Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Preacher, The Informant and the Critical Race Theorist on the Fourth of July

 This is a draft for my sermon this week.

After the liturgical opening

يأيها الذين آمنوا أنفقوا مما رزقناكم من قبل أن يأتي يوم لا بيع فيه و لا خلة و لا شفاعة و الكافرون هم الظالمون (البقرة ٢٥٤)

[O people of faith, spend out of Our provision to you before a day comes in which there will be no trade, no friendship and no intercession; and those who reject the faith are the unjust (2:254)]

The verse that follows -- commonly known as the verse of the lower dominion or kursiy كرسي -- is a master class in Muslim theology to which I shall return toward the end of the sermon in order to explain why those who reject the faith do injustice, first and foremost toward themselves. But first, let me focus on spending from God's provision to us, which was the subject of this previous verse.

There is no doubt that all of us here are obeying this order to some degree. The greatest provision that we have from God is our very existence, including the limited time that we get in life, and we are choosing to spend nearly half an hour or more of this precious time here at the mosque. But, in addition, coming here, speaking in public, donating to the organization, and so on, we wear our religion on our sleeves, as it were, and thus "spend" even more than just our time or money.

This weekend coincides with the Fourth of July, the highest holiday of what the late eminent Sociologist of Religion Robert Bellah had called American Civil Religion. Coining the term in the 1960s, Bellah saw American Civil Religion as a force for good in the world, forged through American history as an antidote to the evils of British colonialism, slavery and the Cold War. He even dreamt that American Civil Religion can enable and serve as a template for a global civil religion. While many questions have been raised regarding Bellah's assessment, including in his own later thought, we generally accept American Civil Religion as a force for good, and go to great lengths to show our reverence for its scripture -- the Constitution -- and adherence to its rituals, waving the flag, wearing lapel pins, bragging about community members that serve in the armed forces, and so on. This came naturally to many of us, because immigrant Muslims had earlier celebrated similar civil religions in our native countries, and many even continue to do the same to this day. But others among us have gone to the other extreme, even refusing to partake in some central rituals of American Civil Religion -- for example, you may remember former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended and fined by the league in 1996 for refusing to stand during the singing of the national anthem, long before Colin Kapernick's ordeal and the Black Lives Matter movement made some forms of abstention from American Civil Religion acceptable as exercises in freedom of speech. 

The Fourth of July arrives this year while intra-American culture wars are raging, among other things, around Critical Race Theory, which has been resonating increasingly for Muslims because the renewed racialization of Islam in recent decades has become impossible to ignore (the non-whiteness of Muslims and Arabs had been a hallmark of US immigration law in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Ironically, while it has its defects and excesses, like all academic enterprises, Critical Race Theory may, in fact, provide some partial exculpation for many of the people and laws that others have blamed for injustice in American society. It is, at its core, an institutional legal theory that suggests that we can have seemingly good laws as well as well meaning people implementing those laws -- in other words, neither the laws nor the people are consciously racist in themselves -- and yet the system may proceed in practice, by inertia, to profile the wrong people, exclude them from vehicles of generational wealth creation, and so on. Theoretically good systems populated by people who try to do good may still produce bad outcomes.

The same principle applies to theistic religions, including our own. All religions that called for peace, justice and love have been abused by some adherents to justify violence and hatred. Religion is a double edged sword in this way: it changes people's preferences, intentionally, with the explicitly professed aim of changing them toward good: overcoming our impatience, greed and so on. However, once we possess the tool to change preferences, we can also use it perversely to change them toward evil. French enlightenment thought that inspired the American founding fathers had assumed that replacing traditional religion with civil religion could solve that problem. But we have seen the horrors of nationalism, which is the uglier edge of civil religion taken to extremes, in two devastating world wars that eclipsed the carnage of all earlier wars combined. Eliminating religion left a vacuum that was filled with other religion-like forces of preference modification, equally capable of evil as well as good. Unlike France, where the civil religion of laïcité is opposed to almost any public display of religiosity, the U.S. accepts religion and its public display as potential forces for good, but also recognizes their potential as a forces for evil, and thus our law enforcement agencies are justified in their aim to distinguish good from bad religion.

This brings us to the third coincidence this year, which was the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to hear a case about the excessive use of undercover informants at a California mosque. The case reminds us of the perils of the informant industry that has thrived in our communities since the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, which were tragically perpetrated by misguided adherents of our religion. The current situation at our mosques reminds me of a sad joke from my native Egypt, in which someone saw a news article that read "half of all Egyptians are spying on the other half." He asked his friend "are you spying on me?" The second friend said "no." So, the first friend said, "O, no, then I must be spying on you!" Aiming proactively to detect potentially radicalizable Muslims, overzealous informants have probably caused radicalization that may not have occurred had they themselves not provoked it. Moreover, the case now going to the Supreme Court suggests that we have had instances of informants reporting on other informants: an infinite loop that makes our mosques increasingly uncomfortable.

So, I return to my original question: Why do we still come here and engage in these public displays of religion that consume our precious time as well as social capital that we could otherwise accumulate by buttressing our American Civil Religion credentials? 

For most of us, we just come to the mosque because it is a religious obligation that we can fulfill habitually. Moreover, the mosque still provides a somewhat comforting place to socialize with people from similar cultural backgrounds. Those are both legitimate reasons that I don't wish to minimize in any way. However, because this is a religious sermon, I would like to highlight the central theological dimension of our communal religious rituals.

We come here because our faith in a good deity who manages all affairs provides us with genuine hope and comfort, even when pure reason tells us that our condition is as dire as Critical Race Theory suggests. Moreover, the world is a very complex place. Thus, we may do everything right and still get a bad outcome, which can lead to despair if we don't have faith in a greater power. In this regard, the verse immediately after the one that I recited at the beginning of the sermon, the master class in Muslim theology that I had mentioned, defines the Divine in extremely comforting terms:

الله لا إله إلا هو الحي القيوم لا تأخذه سنة و لا نوم له ما في السموات و ما في الأرض من ذا الذي يشفع عنده إلا بإذنه يعلم ما بين أيديهم و ما خلفهم و لا يحيطون بشيء من علمه إلا بما شاء وسع كرسيه السموات و الأرض و لا يؤوده حفظهما و هو العلي العظيم (البقرة ٢٥٥)

[Allah: there is no deity other than Him -- the essentially-existent sustainer of all; He is never overtaken by drowsiness or sleep; to Him belong all that is in the heavens and in the earth; who can intercede with Him, except with His permission? His lower dominion encompasses the heavens and the earth, and sustaining them does not burden Him; He is the most transcendent 2:255]

The Prophet (p), whose intercession we seek, taught his beloved daughter Fatima (r) a supplication for divine assistance -- a distress call, if you will -- that invokes these divine names of the essentially-existent and universal sustainer (يا حي يا قيوم). When all rational means seem to lead nowhere, we can thus find comfort in our faith in the ultimate sustainer:

روى النسائي و البيهقي و غيرهما عن أَنَس بْن مَالِكٍ رضي الله عنه؛ قال: قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم لِفَاطِمَةَ: ((مَا يَمْنَعُكِ أَنْ تَسْمَعِي مَا أُوصِيكِ بِهِ، أَنْ تَقُولِي إِذَا أَصْبَحْتِ وَإِذَا أَمْسَيْتِ: يَا حَيُّ يَا قَيُّومُ بِرَحْمَتِكَ أَسْتَغِيثُ، أَصْلِحْ لِي شَأْنِي كُلَّهُ، وَلَا تَكِلْنِي إِلَى نَفْسِي طَرْفَةَ عَيْنٍ)).

[On the authority of Anas ibn Malik, the Prophet (p) said to Fatima (r): "What prevents you from following my prescription for you? Every morning and evening, say: O, essentially-existent sustainer of all يا حي يا قيوم, I call on Your mercy to rescue me; make all my affairs felicitous, and do not delegate me to myself for the blink of an eye."]

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Sermon Against Religious Identity Politics Untethered to Ethical Calculus

 This is a draft of my sermon scheduled for today.

