Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fazlur Rahman's Islam

Alhamdullilah I completed Fazlur Rahman's Islam last night. Now there are some disagreements, but that aside, what a book in terms of its comprehensive nature in covering a history of the development of Islamic intellectual thought and practice!

(The last few chapters on Education, Pre-Modernist Reform Movements, Modern Developments, and Legacy and Prospects really caught my attention as did the tracing of the historical development of Islamic theological schools - something Dr. Jackson does in more detail more recently.)

Imam Zaid recommended reading Islam; Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah studied Arabic and Islamic Studies under Dr. Fazlur Rahman at the University of Chicago; Ebrahim Moosa edited his last manuscript - Revival and Reform in Islam and wrote the new foreword to Major Themes of the Qur'an; Ingrid Mattson writes:
In the summer of 1987, I was riding the train out to British Columbia to start a tree-planting job in the mountains. I had just finished my undergraduate degree in Philosophy and had only recently begun my personal study of Islam. I came across Fazlur Rahman's Islam in a bookstore a few days before my trip. Reading that book as I traveled across the Canadian prairies, I made the decision to apply to graduate school in Islamic Studies. His book sparked in me a keen desire to study the classical heritage of Islamic theology and law. Going a step further, I wrote a letter to Rahman (this was before we all used email) describing my situation and inquiring if I might be able to study with him. I dropped the letter in a post box somewhere in the Rockies and forgot about it until I returned east in August. There I found a hand-written note from him, inviting me to come to the University of Chicago to study with him. Rahman died before I arrived in Chicago, but it was his book and his encouragement that inspired me to start on the path to scholarship that I have found so rewarding.
He passed away, Allah have mercy on him, on July 26, 1988 at the age of 68.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"to exist historically means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete"

As Gadamer observes, [in "The Historicity of Understanding"] "to exist historically means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete. In this context, only God, whose self-knowledge is essential (dhati) and neither contingent nor experiential, can have true and complete knowledge of self, totally independent of others. We humans, on the other hand, in the absence of interaction between multiple consciousness, including those of oppressors as well as the oppressed, are likely to remain blinded by what is nearest to us, with little appreciation for the multiple layers of contingency, deflection, and projection that define us as the individuals and groups we think we are." (125)
-Dr. Jackson in Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

87-Member Minority Caucus: Muslim 'Intern Spy' Hunt Smacks Of McCarthy Era

In a strongly-worded statement today, the Congressional Tri-Caucus, which represents three minority caucuses, denounced a call by four GOP lawmakers for an investigation into whether Muslim "intern spies" have infiltrated the Hill.

Read here

Rethinking Secularism: the Power of Religion in the Public Sphere

Yesterday, I attended most of this symposium held at the Great Hall in Cooper Union.

Briefly - I couldn't understand most of what Habermas said because of his accent and maybe not speaking into the mic; I was really interested in what Charles Taylor had to say and hope to check out some of his works (A Secular Age, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition and his lecture A Catholic Modernity?); I sadly totally missed U.C Berkeley professor Judith Butler's talk because of having to attend class; and Cornel West was captivating and I was familiar with his topic from reading his Prophecy Deliverance.

More thoughts and related quotes to follow in sha Allah.


On Thursday, 22 October 2009, The Great Hall will host a panel discussion between philosophers Jürgen Habermas, Judith Butler, Cornel West and Charles Taylor on the role of secularism and the public sphere.

Thursday, October 22, 3:00pm
The Great Hall
7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue
Open to the public with photo ID.

Judith Butler:
Is Judaism Zionism? Religious Sources for the Critique of Violence

Jürgen Habermas:
"The Political" - The Rational Sense of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology

Charles Taylor:
Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism

Cornel West:
Prophetic Religion and The Future of Capitalist Civilization


Judith Butler is among the most prominent scholars working today in fields from rhetoric to feminist theory, and a central voice in interdisciplinary political and cultural discourse. She is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Butler is the author of numerous articles and books, including Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"; The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection; Excitable Speech; Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death; and Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning. Most recently, Butler has written, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (Verso), and she has co-authored Is Critique Secular? with Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, and Wendy Brown (forthcoming with University of California Press).

Jürgen Habermas is without question one of the most important living German philosophers, and arguably one of the most important European public intellectuals. He has authored about forty books, including The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and, most recently, The Dialectics of Secularization and Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays. Habermas has also edited a dozen other works, and he has been the subject of thousands of articles and monographs. In 2003, Habermas was awarded The Prince of Asturias Award in Social Sciences; in 2004, he was an Arts and Philosophy Kyoto Laureate; and in 2005 he received the Holberg International Memorial Prize.

Charles Taylor, who has recently won both the Kyoto and Templeton prizes, is among the world's most prominent philosophers and political theorists and among Canada's most important public intellectuals. Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University and the author of numerous books and articles, including, most recently, A Secular Age. He is also a contributor to The Immanent Frame , the Social Science Research Council's blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

Cornel West is among America's most prominent public intellectuals, and he is also a leading philosopher, theologian, and cultural analyst and theorist of race. West is University Professor of Religion at Princeton University. His teaching and research interests include philosophy of religion and cultural criticism, and his current research focuses on the tragic, the comic, and the political. He is the author of numerous articles and books including The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, The Cornel West Reader, Race Matters, and Democracy Matters.

