Tag Archives: Islam

Article by my wife

There’s a new piece in the online ‘Comment is Free’ section of the UK newspaper The Guardian by my wife that I think is (obviously) quite brilliant.

Only Muslims can change their society

The sub-heading is: “The US invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with its women – change in Islamic nations must come from within.”

The Faith & the Filth: Performing Hajj in 1427

Suc50005 [UPDATE: Asma and I were interviewed for the NPR show Weekend America about our Hajj experiences. It aired this past Saturday 1/13. You can listen to the interview here.]

Ali Shariati, an Iranian intellectual and political activist, member of The Movement of God-worshipping Socialists, called the Hajj an “antithesis to aimlessness” (1994, p. 1), in the sense that it is a break in the routine of our daily lives and comforts, a physical dislocation from the familiarity of our surroundings intended to deliver a shock not only to the soul but to the body. For the Hajj is not only a spiritual but a social learning experience, a simulated migration involving masses of pilgrims converging in a small corner of the Arabian desert; a test of one’s devotion, empathy, patience… and immune system. There was nothing to prepare me for any of this, however, as I started my Hajj accompanied by my wife in December of 2006, or the month of Dhul-Hijjah in the year 1427 according to the Muslim calendar. What follows are some reflections on my experience.

Some exercises in spiritual renewal involve a retreat into the solitude of nature or the quietness of the inner self, and focus on the cleansing of the body and the mind. The Hajj, on the other hand, hits you with the sudden force of 3 million people from all corners of the world descending on the vicinity of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) over a period of a week —probably the largest flash mob of our times. It is an awesome enactment of the unity and purposefulness of God’s creation. It is also an apocalyptic laboratory of pandemic viral outbreaks. The environment the pilgrims create is not what one would think of as being conducive to spiritual growth: they bring sickness, pollution, selfishness, prejudice, tiredness, and the bad temper these combined factors create. When you are stuck in a bus inhaling carbon monoxide for 12 hours (moving all of 6 kilometers during that time), hungry, tired, sleepy and in need to go to the bathroom, and you and everyone around you has some form of respiratory ailment or is in the process of getting one, what chance of realizing taqwa —consciousness of God— can possibly exist?

But the pilgrims also bring devotion, communal love, compassion, a predisposition to solidarity, and a thirst for knowledge. Perhaps it is the impact of the collective worshiping that facilitates an awareness of the divine amidst the grimy reality of the world. As a Muslim, you face a particular direction when praying, as does every other Muslim in the world. But when you actually reach the focal point of the prostration —the Ka’bah— and witness masses of people bowing down in synchronicity, the collectivity of the action takes over a certain part of the consciousness. Perhaps it is this mob mentality, increasingly associated with Muslims in the media, that scares the individualistic sensibilities of the West. (If I was still doing film theory, I would like to explore the connection between the re-emergence of the zombie genre film and post 9/11 Islamophobia…)

Some basics: For Muslims, performing Hajj at least once during a lifetime (if one has the financial means to afford it) is a requirement. Along with the belief in the unity of God, prayer, charity, and fasting during the month of Ramadan, Hajj is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam. Before the era of modern transportation, the journey to perform Hajj could take months, and it was dangerous enough that some people would’nt survive it. While air travel has made the trip easier, the explosion in attendance has introduced a new set of safety threats, mostly related to health issues and mass stampedes. The ritual involves, in short, visiting certain areas around the city of Mecca:

Arafat (9th of Dhul-Hijja, daytime), where God asked humanity to stand on this particular day and promised to forgive whatever one asks mercy for.

The scene is like the day of judgement [the two pieces of unstitched white cloth one wears during Hajj are the same style Muslims are buried in]. From one horizon to the other, a “flood of whites” appears. All the people are wearing the Kafan. No one can be recognized. The bodies were left in Miqat and the souls are motivated here. Names, races, nor social status make a difference in this great combination. An atmosphere of genuine unity prevails. It is a human show of Allah’s unity. (Shariati, 1994, p. 10)

Muzdalifah (9th of Dhul-Hijja, night), where one is supposed to spend the night in the open desert, praying and collecting pebbles with which to symbolically fight the devil the next day. In actuality, most of our time was spent looking for a place to park.

