The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged islam
A letter from Marseille: politics and identity in France

In March I spent a little time in (and fell in love with) Marseille, France's poorest, most diverse major city, trying to figure out the election that would eventually witness the implosion of the country's Socialist party and the election of the 39-year-old, party-less candidate Emmanuel Macron. I was particularly interested in the debate over identity, immigration and Islam that has dominated French politics in recent years, in part due to terrorist attacks and in greater part due to the fear-mongering of the far-right Front Nationale. I think the election of Macron is the best outcome one could have hoped for in this particular election, but the FN isn't going anywhere and we'll have to see what the new president can accomplish to address the economic issues, mistrust of the political system and identitarian divides the country is struggling with. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

I wrote this for The Point, an excellent Chicago-based magazine on politics and culture I strongly suggest you subscribe to. It will be included in the next print issue. 

I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.

This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.

“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”

Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Lure of the Caliphate by Malise Ruthven | NYRblog

Malise Ruthven on ISIS' millennialism:

Though these ideas are not given prominence in most contemporary practice, the leaders of the Syrian jihad are not the first Islamic movement to give them special weight. In 1881, for example, the Sudanese Muslim cleric Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, conquered Khartoum, and created a state that lasted until 1898. And in 1979, an apocalyptic movement led by several Islamist extremists brought Saudi Arabia briefly into crisis with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and calls for the overthrow of the House of Saud; the group claimed one of its own leaders as the Mahdi.

In fact, there is a strong pedigree for this ideology in classical Islamic thought. Like Christianity, Islam seems to have begun as a messianic movement warning that the Day of Judgment was imminent. The early suras (chapters) of the Koran are filled with doomsday menace, and the yearning for a final reckoning is deeply encoded in some of the texts. A central figure in this tradition is Dajjal—the one-eyed false messiah who corresponds to the Antichrist of the New Testament. The details vary but most versions agree that the final battle will take place east of Damascus, when Jesus will return as messiah, kill the pigs, destroy Dajjal, and break the cross in his symbolic embrace of Islam.

. . .

For jihadists, such signs are rife in the Middle East today. One of the arguments ISIS and al-Nusra put forward in their apocalyptic rhetoric is that the Bashar al-Assad regime—dominated by the minority and Shia-affiliated Alawite sect, with its killings of children and repression of Islamists—is a “sign” of this departure from fundamental Islamic values that is supposed to precede the final battle.

The Limits of Muslim Liberalism

Interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the limitations and blind spots of so-called liberal Islam and proponents such as Tariq Ramadan. 

Liberal Islam, steeped in orthodoxy, rationalism, and arrogated notions of representation, has lost its vitality and ability to engage constructively with such radical departures. Its modalities are much the same as those of traditional forms of religious authority, engaged as they are in perpetuating threats of “deviance.” Like traditional scholarship, liberal Islam is still struggling to respond cogently to the increasingly voluntarist impulse in the Muslim world and the challenge laid down by the jihadi manipulation of it. The gatekeepers of knowledge have simply shifted from an ulema class to one of professional religious entrepreneurs, who then define the boundaries of Islam for public consumption. Their predilection for invoking classical jurisprudence and the “Golden Age” of Islamic history also suppresses, implicitly, voices of dissent. Under a veneer of intellectual freedom, substantive debate on contentious issues — such as blasphemy, apostasy, gender, sexuality, the penal code, and the right to criticize or exit — is often postponed or elided. Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on stoning is often invoked to signal his supposed duplicity in this regard, but it is more a reflection of the narrow parameters within which his reformist project is located. The intellectual space liberal Islam opens up is, in fact, quite slim: there are still only a small number of influential Muslim reformists, and they compete to say similar things, most often in the service of the state.


Islam, politics and academia

Sitting on a curb outside the college where she was recently expelled, Eman is defiant.

"I did it for the sake of God," the 21-year-old Tunisian history student—who asked to be identified only by her first name—said of her insistence on wearing the niqab, the full-face veil. Such a display of piety is banned in the classrooms of the University of Manouba's Faculty of Arts and Letters, and she has been forced to leave. "He will reward me in other ways."

Eman is covered head to toe in flowing brown-and-beige polyester. She wears gloves and shields her light-brown eyes from view with a second, transparent veil. Depending on whom you talk to in Tunisia, her attire, and the militant strain of Islamism it is associated with, represents either the future of the Arab Spring—or the greatest threat to it.

To her supporters, Eman is staking a righteous claim for a greater role for religion on campus. To her opponents, she embodies a threat to the university's liberal values and to academic freedom itself.

Fundamentalists like Eman, says Habib Kaz­daghli, a dean at the university, believe that the primary purpose of the university is "not to deliver knowledge but to serve as a place for spreading religion."

This is from a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education (it is behind a pay wall but this link gives temporary access) looking at the fights that have erupted, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, over the role of religionon campus. I visited Manouba University in Tunisia, where Dean Habib Kazdaghli has taken a hard line against allowing women in niqab to attend class (and is now facing what he says are trumped up charges of slapping a munaqaba student). I also visited the ancient Islamic university of Al Azhar here in Cairo, to look at how a historical model of Muslim learning has evolved into the 21st century. 

