I’m back!

May 28, 2012 at 4:15 pm (Uncategorized)

I am back.

But I am not the same.

I will pontificate on politics, religion (from an academic perspective), health (particularly diabetes), and other sundry topics.

Let’s have some fun!

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The Arab World: A New Mess

January 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm (Arabs, History, International community, Islamism, Middle East, Pakistan, The Rest, The United States, The West)

I wanted to respond to Sobek’s post on the recent troubles in North Africa and elsewhere. But I didn’t want to post such a long screed at Michael’s place and abuse his hospitality, so I’ll do it here.

Sobek hit on some very important things for us to keep in mind, things we should watch. >

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Conversion in Judaism – Part III: How It’s Done

December 10, 2010 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

How to become a Jew is perhaps almost as contentious as the question of “Who is a Jew?” because the two questions are not mutually exclusive. The one informs the other.

Halakhically – that is, according to Jewish law – one becomes a Jew when one follows a certain process. This involves:
1. Learning about Judaism with a rabbi. This is not as easy as it may sound. Learning the history of the Jewish people is indeed important. The history of Jewish people will hopefully teach the potential convert what the future may be for his/her potential future people and himself/herself – he/she learns what he’s/she’s getting into. But this is only part of the picture. One must also learn the many rules, rituals, and laws that will pertain to the potential Jew. Examples of issues one must become familiar with are the rules of kashrus, the Jewish calendar, the Jewish festivals (and the rituals in each), Jewish prayer, the rules on ritual purity (taharah), and the rules of “family purity” (taharas hamishpokha).

2. The potential convert must indicate he/she knows what he/she is getting into, and evince a continuous desire to become a part of the Jewish people.

3. The potential convert, once prepared, must be examined by a panel of rabbis (beys din), who will ask questions to test him/her, and to make sure he/she is truly accepting the yoke of Heaven (qabbalas ‘ol malkhus shamayim). If he/she passes, the panel approves he/his conversion.

4. Men must undergo circumcision (bris milah if they are not circumcised, or undergo a symbolic bloodletting (<hatafas dam milah).

5. The convert must immerse in a mikvah (tevilah b’miqvah) to become ritually pure.

After all the requirements are met, the beys din will issue a certificate certifying the person’s conversion. The convert is also given (or chooses) a Hebrew name. (For various purposes, Jews use a formula of (Hebrew name) son/daughter (ben/bas) of (father), and sometimes (Hebrew name) son/daughter of (mother). The latter is used mostly for prayers of healing. In such a case, converts will use “Avraham” (Abraham) for the father’s name and “Sarah” for the mother’s name, indicating their spiritual descent from the Patriarch and Matriarch.)

There is also a tradition among Orthodox rabbis to thrice reject a person’s request to begin the process of converting to Judaism. This is to ensure the person really, really wants to become a Jew.

Now, the contentious issue is under whose authority can or ought one to convert? The government of Israel does not recognize conversions done under non-Orthodox rabbis. (In fact, the situation has become worse: the government of Israel recognizes only those US conversions that were under the auspices of a certain list of Orthodox rabbis.) Conversion under Orthodox Judaism is harder, longer, and more intensive. While Conservative and Reform Judaism relaxes some of the requirements, Orthodox Judaism does not. And so the issue remains: are people who convert under a Reform rabbi not really Jews? The Orthodox would say that would be the case. The Reform Jews, understandably and obviously, would be highly offended and would disagree. Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on the definition of a Jew. However, this is what it seems the government of Israel is saying.

In any case, this is how the conversion process works in Judaism.

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Conversion in Judaism – Part II: Theory

December 8, 2010 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

Why would someone want to become a Jew? There are a number of reasons.

1. Many people – perhaps the bulk – convert to Judaism because of marriage. Whether for familial acceptance or a desire to unite the family under one religion, non-Jewish partners do convert. Rabbis make sure they say their spiel on ensuring the person is converting out of love of Judaism and not for any other reason (such as marriage), but that’s all they can do. And even if someone is converting because of marriage, and not because his/her heart is in it, rabbis probably recognize that it’s better for the children in any case to be raised by two Jewish parents, even if one is not thoroughly Jewish. The statistics of the affects of mixed-faith marriages with Jews – with Judaism eventually being forgotten – alarm rabbis enough that they permit this to happen. (Why am I talking about rabbis? More about this on Friday.)