After the liturgical opening...

I wish to speak today about religion, ethics and politics -- in particular to explain why institutions that purport to speak for Muslims should continue to steer clear of efforts to drag them into politics.

This is not to say, naively, that religion and politics can be separated. Separation of church and state, which is one of the foundational principles of our country, means that the state cannot support or favor any particular religion above others. It does not mean separation of religion and politics. Indeed, as Gandhi has been quoted to say: "Those who believe that religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either."

My argument, in a nutshell, is this: Religion defines an ideal, ethics is practical reason guided imperfectly by that ideal, and politics is exceedingly pragmatic, which takes it several degrees away from the idealism religion, even if the two remain connected.

There is no doubt that our religion affects our politics, as the circle is closed from religion through ethics to politics and back to religious reflection. This is the rational path from religion, through ethical calculus, to politics. But there is the danger of taking a shortcut in the opposite emotional direction, directly from religion to politics without the mediation of ethical calculations. This is usually done through the emotional channel of identity politics and victimization narratives, and it is dangerous: Lamenting one's own dehumanization by others is the most direct path to dehumanizing others in turn, which leads to escalation and greater injury to oneself as well as to others. 

If we take the emotional -- rather than rational -- route, we risk polluting our ethics with the extreme pragmatism of politics, and then corrupting our religious ideals with the corrupted ethics.

This is why our religious discourse should focus on the rational connection from  religion to ethics, to reinforce the necessity of mediating our politics and other conduct through the ethical channel. Let me illustrate:


Qur'an teaches the ideal of pursuing global friendship:

و لا تستوي الحسنة و لا السيئة * إدفع بالتي هي أحسن فإذا الذي بينك و بينه عداوة كأنه و لي حميم  [فصلت ٣٣-٣٤]

[Good and bad deeds are not equal. Repel (bad deeds) with that which is better, and behold: the one who was separated by enmity may become like a loyal friend 41:33-34]

To be clear, our religion does not teach turning the other cheek, but it simultaneously forbids transgression and urges restraint and deescalation:

و إن عاقبتم فعاقبوا بمثل ما عوقبتم به و لئن صبرتم لهو خير للصابرين [النحل ١٢٦]

[And if you punish, then punish similar to how you had been punished; and yet if you exercise patience, that is better for those who are patient. 16:126]

But how do we decide on the best mix of resistance, on the one hand, and restraint in order to deescalate, on the other? Ethics is the exercise of practical reason to perform the necessary calculations. At the individual level, it produces a set of rules for personal conduct, often formalized in jurisprudence/fiqh. At the social level, it produces another set rules for social conduct, likewise formalized in jurisprudence and sometimes codified in law.

Consider Majallat Al'Ahkam Al-`Adliya, the legal code based on Hanafi jurisprudence that was applied by the Ottoman Empire in several countries, where it continues to be applied to this day, especially in family law. Article 19 of the Majallat reads as follows:

لا ضرر و لا ضرار

[No injury should be caused to others or to oneself].

This religious ideal is established as a Hadith (prophetic tradition) narrated in Al-Muwatta' of Imam Malik on the authority of Amr b. Yahia Al-Mazini, in Sunan Ibn Maja and Musnad Ahmad on the authority of Ibn `Abbas, and elsewhere. 

As such, this Canonical rule is part of our religion. But how do we apply it? In jurisprudence, some use it to forbid smoking, because it causes manifest harm to oneself and nearby others. But how about eating fatty meats? How about eating a bit more than we should? Sugar?... Obviously, jurists have to make all sorts of judgment calls when it comes to ethics, and even more judgment calls translating those ethics into jurisprudence and codified law.

Ethics and Law

Let's see how the jurists codifying the Majallat proceeded. Obviously, injuries do take place in real life, so  what do we do when the religious ideal of no injury is infeasible? Article 20 reads as follows:

الضرر يزال

[Injuries should be rectified.]

Fine and good, but how, exactly? Once an injury has taken place, correcting it most likely causes other injuries (think, for example, of affirmative action: to favor a disadvantaged minority candidate, you obviously must give them a position that someone else might have taken otherwise). Articles 25 and 27 of the Majallat help to some extent, but not really:

٢٥. الضرر لا يزال بمثله

٢٧. الضرر الأشد يزال بالضرر الأخف

[25. An injury cannot be rectified by an equal injury.

27. A greater injury may be rectified by a smaller injury.]

But now we are fully in the realm of cost-benefit analysis, with the added complication of having no purely religious metric that tells us which injury is smaller than which... 

And we haven't yet entered the murkier world of politics. But even before we get there, let's recount another juristic principle that was codified in the Majallat; article 39 states the following:

لا ينكر تغير الأحكام بتغير الأزمان

[It cannot be denied that legal rulings change because times change.]

As I have explained earlier, pragmatic calculations of politics take this periodic change of heart and ruling to an entirely different level.

This is one reason why we would not want the code to be called Majallat Al-Ahkam Al-Islamiya, or the like. We avoid the religious label in order to protect the timeless ideal while allowing human effort in ethics, law and ultimately politics to change with the times.


So now we get to politics, and take an extreme example of how bad politics can get. 

In a famous story narrated by Ibn Kathir in his historical magnum opus Al-Bidaya w Al-Nihaya, Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan was very learned in religion. When they came to tell him that he had become the Khalifa, he had a Mushaf (written Qur'an) in his lap, apparently reciting or studying the text. Once he received the news, he closed his Mushaf and said 

هذا فراق بيني و بينك

[This is when we part ways.]

Abdel-Malik considered the contested Khilafa to be a great injury to the Muslim polity, and proceeded to rectify the situation in the way that he deemed best. Despite his vicious conduct during the fight with Abdullah ibn Al-Zubair, which included bombardment of the Ka`ba, crucifixion and several other atrocities, we don't consider Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan or his ruthless minister Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf to be any less learned about religion. 

The historical vignette with the Mushaf merely indicates that Abdul-Malik recognized how politics is many layers of calculation removed from the religious ideal, as did his Umayyad predecessors and successors, each of whom we Sunnis still called Amir-ul-Mu'minin (Commander of the Faithful). It is impossible for us to know what would have happened under counterfactual historical scenarios, and leave religious judgment of those historical actions to Allah.

I will avoid getting into details of current affairs, because that would mean bringing political analysis to this sermon itself, which would undermine the message that I wish to convey. 

Nonetheless, I must acknowledge that political events have stirred very strong emotions in our community -- and some of these emotions are no doubt informed by our religious beliefs and ethical standards. The temptation is strong to take the shortcut from religious identity to politics, but we must resist that impulse.

We must continue to distinguishing between religion (the ideal that guides our striving, on which we do not wish to make any compromises), ethics (our best effort to approach that ideal, which requires some guesswork and compromise) and politics (which ventures much farther away from the religious ideal than ethics ever could). 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

False Dichotomies on Israel and Gaza

In his address to the nation on September 20, 2001, former President George W. Bush famously declared: "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." The first quoted sentence makes it clear that the second was not a mere rhetorical device: It was a warning for nations or regions that might have otherwise refused to cooperate when the U.S. launched its "war on terror." This is too many levels beyond mine, and, therefore, does not fit easily in my list of false dichotomies below, which are offered to avoid rhetorical traps when we engage in interfaith as well as intrafaith dialogue, although one can easily hear echos of President Bush's false dichotomy in this partial list of rhetorical devices built on false dichotomies.

False Dichotomy #1: "If you condemn the mass murder of civilians in Gaza by IDF, you must be supporting the (attempted or actual) mass murder of civilians by Hamas rockets."

Response: Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. In fact, I condemn both. 

False Dichotomy #2: "If you condemn IDF operations, then you deny Israel's right to defend itself."

Response: Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. It is coherent to assert Israel's right to defend itself but deny that a particular action is either acceptable or conducive to said self defense. In fact, I assert that this recurrent unleashing of extreme violence is neither acceptable (because of its unjustifiable result in loss of innocent life and property) nor productive (it fits Einstein's definition of insanity).

