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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

American neo-Wahhabi Preaching, Part II

Two friends have responded critically to my post this morning. 

The second simply responded with the quote:
"At the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized." Brene Brown
 I replied as follows:
A good point.

However, the great teachers, from Socrates onwards, including most prophets recognized in our scripture, contributed mainly by criticizing.

The first friend had a longer warning:
I certainly share your concern regarding the advice being given, but see no need to avoid the substantive criticism by condemning people based on where they studied, particularly in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  There are plenty of thoughtful American and Canadian Muslims who have studied in Saudi Arabia, and tarring them with the label of Wahhabis because they studied in the KSA is dangerous and self-defeating. This same strategy can be used tomorrow against any one of us once the identity of the scapegoat is changed.  Let's stick to criticizing or praising ideas, rather than names and places.  We'll be much better off if we do so. 
I responded as follows:
You are absolutely right, ... The problem is that this brand of preacher always make sure to say during their khutab that they studied at Madinah University, and that their teacher taught them this and that… This is an integral part of their own chosen and marketed brandname that lends them legitimacy. 
I agree that the word Wahhabi is counterproductive, but Salafi would be even more misleading, and so on. I am trying to inform them of the alienness of their own teaching to who they are, and use the term neo-wahhabi to describe them… 
In summary, I see your concern about using the term as a pejorative, and understand the dragnet mentality that is ever-present and also dangerous, but my main objective is for families to stop sending their kids to this recruitment school. My guess is that once USG stopped their direct sponsorship of mosques and Imams in the U.S. after 9/11, they started offering these scholarships to indoctrinate American citizens who cannot be kept out. So, I wanted to sound the alarm — not that anyone is listening. 

American neo-Wahhabism: The Outbreak of "Madinah University" Preachers in Our Mosques

Over the past several months, I have noticed a dangerous pattern:

Mostly gone are the immigrant generation of JI-influenced South Asians and MB-influenced Arabs (so far, so good), but the almost exclusive category of new preachers are their American-born children (together with American-born Hispanic, African-American, or White converts) who were sent to study at "Madinah University," only to return and preach a thinly-sugar-coated neo-Wahhabism (the sugar coating is a superficial veneer of Sufism; see my later post here elaborating on what I mean by neo-Wahhabism and neo-Sufism).

I thought that this was only a Houston phenomenon, with which I had been familiar for a while. However, the mosque at which I have been praying most Fridays has had a number of preachers from Illinois, Michigan, and elsewhere who fit the exact same profile. This is too systematic to be a coincidence: It was clearly a methodical recruitment campaign, and it has succeeded in infecting our American-Muslim communities with neo-Wahhabism.

I must point out that those preachers (mostly in their 20s and 30s) clearly don't understand this. Indeed, except for the few forced Arabic terms that they have clearly memorized (with improper grammar and translation that betrays the superficiality of their education), they mostly pepper their sermons with American slang and profess their American patriotism. The sugar coating of superficial Sufism seals the deal for their parents' generation and other uncritical listeners.

Let me give one example to illustrate: Almost all of those neo-American-Wahhabi preachers are obsessed with male and female youth interacting electronically. During Ramadan, the advice was to delete all contacts of their Muslim friends of the opposite sex... "Don't even text her to remind her to pray," the preachers warned: "This is just Satan fooling you to make you commit a sin even as you think that you are pursuing virtue."

For those who are not aware, this is not even an American adaptation of Saudi Wahhabi teaching. For the past decade or more, Saudis have been greatly distraught that their sexual segregation was circumvented by electronic means (many years ago, they tried banning Blackberry Messenger, but they couldn't stop bluetooth scanning for nearby friends, ...). So, even this seemingly very contemporary and American preaching is imported lock stock and barrel through their "Madinah University" pseudo-education.

I have yet to hear a single hint of humanities and social sciences inspired insights from this generation of neo-Wahhabis. To belabor the specific example of sex segregation, I have to say that this cannot be more worrisome. I am not saying that a contemporary and authentic teaching to American Muslims that will meet them on their own terms will advocate sexual promiscuity, but surely these teachings have been proven sources of social disease.

Pew recently shared data that American Muslims are getting more liberal, but our mosques seem to be dangerously trying to stem this healthy tide. Instead of riding and redirecting the natural tide of Muslim integration in American life, with soul-searching similar to that experienced, say, by the Conservative Jewish community a century ago, they are importing the very plague that has caused the backwardness and failure of their countries of origin.

What a shame.

Friday, August 12, 2016

To Embrace Pluralism and Democracy, We Must Repudiate Islamism

This is a draft for my sermon (khutba) this afternoon at ISGH Main Center.

I urge you and myself to be God-conscious and truthful:
 يا أيها الذين آمنوا اتقوا الله وكونوا مع الصادقين 
[O, community of faith, be God-conscious, and be Truthful 9:119]

As American Muslims, there are two factors that have intensified our desire to embrace religious pluralism and democracy in American society. The first is our neighbors' increasing interest in understanding our worldview, in large part because of repeated terrorist acts by members of our extended community, and the second is the heretofore unfamiliar anti-pluralistic strain in the current political season.

