Is Islamic history in danger of becoming irrelevant?

We can see just such a history-shy approach in coverage of the sectarian conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we are usually told, has its origins in a contest over religious authority in the seventh century between the partisans of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and those Muslims who believed the incumbent caliphs of the day were better guides and leaders for the community. And so Shi’ites and Sunnis, we are led to believe, have been fighting ever since. It is as if the past fourteen centuries of history, with its record of coexistence, migrations, imperial designs, and nation-building have no part in the matter, to say nothing of the past century or less of authoritarian regimes, identity-politics, and colonial mischief.

We see the inconvenient truths of Islamic history also being ignored in the widespread discourse of crusading and counter-crusading that occasionally infects comment on contemporary conflicts, as if holy war is the default mode for Muslims fighting non-Muslims or vice-versa. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can wrap himself in black robes and proclaim himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, when seventh-century conflicts seem like thorough explanations for twenty-first century struggles, or when a terrorist and mass-murderer like the Norwegian Anders Breivik can see himself as a latter-day Knight Templar, then we are sadly living in a world in which the medieval is allowed to seep uncritically into the contemporary as a way to provide easy answers to very complicated problems.

(Source : blog.oup.com)

The Qur’an accepts the existence of diversity in sexuality and sexual orientation. This is the basic fact that must be acknowledged before moving on to address any particular legal regulation of sexual acts or sexual relationships. In other words, Islamic discourse based on the Qur’an did not use a discourse of “natural” or “unnatural” to describe sexualities. European Christians introduced this concept of “natural” versus “unnatural” to describe variation in sexuality and sexual actions. It has remained the keystone of denunciations of homosexuality long after Christianity ceased to function as the moral touchstone for Western societies. Contemporary Muslims who explicitly denounce homosexuality as “un-Islamic” adopt this dichotomy of natural and unnatural, and apply it as if it were indigenous to the Islamic tradition and to the Qur’an.This is a sign of bad faith, and a signal that contemporary Muslim moralists are not insulated from modernity, even as they depict gay and lesbian Muslims as corrupted by modernity. Gay and lesbian Muslims are certainly not required to accept the posturing of self-righteous defenders of a “tradition” that they anachronistically defend with conceptual tools from Christian thought and modern Euro-American culture. These same moralists and fundamentalists blithely assert that there are no homosexual people in Islamic communities (or if they are they should be killed). On the contrary, when one looks through the historical and literary records of Islamic civilization, one finds a rich archive of same-sex sexual desires and expressions, written by or reported about respected members of society: literati, educated elites, and religious scholars. This is so much the case that one might consider Islamic societies (like classical Greece) to provide a vivid illustration of a “homosexual-friendly” environment in world history. In fact, medieval and early modern Christian Europeans have often engaged in polemics against Muslims by accusing them of being “sodomitical” and of engaging openly in same-sex practices; this rhetoric was an integral part of the Christian campaigns to re-conquer Spain

– Sexuality, Diversity and Ethics in the agenda of progressive Muslims, by Scott Kugle.

In my view, the Western attempts to vilify Islam in the past were inspired by fear and respect, and Western perceptions of Muslims were not based on any realistic understanding of Muslim socio-political circumstances. Most of the vilifications were nothing more than the anxieties, fears, and aspirations of Westerners projected onto the dominant force at the time without any foundation in reality. At the intellectual, commercial, and scientific levels, one finds that Westerners borrowed heavily from Muslim social and legal thought and scientific inventiveness. By contrast, today, whatever bigotry exists against Muslims, it is based in the unfortunate socio-political realities experienced by Muslims, which the West perceives, generalizes, and exaggerates, and which then become the basis for stereotypes. Today’s prejudices against Muslims are not based on fear and respect, but on the worst and most cruel type of bigotry, and that is the type that is displayed against those whom the West dominates and controls. Pre-modern bigotry was directed at Muslims, as the masters of the world. Today’s bigotry is directed at those who are seen to be at the bottom of the human hierarchy – people who politically and socially live in a dependent and bonded status, like that of slaves.

In the pre-modern age, although there is clear evidence of a strong binary impulse [Us vs. Them] pervading both the Muslim and Western worlds, given the scientific and intellectual achievements of Muslims, Christian and Jewish bigotry towards Muslims had to be tempered by the element of need. Both Jews and Christians could not help but be influenced by Muslim intellectual products, and this made the dynamics with Islam complex and multi-faceted.

In the modern age, however, the binary perspective of Muslims is no longer one that is undertaken from a position of strength: the relative self-sufficiency of the West is matched by the economic dependency of the Muslim world. Muslim nations are underdeveloped and economically and political dependent, and in the contemporary age there is little that Muslim cultures are able to contribute to the West, other than the Muslim faith.

