Friday, November 24, 2017

"Religious Sciences" Are The Problem

This is a draft of my sermon later today at ISGH Main Center. I had prepared one yesterday, and then woke up to the catastrophic massacre at a North Sinai mosque in my native Egypt (at the time of writing this draft, 235 were confirmed killed). Sadly, the same analysis that I was planning to discuss at the micro level of Muslim communities applies to the challenge of our times as modern Muslims, and the conclusion is the same: So-called religious scholarship is to blame.


On Tunisia's National Women's Day, August 13, Tunisian President Al-Baji Qa'id Al-Sibsi called for greater gender equality in his country, citing specifically inheritance rules and intermarriage with non-Muslims (English coverage of the speech is available here). He said that he is confident that competent Tunisian legislators will find a way to reconcile modernity with religious edicts.


A week later, on August 20, Al-Azhar issued an official statement "to the umma" without explicitly mentioning President Al-Sibsi, but left no doubt what issue they were addressing. Their main message was that they recognize the need for ijtihad (legal reasoning) in cases wherein there are no explicit and unequivocal texts, and affirmed that family affairs (inheritance and marriage) discussed by President Sibsi fell into that category.
(1). They went further, though, affirming that "knowledge of which texts are subject to interpretation and which are not is only available to scholars [meaning their brand of religious scholars, no doubt], and is not acceptable from commoners and non-specialists, regardless of their levels of education."
(2). They then said that even as they do not mean to interfere in any political affair, they also "refused categorically any political moves that can touch Muslims' creed and Shari`a rules, or to meddle therein." [In other words, they claimed a power sharing arrangement for which they were not elected.]
(3). They closed with an even more shocking claim of monopoly over religious affairs: "Let everyone know that the mission of the Noble Al-Azhar, especially when it comes to protecting the religion of Allah, is a universal mission, which is not bound by any geographical boundaries or political leanings."


I feel compelled to address those three extravagant claims: 
(1.A). The first, that the only knowledgeable people are their types of scholars is belied by the following Hadith:

حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو الدَّرْدَاءِ  ، وَأَبُو أُمَامَةَ  ،  وَوَاثِلَةُ بْنُ الْأَسْقَعِ  ،  وَأَنَسُ بْنُ مَالِكٍ  ، قَالُوا : سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ " مَنِ الرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ ؟ قَالَ : هُوَ مَنْ بَرَّتْ يَمِينُهُ ، وَصَدَقَ لِسَانُهُ ، وَعَفَّ فَرْجُهُ وَبَطْنُهُ ، فَذَلِكَ الرَّاسِخُ " .

[Several highly trusted companions narrated that the Prophet (p) was asked: "Who are those `well established in knowledge'," and he answered: "one who is honest in his dealings, honest in his words, and chaste in his body, that is someone who is well established in knowledge."]

It merits noting that this is in reference to one reading of the verse [3:7]:
which allows for those "well established in knowledge" to reinterpret verses when needed. It is also narrated on the authority of Ibn Umar (r) that the Prophet (p) supplicated for Ibn Abbas (r):
وقال الحافظ العراقي في تخرج أحاديث إحياء علوم الدين: حديث: اللهم فقهه في الدين وعلمه التأويل ـ قاله لابن عباس، رواه البخاري من حديث ابن عباس دون قوله: وعلمه التأويل ـ وهو بهذه الزيادة عن أحمد وابن حبان والحاكم وقال صحيح الإسناد. اهـ.
which includes in several narrations that he (p) supplicated that Allah would provide Ibn Abbas understanding of religion and the ability to reinterpret texts... This begs the question: Why wouldn't God offer the same gift of reinterpretations to others outside their institutions.

(2.A). The second claim that they don't meddle in politics and don't want politicians to meddle in religion is a claim to power that religious scholars have simply never had historically. Religious scholars can serve an important social and political function in providing advice, but when they have claimed such power over societies, the results have always been catastrophic.

(3.A). Which brings me to the third power grab by Al-Azhar and similar scholarly bodies. They claimed that their mission and power is universal, which means not only that they can opine on how legislation that claims to be consistent with Shari`a should be framed, but also that they have power over our daily lives right here in Houston, TX. Unfortunately, they do indeed have this power over many of us, but only because we choose to give it to them.

Now, I return to the horrific terrorist attack on the Egyptian mosque earlier today. For nearly two decades, "religious scholars" of Al-Azhar and other reputable institutions have assured us that terrorism cannot be more distant from the teachings of Islam. What is needed, they keep claiming, is more empowerment of their brand of religious scholarship in order to defeat the warped logic of terrorist groups. And it is, indeed, they who have been called upon, repeatedly, by political authorities worldwide to reform religious discourse, etc.