Voices and faces of the Adhan: Cairo

Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo | Trailer from Scott F. Busch on Vimeo.

This film about the call to prayer in Cairo sounds cool — it looks at the project to unify the Adhan (on the grounds that the cacophony of different mosques was disagreable, I suppose). I actually love hearing the dissonant Adhans of Cairo, particularly when in the medieval part of the city (which has a high density of mosques with high minarets) — it can be a very beautiful thing to hear all of these calls, precisely because they are not in sync. I wonder if the question of noise pollution might not be better handled by improving the quality of speakers mosques use (the distortion they cause can be awful) or better yet, not using amplification altogether.

The directors have a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish the film — help out here.

The Battle for al-Azhar

The Battle for al-Azhar

Hisham Hellyer writes in Foreign Policy of the coming changes in the role of al-Azhar in Islamist-dominated Egypt, after PM Qandil decided not to appoint a Salafist in the position of minister of endowments after al-Azhar staged a revolt over the matter:

"There are difficult times ahead for Al-Azhar's establishment. There appear to be three options for it, the first being the obvious one of sacrificing its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, and allow the 'Salafizing' of the establishment to take place. As noted above, this has serious implications. The second would be to align with the non-civil forces in the deep state whose aim is to minimize MB and Salafi influence in Egypt, which would also involve sacrificing its independence in the process. The more difficult route would be to chart another course, where it is engaged in critique of both the deep state and the MB. This would be, of course, the path chosen by individual prominent Azharis, such as Sheikh Emad Effat, who was popularly recognized as the 'Sheikh of the Revolution.' He was killed in the midst of clashes with military forces on Cairo's streets in December 2011."

To me these questions are another aspect of the resurgence of corporatism in post-Mubarak Egypt I recently wrote about for The National, with al-Azhar essentially playing the role of the corporation of the ulema. Nathan Brown had written about these issues several months ago in a paper on Post-Revolutionary Al-Azhar for Carnegie.

In Translation: Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?

This week’s In Translation piece is a departure from the usual focus on commentary on current events in the Arabic press. I chose a piece recommended by As’ad AbuKhalil, aka Angry Arab, that takes a scholarly look at the key inspirations of the Salafi movement, the theologian and thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who was born in Harran in what is today Turkey and lived most of his life in what is today Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s times coincided with the destructive Mongol invasions which razed Baghdad and, from his perspective, must have appeared as an end-times event. He is considered to be a key inspiration inspiration to the Wahhabi and contemporary Salafi movement.

Angry Arab wrote of this piece:

This is an interesting discussion of the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and how it differed from Hanbaliyyah on some theological issues. Ibn Taymiyyah warrants a lot of academic attention (given his influence on today’s Islamists): French Orientalists of the 20th century did pay attention to him but the reason that he is not studied as, say, Sayyid Qutb, is because he left a vast body of literature and access to this text requires a deep understanding of Arabic. He was a dangerous but effective and sophisticated polemicist.

That’s an important point: a deep understanding of Qu’ranic exegesis necessitates advanced study as a grammatician and even etymologist. For more on Ibn Taymiyya and how the democratization of religion in the Arab world that has given rise to new forms of fundamentalist Islamic thought, I recommend reading As’ad AbuKhalil’s critical essay The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arabic Islamic Thought At The End Of The 20th Century [PDF 2.6MB]. It includes his usual verve against the late Saudi Mufti, Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, who counts among the handful of founders of contemporary Salafism.

This is a difficult piece, but I thought it might be enlightening not only for the learned (and unorthodox interpretation) the writer gives of Ibn Taymiyya, but also in the second degree as telling of some of the discussions taking place in the quality Arab press in reaction to the electoral success of the Salafis in Egypt and the rising intellectual and spiritual influence of the Salafi movement more generally.

As always, this translation is possible thanks to Industry Arabic, which provides multi-lingual translation of many different types — media, technical, legal, etc. — and really did a great job on this difficult piece.



The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists

By Abdel Hakim Ajhar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 14 December 2011

The terms and concepts that have achieved wide circulation with the Arab revolutions – those such as democracy, tyranny, civil society, and citizenship – have no place in the writings of Islamist thinkers before the Nahda period. However, the writings of one such pre-Nahda1 thinker, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), contain material that could enable his followers to adopt a different mentality, one that would guide them – with a little effort — to these prevailing concepts of the age.

The Ibn Taymiyya whom we read about is not the real Ibn Taymiyya: he is a theoretical reproduction and refabrication that has made him into one of the authorities for religious extremists among both his supporters and detractors alike. The real Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, the one who needs to be read by Islamists ascending to the political forefront, is one who will help these Islamists adopt a flexible, rationalistic mode of thinking, and perhaps change many of the intellectual assumptions these forces still live by and consider to be fundamental tenets not subject to review.