False Dichotomy #3: "If you condemn Hamas rocket attacks, then you are an accomplice in the subjugation of Palestinians."

Response: Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. In fact, I support Palestinian freedom and rights, but assert that recurrent acts of terrorism against civilians are neither acceptable (because of their unjustifiable result in loss of innocent life and property) nor productive (it fits Einstein's definition of insanity).

False Dichotomy #4: "If you cannot offer any alternative workable solutions, then you should shut up."

Response: Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. In fact, I assert that the current "strategies," if you can call them that, are extremely harmful in the sense that they make it impossible to find alternative workable solutions, regardless whether those are readily available at this time.

False Dichotomy #5a: "If you refuse to say who is more at fault, then you are supporting vigilante terrorism."

False Dichotomy #5b: "If you refuse to say who is more at fault, then you are supporting state terrorism."

False Dichotomy #5c: "If you refuse to say who is more at fault, then you are claiming moral equivalence."

Response: Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. When dealing with the sanctity of human life, we must invoke the principle of incommensurability. One murder does not justify one or many; many murders do not justify one or many; and the temporal order of murders is immaterial. 

False Dichotomy #6: "If you engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation with others who do not at the very least condemn Israel's aggression, you undermine our efforts to highlight the issue."

Response: Your conclusion does not follow from your premise. In fact, I would argue that talking to those with whom we disagree is much more important than talking to those with whom we already agree. How else can we make progress?

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Most Difficult Eid Sermon

This is a draft of my sermon scheduled for today. It is the most difficult sermon that I have ever given, because of the circumstances -- on the one hand Eid, which should be the happiest time of the year, and on the other hand the pain, suffering and bloodshed that makes us very sad and anxious. I agonized for several days over what to say, and this is what I have settled on two hours prior to delivery:

After the liturgical opening...

May Allah accept our fasting, prayers, and good deeds during the month of Ramadan that has just ended, and may He make this Eid auspicious

"البخاري: عن أبي هريرة، قال صلعم: "للصائم فرحتان يفرحهما، إذا أفطر فرح و إذا لقي ربه فرح بصومه 

[Bukhari narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra that the Prophet (p) said: "The fasting person has two occasions for happiness: the first when he breaks his fast, and the second when he meets his Lord"]

But is it possible for us to experience happiness when there is so much pain, suffering and bloodshed? Is it right or wrong to try? I checked the sermon that was offered earlier today in the Haram in Makkah, and it was unequivocally advocating for happiness and celebration: This is not the time to express sadness, said the preacher. I found his argument partially compelling, but need to take a slightly different approach for our situation here.

Perhaps we can find a useful analogy from the injunction to pay Zakatul Fitr, which I hope that we all paid before Eid prayers yesterday.

"الدارقطني: عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ , قَالَ: فَرَضَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلعم زَكَاةَ الْفِطْرِ , وَقَالَ: "أَغْنُوهُمْ فِي هَذَا الْيَوْمِ

[Daraqutni narrated on the authority of Ibn Umar that the Prophet (p) made Zakatul Fitr obligatory, and said "make them [the poor] have no need on that day"].

Obviously, this temporary condition that the payment of Zakatul Fitr enables does not eliminate poverty, but it offers respite for the poor. They were needy before and will be needy after, but on the day of Eid, if we have lived up to our duty, they can have no need.

Likewise, celebrating Eid does not negate our sadness or remove the reasons for this deep sadness, but it gives us a temporary (and perhaps partial) break from pain and anxiety, which we need to sustain us mentally and even physically.

It is also important from a religious standpoint, and some scholars have said obligatory, to show some measure of happiness and thankfulness that we have been able to conduct our fasting and prayers safely. Failing to do that, they argue, would constitute ungratefulness toward our Lord.

This is especially important for those who have small or even teenage children or grandchildren, whose emotional and mental development may be severely impaired if they are subjected to constantly elevated levels of stress, fear, and anxiety, and if they also lose the opportunity to enjoy a happy Eid.

We cannot hide the facts from them, because they have access to news, and they can clearly see our distressed emotional states, but we need to explain the world to them in a manner that they can understand, and which allows them to function in this world

"عن ابن عباس قال رسول الله صلعم "نحن معشر الأنبياء نخاطب الناس على قدر عقولهم

[Ibn Abbas narrated that the Prophet (p) said: "We prophets speak to people according to their level of comprehension"]

Again, this is primarily to minimize the adverse effects on their emotional and mental development: Ignoring the issues is not helpful, but obsessing over them constantly is not either 

It is also important to figure out how to explain the situation to them because we live at a time when every narrative has a counter-narrative that is echoed constantly on news and social media, targeting audiences that exclusively receive that alternative worldview. 

Our children and grandchildren will interact with people and friends who view the world and events very differently, and we must prepare them to engage only in civil discourse with those who may not only disagree with them, but who may see them perversely as part of the problem.

Dealing with this takes a level of restraint and wisdom that is normally beyond their years, but we must help them to learn it for their own mental wellbeing and to be effective members in society.

This is not to say that anger at injustice and transgression is unjustified. It merely means that we do not act on this anger. The best example for this, I believe, is the example of the Prophet (p) in the Truce of Hudaybiya: Umar was very angry that they could not perform pilgrimage as they had planned, and that the terms of the treaty favored Quraysh very hevaily. As narrated in Bukhari and Muslim, Umar asked the Prophet (p) harshly: 

ألست نبي الله؟ ألسنا على حق؟ أليسوا على باطل؟ فلم نعطى الدنية في ديننا؟

["Are you not the Prophet of Allah? Are we not right? Are they not wrong? Then why should we expect this demeaning of our religion?"]

But the Prophet (p) was patient, and told him that they will perform pilgrimage another year, and to trust his decision to sign the Truce. Umar went complaining the same to Abu Bakr, who told him also to accept the Truce of Hudaybiya that the Prophet (p) had accepted.

This is, indeed, how Allah educated his Messenger, and thus educated us as his followers:

و اصبر و ما صبرك إلا بالله و لا تحزن عليهم و لا تك في ضيق مما يمكرون. إن الله مع الذين اتقوا و الذين هم محسنون

[So persevere in patience, for your patience comes from God. And do not feel sorry for them, nor feel constrained by their stratagems. Truly, Allah is with those who are God-conscious, and those who act in the best of ways.]

Friday, November 06, 2020

The End of Petrodollar Recycling and The Future of Islamic Finance

This piece: "The End of Petrodollar Recycling and the Future of Islamic Finance," just published on the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs website, summarizes, builds upon, and links together two research strands to which I have tried to contribute intermittently over the past several years.

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Question of Trust, Revisited

I wrote here five years ago on the question of trust, when I was terrified by what I saw in the US political primary season that year. Since then, there have been many changes, including Brexit. Unfortunately, data from UK is not available in the latest wave. However, data from U.S. is available, albeit already a bit dated. For some comparison to another Western country, I have chosen Germany.

The 2006-11 increase in levels of American mistrust of people with other religions and nationalities had begun to reverse course by 2017, but remains worse than it was 15 years ago, albeit not by very much (approximately 5% of respondents have moved from cautious trust of both groups of "other" to cautious mistrust when comparing 2017 to 2006). The U.S. remains more cautiously trusting than Germany, but the latter has been moving steadily in the direction of more cautious trust of "others."

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Masks everywhere

Coronavirus, and the masks we don,
Remind us of Egyptian roses, gone:
How in their Spring of freedom they had found
Some dignity, and formed, from many, one.

