Friday, June 05, 2015

Class and conduct

I decided finally to get out of Cairo before I left for good at the end of the month. The closest beach was at Ain El-Sokhna, so I came to spend the weekend here. As I was walking, minutes ago, by some villas overlooking the sea, I came face to face with A young gardener working on the gardens of these mostly unoccupied villas. I smiled and said good morning, but he kept his stern face and fierce gaze and didn't reply. There's no way he didn't see or hear me as we were close and looking eye to eye.

Staff in the hotel always smile back and return the greeting. For them, it is obviously a repeated game (both individually, for tips, and collectively, for repeat business). I wonder if the gardener had been working at an area where most homes are occupied. Would he have been conditioned to smile back and return the greeting? Does he do that with the owners of these resort villas when they're in town?

More importantly, are those workers who smile and return the greeting secretly resentful, and would they like to keep a stern face and fierce gaze like the gardener I've just met? When one gives a significant tip, are they genuinely happy and appreciative, or are they secretly resentful that a sum of money that one considers substantial may be insignificant to another (a tip)?

Does the same extend to those whom we help? Especially, conversely, if you help someone of a higher class unselfishly, do they resent it? About 25 years ago, my friend RS introduced me to two great economists, RR and MM. The latter two were working on a paper and wanted someone to help them solve their model numerically. I gladly helped them out, and it only took a few hours. A few months later, MM was giving a seminar at Caltech and showed me a draft paper with the authors listed as MM, RR and El-Gamal. I didn't tell him that I always follow alphabetical order, but told him what is more important: I didn't contribute a whole lot to the paper, so a "thank you" in the footnote would suffice. RR later sent me a contract to be paid as a consultant for the work that I had done on the paper. I was deeply offended at the time. I guess that I was offended that he was offended (a lowly person like me should have been delighted to get a coauthorship with him, and should have accepted it gratefully). He was obviously a great man, and I should have accepted it, just like this gardener should have smiled back and reciprocated the greeting.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Social senility?

As a second year graduate student, the late Dale Mortensen walked into class (advanced macro) as I was telling my classmates that I thought the main source of Egypt's problem was that she is saddled with too much history. He wanted to explore the comment further, and we ended up spending a good chunk of the class wondering if a vintage-capital model should be applied to institutions and culture (the term "social capital" had not yet made it into Economics; I only read Bourdieu decades later) -- older societies and cultures carry embedded older technologies that impede progress.

At a recent conference on campus, on the subject of regional development, I was asked to give a welcome note but not to discuss Economics. I said in my remarks that I am very happy not to discuss Economics, because I remembered 30-some years ago, when I was studying the subject at the same University. I tried to explain my reaction to the current economic discourse thus:
The best way to describe this experience to you is to quote Mick (Crocodile) Dundee from his namesake 1986 movie: When Sue pointed to the television in his New York City hotel room, and asked Mick if he had ever seen one before, he said that he had seen one 30 years earlier. Then, he turned on the TV, and saw the opening credits of the 1950s show “I Love Lucy.” He quickly turned off the TV and said: “Yup! That’s what I saw.” 
Of course, the fact that we’ve seen this show before doesn’t mean that we remember the ending… Indeed, we may choose not to remember. After all, how else can we enjoy laughing at jokes that we’ve already heard, crying over tragedies that we continue to live, or coming to conferences expecting insights and policy solutions?
Then, I welcomed the keynote speaker and all in attendance, wishing them a good conference, and bidding them farewell "until we meet again, years from now, asking the same questions, and rediscovering the same answers."

Gulf-style shiny malls and mad construction booms aside, the deja vu experience of seeing the same movie again (a favorite activity of mine if the movie is good, but not if it isn't :-) has pervaded my 11-month experience back in Egypt. As I get ready to leave Egypt again in one month, I wonder: Is it possible that this society, like people, has aged to the point of senility -- repeatedly asking the same questions and forgetting all lessons learned?

Naguib Mahfouz famously coined the phrase "و لكن آفة حارتنا النسيان" (the scourge of our neighborhood is amensia/forgetfulness), as the refrain in his novel Children of Our Neighborhood. This neighborhood may have been senile for centuries. Every apparent rebirth turns out to be yet another delusion.

The late upper-Egyptian poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnudi (who passed away this April) wrote a poem in 2011 (about Mubarak and his power circle) asking for the "state of the aging" to leave. What if society itself has reached old age, senility and dementia? An old joke about Mubarak was that he responded to the suggestion that he may wish to say goodbye to the people by asking: "Why, where are they going?" Exactly!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Does Anyone Want Egypt to Succeed?

I have now been in Egypt for 9.5 months, during which I have only had the opportunity to talk about the Egyptian economy once, last month, at a small workshop, attended by roughly two dozen people.

At that workshop, I made the off-hand, but quite deliberate, remark, in reference to the recent Dubai-style conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, that, fortunately, there are many who don't want Egypt to fail, headed, of course by the U.S. and GCC countries (sans Qatar, which is very confused). In the meantime, I suggested, the U.S. and GCC countries also do not want Egypt to succeed, hinting that the current trajectory is so incredibly reminiscent of elements of the Nasser era and elements of the Mubarak era that it must raise very serious concerns in these countries -- making them deliberately not want Egypt to succeed, as currently configured.

[A full fledged Mubarak regime would be very welcome by the GCC, (sans Qatar, which is quite confused), in my opinion, but not necessarily by the U.S., which has been recognizing, increasingly, that authoritarian bargains often backfire: like debt finance, authoritarian bargains eliminate high-probability low-magnitude disturbances, but amplify low-probability high-impact ones... and you know what they say is the definition of insanity ("doing the same thing, repeatedly, expecting a different outcome.") A full-fledged Nasser regime would be alarming to all, but is impossible to take place post cold war, so, any such attempt may morph into a Pakistan-like version of the bargain, which is extremely ugly and dysfunctional, but workable. I hate to admit it, but Ann Patterson, I'm guessing based on advice from Vali Nasr, may not have been completely off base when she thought that her understanding of Pakistan may be more relevant for Egypt than I had ever thought possible.]