Ibn Taymiyya theoretically belongs to the Hanbali school, which is held to be synonymous with, or the basic source of the contemporary Salafi movement in one way or another. In reality, however, Ibn Taymiyya criticized the Hanbali school2 more than any other thinker – whether from within the Hanbali school or without – and his criticisms were profound enough to affect the foundations of the whole school. For example, he criticized the literalism of the Hanbalis’ reading of the text of the Qur’an, which is one of their major tenets, and called for an interpretation of the Qur’an that differs from traditional interpretations such as the those of the Mu’tazilites and later Ash’arites3 who applied the theory of figurative language in this matter. Ibn Taymiyya resorted to a different theoretical foundation to explain his principle of interpretation, which relies on the idea of the “meaning of the text,” or the “intention of the text.” Not only does Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation — which derives from a consideration of the text’s intention — differ from linguistic interpretation, but it also differs from the theory of exoteric and esoteric meaning that Sufis and some other religious groups employed.

Ibn Taymiyya announces his stance supportive of interpretation when he accepts the explanation of the well-known Qur’anic verse that states:

“None knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it.’”4

Ibn Taymiyya makes “those firmly rooted in knowledge” grammatically conjoined with “God,” thus refusing to split the verse and limit interpretation to God alone. This reading is the interpretation of a minority of thinkers in the history of Islamic thought who possessed great intellectual daring, such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Rushd, and it contradicts the views of most conservative schools in Islam. Ibn Taymiyya rejects the Hanbali position, which says that “those firmly rooted in knowledge” do not “know its interpretation,” and that God alone is the one who knows this: He monopolizes it for himself and will reveal it on Resurrection Day. Those holding this view back it up with a verse that says:

“Do they look for aught else but its interpretation? The day its interpretation comes…”5

For the Hanbalis and many conservative currents, the Qur’an is a text that is closed-off on many sides, which adds a sort of secrecy and ambiguity to it. This is in contrast with Ibn Taymiyya, who thought that the Qur’an was an open, completely comprehensible text, and that human beings – to whom this text was sent – are able to understand it through reflection and uncover its intended meanings. Moreover, this understanding is not the exclusive possession of specific religious or spiritual authorities, but rather is granted to any educated or learned person. Ibn Taymiyya says on this point:

God gave an absolute command to reflect on the Qur’an, and did not exempt anything from reflection. He did not say, “Don’t reflect on the obscure passages, and reflection is impossible without understanding.”6

In this context, he criticizes the Hanbalis and some Sunnis who

without complete experience… supposed that only God knows the meaning of the obscure passages” and who would say: “texts conform to their external sense, and they reject any interpretation that contradicts the external sense.”

Ibn Taymiyya levels harsh criticism at this understanding and accuses those who hold this belief – who are mostly Hanbalis and Zahiris7 – of contradiction, lack of experience and of holding a literal understanding. He asks the, “What virtue lies in obscure passages such that God keeps the knowledge of their meaning to himself?” Ibn Taymiyya didn’t stop there; rather, he provided all the philosophical premises to justify his theory of interpretation, as he considered the Qur’an to be “originated”8, and that its words originate in God’s essence little by little according to the needs of revelation, before they emerge from the Divine Essence as audible expressions able to be spoken and recorded by human beings. Ibn Taymiyya confirms his view with a Qur’anic verse that is explicit on this matter:

“No Remembrance from their Lord comes to them lately renewed.”9

Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, adopted interpretations of the Qur’an whose boldness exceeded that of Muslim philosophers preceding him, since he believes that the world has no beginning and no end and is an eternal process of creation and re-creation, and that the world moves according to its own nature, and according to necessity and the principle of causality. In this way, he breaks with one of the most pervasive ideas in Islam – creation ex nihilo – as is held by Hanbalis, Ash’arites, Mu’tazilites and the jurists.10 He backs up his perspective by interpreting the Divine Intention, as he says when he treats a group of Qur’anic verses that prove his theory. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the Qur’anic verse that says

“Surely thy Lord accomplishes what He desires”11

means that God is eternally accomplishing things, since it is impossible for God’s efficacy to be posterior to His will, and for His will to be posterior to His very existence. Therefore, there are three necessary things that are co-eternal: God, His will and His efficacy. This is what puts the world in a state of eternal creation. This eternal creation is proven by the Qur’anic verses that refer to this gradation in the creation of one thing after another with no beginning, such as:

“Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke”12

“His Throne was upon the waters”13

“Then [he] sat Himself upon the Throne.”14

All this confirms the existence of a chain of creation and its lack of a beginning. Ibn Taymiyya here seems very close to Ibn Rushd’s understanding of the same issue, but he is even bolder, since Ibn Rushd has decided that the transition from God’s eternity to the process of creation requires intermediary entities, such as planets and spheres, as Aristotle before him had hypothesized. Ibn Taymiyya rejects intermediary entities, and argues that the transition from eternity to the corporeal world takes place through origination within the Divine Essence. His interpretation of origination is that it is the transferal of the Divine Attributes from their whole position as genera and species to individual intellectual potentialities within the Essence, then these potentialities are transferred to external essences and sensory existents. Ibn Taymiyya believes that the true intention behind the Qur’anic verse that says of God “Every day He is upon some labour”15 is that origination within the Essence is an eternal process.