But that one fractured, and we fractured here,
Out of one, many: No one wants to hear,
How all the lessons, once from history learned,
Have been forgotten, and replaced with fear.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Black History Month Sermon: Al-Jāḥiẓ and Luqman


This is a script of my sermon given yesterday at Brand Lane mosque. Most people seemed to like the sermon, but I was told afterward that one person walked out and told one of the mosque officials that "this is not Sunnah (Prophet's tradition)." I don't know what he disliked. Another young man spoke to me later and said that he enjoyed the sermon but was surprised that I portrayed the Muʿtazila in a positive light, because everything he had heard about them before was very negative. We had a nice conversation, and I hope that it encourages him to read more. He said that they "took an extreme position on God's transcendence," so he had read some, and I asked him if it wasn't correct for them to take that extreme position when it came, for example, to anthropomorphism. Would he really in this day and age object to the view that references to "God's hand," "God's face," and so on must be understood metaphorically -- which was the Muʿtazila position? He conceded the point but then said that he "had heard" (!) that Ibn Sīna used to hold drinking parties and that he preferred "the intermediate position taken by Al-Ghazāli." This suggested that he was unaware of the difference between the proto-phiosophical rationalism of the Muʿtazila and later development of Greco-Arabic Philosophy by Al-Kindi, Al-Fārābi and Ibn Sīna... We didn't have much time to chat, but I simply said that Al-Ghazāli was definitely much more enlightened than many who came later, especially after the intelligentsia of the Muslim world was decimated by the Mongol invasion and Black Death.

Nonetheless, I thought that it is probably better to write down the script of my sermon.

Sermon script:

After the liturgical opening, I mentioned that ICNA and ISGH hosted a series of lectures last year by local and national Black Muslim leaders, and that I had attended three out of the four weekend events. Because it was now February, I felt compelled to speak about Black History Month, but, unlike those Black Muslim leaders, I cannot speak with any authority or connection to the Black experience in America. After all, I have led a privileged life, going to private schools in my native country and coming to the U.S. for graduate school at prestigious schools. Moreover, while the speakers last year tried to emphasize the number of Muslim victims of the Atlantic slave trade, which we know was in the tens of thousands, and highlighted some like ʿUmar ibn Saʿīd and Ibrahima ibn ʿAbdulraḥmān, the history was much darker: Many victims of the Atlantic slave trade were sold into slavery by Muslims, and some of the Muslims who were themselves enslaved in the process had themselves owned slaves in West Africa. Moreover, the Muslim slaves who showcased their ability to write Arabic and knowledge of the Qur'an, etc., oftentimes did that to distance themselves from other Black slaves, and in some cases were successful in gaining their freedoms through interventions of the U.S. and/or Moroccan governments (see, for example, this book and the references therein).

Therefore, this history was very depressing in many ways, and, given that I had no direct experience that allows me to speak to the immense pain that is still carried by those whose ancestors came to this country against their will, I chose to speak about two black characters from my own tradition. The first is perhaps the greatest literary figure in all of Arabic literature, Abu ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Maḥbub Al-Kinānī, better known by his nickname Al-Jāḥiẓ, meaning the one with bulgy eyes, due to his appearance (d. 255 AH/868 CE). He and the rationalist school that he represented, known as Al-Muʿtazila, were a product of the massive translation project in the late second century and early third century after Hijra, under the reigns of the Abbasid Caliphs Al-Mansur and Al-Ma'moun. Their maxim was that "Reason/Mind is the primary arbiter of truth."

Most importantly for our context, Al-Muʿtazila, who were known as "The People of Justice and Monotheism" concluded from God's justice that man must have free will, otherwise fair accountability would be impossible if sinners had no choice in their actions. They cited the verse
مَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَنْ أَسَاءَ فَعَلَيْهَا ۗ وَمَا رَبُّكَ بِظَلَّامٍ لِلْعَبِيدِ ﴿فصلت ٤٦﴾
[Whoever does good does it for himself, and whoever sins does it against himself, and your Lord does not treat his servants unjustly.]
They affirmed that "God, transcendent is He, does not do injustice; all his acts are good, he does not act badly, and He never fails to fulfill His duties." The inevitable conclusion, which is relevant to our context, is a strong focus on social justice and equality. Thus, the Muʿtazili jurist Abu Bakr Al-Asamm (d. 279 AH/892 CE, whose exegesis of the Qur'an was so highly valued that the later Muʿtazili Qadi Abdul-Jabbar almost cited it exclusively) concluded, against traditionalist jurists who reasoned by irrational analogy, that blood money for wrongful killing of a woman should be the same as that for a man. He also forbade marrying girls before they reach the appropriate age of marriage, reasoning logically that while the girl's father can be her guardian/agent in marriage, the guardianship/agency when it comes to marriage does not exist before the girl is of the appropriate age (unlike, say, his guardianship/agency over her property). The Muʿtazili jurist Thumama ibn Al-Ashras  (d. 225 AH/840 CE) also went against traditionalist jurists and their political masters when he opined against enslavement of prisoners of war. No wonder, then, that later secular/military leaders colluded with traditionalist fuqaha against the rationalist scholarship of their time.

Also relevant for our context is a treatise that Al-Jāḥiẓ wrote, which is the fourth in this volume. As I have already mentioned, Al-Jāḥiẓ himself was black, and it is clear that he wrote this essay, entitled "Advantages of Blacks over Whites," to counter the racism of his time. One example he gave was the fact that the Prophet (p) prayed over people only during their procession janaza or at their graves, except one case in which he prayed on an absent person, and that was the Ethiopian King Al-Najashi (who was obviously black, and had protected the first Muslim migrants before the migration to Madina). He also cited, in his typical witty style, that the best of many species are the blackest: camels, horses, sheep, stones, mountains, dates, musk, amber, and so on. He even cited the verse from the Qur'anic chapter Al-Rahman, which praises two gardens as very black, pointing out that the blackest soil is the most fertile. Finally, he cited the Hadith narrated in Musnad Ahmad on the authority of Abu Dharr, which said بعثت إلى الأحمر و الأسود (I was sent to the Red and the Black), and then he reasoned that because Arabs, Egyptians, Indians, etc. were not Red, they were clearly Black, even though their shades varied.

Al-Jāḥiẓ also pointed out the Qur'anic literary character Luqman, who was black, and described as blessed with wisdom, which generated a voluminous literature that rivaled that about Aesop (who was also black). In Al-Muwatta', Malik narrated that when Luqman was asked how he came to possess such great wisdom, he said: "being truthful in speech, safeguarding and fulfilling my trusts, and avoiding that which does not concern me." There is very little in the authentic Hadith literature (the Sihah, the Sunan, and the Masanid) about Luqman, but there is a very interesting Hadith narrated in exegeses of Al-Tabari, Al-Qurtubi, etc., so I will close with the version in Al-Qurtubi, who narrated on the authority of Abdullah ibn Umar (r) that the Prophet (p) said: "Luqman was not a prophet, but he was a thoughtful person with certitude in faith. He loved God, and God loved him, and thus gave him the gift of wisdom, and gave him the option to be a just ruler. He said: 'Lord, if you are giving me the option, then I prefer safety and avoidance of this severe test, but if you force me then I obey and trust that you will protect me from error.' The angels asked him why he chose not to be a ruler, and he said: 'Because a ruler is in the most difficult and worst of positions, because he is responsible for victims of injustice in every direction; he has a very slim chance to succeed, and error can lead him away from paradise. It is better to be oppressed on earth than to be honored. Indeed, one who chooses this world over the next will be rejected by this world and will never succeed in the next.'"

Friday, December 27, 2019

The truth about pursuit of Truth

Today, I was given the Divine gift of silence (originally scheduled to give a sermon, I was asked if I’d rotate out to allow scheduling of a visitor). What a wonderful gift to be given, because to speak is to err.

In Islamic terminology, the word for Truth, as Platonic form, is “Al-Haqq,” which is one of the Divine names, and which, in addition to “Truth,” also means “Reality,” and “Justice.”

When we go all the way in this pursuit, we end up with St. Thomas Aquinas’s silence, because, as Wittgenstein put it at the end of his Tractatus, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”

This is what in Muslim tradition would be dictated by observing proper manners, Adab, with Truth/Reality/Justice. Of course, speaking about Justice gets one in trouble at the social level. But speaking about other aspects of the Divine is also troublesome. However, when permission is given, and we have no ability to stop the overflowing of words, we speak... and then we err. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Teach, Dragon, Teach

This morning, I went against my previous post and gave a spirited lecture on the virtues and challenges of financial regulation at the domestic and global levels.

