Friday, August 25, 2017

Hurricane Harvey

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On "Knowing Better"

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Lonely Road

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

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

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


(The remaining verses are redacted)

Monday, August 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 04, 2017

On stark contrast and the radical choice of ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 03, 2017

On Being A Simpleton by Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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