2. Some people actually do fall in love with Judaism, and desire to become a part of the religion, the people, the history. People find fulfillment in Judaism. This is not a new phenomenon, as the Talmud comments on conversion indicate: evidently some people were lukewarm in their dedication and devotion, but others, although born non-Jewish, feel fulfilled in Judaism. Conversion in Judaism thrives in the West, where it is common for people to leave the faith of their birth for another religion, so people feel more open and daring to join Judaism. (In the East, leaving the religion of one’s birth is a far trickier matter.)

There is a theory among some Jews that those with a nefesh yehudi (Jewish soul) are drawn to Judaism. Most are born into Judaism. Others must find it and join it. A nefesh is Jewish (yehudi) when it was present at Mt. Sinai as God gave His revelation. All Jewish souls participated in that event. Some souls were not born into a Jewish body, so the body must change its status to agree with the soul. Thus, there is no such as a conversion to Judaism but rather the recognition of having a nefesh yehudi and bringing oneself into compliance with that. (This is somewhat similar to the theory in Islam that there is no conversion to Islam – it’s a reversion because all souls are born Muslim.)

But one cannot simply declare oneself as Jewish. Almost all forms of Judaism – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Conservadox – have a process a person needs to go through in order to officially convert to Judaism or to be recognized as a Jew.

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Conversion in Judaism – Part I: History

December 6, 2010 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

Contrary to what people may think, Judaism had a pretty active missionary program at one point in time. Egypt was a major hub of Jewish culture and activity – they weren’t all descendants from people born to Jews: many were converts or children of converts.

The Talmud discusses conversion to Judaism – it would discuss it if it weren’t a phenomenon worth discussing. (For that matter, the Talmud’s views on conversion are interesting, but that will be discussed on Wednesday.) Furthermore, there is the phenomenon of the God-fearers – a group of people who agreed, to one degree or another, with the claims, beliefs, and practices of Judaism but did not fully convert.

Perhaps the most famous convert was Ruth (from the epynomous book from the Bible) who was a Moabitess but then essentially converted to Judaism.

But conversion to Judaism no longer occurs at the pace it once used to. People don’t really complain today, as they did then, that people joined for mercenery reasons or corrupted Judaism. The reason that is often given is because of the persecution Jews experienced: people didn’t want to convert, and then Jews began discouraging conversion to avoid claims that they’re out to convert the world. One reason many people were taught not to trust Jews or associate with them was because one would be seduced into their ways.

But now, the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism is increasing. A lot of it is in the modern movements (such as Reform Judaism and Conservative (Masorti) Judaism), but it’s rising in Orthodox Judaism as well. (More on the differences between forms of Judaism will be discussed on Friday.)

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On Mosques

August 25, 2010 at 10:38 pm (Arabic, Islam, Islamism, The West)

So, a lot is being said about a mosque that someone wants to build on Ground Zero. Although we, this blogosphere community, do not believe in moral authoritah – truth is truth (“And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24)) – I suppose I have some things to say from my studies and experience.

1. Comparing building a mosque on Ground Zero is not equivalent to building a synagogue in Makkah. The reason is that Makkah (indeed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) has laws in place banning such places of worship. No such laws exist in New York City. Furthermore, Ground Zero is not a qiblah (direction of prayer, perhaps more metaphysically understood as an axis mundi).

The closest comparison is building a Serbian Orthodox church in Srebrenica.

2. However, the plans to build the mosque at Ground Zero is absolutely reprehensible and, frankly, can be construed as un-Islamic. (I should disclose that I am, technically, a mureed or follower of Mowlana Shaykh Muhammad Nizam ‘Adil al-Haqqani (qaddasa-llaahi sirrahu), the leader of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order. He teaches a form of Islam that is very different from what we usually encounter – I will weave some of his perspectives below.

Let me explain. What is this proposal doing? It is causing immense negative publicity for Muslims. What strides certain Muslims groups have made in building relationships of trust, bridges of understanding, have been made futile with these acts. It is causing unrest and, verily, chaos, in other words, it is causing fitnah. And what does the Qur’an say? “Al-fitnatu akbaru mina-l-qatl” (2:217), “Fitnah is worse than killing.” So what these Muslims are doing is worse than killing because it’s causing unrest and chaos. From the perspective of Muslims, these Muslims are defaming and desecrating Islam, and are besmirching the honor of Islam. Such acts are utterly un-Islamic. (By the way – if the sentence according to sharee’ah for murderers (who do qatl) is execution, what should the punishment be for those who spread fitnah? The logical conclusion comes to only one decision.)