A written question (they were all written at this workshop) came to the session chair, asking me if I thought that the Muslim Brotherhood want Egypt to succeed. The session chair hesitated, but showed me the question, and I indicated that I will be happy for him to read it, and will be happy to answer it. I proceeded first to clarify what I had said previously: I had said that the U.S. and GCC don't want Egypt, as configured currently, to fail, but also don't want it to succeed, due to worrisome similarities to previous episodes. Given how MB were ousted, they obviously don't want Egypt to succeed as currently configured, and MB-like millennialist/Islamist groups generally want success only on their own terms. So, I concluded, I guess MB would like Egypt as currently configured to fail. This was an off-hand remark that was less deliberate or carefully thought through. A better answer would simply have been that it is not clear if MB is sufficiently well organized now to have an opinion on whether they want Egypt to succeed or fail, or even if they want any measure of success under the current configuration, not to mention that their definition of success may be very different from the questioner's.

The more difficult question is whether anyone inside Egypt wants Egypt to succeed. Countries fail (and I am not citing Acemoglu and Robinson here, quite yet, but simply stating an obvious fact), when they fail at solving collective action problems. Every group wants success on their own terms -- identifying the collective good as their own, just like the president of a corporation may convince her or himself that whatever is good for them is good for the corporation, and vice versa. This is simply a human trait, that, as the saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's why we need systems of checks and balances for good governance, corporate or national (and here I may cite the institutional economics approach of Acemoglu and Robinson, as well as many earlier studies, including, most prominently, the voluminous and brilliant work of Douglas North and many others).

How we get from here to there is an even more difficult question. Why would those who possess power give it up, when they think that what they are doing is in the best interest of the corporation or nation, and doubt that others, with whom they may or should share that power, would have the intelligence or ability to do what's in the entity's best interest? Indeed, the Qur'an warns us all:
 وإذا قيل لهم لا تفسدوا في الأرض قالوا إنما نحن مصلحون * ألا إنهم هم المفسدون ولكن لا يشعرون 
[And when told: "Do not cause corruption on earth," they say, "but, we are reformers." Nay, they are the very corruptors, although they do not feel it; The Cow: 11, 12].
It is too facile to use this verse against others, even when done courageously in confrontation with those who claim to be reformers, but we believe otherwise. It is much more difficult to be able to intuit our own limitations, and to trust the judgment of others sufficiently to have a greater measure of actual success.

How can any one (individual or group) of us know if we are the ones driving our institutions or nations to success or failure? An aphorism that my late father used often to say is that "when they distributed wealth, nobody found theirs sufficient; but when they distributed brains, everyone found theirs more than sufficient." The same applies to integrity, etc. I don't believe that anyone looks at her or himself in the mirror and says: "I am going to do some bad today." I believe that they all think: "I am going to do as much good as I can today, even if the poor souls that I am trying to help misunderstand me." [Remember Rousseau's oxymoron that man "must be forced to be free."]

So, I ask myself again: Do any of us want Egypt (or our corporations) truly to succeed? At a superficial level, we will all say yes, even though we may have opposing views on what success looks like and how it may be attained. I am not sure that I necessarily buy the line that the dentist turned novelist Alaa El-Aswani used to write at the end of his columns: "Democracy is the solution," or the more elaborate institutional solutions that institutional economists have written and documented empirically -- simply because some of the achievements that they see as success, mostly in the industrialized West, may be seen by others as less than successful, and many side effects that we all agree are failures may not be as salient in our minds when we are trying to sell a particular method. Sometimes, we may be trying to delude ourselves that there is a method that will be the magic silver bullet to kill all our problems, whether that mythical solution is a political process (like the mirage of democracy, which I have never found real in any country), a religious doctrine (claiming access to supernatural Divine knowledge), a mythical leader (that the Arabs call "the indispensable man," الرجل الضرورة), or any other. Gandhi famously gave the witty reply to the question of how he found "Western Civilization." "It would be a good idea," he said. But hasn't "Eastern Civilization," ancient or contemporary, also been horrific in many ways? Has there ever been civilization in the sense that Gandhi's answer suggested?

This is all to say that answering the question whether any particular individual or group wants the nation state Egypt, or any other entity, to succeed is ill posed. Perhaps like the U.S. and the GCC (sans Qatar, which doesn't know what it wants), we all don't want Egypt to fail, but also don't want it to succeed, necessarily, in the way that many others may think that it can, or want it to.

Perhaps that's the problem. We know what failure is much more uniformly, so we don't want our institutions and countries, or others', unless they are sworn enemies, to fail. However, we don't agree, and often do not know, what success is, so we end up not wanting success, either.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sobriety and Power: A Paradox

In my book on Islamic finance, I have highlighted the similarity [identified by classical scholars] between the three stages of prohibition of wine (khamr) and gambling (maysir), on the one hand, and trading in credit (riba), on the other. These are all forms of addiction, I argued, that lead to dynamic inconsistency: resolving to act in one way but proceeding to act in another, less favorable, way. The first two were forbidden completely, I argued, because they are not necessary for human life, whereas the last was regulated heavily through scripture and jurisprudence, because credit is necessary for human economies, but quite dangerous when left unchecked, leading to crisis after crisis. [Contemporary jurisprudence has failed to modernize the regulatory substance of the Law, but that is another issue on which I've written often here.]

The most addictive drug, it seems, is power. I have confessed to multiple colleagues and bosses that I have never truly understood what attracts people to power. The Nietzschean "will to power" never seemed to be a convincing normative (i.e. ethical) analysis of the human condition (although it may very well be a good positive, i.e. empirical, one). After all, why would anyone have ambition or strive to gain or hold power unless they want to use it for some other good? If anyone truly craved power for its own sake, wouldn't they see how illusory and fleeting it is? Even if they started out trying to do good only to rationalize their craving for power, I reasoned, wouldn't they ultimately recognize that only the good they do for others is lasting, while the power itself is temporary and illusory?

This would be a corollary of the Hadith on property or wealth:
لَيْسَ لَكَ مِنْ مَالِكَ إِلا مَا أَكَلْتَ فَأَفْنَيْتَ أَوْ لَبِسْتَ فَأَبْلَيْتَ
[O, son of Adam, your property is merely what you annihilate in consumption or wear out in clothing.]