Both of those factors require acceleration of our embrace of pluralism and active conversation with the broader American society, both socially and politically. However, I submit to you, that the Islamist mindset that has characterized our institutions and sermons is antithetical to this pluralism from which we have benefited.

The solution cannot be hypocrisy: continuing to profess the Islamist anti-pluralist orthodoxy within our communities, while trying to present a democratic facade to others outside these communities. This hypocritical two-facedness was condemned in the following Hadith.

Bukhari and Muslim narrated, on the authority of Abu Hurayra, that the Prophet (p) said:
تجدون الناس معادن فخيارهم في الجاهلية خيارهم في الإسلام إذا فقهوا وتجدون من خير الناس في هذا الأمر أكرههم له قبل أن يقع فيه وتجدون من شرار الناس ذا الوجهين الذي يأتي هؤلاء بوجه وهؤلاء بوجه 
[You will find that people have different intrinsic characteristics. The best among them in the pre-Islamic age of ignorance are also the best in Islam if they understand. And you will find among the best people in this religion to be the ones who hated it the most before it arrived. And you will find among the most evil people to be those who are two-faced, meeting this group with one face and that group with another]

As I shall argue later, in line with the views expressed by Bassam Tibi in Islam's Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change, that the word for "understanding" in this Hadith (فقهوا) is the crux of the matter. Do we understand "understanding" in the rationalist sense of my hero Ibn Rushd, reading scripture and tradition with rational thought as the arbiter, or do we understand it in the theological and juristic Islamist sense that has dominated Islamic societies (giving primacy to traditional reading of scripture over rationalism)?

I choose the former, and read the Tradition thus: The best people are the ones who are discerning, in the rationalist sense, regardless of their religion, and the worst people are those who are two-faced, regardless of theirs.

Let me explain further why Islamism grounded in Qur'an and Sunnah in the sense of static anchoring is inconsistent with pluralism. Tibi makes a correct distinction between diversity and pluralism. Thus, the verse that we often cite to claim that traditional Islamism is consistent with pluralism:

 يأيها الناس إنا خلقناكم من ذكر وأنثى وجعلناكم شعوبا وقبائل لتعارفوا إن أكرمكم عند الله أتقاكم إن الله عليم خبير
[O mankind, we have made you into males and females, and made you into peoples and tribes, so that you may get to know one another, the best among you are those most God-conscious, and God is all knowing 49:13]

To understand why this refers to diversity, while still asserting supposed supremacy of Islam, which is antithetical to pluralism, let's examine an historical episode that is often cited as a shining example of Islam's consistency with pluralism: The Prophet's (p) dealing with Najran (south of Hijaz, in the direction of Yemen).

In our contemporary Muslim apologetics, we often cite the Prophet's (p) permission to the Christian delegation from Najran to pray inside his mosque, and cite the verse:
 قل ياأهل الكتاب تعالوا إلى كلمة سواء بيننا وبينكم ألا نعبد إلا الله ولا نشرك به شيئا ولا يتخذ بعضنا بعضا أربابا من دون الله فإن تولوا فقولوا اشهدوا بأنا مسلمون
[Say, O people of the Book, let us come to common terms between us: that we worship none but Allah and do not associate any others with him, and that we do not take any among us as lords in place of Allah; then if they turn away, say we are Muslims 3:64]

In fact, within its historical context, this was not at all pluralist. Indeed, the reference to worshipping none but Allah and not associating others with him were direct refutations of the Christian theology of divinity of Christ. To see this, recall how the story with the Christians of Najran started. The Prophet (p) sent them a warning letter:
«باسم إله إبراهيم وإسحاق ويعقوب، من محمد النبي رسول الله إلى أسقف نجران إن أسلمتم فإني أحمد إليكم إله إبراهيم وإسحاق ويعقوب؛ أما بعد فإني أدعوكم إلى عبادة الله من عبادة العباد وأدعوكم إلى ولاية الله من ولاية العباد، فإن أبيتم فالجزية، فإن أبيتم آذنتكم بحرب والسلام»
[In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From the Prophet and Messenger of God, Muhammad to the Bishop of Najran. If you have submitted to God, then I thank for you Allah the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac. Now I say this: I am calling you to the worship of God away from the worship of his servants, and the protection of God away from the protection of people. If you refuse, then you must pay jizya (a tribute and per-capita tax). If you refuse, then I warn you that I shall declare war against you. And I close with the greeting of peace.]

The Christians of Najran were terrified, and after deliberating, they decided to send a delegation to the Prophet (p). At first, they changed into fancy clothes and went to meet him, but he would not return their greeting of peace. They consulted with the merchants whom they know, `Uthman ibn `Affan and Abdulrahman ibn `Awf, who, in turn, consulted with `Ali ibn Abi Taleb. The latter advised them to change back into their more ordinary travel clothes, which they did, and then the Prophet (p) returned their greeting of peace.

