The Saint Among Princes

Emir Abdelkader was an Algerian religious and military leader who led a tenacious struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. An Islamic scholar and philosopher from the mystical Sufi tradition, he unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, after a meeting of tribesmen elected him as leader. He built up a coalition of Algerian tribes from across the region, successfully holding out for years against one of the most powerful armies in Europe (as well as the second largest colonial empire at the time).

Abdelkader was well regarded by allies and opponents alike, not only for his military and political acumen, but for his markedly good character. He sought counsel from both Jews and Christians, and respected their religious traditions, seeking to create an Algerian state for all faiths. He was honorable and merciful to combatants, ensuring that prisoners were treated well; in one instance, he released prisoners because he could no longer afford to care for them properly. France’s highest-ranking military leader declared him one of the three greatest living men (the other two were Egyptians also known for their skills on and off the battlefield).

Due to this  well-earned grudging respect, when the sheer weight of the French military finally forced him to surrender, Abdelkader was permitted to live in exile in Ottoman-ruled Damascus, with the French government paying his pension, on the condition he would never disturb Algeria again. He lived a quiet life dedicated to debating and writing Islamic theology and philosophy, until another event again catapulted him into fame and world renown.

Years into his exile, a conflict broke out in the region between Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Abdelkader warned local authorities and French diplomats that the Christians of Damascus were in danger. When violence finally broke out, he sheltered large numbers of Christians and ordered his sons to go throughout the city to offer Christians aid and protection. Reports from various survivors and religious orders attested to Abdelkader’s decisive role in saving thousands, and he became an international celebrity.

His erstwhile enemy France increased his pension and awarded him the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Greece, Turkey, and even the Vatican also bestowed him with official honors; he is one of the few non-Christians to have the Order of Pope Pius. Even Abraham Lincoln recognized his deed, giving him a pair of inlaid pistols that are now on display in Algeria’s national museum.

For these reasons, he was widely hailed across the world as the “Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints”.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) is barely a footnote in human history: it lasted only two years, from 1918 to 1920, as one of many short-lived states to emerge during the tumultuous Russian Civil War.

800px-Azerbaijan_Democratic_Republic_1918_20

Yet for its brief existence, it was a trailblazer: it was the first Muslim country to establish a democratic republic, with representation of all ethnic and religious minorities; power was vested in a universally elected parliament, and its founding document guaranteed “all its citizens within its borders full civil and political rights, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, class, profession, or sex.” The ADR was also among the first countries in the world, and the very first majority-Muslim nation, to grant women equal political rights with men—before even the U.S. and much of Western Europe.

There is no telling whether this ground-breaking effort would have lasted, as the country was invaded and annexed by the Soviets around its second anniversary of independence. (Around the same time, two other Muslim democratic republics emerged from the fallen Russian Empire: the Crimean People’s Republic and the Idel-Ural Republic, but these lasted only a few weeks.)

Source: Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of a National Identity in a Muslim Community 

Schola Medica Salernitana

Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.

40010713_10160886295590472_7284479123467010048_n

A depiction of the medical school in one of Avicenna’s medical works, The Canon of Medicine (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading

Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

inayat-khan-stamp_sq-b5fd1d963685ed62626d0e84e792d4ea4b45a898-s300-c85

A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives

The Economist recently featured a new book that aims to present a more nuanced and encouraging picture of the history of Islam and its innumerable, if now often understated, intellectual and cultural achievements. Chase Robinson’s Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years encapsulates Islamic history through the perspectives and experiences of thirty figures, who represent a cross section of Muslim society.  Continue reading

How Medieval Islamic Theology Can Fight ISIS

Islam is distinct from many other faiths in having a very complex legalistic character, which among other things, provides a lot of leeway for adapting to the modern world, including the current challenges posed by globalization, pluralism, and modernity.