The survival, usefulness, and reality of wealth and power can only be measured in terms of those whom we help. But both wealth and power are dangerously addictive substances: They consume their holders, even as they nourish others. This is clearly the main metaphor meant by the effect of the ring in Lord of the Rings, which drives its holder insane. Only the humble Frodo could be trusted with it, and even he was weakened dangerously by its temptations.

The Sufis have a famous saying: حب الظهور يكسر الظهور
There are many puns in this saying. Its most apparent meaning is that "love of fame is ruinous." Some have also interpreted the last part "breaks backs" to mean bowing down; meaning that love of appearance requires inappropriate compromise and subservience. Perhaps, it was for this reason that Lao Tzu advised (and I paraphrase): "When the work is being done, [the repentant man must] retreat into obscurity." This is also what Ibn `Ata'illah said in his 11th aphorism:
ادفن وجودك في أرض الخمول فما نبت مما لم يدفن لا يتم نتاجه
[Bury your existence in the soil of obscurity; for any seed that is not buried will never grow completely into a useful plant.]

The sad paradox is this: Isn't it still selfish, then, to withdraw into obscurity (to protect oneself)? Can we be drunk with sobriety? Is renunciation of power a false claim of self control, which is another form of fleeting and illusory power?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The folly of chasing childhood dreams

It has been many months since my last blog post. This is, in part, a consequence of taking a job in my native Cairo, which has consumed most of my time and energy.

This morning, which is a religious holiday in Egypt, as I browsed the news, I noticed this article about the never ending love of cinema icon Omar El-Sherif for his former wife and first love, the other cinema icon Faten Hamama, who passed away a couple of days ago. The narrator commented on how he had thought that rumors of continuing adolescent-like love between the two never having died, despite the fact that they hadn't spoken to one another for over 20 years, not to mention remarriage, were just romantic rumors, until he saw the expression on the now-octogenarian's face when he heard the voice on the other end of the line.

Childhood dreams are difficult to die, and such has been my love-hate relationship with Economics. I took my two introductory Econ classes at my alma mater, where I work currently, and fell in love with the subject. We seemed to be asking all the right questions, and answers were promised in more advanced courses. I left my infatuation with mathematics for this new love, only to discover, once and again, that she's a devious temptress. Promised answers were never delivered. I left the field twice, only to switch back after yet another course or book suggested that the answers are just within reach.

When I went to the U.S., originally to study Statistics, I thought that I had left Economics altogether, and for good. However, when I saw that Ken Arrow was teaching a course on information, and I had an elective to spare, I couldn't resist. The course didn't provide any answers, but promised yet another approach that may yield them. So, I applied to switch back to Economics. Stanford didn't give me a fellowship and Northwestern gave me a full one, and was well known for the prowess of its faculty in game theory, the branch of economics that seemed in the mid-1980s to yield answers that more traditional methods had failed to. So, I went to study game theory, but halfway through the first class (taught by a game theorist who later won the Nobel Prize), it became obvious that they had no answers, either. We were simply in the business of pretending to search for answers, when all we really sought were fame, money, and, above all, recognition for being clever. By then, I had sufficient knowledge of math and statistics to write a dissertation quickly and get out of the business of being a professional student, and the rest is a forgettable, mediocre, academic career.

But that childhood dream continues stubbornly to feed adulthood delusions. When I first arrived at Stanford, 30 years and a few months ago, I had to go through an English proficiency exam, which included timed writing. I wrote my essay on why I had chosen, and then why I had left, Economics. I had recognized form an early age that the world's problems were problems of distribution, not of production (reading Amartya Sen at an early age had this effect on one). Therefore, I left my brothers' charted track in engineering, and pursued Economics, only to find out that it promised answers that it could never deliver. It was like Bertrand Russell's caricature of Oxford Philosophy, enamored with posing the right question, absurdly to the point of disinterest in providing useful answers.

I fell for it, repeatedly. As a student and as an academic economist, I was fooled, again and again, into thinking that getting interested in the question that one has the tools to answer was the same thing as answering the question in which one was interested. Two years ago, I shocked even myself by telling a colleague that "publishing papers is for fools." He was also shocked, but later told me that his wife, also a colleague, explained to him that I meant that the purpose of academic research should be to change the world for the better, and that publishing papers for the sake of publishing papers, getting promotions and better offers, and the like, was a fool's errand. At a conference later the same year, Larry Iannaccone made a similar comment after my presentation at a conference that they hosted at Chapman University. He said that I seemed to want to change the world. I retorted that I know that this is really stupid, but it is easier to work under such delusions. He said that most academics whom he knew just wanted to publish another paper, so this was not so bad.

Upon reflection, I think that the most successful academics seem to be the ones so fully immersed in the delusion of working to make the world a better place that they succeed in publishing more and becoming richer and more famous. Self consciousness is inversely related to the ability to do academic or practical work. Some self conscious people become bitter, others search for paradigm shifts, and others still reconcile themselves to failure (with an occasional congratulatory pat on one's back, like this paragraph, to suggest that one has not failed due to lack of ability or work ethic, but due to thoughtfulness; isn't that a nice way to pick oneself up with a later-than-normal cup of tea while blogging in the morning).

Now, here I am, with no peace of mind or time to spend on writing papers, with a primary objective to publish or otherwise, let alone for careful, even if delusional, thought about important problems and the mirages of potential solutions. All that I can hope to accomplish are tiny perceived institutional reforms and realignments of incentive structures at my alma mater, knowing fully well that partial reforms may make things worse, and having no choice but to try my best in this, at best, Sisyphean task (at least for Sisyphus, there was a lower bound below which the rock could not roll).