I began by telling students that I was wrong to hold back last week. If there is anything that we teach at an American university, it is critical thinking. Even if they will go into the financial industry on the money making side, they will surely benefit from hearing well-reasoned arguments from all perspectives, even from those, like myself, who have an axe to grind on regulatory hubris.

It's been a year now since I have had a painful sinus surgery trying to treat the accumulated damage that five decades of battling asthma and allergies have wrought upon my body. A few months later, I paid a few visits to a local expert on traditional Chinese medicine, who was surprised on my second visit to find out that I had read The Yellow Emperor's classical book on TCM after my first visit. His diagnosis was that I have been trying to make myself smaller for so long, that there is too much "fire" building up in my chest... I called it my dragon syndrome.

So, this morning, I decided not to care. If the dragon needs to roar and breathe fire, let it roar, and teach away!

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"Shut up and compute"

The phrase "shut up and compute" is in/famous in physics circles as a put-down to people who complain about the epistemological sense of quantum physics (as in: it makes remarkably accurate predictions that no other theory does; so shut up and compute).

I wrote here previously about my career: I would not have been admitted to graduate school, given academic positions, awarded tenure, etc. were it not for my abilities in mathematics and computing. There is a sense in which it may have been dishonest to focus on the type of work that gave me those opportunities, and then not to continue doing the same. I prefer to think about it in another sense: This is how I paid my dues to the profession, in order to get these opportunities, and I am perfectly happy to forego whatever success I may be able to achieve going forward by continuing along the same trajectory. In this latter sense, I was not at all dishonest, and those who have known me at any level will have known my cynicism about my profession of academic economics. They may have had expectations that my desire to succeed would keep me wedded to "computing," but they cannot blame me for gaming the system or pretending to value what I was doing any more than I did.

But now there is another ethical dilemma that I must face -- in teaching. I have undeniably strong opinions about a variety of topics, and I recognize that my opinions are more likely to be wrong than right. However, as a teacher, the professor-student relationship endows the former with power (of rhetoric and persuasion, grading authority, body of accumulated facts, etc.) that may make it unethical to color students' views in ways that may alter their career plans and other choices. In the meantime, it is unethical to pretend like the material we teach is not pregnant with ethical judgments (obviously, this is a problem for all social sciences). We try our best to tell students about our biases ahead of time, and warn them to adjust their own views accordingly, but this does not eliminate all problems.

So, I am asking my department chair if I can just exclusively teach mathematical and computational material, where there are correct answers and useful skills transferred in all circumstances.

Monday, July 22, 2019

It's Just A Frivolous Game

This is the draft of my sermon for this Friday at ISGH Main Center.

Preamble: Remember

After the liturgical opening...

I remind and urge you and myself to be mindful of God, who said:

إن الذين اتقوا إذا مسهم طائف من الشيطان تذكروا فإذا هم مبصرون
[Those who are mindful of God, when a visitation of Satan troubles them, remember, and their vision is restored.] (Elevated Places: 201 الأعراف)

In this context, the exegetes assured us that the blinding “visitation from Satan” is anger. The verses leading to this one (201) had ordered the Prophet (p) to respond to others' negative behavior with positive kindness and forgiveness:

خذ العفو و أمر بالعرف و أعرض عن الجاهلين * و إما ينزغنك من الشيطان نزغ فاستعذ بالله إنه سميع عليم
[Take what comes easily to people, bid them to what is honorable, and turn away from the ignorant. And if an affliction from Satan should provoke you, seek refuge in God; He is All-hearing, All-seeing.] (Elevated Places: 199--200 الأعراف)

When the Prophet (p) received the first verse (199), he asked the Archangel Gabriel (p) about its meaning, and Gabriel (p) returned with the explanation that this is what God had ordered:

صل من قطعك و أعط من حرمك و اعف عمن ظلمك
[Reconnect the ties of kinship with those who severed them; be generous to those who withheld your rights; and forgive those who did you injustice.]

Then the Prophet (p) asked:

و الغضب يا ربي و الغضب
[My Lord: And what about anger?]

In answer to which the next verse (200) was revealed, calling that anger "an affliction from Satan," advising us to seek refuge in God, mindfulness of whom reminds us who we are and who we strive to be, thus restoring our vision.

Adversity As A Blessing In Disguise

We live in a time of apparent difficulty, and we should be very thankful for this.

First, we should never say (or think) that our time is particularly bad:

:روى البخاري و مسلم عن أبي هريرة (ر) قال، قال رسول الله (ص) ، قال الله تعالى
يؤذيني ابن آدم يسب الدهر، و أنا الدهر، بيدى الأمر، أقلب الليل و النهار
و في رواية أحمد: و أبدل الملوك
[Bukhari and Muslim narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra (r) that the Prophet (p) said that God said: Humans insult me when they curse their time. For I am time. I control everything. I alternate day and night, (and in the narration of Ahmad:) I replace kings.]

Second, during times of ease, whenever we score some minor victories, in business, elections, or other endeavors, we are prone to make more mistakes by losing our discipline, becoming haughty, insulting others, and so on. Times of apparent hardship, like the current one, are necessary to re-teach us discipline.

For this reason, Ibn `Ata’ Illah said in his Hikam:

العارفون إذا بسطوا – أخوف منهم إذا قبضوا، ولا يقف على حدود الأدب في البسط إلا قليل
[Those who know are more apprehensive during times of ease and expansion than they are during times of difficulty and constriction; because very few can remain disciplined during times of ease and expansion.]

With regard to which condition we get to experience in any given time, faith is primarily about accepting fate. That is why Ibn `Ata'Illah also wrote in Hikam

ما ترك من الجهل شيئاً من أراد أن يحدث في الوقت غير ما أظهره الله فيه
[He is all-ignorant: The one who desires to cause something different from what God has made manifest in any given time.]

It's Just A Frivolous Game, As God Said

What we find so troubling, even to watch, is just a frivolous game. It is a game for accumulation of delusional wealth and power. This is what God tells us in the Chapter that mentions Iron:

إعلموا أنما الحياة الدنيا لعب و لهو و زينة و تفاخر بينكم و تكاثر في الأموال و الأولاد كمثل غيث أعجب الكفار نباته ثم يهيج فتراه مصفراً ثم يكون حطاما و في الآخرة عذاب شديد و مغفرة من الله و رضوان و ما الحياة الدنيا إلا متاع الغرور
[Know that the present life is but a frivolous game, an adornment, a cause for boasting among you, and a rivalry in wealth and children. It is like rain whose vegetation pleases farmers; then it withers, and turns yellow, and finally lies in ruin. But in the world to come there is severe punishment, forgiveness from God and contentment; and the present life is but the joy of delusion.] (Iron: 20 الحديد)

Impermanence is the name of this game. Today's winner is tomorrow's loser, and the spoils all turn to dust.

So why do we get more unsettled watching this game -- watching news, hearing insults, or suffering discrimination -- compared to how we feel when watching a frivolous game of baseball or basketball?

I recognize that it is hurtful when we find ourselves -- to belabor the frivolous-sport simile -- turned into the balls being kicked around, or the ants being stomped upon. But the point of religion, at its best, while we take every legal precaution to protect ourselves, is to do the necessary internal work to avoid  counterproductive anger.