The catastrophic terrorist attacks in Al-Azhar's backyard today can only mean one of two things:

(i). They do not have that universal power to guard Islam as they have claimed, because the terrorists are obviously not mindful of their edicts to refrain from terrorist activities, and/or

(ii). They do have that power and they have failed us miserably in using it.

Either way, they need to change their discourse that the solution to our global problem of Muslim terrorists is further empowerment of their institutions and their type of "scholarship".

I want to be clear on one thing, the Shaykh-ul-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad El-Tayeb, who read this statement in August, is one of the most scholarly and decent people who have ever lived. The problem is that he belongs to an institutional and intellectual framework statically anchored in early medieval times, and thus fundamentally incapable of helping us to deal with the problems of modernity.

Let me illustrate this point further, during the remaining time, and at my lowly social pay grade. On the issue of inheritance, which was the first addressed by President Al-Sibsi and rebutted harshly by Dr. El-Tayeb on behalf of Al-Azhar, I wish to refer to a legal conference that I attended last month in Chicago (National Association of Muslim Lawyers, or NAML, annual conference). 

At a session on family law, I observed as lawyers offered multiple familiar solutions to parents who were asking how to deal with the explicit rules of inheritance in the Qur'an, which mandate that a daughter would inherit half of what her brother would. The lawyers went through the usual ancient and modern methods: give her more during your lifetime, establish a family trust or corporation with equal benefits, etc. This is the "knowledge" that we have received from "religious scholarship."

One lady in the audience interjected words to the following effect: "But you don't understand my problem! I am fully convinced, in this day and age, that it is fundamentally immoral to give my daughter less than I give her brother. But I also feel that it is fundamentally immoral to say that the verse is valid in my situation and then use the legal tricks you are suggesting to circumvent it. Either way, I feel that I will be doing something deeply immoral, and cannot escape the guilt."

The Chair of the conference, Dr. Asifa Quraishi, who teaches Islamic and Constitutional Law at the University of Wisconsin (I received her permission to quote her) asked the lawyer-panelists why they have not contemplated simply saying that the rules of inheritance in the Qur'an were part of a larger system, wherein a judge would enforce financial support for women if they needed it from male relatives, etc. In the absence of that full system of laws, and the concomitant cultural norms not to circumvent it, it does not make sense to apply the rule.

This is an opinion that several scholars had suggested over at least over the past century, including most famously Mohammed Arkoun and Khaled Abou El Fadl, among many others. The lady who had asked the question seemed much more comfortable with that approach, because it didn't result in any guilt. The lawyers implied that they would not feel comfortable expressing such an opinion.

I should mention also that the second issue raised by President Sibsi, and rebutted harshly by Dr. El-Tayeb, regarding Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, had been similarly contested by scholars who would be considered "non specialists" by Al-Azhar. They had argued that the Qur'an explicitly introduced symmetry in the prohibition of Muslims marrying polytheists [2:221]:
and although an explicit exception is made for Muslim males to marry a woman "of the Book" (which was expanded in certain instances to include Zoroastrians and Hindus), but didn't offer a similar exception for women, the logic used by scholars to justify denying women the same right is paternalistically flawed: They argue that a Muslim man is required to allow his Christian or Jewish wife to practice her religion, but they fear that a Christian or Jewish husband will not allow his Muslim wife to practice hers. 

This is grounded in a social and legal framework that is alien to most of us today, so the scholars' claim to monopoly on such religious-legal edicts is deeply problematic. By failing to provide convincing arguments in both cases (inheritance and intermarriage), "religious scholars" feed Muslims' religious insecurities, guilt, and cognitive dissonance, which are surely responsible for convincing some demented people that the only way to live their Islam fully is to return to the norms of the seventh century.

Thus, we have seen that "religious scholarship" lies at the core of our difficulties as modern Muslims, whether at the macro level, dealing with the global scourge of Muslim terrorism, or at the micro level of our family affairs. Readers of this blog will be familiar with my similar arguments about the incoherence of classical Islamic jurisprudence in the age of financial engineering.

It is time for "religious scholars" to admit their failure and engage society with greater humility about their levels of "knowledge," in order to start a fruitful conversation on how to deal with the problems (both large and small) of Islam and modernity.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Harvey, Rohingya, Yemen, and Syria: A Sermon on Duty Ethics in Charity

I received a surprising email late Thursday afternoon informing me that I was scheduled to give a sermon at ISGH Main Center yesterday. I thought that my formal preaching days were over (and I pity my colleagues and students who have to bear with my informal moralization), but duty ethics dictate that whenever invited to speak, one should.

