Music and the Mullahs – can the twain meet?

The debates about the use of music in Islamic practices specifically and music as entertainment are perhaps as old as Islam itself. These debates are not new reminds a scholar of Amnan Shiloah (1997). In the absence of clear injunctions about music in the Qur’an, secondary texts such as Hadith and other texts written by scholars of Islam have become important in interpreting the role of music in Islam and how permissible it is. Given that many Muslims around the world do take their religion seriously, when it comes to matters of practice, this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. With rap and metal being used by revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia – to get their message across, Sufis organizing music festivals in Morocco, mainstream actors and actresses dancing to Bollywood tunes in India and Pakistan, is music really haram? I will try to address this intricate and complex argument here.

Let’s start with the basics. Music is not totally forbidden in Islam. Even the most die-hard Salafi will admit that the Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him) was known to enjoy some music from dhaf, a drum like instrument, on special occasions. Shiloah says “Some authorities, for instance, tolerated a rudimentary form of cantillation and functional song, but banned any instrumental accompaniment; others allowed the use of a frame-drum but without discs, forbidding all other instruments, particularly those be-longing to the cordophone family. The mystic orders, for whom music and dance held a vital part in the performing of spiritual and ecstatic rites, were seriously concerned with the debate and participated ardently in the polemics.” This debate is really not part of daily life, with tolerance being the norm in most Muslim societies. It is only in extreme cases such as Saudi Arabia – where public performances are banned that this debate gains salience. Shiloah shows that the first authoritative attack on music came from Ibn abi al Dunya (823-894) A.D., who was in the court of Caliph Al Muta’did (892-902). Dunya’s argument in his book Dhimm al Malahi and the use of the concept of Malahi or distraction (from religious obligations) is key to the development of the notion that music is a distraction from religious observance (since it was associated with gambling, drinking and merriment). On the other hand, Sufis and those mystics who saw benefits of Sama and the use of music argued that music stirred the emotions to worship and brought the believer closer to Allah. As Shiloah further argues “ Another early Sufi scholar al-Sarrij (d. 988) who set forth the true principles of sufism in his Book of the Sparks, distinguished between the sama of the vulgar and that of the elect, which includes various degree.”Sufis were pious, practicing Muslims, for whom music was but one way of expressing their spirituality. The modern day subversion of Sufism for commercial purposes is another matter, and I will address that in another article.

Growing up in India in the 1990s’, the early musical influences in my life were Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams, Backstreet boys and a plethora of Indian musicians including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Sabri Brothers and others. Though my father enjoyed Bollywood music and we heard lots of Qawwali on Fridays, music was somewhat of a taboo, despite being loosely accepted. I remember my father disconnecting the cable TV at home because MTV was too ‘rebellious’ and ‘decadent’ in his opinion. My mother was the more liberal among my parents, who had a greater level of tolerance for things that were not too orthodox or ideas that would be considered rebellious. As I grew up and became more cognizant of the world around me, I realized that indeed Music and the Mullahs – orthodox leaders of Islam- did not get along too well. My father was a Mullah himself, though he did not practice as a religious leader full time, but was trained in theology and finer points of religion, but so was my mother. So, at an earlier age, I got my first education in the value of interpretation of religious laws and social norms – much of it did depend on human agency and aql, or reasoning. While media portrays extremists such as the Taliban as the authoritative agents of interpreting laws on Islam, there is a vast range of interpretations of whether music is permissible or not – from those who embrace Music fully to those who negate it.

Contemporary Music culture around the ‘Muslim world’

Across the ‘Muslim world’ – defined as any country with a significant Muslim population – one can find a rich and thriving music scene – the Qawwals in the Indian subcontinent, the Sufi singers in Turkey, traditional singers and Griot singers in Senegal, Africa. Even if it is not devotional music, music is tolerated in many forms, as long as there is no lewdness or immodesty involved. Youssou Ndour, a griot singer from Senegal is one of the latest global sensations, who has taken the music world by storm and has also taken a firm stand on music in Islam. The success of his album Egypt, around the world, which is chronicled in a film I bring what I love is a testament to the broad appeal of his music, both within and outside of the Muslim world. Another globally renowned singer is the late Nusrat Fatehali Khan, a Pakistan qawwali singer, who branched into mainstream music and is known for his melodious voice as well as his rendering of spiritual classics such as Allahu Allahu. Then there are others like Sami Yusuf, who have captured the imagination of the faithful with their rendering of religious songs. His music is for the Western Muslim, educated, well-traveled and often well-heeled. The market for the faithful is making space for techno-savvy beats and slick music videos, it seems.

