Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Foreigner Who Wants To Be A Citizen: A Fourth of July Sermon

 This is a draft of my sermon for this Friday, July 1, 2022 at ISGH Main Center.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَقُولُوا قَوْلًا سَدِيدًا (الأحزاب: 70)

[O, Community of Faith, be God conscious and aim your words carefully (Allies: 70)]

Muslim narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra (r) that the Prophet (p) said:

بدأ الإسلام غريباً و سيعود غريباً كما بدأ فطوبى للغرباء

[Islam began as a foreigner, and it will again become a foreigner as it had begun, so blessed are the foreigners.]

And Bukhari narrated on the authority of Abdullah ibn Umar (r) that the Prophet (p) held him by his shoulders and told him:

كن في الدنيا كأنك غريب أو عابر سبيل

 [Be in life like a foreigner or a wayfarer.]

We find comfort in these teachings, and accept being perpetual foreigners in this sense, both in our native and adopted countries. 

But we also want to be citizens, and the legal basis for my naturalized citizenship of the United States, and for my children's natural-born citizenship, is the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Article 1 reads:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

It was devastating late last week when the Supreme Court of the United States took away from American women a constitutional right that had been anchored fifty years ago in the same Fourteenth Amendment.

Leading legal scholars have noted that the ruling is oppressive to Muslim women, enumerating the different views on abortion in contemporary Islamic jurisprudence, while others have noted that several Muslim-majority countries allow legal abortion and many medieval Muslim jurists had allowed it in different circumstances, especially during the first trimester. 

But I would argue that as Muslim Americans, the dictates of Islamic jurisprudence on abortion are not relevant factors in defending the legal rights of others. To explain by analogy: I observe the Islamic prohibition of alcohol meticulously, but this does not mean that I would advocate for returning to early twentieth century prohibition laws (imposed by the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 and repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933). 

We are all protected by the separation of church and state. Whether it is the Taliban of Afghanistan, the Ayatollahs of Iran, or the so-called "religious scholars" of my native region, appeals to religion to take away human rights are nothing more than naked power plays -- which vary only to the degree that states allow it. 

In this regard, Al-Tabari narrated that Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) criticized the Khawarij who had insisted that only the Qur'an should settle the great dispute of his time by saying:

هذا القرآن إنما هو خط مسطور بين دفتين لا ينطق إنما يتكلم به الرجال

["This Qur'an is just a set of written words between two covers; it does not speak, but men speak with its authority."]

The same is true of the U.S. Constitution: Written words interpreted by men. No system is ever perfect, and we should strive to make progress by choosing interpretations that progressively increase human rights.

The constitutional right to abortion under Roe was anchored in the Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy (as part of liberty). In this regard, ACLU and other civil rights organizations had argued that the types of surveillance, manipulation and entrapment to which our community has been subjected in recent years were violations of our Fourteenth Amendment rights to privacy. Alas, in March of this year the Supreme Court dismissed disputation of the legality of sending undercover agents as spies who apparently  attempted to radicalize and entrap Muslims in Southern California. To be clear, our community, if anything, is excessively eager to cooperate with law enforcement, but nobody benefits when overzealous agents try actively to radicalize vulnerable people.   

The methodology that the Supreme Court used in Dobbs to overturn Roe, is so-called "originalism": The justices ask what the framers of the constitutional amendment meant at the time of writing. The basis of their ruling was that women did not have the right to abortion when the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted in 1868. This methodology (and I must say that the same applies to much of what sadly passes for "Islamic jurisprudence" today) is fundamentally ahistorical in its lack of respect for historical trajectory and modern advances in Humanities, Social Sciences and Legal Theory. 

The same legal methodology in Dobbs can be used to prevent or take away Fourteenth Amendment citizenship from naturalized citizens like me and natural-born citizens like my children. Indeed, the same Mr. John Eastman, now of the January 6th insurrection infamy, had argued before congress in 2005 that the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted within the narrow confines of its intended nineteenth-century goal of granting citizenship to emancipated slaves and their progeny. Native Americans were not granted citizenship at the time, because they were viewed as subjects of the jurisdictions of their "Indian nations," and hence not of the United States. This pseudo-historical legal jujitsu has been a mainstay argument for opponents of immigration and birthright citizenship.