Why did I come here? For a last chance to spend some quality time with my first love. Was it better to cherish the memory of that childhood love from afar? Probably. Was it worse than writing pretentious papers to appease one's own and others' egos and pretend to answer important questions? Probably not. Is it all in vain, and is there nothing new under the sun? Most certainly.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Exploitative Profit Sharing: On the incoherence of all contract-based approaches to "Islamic finance"

I am writing a paper for a conference, and after my usual criticism of the modus operandi of Islamic finance (using degrees of separation such as trading partners and assets to separate lender from borrower to disguise interest on debt), which is shared by many, I wanted to make sure also to criticize the misplaced drive for finding an "Islamic finance" in other contract forms. Toward that end, I wrote the following example:

Some supporters of “Islamic finance” have long suggested that profit sharing (in silent partnership, or mudaraba) or profit-and-loss sharing (in full partnership, or musharaka) is the ideal Islamic alternative to riba. However, the reason for the prohibition, which Ibn Rushd imputed to be the potential for extreme injustice, can be just as present there. 
Consider, for example, a silent partnership whereby a capitalist approaches a worker with no capital. Instead of hiring the worker at the market wage, let’s say it is $100 per day, he tells the worker that he wants to engage him as a mudarib (entrepreneur), while he himself will serve as rabb al-mal (capitalist). Let’s say that the capital invested for one day is $1,000 and it is expected to produce a profit of $200 plus or minus $10, depending on market conditions. The mudarib will do the same work for which he could have earned a guaranteed $100 market wage, but the capitalist insisted on “risk sharing.” That may be argued to be somewhat fair if he is offered a 50% share of the profit, in which case, he would earn $100 plus or minus $5. 
Putting aside the relative risk tolerances of the capitalist and the worker/entrepreneur for the moment, which presents problems of its own, there is nothing in the Islamic rules of mudaraba that prevents the capitalist from offering the worker a 25% share of profits, which is grossly unfair relative to his market wage. If the worker has no access to other work, severe exploitation is thus allowed by this ostensibly “Islamic” partnership model, whereby the worker is forced to earn half his market wage on average, with unwanted risk to boot! That is the very same extreme injustice (ghubn fahish) for which riba is but one vehicle.
(Note: This is not an entirely novel idea: many classical jurists had classified mudaraba as ijara bi-l-gharar; hire with (forbidden if excessive) uncertain wage. My example suggests that it may also include an element of riba, in the sense that the profit share is not commensurate with the work done, fairness being determined by the market wage, as many classical jurists would also have determined.)

The message is clear: to call a transaction "Islamic," it must be fair in some clear sense. The paper will include a section on a "unified theory of riba and gharar" to which I have hinted in earlier writings, including on this blog.

My point has been, and continues to be, that there is no amount of juristic (fiqhi) analysis of contract forms that will help you determine whether or not there is injustice in the exchange, and that is the crux of the matter for calling something "Islamic," because the first requirement is Justice (عدل):



(Al-Nahl 16:90 [Asad translation]; 
Behold: God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards one's fellow men,
and he forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as all envy,
and He exhorts you repeatedly so that you might bear all this in mind.)

I love, in particular, how Muhammad Asad translated al-munkar (المنكر) as "all that runs counter to reason." I often translate it as "blameworthy activity." But, of course, these are one and the same, and explains my attitude towards so-called "Islamic finance," it runs counter to reason, and is, therefore, blameworthy!

Friday, January 17, 2014

What it means to be a "Muslim": Two Aborted "Revivals"

This is the draft of my khutba for this afternoon at the ISGH Main Center.

After the liturgical opening:

Many of us struggle with what it means to be a "Muslim" in this day and age. This is hardly a new problem, and understanding its source and history of aborted revivals can be of great aid in trying to find a successful recipe that combines the proper measures of rationalist materialism on the one hand and spiritualism on the other. Too much of one or the other does not lead to complete Islam, and emphasizing one in one sphere of life and the other in another leads to social and religious lobotomies and unsatisfactory, incoherent, and unsuccessful individual and collective lifes.

Last month, I gave a khutba here on the story of Hay ibn Yaqdhan, as told by Ibn Tufayl. The tragic symbolism of this story should not be lost on us: Even in the twelfth century, Ibn Tufayl told us, the best that alert (translation of Hay) and authentic (translation of Asal) Muslims can do is to keep their logic and devotion separate from the masses, who simply want to follow a formulaic religion devoid of logical or spiritual meaning (symbolized by Salaman). The separation is symbolized by living on separate islands.

The context in which Ibn Tufayl was writing is very important. Toward the end of the fifth century after Hijra (around 1106 CE), Al-Ghazali published his magnum opus, Ihya' `Ulum Al-Din (the Revival of Religious Sciences), which waged a fierce attack against the fuqaha (jurists) as well as the mutakallimun and falasifah (theologians and philosophers) of his time. The first have reduced religion to recipes of what to do and not to do devoid of all spiritual meaning, and the latter regurgitated Greek disputations and philosophy without tying them to spiritual and social benefit. The true religious sciences of his time were thus dead, he argued, and needed revival.

Not surprisingly, scholars both in the East (especially Nishapur) and West (especially Cordoba) were very uneasy about this Revival attempt. They thought that they were guardians of religion and taught people what was in their best worldly and religious interests. 

In Cordoba, in particular, rationalists were disturbed by some Sufi sects using Al-Ghazali's book as proof that their method of abandoning the world and seeking direct Divine knowledge was correct. The Chief Judge, Ibn Hamdin, ridiculed those who think that they can sit in isolation (khulwa) and then hear the Divine voice (referring to the Qur'anic chapters, "ya 'ayyuha al-muddathir" and "ya 'ayyuha al-muzzamil"). 

Critiques of the 'Ihya' by those closely related to the ruling Almoravid dynasty made the book a symbol of political resistance to this rule. This was magnified when the Almoravids reacted by burning all copies of the book in 1109, and then again in 1143, when it was read in public as a sign of protest.

This allowed Ibn Tumart, the leader of the Almohads to capitalize on the ensuing rebellion in 1144 and to take over power, claiming that he was defending Al-Ghazali.

What is important is this: Al-Ghazali was not anti-rational, he merely pointed out that excessive rationalism without spiritual development leads to materialistic deviation from true Islam. Indeed, this the component that the West, fascinated by Hay Ibn Yaqdhan, has developed, starting with John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and ending with Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers of America. (I recommend reading the two books Reading Hay Ibn Yaqdhan, and Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an).

Sensing an excessive tilt to metaphysical spiritualism and distance from rationalism and necessary materialism, Ibn Rushd wrote to correct and/or complete the revival started by Al-Ghazali. He lived to see his own works burned in Cordoba in 1195. Both Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd died with broken hearts, and the Muslim world fell into its dark ages.