          This is not the entire picture, as there are egregious bans on music performances in some other parts of the Muslim world. When certain legislators or governments in the Muslim world ban music, it is coming from a sense of duty to ‘preserve’ religion. In this logic, anything that the prophet Muhammad did not do it not permissible and this includes music, which he perused in a rather limited way. While there are prophetic traditions that permit music, the line of agreement it thin. There is a tension between the two human tendencies – of Rahmah (grace and beneficence) and hawa or desire, which can translate into personal opinion in practice, argues Fatima Mernissi in her book Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world (1992). This tension manifests in all debates that we hear about the clash of creativity and the need to conform to the current rules or authority. Artistic expression in all ways, including music falls into this category of tensions, one that can be interpreted as being ‘wayward’ or out of Islamic bounds by those in power, who can accuse artists and performers of promoting hawa or desire – an evil notion indeed. And when the state is based on maintaining order, this becomes less tolerable. The ‘collective good’ becomes more important than individual agency or freedom and hence some sorts of creativity gets banned. Mernissi further argues that since many of the Muslim majority countries have not fully signed onto the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantee human freedom in all its manifestations, this can lead to a lot of tensions.



            The Fes festival of Music in Morocco is considered one of the biggest music festival in the world. As the festival website says, “The aim of this Festival is to harness the arts and spirituality in the service of human and social development, and the relationship between peoples and cultures,” so to this extent, music has become, over the centuries a common language. There is a rich tradition of poetry in the Persian Gulf too, considered the bastion of orthodox Sunni Islam. In fact, there are popular TV shows like the Millionaire Poet, which has been a hit for the past few years. In effect, the Arabian tradition is all about celebrating the spoken word in various forms. During my stint at a PR firm in Dubai, I managed the account for Dubai International Poetry Festival, a celebration of poetry and performing arts – which included several Sama preformances as well.

The power of music to bring people together endures. This has not stopped the youth from using music to express their anger, sense of freedom and demands to the leaders of the country and to their own countrymen. If there is one thing that can be said confidently, it is that music is an expression of the deepest passions and cannot be curtailed by laws or religious edits. While the mystic traditions such as Sufi orders used music for religious purposes and justified it, other puritanical scholars were harsh in their condemnation of music. This tension has continued to this day and we see the same debates being played out, in various forms. If anything, this debate shows the plurality of interpretation of the laws concerning music and the various ways different Muslim societies have chosen to interpret them. With increased connectivity, greater access to media and proliferation of cheap media technologies, one can only imagine that music, in all its variants will continue to grow and proliferate. While the Mullahs may not be able to ban music everywhere, there are bound to be movements who will try to stop the use of music for religious as well as entertainment purposes. But at the same time, one must not forget that those who are opposed to such puritanical and rigid interpretations are also fighting a battle – and are often in the majority. With the success of stalwarts like Nusrat Fatehali Khan, Sami Yusuf and others, perhaps the Mullahs will realize that music can actually serve faith in a positive way and it can be a force for good. In the meanwhile, we can hope that tolerance prevails.



Shiloah, A.(1997).Music and Religion in Islam, Acta Musicological, Vol 69. P.143-155.


Mernissi, F.(1992) Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world, Perseus Books, Cambridge: MA.

What is missing in Brunei’s Shari’ah adoption story

“Our school is correct, but it may be wrong; the school of those who disagree with us is wrong, but it may be right.” – Islamic Juristic aphorism (quoted in The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson. P.207).

The quote above captures the general attitude among Islamic legal scholars, when it comes to legal issues. While the Qur’an is considered the word of God and its epistemological truth certain, the way it is interpreted is varied and even among scholars, there is consensus that this diversity of opinion is valid, as long as it doesn’t go against the intentions of the Shari’ah (maqasid e Shariah) which are: to establish justice, order and flourishing of society. While there are some nation-states such as Saudi Arabia that deploy only one (narrow) interpretation of Shari’ah, in much of the world, this plurality of interpretation is understood, acknowledged and respected as the norm. The Saudi method of Shari’ah interpretation and implementation, that is often very strict, owing to a rather literalist interpretation, rooted in Wahhabi Islam may be the exception, rather than the norm. I argue here that what is missing in the media portrayal of Brunei’s adoption of Shari’ah is simply this: There is not just ONE way to interpret and apply Shar’iah laws (translates as ‘the way’) but multiple. And it is not necessarily all about amputation and stoning to death. As much as CNN would like to portray it as such, there is much more nuance and complexity to this debate, than is presented to lay audience. The noise needs to give way to genuine discussion and understanding of Islamic legal norms that are often not understood, even by well-meaning activists and ‘educated’ liberals.index