We wish to defend our citizenship rights, and the best way to defend these rights is to defend the rights of others. In this regard, I close with another story attributed by Al-Tabarani and others to Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) as he predicted his own tragic murder a few years after the tragic murder of Othman ibn Affan (r):

There were three bulls in the forest -- one red, one black and one white. They were too strong together for the lion to attack any of them. One day, the lion told the black and red bulls that the white bull was visible from afar and dangerous to them. "If I eat him," he said, "you both will be safe in the forest." They let him. A week later the bull convinced the black bull that the red one is too arrogant because of his fancy color, so he let him eat the red bull. The lion came the following week and told the black bull "I'll eat you now," to which the black bull replied: "No, I was eaten on the day that the white bull was eaten."

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Religion As Antidote for Religious Nationalism

 This is the draft of my sermon scheduled at ISGH Main Center on June 3, 2022.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ (آل عمران: 200)
[O, community of faith, be patient, persevere in your patience and be steadfast; and exercise God consciousness so that you may succeed. (Family of  Amram: 200)]

0. The Global Problem of Rising Religious Nationalism

Anyone following recent election results in France and primary results in the U.S. must be concerned about the continued rise in Christian nationalism that targets Western Muslim communities like ours with special animus. This is particularly disconcerting in light of the growing tides of religious nationalism that have turned violent around the world: For example, Hindu-nationalist pogroms in majority-Muslim Indian villages, Buddhist-nationalist persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and Jewish-ultranationalist provocation and attacks on Arab populations in Israel and the Palestinian lands that it occupies.

In this sermon, I would like to make three points.

1. Religious Nationalism Cannot Be Countered by Another Religious Nationalism

I delivered a sermon at this mosque eighteen and a half years ago, denouncing Islamic-nationalist thought, which was invented in the middle of the past century by semi-educated activists who confounded the classical Muslim notion of Ummah (religious community) with the modern concept of nation (which was invented in the eighteenth century). I do not wish to rehash the same arguments that I made then. But I want to recognize that this unfortunate Islamic-nationalism was a reaction to subjugation of Muslim populations by European colonial powers. I also wish to warn against allowing it to resurface in reaction to the current wave of resurgent Christian nationalism in our backyard. Responding to Christian (or any other religious) nationalism with Islamic nationalism would only exacerbate the problem by providing further fuel and justification for anti-Muslim religious nationalism. 

Sociologists who studied the rise of religious nationalism have shown that it may arise even among groups who belong to dominant majorities but who feel that their identity and way of life is threatened by social currents. Thus, analysis has shown that Christian-nationalist sentiments in the United States are driven by the view that the country's dominant religion is in fact secular multiculturalism, which those groups find threatening. Several surveys have shown that adherents to this view have grown in numbers and conviction that Christianity is integral to Americanness, and that they view Islam in particular as an alien ideology that is incompatible with American values. Prominent former and prospective candidates for President of the United States and numerous lower offices have made statements to this effect explicitly on several occasions.

2. Religious Nationalism Cannot Be Countered by Courting Secular Ultra-Liberalism

Fortunately, many members of our community have seen the errors of Islamic nationalism of the previous century and sought to find better political responses to the rise of Christian nationalism that targets our communities in particular. They exercise the patience, perseverance and steadfastness that are enjoined in the opening verse of this sermon. This is the right approach religiously: not to respond angrily to insults. 

This is the central message of the verse:
وَمَا يُلَقَّاهَا إِلا الَّذِينَ صَبَرُوا وَمَا يُلَقَّاهَا إِلا ذُو حَظٍّ عَظِيمٍ (فصلت: 35)
[Yet none shall receive (this great reward), except the steadfast; none shall receive it, except those who are very fortunate. (Well Expounded: 35)]

In their commentaries on this verse, exegetes have cited the Prophetic Tradition narrated by Ahmad on the authority of Abu Hurayra (r) that Abu Bakr (r) was sitting with the Prophet (p) when a man insulted Abu Bakr repeatedly, while Abu Bakr (r) was silent and the Prophet (p) continued to smile in amusement. Then after the their third insult, Abu Bakr (r) answered the man, at which time the Prophet (p) left. Abu Bakr (r) followed him and said: "The man kept insulting me in your presence and I kept forgiving him and refraining from responding; but then when I answered him to defend my honor, you left, O Messenger of God." The Prophet (p) replied by saying:
[O, Abu Bakr, an angel was replying on your behalf, but once you decided to defend your own honor, the angel left and Satan came, and by God, I would not stay sitting down with Satan, Abu Bakr.]

That was from a purely religious standpoint, but of course patience, perseverance and steadfastness do not constitute an invitation to do nothing. 