Mina (10th to 13th of Dhul-Hijja), where one spends these days waging battle with the devil (one’s own weaknesses), and where the Saudi government has set up a camp of thousands of tents which become a veritable slum during this time. On the 10th, after the first ‘stoning of Satan,’ this is also where men shave their heads, remove their white clothes, and where a sacrifice is offered (the sacrificial meat is meant to feed the pilgrims as well as the poor).

Mecca (10th to 13th of Dhul-Hijja), where the Holy Mosque, that houses the Ka’bah, is located. This one and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina are the two Holy Mosques of Islam, open only to Muslims (which I guess adds to their mystery in the eyes of non-Muslims).

Since information about the specifics of Hajj can be found elsewhere, I will instead offer some disjointed, non-chronological snapshots of my experience.

Muslims on a plane

The flight from JFK to Amman is packed with ‘Arab’-looking men reading the Qur’an. It occurs to me that had this been a regular flight with any non-Muslims on board, the national security threat level would have gone up a couple of notches.

Suc50025
Monolith

The Ka’bah is a recognizable icon: it is the black cube built by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his family to venerate the One God. It is not meant to be a representation of God —it is but a simple, empty black structure. Instead, it is meant to serve as an attractor or anchor which allows Muslims to express their belief in the unity of God. The act of circling the Ka’bah in counterclockwise direction seven times is called Tawaf. It is an awesome spectacle: a black smooth cubical structure exerting some sort of magnetic attraction which brings people from every corner of the world. All Muslims bow down in the direction of the Ka’bah at the prescribed prayer times, but to see the prostration of thousands of Muslims of all ethnicities converging on one single point, men side by side with women, gives a visual significance to that act that is unforgettable.

Ismail

Given that the Ka’bah was built by Ibrahim, his story plays a central role during Hajj. According to Shariati, Hajj is about each one of us identifying and sacrificing our Ismail.

… whatever weakens your faith, whatever stops you from “going”, whatever distracts you from accepting responsibilities, whatever causes you to be self-centered, whatever makes you unable to hear the message and confess the truth, whatever forces you to “escape”, whatever causes you to rationalize for the sake of convenience, whatever makes you blind and deaf… that is your Ismail!

God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice what was most precious to him in this world: his son Ismail. One cannot claim to follow monotheism and at the same time set partners with God (worship or love other things beside God). These false partners with God can take the form of material goods, or our bodies, lifestyles, desired fame, jobs, or our own families. God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice his son not because God is bloodthirsty, but because monotheism accepts no substitutions — there is no ontological ambiguity here: it is the death of the self, absolute submission to a will larger than our own.

Of course, once Ibrahim demonstrates that he is ready to carry out the sacrifice, God stops him. It was only a test. We are all tested in a similar manner throughout our lives, and most often fail. I know what my Ismail is, but will I have the strength to make the sacrifice?

Crush

There is that moment when you go from a theoretical to a practical understanding of what it means to be crushed by a mass of people. It is not any one individual’s fault. The mass acquires a will of its own. You find yourself surrounded by people on all sides, pushing in opposite directions. Telling the people next to you to stop pushing is futile, as they themselves are being pushed by somebody else, the source being somewhere far away. You are simply experiencing the accumulated aggregation of a thousand little pushes. No one can stop it. You move without necessarily using your feet. Bodies are jammed so close together that eventually there is no room for the lungs to expand. If the situation worsens, you realize you could asphixiate. Fortunately, this does not happen this time. The force finds other outlets.

Clash

Upon entering Mecca, we are handed a Guide to Hajj, Umra, and Visiting the Prophet’s Mosque, written by the “Agency Of Islamic Enlightenment in Hajj, approved by The Permanent Committee of Islamic Research and Fatwa and Shaikh Muhammad Bin Saleh Al-Uthaimin (May Allah have mercy on him).” It is a gift from “Your Highness Prince King Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.” It contains some useful information, but I am particularly intrigued by a section called The Things That Nullify Iman (a sort of “you know you are no longer a believer if…” kind of list). This is where State ideology meets religious practice. Apart from the usual stuff (setting up equals to God), Article 4 states:

Anyone who believes that some guidance other than the Prophet’s guidance is more perfect, or a judgement other than the prophet’s judgment is better, has become an unbeliever. This applies to those who prefer the rule of the Evil One (Taghut) over the Prophet’s rule. Some examples are:

(a) To believe that systems and laws made by human beings are better than the Shari’ah of Islam, for example:

(i) That the Islamic system is not suitable for application in the twentieth century.