Notice here that suppression of anger is not sufficient, albeit the first stage. If we stop at suppression of anger, we can eventually be so full of anger that it overflows in our conduct; as the poet said that every pot overflows with its content: كل إناء بما فيه ينضح. Rather, we have to go through the three stages that God has listed:
الذين ينفقون في السراء و الضراء و الكاظمين الغيظ و العافين عن الناس  الله يحب المحسنين
[Who spend in prosperity and adversity, restrain their anger, and pardon the offenses of others; and God loves the good-doers.] (Family of Imram: 134 آل عمران)

Because our tradition does not teach not resisting evil and turning the other cheek, we can certainly duck or block to avoid the next slap, while assuming a spectator's perspective to contain anger. Beyond that, our tradition teaches إحسان: responding to negativity with positivity:
و لا تستوي الحسنة و لا السيئة إدفع بالتي هي أحسن فإذا الذي بينك و بينه عداوة كأنه ولي حميم
[Good and bad cannot be equated. Repel with the most beautiful response, and behold, he who was your enemy will become like a close friend.] (Well Explained: 34 فصلت)

When we adopt the spectator attitude, we can see that all mundane occurrences, including mean politics and social strife, are just parts of a frivolous game. Admittedly, some people make ungodly amounts of money from various mini-games, and some others suffer, or even lose their lives or livelihoods. But in the grand scheme of things, as we have recited earlier in (Iron: 20), it remains a frivolous game! All joy, pain, profit and loss are temporary phenomena that wither away and turn to dust.

It is often difficult to remember this. Therefore, the verses in the Chapter that mentions Iron began with a call to remember: Is it not time to remember?

ألم يأن للذين آمنوا أن تخشع قلوبهم لذكر الله و ما نزل من الحق
و لا يكونوا كالذين أوتوا الكتاب من قبل فطال عليهم الأمد فقست قلوبهم و كثير منهم فاسقون 
[Is it not time for the hearts of the faithful to be humbled to the Remembrance of God and the Truth that He has sent, and for them not be like those to whom the previous Book was given, but the term seemed long, so their hearts have hardened, and many of them are sinners?] (Iron: 16  الحديد)

Al-A`mash reported that this verse was sent as admonishment to the Prophet's companions (r) after they had settled in Madina and found ease. Abu Bakr (r) was sitting with a group from Yamama when this verse was recited, and they wept. He said: We used to be like this before our hearts hardened (هكذا كنا حتى قست القلوب).


We have no choice but to watch this frivolous game, which is played by very few, and watched by all. But we must not forget what the game is and who we are, lest we may act incorrectly.

As I recited in the beginning of this sermon from the Chapter that mentions Elevated Places, the Prophet was -- and by extension we were -- ordered to respond to negativity with positivity, and to use mindfulness of God as a vehicle for protection from blinding anger.

The reward is immense, as God said:

ألا إن أولياء الله لا خوف عليهم و لا هم يحزنون * الذين آمنوا و كانوا يتقون * لهم البشرى في الحياة الدنيا و في الآخرة لا تبديل لكلمات الله ذلك هو الفوز العظيم * و لا يحزنك قولهم إن العزة لله جميعا هو السميع العليم
[Those close to God; fear not for them, nor shall they grieve, (they are) those who have faith and God consciousness. For them are glad tidings in this world and the next; and God’s words are immutable: This is the great victory! And let not detractors’ words cause you grief. All glory belongs to God, who hears and knows all.] (Jonah: 62--65 يونس)

عن سعيد بن جبير، قال: سئل رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عن أولياء الله، فقال: الَّذِينَ إذا رُؤُوا ذُكِرَ اللَّهُ
[It was narrated on the authority of Sa`id ibn Jubayr that the Prophet (p) was asked about who those close to God were, and he (p) said: Whenever they are seen, God is remembered.] May we be blessed to be in their company!

Friday, July 05, 2019

On The Responsibilities of Muslim Financial Providers

I was invited to participate on a Muslim conference panel on home financing, and rather than decline the invitation, outlined my views (which would be familiar to any reader of this blog) and indicated that I would be happy to participate if the objective was to offer a variety of opinions, but that it may be better to find another panelist if the objective was not to undermine the alternatives offered in this forum. The gentleman who had invited me thanked me for my candor and chose the second option.

I followed up this morning with an email, from which I thought that I would quote some excerpts below... I have redacted all parts of the email that would identify my interlocutor, and thought that the main message is one that I should put in the public domain through this blog post:

I hesitate to say more in the meantime, but I have sensed in your email a rare sincerity that merits taking the risk.
First, ...
Second, I do not know your model, but submit to you what you certainly know: that whether or not a model in finance is “working” can only be determined at extreme and very rare events such as bankruptcy, which stress ownership structure and priority of claims to assets, which require courts to determine what happens under circumstances that financial engineers and regulators had not considered throughly (and had no court precedent upon which to base their analysis). Does a model of co-ownership expose your members to legal risks from which they are protected under the regulatory framework of conventional mortgages? Are the benefits they get from your model sufficient to counterbalance such (and other) potential risks? 
Third, I am not surprised that you have a long waiting list (my friend ... had also mentioned something similar). But do we not recognize that this demand is the result of terrible miseducation by the ideologue propagandists of the second half of the past century, who convinced many Muslims (wrongly) that interest is the same thing as the categorically forbidden riba? As someone who is responsible for the financial well being of your community, do you not have the responsibility to deprogram your community, who are waiting for your alternative, so that they may pursue the other permissible conventional financial alternatives available to them?

Monday, July 01, 2019

Summer Peace

I took this photo of the Summer Solstice Sunrise at Aztec Ruins in New Mexico on Friday, June 21, 2019.

Summer Peace

This old Egyptian boy
is finally at peace
now that the Spring has gone,
and Fall is drawing near.

Egyptian Spring tormented
him with blooming hopes,
defying all logic...

He knew throughout his life
that those Egyptian Springs
have always burned his lungs
with fifty-day sandstorms,
and yet somehow he thought:
"This Spring could be different."
He foolishly inhaled!

But now, Summer is here,
and now he can exhale,
relinquishing all hope,
reclaiming sweet surrender,
and waiting for the Fall,
his sweet eternal Fall.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Malaise of Modern Islamic Jurisprudence -- Disappointed and disheartened by Sanhuri's analysis on Riba

I will have to proofread my translation of Sanhuri before posting it (see previous posting for context), and then will plan to follow up with a more elaborate analysis. For now, while I am sitting at a car shop, I wanted to use the time to post my first reactions, which are a combination of (1) understanding how we got here, and (2) great disappointment at Sanhuri and his generation of legal scholars.

[UPDATE on 6/5/2019: I have posted the translation here.]

A quick note on style: Sanhuri wanted simultaneously to use the methodologies of classical Islamic jurisprudence and modern legal analysis, which resulted in some significant discontinuities. In my analysis of his thesis, I will try to summarize his arguments more linearly, and in the process try to avoid the frequent repetition that is characteristic of his as well as most Arabic writing, especially in the genre of jurisprudence.

How did we get here? Anyone who is familiar with my writings on Islamic law and finance, on this blog and elsewhere, will understand my frustrations with an industry that sells inferior products at higher prices, and reinforces a mindset that makes reconciliation of authentic Islamic teachings with modernity even more difficult.

One feature of Sanhuri's analysis that I found very disheartening was his deference to "juristic craftsmanship," as he put it, which leads him to conclude that all forms of riba (pre-Islamic or jahiliya, deferment or nasi'a, and inequality or fadl) are forbidden. He chooses from among the different schools of classical jurisprudence the middle ground of considering the first categorically forbidden for its own sake, but deems the latter two forbidden as means to the end that is the first. Interested readers will have to wait for the full translation and analysis, but the main import of this distinction is that the first type of prohibition (for pre-Islamic or jahiliya riba) is thus overruled only in cases of extreme necessity (equivalent to ones that would allow consuming forbidden meat to preserve life), while the latter two may be overruled in cases of mere need, which would include net economic benefits that would be foregone if one were to ban certain transactions. On interest bearing loans, he follows the traditional juristic view that they are not explicit forms of riba, because the latter is only considered possible in commutative sales, but that they can inherit the rulings of riba because they can lead to the explicitly forbidden riba al-jahiliya, and thus is likewise forbidden as a means to forbidden end (saddan lil-dhara'i`) rather than for its own sake.