The Qur’an is not too obscure for human understanding; it is completely comprehensible by the person able to reflect upon it and uncover its various meanings and intentions. Without this belief about understanding the Qur’anic text, the entire heavenly message becomes meaningless, because the message is aimed at mankind, and it would be futile for God to bar mankind from knowledge of all its details, especially its obscure and ambiguous passages.

Mankind enjoys the highest value in the universe because the Divine Attributes have been transferred to him in varying amounts. They exist in God in their capacity as attributes of perfection, whereas they exist in human beings as relative attributes of varying degree. Therefore, Ibn Taymiyya accepts the Prophetic hadith that says: “The Merciful created man in His own image,” and he allows that the pronoun “his” refers to “The Merciful” and not to man.16 Ibn Taymiyya does not intend anthropomorphization, as his followers and his detractors understood it, but rather he means something close to Ibn Arabi’s understanding of the hadith, where man is in a certain sense the image of God. It is through this image that man recovers the attributes that he has lost, and thereby recovers his central status.

Because of mankind’s status, Ibn Taymiyya rejects the view that man is incapable of attaining the truth by his own faculties. For him, mankind is capable of knowing the truth through his natural powers known as his “innate disposition,” as mentioned in the prophetic hadith: “All human beings are born with innate disposition….” This is the human nature that enables a person to attain the truth without the help of anyone, and even without the help of heavenly inspiration.

Ibn Taymiyya here appears in complete agreement with the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl (d. 581/1185) in his story “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.” The child Hayy, who grows up outside of human society and is ignorant of any language to communicate with, is able to attain the ultimate truth of the world just through his natural capabilities as a human being.

Human nature is disposed to seek knowledge and to will this knowledge, despite people’s varying levels of will in seeking and attaining it. Because of this variation in the will to knowledge, there are a number of people who cannot or do not want to reach the truth through their own powers, and it is for this reason that God sent prophets. Even those people for whose sake prophets were sent do not accept this truth because it comes from heaven, but because their innate disposition accepts it, since the success of prophets is connected with the preparedness of man’s innate disposition to accept their message and for no other reason. If not for this disposition, prophets would not succeed in the first place, since the innate disposition itself that guides some people to the truth is also what causes heavenly inspiration to be accepted.

On the other hand, human beings act on the basis of this truth, and are the originators of their actions and responsible for them, because these actions are the natures themselves that God placed within everything, including mankind. Man is capable of freedom, and in his human activity he proceeds according to the principle of “seeking benefit and avoiding loss,” and this is the Qur’anic concept of divine guidance. Consequently, all human actions are explained according to their actual conditions in terms of benefits and losses. This is what causes the universe, the world, and mankind to be governed by cause and effect, including natural objects, which must be understood on this basis.

The world is governed and ordered by its laws, which makes everything in the universe comprehensible. What we do not know today is merely something we ourselves have not been able to figure out, but we will find it out tomorrow. The world is not obscure or a secret, and God does not veil any wonders from human understanding. The universe and its major truths are subject to our human nature, and the knowledge of all this comes about because of our will to knowledge. Not even God’s acts are of the secret and obscure type, as God’s actions are justified by wisdom and by cause. God does nothing in vain, nor does he conceal anything from mankind. His actions are subject to interpretation like anything else.

With these profound conceptions, Ibn Taymiyya breaks the secret about that complex trio in Islam — the Qur’an, prophecy and God — and narrows the circle of the sacred that Muslims have woven around it for a long stretch of their intellectual history. Ibn Taymiyya leaves the world and all its relative and absolute truths open to human knowledge governed by reason. Everything that occurs or will occur tomorrow is in the grasp of our perceptions and our knowledge: there is no wide circle of sacred things, no secret world, and no ambiguity surrounding the facts of the world. Ibn Taymiyya completely rejects the belief held by some people that only God Himself understands His own actions, and that we cannot use logic to understand them — which is a widespread view in the popular understanding of Islam. Contrary to this, God’s actions proceed from his wisdom and are necessarily in harmony with the laws of things and the universe; consequently, they fall within the field of our perception and our intellectual aptitudes.

Ibn Taymiyya, who is considered the spiritual father of the Salafi movement and one of the major authorities in Islamic thought, needs to be re-examined, since there is another aspect to his thought that trains his followers and others to think rationally and to reach a new understanding of Islam. This is an understanding that restores to man his status and his ability to penetrate the world’s secrets, and which pushes him to think about everything, and about the fact that he possesses a degree of truth – however much people may disagree in their conceptions and creeds.