Introduction


For the opening verse, I chose 

[O people of faith, be conscious and wary of God, and make your words truthful and carefully aimed; so that He may make your actions felicitous and expiate your sins; and whoever obeys God and his messenger has won a great reward.]

Next, I narrated a related prophetic tradition
عن تميم بن أوس رضي الله عنه ، أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ( الدين النصيحة ، قلنا : لمن يا رسول الله ؟ قال : لله ، ولكتابه ، ولرسوله ، ولأئمة المسلمين وعامتهم ) رواه البخاري ومسلم
[Bukhari and Muslim narrated on the aurhority of Tamim Al-Dari (r) that the Prophet (p) said: "Religion is sincerity in intention and deed." We (the companions) asked: "For whom, O messenger of God?," and he said: "For God, his book, his messenger, and for Muslims leaders and commoners."

I digressed on the word nasiha (نصيحة), which is used most commonly in Arabic to mean advice, but noted that the root of the word means purity; and its application in the context of advice simply refers to good advice being unadulterated by ulterior motives. 

Main Point


To be religious is to be sincere in what we wish for others and how we act to achieve various ends.  Therefore, even as we respond to the latest events, be they hurricanes or escalations in various humanitarian crises. 

Reacting positively to such events, by helping our neighbors or those far away, is merely part of basic human decency. Religiousness is about being principled and steadfast in purity of intentions and conduct. This allows us to remain mindful and focused -- neither overreacting to the latest developments, nor mixing our intentions with political impurities. 

In this regard, Ali ibn Abi Taleb (r) famously said that this verse of the Qur'an summarizes the perfect level of detachment (called zuhd in Arabic; neither total detachment to the point of selfishness, nor insufficient detachment that makes us overreact emotionally to new events):
[No calamity befalls the earth or yourselves except it has been preordained and recorded before we bring it into existence; this is easy for God. (We tell yo this) so that you will not be sad for what you missed or happy for what you may get; God does not love those who are haughty and proud.]

That is also why the Prophet (p) said:
[Partial recounting of narration by Bukhari on the authority of Aisha (r): "The actions most beloved to God are the steadiest, however limited in scope."]

This means that when we budget our time for charitable work, be it volunteering our time or donating our money, we should make it steady, and avoid being manipulated psychologically in ways that may constitute dereliction of duty to earlier commitments.

To explain this concept, I covered four examples with increasing degrees of complexity, but which illustrate the same common principle: Almost all calamities on earth have political dimensions that may bring impurities into our intentions or conduct, and the task of religion is to keep our intention and conduct pure, at least with regards to helping those most impacted by those calamities.

Harvey


The first example I gave was hurricane Harvey, which hit us in Houston, and many admirably swung to action, helping our affected neighbors however we could. We all did this, regardless of our political views, even though there was a clear political dimension to this hurricane. 



Thus, this is a political issue, which can introduce impurities into our thinking. Are some environmentalists at least partially wishing for stronger storms so that they will be proven right? Religious and ethical ones surely would not, and they would agree with the Pope that we hope that nobody will get hurt, but should act, nonetheless, assuming the worst, because the harm if scientists arguing the climate-change case are right is quite substantial.

We can disagree is with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's argument that this was not the time to discuss climate change. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can disagree on political agendas based on our beliefs and interests, arguing our respective political cases, and still spring to action to help those who lose property or are at the risk of losing what's much more important.

Thus, it is clear that we can disagree over political assignment of guilt and recipes for solving problems, but still do our duty to our fellow human beings. Thus, our principle should be quite obvious in this case. If we dissect the remaining three problems, which appear progressively thornier, we will find that they are exactly the same, at their core, and our duty is also the same: If you have a talent for politics and ideas on how to solve problems, then you should provide that advice. In the meantime, we should all do our duty by helping our fellow human beings who need that help.

Rohingya


The next example is only slightly more complicated, at least from the likely political standpoint of this community, so it should be relatively easy to see how the same principle applies. 

The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been a longstanding problem for decades. One thing that we should make clear is that this is not a religious issue -- as groups like AQ or countries like Iran may suggest to manipulate us psychologically into accepting their political agendas, at least partially. Even the Dalai Lama has said explicitly that if the Buddha were alive today, he would be the first to advocate for helping the poor Muslims who are fleeing persecution.