(ii) Or that the Islamic system is the cause of backwardness of muslims.

(iii) Or that Islam is only a relationship between a man (sic) and His Lord, and does not have any relations with other aspects of life.

(b) To say that working with the judgments of Allah in enforcing the punishments prescribed by Allah, such as cutting off the hand of a thief, or stoning an adulterer is not suitable in this day and age.

(c) To believe that it is permissible to rule by a law other than what Allah has revealed in Islamic transactions or matters of criminal justice and similar affairs, even if he does not believe that such rulings are superior to the Shari’ah. This is because by doing so he would be declaring as permissible something which Allah made impermissible, such as adultery, drinking alcohol, or usury, and similar things whose prohibition is common knowledge to all, such a person has become an unbeliever according to the consensus of all muslims.

In short, anyone living outside of Saudi Arabia is an unbeliever. But by the way, isn’t the Shari’ah made and modified by (a select group of) human beings? And should a judgment which authorities claim is derived from the practice of the Prophet be taken as valid even if it contradicts the Qur’an? And where in the Qur’an exactly does it say that the punishment for adultery is stoning to death? And… oh, forget it. The only comforting thing about inhaling gas fumes is that they are a reminder that oil kingdoms will one day go up in smoke.

Voiceless

Entering Mina, you cannot believe your eyes. It is a city —or more accurately, a slum— of thousands of identical tents. There are 3 million people living here, but not all of them can afford a tent. All the roads and sidewalks are crammed with poor people’s make-shift camps. It’s hard to walk without having to step over some family sleeping on the ground, or cooking, or going to the bathroom. It is filthy. Bulldozers push piles of trash to clear the roads. Police cars constantly patrol the area and force people sleeping on the roads to move in order to clear the roads so that cars transporting more people and provisions can go through. There are ‘sections’ for different nationalities: Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Turkey, Iraq, Indonesia, and on and on. It is a microcosm of the world. Of course, the European and American camps are surrounded by a fence and the tents are considered ‘upgraded’, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the bathroom stalls which double as showers, and which are perpetually flooded.

By the time we reach our camp, I am sick as a dog. My cold has gone from viral to bacterial, a doctor traveling with our group informs me. I completely lose my voice, which I take as a positive step towards the death of the self. The doctor says I should start taking antibiotics. We brought one course for my wife, which she took when she began her cold almost as soon as we reached Saudi Arabia (she is quite susceptible to respiratory problems). A Muslim brother, who overhears our conversation (I mostly communicate by grunts and signs) offers me his medication. I say I feel bad taking the antibiotics —what if he needs them later? He insists. He says, with a smile, that I should allow him to earn the reward of a good deed. In our tent, people are sharing their medication and food, and looking out for each other. It is only a spontaneous and momentary show of communal solidarity, but it’s genuine and touching. One forgets the value of such moments in restoring one’s faith in humanity. My wife, however, informs me that in the sisters’ tent the good will is not as abundant.

Rhythm

When you have the opportunity to pray at one of the two holy mosques, you try to take advantage, despite the crowds. Sometimes you can’t even make it inside, and have to pray in the courtyard, or even on the dirty streets. The azzan, or call to prayer, sets the rhythm of your life: you sleep little, eat little, and try to spend as much time as possible in the mosque.

Cell phone

Yes, even in the holiest place and at the holiest time you will not escape the curse of the ringtone, and someone saying in a foreign language what I imagine to be something like: “Hey, what’s up? Nothing, just going around the Ka’bah…” They receive some disapproving stares and maybe a chastising comment, but this does not seem to dissuade them one bit.

Patience

When the bureaucracy of the Saudi government is coupled with the ineptitude of the Hajj guides, you are constantly reminded that part of the purpose of Hajj is to learn patience. At first you are insulted at the insinuation that you are a bad pilgrim, but eventually you realize you have no options. Things will unfold completely outside your control.

Aunties

After a while, you become one with the shoving and the pushing, and you learn to incorporate them into your own movements. Except for the pushing of the Aunties. These little frail old ladies from the Sub Continent have a way of poking you and shoving you aside with their bony hands that leaves bruises afterwards. I call it the Auntie Vulcan Maneuver.