Now, make no mistake. It is more likely than not that the people behind this mosque believe Muslims have nothing to do with the acts of September 11, 2001. This is their attempt to assert their innocence – to prevent Ground Zero from commemorating Islamist terrorism.

3. Furthermore, Muslims cannot ram “freedom of religion” down our throats without accepting its full consequences that impact Muslims. Thus, they loose all right to demand the banning of blasphemy against Muhammad b. ‘Abdillaah, the prophet-founder of Islam. If they want to use the freedom of religion to build a mosque, others may use their freedom of religion to mock Muhammad b. ‘Abdillaah.

Mowlana Shaykh Hisham al-Kabbani, Mowlana Shaykh Nazim’s khaleefah or representative in the United States, has stated that most Islamic institutions in the United States are run by the Salafiyoon (fundamentalist radicals). I think this issue demonstrates this. Do not accept any innocence feigned by these causers of fitnah. Every self-respecting Muslim would denounce them. Every wise non-Muslim would tell them to drop their plans.

What grounds do we have?

1. Security. I guarantee – guarantee – that this mosque will be attacked or vandalized. This desecration of Ground Zero – sanctified by the blood of thousands of martyrs – will not go unnoticed. Of course, the Muslims will point that out as another sign of Western intolerance and will undoubtedly pin it as a conspiracy by Fox News and its ilk.

2. Decency. If the Muslims expect to make any progress in the United States, they must play by the rules that will win them friends. Their tactics in Europe – asserting their cultural and religious rights – won’t work here. It wins no friends. And thus the Muslims’ relations with the non-Muslims will worsen. Even if we are intolerant, the way to overcome our intolerance is to befriend us, not offend or attack us (figuratively or literally).

3. Need. There is no need for a mosque. Really, mosques are conveniences, not necessities. Catholics usually need certain accouterments in order to celebrate the Mystery of the Mass (altar (for which there are specific regulations, including the implantation of a first-class relic), crucifix). Jews, same thing (Torah, bimah, aron hakodesh). All Muslims need is a clean area and maybe a rug. A group of Muslims can (and do) gather in a room to pray. When they wanted to make a prayer room for Muslims at my alma mater, they didn’t erect a separate building. They just had a room where there were some books (Qur’an, etc.) and a chair or two. That’s it. There is nothing that makes a mosque a necessity, let alone necessary on Ground Zero.

As Muslims as fond of saying – just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Oh, how the tables have turned.

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Conversion in Islam: Part III – how it’s done

June 7, 2010 at 12:30 am (Islam)

Conversion in Islam is very easy and simple. All it requires is stating the testification of faith (الشهادة, ash-shahaadah), which happens to be the first Pillar of Islam (ركن الإسلام, ruknu-l-islaam; plural: اركان الإسلام, arkaanu-l-islaam).

This testification is made of two parts. The first part testifies that there is no god but God/Allah. The second part testifies that Muhammad (Muhammad b. ‘Abdillaah, the founder-prophet of Islam) is the messenger of God.

(Random note: most South Asian translations translate the first part as saying that nothing worthy of worship other than God, and the usual translation of the second part calls Muhammad God’s apostle. I don’t know why South Asians prefer “apostle” to “messenger”; I personally find “messenger” to be more accurate and easier to understand.)

The testification must be said in Arabic. Furthermore, this is not the shahaadah one finds ubiquitously in the Islamic world: it’s a special version. In the usual shahaadah, the first part says: لا إله إل الله, laa ilaaha illa’llaah; in the testification, it begins with اشهد أن, ash-hadu an (“I testify that…”). In the usual shahaadah, the second part says simply: محمد رسول الله, muhammadu-rasooli-llaah; in the testification, it begins with وأشهد أن, wa ash-hadu an (“and I testify that”) and continues with: محمد عبده ورسوله, muhammadan ‘abduhu wa rasooluhu (“Muhammad is his slave and messenger”).