The plight of the Rohingya is a political problem about land, ethnicity, and nationhood, similar to the plights of Armernians, Palestinians, Kurds, and other groups who were left out when nation states came into existence. Again, if you have political skill and ideas on how to solve this problem, then you should provide advice to leaders on how to do that. In the meantime, we can all agree that as long as countries like Bangladesh, which has been receiving many of those refugees, don't have the resources to accommodate them, and with international humanitarian aid being constrained because nation states are not donating sufficient funds to those efforts, it is part of our duty to help the humanitarian efforts in any way that we can -- regardless of where our political leanings may lie.

Yemen


This brings me to the third crisis which is conspicuously absent from our community and media discourse, despite being the world's worst humanitarian crisis, by orders of magnitude. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs(OCHA) offers these numbers: 2.9 million people ar internally displaced, 17 million (well over half the population) are food insecure, and more than half a million have been infected with cholera. The humanitarian response funding gap stands at $1.3 billion, which comes to 56.5% of the total needed to date.


And yet, we hardly see any attention being paid to this crisis of epic proportions. This is partly a consequence of the recency effect in news cycles that are becoming shorter each year, but it may also be partly caused by politic sensitivities in this situation... It shouldn't.

Exactly as we should have recognized in the first two examples that our political views (in this case, whether one sides with the Houthi rebels who started strife in Yemen or with the coalition in which we are taking part), the humanitarian duty to help those suffering from disease, malnutrition, and starvation should not be neglected. 

Again, our duties are clear: If you have political skill and can provide solutions, by all means you should volunteer your advice. In the meantime, we all need to do what we can to help in bridging this humanitarian response funding gap highlighted by the UNOCHA. 

And we shouldn't forget this duty simply because other duties arise. Steadfastness of support is just as important, and possibly more important, than the initial response.

Syria 

Which brings us to the greatest refugee crisis in modern history. Political and military complications aside, including the difficulty with which UN and other international relief agencies can reach some of those impacted in the country, it is still true that 13.4 million people need the world's humanitarian assistance, and the UNOCHA estimated humanitarian response funding gap at this time stands at $2.1 billion (which is 63.6%, or nearly two thirds, of what is needed to date). 

Our lack of steadfastness in helping our fellow humans is apparent in the larger gap for Syria than for Yemen -- this is the old news effect. 

Here also, as in the three previous cases, and despite the much more complicated politics of the situation, which may make it very difficult for most people even to formulate an opinion on who is to blame for all the suffering, the basic human duty to help our fellow human beings should be obvious.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the estimated property losses from hurricanes Harvey and Irma are approximately $290 billion. This is very sad, but it is fortunately a very small percentage of our gross domestic product. The more interesting calculation in light of the previous discussion shows that just over 1% of that sum could save the lives of nearly 30 million people.

Concluding Remarks


We are commoners, and our efforts are unlikely to make any significant difference, but that does not eliminate our duty to do what we can to help our fellow human beings, wherever they are. Our attentions may be distracted by the news cycles, but we can budget our time, effort, and giving, so that we do not neglect any of our duties simply because new duties came up. And our varied political views, whatever they may be, do not alter those basic duties to fellow humanity.

That's what religion is about, and then, after we have done our work (knowing that we cannot influence the outcome), we simply follow the order that God gave his Prophet:
إن مع العسر يسرا. فإذا فرغت فانصب و إلى ربك فارغب.
[With every difficulty, there is ease. So once you have fulfilled your duties, turn to your Lord in prayer and supplication.]

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hurricane Harvey

The Heaven mourns her lovers' pain 
And drowns their tears in violent rain.  
The tears of Heaven wash away 
The troubles of the lovers' day, 
As they remind them of their quest, 
And every road, and every test 
That their Beloved put them through. 
The oldest troubles and the new, 
Are tests that lead them by the hand, 
And help them all to understand
The One they love and all Its ways, 
As one storm goes and one storm stays 
To wipe some tears and cause some more. 
Such is the Lord that we adore.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On "Knowing Better"

One should know better than to think that people should act better because they know better.
Shunning consequentialism means that one should act better regardless of whether others follow suit.
Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be disappointed when others continue to act consequentially and oftentimes selfishly.

But this is not all bad:
Being consistently disappointed in others is the best reminder to examine one's own conduct (as the Prophet (p) said: "each human is a mirror for its sibling").
In particular, the disappointment itself is a reminder of at least some residual consequentialism (because it exposes one's implicit thinking that better conduct would beget better conduct).