At the end of the nineteenth century, another revival movement was attempted. My hero in this regard is the late Imam Muhammad `Abduh, in part because I grew up hearing his praises from my late father, whose late father was a student of `Abduh as he studied to be a Qadi Shar`i (back when Egypt had separate religious courts, which were abolished in the mid twentieth century). It is sad that Muhammad `Abduh also died broken hearted, as the rising tide that eventually gave us the heresies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamat-I-Islami rejected his formula for reviving religious sciences.

In between his periods of exile (with his teacher Jamal al-Din) and eventual rejection, however, there was a golden period during which he taught and served as the first Grand Mufti of Egypt. I would like to close by giving three examples of his fatawa that are relevant to our situation in Houston today, all issued in 1904, in part because the counter-revival that occurred during the 20th century was mostly based on poisonous and un-Islamic identity politics:

The first fatwa (#371, vol. 3, Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta, 9 Ramadan, 1322 AH) is in response to a question by a Transylvanian man named Hajj Mustafa. He asked three questions about his situation there: (1) were Muslims allowed to dress like the majority of people around them, (2) were they allowed to eat the meat of the majority in Transylvania, knowing that cows were impacted on the head before being slaughtered and sheep were slaughtered without invoking Allah's name, and (3) was it allowed for Shafi`is to pray behind Hanafis who did not recite the basmalah aloud in the beginning of Al-Fatiha.

The answers to (1) and (3) are as you would expect, and as most people do in Houston. On eating meat, he cited the verse
اليوم أحل لكم الطيبات، و طعام الذين أوتوا الكتاب حل لكم 
(good foods have today become permissible for you, and the 
food of the people of the book is permissible for you, المائدة: ٥)
He cited the opinion of the great Maliki scholar Abu Bakr ibn Al-Arabi, who opined that whatever people of the book, including their clergy and laity, eat is thus permissible for Muslims. He debunked the argument by those who argued that Christians claimed the divinity of Jesus (p), saying that this had been the case at the time of the Prophet (p), and therefore, the verse applies without exception to all the foods that are allowed to the people of the book.

The second fatwa (published by Rashid Rida in Al-Manar, #3, March 1927) related to the issue of polygamy. Rida decided to republish the fatwa because there was then a debate within Egyptian circles whether to make polygamy illegal without special dispensation from a judge. 

`Abduh cited the verses that permitted and restricted polygamy as follows. Permissibility is given in the verse:
و إن خفتم أن لا تقسطوا في اليتامى فانكحوا ما طاب لكم من النساء مثنى و ثلاث و رباع، فإن خفتم ألا تعدلوا فواحدة أو ما ملكت أيمانكم
(then if you fear that you will not be fair to orphans, marry other women, up to four,
but if you fear that you will not be able to exercise justice, then have only one wife 
or female slaves, النساء: ٣)
So, he argued, the verse is very clear on conditional permissibility, where the condition is justice, which a later verse in the same chapter says is impossible:
و لن تستطيعوا أن تعدلوا بين النساء و لو حرصتم
(and you will not be able to exercise justice between women, even if you try your best, النساء: ١٢٩)
Thus, he argued that the habit of polygamy was an abuse by greedy Muslim men, which has caused many problems because of jealousy, broken hearts, and contestation between half-siblings. Therefore, he concluded that it was not against Islamic law for the state to ban polygamy except in extreme cases allowed by a judge (e.g. if the first wife is brain dead or otherwise incapacitated, but even in cases where the first wife merely cannot conceive, he argued elsewhere that it would be cruel to her and would break her heart for him to marry another, although he seemed to allow it in that case).

The third and final fatwa that I would like to mention was issued in response to a question from an Indian who asked if it was acceptable to cooperate with non-Muslims on good works such as establishing orphanages and the like. The question asked about the opinions of all scholars, so `Abduh first solicited answers from scholars of all schools in Al-Azhar and then issued his fatwa in Muharram 1322 A.H.

`Abduh first referred the questioner to the numerous verses urging Muslims to do good and to cooperate on it. Then, he addressed the forbidden taking of non-Muslims as protectors 
لا يتخذ المؤمنون الكافرين أولياء من دون المؤمنين و من يفعل ذلك فليس من الله في شيء
(the believers should not take the unbelievers as protectors instead of 
other believers, and whoever does that  would distance himself from Allah, آل عمران: ٢٨)
was restricted historically to the incident for which it was revealed. (I have covered this issue in greater detail in a previous khutba, which is posted here). 

Then, `Abduh gave a long list of examples that support collaboration with non-Muslims. This includes the Prophet's (p) collaboration with the Jews of Banu Qaynuqa`, and with other Jews in Khaybar, and with the polytheist Safwan ibn Umaya on the day of Hunayn. Moreover, Shafi`i scholars have allowed giving gifts and accepting gifts from non-Muslims

He also cited, among many opinions, that of the Caliph `Umar ibn `Abdul-`Aziz, who opined that it is permissible to begin with greetings of peace to non-Muslims, citing the verse
فاصفح عنهم و قل سلام
(so forgive them, and say: Peace, الزخرف: ٨٩)
He cited the Hadith narrated by Bukhari and Muslim:
المؤمن إلف مألوف، و لا خير في من لا يألف و لا يؤلف
(The believer likes people and is likable, and there is no good in 
one who does  not befriend or get befriended)
On collaboration with others, he cited the Hadith, also narrated by Bukhari and Muslim:
إن الله ليؤيد هذا الدين بالرجل الفاجر
(Verily, Allah supports this religion [even] with transgressing sinners)

Is it not a shame that we have regressed, again, to groups who go to one extreme or the other, in either case missing the essence of religion for the betterment of individuals and societies? Do we have hope for yet another attempt at revival, which will hopefully be more successful than its predecessors? In the meantime, the same identity politics that has aborted this most recent revival attempt has given us the costly embarrassment of so-called "Islamic finance" and the like, without providing any value to Muslims or the rest of humanity!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Islam, Modernity, and Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan -- Were Hayy and Asal the Villains?

This is a re-edited version of the posting a few days ago; it is now my draft for the khutbah (sermon) scheduled at ISGH Main Center for Friday, December 27.
Note:
The focal point is the story of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, as told by Ibn Tufail. An old translation is available here. The Arabic original and explanation by the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Abdel-Halim Mahmoud is available here.
I wish to retell the ancient tale of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, Asal, and Salaman, authored by the great Andalusian sage Ibn Tufayl in the "Islamic golden age" of the twelfth century.