One of example of this tradition is the ancient yet surprisingly progressive concept of irja, which, as explained by Mustafa Aykol in an excellent New York Times piece, offers a valuable counter to the regressive and viciously intolerant dogma of Islamic State (emphasis mine).

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing”. It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate”. Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia”, the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers”. The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism.

So contrary to popular belief, Islam has the potential to be a tolerant and pluralistic belief, even if it ultimately — like Judaism and Christianity — proposes an exclusivist ideology. Mainstream Muslims can draw from a deep tradition of theological compromise and pragmatism to combat the bloodthirsty expansionism and sectarianism of extremists.

And while irja sadly did not survive the tumultuous early years of Islam, its legacy remains in practice, if not explicitly.

…There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones … who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality”. They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins”.

It is no surprise that fanatical ideologues like I.S. would be steadfastly opposed to irja. But as Aykol rightly concludes, the group and its allies will have a tougher time making their case if more and more of their fellow Muslims step up to reclaim the label and, more importantly, put it into practice.

I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.

Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.

If any good can come from Islamic State’s bloody and disruptive emergence, it is the possibility that the group’s unleashing of Islam’s darkest elements will compel more Muslims to do some soul searching and tap into the understated wellspring of tolerant and pluralistic values. Just as the wars of religion within Christianity eventually led to a softening of Christian dogma and an emergence of more progressive strains of the faith, so, too, could Islam hopefully benefit from a similar and legitimate path towards progress — hopefully at less cost along the way.

What are your thoughts?

Continue reading

The Invisible Atheists of the Arab World

From The New Republic comes an interesting look at the rarely acknowledged world of nonbelievers in the Middle East, namely in Arab countries. Though still a largely religious and conservative region, the ranks of secular people, including  atheists, is growing quickly and to significant proportions — stereotypes notwithstanding.

While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists”, the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person”. (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.

…the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of non­belief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold”.

Arab societies, though far from free and liberal by Western standards, are a lot more progressive and pluralistic than many would assume. Though nonbelievers still have it tough, and face both social and political repercussions, they find themselves in environments that are increasingly more accommodating to their lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra-­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a super­market chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.

Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.

Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.

In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.

All this sounds very familiar, not unlike what has happened (and is still happening) in the developed world. But unlike in most parts of the world, secularism in the Arab world takes on a more political tone, which reflects the degree to which religion is intertwined with the ruling elites (especially in the Gulf). To be secular, especially openly atheist, is to challenge the status quo of the powers that be, who use religion as a tool of control.

I recommend reading the rest of the article to get a full picture of the political and social implications of secularism growing in one of the world’s most religious regions. Feel free to weigh in.

America’s Muslim Heritage

Although widely seen as a new — and in some circles, invasive — presence in the United States, Islam has been a part of the nation’s history since colonial days, if not earlier. The New York Times highlights just a few of the known examples:

In 1528, a Moroccan slave called Estevanico was shipwrecked along with a band of Spanish explorers near the future city of Galveston, Tex. The city of Azemmour, in which he was raised, had been a Muslim stronghold against European invasion until it fell during his youth. While given a Christian name after his enslavement, he eventually escaped his Christian captors and set off on his own through much of the Southwest.

Two hundred years later, plantation owners in Louisiana made it a point to add enslaved Muslims to their labor force, relying on their experience with the cultivation of indigo and rice. Scholars have noted Muslim names and Islamic religious titles in the colony’s slave inventories and death records.

The best known Muslim to pass through the port at New Orleans was Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a prince in his homeland whose plight drew wide attention. As one newspaper account noted, he had read the Bible and admired its precepts, but added, “His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them.”

Among the enslaved Muslims in North Carolina was a religious teacher named Omar ibn Said. Recaptured in 1810 after running away from a cruel master he called a kafir (an infidel), he became known for inscribing the walls of his jail cell with Arabic script. He wrote an account of his life in 1831, describing how in freedom he had loved to read the Quran, but in slavery his owners had converted him to Christianity.

Continue reading

Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.