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Lonely Road

I wrote this poem almost exactly 30 years ago (when I was a graduate student, finishing my doctorate). I would not change a word today, although I will only share the first part of it here:

لما الرفيق
ينكر صداقته للرفيق
يمشي الصديق
يقرا علامات الطريق
إلّي كتبها قبلنا
و نسي يفسرها لنا 
أهل الطريق

لما الغريق
وحده في أعماق الظلام
يقرا على حطان الكلام
أشعار رخيصة عن الطريق
يعرف و يفهم وحدته ف وسط الزحام
و يقول كلام
و لا يرضي كافر م الأنام
و لا يرضي ساير ع الطريق
ما هو كل شيخ ماشي ف طريقة
و كل شيخ ماشي ف طريق

...

(The remaining verses are redacted)

Monday, August 07, 2017

Neo-Wahhabism, Neo-Sufism, and the Predicament of American Muslim Youth

In a series of emails last Friday, a former student took me to task, albeit quite gently, for criticizing virtually all the resources that typical American Muslim youth think they have available to them. He agreed with my criticism of the slew of newly-minted Madinah University preaches in our mosques -- who seem to have sought an easy way to earn income and reputation through a quick religious license of sorts. However, he seemed to hold in high esteem many of the older generation neo-Wahhabi and neo-Sufi preacher-teachers (of my generation), some of whom have created "universities" that are getting accredited in the U.S., etc.

I begged this student not to force me to discuss too specifically any particular individuals or even institutions, explaining that I singled out Madinah University by name because of my alarm at the relatively recent outbreak of its alumni preachers. He pressed me further, saying that he and his generation hold in high esteem those teachers of different strains, whom I had lumped, admittedly disparagingly, into the two camps of neo-Wahhabis (mostly Saudi or Gulf trained) and neo-Sufis (mostly Yemeni and West-African trained). Without offering other alternatives, this former student (now in his late 20s, and recently married), my act in disparaging those most highly respected preacher-teachers seemed nihilistic.

He complained that many of his friends profess non-belief in God, at least privately. I suggested that this is not a bad thing. After all, the negative theology of Islam is professed in the Shahada first by negation (la ilaha) before affirming (illa Allah), and the latter is only an abstract affirmation, because God is described in the Qur'an as "there is noting like unto him," which means that He is beyond human comprehension. In their 20s, those youth should be rejecting the bad depictions that they have been offered.

I reminded him of what many philosophers have said: that most people who profess atheism are not saying that they don't believe in the abstract God of Abraham, or any of the other reasonable conceptions of the Divine, but are rather saying that they don't believe in a man with long white beard and flowing robes sitting in the sky and intervening in our every day activities the way the Greek gods were supposed to have looked and done (at least in today's cartoons). It is not at all a bad thing for his friends to have rejected this stupid depiction (which was only symbolic for the ancient Greeks, in any event, just like ancient Egyptian gods represented forces of nature through human-animal-hybrid abstractions about which they could tell stories -- which is the way humans best understand and remember things). It would be extremely intellectually lazy for them to conclude that now they know there is no God, and, indeed, when pressed further, most will not affirm that.

What the generation of this student (which is also the generation of my children) have rejected are the teachings that their parents propagated at mosques (which were based on the failed ideologies of JI in the subcontinent and MB in the Arab world), as well as the puritanical Wahhabi teaching that was exported directly and indirectly into the U.S. This is all good. The problem is that when they looked around for alternatives, they found mostly what their parents tolerated as second-bests: the neo-Wahhabi and neo-Sufi alternatives about which I have written earlier blog posts. Indeed, those seemed like slightly Westernized variations on their JI and MB mix of puritanical Wahhabism and social-discipline-emphasizing Sufism, i.e. they are simply more marketable variations on what came before.

The former student asked me how I would feel if someone denounced people that I admired like Muhammad Abduh (of course, perhaps unbeknownst to him, the latter was the subject of extremely vitriolic attacks during his life and after his death). I told him that Abduh was inspirational because he broke the mould and sought knowledge where he could find it (mostly in Paris, as many Egyptians in the 19th Century had), and was not looking specifically for Muslim teachers. Indeed, he broke with Jamal al-Din "Al-Afghani" when he discovered that the latter told everyone what they wanted to hear (humanism for the humanists like Abduh, but also militarism for the militant in Turkey, Iran, and India). Even then, I told him that Abduh was a creature of the late 19th and very early 20th century. He was progressive by the standards of his time, but would be extremely reactionary in our day.