Khaled Abou El Fadl

Remembering Salmaan Taseer

Governor Salmaan Taseer died at the hands of a religious fanatic on January 4 last year. Fearlessly championing a deeply unpopular cause, this brave man had sought to revisit the country’s blasphemy law which, as he saw it, was yet another means of intimidating Pakistan’s embattled religious minorities. This law — which is unique in having death as the minimum penalty — would have sent to the gallows an illiterate Christian peasant woman, Aasia Bibi, who stood accused by her Muslim neighbours after a noisy dispute. Taseer’s publicly-voiced concern for human life earned him 26 high-velocity bullets from one of his security guards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. The other guards watched silently.

In this long, sad, year more has followed. Justice Pervez Ali Shah, the brave judge who ultimately sentenced Taseer’s murderer in spite of receiving death threats, has fled the country. Aasia Bibi is rotting away in jail, reportedly in solitary confinement and in acute psychological distress. Shahbaz Taseer, the governor’s son, was abducted in late August — presumably by Qadri’s sympathisers. He remains untraceable. Shahbaz Bhatti, another vocal voice against the blasphemy law, was assassinated weeks later on March 2.

Political assassinations occur everywhere. But the Pakistani public reaction to Taseer’s assassination horrified the world. As the news hit the national media, spontaneous celebrations erupted in places; a murderous unrepentant mutineer had been instantly transformed into a national hero. Glib-tongued television anchors sought to convince viewers that Taseer had brought ill unto himself. Religious political parties did not conceal their satisfaction, and the imam of Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid declined the government’s request to lead the funeral prayers. Rehman Malik, the interior minister, sought to curry favour with religious forces by declaring that, if need be, he would “kill a blasphemer with my own hands”.

Taseer’s was a high-profile episode, but there are countless other equally tragic ones which receive little public attention. Surely it is time to reflect on what makes so many Pakistanis disposed towards celebrating murder, lawlessness, and intolerance. To understand the kind of psychological conditioning that has turned us into nasty brutes, cruel both to ourselves and to others, I suggest that the reader sample some of the Friday khutbas (sermons) delivered across the country’s estimated 250,000 mosques.

Often using abusive language, the mullahs excoriate their enemies: America, India, Israel, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Shias, and Qadianis. Before appreciative crowds, they breathe fire against the enemies of Islam and modernity. Music is condemned to be evil, together with life insurance and bank interest. In frenzied speeches they put women at the centre of all ills, demand that they be confined to the home, covered in purdah, and forbidden to use lipstick or go to beauty parlours.

But the harshest words are reserved for the countless “deviant” Muslims. Governor Taseer was considered one. The former minister for foreign affairs, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, is another. In a foul-mouthed speech that the reader can hear on the above website, Qureshi is denounced as “haramzada” by Maulana Altafur Rehman Shah of Muhammadi Masjid in Gujrat and described as a “keeper [mujawar] of graves”. Quoting Nawa-e-Waqt, this maulana of the Ahl-e-Hadith school calls Qureshi a lapdog who stands with his “cheek on the cheek of Hillary Clinton”. What, he asks, could be a matter of greater shame? Parliamentarian Jamshed Dasti, also accused of grave worship, is harshly condemned for being unable to name the first five verses of the Holy Quran.

"Zejneba Hardaga (R) walks with Rivka Kavilio in Sarajevo, covering the Jewish star Kavilio was forced to wear by Nazi authorities with her abaya. Hardaga’s sister-in-law is to the far left.

Throughout the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo during World War II, the Muslim Hardaga family helped the Jewish Kavilio family survive the widespread anti-Jewish legislation, and eventually hid them in their home until liberation in 1945.

When Yugoslavia descended into civil war in the 1990s, the Kavilio family, having by then moved abroad, returned the favor, facilitating the Hardagas’ flight from Bosnia.”

(Source : yadvashem.org)

Iran’s Jewish community reflects a complicated relationship with Israel

"We are not tenants in this country. We are Iranians, and we have been for thirty centuries,” Ciamak Morsadegh, Iran’s lone Jewish lawmaker, said Monday. Morsadegh traveled as a member of Rouhani’s delegation during his trip to the United Nations. 

Community leaders say that Jews here have become more religious since Iran’s revolution. With 60 active synagogues spread across Iran, and a dozen in Tehran alone, sermons and religious courses are perpetually filled.

But that gravitation toward deeper faith has not included an embrace of Zionism or any upsurge in emigration to Israel, the leaders say.

“There is a distinction between us as Jews and Israel,” said Haroon Saketi, who owns a clothing boutique in Esfahan. “We consider ourselves Iranian Jews and it has nothing to do with Israel whatsoever. This is the country we love.”