Every few weeks, there is a news headline about the ‘dangers of implementing Shari’ah’ or ‘creeping shariah’ in the U.S. While much of the rhetoric about the ‘dangers’ are crafted by those who have little or absolute no knowledge of Islam or Islamic jurisprudence, what is even more shocking is the amount of ink-space that these news items that this gathers, thanks to ill-informed and extremist loud-mouths. The leader of Boko Haram and the Brunei issue are but two instances, in the past week. While the former is a criminal, who is using any excuse to bolster his claims, the latter seems to be a political move, though I do not have a total understanding of why the country is moving in the direction that it is. While I am not attempting to defend the move of Brunei’s leader -that is an altogether different discussion- I am simply arguing for greater nuance to be applied to the discourse of Islamic law. While this issue demands that several books be written about it, and of course, there are many that exist, the key fact is that within the mainstream Islamic schools of jurisprudence – four in Sunni Islam: Shafii, Hanafi, Maliki and Hambali and about three main schools in Shii Islam, there is vast plurality of interpretation about all aspects of how the divine law enshrined in the Qur’an is to be interpreted.

 One Qur’an, multiple interpretations

While Shari’ah is understood as the ‘divine law’ that is meant to guide human conduct ( for Muslims), among scholars and legal experts, there is a general consensus that there are multiple interpretations of the same verse of the Qur’an. Ingrid Mattson, one of the foremost Islamic Scholars in North America points out in her book that the ways in which Islamic law is derived from Qur’an and Sunnah (life of prophet) are complex and varied. Entire bodies of knowledge and disciplines exist, that engage scholars in lifelong learning and scholarship. Fiqh is the study of interpretation of the Qur’an and formulation of laws in accordance with it. This is a complex and ever-evolving field that has continued to evolve in the Muslim world, trying to keep up with the challenges of modernity. As Ingrid Mattson says in her book : “The barriers to sound comprehension of the Qur’an are many, but generally fall into two categories: intellectual and spiritual….if one wants to understand the normative implications of these verses, much more work needs to be done. To derive norms from the Qur’an – moral injunctions, legal rulings and ethical imperatives – it is necessary to consider the way different parts of the Qur’an relate to one another.”( p.185). She further points out that Qur’an exegesis, known as ta’wil or tafsir (explain) is a vast field of Islamic studies. “From the time of the Companions until today, Muslims have tried to understand the meaning and implications of the Qur’an and have taught, lectured and written on the subject. Exegesis comprises of many sub-genres including Qur’anic vocabulary, rhetoric, grammar, occasions of revelation, and stories of the prophets, legal content and scientific indications and hidden meanings.” ( P.186 )

Universal Human Rights and Shari’ah – can the twain meet?

Abdullahi An’naim, of Emory Law School and one of the foremost scholars of Islamic law in the world has written extensively about Islamic law and its intersection with international human rights laws. The gist of his arguments is that any serious engagement with human rights laws should take into consideration the religious norms that are in place in any society. To ignore or to dismiss them is to not be sensitive to the organizing frameworks prevalent in that society. Especially in the former colonies of Africa and Asia, where the wounds of colonialism are still too fresh, these sensitivities should inform this debate. Also, one must keep in mind that the notion of separation of state and religion is a post-enlightenment ideal that has been realized only in Europe, and partly in the U.S., with great difficulty and centuries of struggle. There are instances where religion has actively helped promote civil society and greater social cohesion. This fact must also not be dismissed, in our rush to remove all facets of religion from the public sphere.

Here is an interesting discussion between An’naim and Talal Asad, a world-renowned scholar, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate School and who has focused on developing an ‘Anthropology of the Secular.’ Asad says that “One has to be careful in investing too many of our hopes on the rights discourse, as it is addressed to and linked necessarily to a regime of law, which is invested in the state. The modern states and its allies such as international corporations, are not to be trusted and use human rights for their own purposes.” For this reason, Asad says he is suspicious of the rights discourse. With a rhetoric of universality, it is vested in the state’s agenda – and serves either national or economic interests. This claim to universality is linked to a reality of particularity and one should be more aware of, he argues. Also, the question of power relations in the international arena is key, he says. “Who would dare bring the U.S. for its violation of rights?. It is the way that rights are invested in power-politics, on a regular basis, he adds. “Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, the situation of modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.

Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity, since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”

Asad further says that everybody in the world, educated or uneducated has a sense of right and wrong and legal capacity, and inalienable human rights. It is possible for religious principles to come to politics. Using the example of the lobby system, Asad argues that it is difficult to separate out legislature from these special interests. “The state has to define what is religion, in order to protect it. The state has to define what is to be protected, so to that part, it cannot be separated out. Historically, this has shifted in the way things have shifted what is essentially religious,” Asad contends.

Intolerance from the state disturbs both scholars. “The idea of separating political authority with spirituality raises certain questions and requires further elaboration. The possibility of re-thinking Shari’ah is important and I am in agreement with An’naim and this is happening in various parts of the Middle East.” Pointing to the example of abolition of slavery in the Muslim world, Asad says that Shari’ah has been re-thought. There are principles of Shari’ah that may contradict equality, but there is a lot that is consistent with the principles of human rights, Asad points out. This is similar to what Ingrid Mattson has argued in her book The Story of the Qur’an that our search for the true meaning of the Qur’an and its application to our lives cannot be too narrow and rooted only in one school of thought or tradition. “Only a truly open-minded, critical engagement with the diverse schools of thought and approaches to the Qur’an will be sufficient to claim the exercise of due diligence.” (p.231). She warns of the dangers of parochialism in outlook and life, as being barriers to our true understanding of life and the meaning of what the Qur’an is telling us.

 Which Shariah and for whom?

The point that is crucial for us to understand is that Shari’ah can take many different forms in every society. In fact scholars of Islamic law argue that even geography impacts how laws are interpreted and that some laws in a country cannot be applied exactly as in another context.  Further, the question of minorities, those who do not believe in Islam is also complicated. While blasphemy laws in Pakistan for instance can be misused ( and have been, for a while) to target political dissidents and minorities, again, these are egregious instances of misuse of Shar’iah, rather than the norm. Even among Western scholars, there is  differing opinion on how these issues ought to be handled and how much the nation-states should be pushed to ‘reform.’

Abdullahi Ani’naim is more vocal about the incompatibility of Shari’ah and modern legal systems. He has called for a ‘Secular’ state in all Muslim countries and has hence run into greater intellectual challenges, while Asad does not see a conflict between Religious norms and political values. One could say that An’naim is more influenced by the enlightenment understanding and liberal notions of ‘freedom’. As he says: “Who is the human in human rights,” is an important starting point. The self-determining self is at the core of the definition of humanity, argues An’naim. For An’naim, it is a people centered idea, and there should be no need for us to depend on the state to defend human rights. The self-determination of the human is key. “It is humans who make the state do what they want. It is the people who run the state and are subjects who make it or fail to do what it does.” This means that practically, we can change our legal, political systems, with activism and effort.

On the other hand, Asad seems more optimistic that there need not be this negation of religious values. In the aforementioned discussion, Asad says “ One has to pay attention to what is going on in the Muslim world, where people are struggling for greater openings, spaces and should not be labelled ‘Islamists’ and those committed to political order. It is unfair that all of us learn from experience, but Islamists don’t.” So, this projection of negativity that often happens in media discourse as well as (some) scholars who write about political Islam being necessarily a backward project is harmful and not conducive to looking at the transformative possibilities that exist, even if it comes from quarters that we don’t like to deal with or engage. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political activism is a case in point.

Finally, it may make sense to end with a topic I started this discussion, i.e., Brunei. The official stance of the government is mentioned on their website, which states: The implementation of Islamic laws is not unprecedented in the country. It was ever carried out during the Islamic glory days a few centuries ago, but was halted with the presence of foreign powers which reduced the strength and effectiveness of Islamic legislation. It is thereby hoped that the implementation of this order would be able to restore the status of Islamic legislation in the country, such that it befits Brunei Darussalam’s stature as a nation that practices the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept, a historic Nation of Zikir shaped by the more-than five centuries of Malay Islamic Monarchy.” So, while each country has its sovereign right to implement the laws that fit its social conditions and needs, and as long as it abides by (most), if not all, Universal Principles of Human Rights – then it should be ok. The particularities of the laws should be discussed, debated and negotiated, rather than making blanket statements about ‘barbaric’ Shari’ah and the like, which are not only ignorant, but also deeply offensive to people who hold their religion and way of life very dear. And more importantly, the gaps, inconsistencies in every legal system should be kept in mind too, before one criticizes Shari’ah that is as complex as any other legal system, perhaps more so, given the global reach of Islam and the way laws are interpreted around the world. A final word of caution: We need more thinking, scholarly understanding and reasoned arguments, not noise, that distracts us from the real issues at hand.