Likewise, my broader teaching, which angered people at mosques in Houston and caused me to stop giving sermons a year ago, is that it is a grave mistake to place our locus of morality in the 7th--14th centuries (earlier period for the Wahhabis and their neo reincarnations and later for the neo-Sufis). Moral examples, including the Prophet (p), were exemplary people by the standards of their time; but they were showing us a direction, not a place to stop. Examples from slavery to polygyny illustrate this point best: these were constrained but not completely eliminated, and any decent Muslim should extrapolate the trajectory and conclude that no slavery or polygamy should be allowed today. But milder examples also exist, because women were generally treated like quasi-property in many instances; for example, most classical jurisprudence considered the marriage contract essentially to be the sale of a woman's reproductive system (bay`u al-bu.d`)! It was an improvement on what existed in Byzantine and Sassanid periods, but you need to extrapolate... Stopping there is immoral commitment to being a medieval or pre-medieval person.

Decisions on how to shape today's Muslims' ethics/morality, phenomenology, theology, and so on, must be informed more by Enlightenment and Postmodern advances in humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, which, in turn, should help us to understand our scripture, history, etc. In the process, the goal should not be to go back to some mythical ideal society, or to discover the ostensibly unique beauty of the Muslim tradition. In belonging to a particular community that shares a tradition and history -- as everyone must,  by birth or adoption, whether they like it or not -- we have a language that is nonetheless shared by many other communities that predated and postdated Muslim social developments, and we can only be authentic to those who came before us by being authentic to their quest to improve on what they had found around them, more often than not modifying all traditions in the process.

Friday, August 04, 2017

On stark contrast and the radical choice of ethics

A few years ago, two other distinguished mentors have also criticized my code of conduct:

The first told me that it is wrong to see the world, and our choices within it, in stark contrast (of black and white, for lack of a better metaphor), because almost all decisions reside in areas that are shades of grey. This was how she taught some of her other mentees: by offering them examples of difficult choices where there is no easy answer. I agreed, to a point.

Another told me on multiple occasions that he has always followed the maxim not to make perfect the enemy of good enough (this is the same as the Arabic maxim ما لا يدرك كله لا يترك جله). I also agreed, to a point.

They are both right that we are rarely offered obvious choice tests between pure good and pure evil. Those are too easy for everyone. Almost all tests are more complicated, and in this sense I agree with them that self righteously pretending like all choices have clear-cut solutions is not only foolish, but also dangerous.

But this is not the choice (of action) of which I was speaking. I was speaking of the Kierkegaardian or Kantian radical choice (one could call it a hyper-action or hyper-choice) of leading the ethical life, not the consequentialist life.

It is very tempting to be a little-bit consequentialist. But there is no such thing. If one is a little-bit consequentialist, then, by definition, one is fully consequentialist. The seemingly non-consequentialist ethical part can then be understood in terms of consequences to self esteem, anticipated afterlife, or other similar devices.

The ethical-human curse is to face complicated tests but be asked to find simple solutions (defined by who you are), knowing that, on average, one will be wrong approximately half the time, no matter how hard one tries.

I was having a conversation with my wife last week about a similar problem. She was blaming me for being afraid to have any excitement in life. I used the excuse of the yin-yang nature of life: With every excitement comes heartache. I am not afraid of the excitement, I said, I am afraid of the heartache.

Lest you may think that this is a Buddhist teaching and not a Muslim one, I cited the following verses of the Qur'an:

 ما أصاب من مصيبة في الأرض ولا في أنفسكم إلا في كتاب من قبل أن نبرأها إن ذلك على الله يسير
لكي لا تأسوا على ما فاتكم ولا تفرحوا بما آتاكم والله لا يحب كل مختال فخور

[Nothing happens on earth or in yourselves except having been ordained and written before We bring it into reality; this is easy for God. (We tell you this) so that you will not feel sad for what you missed or happy for what you get; God loves not the arrogant and haughty. (Iron: 22-23)]

Thursday, August 03, 2017

On Being A Simpleton by Choice

A few years ago, I received seemingly contradictory assessments of my code of conduct:

One of my colleagues interjected during our conversation: "But you are an idealist." Her tone suggested that she meant it as a partial compliment. When I replied that I try hard to find the right mix of idealism and realism, she simply repeated her point, slightly differently, and with a big smile: "No, you're an idealist."

Within days of this event, my boss commented negatively about my same code of conduct. She said something to the effect: "I must tell you that I have sensed some immaturity." I laughed and said: "Then it is too late for me." She smiled and nodded.

They were both right. Being a simpleton by choice is neither good nor bad. It's just a choice.