Politically, what most members of our community have decided to do has been to ally themselves with the strongest political opponents of the Christian nationalists, who happen to be secular ultra-liberals. This is also a natural reaction, to align with the strongest opponents of your opponent, albeit just as counterproductive as using your own incoherent religious nationalism to counter a hostile religious nationalism. This is especially the case because the latter has adopted a "replacement theory" that suggests that Muslims were brought to this land to replace its rightful voters and workers. Thus, aligning exclusively with the mostly secular and ultra-liberal political opponents of Christian nationalism can only lead to escalation by reinforcing this narrative. Moreover, from a pragmatic point of view, coalitions of convenience with the ultra-secular liberal left are unlikely to survive for long because of the wide cultural gulf between the social preferences of rank and file Muslims and the social preferences of those allies of convenience. We have seen in recent elections how large numbers of religiously-conservative Black and Hispanic communities have not found this alliance to be viable.

3. Authentic Religion Is The Best Antidote for Religious Nationalism

Where does this leave us? Who can we court as natural allies to counter toxic religious nationalism? The answer may not be obvious at first, but it should be clear in retrospect. Our natural allies are other communities of faith: religious Christians to counter Christian-nationalism, religious Jews to counter Jewish-ultranationalism, religious Hindus to counter Hindu-nationalism, and so on. Those religious groups  have both the credibility and tools to defang their ultranationalist coreligionists by teaching their authentic religious doctrines that call for peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Toward that end, our best rhetorical tool is interfaith dialogue, and our best political tool is to form alliances with like-minded members who adhere to authentic (not nationalist) Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., regardless of their party affiliations.

Friday, April 08, 2022

Fasting as Anger and Pride Management

 This is a draft of my sermon for today.

يٰأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ ٱلصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ (البقرة ١٨٣)
[O Community of faith, fasting has been made obligatory for you as it was made obligatory for those who preceded you, so that you may attain God consciousness. (Al-Baqara: 183)]

This is the first of five verses on fasting in the second chapter of the Qur'an. The second and third verses discuss the specific days to fast (the month of Ramadan), exemptions and deferrals for the sick and traveling, etc. Then the fifth verse discusses what is permissible during the nights of Ramadan, and when the night ends.

Surprisingly, the fourth of those five verses seems to discuss something else altogether:

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ ٱلدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُواْ لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُواْ بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ (البقرة ١٨٦)

[And if my servants were to ask you about me, then I am near, answering the call of the one who calls to me; so let them answer My call and have faith in Me, so that they may attain discernment. (Al-Baqara: 186)]

Most exegetes did not question the location of this verse amidst the other four verses of fasting, even though it seems to me that the verse breaks the temporal day and night sequence to make an important point. Most exegetes merely pointed to the occasion of revelation of this verse: A bedouin asked the Prophet (p) whether our Lord is far, so that we may call to him loudly, or near so that we may whisper to him tenderly, and the verse came to answer that the Lord is near to whoever asks the question. (Of course, the Lord is both transcendent and imminent, far and near in different attributes of His divinity.)

The exegesis of Al-Fakhr Al-Razi was the only one that I could find that inquired about the location of this verse, and even he gave an unconvincing explanation that it follows the announcement that the believers should fast the full month and then glorify the Lord and be thankful to Him.

A more convincing explanation for the location of this verse -- between the detailed rules of fasting the day and what is permissible at night -- is that this "call" is integral to fasting, that the person who is truly fasting is constantly calling to her or his Lord. The word for "call" (دعا يدعو دعوة) implies both supplication and invitation. The verse implies that the Lord had already invited us to invite him in our lives, in our hearts and our minds, to transform us for the better.

Let me prove my point with a Prophetic Tradition that is agreed upon by Al-Bukhari and Muslim:

عن  أَبَي هُرَيْرَةَ  ( قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ  صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ  قَالَ اللَّهُ  كُلُّ عَمَلِ ابْنِ  آدَمَ  لَهُ إِلَّا الصِّيَامَ فَإِنَّهُ لِي وَأَنَا أَجْزِي بِهِ وَالصِّيَامُ  جُنَّةٌ  وَإِذَا كَانَ يَوْمُ صَوْمِ أَحَدِكُمْ فَلَا  يَرْفُثْ  وَلَا  يَصْخَبْ  فَإِنْ سَابَّهُ أَحَدٌ أَوْ قَاتَلَهُ فَلْيَقُلْ إِنِّي امْرُؤٌ صَائِمٌ وَالَّذِي نَفْسُ  مُحَمَّدٍ  بِيَدِهِ  لَخُلُوفُ  فَمِ الصَّائِمِ أَطْيَبُ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ مِنْ رِيحِ الْمِسْكِ لِلصَّائِمِ فَرْحَتَانِ يَفْرَحُهُمَا إِذَا أَفْطَرَ فَرِحَ وَإِذَا لَقِيَ رَبَّهُ فَرِحَ بِصَوْمِهِ  ).
[On the authority of Abu Hurrah: The Prophet (p) said: "Allah said: All of the son of Adam's work is his, except for fasting, which is mine and I reward with it. And fasting is a shield. So, when it is your day of fasting, then refrain from sexual relations and from being a loud person; and if someone were to insult you or pick a fight, then say 'I am a fasting person'. By the one who holds Muhammad's soul in his hand, the bad odor of the fasting person's mouth is more beautiful to Allah than the smell of musk. The fasting person is happy twice: once when he breaks his fast and another when he meets his Lord.]