  1. The Nahda: a period of culture awakening that took place in the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th century, which witnessed modernizing reforms in many fields, including the Islamic intellectual heritage. ↩

  2. Hanbali: one of the four schools of law within Sunni Islam. Usually regarded as the most conservative and literalistic. ↩

  3. Mu’tazalite and Ash’arite are two major schools of theology within Islam. The debate the author is obliquely referring to here is over how to handle passages in the Qur’an that pose a certain difficulty, whether because they are obscure or are in apparent conflict with Islamic doctrine (for example, verses that use anthropomorphic language to describe God). Contrary to the Hanbalis, who clung to a rigid literalism in dealing with such passages, the Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites referred to interpreted these verses on the basis that they are employing figurative language, and so managed to resolve any ambiguity or discrepancy. This type of interpretation, which was not without controversy as it involved what some considered an unlicensed deviation from the Qur’anic text, is known in Arabic as ta’wil, in contrast to the more straightforward explanation of unambiguous passages, which is called tafsir. Throughout this translation, “interpretation” is rendering ta’wil and not tafsir. ↩

  4. Qur’an 3:7; the Arabic text is ambiguous, and could also be read as “None knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say ‘we believe in it’…” This was evidently Ibn Taymiyya’s reading of the verse. A. J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted is the translation used throughout for Qur’anic citations. ↩

  5. Qur’an 7:53 ↩

  6. Tafsir of Surat al-Ikhlas, p. 263 ↩

  7. The Zahiris, at one time, were a fifth legal school in Islam, known for their emphasis on adhering to the “external sense,” or zahir of the Qur’an and other religious texts. The school is now considered extinct. ↩

  8. “Originated”: in Arabic, muhdath. The idea that the Qur’an is not coeternal with God, but rather was created by God at a certain point in time. This view, whose most prominent exponent were the Mu’tazilites, is now a minority view in Islam, having been displaced by the Ash’arite belief that the Qur’an is uncreated and hence coeternal with God. ↩

  9. Qur’an 21:2. “Lately renewed” is how Arberry renders muhdath here. ↩

  10. Regarding the world to be eternal is a belief most commonly associated in the Islamic intellectual tradition with the philosophers – those such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, who follow Aristotle in this matter. Most orthodox theologians reject this view, and consider it to be heretical.  ↩

  11. Qur’an 11:107 ↩

  12. Qur’an 41:11 ↩

  13. Qur’an 11:7 ↩

  14. Qur’an 7:54 ↩

  15. Qur’an 55:29 ↩

  16. The Arabic pronoun in the hadith is ambiguous. Interpreters who wished to avoid the anthropomorphic connotations the hadith implies argued that “his” referred to “man” and not “the Merciful,” thus giving the hadith the sense: “The Merciful created man in man’s own image.” ↩

In Translation: Alaa al-Aswany on bigotry

As every week, we bring a selected commentary piece from the Arabic press translated into English, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a full-service translation company founded  by two long-time Arabist readers.

Alaa al-AswanyThere was not enough time to wait for the reaction to the sad events of October 9 — and in any case many commentators are simply speechless, as are so many Egyptians — so instead we picked an op-ed by the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published last week. It touched on the issue that motivated last week’s Coptic protest: a lack of government reaction to an attack on a church in Aswan governorate by local Islamists, with the governor preferring to impose a negotiated solution between the Salafists and Christians rather than impose the rule of law, which would have protected the Christians.

Al-Aswani gives his interpretation of the growing intolerance of Egyptian society (in a work: Saudi Wahhabism) but then takes the SCAF to task on not standing up for Christians’ rights. In many respects it foreshadows the events at Maspero.

As always, al-Aswany ends his columns with “democracy is the solution”. To read some of his Mubarak-era columns, pick up his book On The State Of Egypt or the new Kindle version, translated by our friend Jonathan Wright.

Muslim, Coptic or Human?

By Alaa Al-Aswany, al-Masri al-Youm, October 4, 2011

What is your primary way of looking at the world? As a Muslim, or as a Christian? Or as a human being? Do you see yourself as belonging, first and foremost, to a certain religion, or to humanity? How you answer this question will determine your worldview and how you interact with others.

If you see yourself as belonging to humanity first and foremost, than you are definitely amongst those who respect the rights of others regardless of religion. The correct understanding of religion will undoubtedly make you a fierce adept of humanity, since the essence of religion teaches the defense of human values: justice, freedom and equality.

If, however, you feel your religious affiliation takes precedence over your belonging to humanity, then you’re on a dangerous path that will more often than not lead you to bigotry and violence. By its nature, religion is not a point of view, but rather a restrictive belief which excludes the truthfulness of other religions.

This dangerous path takes shape when we see the truth exclusively through our own religion and when we see in “others” a group of misguided people by a false or distorted religion which is not divine in its essence. This abasement of other religions will definitely lead us to downplay their followers. If you think that those “others” are in fact after illusions and superstitions, while you’re the only one believing in “authentic religion,” then you will not likely see those others as enjoying the same human rights as yourself. This will gradually lead you to see those who don’t belong to your religion as dehumanized. You will tend to view people of other beliefs as a collective whole, without any consideration of their individual personalities.

If you’re Muslim, you will see your Coptic neighbor as someone deprived from the human sense which grants him independence and individuality; for you, he’s just one of those Copts. You will see these Copts as a collective with a distinctive conduct and nature. This is where you’ll be stepping further towards hatred and you’d say something like, “These Copts are a wicked bunch of fanatics… I don’t like them.”