Comfort

After performing our farewell Tawaf on the last day, we board our bus to Jeddah, sick and exhausted. I get some local cough mixture for my wife and myself before leaving. It is dark, and I don’t have the energy to read the directions, so we end up inadvertently taking four times the recommended dosage. That, and the exhaustion, knocks us out completely. My sleep in the bus is so deep, that the next thing I know my wife is shaking me, telling me that we have arrived at the Sheraton in Jeddah. In a daze, we go up to our room. It is sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The cleanliness and the comfort comes as shock, considering what we have endured the past few days. No more standing in long lines for food, or to use the messy bathrooms. No more sleeping toe-to-toe in tents with 50 snoring men. The luxury of the hotel feels familiar; it is what I am accustomed to in my privileged life. I feel sad, and wonder if the comfort will erase some of the lessons of Hajj too quickly. I don’t want it to. I don’t want to be like the person admonished in Naser Khosrow’s poem: “You spend your money to buy the hardships of the desert.”

Suc50022Foot

It is considered bad manners to cross right in front of someone praying, but in a Mosque with thousands of people moving about, it is impossible to avoid this sometimes. I am praying at the Holy Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, before Hajj begins. I am immersed in meditation, and feel particularly attuned to my prayers. I’m on the floor, about to bow down and place my forehead on the floor as part of the prayer. As I am about to prostrate, a foot plants itself right in front of me, on the spot where my forehead is supposed to touch the floor. It is no ordinary foot. It is the most disgusting foot I have ever seen, verging on leprosy. The skin is scaly and replete with oozing sores… the sole is cracked, with bloody lines as deeps as canyons… there is stuff growing on the “nails” that is straight out of a horror film. My first reaction is extreme repulsion. My second reaction is extreme anger: I feel like violently removing this foot from my prayer space. But the foot moves away soon enough, leaving the space free for me to place my forehead where it was just standing. Needless to say, my concentration is broken. Only later does it occur to me that none of my initial reactions was of compassion for the owner of such a limb. Surely, it could not have been comfortable to perform Hajj under such conditions (I doubt this person was traveling First Class). Did my personal outrage outweigh his discomfort, and justify my lack of compassion? My experience of the Hajj begins to change at the moment of that realization.

Arafat gives you a blank slate, an opportunity to change the direction of your life, but your old self awaits you back in Mina, where evil must be faced. In between, you will partake of the unity of creation by circling the Ka’bah and running between the hills of Safa and Marwah. That is the Hajj, a reminder that we are nomads, immigrants, ceaselessly going back and forth —simultaneously losing and finding ourselves in the crowd.

Reference:
Shariati, A. (1994). Hajj: Reflection on its rituals. Houston, TX: Islamic Publications International.

All photographs: Creative Commons 2007 Ulises A. Mejias

A Jihad Against Gender Oppression

by Ulises Mejias

Islamic Terrorism. Islamic Feminism. We find such terms thrown about carelessly in the media. But what does it mean to stick the word Islamic in front of terms like Terrorism or Feminism? This is one of the questions that Masjaliza Hamzah raised during the First International Congress on Islamic Feminism, which took place in Barcelona, Spain, from October 27th to the 29th of 2005. Ms. Hamzah, a representative of the Malaysian NGO Sisters in Islam, warned against the totalizing tendency of calling anything ‘Islamic.’ Just as terrorism is not a practice condoned by Islam or practiced by most Muslims (which raises the question of what we mean when we say Islamic Terrorism), there is no single feminist movement that represents all Muslim women, and in fact many Muslims would reject the label altogether while continuing to struggle against gender oppression. Rather than a weakness, the lack of a single or unifying ‘feminist’ identity among Muslims is evidence, I think, of a healthy respect for diversity, a kind of respect for diversity that is sadly lacking in many forums where Muslims get together nowadays, but that was very much on display throughout the Congress in Barcelona.

Barcelonabanner167What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the Congress, but merely a collection of notes regarding some of the presentations (all characterizations of what the panelists said are my own, and I am solely responsible for any misrepresentations).