The story takes place in two equatorial islands near India, one populated by followers of the true religion, and the other populated by many plants and animals, as well as one human: Hayy.

There are two versions of the story regarding how Hayy got there: The first is that his mother feared for his life and put him in an arc that took him to the island. The second is that the soil of that island was perfectly fermented over millennia, and the sunlight, heat, and water abundance spontaneously gave rise to Hayy. As we shall see, how we begin this story, or any other, is rather irrelevant.

فأقم وجهك للدين حنيفا فطرة اللَّـه التي فطر الناس عليها

في الصحيحين: ما من مولود إلا يولد على الفطرة، فأبواه يهودانه وينصرانه ويمجسانه

A doe cared for Hayy, suckled him her milk as an infant, and then taught him how to eat fruit. As he grew stronger, he mimicked the animals, using fur, feathers, and leather for cover, sticks for weapons (to imitate horns), and ultimately domesticated some animals and used them to hunt, getting to control his environment as he controlled fire, and, ultimately, taking care of the aging doe as she had taken care of him as an infant.

إما يبلغن عندك الكبر أحدهما أو كلاهما فلا تقل لهما أف و لا تنهرهما و قل لهما قولا كريما و اخفض لهما جناح الذل من الرحمة و قل رب ارحمهما كما ربياني صغيرا

When the doe died, Hayy wanted to heal her by removing whatever internal obstruction may be keeping her from moving. So, he dissected her and dissected some live animals for comparison. His conclusion was that there is an unobservable life force in every animal, which acts differently in different organs (as seeing for the eye, hearing for the ear, and so on). Once a part of the body is severed, it can no longer function because it loses access to that life force. Once the life force leaves the entire body, it becomes useless. The doe's body began to rot, and Hayy learned from the example of a crow that killed its brother and buried it that he should also bury the doe's (now useless) body.

But Hayy was still attached to the life force of his mother doe, which had moved her to care for him. He recognized that this life force was not possible to observe with his five senses, but that his intellect, which was part of his own life force, also hidden to the senses, allowed him to prove its existence.

Because his life force was still connected to his mother doe's life force, he reasoned, the life force must be nonperishable, unlike physical bodies that rot and get reabsorbed into the earth. The life force also seemed to act differently for inanimate objects (only determining their dimensions and attributes: steam rises, rocks fall, and so on), plants (allowing them, in addition, to drink and grow), and animals (allowing them, beyond that, to move, fight, care for other animals, and so on).

But only in himself did he find that the life force also wanted to know itself. When properly exercised, it was the student, the teacher, and the knowledge (العالم و العلم و المتعلم), all in one.

في الصحيحين: خلق الله آدم على صورته

He looked to the heavens, and saw how heavenly objects were spheres, rotating around their axes and/or around other spheres in a very orderly fashion. He concluded that the entire universe was like one massive body, with one life force that permeated it all, just as there is one life force within the body, which acts variously as seeing, hearing, motion, intellect, and so on, depending on the organ.

 إن الله يمسك السموات و الأرض أن تزولا و لئن زالتا إن أمسكهما من أحد من بعده إنه كان حليما غفورا

So, by the time he turned thirty, he had concluded that the physical universe was finite, made of many finite objects, and driven by one life force. For quite some time, he was obsessed with the question of whether this universe had existed for all eternity, or whether it appeared all of a sudden. But then, he discovered by his intellect that it made no material difference for him one way or the other: If the universe had existed for an eternity, then even though it is physically finite, the life force must be infinite; and if the universe had emerged out of nothing, then the life force that created it thus must be infinite. Even if the universe was co-eternal, he thought, the life force was essentially prior to the universe even if not temporally prior, just as his hand could move an object without any time delay, but the hand, and his will, was essentially prior to the movement of the object.

إنما أمره إذا أراد شيئا أن يقول له كن فيكون

No matter how and when the universe or he himself started, he concluded, the only important conclusion is that the life force within him, and that will outlive his body, must be connected to the infinite, and infinitely perfect, Essentially Existent (الموجود واجب الوجود). The Essentially Existent must be more perfect than perfection. It must be ultimate mercy, because it made the doe merciful, and it must be most powerful, because all power emanated form it, and all knowing, because all knowledge emanates from its manifestation as intellect.

Separation from that infinite Essentially Existent must be the ultimate loss, he thought to himself. Just like a person who had lost his sight, and aches to see again, his life force ached to be reconnected with the Infinite life force. Such connection must be the ultimate bliss, just as separation must be the ultimate loss.
 كلا إنهم عن ربهم يومئذ لمحجوبون

So, he resolved to live his life in such a way that he is constantly aware of the Infinite life force. This way, at the moment his own life force leaves his body, it will be assured to stay in the state of eternal bliss.

Toward that end, he decided to imitate animals only to the extent necessary, eating only when hungry, killing only when needed. He imitated the planets as best as he could by washing regularly to stay pure, and made some rituals for himself, circumambulating various objects, dividing things in sevens (for the seven visible planets), and the like.

But all this he did to aid in his ultimate objective, which is to be ever conscious of nothing but the Infinite life force. This meant adopting the positive characteristics of the Essentially Existent, by being merciful and helpful to plants and animals, as he saw the Maker's work in every object.

He began to see beyond the beauty of an object, in wonderment over its Maker. Then, he began to notice his own spirit being aware of its Maker. Ultimately, with a lot of work, his own identity began to disappear -- if only for a short time -- and he could only see the Infinite. It was during these episodes, of increasing frequency and duration, that he witnessed what no eye could see, no ear could hear, nor any heart could imagine.


و كان ما كان مما لست أذكره ... فظن خيرا و لا تسأل عن الخبر

Note: Of course, as Suhrawardi pointed out in his follow-up "Western Exile" (الغربة الغربية), what Hayy saw was still infinitely many layers removed from the Essentially Existent, the source of all light. Having pierced through one veil gets you no nearer to the One, for infinity less one is still infinity.

