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.


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.

‘Umrah 2008 – The Trip I’ve Been Waiting My Whole Life For


Before I delve into the heart of this post I would like to plug and praise the Madinah Institute. It was through their hard efforts that we all had the most enjoyable time, no doubt at the cost of them sacrificing some of their own enjoyment. May Allah reward all of you for your efforts. Second, you will notice that I have abandoned the usual academic, stoic prose in favor of a more heart/religion on my sleeve approach. This was no ordinary trip, thus warranting no ordinary post. I hope you will enjoy it.

But not to fear. For those of you who just anxious to see the images, here they are [I’ll be trying to put these back up again soon]. I hope that after you view through them, you’ll take a few minutes and read over the post.

Another quick note about the post. When you see [s], this stands for sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam [May God send peace and blessings upon him]. It is a salutation that Muslims send on the Prophet Muhammad when we mention his name. Ok. Enough notes. Enjoy.

It’s hard to believe, that at 11:20am, I am sitting comfortably in JFK airport on July 10th, 2008. From the first moment that it entered my head I never thought it would ever come to fruition. I must learn to be more trusting and imaginative with my Lord. Truly, God never ceases to astound. And while the time has seemed to hang in Limbo over the last month or so, it has all compressed here in this moment. All of the thought, the planning, the speculation, snares and trip wires, have evaporated and all that remains is myself, two bags and a 2pm date with a very sexy looking 747.

To relate how this trip even came about I must first relate how I met the brothers from the Madinah Institute at the ISNA 2008 Baltimore convention. They happened to be involved with facilitating it. In short time we were hanging out and having coffee, discussing projects that we might want to work on together in the future. The standard meet and greet that one does at such places. But shortly after meeting them it was immediately suggested that I accompany them on their Summer ‘Umrah program in Saudi Arabia. I politely nodded my head, giving an affirmative response that was more articulated on manners I learned as a child than sincere foresight of actually praying in the Holy Mosque. We promised to keep in touch after the conference, and that I did sincerely intend to do as it’s not often that I meet many Muslims today that I really feel comfortable with. Perhaps I’ve just had a string of unfortunate circumstances. Either way, I am very glad to have met them.

While toiling in my office in early June, I received a phone call from one of the brothers asking, “what can we do to get you to come with us to ‘Umrah?” I was shocked and excited at once, like diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer’s day. You know it’s going to be freezing and yet it always surpasses your prediction. But once the cold water washes over your body, you can’t imagine standing poolside any longer. You want to be engaged. You want to stay engaged. Such was my initial feelings when I received my invite. The negotiations were quick and subtle and before I knew it, I was putting in a request for time off. For the next four-plus weeks I had to respond to, “you’re going where?” I graciously replied, “Mecca [from here after referred to as Makkah]. Saudi Arabia. You know, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah? Yeah, there’s where I’ll be.”  I even took the time to point it out with Google Maps. It was at that moment that the realization hit me in successive waves: staring down at the computer screen, two tiny dots seemed to grow bigger and bigger in my mind. Makkah. Madinah. The birthplace of Islam. Where it all started.

Preparing for a trip such as this one took one a little bit of finagling. Initially, I thought I would have to buy my ihram from the Internet but I was easily able to locate one in Philadelphia, not more than ten blocks from my house. In a small Muslim shop on 52nd and Chestnut in West Philadelphia, I procured my ihram from Shaykh Muhammad, the proprietor of Muslim Fashions. In fact, I had called the day before to see if he sold ihrams and he had set one aside for me. The shop was a quintessential inner city Muslim store, filled with rows of jumbled books, organized in no particular order. A small supply of men’s clothing in the forms of shalwar khamees, thobes, kufis and the like and a large selection of women’s clothing apparel. But what stands out the most with shops like these is the overwhelming bouquet of odors. Dozens of vials full of perfumes and body oils clutter the display case, their scents mixing vigorously with piles of incense, from boxes full of brown and green sticks to cones. The olfactory is completely stunned – one may not be able to smell properly for several hours even after exiting the store. And of course, anything one buys from Muhammad is ripe with the scent, needing four to five washings to attempt to remove. But the most important thing about this exchange is that none of the above should be seen as a negative. It’s just part of the experience.