The degree of hatred you may feel towards people of other beliefs might yield a sense of repulsion. For you, these people are not just infidels; they are immersed in an impurity that are not removed in the same ways yours are. If you approach any of them, you will probably realize that they have a distinctive smell as they use different incense or they eat a different kind of food as you. If you reach such a level of repulsion, dear reader, then you have become, unfortunately, one of those religious extremist fanatics who may be willing to commit crimes against others. Indeed, you have misunderstood religion and this has led you to feel hatred towards those you contempt…

This is where a basic question must be answered: how did Egyptians [previously] practice their beliefs…?!

The truth is that Egyptians count amongst the most pious societies; but their civilizational heritage has enabled them to develop a correct understanding of religion. Egyptians have always respected the various religions and their country has always been a safe haven for all. The country welcomed immigrants from all sects and races. Armenians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Baha’is… Not to mention that Egyptian civilization grants the fullest extent of personal freedom. In contemporary Egypt, you are the one who defines your lifestyle. If you want to go and pray, go. If you want to go commit sin, go. Do whatever you feel like doing. You’re a totally free person but you’re also totally liable for your actions before God and the law.

In 1899, the great Imam Mohamed Abdou defined the Egyptian approach to Islam and relieved the Egyptian conscience from bigotry and superstition once and for all. Despite the British occupation of Egypt at that time, the country took off in its journey towards assuming a leading role in almost every field. Such a tolerant Egyptian approach to Islam persisted until the October war broke out in 1973. Because of the sacrifices of both the Egyptian and Syrian people, oil prices flew sky high, thus giving the oil-rich Gulf States an unprecedented economic power. Since the political stability of the Saudi regime depends on its alliance with the Wahhabi sheikhs, millions of dollars were spent to spread the Wahhabi understanding of Islam throughout the entire world.

Add to that the Egyptian economic crisis, which at that time forced millions of Egyptians to migrate to Saudi Arabia for work, thus making many of them the perfect prey for Wahhabi doctrine that is totally alien to Egyptian society. Indeed, the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, in comparison to the tolerant Egyptian approach, preaches an extremist, anti-democratic dogma that is unfair towards women.

At the expense of religion’s essence, Wahhabism sees religion as a set of rituals and actions that concentrate on the form of the religion. Thus, an Egyptian man returning from a Wahhabi country would feel he would be deterred on the spot by members of the Committee for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue (The Mutawa) — those responsible for imposing what they consider good morals by force — if ever his wife’s hair was left uncovered in public. At the same time, any Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia knows that such laws can never be imposed on Americans, Europeans, princes and “nobles.” They will be strictly and solely applied on Egyptians and nationals from non-powerful countries.

Any Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia learns that failing to perform prayers is a major sin. At the same time, however, it is not a major sin to see the Saudi sponsor humiliating his Egyptian employees, denying their financial rights and throwing them in jail if ever they dare to claim any kind of rights. This is another issue that has nothing to do with religion, according to the Wahhabis.

For decades, the Wahhabi doctrine spread in Egypt. What’s worse is that the most dangerous ideas this doctrine inculcated to the Egyptian society was the obligation of hatred towards the Coptic people who should be despised. If we go back to issue 4327 of Rose al-Youssef magazine, we’ll read an article written by Professor Issam Abdel Gawad in which he examined the statements of some Salafi Wahhabi sheikhs on Copts.

Sheikh Saeed Abdul-Azeem says: “There will be no love and no friendship with the Christians and one should not socialize with them nor congratulate them on the occasion of their holidays, as they become even greater infidels during their religious festivities.”

Sheikh Abu-Islam says: “Christians must return to rationality as all their beliefs are contrary to truth and reason.”

Moreover, Sheikh Yasser Barhamy confirms that “it is not permissible for a Muslim to participate in religious rituals of the Copts, as they are polytheists.”

And Sheikh Ahmed Farid declares that “it is not permissible for a Muslim to comfort a mourning Copt, nor should he confirm that the latter would find compensation in the afterlife, as the afterlife of Copts is merely a journey to the fires of hell.”

These are a few examples of what one could hear in the daily speeches of Wahhabi sheikhs in Saudi mosques and satellite TV stations. If such statements are to be formulated in a respectable country, they would be considered as a crime for inciting hatred towards fellow citizens whom it is permitted to offend simply because they have different religious beliefs. Now, because Wahhabi Sheikhs corrupted the minds of some Egyptians and filled their hearts with hatred and intolerance, without any kind of ethical or legal deterrent, what would you expect from those who believe in such a doctrine…?!

Having said all this, one could understand, and expect, the happenings of the recent days in the village of Marenab, in Edfu, in the province of Aswan. Marenab is the home for St. George Church which is visited by Copts living in the village since 1940. Because the church is an old and damaged construction, those in charge decided to apply for a construction permit for renovating it. So far, all seems normal… However, and out of nowhere, a sudden problem was declared: a group of Salafi Wahhabis emerged and objected to the renovation of the church. This being the case, and instead of seeing the authorities enforce the law and protect the church, police and army officials called for an unofficial meeting during which the Salafis imposed their conditions upon the custodian of the church for the sake of accepting its renovation. They requested that the church be built with no loudspeakers, no domes and no crosses. Which leads us to ask: How could a church be built without a cross, the symbol of Christianity?

