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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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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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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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part II of VI

November 25, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue two:

The same goes for many issues with Muhammad and women. Critics attacked Muhammad for banditry, insulting pagan faiths and not being a convincing prophet, but never his relations to women. Marrying wifes of fallen enemies never drew objections, nor did having slave girls or polygamy. The only thing he did that Arabs found objectionable, atg least with regards to women, was marrying his son in law’s wife. The changes in women’s status in Arabia as a result of Muhammad seem overwhelmingly postive. Again, that’s not to justify the horrific oppression of women going on right now due to his example, but merely to discuss the issue of his environement.

Considering the issue from the perspective of the environment of paga Arabia, it may indeed seem that Islam – Muhammad’s new system – improved the lot of women. Indeed, Muslims will often say that women in Islam had a higher status in Islam than in Judaism, Christianity, pagan Arabia, or any other place.

There are a few issues, however, when considering the status of women in Islam.

1. We do not know, exactly, what the status of women was throughout pagan Arabia. Almost all descriptions of pagan Arabia we have are from Muslim sources, and thus negative. Back then, there was no obectivity in historical accounts, and so we can be sure that all Muslim accounts of pagan Arabia are biased and skewed. Was the status of women in the Hijaaz the same as elsewhere? We don’t know. It may possible that women in pagan Arabia had a status lower than in Islam; the opposite can also be true. We don’t.

2. If Islam did elevate the status of women, then it cannot be condemned. However, we do not live in the past. We live now. The irony may just be that while women in Islam had a status higher than in any other religious body, today they have a status lower than in any other religious body. Going back to a problem in the previous issue: there is no change. What was acceptable (and even laudable) in the past do not remain the same today.

3. Islam established certain laws and policies with regard to women. While Christians, Jews, Hindus, and many others have modernized and changed their laws and policies, the same cannot be said about Islam. While Islam’s dicta may have helped women in the past, today the very same dicta hinder women.

4. We can look at the status of women in Islam in that age, in that environment, and in those circumstances, but we cannot forget how those elements impact the world today. While Muhammad’s example and dicta were not reprehensible for his time, age, and environment, the lamentable fact is that they remain in force despite the world changing and evolving.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part I of VI

November 23, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Someone named Maxwell1313 asked me a few questions about Islam/Muhammad. For two weeks, I’m going to answer his questions.

Issue one

But the question arises, to what extent did the people of Arabia really object to Muhammad’s actions and to what extent were they merely the result of his environment? The ubituitous example is Aisha. From what I’ve read, it seems the evidence that anyone in Arabia, pagans, Jews or Christians, objected to his marraige with Aisha due to her age simply due to her age is not there. One could argue he used revelations to gain support and intimitaded would be objectors, but even his multitude of critics never found Aisha’s age objectionable. Hence, it seems that either Arabs, including Jews and Christians, had condoned sexual relations with little girls and that only modern post-Enlightment Christians have come to find it objectionable, or that ultimately it didn’t really happen and the hadiths that suggest this are false. Obviously, you both reject the latter, but that would create a problematic situation for Arabs, even Christian and Catholic ones, who would have to come to terms with the fact that their culture has condoned mistreatment of women for centuries and only post Enlightment values have changed this. And although their defense of Muhmmad as a role model for all times would still fall flat, Muslim can argue that early Jews and Christians clearly did not see Muhammad’s marriages objectioanble and objectioning to it today is cultural elitism. Now, I would say sex with a nine year old girl is grotesque regardless of the age but unfortunately it can be argued this results from unreasonable cultural standards.

The issue you are referring to is called “child marriage.” This was, indeed, permissible in Judaism. The Talmud has regulations on it. It is, furthermore, relatively recently that normative Judaism stopped practicing child marriages.

There is also a phenomenon called “presentism” wherein one applies standards and expectations and ways of thinking of the present to past eras. This is not always good because people in the past did not believe or think the way we do. Thus, in the past, child marriages were acceptable. If we find Muhammad’s marriage to Aishah bint Abi Bakr objectionable, we should realize that we are offended because our current standards finds such a thing objectionable, not necessarily because it was in and of itself objectionable.