The only intervening activities of note from here until departure was the head scratching one does at puzzling out how to wear the ihram without it coming undone and flashing everyone at the House of God. Definitely not in the itinerary. But like so many things in modern life, a simple Google search [sh. Muhammad ‘Adaly] – coupled with an hour or two of laughs and you’re a pro a walking around the house in two bed sheets, practicing, “Labbayka allamhuma labbayk -  [At your service, my Lord, I am at your service]”. With the ihram mastered, it’s time to pack.

Anyone who ever needs to fly from JFK and lives in Philadelphia, I highly recommend the Grey Hound/MTA/AirTrain combination. An e-ticket from Grey Hound can be had for as little as $12 – $15. Two dollars gets you from Port Authority to Howard Beach on the A Train. Another seven klaks and you’re on the AirTrain which will take you to any terminal in the airport. As long as you leave with plenty of time, it’s the most relaxing way to fly out of New York City for under $30 one-way.

For those who don’t know me as well, I have an extreme phobia of flying. Extreme to the point that I need to be medicated to board the jet. Logical persuasions always fall short of the mark. After all, it’s a phobia – it is not dictated by the norms of logic. And from the first moment I laid eyes on the Saudi Arabian Airlines 747 jumbo jet, my fear escalated to another level. I was astounded by how absolutely massive the aircraft was. My mind raced, trying to find a believable equation that would justify 50 tons of steel flying up into the blue yonder. But if there’s one thing I’m learning on this trip and that’s to not underestimate the Grace of God. I spent the two nights before my flight reverently supplicating to have a safe flight as nightmares flashed through my head of crashing planes, wreckage and worse. And yet, on boarding the plane, a peculiar sense of tranquility washed over me. A subdual of my fears granted me a very comfortable flight. Even take off and landing, which are normally fraught with anxiety went by smoothing [well, fairly smooth – my palms were still slightly moist]. The crew was quite pleasant and I enjoyed talking with them, discussing my first trip to Saudi Arabia. “Truly, with hardship comes ease.”

Saudi Arabia is very hot. That is something that should just be put out in the open and gotten out of the way. Or, if not out of the way, put out in the open to establish a context in which almost all actions, activities and indeed thoughts, occur in. From the moment you step off the plane you know you’re in a very different place. Not just because of the language or the palm trees but because of the heat. In fact, it is the environment of Saudi that impresses me the most. Harsh and yet beautiful, it commands your respect instantly. On the ride from the airport at Jeddah to Makkah, you pass through a very harsh terrain that is composed up scrub, sand, broken rocks, boulders and mountains. One is reminded of the times that the Prophet Muhammad and his people had to live in. The pre-Modern Bedouin has all of my respect. Traversing such terrain on camelback is not for the faint of heart.

Our arrival at the hotel was made quick as we landed in Saudi on Friday, the day of communal prayer [Jumu’ah Prayer]. Our task was to unload as quickly as possible, shower, and head off to the Haram [the Holy Mosque]. Having never set foot in Makkah before, I was anxious to get underway and within thirty minutes I was strolling down the street, white ihram wrapped around my body, headed towards the mosque, with only a general sense of where I was going. The street was packed bumper to bumper with traffic, as Makkah’s inhabitants tried to find parking spaces for the prayer. I gazed around me, bemused, as the thought occurred to me [and not for the last time, either]: “What is a boy from Michigan doing walking down the street in Makkah?! Wow!, I am really here!”. And I seemed to belong there somehow. As if I my very feet had contributed to smoothing the path that leads to the Ka’abah. It was with this thought in mind, rounding a corner, that the minarets of the Grand Mosque came into view. I was completely stopped in my tracks, transfixed in a gaze. At your service, my Lord, I am at your service [labbayka allahumma labbayk]. It was huge. Bigger than huge. It was magnificent. It took me several moments to take it all in, to digest it. Like a whirlpool, the gates of the Haram swallowed patron after patron, headed to find a spot to sit, awaiting the Friday Sermon. But yet again, another silent thought came to me: “This is modern architecture. As beautiful as it may seem, these minarets are modern fabrications. What I am in search of is ancient. Much older than these.” And so I picked up the pace, descending the last portion of the road that connects to the white marble outside the Haram.