The Congress opened on Thursday October 27th with the intervention of various representatives from the government of Catalunya (a copy of the program can be found here), who welcomed the participants and spoke of the importance of the event. At this point, it became clear why the event was being held in Barcelona and not somewhere else in Spain (somewhere in the south, for example, where there is a stronger, although deeply buried, Muslim heritage). These civil servants not only exhibited a solid understanding of the key issues surrounding the Congress (freedom to reinterpret the texts; the rise of fundamentalism that is seen across all religions, not just Islam; etc.), but also recognized what was really at stake: Although Barcelona has been a somewhat insular city for most of its modern life (immigrants from Third World countries started to arrive only three decades ago), it now faces a huge influx of people from all over the world, including many Muslims. Unlike other cities which benefit from the cheap labor but turn a blind eye to the social issues that accompany migration and globalization (the consequences of which can be seen these days in the France riots), the city of Barcelona is special in that it recognizes —at least at the official discourse level— that the welfare of its immigrants is unequivocally tied to the welfare of society at large. Thus, Barcelona is intent on facilitating dialogues that promote the rights of its citizens across all identities and religions, and is particularly concerned about making sure that Muslims feel like they can be productive members of society, rather than fomenting the exploitation and alienation that gives rise to discontent and extremism. Part of Barcelona’s motivation is that it feels that Spain, of all the European nations, is uniquely positioned to help define the role of the modern European Muslim, given the 700 year history of Islam in Spain, a history that is about three times longer than the whole history of the United Sates (more on this later).

After these opening presentations, the Congress got under way. Abdennur Prado (one of the key organizers of the event) introduced the first speaker, Valentine Moghadam. Ms. Moghadam, the Chief of the Gender Equality and Development Section of UNESCO, provided a useful view of Islamic Feminism within the context of transnational feminist movements. By discussing the case of Iran in particular, she presented a picture of how secular and religious feminists, initially in opposition to one another (in respect to whether Islam oppresses or can serve to liberate women), eventually began to formulate a common discourse and found some ways to collaborate towards common goals. However, Ms. Moghadam also pointed out that feminism cannot be the sole solution to the many social problems that countries such as Iran face. For one thing, she pointed out, the task of reinterpreting religion in liberatory ways cannot be an enterprise that feminists from elite classes engage in while ignoring the needs of women from lower classes (although I think it can be argued that religious freedom is not unconnected to class struggles). Lastly, Ms. Moghadam argued that the Islamic reform movement was every bit as important as the Christian reform movement, with the exception that the former is being carried out by women.

Dscn1801_1 The next panel on Diversity and Feminism included academic and activist speakers. Professors Mary Nash (Ireland) and Lidia Puigvert (Spain) provided useful introductions to key Islamic concepts for the mostly non-Muslim, Catalan- or Spanish-speaking audience, while Raheel Raza (Canada) and Masjaliza Hamzah (Malaysia) provided insights into some of the struggles that Muslim women are engaged in. Ms. Raza, the first woman to lead a mixed gender prayer in Canada, gave a short history of Muslims in Canada, and a very helpful summary of the Sharia (Islamic law) debates in that country, an issue she has been researching for a while and is publishing a book and producing a documentary on. On this issue, Ms. Raza exemplifies the complex relationship that Muslim women have with Western feminism. While secular Western feminists have adopted an anti-Sharia position (and are happy to prescribe that position to their Muslim ‘sisters’), Ms. Raza —who does not call herself a feminist— says she supports Sharia, as long as it is a form of Sharia that is not frozen in time and defined only by an elite group of men. After all, she argues, the arbitration systems and religious tribunals that Muslims were going to take advantage of to ‘impose’ their Sharia are the same that other religious groups, including Jews and Mennonites, have been taken advantage of in Canada for decades. Are we then saying that a civil right offered to other religions should not be offered to Muslims, simply because they are Muslims? Of course, Ms. Raza points to the horrendous handling of the affair by the media as part of the reason why the public in Canada reacted so strongly against the ‘threat’ of Sharia. Instead of inviting public debate, the media sensationalized the issue and indirectly suggested that the outcome of Sharia would be that every Canadian woman would be forced to wear the veil. To conclude the panel, Ms. Hamzah —whom I have already quoted at the beginning— eloquently mixed theoretical insights with a personal account of what polygamy had meant for her grandmother.