The problem with Muhammad’s marriage to Aishah bin Abi Bakr is its impact today: because Muhammad did it, Muslims find it acceptable even today. Thus, while we cannot condemn Muhammad’s marriage (because that was acceptable even by Christians and Jews of that period), we can condemn the perpetuation of child marriage among Muslims in today’s world that rejects such a thing. If we wish to declare that what Muhammad did was intrinsically evil, we must likewise condemn similar practices by Christians, Jews, and other peoples through history.

th3cow comments:

Your answer is somewhat misleading, but that is not surprising.

While in Judaism it was ok for young girl to be married off at a relatively young age, as was the custom in the ancient world, it is not ok now, and it is well grounded in Jewish religious jurisprudence. That is – the religious scholars and leaders (The Rabbis) have the authority to pass rulings that amend laws in order to adapt them to the present day social environment.

In Islam, however, this is not permissible. If Muhammad did it, then it was right then and it is right now and it will be right in the future.

Muslims find it acceptable even today not just because Muhammad did it, but because they are obliged to follow his example, as he is the perfect role model (al Insan al Kamil).

Islam needs to be reformed to remove this element, so that it can be adapted to changes.

Thank you. You are correct, and part of what you said was the point I was trying to make.

I am reading the Talmud Bavli and currently reading Maseches Avodas Zara, and am going through daf after daf on yayin nesech (wine contaminated by contact with idolators – Maseches Avodas Zara is about idolatry). But a vast majority of those rules are no longer followed. This is a significant issue – many Jews know the Talmud better than the Bible, and yet they are free to set aside Talmudic dicta.

This is why for the modern world it is not a problem that the Talmud permits child marriages. Jews today do not perform child marriages, despite Talmudic permission for it.

Of course, underlying this – which I should have discussed and which th3cow mentioned – is the role of injunctions. For Jews, they are halakha or law: this what you do, this is what you don’t do, and often wherefore. There is no person whose example pervades Talmud. There is no this is how Moses bathed, or this is how Abraham cleaned his nose, or this is how Isaac ate. On the other hand, as th3cow mentioned, Muhammad is seen as al-insaan al-kaamil or the perfection of humanity. Everything he did is not only good to follow but practically incumbent on those Muslims who claim to love God and to love Muhammad. Thus, if he performed a child marriage, so can the rest of the Muslim world, and no one can say it is reprehensible.

Also, as th3cow said: rabbinic authorities can, in effect, overrule Talmud. It’s interesting to read Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (a list of halakhos) and see notations that say, essentially: the Talmud says X, but halakha is the opposite. In other words, rabbis can modify Talmudic injunctions and can even overrule them. (This is why to study halakha, studying the Talmud is important, but it is most vital to study not only prominent historical compendia of halakhos (like Shulchan Arukh and Kitzur Shulchan Arukh) but also modern, prevailing responsa and compendia on halakha.) Such an idea is anathema in Islam. No one can overrule sunnah (the way Muhammad lived) or ahadeeth (what Muhammad said). They are eternal. This is why child marriages still are done, and cannot be overruled, and why slavery can still exist in Muslim lands.

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Why an Islamic state matters to Shiites

August 25, 2009 at 11:30 pm (Iran, Islam, Islamism, Religion)

Islam is as much a political force as it is religious. And this is common with mmost religious movements prior to this modern age. For most of humanity’s history, religions played and intrinsic rôle in the political life of a polity. However, while most other religious movements have accepted the separation of religion and poltics, Islam retains this belief that religion and state cannot be separated. Indeed, one fundamental purpose of Islam was to establish the way (شريعة shari’ah) to a just society through it’s religious laws (called, thus, the “shari’ah”). Thus, an Islamic state is a legitimate state.