With this, in front of witnesses, the conversion is done. There are some suggestions which are often followed. Many converts take a Muslim name. Some legally change their name, others don’t. Some don’t change it for propaganda purposes: they look and sound like non-Muslims, and have a non-Muslim name, thereby winning non-Muslims’ trust, and then preach about Islam to win converts. (I heard this during a conference aimed at teaching about propagating Islam.) Although, unless one’s name is obviously anti-Islamic (Christopher, Ramdas, etc.), the change in name is not required. One is also obligated to take a bath (غسل, ghusl) which with the shahaadah purifies one of all sins.

I’ve been to a few conversions to Islam. While the time is takes to take the shahaadah is about the same it takes to be baptized into Christianity, the attendant ceremonies and observances make conversion to Islam somewhat underwhelming. I’d suggest Muslims take a look at conversion in Christianity or Judaism and modify it accordingly. Not that the actual rite has to change, but the attendant observances should change a bit to make it more glamorous and inspiring. A lecture (which more often than not revolves around the lecturer’s accomplishments in life and number of converts and less on the convert-to-be) and coaching the convert-to-be in saying the shahaadah does not give the rite the dignity it deserves. But that’s just my opinion.

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Conversion in Islam: Part II – theory

February 24, 2010 at 12:30 am (Islam)

Islam teaches that each person is born a Muslim. For some, due to circumstances – namely, the corruption of the child’s parents – the child grows up in a false religion. Thus, when a non-Muslim converts to Islam, they say he/she is reverting to Islam. In other words, the person is returning to his/her original religion, his/her religion of birth (literally).

Islam teaches that upon conversion, a person’s sins are forgiven. It is as if he/she is reborn.

Quite often, conversion occurs for marriage. That is, a non-Muslim wants to marry a Muslim. Although a Muslim man may marry certain non-Muslim women, it is still considered expected that the woman will convert. Because a Muslim woman is forbidden to marry a non-Muslim, the non-Muslim man would have to convert to Islam for the woman to still be considered a Muslim. (If a non-Muslim woman married to a non-Muslim man converts to Islam, she is considered to be un-married, and would have to have her husband convert and then re-marry him or risk becoming a non-Muslim.)

Conversion to Islam is considered a person’s most important decision, and thus should not be taken seriously. Being an infidel is not as bad as being an apostate. Many hold that belief in Islam is a prerequisite for entering Heaven. No infidel will enter Heaven, so conversion to Islam is a matter of spiritual life or death.

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Conversion in Islam: Part I – history

February 23, 2010 at 11:27 pm (History, Islam)

Muslims will be surprised to learn than conversion to Islam was not easy (or encouraged) in the beginning of Islam. To convert to Islam meant to become an Arab; it involved being adopted by an Arab tribe. This is one reason why people formed an opposition group to the Islamic rulers. These people would become Shi’at ‘Ali or the Party of Ali bin Abi Talib. Ali and his followers believed conversion rules for non-Arabs should be made easy. But some people wanted the original rules to stand – if everyone converted to Islam, where would the jizyah tax come from? (Eventually, the lenient conversion rules would become normative for Islam.)

Once conversion became something encouraged, missionary work began in earnest. While the Islamic polity was spread by the sword, the religion was spread by wandering missionaries. Many people converted to enjoy the fruits of being an equal of their new rulers (and to be full citizen, rather than second-class citizens, and to avoid the jizyah tax); others converted out of liking the new religion. Many missionaries did a good job rephrasing Islam in terms the non-Muslims would understand, which in many cases introduced non-Muslim elements into Islam. (This is most prevalent in South Asia.)

Today, conversion is highly encouraged. Efforts in da’wah (literally, “invitation,” now usually referring to missionary work) are encouraged by all Muslims. Indeed, some Muslims have said that Muslims living in non-Muslim lands are living there against Islamic law unless they engage in da’wah. Whether it’s educating people about what they want people to think about Islam, or leading people to conversation, ordinary Muslims lead many people to conversion. There are missionary organizations – Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e Islami are two – but many focus on “converting” Muslims to true Islam or to train Muslims in missionary methods.

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Intro – Posts on Conversiob

February 23, 2010 at 12:07 am (Christianity, History, Islam, Judaism)

(It’s still Monday on the West Coast!)

Having recently attended two conversion ceremonies to Islam, I thought I might throw up some posts on conversion in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), discussing the history of conversion, the theory behind conversion, and what actual conversion entails.

The history of conversion in Islam will come tomorrow (or today, depending on one’s timezone).