I will endeavor to try and describe many of the wonderful things I have seen, heard, tasted and touched on this trip to the best of my ability. But I must plead guilty to being unable to properly describe what it meant to behold the Ka’abah the first time. Also named the House of God and the House of Abraham, the Ka’abah is the centerpiece of Muslim prayer. It is the direction to which Muslims pray. Often people will say that Muslims turn the direction of their prayer to Makkah, and while this is true, it is only true in that Makkah houses the Ka’abah. When at the Haram, one’s direction of prayer is the Ka’abah. It is stunning to see all four of its walls lined with people. Men, women and children all bowed in prostration towards it. Again, I was hit with the thought that when I am at home or in the office and praying, it is towards here, here!, that I am pointing my body. My qiblah [direction of prayer] leads here.

But in addition to the direction of prayer, it’s also the significance of being at the Ka’abah, to know that one is standing on the very same ground as the Prophet [may Allah bless him and grant him peace] once stood. That the companions of the Prophet once stood [may Allah be pleased with them]. An avid student of the religion from day one, I have read many an account of this or that event taking place at the Ka’abah, like the reading of ar-Rahman, the 55th chapter of the Qur’an, at the Ka’abah and the reaction of the Quraysh to it [my apologies for readers who are unfamiliar with some of the terminology. Feel free to contact me you wish to have a more detailed explanation]. But now with being here, I’ve gone from passive observer to active participant. To being inserted into the historical narrative, however small my bit part might be.

The Ka’abah is also much larger than one thinks, perhaps twenty feet in height and draped in black cloth, sewn and adorned with golden writing and calligraphy. The focus of the Ka’abah is the Black Stone. Pilgrims strive day and night to pass within its vicinity; to touch it, to kiss it. And despite what one thinks, being big is much more of a disadvantage when you’re trying to wade through a sea of people. I was never once able to get remotely close to the Black Stone. I simply take up too much room. But tawaf is not about touching the Black Stone or kissing it. It is nice if you can but it’s more just the presence of being in this place – one can feel the sanctity of it. The floor of the Haram is covered in white marble, which can be quite blinding in the intense midday sun. Thus I walked in, joined shoulder to shoulder with perhaps several thousand people, to make the Jumu’ah [Friday communal] Prayer.

After prayer I spent a little time walking through some of the shops that line the street going back to the hotel. Makkah, in a word, is bustling. There’s a palatable beat and rhythm that the people move to. Not in some exotic notion but rather that the people are always moving briskly – going somewhere of importance, at least to them. Shops line the streets selling a variety of goods from prayer mats, skull caps, and head scarves to money changers, food carts, fruit sellers and the like. There are also the make-shift vendors, many of them women, dressed head to toe in black, who call out their wares, haggling down to the last riyal [Saudi Arabian currency]. There is also no shortness of beggars, many of whom seem to border on professionalism, repeat the same stories over and over about how they came with their families to Makkah, had all of their money stolen, the car wrecked and so forth and ask you humbly, “Ya hajji, hajji, fiy sabiyliyllah” [O’ Pilgrim! Give for the sake of God]”. And while many of them are no doubt regulars there are indeed poor people on the street, many missing limbs and the like. For those who have not been and are planning to go, you must steel yourself for these encounters for while the professional beggars can be easily brushed aside, it is sometimes a child in the street with a missing leg or arm that can pull at the heart strings. But Makkah is for worship. That is the best advice I can give. Stick to worship at the Haram, at the Ka’bah and that will pull you through.