Among Shiites there is a dispute whether a legitimate Islamic state can be established. Some say they must wait for the return of the Hidden Imam. Others say agents of the Imam may establish a provisionary state until he reappears. Others believe that a truly legitimate, authentic Islamic state may be established by the Imam’s agents before he reappears.

For many Shiites, the legitimate Islamic state died with Muhammad. His supposed successors prevented the rightful sucessor from taking his place at the head of the Islamic state and when his turn came, supporters of these usurpers attempted to overthrow him. They likewise killed the son of the rightful successor (by the way, who was evidently علي بن ابي طالب ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin). And since then they have been trying to kill the rightful bearers of authority.

But this has not always been the case. The Fatimids (Isma’ili Shiites) established a potent caliphate to rival the Sunni one. The Qizilbash claimed be led by the Imam, and established a Shiite empire (forcing all their non-Shiite subjects to convert), which reunited Persia and made it Shiite. But these were exceptions that proved the rule: Shiites cannot establish a legitimate Islamic state. Either they fail or their Sunni enemies defeat them (or their Sunni enemies defeat them by making them fail).

This should explain why the notion that cresting an Islamic state was not only possible and permissable but that there is a way and structure and organized manner to do so, was so shocking, novel, and captivating.

Despite centuries of doctrine otherwise, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini capitalized on the Shiites’ yearning for political deliverance and unveiled before them the way to their salvation: Velayat-e Faqih.

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An Issue of Great Importance for Muslims.

May 6, 2009 at 11:51 pm (Islam, Islamism, Pakistan)

We interrupt the regular programming to bring you something…unique.

Watch the following video that is in Urdu (the language of Pakistan):

Especially at 5:50.

What’s he getting so worked up about? Is it the injustices by extremists or by infidel Crusading Zionists? Is it some sorrowful tale of martyrs? Is it eulogizing some renowned leader?


He’s lamenting about and exhorting against Muslim men who remove their beard.

Yes. He worked up about beards.

“Don’t shave your beards and look like Jews!” he says.

12 videos, all on the subjects of beards.

(No, I don’t know why he’s waving that flag.)

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Non-fasting Muslims

October 3, 2008 at 12:30 am (Islam, Religion)

Qasim-Shahi Nizari Ismaili Shiite Muslims form an interesting bunch, a very unique movement within Islam. Rather than simply being a sect, they view themselves as a طريقة tareeqah (lit., “path”), which term is used for Sufi orders.

One thing that sets them apart is that they do not fast during the month of رمضان (ramadaan in Arabic, ramzaan in Urdu), which just ended. Rather then go into the historical reasons why this is so (which refers to the قيامة qiyaamah under their imam حسن على ذكره السلا hassan ‘alaa dhikrihi-s-salaam (lit., “Hassan, peace upon mention of him”)), I’ll mention the current interpretation of this practice.

Ismaili Shiite Islam believes that every law or rule has an obvious or public aspect (ظاهر, zaahir) and a hidden aspect (باطن, baatin). In the laws of fasting (صوم sawm in Arabic, روزه roza in Persian and Urdu), the outer aspects involve hunger. The inner aspects involve good behavior and deprivation. Ismailis, who believe that many of the outer requirements are done away, follow and practice the inner aspects of these rules. So, rather than making themselves hungry for a month, they develop good character and piety throughout the year.

Despite being such a radical departure of normative Islamic practice and rules, it seems the spirit of Ismaili Islam cleaves closer to the good purposes of Islamic practices.

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Jesus, save us!

September 30, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Amusement, Christianity, Islam, The United States, US Government)

I thought this was interesting:
Emergency Economic Stabilization Act – abbreviated to EESA, modified to Eesa, the Muslim Arabic name for Jesus (in full: عيسى بن مريم Eesa bin Maryam, Jesus the son of Mary).

Trivia: Muslims refer to Jesus as عيسى Eesa (عيسى بن مريم Eesa bin Maryam (Jesus the son of Mary) or عيسى المسيح Eesa-l-Maseeh (Jesus the Messiah)). Christians, however, refer to Him as يسوع Yasoo’ (يسوع إبن اللة Yasoo’ ibnillaah (Jesus the son of God) or يسوع المسيح Yasoo’ al-Maseeh (Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus Christ)). The Christian form is closest to the Hebrew form of the Lord’s name.