At Tapo, one of three Jewish owned restaurants in Tehran, diners relish plates of Kebab Koobideh, minced lamb on skewers, and ghormeh sabzi, a stew of fresh herbs, dried lemons and kidney beans that many consider Iran’s national dish.

“Our food is exactly the same as what other Iranians eat,’’ said Davood Shoumer runs the restaurant during the day shift. “No difference, but our meat is kosher.’’

(Source : Washington Post)

"In the strongest terms, Muhammad decried the mistreatment and exploitation of the weak and unprotected. He called for an end to false contracts and the practice of usury that had made slaves of the poor. He spoke of the rights of the underprivileged and the oppressed, and made the astonishing claim that it was the duty of the rich and powerful to take care of them. ‘Do not oppress the orphan,’ the Quran commands, ‘and do not drive away the beggar’ (93:9-10)…

This was a radical message, one that had never been heard before in Mecca. Muhammad was not yet establishing a new religion; he was calling for sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.”

—Reza Aslan, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

Zoroastrians in Contemporary Tehran

Zoroastrians claim a privileged relationship to #Iran as they identify Zoroaster as an indigenous Iranian prophet. Thus, they consider themselves the spiritual progenitors of Iranian culture and regard themselves as responsible for protecting, transmitting, and promoting Iran’s cultural heritage. 

Fozi provides an ethnographic example of an exhibit organized by the Zoroastrian Students Society at a park in North Tehran that included examples of a sofreh, or traditional spread, that also plays an important role in the Iranian New Year’s festivities. He notes that in their explanations, the Zoroastrian representatives attempted to present rites that are now popular among Muslims as essentially Zoroastrian, thus portraying themselves as progenitors of these rites.

At the same time, Zoroastrians must be careful not to overstep their bounds as a minority community under the Islamic Republic. On occasion, they carefully align themselves with the Shi’i majority against the shared historical consciousness of Sunni Arab invaders. Indeed, the memory of the Arab invasion of Iran is highlighted in Zoroastrian rites and serves both as a point of differentiation and alignment with the Shi’a, since it at once suggests that the Shi’a were Zoroastrians who were somehow corrupted by Arab influence, and that the legacy of the Shi’i struggle against Sunnis marks them as having authentic Iranian roots alongside Zoroastrians.

Ultimately, Fozi suggests that Zoroastrians hold that their faith has deeply shaped Shi’i cosmology, modes of prayer, and its ecclesiastic order, but that Zoroastrians are still superior, distinct, and more authentically Iranian than the Shi’a.

(Source : dissertationreviews.org)

Abida Parveen: ‘I’m not a man or a woman, I’m a vehicle for passion’

She laughs when I ask her about the sexism she might have faced earlier in her Sufi singing career, in such a male-dominated environment: “The concept of being a man or a woman doesn’t cross my mind. I’m neither on stage, I’m a vehicle on stage for passion.” She is dressed androgynously today as she always is: beige, buttoned-up collar kameez (long tunic) and shalwar (trousers), with a traditional Sindhi print shawl draped over her chest. “I’ve never felt the need to challenge anyone else – I should be concentrating my energies on challenging myself.” To an extent it’s true: Parveen’s talent transcends any gender expectations back home; she is adored, just as much as her peers Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have been.

(Source : Guardian)

Muhammad and the Dervishes

Muhammad is said to have thought very highly of dervishes, and is considered to be one of them. Eyuboglu [1] mentions an anecdote in which Muhammad wants to see the dervishes who are also beloved servants of God like him. Going to their teke, he knocks on the door, and when he is asked for his identity , he replies “I am the Prophet”. He receives a shocking answer; “Someone as grand as the Prophet would not fit into this door!”. Just when he is about to give up, God suggests that he should try once more; “I am God’s ambassador”, he says. “No thanks, we have nothing do to with ambassadors.” Muhammed is again shocked and angry, but God askes him to try once more. This time he says “I am the servant of the poor” which gains him enterance into the tekke.

[1]"Yunus Emre", S. Eyuboglu, Cem Yayinevi,Istanbul, Turkey, 1980

Murder By Law

On March 9, hundreds of houses of poor and helpless Christians were once again burnt down in the so-called ‘citadel of Islam’ – Pakistan. This bestial crime was committed in the name of ‘love’ for the Prophet (PBUH) and to protect his ‘honour’ by thousands of frenzied Islamists who call themselvesaashiqaane Rasool (lovers of the Prophet).

In the normal course of things an accuser would have waited for the investigation to be completed and the law to take its course, but not in the Land of the Pure. Islamic zealots from the area decided to take the matter into their own hands and attacked the mainly Christian janitors’ Joseph Colony, setting ablaze more than 200 homes. As their houses and belongings were reduced to ashes, police present at the sight merely watched the spectacle as bystanders, making no effort to control the mob.