The next major task was to make ‘Umrah, one of the major foci of the trip. ‘Umrah is a type of pilgrimage, like the Hajj, but is shorter [taking only a few hours to complete], sometimes referred to as the minor Hajj. It does not fill the requirement of Hajj [the once in a lifetime mandate to make Hajj] – and can be performed any time of the year where Hajj is only performed in the month of dhul-Hijjah [the month of Hajj]. ‘Umrah consists of two major rituals, tawaf and saa’iy, follow by halq [complete cutting/shaving of hair – for men] or taqsiyr [partial trimming – for men/women]. ‘Umrah is performed in an item of clothing called an ihram. Ihram is also the name for the state that the mu’atamir [‘Umrah pilgrim] is in until the ‘Umrah ritual is completed. The garment [for men] consists of two white, seamless sheets of cotton, one wrapped around the waist and the other over the shoulders. Again, the mu’atamir remains in the state of ihram until s/he cuts the hair.

My days of practicing putting my ihram on and walking around the house paid off and before I knew it, I was headed off to the Haram, ready to perform my first ‘Umrah. I was accompanied by several members of our group, including Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy. We had waited until after the final evening prayer to go, hoping the crowds would be a little less and the heat a bit lower. We were granted one of our requests – it was only about 98 degrees instead of 109 but the crowd was still going strong. So lining up at the corner of the Black Stone, I raised my right hand, saluted the Ka’abah and said, “bismillah. Allahu akhbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar [in the name of God. God is great, God is great, God is great]”. The first three times around the Ka’abah [making tawaf] the pace is sped up a bit by men, followed by four units at a regular walking speed. During the counter-clockwise navigation of the Ka’abah, one offers up prayers and supplications for oneself, one’s family, one’s loved ones, friends, the Prophet Muhammad [s], all the Prophets, all Muslims worldwide, all of humanity, and so forth. Other various prayers are offered up as well. It is a truly magical thing. Surrounded by thousands of people you do not know from Adam, and yet you find yourself smiling at them. Smiles are returned. Greetings are exchanged [as-Salaamu ‘alaykum, peace be unto you] and your thoughts glide upward to the Most High. We started as a group but by the first round of tawaf we were separated and all of us interspersed into the greater crowd. Over and over, we circle the Ka’abah, all thoughts on God. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more selfless moment in my life. I pray I can return for many more.

Once our seven units of tawaf were completed we offered two units of prayer at the station of Ibrahim [Abraham]. The many rituals of ‘Umrah and Hajj are symbolic representations of what Abraham and his wife Hagar did. For instance, saa’iy, the seven units of walking between the hills of Safaa and Marwa represent the anxious search of Hagar of water until God revealed to her the location of the Zamzam well. We left the station of Ibrahim and proceeded to saa’iy.

It was unclear if the current conditions at saa’iy are temporary or permanent. Saa’iy used to be open-aired but now is enclosed. This created two issues. One, the effects of the heat are intensified as the heat has nowhere to go. It was the only place in Saudi that I felt humidity. And two, it makes it more difficult to discern the localities of the small hills of Safaa and Marwa. I can only hope these are temporary measure due to construction on the Mosque.

The crowds were tight in here as well, as with the area being enclosed, there was nowhere for the crowds to spill over to. There are two main paths, one leading to Marwah and the other back to Safaa, with a small path in between the two to allow for the disabled in wheelchairs to make saa’iy as well. Again, one starts off by making supplications and the sets off between the two hills. Some people stop at intervals and have a small cup of Zamzam water before carrying on. At the completion of the said seven units, the rituals of ‘Umrah are now completed, with only the hair cutting remaining. Despite only walking, we were all fairly exhausted from the effort and headed back to the hotel for a shower and hair trimming.

