and family) in Makkah and I would do the same for his in Madinah.” Narrated by ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf, related in Sahih al-Bukhari #2301

At the time of drafting up this agreement, ‘Abd al-Rahman’s “Muslim name” was mentioned in the document (not ‘Abdu ‘Amr), Umayyah protested, saying,

فلما ذكرت الرحمن ، قال : لا أعرف الرحمن ، كاتبني باسمك الذي كان في الجاهلية ، فكاتبته : عبد عمرو

“I do not know al-Rahman” and requested that the pre-Islamic name ‘Abdu ‘Amr should be used, to which ‘Abd al-Rahman yielded.”

Sometime later, during the Battle of Badr, Umayyah was captured by his old friend ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf. Even though the two men found themselves on two opposite sides of a battle, ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf attempted to intervene on behalf of his old friend (who, as no small crime, had persecuted other Muslims, Bilal in specific, whom he tried to force a recanting of his testimony of “no god but God” by crushing Bilal underneath a rock). Even to the very end, when a group of Muslims led by Bilal himself, sought revenge, ‘Abd al-Rahman protested on Umayyah’s behalf, going so far as to try and shield Umayyah’s body with his own.

So what can we deduce from this? Was ‘Abd al-Rahman disobeying God’s commands by maintaining his friendship with a polytheist? Or did ‘Abd al-Rahman perhaps understand the above verse and its counterparts in a different framework than we commonly do today. Surely, there is little argument concerning ‘Abd al-Rahman’s qualifications as a pious and learned Muslim: He was amongst the first converts to Islam and thus spent considerable time with the Prophet ﷺ; ‘Abd al-Rahman is agreed to be amongst the Ten Who Are Promised Paradise/العشرة المبشرون بالجنة; ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab chose him to be on council of Shura to choose the Khalifah after his death. To say that ‘Abd al-Rahman was a pious and intelligent Muslim, one who lived at the time of the Prophet ﷺ, during the time of Revelation, who lived in direct presence of the only living infallible interpretation of Islam ﷺ and was not chastised for “becoming one of them”, Muslims cannot continue to perpetrate social and cultural disengagement in the name of piety and religiosity. ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf was a man, God be pleased with him, who still loved and cared for his friend, despite their theological differences, and even put his life and potentially political standing on the line.

The question that must be asked is, do Muslims not owe it to themselves to examine, re-examine, and change their tactics if they wish to please both God and country. To remain ensconced in a protest spirit, one that seeks to enthrall us as much as set us free, without any principles attached to it, can only spell future doom for Muslims in America if major steps are not taken to educate themselves on the rich, nuanced, and complex narrative of Islam.

Sources

1. Footnote #72: Premodern and even early modern jurists spoke quite casually of the “non-Muslim wife” (al-zawjah al-kafirah), the “non-Muslim mother” (al-umm al-kafirah), and “non-Muslim parents” (al-walidan al-karifan) as human beings worthy of respect as such. For example, in Bulgat al-salik li agrab al-masalik ila madhhab al-imam Malik 2 vols. (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d.) (an authoritative Maliki text still used on the graduate level at al-Azhar seminary today), after indicating that a Muslim must be good to his parents regardless of their religion, al-Dardir (d. 1201/1786) writes, “and he should guide the blind parent, even if he or she is a kafir, to church, and deliver him or her thereto and provide him or her with money to spend during their holidays” (2: 523). Also, the Maliki and Hanafi schools unanimously agree that a non-Muslim mother (umm kafirah) had a primary right to custody of her Muslim children in cases of divorce from a Muslim husband, assuming she would not attempt to steer the children away from Islam. For more on this point see my “Kramer versus Kramer in a Tenth/Sixteenth Century Egyptian Court: Post-Formative Jurisprudence between Exigency and Law,” Islamic Law and Society 8, no. 1 (2001): 33-36. It should be noted that the Maliki school bore the brunt of the atrocities inflicted by the Christians upon the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain and Sicily and the Hanafi school bore the brunt of the Mongol invasions. Still, these views on non-Muslim relatives remain standard in the Maliki and Hanafi schools right down to the present day. On another note, the tendency of certain Muslim “liberals” to deny essentially that anyone is a kafir reflects their subscription to this same notion of kafir being some sort of subhuman species. (Islam and the Blackamerican, 212)

2. “Who Are the Disbelievers?” (PDF) by Hamza Yusuf in Season’s. Hat tip to the Deenport folks.

3. كاتبت أمية بن خلف كتابا ، بأن يحفظني في صاغيتي بمكة ، وأحفظه في صاغيته بالمدينة ، فلما ذكرت الرحمن ، قال : لا أعرف الرحمن ، كاتبني باسمك الذي كان في الجاهلية ، فكاتبته : عبد عمرو ، فلما كان في يوم بدر ، خرجت إلى جبل لأحرزه حين نام الناس ، فأبصره بلال ، فخرج حتى وقف على مجلس من الأنصار ، فقال : أمية بن خلف ، لا نجوت إن نجا أمية ، فخرج معه فريق من الأنصار في آثارنا ، فلما خشيت أن يلحقونا ، خلفت لهم ابنه لأشغلهم فقتلوه ، ثم أبوا حتى يتبعونا ، وكان رجلا ثقيلا ، فلما أدركونا ، قلت له : ابرك فبرك ، فألقيت عليه نفسي لأمنعه ، فتخللوه بالسيوف من تحتي حتى قتلوه ، وأصاب أحدهم رجلي بسيفه ، وكان عبد الرحمن بن عوف يرينا ذلك الأثر في ظهر قدمه

“I entered into an agreement written with Umayyah Bin Khalaf, where Umayyah would protect my affairs (property and family) in Makkah and I would do the same for his in Madinah. When I mentioned the word ‘al-Rahman’ in the documents, Umayyah said, ‘I do not know al-Rahman. Write down your name from the Jahiliyyah (Pre-lslamic Period of Ignorance).’ So, I wrote my name, ‘Abdu ‘Amr. On the day Badr, when all the people were asleep, I went up the hill to protect him. Bilal saw him and went to a gathering of Ansar and said, ‘Here is Umayyah Bin Khalaf! Woe to me if he escapes!’ So, a group of Ansar went out with Bilal to follow both of us. Being afraid that they would catch us, I left Umayyah’s son for them to keep them busy but the Ansar killed his son and insisted on following us. Umayyah was a fat man, and when they approached us, I told him to kneel down, and he knelt, and I laid myself on him to protect him, but the Ansar killed him by passing their swords underneath me, and one of them injured my foot with his sword.” (The sub narrator said, ” ‘Abd al-Rahman used to show us the trace of the wound on the back of his foot.”) Narrated by ‘Abdur-Rahman Bin ‘Awf, related in Sahih al-Bukhari 2301.

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.