Further resources:

Islamic reform – Conference at Oxford University. Talk by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadhan. Accessible at –

Islam, Human Rights and the Secular- discussion with Talal Asad and Abdullahi An’naim –

The Future of Shari’ah is the Secular State –

Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003)



What can Wall Street learn from Islamic banks?

Over the past two weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, FL and  also presented at the Global Donors Forum, organized by the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists in Washington D.C. While these two events brought together very different groups of scholars and practitioners, the panels on philanthropy had very similar people, interested in issues of global finance, cash flows, equity, social justice. I will focus on just a few ideas from scholars who are researching and working in this field, that is growing in importance and has, according to the researchers, the potential to address some of the structural issues that our current global system is ignoring. What can Islamic finance models offer to the ‘mainstream’ world of finance ?  This may seem like a difficult question to ask, much less answer, given the hysteria around anything Islamic and the purported negative influence of Islamic ideas in our world. For the sake of this discussion, I will not deal with the critiques of any political dimensions of Islam or its aspects of Islamic financing that have come under the scanner, due to post 9/11 securitization discourse. I will deal with that in another article, at a later date. This piece deals primarily with how the West is understanding Islamic finance and what lessons, if any, it can offer to the global capitalist system.index

In a book titled Islam and the Moral Economy (2006) Charles Tripp argues that Muslim scholars have devised strategies deal with capitalism, while remaining true to their faith. While there are those who have resorted to confronting the global capitalist system, a majority have aspired to innovation and ingenuity in search for a compromise and interaction with global capitalism. This is evident, from Wall Street to the Arab Street. Similarly, Lena Rethel (2011) has argued that the search for legitimacy among Islamic financial institutions has forced them to look for greater adoption of the Western norms of governance, knowledge structures making it reproduce the existing global financial order. This, despite of the efforts of these institutions to create a more equitable financial and economic order, based on the Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad).

Dean of School of Advanced International Studies ( SAIS) Vali Nasr makes the case for looking at the intersections of Islamic piety with capitalism in the ‘Middle class’ Muslims around the world. In his book Forces of Fortune (2009) he says: “The United States has been supporting economic reform and business initiatives in the Muslim world, but with too much emphasis on working with the government planners and top-business elite. Change will not come from this upper crust – it has too much invested in the status quo and depends too heavily on the state. It is business with a small “b” that should hold our attention.” (p.12). While there has been a discourse of treating American Muslims as somewhat ‘exceptional,’ by virtue of being more diverse, economically more better off than the rest of the world, I would argue that at the level of practice of faith in day-to-day life, and in particular, that of charitable giving, these the parallels between American Muslims and those in the rest of the world are striking. While his emphasis on commerce and comparing the emergence of the middle class in Turkey, Iran and Dubai with Calvinistic mercantilism seems a bit stretched, there is certainly some merit in it. Like the Calvinists, the middle class Muslims of the world want to have their religion and their commerce too. It is apt to be reminded that the Prophet Muhammad was a merchant himself. But not in the style of current capitalists. That is a distinction that Nasr doesn’t make.

Nasr’s bigger contribution through this book is in arguing that it is time we look past fundamentalism and violence linked with Muslim societies as a framing issue and actually focus on development and related issues, if we are to gain a better understanding of these societies and what they have to contribute to the world. I concur.

How the capitalist notions of dealing with societal issues meet the arguably ‘socialist’ notions of wealth distribution in Islam are of interest in our discussion here. As Tripp says “The capacity of capitalism to be reinvented in the wake of the crises to which it has inevitably been prone has been one of the distinctive features of such as system, historically confounding those in the Islamic world and beyond who have seen crisis as the harbinger of self-destruction.” (p.3). He further argues that Islamic system’s response has been to rein in the processes of exploitation and to make it authentically yet also productively part of the Islamic system, with an emphasis on building a ‘real’ economy, as opposed to a ‘speculative’ one, as on Wall Street. Tripp also says that the responses to capitalism have been varied, across the Muslim world, and not singular. The development of Islamic banks, mutual funds that are Shariah compliant, social investment funds and the like are examples of this new vocabulary of understanding and making sense of the capitalist economy. My attempt in my study will be to map this intersection of Islamic norms of giving and the mainstream notions of giving that are arguably influenced by capitalistic norms, as it occurs in the nonprofit sector in the American Muslim sphere.