This was the wish of the Salafis, that was said to be the answer. Moreover, that condition was approved by the police and army officials, which led the custodian of the church to concede in order to get the approval to restore his church. Surprisingly, the custodian’s acceptance of such unjust conditions did not save the church from the Salafis. On the following Friday, the Wahhabi mosque preacher went on inciting the worshipers against the renovation of the Church. As a result, as soon as the prayer ended, a group of fanatics surrounded the church, attacked it, burnt it to ruins.

The attack went on for hours, during which neither the military nor the police interfered to protect the house of God. In addition, the Governor of Aswan, an ex-sympathizer of the Mubarak regime, adopted the good old way of denying responsibility and declared that there wasn’t any church in that village in the first place (that is to say that what happened was a mere fantasy by some Christians). Criminal attacks on Egyptian churches have become a repetitive, strange and suspicious act in the post-revolution era. What happened in Edfu has happened before in Fayoum, Ismailia, Imbaba, Ain Shams and Atfih…

Such attacks lead us to ask: First, since the Military Council serves as the transitional President and Parliament of our nation, and is thus solely responsible for governing the country, what reasoning could one give to the fact of seeing the military police brutally beat, torture and insult protestors in the least human way while, at the same time, one could also see other members of the military police keeping aside while watching the Salafis burning churches and shrines, cutting off the ear of a Coptic citizen, and blocking the railway for some ten days, as happened in Qena?!

What makes the rudeness of the military police turn into softness when dealing with the Salafis…? What pushes the army and police officials into negotiating with the Salafis and abiding by their rules as if they belonged to a nation stronger than Egypt…?! What are the legal grounds that grant the brotherhood of Salafis the right to inspect churches and allow their renovation on their own conditions or prevent such action and order their demolition and burning if they wish to…? Does the Military Council allow certain political advantages to these Salafis or do security, chaos and sectarian violence work towards the political interest of the Military Council, since they justify their staying in power under the pretext of maintaining security and protecting the Copts from extremist attacks…?!

Second, ever since the nineteenth century, the Egyptian people have struggled and offered thousands of martyrs for the sake of achieving two goals: independence and the constitution… in a search for ending the British occupation and building a democratic civil state which was the hope of all Egyptian leaders, starting with the ascent of Saad Zaghloul and till the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser… These leaders were not anti-Islamic secularists, as alleged by the Wahhabis. Instead, they had enough of a cultural and civilized spirit to realize that the civil state which preaches equality among its citizens, regardless of their religion, is the only way to achieve progress. Any attempt to change the structure of the civil state in Egypt will definitely lead to a real disaster… If the Wahhabis cannot stand the sight of a church while they are mere members of the society, how would they behave towards us, Muslims and Copts, be if they ever take power in Egypt…?!

The truth is that Islam, once properly understood, makes us more humane, tolerant and respectful of the beliefs of others. The truth is also that acts aiming at despising and abusing the Copts are heinous crimes that have nothing to do with any religion.

Democracy is, no doubt, the solution!

This Eid, Saturn is ascendant

Love this story from al-Masri al-Youm:

Based on Thursday’s headlines, it seems the biggest news story on the third day of Eid concerns the question of whether or not it really is the third day of Eid. Making the front pages of independent dailies Al-Shorouk, Al-Dostour, and Al-Tahrir are reports claiming that millions of Muslims around the world have “broken their fast early by an entire day, based on a sighting of Saturn.” Traditionally, the holy month of Ramadan ends at the sighting of a new moon; a role that, this year, might have gone to Saturn instead.

“The sighting of a new moon last Monday would have been simply impossible,” Maged Abou Zahra, president of the Jeddah Astronomical Society, states in Al-Shorouk. “Saturn is visible this time of year, and can be easily observed with the naked eye. Either way, the new moon could not have been visible under Monday’s circumstances because the glare from the sun was too strong to observe the moon at that particular moment… this has been confirmed by the most prominent astronomers in the region.”

The mistake has inspired a wave of jokes and sarcastic tweets, as independent dailies such as Al-Shorouk and Al-Tahrir are quick to point out, Al-Tahrir carrying the headline: “Today is the second of [Islamic month] Shawal and the third of Saturn."

Oh, the multiple ironies. One is that Saturn is the planet of the goat-horned devil in many mythologies — something that religiously-minded conspiracy theories will be sure to point out. The other is that this stupid tradition of waiting for sightings of the moon, which sometimes yields different beginnings and ends of Ramadan (with Saudi Arabia often setting the pace for others), yet again proves its anachronism. Anyone can get hold of a computer program that will indicate with great precision when the new moon arrives. I would suggest a little bit of science and ijtihad is in order: let the astronomers rather than the imams tell us when the moon is new.

Sufis vs. Salafists

Love the last line in this story on the emerging feud between Salafists and Sufis in Egypt after a bunch of Salafist neanderthals burned several shrines revered by Sufis (Salafists hate any version of Islam that incorporates mysticism and esoteric beliefs): 

Sufi sheikh warns of sectarian war with Salafis | Al-Masry Al-Youm:

A leading figure from the Azeemia Sufi order has warned of a sectarian war between Sufis and Salafis over the destruction of several shrines connected with revered religious figures.