Quote from Dr. Jackson's latest work part 3

While my focus in this book is on the nature of black suffering, it is my hope that the broader relevance of the theological questions it raises and treats will not be lost on my reader. Questions regarding God's omnipotence, and this God's prerogative (moral and ontological), as well as God's omnibenevolence, and thus the extent to which God's will may or may not conform to humans' wishes and expectations, are critically relevant to any number of issues presently being debated among Muslim-Americans--from the "gender-jihad" to ethics, liberalism, democracy and human rights to Islam and interreligious dialogue. In this context, one of the ancillary benefits of this book may be its contribution to setting Muslim public religious discourse in America on firmer theological footing. (25)
-from the introduction to Dr. Jackson's Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

Quote from Dr. Jackson's latest work part 2

Each of the classical schools of Muslim theology must be seen as representing its own vision of the Islamic theological ideal. While there is significant overlap between them, there is also sizeable disagreement--often expressed in a polemical tone. These differences, moreover, are often a matter of emphasis, priority, and degree rather than categorical contradiction. This obliges one to recognize that while one might legitimately point to the views of any of these schools as an Islamic position, no single one of them should be taken independently to represent the Islamic position. At the same time, this sustained disagreement highlights not only the pluralistic nature of premodern Islam but also the extent to which a common commitment to monotheism (tawhid) can sustain palpably divergent perspectives on God and God's relationship to Creation. (24)

-from the introduction of Dr. Jackson's Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

Quote from Dr. Jackson's latest work

This book consists of five chapters. In Chapter I, I trace the development of Muslim theology from its embryonic beginnings to its status as a full-blown metacognitive tradition. Part of the purpose of this chapter is to highlight the extent to which history and societal situadedness informed classical Muslim theological discourse. This should go a long way toward vindicating the project of placing American reality at the center of Blackamerican Muslim theological contemplation, not as a transcendent, authoritative source of information about God but as the plain on which God's self-disclosure assumes concrete meaning and practical relevance in validatable form. (23)
-from the introduction of Dr. Jackson's Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

"the only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition"

William Chittick (among others) has recently argued [in Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World] that "the only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition." Indeed, the modern mindset is deeply informed by two regimes of "public reason" (science and philosophy) that have little regard for the role of authority and tradition in conveying, discovering, or preserving truth...This is all reinforced by the contemporary American commitment to autonomous individualism, which is confirmed and refracted through chic and popular aversions to "organized religion."(7)
-from the introduction of Dr. Jackson's Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Guantánamo Detainees’ Case Reaches the Supreme Court

Oct. 20 - The Supreme Court agreed today to hear an appeal brought by a group of Chinese Muslims (Uighurs) who have been imprisoned at Guantánamo for years, though the government concedes they are not "enemy combatants."

The Brennan Center joined a bipartisan group that submitted an amicus brief [pdf]urging the Court to hear the case, which had been overturned on its' latest hearing in a lower court.

Read Kiyemba v. Obama, or see an article on the case; SCOTUSblog and Washington Post weighed in.

Identity in Modernity

His [Jean Toomer's] profound message [in Cane (1923)] to Afro-Americans is that in modernity, where alienation is commonplace, it is important to be aware of roots, but even this provides no assurance of ability to achieve a positive self-image in the ever-changing present. The search for personal identity is never a pleasant one if only because the very need for it connotes a misplacement, dislocation, and homelessness of the self. The act of self-definition forever remains open-ended, with no guarantee of triumph. Indeed, the process takes precedence over the result, since any static self-identity soon disintegrates the self. (88)

On the passing of Shaykh Adib Kallas

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Karen Armstrong: "Think Again: God"

An excellent piece in Foreign Policy called "Think Again: God" by Karen Armstrong (who just came out with a new book called The Case for God)

[Thanks to Ayesha Mattu for this]

Karen Armstrong on the transformative power of novels

The experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to 'feel with' others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do, it can change us forever.

Mythology, we have seen, is an art form. Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever. The British critic George Steiner claims that art, like certain kinds of religious and metaphysical experience, is the most "'ingressive," transformative summons available to human experiencing'. It is an intrusive, invasive indiscretion that 'queries the last privacies of our existence'; an Annunciation that 'breaks into the small house of our cautionary being', so that 'it is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before'. It is a transcendent encounter that tells us, in effect: 'change your life'.

If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight in to our lost and damaged world. (148-9)
-A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

This just makes me want to curl up somewhere with a good novel :) and maybe even one day in sha Allah write one! :)

Abdal Hakim Murad on the cultivation of an informed and relevant leadership

There are a number of issues here. Perhaps the most important is the cultivation of an informed leadership. I mentioned earlier that most Muslim leaders cannot provide the intellectual guidance needed to help intelligent young people deal with the challenges of today...Our heads are buried in the ground...They seem wholly oblivious to the problem.