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February 19, 2010 at 12:30 am (History, International community, Personal, The United States, US Government)

I see America as strong – perhaps stronger than most nations. But the people seem to be changing, and not for the good. We need to entrench within ourselves and our children and associates those values that helped us become great. We’re either going uphill or going downhill – there is no resting, no plateau, no station to rest. Our government didn’t bring us where we are today, we did. Our government won’t lead us to future success, we will.

One of most pernicious ideologies that hinders a nation’s progress and development is statism. The state is not the answer. That’s why we fought a war with the British. That’s why the establishment of a government was such a contentious affair in the beginning of our history. There were plenty of models to choose from, but few which didn’t include statism as its foundation. The Founding Fathers erected a system of government that not only didn’t enshrine statism but, in fact, tried to prevent it. By going against their mechanisms, we are now turning into a statist nation.

I had lived in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates for so long that when I returned to The United States, I was a statist. I’d wonder why the government isn’t doing this thing or that thing, why it wasn’t solving such-and-such problem or issue. Or I posited that the government is the solution to our ails and woes. After all, in Pakistan, the first question that’s asked when an issue arises is: “What’s the government doing about it?” But I realized that this statism causes more problems than it solves. Rather than relying on the industry and ingeniousness of the people, we were relying on burdensome, cumbersome, inefficient bureaucracy. Each involvement of the government, furthermore, eroded the people’s freedoms, their area of movement and activity, and, indeed, even their will to work, solve, and prevail.

Mark my words – every statist nation is full of dullards, lazy people, unrealistic ideologues, and far from industrious.

I don’t care about communism or socialism. Russia, China, or Iran won’t do us in. If things don’t change, statism will be end of America as a world power.

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The Strength of a Nation

February 17, 2010 at 10:26 am (History, International community)

Wherein lies the strength of a nation?

Not in its planes or tanks or missiles. Not in its economic prowess. Not in how low people bow to its diplomats and leaders. Quite often, though, these are taken as signs of the strength of a nation – it’s prestige.

But the true strength of a nation lies with its people – their willingness to move the nation forward, their willingness to work together, their courage and determination, their cherishing of their past and their optimistiz gaze to the future, their industriousness and valuing of honest, hard work. With such a people, no government or military can frustrate them. Without such a people, no government or military can lead the nation forward.

So, look to a nation’s people to judge its true strength.

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Back to blogging!

February 15, 2010 at 8:41 am (Blogs, Personal)

With my MBA done, I’ll have more time to write so look for posts here thrice weekly!

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Death in South Asian Muslim culture II – burial

December 9, 2009 at 12:30 am (Islam, South Asia)

In Pakistan, once someone dies, relatives (who usually are around if the person was expected to die shortly, if not they converge quickly) take and body and bathe it. It is given the ritual washings of wuzu (ritual ablutions) and ghusl (bath). The body is often scented. It is then wrapped in shrouds – five for women, three for men. Pieces of cloth are used to bind the body around the elbows and feet. The nose and mouth are filled with cotton. The deceased wear no other clothing or vestments.

The people who perform this are usual close relatives of the same sex. Strangers or non-relatives may be used as needed. To be able to bathe the body of a dead person is considered an act of great merit.

Once wrapped in shrouds (often one can part of the top-most shroud to uncover the face), the body is moved to where mourners are. While awaiting for people to gather for the funeral prayers to be said, people recite the Qur’an and pious texts.

At the appropriate time, people gather for the funeral prayer (namaaz-e janaazah). It is considered to be of great merit to participate in a funeral prayer, whether for someone one knew or for a stranger. The funeral prayer contains a number of takbeeraat (“proclaiming ‘Allaahu akbar’ with certain gestures of the hands and arms”) along with short prayers for the dead person: that their sins be forgiven them, that they go to Heaven.

After the funeral prayer, the bier is lifted and carried. There are no pallbearers – everyone (all men, of course) are encouraged to do what in Urdu is called kandha dena (lit., “give the shoulder”) which means to carry or transport the bier. How it works is sort of complicated – people revolve in a clockwise pattern, then make room for others to take their place. I remember when my maternal grandfather died and his bier was taken in a bus, the bier was passed back and forth, back and forth the entire time. One often says the shahaadah whilst doing this or close to such an activity.

The bier is then carried to the grave. Depending on the locality, the body might be lifted from the bier, head facing Mecca, and laid in the grave. Each person there throws in three fistfuls of dirt, then the grave is filled. A simple stone is placed at the head, and certain portions of the Qur’an are recited. More supplications are made for the forgiveness of the deceased’s sins and that he/she will go into Heaven.