Hayy almost went astray when he thought that his own essence was one and the same as the Essentially Existent, because there was nothing but Him when he paid enough attention. By the mercy of the Infinite, however, he was cured from this affliction when he recognized that numerosity and its manifestations as unity or multiplicity were only attributes of finite physical objects. In the realm of the Spirit, these concepts were absent, just as the concept of time was absent at the junction between the realms of Spirit and substance. It was the mercy of the Essentially Existent that He can make Himself accessible and intimately near, without losing His eminence and inapproachability. Distance, like time and number, ceased to exist in His presence.

ثم دنا فتدلى فكان قاب قوسين أو أدنى ... ما زاغ البصر و ما طغى

So there was Hayy, at the age of fifty, finding himself increasingly in this state of ultimate bliss, interacting with the world only to the extent that his body needed, and impatient to return to that state of gazing upon the Infinite. 

It was then that Asal arrived at his island. Asal and his friend Salaman were two pious men on the other island, populated by followers of the true religion. But Asal wanted to understand the meaning of the religion, and favored in its tradition the praise for solitude and study, whereas Salaman was focused on literal application of the tradition and favored in the tradition its praise of being constantly connected to the community. Ultimately, Salaman gained the upper hand on the island, whereas Asal had felt that he should leave for a desert island to worship Allah in the way that he believed He should be worshipped.

Asal's raft took him to the island wherein Hayy had grown up. The two men were impressed by each others' characters and worship. Asal eventually taught Hayy his language, and then introduced him to his religion. Hayy testified to the truth of Asal's religion, and adopted all of its principles, acts of worship, praying and fasting, as Asal had taught him. In the meantime, Hayy told Asal his story and the conclusions of his lengthy analysis and experience. This lifted the veil from Asal's intellect, and he could suddenly understand the symbolism and usefulness of all that his religion had commanded, both universally and within appropriate time and space, and he could see with ease every scholarly solution that had eluded him, even the hardest problems of jurisprudence.

Hayy then implored Asal that they should go to Salaman's island, and explain these mysteries to the people, so that they will understand their religion, and avoid following literalists without understanding. Asal was skeptical, but agreed to go along on condition that Hayy tries first to teach the scholars on Salaman's island: If he cannot teach them, Asal argued, then Hayy should give up on the dream of teaching the rest. They set sail, and by the grace of Allah ended up on Salaman's island.

Asal was a recognized scholar, and so when he introduced Hayy to other scholars on the island, they first accepted him with open arms (for some reason that Hayy could never understand, they were extremely delighted to find a convert to their religion, and thought that he must be better than them). Hayy began by explaining to them some of the relatively simple juristic issues that they had not understood, and their fascination with him increased. But then, when Hayy began explaining the symbolism of their acts of worship, and describing some of the truths to which their teachings had only hinted, they began to withdraw, politely at first, and then with increasing hostility.

It was then that Hayy understood why the traditions of the true religion had stopped at the point of symbols, and why many of its teachers stopped at the point of laws to regulate behavior. If this was the level of intellectual laziness of the scholars, he could only imagine what the commoners must be like. So, Hayy and Asal apologized to the scholars on Salaman's island. They asked their forgiveness for the confusion that they had caused, which they said was all caused by their own ignorance, and professed that the tradition as taught by Salaman's scholars was perfect as it is, and that they should never teach anything other than what they have always taught. Hayy and Asal then got back on their raft, and by the grace of Allah ended up back on their desert island, where they lived the rest of their lives worshipping Allah as he ought to be worshipped.

---
This is how the story of Hayy, Asal, and Salaman was told by Ibn Tufayl, nearly nine hundred years ago. Most readers of Ibn Tufayl seemed to think that this was realistically the happiest ending possible, and thus to accept it with a heavy heart.

However, the story had only just begun. Its translation became a best seller in Europe during the late seventeenth century, providing fuel for European enlightenment. For example, Hayy was an inspiration for Rousseau's initial position, from which a social contract was possible to construct, and the individual rationalism and self reliance of Hayy has inspired open-minded scientific inquiry and progress.

In the meantime, the withdrawal of Hayy and Asal meant that the people on Salaman's island continued to practice and understand religion in the same old ways, deprived of much needed reason and understanding. Ibn Rushd, the protege of Ibn Tufayl whom he had introduced to the court of Sultan Abu Ya`qub Yusuf, and encouraged to write commentaries on Aristotle that fueled Western enlightenment, saw his books burned by Salaman's men, as darkness descended upon the Muslim world.

علموا أولادكم غير ما علمتم، فإنهم خلقوا لزمان غير زمانكم

Whom are we to blame: The storyteller who became part of the story by endorsing the elitism of philosophers and scholars, or his characters who thought only of their own short term safety and comfort and gave up on educating the people on Salaman's island?

To teach them effectively, Hayy and Asal would have had to open themselves possibly to learning a thing or two also from Salaman's scholars, and the modern world of capitalism and scientism might not have emerged in its current brutal and soulless form.

Centuries have passed, and the need for Hayy and Asal is still here. Their understanding of science, religion, and society was recycled to people on Salaman's island, who developed virtual lobotomies: in some spheres following the methods of today's heirs to Hayy and Asal, but in others following the literalism of Salaman's scholars. The gap between their traditional understanding of religion, frozen in time in the name of authenticity, and the fast expanding knowledge of the heirs of Hayy and Asal, continues to grow.

Note: At the individual level, we each have our own internal elements of Hayy (pure reason), Asal (speculative but religiously grounded reason), and Salaman (fearful, almost superstitious, adherence to tradition) within ourselves. Our virtual lobotomy stems from variously allowing different components to have primacy in different spheres of our lives.

The Salaman people's thoughts are muddled and incoherent, as they profess what they cannot believe and believe what they cannot defend rationally, and increasingly split literalist legal hairs to reconcile a modern life with an outdated, and therefore false, understanding of their religion. Without understanding it, they are incapable of extracting its value for the contemporary world, exponentiating the loss to themselves and all of mankind.

Did Ibn Tufayl intend to lionize Hayy and Asal as advanced creatures who rightly did not wish to confuse the people on Salaman's island, as many latter day elitists may like to think, or was he indicting himself and people like him for being so cowardly and complacent? Was it not the job of Hayy and Asal to find some way first to teach Salaman's scholars and then to teach the public, so that they can understand their religion correctly?