The first part of this Tradition is a Hadith Qudsi (a statement attributed to Allah Himself), and it is very puzzling. Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, the great commentator on Al-Bukhari, wondered: Aren't all acts of worship for Allah, and doesn't He reward for all of them? Why is fasting thus separated from the rest? He gave ten lengthy explanations why this may be the case, only the first two of which appear often in exegesis and other commentaries: namely, that hypocrisy is more difficult in fasting than in other acts of worship.

But hidden in the middle of Ibn Hajar's list of ten explanations, we get a hint in the fifth and sixth explanations, which are, respectively, that fasting is the only act of worship in which the worshiper seeks to get closer to Allah by emulating His or the angels' attributes. A more direct explanation along the same lines is that the fasting person refrains from many natural and common behaviors, going against his lower instincts and desires and leaves room for Allah to work on his heart and mind, invites Allah to transform his heart and mind. This would fit perfectly with the literal meaning of the Hadith Qudsi: "All other work is his, except fasting, which is Mine."

This also fits perfectly with the ordering of the verses as well as the next two parts of the cited Prophetic Tradition. The second part instructs us to go against our anger -- even when provoked by someone who insults or picks a fight with us. All exegetes agree that the verse "And if you are provoked by Satan, then seek refuge in Allah, for He is All-hearing All-knowing" [Al-'A`raf 200] refers to anger as satanic provocation. The third part of the Tradition goes against our pride in keeping good hygiene and pleasant smell (which the Prophet was also very keen on, always brushing his teeth, wearing perfume, etc.). Pride, we must remember, is the satanic essence: "He (Satan) said I am better than him (Adam); you created me from fire and created him from clay." [Al-'A`raf 12]. Pride is the satanic essence and anger is the portal through our limbic brain that Satan controls our actions, by shutting down our advanced cortical brain. Interestingly, this is also the analysis that Aristotle gave in his ethics and porto-psychology for anger as a destructive but perversely pleasurable emotion that emanates from pride.

So, while in the act of fasting, we suppress our lower nature of pride and anger, which emanate from our limbic system, our lower nature that is inviting to Satanic provocation. Instead, we invite Allah (s) to empower our higher nature, to make our angelic and rational natures prevail, to make us better people who can transcend pride and anger. With practice, day after day in Ramadan, and year after year, we hope to make that change permanent.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Immutable Laws of Power and Goodness

1. The amount of power one can accumulate is proportional to how low one is willing to go

2. The amount of good one can do is proportional to one's capacity for self sacrifice

Friday, September 24, 2021

Our Bequest -- A Sermon

 This is a draft of my sermon planned for later today at ISGH.

يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَقُولُوا قَوْلًا سَدِيدًا يُصْلِحْ لَكُمْ أَعْمَالَكُمْ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ وَمَنْ يُطِعِ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَقَدْ فَازَ فَوْزًا عَظِيمًا
[O, people of faith, be God conscious and make your speech carefully aimed, so that your actions may be felicitous and your sins may be forgiven, and whoever obeys God and his Messenger has won a great reward. 33:70]

This same formula of God consciousness and carefully aimed speech also occurs with reference to our greatest worldly fear: our children.
وَلْيَخْشَ الَّذِينَ لَوْ تَرَكُوا مِنْ خَلْفِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّةً ضِعَافًا خَافُوا عَلَيْهِمْ فَلْيَتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَلْيَقُولُوا قَوْلًا سَدِيدًا
[And let those fear who, if they left behind them weak seed, would be afraid on their account, so let them be God conscious and make their words carefully aimed. 5:9]

I have struggled with this verse for several weeks. It is revealed in the midst of verses dealing with inheritance. The verse just before it instructs those administering distribution of the estate of a deceased person to give a portion to non-heir relatives, orphans and poor people who may be present at the time of distribution, and to say kind words to them.