In the US, what I have noticed is that the bier is lowered into an open concrete box, and a slab is placed over it. Dirt is thrown over the box, then the grave filled. Sometimes people are buried in the concrete box in a simple coffin, sometimes not.

This usually happens within 24 hours. When my maternal grandmother passed away (she passed away in Pakistan), she was buried within 4 hours. When another person I knew passed away here, she was buried within 18 or so hours. (They were waiting for some of her sons to fly in, and wanted to have her namaaz-e janaazah after the afternoon prayers.)

All in all, it’s quite simple. No undertakers, no funeral homes, no elaborate presentations. Very simple.

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Death in South Asian Muslim culture I – death

December 8, 2009 at 9:39 am (Islam, South Asia)

I knew there was something I forgot to do last night.

In the past month, there have been two deaths of people close to me. One very close, one a little less close. The first was my maternal grandmother (she passed away December 4) and the other was someone who was like a grandmother to us (she passed away November 15).

This gave me an opportunity to observe and experience death and mourning up-close, which I will write about this week.

Many people who die of old age, or causes incident to age, often die surrounded by loved ones. If it’s a sudden death, then that may not be the case. Nevertheless, because social interaction is quite strong in the South Asian community, few old people are alone. My like-a-grandmother died surrounded by people (literally – people almost filled her hospital room as she lay dying). My grandmother was surrounded by people too – mainly my mother, my father, and other people in the house. When my grandmother had difficulty breathing, she was immediately surrounded by people and caretakers trying to solve the problem.

When a person is dying, relatives often come and read the Qur’an and other pious books for aisaal-e sawaab (transferring the merit of these pious actions to someone else, in this case the dying person). A dying person is not to be left alone. If I understand it correctly, there must be someone of the same sex present if possible (for post-death rites, which will be discussed tomorrow).

Once a person has died, various things happen. What exactly happens depends on the location a person died (things in Pakistan are a bit different from here). But, generally, the body is washed and wrapped in shrouds. People should accompany the body at all times, often reciting the Qur’an and other pious books or texts (for the same reason as before). Upon the announcement of death, relatives and friends converge to help and console the mourning family.

Traditionally, the stove is not turned on for three days (more on this on Friday), so people will often bring food. It’s considered a major act of merit to visit someone in mourning to comfort them; conversely, many people reach out to relatives for support and company. The social network is strong and translates into a lot of potential support and help if needed.

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Coming tomorrow!

December 7, 2009 at 3:50 pm (Blogs)

Today’s post will appear tomorrow.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part VI of VI

December 4, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

The issues raised have been answered.

Let us expand a bit. Comparisons are what many people do. Comparing Islam’s past to today’s values isn’t necessarily valid. It’s a form of presentism, and ignores the milieu (local or global) of people back then, which explains, to some degree, what they did and why. But justifying Islam’s present based on past attitudes doesn’t cut it either. And it’s plain wrong, frankly, to assert that Islam is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. One of the ironies is that the Salafis want to bring Islam back to its pristine state, back to the Islam of the earliest generation of Muslims. The irony is that the Islam they preach, envision, and enforced never existed. How Islam is envisioned and how it existed are very different. This makes it very dangerous to establish Islam based on past attitudes and practices because those attitudes or practices may never have existed. The corollary to this is that Islam has always been changing. And it always will. To staunch this, to stop this is idiocy. The very act of restoring pure Islam is in itself a major change. Thus, the changing nature of Islam should be recognized, embraced, and dealt with responsibly.

And so it is perfectly fine to analyze Islam today based on modern values and perspectives and practices. But we should never forget that doing so will reveal the cause of all this suffering in the Islamic world: the Islamic world’s confrontation with modernity. (People blame illiteracy and poverty, but I would submit that these two become issues due to the Islamic world’s confrontation with modernity. This confrontation is the fuel that keeps burning a conflagration of immense proportions, but which people don’t talk enough about. The solution, then, isn’t education or employment or money – it’s helping the Islamic world confront and deal with modernity.)