 An ‘alternate economic rationality’? One of the main critiques of the capitalist system is the commodification of both money and people. As Tripp points out in his book, in Islamic thought, the dominant social imaginary is the subservience of human society to the will of God. “Service to the creator is the goal of existence, social and individual, and, insofar as the moral purpose enshrined in such service is only possible in the company of other beings, the telos of society is evident. This was the function by which society should be judged.” (p.19). How does this tally with the extreme individualism that capitalism promotes? While not central to my study, this forms the background to the kind of inquiry that I am undertaking. The notions of zakat and sadaqa (forms of charitable giving) as ‘financial worship,’ are also important to keep in mind (Benthall, 1999).

Lessons to be learnt from the Islamic financial model?As Rethel (2011) has argued, the reorientation towards religious and cultural values in Muslim societies both in the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ and the rise of the Muslim middle class that has coincided with the rise in demand for Shariah compliant tools of finance can be seen as an alternative to the existing global order. She has used the lens of legitimacy to explore the extent to which the Islamic finance system offers us alternative to the existing system. Both Rethel (2011) and Tripp(2006) do seem cautiously optimistic with the prospects of Islamic finance offering an alternative to the existing system, Rethel more than Tripp. While this seems so, one might ask: what is one to make of the existing demand for the Islamic finance products, increasing market share of the industry and indeed a greater push among Muslim nations and societies for expansion of the Islamic finance markets? At the ontological level, will this change things, even as epistemically, it just seems to be replicating the logic of the Western economic system?

Jane Pollard, another researcher whose work on Islamic charity in London, among the Somalis points to a strong sense of resilience and solidarity. This also complicates the understanding, in a postsecular world, of the religious practices of the Islamic Banking and Financial institutions. This system also offers us an opportunity to re-think territoriality, cosmopolitan legalities and neoliberalization. “In a world where sukuk traded in London and New York rest on English common law but are subject to the decisions of a Shari’ah scholar based in Pakistan, it might be the moment to reflect critically on how territory, embodiment and cosmopolitan legalities interest to shape different sorts of economic activity.” Pollard argues.

I would argue that despite the skepticism of the scholars mentioned above, Islamic finance is relatively new, a system that has not been fully tested yet and one that must be taken seriously. The industry came into existence in the 1970s, after the Oil embargo and the emergence of a dominant ‘Muslim solidarity,’ in the economic sphere. As Rethel says “Moreover, Islamic finance is not only an empirical phenomenon that warrants scholarly scrutiny, but also an intriguing analytical counterfactual. A literature that claims that a different world order is possible should become more curious about the potential of existing alternatives. Such an agenda could also support current efforts to expand, indeed, its narrow focus on mainly advanced, mainly Western Political economies.” (p.78). Rethel argues that Islamic financial system seeks its legitimacy from a moral and ethical system, based in the Quran and Sunnah – that prohibits interest, gambling, sale of haram (forbidden) products and speculation; all of which aim towards redistribution of wealth and risks. The growing Islamic finance sector, with over 300 institutions, $500 billion in cumulative assets and operations in 50 of the World Bank countries is not meant to be challenge to the West, but can be seen as the assertion of Islamic social and economic rationality argue Pollard and Sammers ( 2007). Ali Shari’ti, the Islamic scholar and Sayyid Qutb, the charismatic Egyptian scholar wrote about Islamic systems as being exceptional, in the sense that their epistemic categories would also need to break off completely with the Western modes, so as to create its own logic of society, finance and community. There was no space for a ‘syncretic’ evolution, so to say. Charles Tripp argues that the call for direct action versus reasoned debate made Qutb’s project a direct one, that of confrontation. But the question remains, how much of current thinking owes its genesis to that of Qutb’s thought. One can see that despite the prevalence of this thought in some circles, the likes of Yusuf Qaradawi and other influential scholars, who wield enormous influence are advocating a compromise of sorts. They are on the boards of Islamic banks and institutions that partner with Western investment banks and are finding ‘common ground’ to work and promote ‘welfare.’

Whether the Islamic banks and financial system will offer an alternative in the near future is perhaps a speculative question. The real one is how the entry of this system of banking and commerce impact the ‘mainstream’ system of finance. As this New York Times article points out, Islamic financial institutions are investing in the West and it seems to be business as usual. Will the vocabulary and ontological assumptions of Islamic finance shift the epistemic knowledge base of the current system is a much bigger question and one that cannot be answered here.