 Is it not still our job today to find a way to finish that job, at the very least to help today's Muslims to be unitary individuals, who feel comfortable in their contemporary skin and find that all knowledge, including cosmology, evolutionary biology, economics, philosophy, and all other areas to be helpful in understanding their religion, and to replace their superstitious fears with proper fear of Allah, the Eternal, Infinite, Essentially Existent?

ُإنما يخشى اللهَ من عباده العلماء

Then, and only then, can we claim rightfully to carry a useful message that we understand and can explain, rather than continue to be the donkeys carrying scriptures that we have become.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hypocrisy or synthesis? -- From Islamic Finance to Religion and Society

I have noticed in my sermons over the past few months a clear pattern. Although I hadn't thought about them in those terms when I wrote them, sermons at one mosque have been neo-Mu`tazilite in orientation, while sermons at another have been Ash`arite, and both had a dose of Sufism in the mix.

Professionally, my approach to Islamic finance, which has won me too many enemies (and, at best, very few and very quiet friends) in the industry's professional and even academic circles, has been solidly new-Mu`tazilite. By the latter I mean the approach of Muhammad `Abduh and his students, which is becoming a minority approach even in Al-Azhar, as it has fallen under traditionalist influence with gulf funding (not surprisingly, even Rashid Rida, `Abduh's main student, had deviated from the latter's approach towards a more traditionalist one).

In the arena of Islamic finance, it was easy to come to my conclusions and to stick to them against the onslaught of attacks from industry consultants ("Shari`a Scholars" in industry parlance), because even the most revered scholars in the Hanbali GCC -- Ibn Taymiya and his student Ibn Qayim -- had strongly condemned the use of legal stratagems (such as today's murabaha, tawarruq, etc. to synthesize interest based loans -- see for example this previous posting on my blog for a clearly rationalist quote).

Historically, Hanbali jurists were dismayed at classical-period Hanafis using legal stratagems to allow circumvention of Islamic law of riba -- as the latter must have believed that the intent of the law didn't apply for some transactions or in cases of need, and therefore found the hiyal (legal stratagems) that allowed it. The master of this game in recent times has been Justice Taqi Usmani, a Pakistani Hanafi jurist and son of a former Pakistani Grand-Mufti, who himself lamented the state of the industry at a panel in which I participated circa 2005, when he said that they have replaced fiqh al-mu`amalat (jurisprudence of financial transactions) with fiqh al-hiyal (jurisprudence of legal stragems).

The interesting thing, however, is that the Hanafi legal code, Majallat Al-Ahkam Al-`Adliya, imposed by the Ottoman Empire, had accepted the fundamental rule expounded by Ibn Qayim in I`lam Al-Muwaqqi`n that "What Matters in Contracts Is Their Substance, Not Their Wording and Constructions" (العبرة في العقود بالمعاني و ليست بالألفاظ و المباني). Thus, modern Hanafis and Hanbalis would have agreed on the incoherence of the financial-engineering driven form-over-substance Islamic finance. Except that, in practice, those who built the current industry have adopted an incoherent traditionalist approach, even as they paid lip service to the juristic role of substance-based analysis of contracts.

I do not regret my adoption of a rationalist approach on the issues of Islamic jurisprudence of financial transactions, even if it meant being ostracized by conference organizers for fear of upsetting their main industry-participant sponsors, because traditionalists (from the Hanbali Ibn Qayim to the Hanafi Ibn `Abidin) had themselves looked at these matters rationally. It is impossible for me to know whether modern "Islamic finance" quasi-scholarship did not reach the same opinions reached by Muhammad `Abduh and scholars in his tradition for religious or financial reasons, whether personal or social (some claim that they help Muslims who otherwise would be isolated financially; a claim that I have not seen verified empirically), or for truly religious reasons. Regardless, I have chosen not to be hypocritical, so I spoke my mind on that industry, and have no regrets about that.

Moving beyond pseudo-Islamic Finance, however, I am now very interested in issues of "Religion and Economics," especially as they pertain to my native Egypt, and, to a lesser extent, other majority-Muslim countries. Many have argued that the major problem of this part of the world is the continued failure to find a synthesis between rationalist and traditionalist approaches to modernity. Even within the economic sphere, to which I limit my attention professionally, this has meant that a revolutionary (sometimes militant, as Bruce Lawrence has shown) reaction to modernity, as represented today by the post-Washington-Consensus Washington Consensus (or WC-II; neo-libaralism with social safety nets and a focus on building proper institutions), cannot be channeled productively without reaching a synthesis that will be acceptable not only to intellectual modernists, secular and religious, which is already a daunting task, but also to traditionalists and the public at large, which carries an incoherently compartmentalized religious approach -- in large part due to deficits in education, as students overspecialize early in life into technical fields, or receive an "illiberal arts" education where freedom of thought is stifled.

As I struggle for an approach to study "Religion and Economics" for economic development in that part of the world, I have noticed my own compartmentalization of religious styles (traditionalist in some mosques, and rationalist in others; selectively choosing elements of each tradition that suit my temperament and would not be too uncomfortable for the congregants). I wonder if this compartmentalization is a sign of the same unproductive hypocrisy that has plagued my native part of the world for at least a century and a half. It is easiest for me to adopt the rationalist modernist approach professionally (which will help me to publish again more frequently in mainstream economics venues), but that is of no value to anyone but perhaps my own academic career. That defeats the purpose of having become an economist in the first place; being a mainstream engineer like my brothers would have produced a lot more value to society.

Trying to force-feed rationalist modernist economic approaches to my native Egypt, as many have tried and failed for decades, is also a waste of time, and potentially a dangerous one at that. In the meantime, the traditionalist approach is anachronistic and often irrational, and my experience with pseudo-Islamic finance tells me that even if I can cynically play the traditionalist game by its rules, my constitution will not allow me to do so convincingly. It is, of course, delusional to think that I can contribute substantially to finding that elusive synthesis between rationalist and traditionalist approaches (which has eluded well-intentioned people at least from the time of Al-Afghani and `Abduh to our day). However, in a Kantian universalizability sense, if many like-minded students work together, the task may not be impossible. Whether that is itself a form of self-delusional hypocrisy or genuine desire to conduct useful social science remains to be seen.