We see this in the transition from the Caliphate to republics. It was assumed for centuries that the Islamic polity would be organized under the caliphate, a united people (ummah, as in Arabic) with distinct minorities (milletler, as in Turkish). All Muslims owed their allegiance to the legitimate Muslim ruler – whether the Ottoman sultan, the Persian shah, or the Mughal emperor. They were united by religion, not ethnicity or nationality or language or whatnot. Then came the revolution that overthrew the caliphate and instituted in its place a large number of nation states which never existed before. (Some were, in fact, artificial constructs by European powers to mollify Arab leaders, if not win their allegiance. Why else would Hashemites rule Jordan and Iraq, away from the Hijaz?) The whole mindset, expectations, and vision of Muslims changed almost overnight (with the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatuk, literally overnight).

It is this confrontation, and Islam’s apparent failure, and attempts to help Islam deal with moderniy, that cause the turmoil we see. Unfortunately, this internal turmoil takes an external character, what with terrorism and international interdependence and interrelation. Hence, the importance to understand this issue.

I will take one week to discuss something from the Qur’an, then I will do a series of posts to address the issue mentioned above, to provide some background to answers or solutions to Bernard Lewis’s question, which is also the title of a book that seeks to answer this question: What Went Wrong?

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part V of VI

December 2, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue six:

And in the end, when all is said and done, does Islam have to be eradicated from the hearts and minds of one billion Muslims for them to live peacably? Or can Muslims modernize by critical reevaluation of texts and a mass movement to reject Islamic literalism?

To answer your question: it is the latter. One cannot solve a problem posed by a people by wiping them out. It never works. Christianity is almost 2,010 years old; Judaism is far older. Islam is just 1,430 years old. When Christianity was 1,430 years old, it was also crude and violent and uncouth, compared to today’s standards. Indeed, one may say Islam is further at 1,430 years than Christianity was at 1,430 years. So, on the one hand, one may say that we need to give Islam time to mature and thus become as open to change and reform as Christianity and Judaism have become (and in both, this openness came after a long time of existence). On the other hand, one can argue that internal forces in Islam will prevent any such openness.

I, personally, am of the opinion that no such mellowing will occur. I think it is a fallacy to believe that humanity will, of its own accord, evolve into peaceful beings. While this has happened to large degree in the West, outside the West the world hasn’t changed much. Consider the Hindus, for example: they have been around millennia more than Christianity, and yet their fundamentalists can be just as bad as Muslim fundamentalists. I don’t think it is realistic to expect that the world’s people will live in peace. War and violence and conflict are facts of life, and we should recognize this rather than anticipating some utopian vision of worldwide harmony. This isn’t to be negative but rather this should force us to focus on what matters: in a world full of evil and violence, we should embrace our differences and work on cooperating, respecting our differences.

That said, I do envision two forms of Islam. One influenced by the West, and one that is more extremist. The former will be far more compatible with the modern world, with a pluralistic society. The latter will not be. Both will exist side-by-side, with a tumultuous relationship. The more Muslims feel threatened by the modern world, the more they will cling to the fundamentalist interpretation. The more the fundamentalists disgust them and make like difficult for them, the more they will support the modernist interpretation.

People have been calling for a reform of Islam. Problem is that there is a reform in Islam: it’s the fundamentalist, Salafi movement (also known as the Wahhabi movement). What people need to call for is a modernizing of Islam. A reform works only if it makes Islam more extremist: a modernist reform will never catch on because it is viewed as perverting and rejecting Islam in favor of non-Islamic (if not anti-Islamic) ideas. What is needed is to reinterpret Islamic rules by Islamic experts on Islamic terms. There are some experts that are doing this, and doing a wonderful job of it.

I see it in my own family. Some relatives will speak in whispers about “real Islam” – simple, focused on good deeds, not ostentatious, independent of clerics, tolerant, rejecting fundamentalism and extremism. Other relatives will loudly denounce perversions in Islam, enemies of Islam, and call all Muslims to defend Islam by adhering to a more fundamentalist (if not extremist) interpretation. The argument can get very heated.