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An interesting take on the Qur’ān

September 28, 2008 at 1:51 am (Islam)

In spite of the etymology of the its earliest self-designation as qur‘ān, which is a loanword from Syriac qeryānā, meaning a lectionary, recital or pericope to be recited in liturgical services, far too often the Qur‘ān is implicitly treated as a written literary work, imagined to have been authored by Mu[h]ammad. This approach is apparent in frequent criticisms that blame the text for not fulfilling particular literary standards.

Angelika Neuwirth, “Structural, linguistic and literary features,” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qur‘ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 101.

She goes on:

To reclaim the pre-redactional Qur‘ān, it is essential to understand that the Qur‘ān is not meant to be a book to study but a text to recite. Kristina Nelson, who researched the recitation of the Qur‘ān, has stressed that that transmission of the Qur‘ān and its social existence are essentially oral. ‘Qur‘ānic rhythm and assonance alone confirm that it is meant to be heard…The significance of the revelation is carried as much by the sound as by its semantic information.’12 This observation has important implications. If the Qur‘ān was meant to be recited, its actualisation as oral performance should be evident in the composition of the text itself. Where can we trace the intrinsic orality of the Qur‘ān?

As was mentioned above, the early – and densely structured – parts of the Qur‘ān reflect an ancient Arabic linguistic pattern, termed saj‘, a prose style marked by very short and concise sentences with frequently changing patterns of particularly clear-cut, often expressive rhymes. In the later sūras once this style has given way to a more loosely structured prose, with verses often exceeding one complete sentence, the rhyme end takes of the form of a simple –ūn- or –īn- pattern. In most cases this is achieved through a morpheme denoting masculine plural. One wonders how this rather mechanically achieved and inconspicuous ending could suffice to fulfil the listeners’ anticipation of an end marker for the long verse. Upon closer investigation, however, it is apparent that the rhyme as such is no longer charged with this function, but there is not another device to mark the end. An entire, syntactically stereotypical, rhymed phrase concludes the verse. It is tempting to call this a cadenza in analogy to the final part of speech units in Gregorian chant which, through their particular sound pattern, arouse the expectation of an ending. In the Qur‘ān what is repeated is not only the identical music sound, but a linguistic pattern as well – a widely stereotypical phrasing. The musical pattern enhances the message encoded in the qur‘ānic cadenza-phrase that, in turn, may introduce a meta-discourse. Many cadenza-phrases are semantically distinguished from their context and add a more comment to it, such as ‘verily, you were sinning’ (innaki kunti min al-khā[t]ī’īn, Q 12:29). They thus transcend the main – narrative or argumentative – flow of the sūra, introducing a spiritual dimension, i.e., divine approval or disapproval. They may also refer to one of God’s attributes, like ‘God is powerful over everything’ (wa-kāna llāhu ‘alā kulli shay’in qadīrā, Q 33:27), which in the later stages of qur‘ānic development have become parameters of ideal human behaviour. These meta-narrative insertions into the narrative or argumentative fabric would, in a written text meant for silent reading, appear rather disruptive, delaying the information process. They add essentially, however, to the impact of the oral recitation. The Qur‘ān thus consciously styles itself as a text evolving on different, yet closely intertwined levels of discourse and mediation. Although it is true that not all multipartite verses bear such formulaic endings, cadenzas may be considered characteristic of the later Meccan and all the Medinan qur‘ānic texts. The resounding cadenza, thus, replaces the earlier expressive rhyme pattern, marking a new and irreversible development in the emergence of the text and of the new faith.

Angelika Neuwirth, “Structural, linguistic and literary features,” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qur‘ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 103-104.

Footnote 12 is:

K. Nelson, The art of reciting the Qur’an (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985; repr. Cairo/New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), p. xiv.