Part of this is also nature. There is no comparison, but I think that this illustration is useful: When the great Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal (the most prestigious mathematics prize), passed away, my brother (who is her colleague at Stanford) said that it was a terrible tragedy. That she was both brilliant and very down to earth. I told him that it couldn't have been otherwise. The same biology that made her so brilliant is the one that killed her.

The question remains: If one's nature is such that he prefers to be a simpleton -- if this is where he finds whatever measure of peace he can -- is he being negligent, because he could have been more useful to others by being clever? All great moral teachings point in the other direction: Be a simpleton (honest, truthful, etc.) even when others aren't, and even when it will hurt you. [Of course, Plato's version of Thrasymachus would say that this type of ethics was invented by the strong to facilitate exploitation of the week.]

The problem with this teaching is that when you are a simpleton, by choice or otherwise, others also get hurt. The problem with the opposite (Machiavellian) logic is that it rationalizes greed and outright immorality, ostensibly to make more good. It violates the Kantian principle of not taking people as means to other ends. But Kant told us little about how to handle moral dilemmas when protecting some people (as ends in themselves) requires being clever to use other people as means to that end. [In all fairness, Kant's duty ethics are non-consequentialist, so they skirt this problem completely.]

So, it remains a simple, albeit radical, choice to be a simpleton. Maybe it's just Nature.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Was Adam Smith An Economist? A Mediocre Economist's Identity Crisis

Let me begin by saying that I am not exhibiting fake modesty by admitting to being a mediocre economist. In fact, a better title would have been "... An Inferior Economist...," if we take mediocre literally (in the middle). Were I any good at Economics, I would not be where I am, or having these thoughts; but I am extremely grateful for being where I am, which is much more than I deserve. Nonetheless, I now have an identify crisis.

The crisis is precipitated by a monotonous stream of rejections by journal and book editors, who all tell me that whatever I submitted is not Economics. The issue is not technical rigor; some of those articles are relatively technical, and some book-oriented writings are totally non-technical. The crisis was further exacerbated when two luminaries of econometrics separately volunteered advice that I should pick up where I had left off in my work on Bayesian updating (one of them very kindly said that he still cites my 1995 JASA paper with David Grether, and thinks that it has not yet been surpassed although more work is needed).

By asking whether Adam Smith was an Economist, I am not being facetious or comparing my work with his, David Hume's before him, or Ibn Khaldun long before them all. I am merely confused about the nature of the questions that I am asking (about religion, ethics, perceptions of injustice, and Economics) not being considered Economics.

Nearly three decades ago, in Fall 1988, I was a fresh PhD and rookie assistant professor of Economics at Rochester. I went to a supercomputing conference at Cornell, and in the evening, as usual, conference participants went to a bar (I went to bars with friends, colleagues, and mentors, even though I do not drink; both because I was a useful designated driver, and because this was a virtually mandatory part of professional socialization).

I ended up in a booth, squeezed against the wall. Next to me sat Ed Prescott, already a superstar economist, although it was still many years before he received the Bank of Sweden Prize in honor of Alfred Nobel (known somewhat pretentiously as "the Nobel Prize in Economics," and one should read the history of this prize and its objective to portray Economics as a scientific field; thus giving greater political power to economists, bankers, and others).

He asked me what I did, and then what my dissertation was about. I was mortified, but told him that it was about estimation and inference in chaotic dynamical systems. I had already known that he had very low and well known opinions both about econometrics and about work on chaos theory in economics;  so I was bracing myself for some tough words.

Instead, he smiled kindly, and said: "It's OK! You have to prove that you are not a math wimp. And every five years or so, you have to publish another paper to prove that you are still not a math wimp. But in between, you can write some Economics. And remember this: Unless you can explain the substance to any drunk guy next to you at a bar, it's not Economics."

He was not himself drunk, as the evening had just started. The meaning was obvious: Play the game by its rules so that you may have the intellectual privilege of working on real Economics. I already knew that. Had it not been for my abilities (limited as they may be) in mathematics and computing, I would have never been admitted to a PhD program, received a degree, had academic jobs, or received tenure.

Had I been even a tenth as good as Prescott or the other two luminaries to whom I spoke recently (who have not won the Bank of Sweden prize... yet), I could have probably juggled the two. But I was never that good, and now in my mid 50s, with no graduate students or junior coauthors on whose energy and intellect I can rely, I cannot read as fast, retain information as long, or absorb new math and technology as proficiently. So, I have to make a choice.

Do I write about what is important to me, and what I consider to be Economics, or do I write what would be read and can be published by Economists (or other "social scientists," I had the same problem with editors in Political Science and Sociology)?