While it may seem that Islamic finance institutions are not adding anything spectacularly new, in terms of doing business ( on a day to day basis), the biggest contribution so far that they have made is to bring ‘ethics’ into the equation. As mentioned earlier, all instruments of Islamic banks and institutions have to comply with ethical norms that are mandated by scholars and comply with Shari’ah. This means no exploitatively high interest rates, no investment in exploitative business practices etc. While these are high moral principles that may sometimes be flouted, this is the game-changing aspect that Islamic institutions bring to the table. And this is perhaps the biggest lesson that Wall Street can learn from them. Ethics can no longer be ignored. And moreover, the commodification of people and money must stop.






Should we all be Cosmopolitans Now?

The idea of being a ‘Cosmopolitan’ or a citizen of the world is not new and one can trace its emergence as a philosophy to the Stoics, who lived during the second and third century B.C. The most famous of them is Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations has become a classic. The idea of not belonging to one place and embracing the universe as one is the crux of this way of thinking and one is inclined to ask: With globalization, is this the way the world is moving, and should we all be cosmopolitans now? Kwame Anthony Appaiah surely thinks so, and articulates his ideas in his book Cosmopolitanism, Ethics in a World of Strangers.c

Cosmopolitanism has many fans, but there are critics too. The opposing forces that faces a cosmopolitan way of life are the parochial ones: Nationalism, tribalism and any identity that seeks to be all consuming and dominant. This notion aspires to a ‘cultural purity’ that is an oxymoron, Appaiah argues. “The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live in a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places and that contains influences from many more” .While this is true and a valid argument, it is also true that cosmopolitanism could end up becoming another generalizing and universalizing principle, that could potentially ignore the ‘particularisms’ as Clifford Geertz, the Anthropologist would say. These particularisms are what make us unique and in their absence, we would be devoid of any identity. The other word for this is cultural relativism and one that seeks to honor each tradition on its own terms. While Appaiah acknowledges its value, he fears that this could lead to a world that is not ‘shared’ by all. This could lead to more divisiveness than is needed, in his view.

So, why is this notion of Cosmopolitanism important, one may ask? The simple answer is that because there is no other choice, at least for many, around the world, who are constantly bombarded with messages, media, ways of thinking and living that are alien to their ‘local’ traditions. Either we all cloister ourselves in our own ‘world’ and refuse to acknowledge or respect the ‘other’ whatever that may be, or we can open up our world and minds and recognize that the ‘other’s’ way of life, language, culture are valid and as human as we are. This gives life to the statement that the stoic playwright Terentius Afer made “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” Appaiah draws out various analogies from his own life and that from history to demonstrate that cultural relativism, the belief that each one of us is so unique that we are best left undisturbed, is patently false. Further, Appaiah elaborates the tension between positivism and value laden worldviews.Positivism has its limits, he argues, because it can lead to particularism and a fixation with ‘rationality.’ What if the other person doesn’t speak in rational terms? How do we deal with this?

This is where values enter, points out Appaiah and one would have to agree that values can have a universalizing spirit. Who doesn’t believe in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless – we may differ in the means for doing this, but most of us would agree that these are good things that we should all aspire for. “Folktales, drama, opera, novels, short stories: every human civilization has ways to reveal to us values we had not previously recognized or undermine our own commitments to values that we had settled into. Armed with these terms, fortified with a shared language of value, we can often guide one another, in the cosmopolitan spirit, to shared responses; and when we cannot agree, the understanding that shaped our responses are shaped by some of the same vocabulary can make it easier to agree to disagree.” While this call for focusing on the positives in the narratives and values is all fine and good, what happens when there are clashing narratives and values that pit one against the other? While Appaiah does offer a critique of the ‘counter-cosmopolitan’ narrative of the radicals – Al-Qaeda and other totalitarian systems such as Communism etc. it comes across as too being too essentialist. For instance, in his critique of the concept of the Ummah, or universal brotherhood of Islam, Appaiah takes into account only how the radical Muslims frame it and misuse this concept to ‘other’, while ignoring the equally powerful Ummah that a Sufi or mainstream Sunni conceptualizes. What about the notion of Vasudaiva kutumbam, among the Hindus – that translates as ‘The whole world is a family.’ This is a big weakness of his argument and it is glaringly obvious that while he builds up the war cry, he doesn’t deliver the goods in this particular regard and ends up making a generalization, that ends up in an essentialism that could potentially be seen as carelessness.