Then ensued a debate. They claimed that they had already submitted to God, and worshipped only him, implying that he should not demand that they pay tribute and otherwise should not fight them. The Prophet (p) disagreed, questioning them about their views on the divinity of Christ. They turned the question around, and asked him how he would characterize it given his acceptance of the virgin birth of Jesus. He replied that he didn't have definitive knowledge of the matter, and asked them to wait. Then he received the revelation:
إن مثل عيسى عند الله كمثل آدم خلقه من تراب ثم قال له كن فيكون الحق من ربك فلا تكن من الممترين
[The example of Jesus, for Allah, is like the example of Adam, whom he had created out of dust, saying "be," and he was. Truth is revealed from your Lord, so do not doubt it 2:59-60]
فمن حاجك فيه من بعد ما جاءك من العلم فقل تعالوا ندع أبناءنا وأبناءكم ونساءنا ونساءكم وأنفسنا وأنفسكم ثم نبتهل فنجعل لعنة الله على الكاذبين
[Then, whoever debates you about him [Jesus] after the knowledge that you have received, then say let us bring our children and your children, and our women and your women, then let us supplicate to God that he may curse those who speak untruth.]

The two groups went out into the desert in a field to make these supplications, wherein the Prophet (p) brought his beloved daughter Fatima, her two sons Hasan and Husein, and husband Ali ibn Abi Taleb. Instead of proceeding with the religious duel, as it were, the Bishop said that they do not wish to participate (Muslim commentators tell us that he did this for fear that the Prophet's (p) theology may be the correct one) and agreed to pay tribute. Thus, the Christians of Najran were the first to pay tribute to the new Islamic state. This was simultaneously a sign of submission, acceptance of the sovereignty of the Islamic state, and protection money, because they were not required to serve in the military, but would still be protected.

This is clearly not an example of pluralism. It is toleration of diversity, on condition that Islam's superiority is unquestioned. I quoted Bassam Tibi at the beginning. He announced in 2002 that he has quit interfaith dialogues, in which he had been engaged for two decades, because other Muslim interlocutors refused to give up the Islamist mindset, continued to confuse dialogue with proselytization (da`wa), and to profess ultimate supremacy of Islam.

In this regard, the accommodation of diversity in early centuries of Islam was, indeed, exemplary by the standards of its time, and throughout the medieval period. However, it falls tragically short of the post-enlightenment democratic notion of pluralism.

The litmus test for any of our community leaders in embracing pluralism and democracy is this: Are you willing to accept that other traditions and their standards of truth  are equal to yours (whether they call themselves Sunni, Shi`a, Christian, Baha'i, Athiest, or anything else)? If not, then no twisting of Qur'anic verses and Prophetic traditions can suffice. You are still being two-faced if you claim to embrace pluralism.

If we are still under the illusion that we can accept the Jamat-i-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood, or any other Islamist organizations, as potential partners in the modern world, we need only read the following two quotations of their top ideologues:

Mawdudi is quoted thus:
I tell you, my fellow Muslims, frankly: Democracy is in contradiction with your belief … Islam, in which you believe, … is utterly different from this dreadful system … There can be no reconciliation between Islam and democracy, not even in minor issues, because they contradict one another in all terms. Where this system [of democracy] exists we consider Islam to be absent. When Islam comes to power there is no place for this system. 
Tibi, Bassam (2009-02-25). Islam's Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change (p. 226). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
And Qaradawi is quoted thus:
Democracy is a Greek term which means the government of the people... democratic liberalism came into the life of Muslims through the impact of colonialism. It has been the foremost dangerous result in the colonial legacy.” 
Tibi, Bassam (2009-02-25). Islam's Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change (p. 232). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
The alternative to Islamism is rationalist and secular: Our religion contains many excellent elements, that we wish to preserve and develop, and they inform our politics. However, we also recognize that our Canonical texts are anchored in a time of religious empires, to which they remain captive.

Muslim societies have tried to escape the text-bound, juristic, Islamist pull, first in the example of the Mu`tazila, then in the philosophies of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, and the social scientific study of Ibn Khaldun, but the rationalists lost the cultural battle.

The victorious traditionalist approach continued to work reasonably well while society still resembled the world in which the Canonical texts are anchored, but failed miserably as the world changed drastically from that world.

That is why our Muslim societies have failed. And this is why we are here, to escape that failure.

We may not have overarching political, religious and philosophical solutions and leverage to bring Muslim societies to a post-enlightenment mindset that accepts pluralism. However, we ourselves belong to this post-enlightenment world. There are others within our Muslim community and in other communities who wish to take us back to darker times. We stand with those who accept modern pluralistic democracy, regardless of their religion, which means that we repudiate Islamism in all its forms.