And this, I believe, is the future of Islam.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part IV of VI

November 30, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue four:

Another thing I suppose is, why do you think Muslims have been in the dark fo so long about Islamic textgs and Muhammad’s character. The fact that many Muslims don’t speak Arabic, and certainly not Classical Arabic, well enough to read the texts is one issue. What do you think caused it? It’s indeed interesting that out of the 1.2 billion Muslims-which we must face is a huge number, there are many very smart, upstanding people in this group who look at the Quran, Hadith and Sira and see genuine beauty, wisdom and tolerance in it. Do you think it’s due to mental defficiency, actual brainwashing or self denial? Sijmply a radically different interpretation that sadly not enough Muslims follow? Or simply being severely misguided by Imams who may not understand as much as they think about Islamic texts? The best case scenario is that the interpretations of the Quran, as outlined in the blogging the Quran series on the Islamocritical site Jihadwatch, are not the sole interpretation by Muslims

The issue of interpretations is contentious indeed. And I have a theory, which is has two parts:

One is that while Islam claims to not have a priestly class, there is a clerical class that acts, effectively, as priests. In Urdu, the term is chowdhrihat, and a comparable term can be “priestcraft” (especially as used by Latter-day Saints). The clerics establish themselves as experts, and they make themselves vital by emphasizing the difficulty of understanding, let alone correctly interpreting, the Sources of Islam (Qur’an, ahadeeth, sunnah). On the one hand, they have a point: interpreting each volume of the Sources of Islam is its own field of study, is an art. But this doesn’t mean that the common man cannot delve and master these arts, or that things can be organized (or reorganized, I suppose, at this point) such that the common man can study and apply Islam without the need for clerics. Muslims like to claim that Islam is a simple religion: why, then, all these rules? why, then, the need for clerics?

In any case, such it is, and people tend to ask about, read, and follow the pronouncements of the clerics. So, how people practice and interpret Islam depends on the clerics. It’s not so much that they are brainwashed as much as they don’t know better, and believe they can’t know better.

The other is that interpretations are always biased. (This goes for most traditions, religious and otherwise.) People have certain preconceived notions and expectations and interpretations, and they interpret things through these lenses.

An interesting example is the issue of jihaad. If one comes with the lens that jihaad is non-violent, then all references to jihaad is interpreted from the perspective of a spiritual battle and obviously violent dicta are explained away. If one comes with the lens that jihaad is violent, then all references to jihaad are interpreted accordingly.

Who is right? Who is wrong? From an academic perspective, there is no right or wrong: things are as they are. But from the perspective of a Muslim, it’s hard to say. It’s so common for two sides of an issue to successfully use the Sources of Islam to defend their points that one must conclude that either Muslims are experts at twisting the words of the Sources of Islam or that the Sources of Islam are contradictory. In either case, one cannot really depend on the Sources of Islam to establish what is right or not, and this is why there are so many seemingly contradictory interpretations from the same sources.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part III of VI

November 27, 2009 at 7:11 pm (History, Islam)

Issue three:

Critics of Muhammad today suggest he was in the same league as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Nero or Attila the Hun in terms of how he forced his people backward and oppressed them, but it seems it can also be argued his actions were more good that bad when the situation of Arabs before and after him is analyzed.

Except for the massacre of Jews, I don’t think one can necessarily equate Muhammad bin Abdillah with the likes of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Nero, or Attila the Hun. Muhammad’s reach was very local – except for missionary assignments, Muslims of Muhammad’s time stayed within the Arabian peninsula. Furthermore, while the sword of Islam brought many tribes into the Islamic polity, more tribes were integrated into the Islamic state through diplomatic means, mainly through marriage. While it is true that Muhammad had many, many wives, most of these marriages were for political, diplomatic purposes.

This is evidenced by what happened as soon as he died – many tribes that were allied with the Islamic state defected. They saw their inclusion in the Islamic state as a political not religious arrangement. They saw Muhammad not so much as the prophet of God but rather as super-chief of all tribes. Hence the Wars of Apostates under Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s successor as political leader: he fought these defecting tribes to keep them in the Islamic polity, enforcing the religious (rather than simply political) nature of the Islamic state. (Muslims often characterize the tribes as having converted to Islam where they really simply joined a political union.)

Now, did Muhammad create a better environment? If we believe what the Muslims (obviously biased) have written, then yes. But if we want to be absolutely sure, we need a better idea what pagan Arabia was really like (rather than what it was alleged to be). Very few descriptions exist of pagan Arabia, so we can’t really say.

That said, I do not think it can be said that Muhammad initiated a regress of the Arabic people. Critics may not want to swallow this bitter pill, but Muhammad (and Muslims) did a lot to advance the Arab peoples. In a short span of time, desert nomads had conquered ancient kingdoms and ruled vast swathes of land. One can hardly call this forcing the Arabs backwards. Were it not for Muhammad, the Arabs would be nobody today. Islam put the Arabs on the world stage.

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