Sheikh Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem labeled as “thugs” Salafis who carried out the attacks, and accused them of trying to erase important symbols of Islamic Egypt.

On Tuesday, the Azeemia order held a symposium in which it announced its intention of forming a political party named the Egyptian Liberation Party, which aims to protect Sufis in the event that either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis come to power.

Abul Azayem also said he had proposed a meeting with Salafis at Al-Azhar in 2006, but they rejected the proposed venue, and even refused to hold a meeting on their own premises.

However, on Monday, Sufi leaders finally managed to meet with their Salafi counterparts in Alexandria, where Salafis denied responsibility for the demolition of shrines.

For his part, Al-Azhar University Professor Ahmed al-Sayeh said he had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun with which to kill those who have demolished shrines.

Bring it on!

Kristof glosses over colonial era

There's a strange cultural phenomenon — perhaps part of the return of conservatism in the West following the social revolutions symbolized by May 1968 — that has made apologia for colonialism popular again among liberals. I know where it once came from: my maternal grandfather, a man I loved dearly, came from a Belgian colonial family (his father was among the first Europeans to go into deep inner Congo, looking for gold and diamonds in Katanga) would often complain that critics of colonialism forget that Europeans built hospitals and roads and so on where none existed — but would rarely mention the hundreds of thousands of people killed or the exploitation that took place. I didn't like what he said and attributed to his age and conservative mindset, as well as his own experience as a settler in Morocco, which was not at all the exploitative model seen in Congo.

I'm a bit puzzled to read this tidbit in Nick Kristof's latest column:

Many Arabs have an alternative theory about the reason for the region’s backwardness: Western colonialism. But that seems equally specious and has the sequencing wrong. “For all its discontents, the Middle East’s colonial period brought fundamental transformation, not stagnation; rising literacy and education, not spreading ignorance; and enrichment at unprecedented rates, not immiserization,” writes Timur Kuran, a Duke University economic historian, in a meticulously researched new book, “The Long pergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East.”

It's absolutely true to say that colonialism shook up the Muslim world and introduced new technologies and methods of doing business, just as it is correct to say that much of that area stagnated since the late Middle Ages, and that cultural issues, including religion, certainly played a role in that. Kristof's point about Islamic inheritance law and much mainstream Sunni jurisprudence certainly holds. It's not a popular argument to make, but the practice of Islam by mainstream ulema and their alliance with political elites certainly contributed to hundreds of years of stagnation and despotism. 

But you can't just gloss over the colonial era like that. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the French in the Maghreb (particularly Algeria) in campaigns of pacifications. Great areas of farmland were handed out to settlers in Algeria at the expense of local people, creating vast gulfs in wealth distribution that continue to this day (since in so many countries, nationalized assets of colonial elites were simply passed on to a native elite). The colonial era also shaped much of the legal and security framework that newly independent Arab regimes turned from repressing pro-independence activists to repressing communists, Islamists and other regime opponents. It also fuelled Muslim chauvinism, not only because the colonists were non-Muslims, but also because minorities (Christians, Jews) were often given privileged status precisely to fragment local opinion. We live with the inheritance of that era to this day.

The ongoing wave of uprisings, if there is a transition to democracy, will have to unravel the perpetuation of the colonial mindset by the post-independence elites. This is something both natives and former colonial powers (by encouraging friendly autocratic elites to emerge post-independence) have to take responsibility for.

Gulf justice

The backwardness of the religious and political leaders of the Gulf Arabs, combined with their vast wealth, has been the undoing of the contemporary Arab world — perhaps even more so than all the wars with Israel. From HRW:

Saudi Arabia: Where Fathers Rule and Courts Oblige

Saudi judges have repeatedly granted fathers the right to interfere arbitrarily in their adult children's private lives, in serious violation of their right to privacy and to establish families freely, Human Rights Watch said today. Fathers have imprisoned their adult daughters for "disobedience" and prevented their marriage, and have been granted custody over a grandchild without valid reason, all with the support of the courts.

UAE: Spousal Abuse Never a ‘Right’

A decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court upholding a husband's right to "chastise" his wife and children with physical abuse violates the right of the country's women and children to liberty, security, and equality in the family - and potentially their right to life, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling, citing the UAE penal code, sanctions beating and other forms of punishment or coercion providing the violence leaves no physical marks.


Via The Telegraph, citing a Rue89 piece where the Niqabitches (as the two anti-ban activists who feature in the above video call themselves) write:

"To put a simple burka on would have been too simple. So we asked ourselves: 'how would the authorities react when faced with women wearing a burka and mini-shorts?," asked the students, one of whom is a Muslim.

"We were not looking to attack or degrade the image of Muslim fundamentalists – each to their own – but rather to question politicians who voted for this law that we consider clearly unconstitutional," they said.

"To dictate what we wear appears to have become the role of the State (as if they didn't have other fish to fry ...)."