The Supreme Court noted that no party, including the police, was actually trying to unearth the facts behind the incident and held the police and the Punjab government responsible for their failure to stop the arson. The court also rejected the Punjab government’s report on the incident, adding that the latter had clearly learnt nothing from the Gojra affair – another incident of arson on July 31, 2009 in which a rumour about the alleged desecration of the Quran propelled thousands of enraged Islamists to attack a Christian town, Gojra, near Toba Tek Singh. In that incident, eight Christians were burnt alive and 18 others injured. Fifty houses were torched and a church was destroyed. The suspected perpetrators of the attack were activists of the defunct Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (now active as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat). Subsequently, on February 11, 2011 they reportedly coerced the Christians to withdraw cases against the 150 Muslims allegedly involved in the attack. The SC also castigated the Punjab government for not making public the judicial commission’s report on Gojra.

Following the arson, the so-called mujahideen were irked when the Punjab government announced compensation for the victims. In an editorial in Jarar, a publication of the Jamat-ud-Dawa, they wrote ‘They were sweepers. They had no valuables. Their loss was petty, but they got compensation of 200,000 rupees each, which was increased to half a million rupees. And these sweepers are still complaining. They even damaged public property during protests in Lahore and Karachi…”

The Badami Bagh incident flies in the face of those who are hell-bent on not only keeping the current blasphemy laws intact, but also on making them harsher: Deobandi sectarian outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah Sahaba are demanding death sentences for those accused of criticising the companions/wives of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) – never mind how flimsy those charges. Those making such demands argue that if the blasphemy laws are revoked, the public will take the law into their own hands each time a case of blasphemy surfaces. Clearly, the public does not need a law to do just that, as witnessed in Badami Bagh. All it needs is a whispering campaign by assorted individuals and organisations for their own agendas, from sectarian and religious bigotry and hatred to land-grabbing.

Badami Bagh is not the first (nor almost assuredly will it be the last), incident of violence against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. Over the years, and in recent years increasingly,hundreds of Muslims, Christians and Ahmadis have been killed (some burnt alive) and thousands of houses torched in the name of the Prophet (PBUH) – the same Prophet who would forgive even his worst enemies and through his goodness inspire them to voluntarily embrace Islam.

“The blasphemy laws are highly controversial. The advocates of this law support the death penalty for blasphemers citing Ibne Taymiyyah’s book, Assarim-al-Maslool. Interestingly, the same book says that a non-Muslim cannot be awarded the death punishment under the blasphemy laws because Hadd can’t be enforced against a non-Muslim: he/she must be tried under tazeer. So, the supporters of the blasphemy laws don’t quote Taymiyyah’s full work,” says renowned Islamabad-based jurist, Dr Aslam Khaki.

The outreach of the blasphemy laws is interesting to note in this country. The poor find it next to impossible to register an FIR (First Information Report) with the police, even in the case of murder, without the help of the High Court or the Supreme Court. Blasphemy is the only ‘crime’ whereby an FIR is instantly registered. In this case, the police spring to action regardless of the facts.

The level of our moral decadence can be gauged from the reaction of our lawyers – supposedly one of the most educated classes of this country – who showered rose petals on Salman Taseer’s assassin. Political parties are equally callous. Frontier Gandhi, Bacha Khan’s Awami National Party (ANP) is an ally of the PPP. In September 2012, senior ANP leader and federal railways minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, announced that USD100,000 would be awarded to the person who killed the maker of the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims. No action was taken against him either by the ANP or the PPP. Bacha Khan would have wept. But other parties are equally culpable in the blasphemy law and religious extremism issues. The PML-N has, by its silence, actually fostered sectarian and extremist outfits in the Punjab. And Oxford-educated politicians like Imran Khan have also expressed support for such laws, using the same argument that is put forward by Islamists.

A chilling thought, but probably true. The question is, what Islam is Pakistan following? Today it is a country where minorities do not even have fundamental rights as human beings, where suicide attacks are carried out during funeral prayers, where hoarders increase the prices of foodstuff exorbitantly during the holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims label each other ‘infidels’ and go on killing sprees in the name of jihad. In this citadel of Islam, Eid is celebrated on three different days and Muslims continue to kill Muslims, let alone minorities, and mow down women and children, the aged, the infirm, the rich and poor – and all in the name of Islam.

Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus

 

Sam Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture (“there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like ‘water-boarding’ may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary”); to steadfast support for Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim adversaries (“In their analyses of US and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so… . there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah”); to anti-Muslim profiling (“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it”); to state violence (“On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that ‘liberals are soft on terrorism.’ It is, and they are”).

(Source : Guardian)