In a recent seminar for graduate students, wherein I presented some empirical results, I gave them the unequivocal advice: "Don't do what I do. Don't work on what you're interested in. To graduate and get a job, you need to work on what others are interested in." But it is difficult to follow this advice in my mid 50s for the sole purpose of retaining partial respect of my colleagues (which is a fool's errand, in any case), and I have the luxury of tenure but not the luxury of intelligence, work ethic, and young collaborators who can allow me to engage with what others are interested in while contributing to real Economics (as luminaries like Prescott could do and preach). That, of course, is assuming that Economics is the field in which people like Adam Smith were interested.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Neo-Wahhabism and Neo-Sufism: Two Facets of the Same Modern Phenomenon

Let me begin by saying that my focus on Islam stems from being Muslim, and, therefore, partially responsible for my tradition and its evolution.

I am fully aware that all the difficulties with the evolution of modernity that I spell out here are present also in other traditions -- whether within Orthodox Judaism (not recognizing fully many American Rabbis); pseudo-Christian fundamentalism (a neighbor who grew up in Houston told me that growing up in the 1950s, the phrases "mighty-Christian of you" and "mighty-White of you" were interchangeable); or secular socio-legal constitutional originalism (which brings to mind Derrida's comment that to imitate an original is to miss the point).

It is a mistake, in my humble opinion, for Muslims to deflect responsibility by pointing to similar difficulties elsewhere. The above mentioned problems in various traditions all emerge from social evolution (for example, the racial difficulties facing traditionally White America as we make progress towards a post-racial society; two steps forward, one step back).

Wahhabism itself was born when Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab, a Central-Arabian cleric, was shocked by the cosmopolitanism of Southern Iraq. The stark contrast can be seen to this very day within Saudi Arabia, where the coastal cities of Jeddah and Dhahran remain much more cosmopolitan, at least compared to the greater orthodoxy of Riyadh. Pure Wahhabism, like Orthodox Judaism, sought to freeze time, for fear of losing their tradition. Of course, pure Wahhabism could not defeat modernity entirely, and has evolved with time.

My central focus in the last two postings on this blog was squarely on the phenomenon of neo-Wahhabi American preachers, who teach a softer form of orthodoxy, but orthodoxy nonetheless -- and it bears repeating that there is nothing authentic about orthodoxy. It is an attempt to freeze in time a mythical society that the orthodox invent to fight change. Thus Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab's own family of scholars were perplexed by his teachings -- they thought that they were already preserving the tradition, which required keeping up with the times!

It is not surprising that American Muslim immigrants would seek some similar form of time-defying orthodoxy (especially after they had to admit, even if silently, that the programs of MB and JI have been disastrous failures in their countries of origin and throughout the world). All immigrants are known to try to preserve tradition, much like Italian immigrants in New York did a century ago, for fear that their children would melt within society and lose their identities (in the cases of Judaism and Islam, that includes intermarriage and conversion). They sent their kids to Madinah to learn what they thought to be authentic Islam, and find comfort in the mixture of American youth slang and orthodoxy (what I have labeled neo-Wahhabism for lack of a better term).

Others have not been comfortable with this neo-Wahhabism, and found comfort in their children chasing alleged Sufi masters. Those have failed to see that organized Sufism (which is pseudo-Sufism) is just as dogmatic and potentially dangerous (hence my constant discomfort with the Gulen movement, for example; after all MB had also claimed since its inception to be a Sufi Tariqa and devised very similar chapter and family structures). Just as Wahhabism tried to turn human beings into Shari`a-following automata, Sufism tried to turn them into Tariqa-following automata; and the irony is that the two terms (Shari`a or road to watering hole and Tariqa or method) almost mean the same thing. Today's neo-Sufis play the same role as the neo-Wahhabis, even as the two groups claim that they couldn't be more different.

I am aware, as my friend hinted in his emailed response to my posting yesterday, that I tend only to offer criticism, which does not seem constructive (this is the same charge that I received for my work on Islamic finance). This charge misses the point of, say, the negative theology of Maimonides or the perpetual deconstructionism of Socrates: Some problems simply do not have positive answers (or at the very least easy positive ones), and the role of the critic is to point out that easy solutions are by definition no solutions at all. I do not mean easy in implementation (neo-Wahhabis and neo-Sufis are given many tasks to keep their bodies and minds busy); it is conceptual ease that I criticize. As the Grand Sheikh Mohyiddin ibn Arabi would say, every time you think you are worshipping God, you are merely worshipping your own created mental image of God; and since this is your own creation, you are still worshipping yourself.