The highlight of the presentations on Friday the 28th was, in my opinion, the panel on Progressive Muslims with Ahmed Naseef and Dr. Amina Wadud (both from the U.S.). Mr. Naseef, perhaps better known for his work with Muslim Wakeup!, spoke about the attacks on Muslims’ civil rights in the U.S. as well as the phenomenon of the ‘mosqued’ v. ‘un-mosqued’ Muslim communities. According to surveys, only 7% of U.S. Muslims attend mosques regularly (compared to about 70% of Christians who attend church). Mr. Naseef suggested that this is because the men who run the mosques have lost touch completely with the changing demographics of Muslims in the U.S. In other words, the strict, sexist, hellfire-and-brimstone, West=Satan version of Islam served up in most of North America’s mosques does not appeal (fortunately) to many Muslims. Thus, Mr. Naseef warned of the increasing ideological gap between the Muslim leadership and the average Muslim. To this I would only add that we do not want to recreate that gap in the Progressive Muslim movement.

Or are progressive Muslims not going far enough? Amina Wadud, the first woman to lead a mixed congregation of Muslims in prayers in the U.S. —and by now an internationally recognized figure— warned that a lot of the progressive Islamic discourse still supports some forms of patriarchy. She gave a couple of examples of distinguished progressive Islamic scholars who, when pushed, still dismiss the issue of gender as outside of their sphere of concern. Dr. Wadud spoke candidly about her own journey in Islam, at one point indicating that in her research she decided not to waddle through centuries of patriarchal discourse but went straight to the Qur’an. She also indicated her reluctance to be labeled a feminist, although she recognized that this is probably unavoidable in the media (sure enough, at least one Spanish newspaper the next day was calling her a Muslim Feminist). To her, a gender discourse that tries to eliminate the sacred is unacceptable, which is why she defines herself as pro-faith and pro-women. Another important point in her argument was that extremists and progressives actually do share some points of convergence, mainly a shared sense of the value of truth and rationality. This seems to suggest that there should be a way for the two camps to have a dialogue, if they so willed. Dr. Wadud was then asked to lead the Friday prayers. This historic event, in which I proudly participated, has been covered in Muslim Wakeup!

October 29, the last day of the Congress, included many interesting conversations. First, Leyla Bousquet (France) and Asma Barlas (Pakistan/USA) participated in a discussion on Qur’anic Hermeneutics. Ms. Bousquet offered an interesting analysis of certain passages in the Qur’an to elucidate the role of Mary (mother of Jesus) as a prophet and as a spiritual leader. For her part, Ms. Barlas (disclaimer: my wife) suggested a method for how the Qur’an can be read as a liberatory text. Starting from the position that religious knowledge is socially constructed (a result of a specific methodology and historical context), Ms. Barlas echoed al-Ghazali’s statement that it is neither universal nor sacred. Therefore, what Muslims read the Qur’an as saying depends on who reads it (historically, mostly men), how it is read (by means of what method) and in what contexts (mostly, patriarchies). In other words, the Qur’an does not privilege men over women, it has merely been read that way. Ms. Barlas then proposed an alternative methodology for reading the Qur’an in a holistic way, as a hermeneutic totality. The principles for this method of reading the Qur’an are derived from the Qur’an itself, and from an understanding of God as represented in the scripture: first, that God is One, and God’s sovereignty is One (thus, men cannot share God’s rule); second, that God is just, and does not transgress against the rights of anyone (thus, God cannot favor a system like patriarchy that transgresses against women); and third, that God is unlike anything created, above sex and gender (thus, references to God as He are bad linguistic conventions, not accurate descriptions of God’s being). Ms. Barlas also made it clear that she resists the label ‘feminist’ for herself. According to her, the problem with feminism is that it has secularized the idea of liberation (religion is seen as oppressive, and it is assumed therefore that believers are not free). As a result, some feminists —just like the Muslim conservatives they criticize— confuse the Qur’an with its patriarchal (mis)readings.

Dscn1810The next two panelists were Zainah Anwar (Malaysia) and Asra Nomani (India/USA). Ms. Anwar described the important work that Sisters in Islam is doing in Malaysia, and Ms. Nomani talked about her personal struggle to confront patriarchal Muslim traditions that negate the sexual rights of women, segregate women in mosques as if they were second-class believers, and prescribe a greater degree of social stigma and criminalization for women’s sexual misconduct than for men’s (Ms. Nomani has also published an article about the Congress on the Washington Post).