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A glimpse into the mindset of Islamist extremists: the movie “Traitor”

September 26, 2008 at 12:30 am (Islam, Islamism, Leftist idiocy, The United States, World War III)

For a class, I chose to watch a movie, Traitor. A very interesting movie indeed. It can be considered an interesting exposé of the mindset of many Muslims when it comes to the West (particularly America) and terrorism. The line/thought of “We’re not terrorists; Americans are terrorists” is quite common albeit untenable.

There is a fundamental difference between civilian casualties in American campaigns and in militants’ campaigns. In the former, it’s collateral damage. In the latter, it’s the goal. Americans do not intentionally target civilian targets whereas Islamist militants overwhelmingly do. More civilians have died because of Islamist extremism than because of America’s War on Terrorism. More Muslims have died because of Islamist extremism than because of America’s War on Terrorism.

One point a character in the movie made was that terrorism was all a theater with a clear audience. Terrorism’s goal is to terrorize people so they’re weakened or they surrender. It’s perhaps one of the only weapons the other side can use in this disproportionate war. But that does not mitigate the sheer evil of terrorism.

I friend of mine is having troubles with religion, saying he likes things to be rational. I told him that rationality should never be one’s sole guiding light. All sorts of abominations can be justified, explained, or made acceptable through reason and logic. What scared me, thoroughly, many years ago was to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and realize, to my horror, that in many cases his logic made sense. The outcome was evil; the foundations were shaky; but if one accepted his premises, the conclusions made sense. It is extremely easy–as we have seen many, many people (including Islamists, people in the pay of Islamists, self-defending or blinded Muslims, and even a whole coterie of Leftists) do–to justify, explain, and make acceptable terrorism.

We need to understand the terrorists’ mindset in order to realize just how deep this cancer has set in. And we should formulate our policies accordingly, realizing that winning hearts and minds, while laudable, is far more difficult than we might imagine. These people, whether Islamists or the average Muslim, simply think differently than we do in the West.

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When does Ramadaan/Ramzaan start?

September 2, 2008 at 10:44 pm (Islam)

Ramadaan/Ramzaan Mubaarak!

Whether this greeting is timely or not depends on the community (or even sub-group) one is addressing.

The holy Islamic month of Ramadaan (pronounced as “Ramzaan” by South Asians) began on August 31, September 1, or September 2. It all depends on the community and even on individuals therein.

For centuries, the same debate has been raging throughout the Muslim world: when does Ramadaan/Ramzaan start? When does it end? How should this be found out?

This is significant because during the month of Ramadaan/Ramzaan, one fasts (from the first day of Ramadaan/Ramzaan through the last day). The first day of Shawwaal (the next month) is Eid al-Fitr, which is, celebration-wise, comparable to Christmas. On Eid al-Fitr, people go to the mosque for Eid prayers, they visit the homes of friends and relatives, they give and receive gifts, they dress up in good clothes, they have family dinners, and so on. It is forbidden, furthermore, to fast on the first of Shawwaal. (Muslims are obligated to fast during Ramadaan/Ramzaan; they may fast during most other days of the year for penitence or devotional purposes, however on certain days one is forbidden to fast for any reason.) Not knowing the correct dates of when Ramadaan/Ramzaan and Shawwaal begin means that one’s fasting may be incomplete or impermissibly extended.

There is no resolution to this debate. This is a debate because the Islamic calendar is exclusively lunar, and the beginning of a lunar month depends on the rise and sighting of the new moon in an area. The new moon does not rise in all areas on the same solar date, and so some places will observe one date on a certain solar date, while others will observe the same lunar date after or before.

According to the most stringent requirements, the new moon of Ramadaan/Ramzaan must rise in an area for Ramadaan/Ramzaan to begin therein. So while the Ramadaan/Ramzaan new moon rose in the Arab area of the world comparable to September 1 (meaning, the month started in the evening of August 31), the lunar month may begin the next day in the Americas due to the angle of the moon’s rising or setting.

