Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Where Has Religiosity Gone?

In my previous posts, I found evidence of the decline in anti-secularism in the Middle East, together with decline in egalitarian sentiments and continued support for capitalism -- as my previous research had shown and predicted.

Sicence vs. Religion

In the meantime, there is a question of where religiosity has gone. My hypothesis is that the religious energies of Egyptians (and similar people of the Middle East) would migrate to "other-worldly" dimensions. The first variable to check elicits level of agreement that "whenever science and religion conflict, religion is always right." Here, again, I am comparing my native Egypt to the U.S. 
The U.S. continues to exhibit an alarming tendency for respondents to put religion before science, which has caused serious problems in education and most recently in our response to the covid-19, albeit fortunately moving in the right direction. 

In Egypt, by contrast, we see a remarkable jump in "religion above science" sentiments, consistent with my hypothesis that religiosity has not declined, but has migrated to other-worldly dimensions. Fortunately, WVS also has a question about worldly vs. other-worldly dimensions of religion, so, let's examine that:

Which World?

OK. This hypothesis is not borne out in the data. Attitudes in both U.S. and Egypt are about the same, with a majority, albeit small, shifting to the view that religion is about this world, rather than life after death.

Algorithmic Religion

Another interesting WVS question asks whether the meaning of religion is found in following religious norms and rituals or doing good to other people. Here, we see a bad trend in both U.S. and Egypt, with the majority switching to viewing religion more in algorithmic terms of norms and ceremonies, and less about helping other people, but the trend is much more pronounced in Egypt... Again, this confirms the decline in egalitarian "social gospel-like" sentiments, and religious energy migrating to other-worldly aspects of religion. 
How does one reconcile this with the previous plot showing more religious focus on this world than the next? Perhaps Egyptians are increasingly using religion as an escape mechanism to accept things in this world that they cannot change (a la Niebuhr's famous serenity prayer), which is a popular use of religion at the hears of both Salafi and Sufi traditions. 

The combination can be very harmful: religiosity remaining extremely high, religion explaining this world, focusing on ritualistic mechanics (and silly stratagems like Islamic finance, etc.), and shunning science!

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."

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Egalitarianism and Anti-Secularism Decline, Redux


My native Egypt went through a very strange transformation in the first decade of the century. At the turn of the century, a clear supermajority was tolerant of greater inequality in order to provide incentives for enterprise and hardworking. The decade ended in revolt, as we know, with a huge jump in attitudes -- flipping to supermajority favoring greater equality. 

This trend was reversed during the second decade of the century, most recent data still showing a weak majority favoring more equal distribution, but attitudes in 2018 were essentially back to where they had been a decade earlier in 2008. This is quite puzzling

It is especially puzzling when we compare it to the trend in attitudes in my adopted homeland of USA, which have continued to favor greater equality even since the Financial Crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. While a majority in the U.S. favored greater inequality in 2006, the increase in pro-egalitarian sentiments has been continuing monotonically, most recently showing a majority that favors greater equality, which was not the cases during the first six years of the century.


On a different but related note, I had found that "the revolutionary moment" in Egypt and other countries of the Arab Spring occurred during a confluence of high anti-secular and egalitarian attitudes (see "Bread (Rawls) + Freedom (Sen) = Social Justice? Religion and Economics in the Egyptian Spring"). The precipitous decline in Egyptians' pro-egalitarian attitudes has been accompanied by a precipitous decline in anti-secular attitudes (is it essential for a democracy that "religious authorities interpret the law"). In 2008, a clear supermajority favored democratic anti-secularism (whatever that means), and a decade later a clear majority was against it. This is no doubt a consequence of MB's failure to govern, and the populace recognizing that they merely wanted to replace one set of oligarchs with another, but even as casually as I have followed Egyptian pop culture, it is clear that the level of formulaic and over religiosity that was present at the turn of the century has lost its allure.

Interestingly, the decline in anti-secularism is not unique to Egypt. The pattern also holds in Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, and Tunisia, albeit not as striking in those countries as it was in Egypt (and mostly the change in those latter countries occurs in the middle of response distributions, whereas the Egyptian one is across the board). All countries have switched over the past decade to a majority who do not subscribe to anti-secular views (measured by the top half of responses on religious authorities interpreting the law). Qatar is a bit of an exception, but we do not have a time series for the country, and data is not available for Saudi Arabia for this question (on the World Values Survey, which I have been mining since the onset of the Arab Spring nearly a decade ago).

Interestingly, attitudes in Jordan and Tunisia have also turned less egalitarian in recent years:
This is all consistent with my earlier work, also, which suggested that Muslim societies' preferences have been generally trending in a pro-capitalist direction, c.f. "Pro-Capitalist Trends in Muslim Attitudes: A Change-in-Change Analysis".

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."

Friday, November 24, 2017

"Religious Sciences" Are The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

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

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


For the opening verse, I chose 

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

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

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

Main Point

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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