[Pictured to the right: Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud and Zainah Anwar]

The Congress then came to a close by proposing a series of preliminary conclusions (scroll down), which the organizers invited everyone to expand on. These include:

  • Islamic feminism is an emergent reality which must be seen as an alternative to the dominant sexist readings.
  • This form of feminism derives from the Koranic revelation and is based on the conviction that the Koran does not justify patriarchalism.
  • Islam can liberate women and change their current status. But for this, the doors of ijtihad (interpretation work) must be opened, taking into account the context of 21st century societies.

I would like to end by offering some personal reflections on the importance of attending this Congress on Islamic Feminism in Spain, of all places. As you probably know, 1492 marked not only the beginning of the colonization of America by Spain but also the termination of the project of expulsion of all Muslims and Jews from its lands. Spain has a very complicated historical relationship with its 700 years of Muslim presence, which is now portrayed as a period of resistance against the Muslim invaders. The rejection of its Muslim heritage decisively shaped the new Spanish identity, down to its cuisine and the personal appearance of its citizens, and equally important, in its attitudes towards the people of the New World. But while all occupations are problematic, I think the Spanish are too quick to forget what was accomplished during the time Muslims ruled large parts of the south. Not only did Christians, Jews and Muslims manage to live together with some degree of peace and respect during most of that time, but culturally they thrived, to the extent that al-Andalus became known as ‘the ornament of the world.’ The devotion at that time to knowledge and learning (one of the libraries in Cordoba contained over 400,000 books at a time when other libraries in Europe contained no more than 400), and the openness to diversity even when it comes in the form of contradictions, is something that we all need to rescue. In my mind, at least, my presence there as a Latino Muslim convert served as a double reminder of a troubled Spanish past —rejection of Muslim identity on the one hand, American oppression on the other—, but hopefully also as a sign of possible new beginnings grounded in new relationships to our pasts.

Alternatives to Extremism: An Indonesian Travelogue

[UPDATE: I am adding a link to an online interview with Asma conducted while in Indonesia by the Liberal Islam Network. It’s in English.]In the aftermath of the London and Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, people with an unsophisticated view of current affairs as a clash of civilizations are again demanding that the ‘real’ Islam —the Islam that preaches peace and tolerance— stand up. In its seemingly innocent form, this demand seems to ask (à la Thomas Friedman) that moderate Muslims get their act together in curbing the despicable acts of their extremist evil twins. In its more insidious form, of course, the demand is a disguised charge that terrorism and Islam go hand in hand, and that all Muslims will look the other way and remain seated when the peaceful practitioners of the faith are asked to stand up. In both instances, it is important to keep in mind that a) moderate Muslims, while largely responsible for reclaiming the true principles of their religion from extremists, cannot single-handedly stop terrorism and extremism which have complicated political and social roots, not just religious; b) that extremism is a problem that exists in most religious faiths and secular disciplines, and thus must be tackled collaboratively by religious and secular peoples of the whole world; and c) that the media does not further the cause of anti-extremism by focusing on sensationalist portrayals of extremists in X or Y religion to the exclusion of more moderate strands.Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany my wife, Asma, on a trip to Indonesia. There, I experienced a kind of Islam that has very little to do with the extremist portrayals that we see on the media. In short, during our time there I saw a country where religion is practiced in a tolerant and relaxed way, women are active participants in society and religious affairs (even those who cover their heads, I might add to the shock of those who equate some forms of Muslim dress with oppression and subservience), Muslim identity is not limited to how closely it resembles 7th century Arab culture, and there is, for the most part, a respect for diversity. Granted, my experiences were brief, superficial, and probably left me with an overly simplified view of what is a more complex reality. But I thought I would share them not with the intention of providing an objective or comprehensive view of this very rich and diverse country, but in the interest of presenting a glimpse of an alternative to what is often seen on the Western media.  
Indonesian students attending a lecture by Asma

(click on any picture to enlarge)

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Open Ijtihad

[The following presentation was made at the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association’s annual meeting, April 16 2005.]

Open Ijtihad:
Technology and New Opportunities for Community Building and Activism

oi_ijtihackers.jpgI want to cover four major themes in this presentation. First, I want to say a couple of words about ijtihad, or independent reasoning in Islam. Then, I want to use the concept of open source software to help illustrate the differences between a closed and an open religious system. Third, I want to suggest a methodology for those of us committed to practicing ijtihad in an open system. And finally, I want to suggest ways to use new information and communication technologies to aid in this process. As an example of such applications of technology, I will give a brief introduction to blogs, or web journals.

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