He thus defers to jurists by extending the prohibition on modern forms of finance, but then argues that in capitalist economies, capital must earn a rate of return, and the fear of exploitation is non-existent when large corporations or governments borrow from small savers. He thus argues for permitting conventional finance with regulations such as interest rate ceilings and limiting the amount of compound interest so that the total accrued interest cannot exceed the principal, based on the rule of necessity applied to cases of mere economic need. Unfortunately, but understandably given the period in which he was writing, he says that maybe in a socialist system (to which he seemed to look forward!), where the government owns all capital, the need for interest would vanish and the default rule of prohibition would be reinstated.

This explains something about Arab Barometer questionnaires that I had found puzzling. In their question on bank interest, they surveyors ask if all bank interest should be banned or if it should be allowed because it is needed for economic development. It appears that they are appealing to this argument from necessity as need in the lower forms of riba, as Sanhuri had accepted.

It also explains the argument that proponents of today's so-called "Islamic Finance" have advanced: that now that they have provided "Islamic" alternatives that technically avoid the prohibition of riba, the argument from necessity/need no longer applies, and customers must thus, they argue, buy their (more expensive and inferior) product because it avoids riba.

The technical ruses used to circumvent the prohibition, e.g. credit sales that hide interest as price premium, leases that hide interest as rental payments, and the like, are also justified in Sanhuri's analysis, which did not take offense at a popular Hanafi trick that he cited verbatim from classical sources numerous times. In this trick, A asks B to lend him $100. B says that he cannot do that, but he sells A a piece of cloth worth $40 for a deferred price of $60, and follows that credit sale with an interest-free loan of $60. The net result of both contracts is that A now owes B $120 (desired principal of $100 plus 20% interest) to be paid later, and he has received $60 plus a piece of cloth worth $40, which he may promptly convert to cash at that price, thus having received the desired $100 now for a debt of $120 later. Classical jurists split hairs over whether the transaction is allowed if both parts were included in the same contract, or if one was explicitly stipulated as a condition in the other, and so on. But, ultimately, variations on these tricks were incorporated as elaborate ways to reproduce the desired financial outcome, and jurists allowed them. Sanhuri at times makes labored attempts to argue that such complex transactions are not as conducive to exploitation as traditional forms of riba, but his logic and quasi-economic analysis are extremely weak on those points. It is obvious that a loan-shark can use this exact classical trick, or some of the more modern murabaha and similar variations, to effect usurious behavior that is ruinous to his debtors.

It is at once illuminating and disheartening to see so clearly that the best Arab legal mind of the 20th century reflected the mindset that resulted in our current malaise.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Looking for A New Beginning in Al-Sanhuri, 1952

Attached below are two copies of front pages of books published in 1952. The first is a book written by my late grandfather, whom I never met. He was a Shar`i (personal status) judge, later turned lawyer and Senator in pre-1952 Egypt. The book is a lengthy tour through the entire Qur'an framed as an exegesis of the "verse of righteousness" (I borrowed this copy of from my brother, who shares the same name as our late grandfather):

The second book is one of the books of the greatest Egyptian jurist of his generation, the late Abdul-Razzaq Al-Sanhuri, who authored Egypt's civil code and authored or helped author a number of other civil codes for Arab countries. It is a first edition signed as a gift to my grandfather, who was a few years older than Sanhuri.

Sanhuri wrote extensively about his interest in integrating the spirit of Islamic jurisprudence in contemporary legal and regulatory frameworks, which requires updating the jurisprudence to include modern legal theory and social science. He was very prominent in Egyptian society, serving as Education Minister and as head of the State Council, which is one of the three top courts in the country. He was reviled by Islamists of his day, who mostly belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, and faced persecution when this group was in favor by the ruling coalition of the period.

The mistake that gave rise to today's "Islamic finance" was not to heed Sanhuri's call to integrate the spirit of jurisprudence with modern law. Instead, Islamists, professional jurists in Al-Azhar and other clerical institutions, and governing powers, colluded to consider Islamic jurisprudence a parallel and independent legal system. Thus, it was natural for the industry that arbitraged the legal gulf under the name "Islamic finance" to emerge. When I gave my late father a copy of my book critiquing Islamic finance, he gave me this copy of Sanhuri's book, and urged me to study his works. That was twelve years ago, and I am finally coming around to fulfilling the promise of seriously reading Sanhuri's voluminous works and seeing if one can suggest a new coherent way forward. This is safer than my previously planned project on conceptions of justice that evolved into liberation theologies, and with Arab states reasserting their power over clerical classes and suppressing most types of Islamists, there may be a receptive audience for some suggestions.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Sobriety and Power: A Paradox -- Part II

Nearly four years ago, once I had decided to leave the job that I held at the time, I wrote the following post on the paradox of sobriety and power. That was a time when I faced the dilemma of compromising my ethics to hold on to power, which would have allowed me to continue helping some people, or stepping away to avoid the impossible situation of having to act unethically in one way or another. In that earlier post, I wrote that I had never understood Nietzsche's notion of the "will to power," even as a descriptive model -- suggesting that people should immediately see right through the illusion.

Now, thanks to discovering the late philosopher Walter Kauffman, who translated and commented on Nietzsche and others, and wrote extensively on religion and ethics, I think that I have come to understand the concept to some extent. My wariness of power illusions and addiction increased significantly based on this understanding. Ever the academician, I tried practically to communicate what I had learned to some colleagues, but it backfired! In the process, I am learning a lot about the mirror image problem of pursuing and exercising inner power by shunning external power, which may be more or less addictive.

I find this all to be quite useful for personal growth, but face a different challenge. What is the point of accumulating this knowledge if one cannot share it with others -- through formal writing, which I am forced to self-censor, or communication with friends and acquaintances, which I am learning to self-censor as well? How can humility and narcissistic self-absorption be so closely linked? No wonder Nietzsche had to quit his academic post, and his writing eventually drove him mad. I cannot afford either of those radical steps, so I must accept not only academic but also personal mediocrity.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Philosophy and Arabic -- Translation and The Cultural-Linguistic Gulf

I have blogged here before about seeing my comparative advantage as a translator of sorts. This stems from considering myself fully bilingual (Arabic and English), bicultural (Arab-Muslim and American-Westerner), biliterate (social sciences and humanities), and so on. I have also blogged about my earlier frustration that potential publishers of what I had considered the culmination of all my years of study had no interest in (and perhaps some alarm at) my chosen subject of inquiry: The contemporary forms of Muslim Liberation Theology (the working title of my book was Islam and The Arduous Quest for Justice, and I had proposed to explain the good, bad, and ugly manifestations of that Muslim liberation theology). The bulk of the envisioned book would have been about how early Muslim thought integrated ancient philosophy within its religious language, and helped to shape medieval Western philosophy, and then I would work through the myriad ways in which modern Muslims have and/or could integrate post-medieval philosophy in their worldview, conduct, and society. Given the reactions of colleagues and potential publishers, and upon reflection on how many in my local community in Houston have reacted to the watered-down versions of my worldview as expressed in sermons and conversation, I have aborted that delusional book/lifetime project.

Earlier this week, a colleague who teaches Philosophy forwarded the link to an article about a "Philosophy in Plain Arabic" initiative at my alma mater (the American University in Cairo, where I had the honor to serve briefly as provost during academic year 2014-15). My first reaction was somewhat negative, especially toward the motivation of endowing philosophy with greater prestige in Egyptian society, which seemed to me antithetical to why one should study/apply philosophical thinking. My second reaction, upon reflection, was that translation is always good, but that by reaching out to university students, the initiative aims to rebuild a shaky structure starting on the 15th floor (a metaphor borrowed from the late Morris Kline's discussion of foundations of mathematics in his beautiful book Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty). The problem in Egypt, and the Arab and Muslim Worlds more generally, starts in early education and over-specialization at an early age (which is not coincidental; the social contract between autocratic regimes and autocratic clergy made both parties antagonistic to free thought). I suggested that if I had known those active in this initiative, I would have suggested reaching out to middle and high school students with a watered-down version of their Philosophical Thinking course at AUC, which is part of the core curriculum for their undergraduates, and simply partnering with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy project for translation of Encyclopedia entries and selected references in its bibliographies for the benefit of university students of Philosophy who are studying it in Arabic.