The barber in the hotel was a curious fellow from Egypt. I believe he was from Aswan and perhaps of Sudanese heritage. He took a lot of pride in not only shaving heads but giving us a hard time about politics and religion. He kept us laughing for the better part of an hour, after which most people in the group had their heads shaved. I opted for a simple cutting of a few locks. And with the hair cutting completed, we finished our ‘Umrah and resumed our normal affairs, taking off our ihrams until the next time.

We remained in Makkah for a few more days, attending classes and recovering from the efforts of ‘Umrah. I had a chance to go out and get to know the city a bit. Zayd and myself took an excursion one day which resulted in a very funny incident.

Bartering is how things get done in Makkah. You barter for just about everything and anything. Prices are not what they seem and unless you just want to get taken for a ride, you’d better learn to barter. A little Arabic under your belt wouldn’t hurt either, as was the case with Zayd. While walking in a predominantly Bengali section of Makkah, Zayd [who, for the context of this story, is a white-American convert with a slightly Southern accent] needed to new AA batteries for his GPS tracking device [p.s.  just for the record. If you don’t want to be treated like a tourist and gouged on prices, put away the shinny GPS device and just get lost like the rest of us!]. Upon entering what looked like to be a promising little shop, the owner spotted his rent for the day and offered Zayd two AA batteries for the sum of 75 riyals! That’s about twenty American dollars. The man feigned speaking English of course and thus Zayd came back, requesting some assistance. I lent my swarthy appearance to the task and when I inquired about two AA batteries the negotiating started at 10 riyals, and the end of which the man was widdled down to three [about 80 cents]! Again, unless you want to spend all your hard earned cash on AA batteries, put away any all possible traces of American-ness.

In addition to classes we also took a tour around Makkah, visiting a number of significant historical sites from the grave of Khadijah, may Allah be pleased with her, the Prophet’s [s] wife, other graves of the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them, to some of the sites that the Prophet [s] used to frequent before his call to Prophethood. Caves and mountain sites where he [s] would go into spiritual retreat and meditate and pray. The shuyukh [plural of shaykh] provided us with a bounty of commentary on each and every place we went, enriching the experience and making it all come alive. May Allah reward them for the time and effort. It was these tours, combined with the classes, which really made the experience of going with the Madinah Institute extremely worthwhile. I commend them and ask Allah to reward them for their efforts in organizing such a wonderful trip.

From Makkah we journeyed approximately 5 hours through the desert to Madinah, also knows as al-Madinatul Munawwarah [The City of Light/The Enlightened City] and Madinatun Nabiyy [The City of the Prophet]. In pre-Islamic times it was known as Yathrib. Our stay was first at the Movenpick hotel followed by the Hilton. Both accommodations were quite splendid. Another small tip – befriend the Egyptian guy that cleans your room. If you get him to like you [which means trying to converse with him in a face-paced, half-intelligible Egyptian slang about soccer and Hajj, where your family is from and whether or not you’re married as well as leaving him about 10 or so riyals a day], you’ll want for nothing. At least that’s at the Movenpick. At the Hilton you can just speak English with the Bengali staff. They’re very gracious.

Madinah. The City of the Prophet. From the first moment one steps into Madinah, you can feel the tranquility of the place. A completely different vibe underpins Madinah versus Makkah. The hustle and bustle of Makkah is replaced with a much more toned down pace of life. Even the weather is tamer, despite it supposedly being warmer. A gentle breeze always seems to be blowing in Madinah. It is the place from one’s initial contact; you know you never want to leave it.

The rhythm of our stay in Madinah was more calculated, with classes being interspersed between prayer times. Less time was spent at the suwq [market], as was the case in Makkah, as in Madinah it seemed. We all really just wanted to spend time at the Prophet’s [s] Mosque, making Visitation to him, spending time in the Rawdah [a small section of the Mosque adjacent to the Prophet’s [s] house, which is considered by Muslims to be a part of the Jannah [Paradise]. I myself spent a lot time here, reading Qur’an one afternoon with El-Amin, a wonderful American brother I met on this trip, as well as making dhikr, making du’ah [supplication] for family and loved ones or just simply sitting there with the soothing thought that one is in the presence of the Best of Creation. Again, Madinah is a place of the heart and one longs to extend one’s stay here.

