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).