But such scientific calculations are insufficient. According to the same stringent requirements, one must see the new moon in order for its presence to be verified. (And the very same phenomenon must be seen by a certain number of independent, trustworthy witnesses.)

Some time ago, a number of Islamic organizations decided to abandon the traditional method and establish a scientific lunar calendar. This way, the dates of the lunar months would be established long beforehand, allowing people to prepare accordingly. There would be no last-minute stress or wondering, nor would there by any doubt as to when Ramadaan/Ramzaan begins and when it ends. However, a good number of other organizations condemned this move as being practically apostate. More importantly, a number of people, whether affiliated with any organization or not, decided not to follow such a policy: they would still call reputable organizations who have sent their trustworthy witnesses to see if they can spot the moon, or continuously refresh the homepage of such organizations, awaiting the notification of whether the moon has been sighted or not. Phonelines are jammed and websites often are overwhelmed. But no problem: this is the traditional (and only) way to do things.

One of the biggest concerns was comparing Muslim holy days with Jewish and Christian ones. Jews and Christians know long beforehand when what holy day will fall. They can ask for days off and they can prepare, all in advance. There is no question or doubt whether the holy day has arrived or not: everyone knows the date and time of a holy day’s arrival. In contrast, Muslims would have to ask for a day off the morning of said day (or put in the notice the day before), because they have no idea when the actual holy day will fall. In most workplaces, this is not permitted: they ask for a few weeks’ advance notice, which is impossible for Muslims to give. But this did not pacify the traditionalists, who accused the experts using scientific methods of apostasy (if not being in the grip of some conspiracy to weaken and destroy Islam). They also point out that Jews have a set calendar (that is, they don’t wait to observe the moon), and so such organizations using a scientific calendar are mimicking the Jews, which is anathema to Islam. Some go further: this attempt to fix the Islamic calendar (or predict it) is a Jewish plot against Islam. Or the Islamic scholars are being fooled by Zionist/Crusader operatives. Such accusations certainly make rational debate on this issue impossible.

Ramadaan/Ramzaan has 29 or 30 days. At the end of the 29th day, witnesses are sent out. If the moon is sighted, the next day is the first of Shawwaal and, therefore, Eid al-Fitr. If the moon is not sighted (or, because of weather conditions, unable to be sighted), the next day is proclaimed to be the 30th day of Ramadaan/Ramzaan, the day after that being the first of Shawwaal (and, therefore, Eid al-Fitr). But communities will still dispute whether the moon is sighted or not.

What may complicate matters is diaspora communities. From what I have noticed, South Asian Islamic authorities are the most stringent, demanding that the moon be sighted in an area for the month to have started therein. But Bosnians, for example, will go by when the lunar month begins in Bosnia; Arabis likewise will go by when the lunar month begins in their lands. So South Asians traditionally celebrate things one day after many others, because the lunar months seems to start a day later in the Americas compared to Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, or the Pashtun areas. (In Pakistan, the Pashtun areas were notorious for celebrating one day earlier. Some say because they’re heretics; others say because the lunar month begins earlier there.)

But here’s something that really strikes me as strange. My parents are very rational people. My father doesn’t really believe in Islam. My mother strongly identifies as Muslim but doesn’t practice Islam. And yet neither of them accept the scientific calendar approach. To them, the only way is the old-fashioned way: find out if trustworthy witnesses have spotted the moon. And so for them, too, one doesn’t know until the day before when the holy day will fall.

People talk a lot about reform in Islam. But for those of us who have seen these calendar wars, we know reform will be slow in coming, if it comes at all. If Muslims cannot agree on the simple matter of how to fix the calendar issue, how can we expect them to solve women’s rights, democracy, civil rights, pluralism, tolerance, rule of law, and modernist interpretations?

I was going to rejoice that Eid al-Fitr coincided with Rosh haShanah this year. But such a coincidence is limited: it applies only to those who’ll celebrate Eid al-Fitr on September 30. Some will celebrate it on September 29, and maybe some on October 1. Who knows.

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