All this has to change. In my travels in the Islamic world, I found tremendous enthusiasm for Islam among young people, and a no less tremendous disappointment with the leadership. The traditional ulema have the courtesy and moderation which we need, but lack a certain dynamism; the radical faction leaders have fallen into the egotistic trap of exclusivism and takfir; while the mainstream revivalist leaders, frankly, are often irrelevant. Both ponderous and slightly insecure, trapped by an 'ideological' vision of Islam, they do not understand the complexity of today's world - and our brighter young people see this soon enough.

Institutions, therefore, urgently need to be established, to train young men and women both in traditional Shari'a disciplines, and in the cultural and intellectual language of today's world. Something like this has been done in the past: one thinks of the Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad where Ghazali taught, which encouraged knowledge not only of fiqh, but of philosophical theology in the Greek tradition. We need a new Ghazali today [or Ghazalis as in numerous capable scholars]: a moderate, spiritually minded genius who can understand secular thought and refute it, not merely rant and rave about it.

The creation of a relevant leadership is thus the first priority.

Need to understand the modern world

I really like this quote from the end of Seyyed Hossein Nasr's book A Young Muslim's Guide to the Modern World:
What needs to be remembered in conclusion is that Islam is a living reality while the modern world is, also for the moment and despite its falling apart from within, still a powerful force to be reckoned with in the arena of history. Muslims, therefore, whether they are among the youth or of the older generation, have no possibility of surviving as Muslims, individually or as members of a great civilization and the ummah of the Prophet, without being able to respond to the challenges which the modern world poses for them. They must understand the modern world in depth and intelligently and respond to its challenges not simply emotionally but on the basis of authentic knowledge of that world by relying upon knowledge of the Islamic tradition its fullness.(251)

10/25/09 addition:

Also this quote from Abdal Hakim Murad goes along the same lines: "What Muslims acknowledge, whether traditionalists or modernists, is that most of ulemaa (scholars) in the west really need to know what the modern world is,” he added in this pretty good article on the Cambridge Muslim College initiative.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Modernity

Karen Armstrong's race through history (from c. 20000 to c. 1500 CE) in her small book A Short History of Myth (2005) is worth reading to really appreciate her last chapter on 'The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000).

Before I get there, in her introduction, 'What is a Myth?' she writes:
Today the word 'myth' is often used to describe something that is simply not true...Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant...Mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.(7)
She writes of our modern times:
Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented. In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people to make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. (10-11)
There was a new optimism in the West. People felt that they had more control over their environment. There were no more sacred, unalterable laws. Thanks to their scientific discoveries, they could manipulate nature and improve their lot. The discoveries of modern medicine, hygiene, labour-saving technologies and improved methods of transport revolutionised the lives of Western people for the better. But logos had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seem to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernisation progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early as the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place.(122)
Indeed she writes: "We may be more sophisticated in material ways, but we have not advanced spiritually beyond the Axial Age: because of our suppression of mythos we may even have regressed." (135)

Reading this brings a struggle I have sometimes have when reading Nasr or Eaton (what would be called 'Traditionalist') vs. reading someone like Tariq Ramadan (who some would label as 'Modernist'). The 'Traditionalist' critique of the modern world I think is important in reminding us of what we are losing in modern society. But sometimes when I read it I feel so dis-empowered, so 'the world is so messed up, beyond fixing' that it's disheartening. The 'Modernist' perspective I feel is empowering as it calls on us to engage with what's going on in the world..

A while ago, I transcribed this from a lecture Shaykh Hamza did with Chris Hedges called "Does God Love War?":
And there's three religious responses to modernity. One is assimilation, another is withdrawal, and the fourth [the third] is confrontation. And so we're seeing a confrontation going on now and we're in a period of what sociologists call anomie where things - the carpets's been pulled out under people and we don't really have grounds for morals anymore. We're just seeing a lot of major changes in society and religion which is often informed by pre-modern concepts of morality which are still very important to many religious people, they're really groping with what's going on. So some of it is growing pains because there's things we need to abandon from the past but others are genuine conflictual experience inside. (1:35:06 - 1:36:02)

An article that I found to be intellectually stimulating in both critiquing and also appreciating 'Modernist' Muslim thinkers is Ebrahim Moosa's "The debts and burdens of critical Islam" in Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism (2003, 4) ed. by Omid Safi.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quote from 'The Making of a Muslim' by Imam Zaid

One night as I was walking home after a party in the Mount Pleasant housing projects, which we used to call “Sparkle City” because it was littered with so much broken glass, a young Puerto Rican girl – she could not have been more than ten years old – ran out into the bitterly cold winter night screaming, “Why doesn’t anyone love me? Why doesn’t anyone love me?” Her cry echoed in my head and penetrated into my heart. I thought about the difficulties so many people were having in these seemingly God-forsaken places. The drugs, alcoholism, teen pregnancies, violence, and broken homes had wreaked havoc on so many innocent lives. Right then I made up my mind to work for a change.
-pg. 12 of Scattered Pictures: Reflections of an American Muslim by Imam Zaid Shakir