So, the central verse for this sermon "let those fear..." seems on the surface to remind us that those whom we love may someday be orphans, poor, etc. and thus the verse reinforces the injunction to be kind and charitable to them. Indeed, some exegetes, e.g. Al-Qurtubi quotes Al-Hasan making this inference, and citing the Prophetic Tradition:
عن أبي هريرة عن النبيّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: "من أحسن الصدقةَ جاز على الصراط ومن قضى حاجة أرْمَلة أخلف الله في ترِكَته"
[Abu Hurayra narrated that the Prophet (p) said: "Whoever is generous in their charity will pass their test on the day of judgment, and whoever takes care of a widow will have their rewards deferred to their heirs."]

Al-Qushairi went further in his exegesis to emphasize that God said "let them be God conscious," not "leave them money," but this is in reaction to the most dominant strand in exegeses, which is to say that the verse relates to people who may urge a person near death to give away all or most of their estate to charity, saying "your children will be of no use to you in the afterlife, so give it all to charity," and the admonition, the vast majority of exegetes say is meant to warn such people to think of their own children who may need their inheritance to live well. 

Those who advocated such pragmatism cite the following Prophetic Tradition:
عَنْ  سَعْدِ بْنِ أَبِي وَقَّاصٍ  رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ  قَالَ  ( جَاءَ النَّبِيُّ  صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ  يَعُودُنِي  وَأَنَا  بِمَكَّةَ  وَهُوَ يَكْرَهُ أَنْ يَمُوتَ بِالْأَرْضِ الَّتِي هَاجَرَ مِنْهَا قَالَ يَرْحَمُ اللَّهُ  ابْنَ عَفْرَاءَ  قُلْتُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ أُوصِي بِمَالِي كُلِّهِ قَالَ لَا قُلْتُ فَالشَّطْرُ قَالَ لَا قُلْتُ الثُّلُثُ قَالَ  فَالثُّلُثُ وَالثُّلُثُ كَثِيرٌ إِنَّكَ أَنْ تَدَعَ وَرَثَتَكَ أَغْنِيَاءَ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَنْ تَدَعَهُمْ  عَالَةً  يَتَكَفَّفُونَ النَّاسَ فِي أَيْدِيهِمْ وَإِنَّكَ مَهْمَا أَنْفَقْتَ مِنْ نَفَقَةٍ فَإِنَّهَا صَدَقَةٌ حَتَّى اللُّقْمَةُ الَّتِي تَرْفَعُهَا إِلَى  فِي  امْرَأَتِكَ وَعَسَى اللَّهُ أَنْ يَرْفَعَكَ فَيَنْتَفِعَ بِكَ نَاسٌ وَيُضَرَّ بِكَ آخَرُونَ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ يَوْمَئِذٍ إِلَّا  ابْنَةٌ  ).
[Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas said that the Prophet (p) came to visit him during his sickness in Makkah... Sa`d asked him if he can donate all his estate to charity, and the Prophet (p) said no, so he asked if he could donate half, and the Prophet (p) said no, so he asked if he can donate a third, and the Prophet (p) said: "A third, and a third is plenty: It is better to leave your heirs financially independent than to leave them dependent and asking others for charity..."]

The lesson on finances seems easy enough to resolve: To those who are too generous, we say "keep more for your children," and to those who are too stingy, we say "you need to give more." 

But my great concern is about the other inheritance that we leave or don't leave to our future generations: religion. Developing a viable modern understanding of this religion -- one that is compatible with contemporary physics, biology, psychology and ethics -- is difficult business for which we often have to sacrifice personal comfort and social standing. Selfishly, we can stick to the anachronistic religion that we learned, like our parents learned before us. But if we are that selfish, then we cannot blame our children if they don't find this anachronistic religion appealing to them. I accuse myself and the community at large: Are we consuming too much religious comfort now and taking too much to our afterlife, failing to leave enough viable religion for our children? They will need it when we pass away.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

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

 This is a draft for my sermon this week.

After the liturgical opening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Sermon Against Religious Identity Politics Untethered to Ethical Calculus

 This is a draft of my sermon scheduled for today.

After the liturgical opening...

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

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

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

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

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

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


Qur'an teaches the ideal of pursuing global friendship:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

لا ضرر و لا ضرار

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

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

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

Ethics and Law

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

الضرر يزال

[Injuries should be rectified.]

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

٢٥. الضرر لا يزال بمثله

٢٧. الضرر الأشد يزال بالضرر الأخف

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

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

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

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

لا ينكر تغير الأحكام بتغير الأزمان

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

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

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


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

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

هذا فراق بيني و بينك

[This is when we part ways.]

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

False Dichotomies on Israel and Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Most Difficult Eid Sermon

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

After the liturgical opening...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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