I woke up this morning thinking that the task is much more daunting. I thought back to my teenage interest in Philosophy. My late father gave me books by the late Zaki Naguib Mahmoud (to whom I wrote letters that went unanswered, understandably) and Murad Wahba (whom he had met in person on multiple occasions). I also read translations of ancient Greek philosophers and Arabic books by Muslim philosophers who built on that early thought, e.g. Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and so on, to Ibn Rushd. This literature all made sense whether it was written in or translated to Arabic. However, when I tried to read translations of later philosophical works (specifically, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche) the Arabic translations made very little sense.

Then, I reflected on an Arabic book that I had read last month, which was an Arabic translation of the author's dissertation on Hegel and Al-Farabi's Philosophical Sufism. The book made sense, but only by translating into English in my head. Al-Farabi had made sense in Arabic, when I read him more than 40 years ago, but the translated Hegel didn't until I read him later in English, and he made even more sense when I read him later still after my competence in the latter had improved to equal my competence in Arabic. By that time, I could understand Al-Ghazali's explanation and later repudiation of Greek and Arabic Philosophy differently: He, and later Ibn Rushd, who could play both games equally well, illustrated the gulf that was emerging between their philosophical and religious thinking, and tried to bridge it in different ways. I felt that gulf myself in the ensuing decades of my life, and worked hard to bridge it to my satisfaction. Once I felt, possibly in error, that I had achieved the latter goal, I wanted to share my synthetic and analytical thoughts by writing the book that I described above.

This is all to say the following: Translation is not a simple linguistic exercise. To translate poetry well, one must be a good poet oneself. We know that! Likewise, to translate philosophy well, one must be a good philosopher oneself (this is why Nietzsche, for example, never made sense to me until I read Kufmann's translation). Contemporary Economics, as we know, emerged from Moral Philosophy, but took a number of bad turns, in my opinion, especially since the mid twentieth century. To write a good book on Economics, especially in relation to a part of the world in which neither development of the discipline nor developments of its antecedent Philosophy were native, one needs to be well versed in multiple "languages," which are always pregnant with concepts and connotations that are accumulated with the evolution of human thought. This is why I said that translation is not a simple linguistic exercise. In the case of Modern Philosophy in relation to Arabic, a good translator must simultaneously transform the language into which she or he is translating. This is a task even beyond my delusional project, which was to translate into English using conceptions that are already understood in that language. I wish good luck to those who think that they can translate into Arabic, but think that it may be best to teach a Western language, which would have to include reading literature and philosophy in that language, while aiming to develop an actual "Philosophy in Arabic," in part by teaching the works of contemporary Arab philosophers (a couple of whom I named above), but more importantly by encouraging philosophical thinking in Arabic. This is, indeed, the second and ultimate goal stated on the AUC website: "demonstrating the relevance of philosophy and philosophical methodologies to matters of both private interest and public concern." 

I hope that they recognize how difficult this will be to do well. The "language" barrier is much more multidimensional than the uninitiated may think.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Al-Fiyyashiyah (What's Wrong?)

I woke up this morning singing this song, attributed to the Algerian/Moroccan Sufi figure Uthman ibn Yahia Al-Sharqi (aka Sidi Bahlul). The most complete text of the poem that I could find online is available here. After listening to a dozen or so renditions, I felt driven either to write some Arabic verses in the same meter and rhyming theme (not that I don't like the original, but some of its verses are repetitive and touch me much less than others), or to write a translation of the main verses.

There are dozens of Youtube videos and songs of the poem, including a relatively traditional modernized rendition at the 2017 Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco, where Sami Yusuf offered a few translated verses together with the traditional rendition. Sami Yusuf also has a fully English version professionally recorded (followed by some Arabic), which attempted to keep the meter and rhyming theme so that it can be sung to the same tune. However, I wasn't happy with the translation -- which at times seemed too literal, not sufficiently literal, or contrived... Mine below is equally bad on all dimensions, also to keep the meter, although I have decided not to rhyme...

I wanted to mention how this song came to haunt me this morning. A decade ago, my late father became very sick (and died six months later). He was suffering from liver cirrhosis -- a very common disease in my native Egypt, mainly because of the Hepatitis C epidemic that was not guarded against when they merely boiled needles (the CDC tells us that this is not sufficient to kill the virus).

One of the worst things about liver disease is that it causes disturbances in blood chemistry which make the brain malfunction. In between episodes of anguish over his mental state during my visit ten years ago, my late father seemed to have moments of extreme lucidity, during which I tried quickly to have a few final good, but necessarily short, conversations with him. On one such occasion, when I noticed that he was lucid, I blurted out my biggest fear: "I am worried for my children." He simply smiled with a raised eyebrow that I read as "how silly!" and he just said: "ربنا موجود," which literally means "God exists," but is used as an everyday Egyptian colloquialism meaning "don't worry, leave it to a higher power, all will be well."

This is the central message of the poem, which is often sung interspersed with adoration of the Prophet at the same:

اللهم صَلِّ على المصطفى ... حبيبنا محمد عليه السلام
May God shower mercy upon the Chosen-one ... our beloved Muhammad, upon him be peace

Each segments starts with the main refrain, which is a quick-double-rhythm couplet, and then proceeds in six-verse segments that begin with a slower-single-rhythm couplet that explains the point to be made followed by a quatrain that makes the same point more poetically at the quicker double rhythm... I'll translate only a few segments here, because the meanings merely repeat with different examples... It is a meant to bring about a mystic trance (and mental peace) after many repetitions of the rhythm slowing down then speeding up again, leading to another chanting of the main refrain...

أنا ما لي فياش ...  اش عليا مني 

What's wrong with me? What's wrong? ... What have I caused myself?
نقلق من رزقي لاش ... و الخالق يرزقني 

I fear poverty! Why, ... while my Maker sustains?

أنا عبد ربي له قدرة ... يهون بها كل أمر عسير 
I belong to my Lord who has such great power ... before which every difficulty must be eased
فان كنت عبدا ضعيف القوى ... فربي على كل شيء قدير 

So although I'm a servant who is very weak ... my Lord has full power over every affair

مني اش عليا ... أنا عبد مملوك 

What do I have that's mine? ... I am a slave who's owned
و الأشيا مقضيا ... ما في التحقيق شكوك 
All my needs will be met ... there's no doubt with Vision
ربي ناظر فيا ... و نا نظري متروك 
My Lord chooses for me ... and my own choice is void
في الأرحام و في الأحشا ... من نطفة صورني
He made me in a womb ... (without my choice or help)

... [skipping a lot of verses]

أنا ما لي فياش ...  اش عليا مني 
What's wrong with me? What's wrong? ... What have I caused myself? 
نقلق من رزقي لاش ... و الخالق يرزقني 

I fear poverty! Why, ... while my maker sustains?

تجولت بالفكر في هل اتى ... و قلت لقلبي كفاك الجليل 
My mind did wonder over all that may become ... but I told my heart: Hush, the Transcendent sustains
مدبر أمري و لا علم لي ... هو الله حسبي و نعم الوكيل 

He plans all my affairs, and I have no knowledge ... He is my God, sustainer, upon whom I rely

ثق يا قلبي بالله ... فهو المعطي المانع 

My heart: Have faith in God ... He gives and takes away
و ارض باحكام الله ... لنك اليه راجع 

And accept God's decrees ... because you must return
ماذا في علم الله ... الخير في الواقع 

Whatever God will bring ... it must be for the best
تدبيرك ما يسواش ... من تدبيرك دعني

Your plans have no value ... so, please, don't plan for me


The last translated verse is reminiscent of the great fourth aphorism of Ibn `Ataillah in his Book of Wisdom: 
"أرح نفسك من التدبير... فما قام به غيرك عنك لا تقم به لنفسك" -- 
"Don't exert yourself in planning... because whatever Another has already done on your behalf, you should not do for yourself."