If one has the time and the resources, Madinah is a treasure trove of Muslim history, with many masaajid [mosques] and other places of interest. Many are within walking distance of the Prophet’s [s] Mosque. Unfortunately, I was unaware of this until after our trip. God willing, I will return again next year and frequent some of these places, hoping to photograph some of them. My intention to photograph them is not simply for the sake of tourism, but rather to preserve some memory of them as the Saudi government is studiously knocking down many important historical and religious sites. I can only hope that they will see that modernization can accommodate the past and put a stop to this. Amin.

Like in Makkah, the Madinah Institute also set up tours of Madinah. Several places were visited including amongst them the Masjid Qiblatayn [the mosque of two directions of prayer, where the initial qiblah of Jerusalem as moved to the Ka’abah in Makkah], Masjid Quba, the first mosque established in Madinah, as well as a number of other smaller and far well less know sites like the grove of date palm trees near Quba where there is a sweet-tasting well/spring, called Adhq [from dhawq, which means to taste], a place frequented by the Prophet Muhammad [s]. The grove was owned by Kulthum ibn Hadm, from Bani Amr ibn Awf. The Prophet’ [s], on the Hijrah [the Migration from Makkah to Madinah], stopped and rested in this palm grove area. We also visited the site of Uhud, where many Muslims were martyred. The Prophet’s [s] uncle, Hamzah, may Allah be pleased with him, is also buried there. Again, the efforts of the shuyukh in instructing us really made these legs of the trip so much more informative.

From here, I will conclude with just a few points. I have only scratched the surface of what this trip was and the more I think of it, I will not be able to adequately write about it. Perhaps, through a more personal correspondence with some of you, I can share a more intimate account. But in the end, it was a journey of the heart and thus, can only be truly articulated by the heart. My recommendation? Visit it for yourself. Taste it [dhawq] for yourself and then you will truly know what it means to visit the House of God. What it means to be in the presence of the Mercy to All the Worlds. Again, I prefaced my post that this would be written in the spirit of what I felt, not in my usual academic prose or interfaith dialect. I love Makkah. I love the House of God. And I love the Prophet. I pray I am invited again by its Host, to lay prostrate, open and completely human, as I have only felt in the Divine Presence of the Haramayn [The Two Harams of Makkah and Madinah].

My heartfelt thanks to the Madinah Institute for making this possible. To Shaykh Mohsin Al-Najjar for being patient with me and all of my questions. To Shaykh Ninowy to tolerating my clumsy Arabic with a kind smile [na’am, sidi, na’am, he would often say!!]. To Shaykh Muhammad Ali Ben Saddek Al-Ghumari. I treasure the time I had to speak with you. I apologize that my French was not better! Perhaps I can visit you in Fez, God willing. To British crew: I could not have bad better roommates than you sorry blokes [how’s my Cockney coming along?]!! I had the best time with Majid and Arfan [p.s. next time I look like I’m sleepy: wake me up. I won’t mind!! ]. To Asim – our time was short but I look forward to more. For Sajad and Esa: you guys were just excellent company. I really want to put together a trip to England to visit all of you. Faisal – I am counting on you to take me out for fish n’ chips when I come. And for all the others, brothers and sisters alike, you made this trip what it was. I hope we can all meet again under such favorable locations and spirit. But most of all to the Atiya family. Without whom, none of this would have come together and especially Moutasem, who’s tireless, selfless work made all of us just glide on rails the whole time we were there. May Allah reward you in it and increase you in that reward. Until the next episode, my heart will lay somewhere over the Atlantic, longing for Madinah.

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”.

The Seerah With Dr. Sherman Jackson – Seeing Love In Action

I am so tired right now but I had to put this down on pen and paper (or pixel and electrons if you will). I will comment at greater length as to the details of Dr. Jackson’s two-day session at NYU (especially as I’ve only seen one day so far) but I’d like to speak on Dr. Jackson as a whole and what he means to me.

I know I’ve written an awful lot about Dr. Jackson here and even he may think my words are misplaced but I will say that we, meaning American Muslims, are so blessed, so fortunate to have someone like him that I want to take a moment to personally thank him.

The session I spoke of is the two-day session on the Seerah of the Prophet: The Makkan Period. Never before have I had the biography of the Prophet laid out before me. One of several epiphanies that I had during this course is that there needs to be a serious, scholarly re-working of the Muslims understanding of the Prophet. By this I mean we need to have the language and the method in which the Prophet is presented to us re-tooled to fit the times in which we live. For many of us (and myself until recent) I believe/d the Prophet is/has been made into an unhuman figure. What do I mean by unhuman (not inhuman!)? I mean that we often hear ourselves quoting the fact that the Prophet never made a mistake even though we have Qur’anic proof that he did:

He frowned and turned his back when the blind man came towards him. How could you tell? He might have sought to purify himself. He might have been forewarned, and might have profited from Our warning. But to the wealthy man you were all attention: although the fault would not be yours (the Prophet) if he remained uncleansed.{Qur’an: 80 v.1-5}

This is not some play at words – the Prophet was a real person, a real human being. He did make a mistake. The difference is that God never allowed the Prophet to perpetuate a mistake or more clearly, what ever mistakes the Prophet may have committed would be/were corrected before his death. This, in my opinion, is a more correct way to look at the عصمة (‘ismah) or infallibility of the Prophet.

As Muslims, we need to ask ourselves, why do we have these perceptions? Should we have them? And how can we begin a process of (as Yoda put it so eloquently), “unlearning what we have learned.” For me, I see many Muslims are afraid to tackle these issues. Some thing by looking at the Prophet in this light, it opens the door of capitulating to the Orientalist or Islamaphobes perception of the Prophet. But, as per Dr. Jackson’s advice, instead of worrying how others outside of our religious fold define the Prophet, perhaps we should concentrate on how we define him. If we remove our desire for outside validation, then perhaps so many of our phobias will fall away.

It was this and more that Dr. Jackson brought to us. The Prophet came alive for us. Though we could never walk in his shoes, we certainly could empathize with him. The Prophet was a man who loved his people: idolators, Jews, Christians, Muslims, all of them. And he showed this love in how he carried out his prophethood.

The Prophet was also a man who also experienced deep sorrow. Never wanting the mantle of prophethood, Khadijah, his first wife and if I may be so bold, his big love of his life, was his rock and corner stone when his received Revelation. Khadijah was the first Muslim. And when she died, the sorrow that he must have felt was immense. I could only imagine what it must have been like. A message delivered to you in which no one else is aware of. And the only person who trusts and believes you, who bares your children and comforts you, is one day taken from you (all the while, hostility is growing towards you and your movement and there’s no backing out of it – how do you back out of delivering God’s message?). When Dr. Jackson said that the Prophet had to come home to a lonely home after 25 years of marriage, the deep sorrow the Prophet felt at Khadijah’s death, overwhelmed me. As I sat and pondered these thoughts on the bus back to Philadelphia that evening, I started to weep. I imagined being in love and having that great love taken from you. Coming home and not having that person be there. I thought of my father and what it would mean for him to come home and not have my mother there and I just kept crying.

I’ve often heard stories of Muslims weeping when they thought of the Prophet and until then, I could not conceptualize it (also, added to the fact that men do not cry comfortably about anything in our culture!). But that night, for the first time in the nearly 15 years I’ve been Muslim, I grasped the humanity of the Prophet, what his Message was, the sacrifices he gave and then could fully understand the meaning behind صلى الله عليه وسلم (May God send peace and blessings upon the Prophet). For this, I am eternally grateful to Dr. Jackson.

I will put up shortly some notes from Dr. Jackson’s lecture there. It’s still in a distillation process for me. So be patient and stay tuned.