As regards how to negotiate among warring factions, Appaiah, does not help us much in this regard, other than by saying that we must converse with one another. But the question still remains: What if people are not willing to even do that? What value system should one adopt? Should we all force everyone to adopt ‘universal principles’? While this seems like a plausible argument, the question still remains: who determines what is universal and why should everyone accept them as such? The differentiation between universalism and cosmopolitanism is that, in the latter, there is a recognition of differences and also the only criterion needed to be a ‘cosmopolitan’ is to recognize the other and have the ability to converse and deal with them. It does not necessarily mean that we adopt the views of the other, as a Universalist would demand. This difference is crucial and one that makes all the difference between ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘respectful cultural dialogue’.

The biggest counter force to this sort of ecumenical thinking comes from ideologies such as nationalism that seek to set boundaries, both real and imagined. While these are often based on linguistic, nationalistic and other imaginaries, that are a product of historical and economic or imperialistic forces, their manifestation is real. How can one deny that American exceptionalism is not real? Or for that matter that the way Canada defines itself is in some way in opposition to what America is not. This tendency to ‘other’ those who don’t belong is part of our psyche and is deeply ingrained. Appaiah acknowledges that we began as small tribes, living in hunter-gathering type communities and this has shaped the way we think and feel about those who belong and those who don’t.

There are some problems with Cosmopolitanism too, including the very foundational one: Who can afford to be one? Can all of us be cosmpolitans? The simple answer seems to be: No. Being a cosmopolitan requires time, effort, money and not to mention access to certain levels of societal resources that are unfortunately not available to all. While we may be exposed to cultures, languages and food from other countries at a superficial level, to be a true embedded cosmopolitan requires traveling to those places, interacting with people who are not like us and living their lives, from their perspectives. This, I would argue is an expensive proposition. Especially if one is not lucky to live in a heterogeneous society. As Gramsci would say, cultural notions are unfortunately defined by the ruling classes and in this sense, the bottom rung of any society can only aspire to be cosmopolitan, in practical terms. This is a practical constraint that I see for this way of thinking and living. But despite this, cosmopolitanism is a compelling and enticing way of thinking and living, one that can make us bigger people, than we are, already.

Is Philanthropy losing its ‘meaning’?

There are various conceptions of philanthropy in American society. While some view philanthropy as a religious obligation, giving their time, treasure and talent to the Church or religious institution, others view it as a ‘social relation’, one that binds people to one another says Paul Schervish, in his paper  Philanthropy as a Social Relation. Increasingly, this aspect of philanthropy is giving way to giving to organizations, anonymous funds and institutions that ‘manage’ our money for the ‘best possible’ social outcome. Is this leading to a de-personalization of charity and are the ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ of giving being lost? Are we witnessing more ‘consumption philanthropy’ and other forms of philanthropy, which is antithetical to how most religious and cultural traditions conceptualize them? Is this problematic or is it a natural part of the evolution of the field itself?


This is particularly important for my study, as I am looking at the role that faith-based organizations play, as mediators of the discourses of giving, in a context, not of their own making. As Schervish further argues, the key relation in philanthropy that needs to be understood is one that of the donor and recipient. This can lead to a better match between resources and needs of donors, he says. But how does one negotiate this relationship when an organization mediates as a go-in-between the donor and recipient? This and related concerns are some of the newer challenges that have cropped up with the growth of organized ‘philanthropy’.

Still others conceptualize philanthropy as not necessarily positive, but rather as a remnant of colonial mindset, that seeks to ‘dominate’ the weak and oppressed, in the guise of helping them ( Wagner, 2001). In this conceptualization, philanthropy is oppressive and takes on a hegemonic role, something not very pleasant for the donor or recipient. These competing conceptions of philanthropy are interesting in and of themselves and lend themselves to analysis. But my interest in them derives from how they are being articulated in various forms in contemporary society.

Focus on values or metrics?

While much of scholarly work and research is focused on donors and how to attract them, show them that their money is bearing fruit. But what about the recipients? How do we ensure that their dignity is protected and they are also recognized for proper use of the money, given to them. The recipients could be individuals, organizations or foundations.

Peter Frumkin, Professor at University of Pennsylvania on the other hand argues that it is possible to merge the scientific with the aesthetic or related dimensions of giving. He draws a distinction between the ‘art’ of giving and the ‘science’ of it. In his book Strategic Giving, Frumkin concludes with how the art of philanthropy allows donors to express their private values and convictions while the science of philanthropy pushes the field toward greater levels of instrumental effectiveness. As he says in his book : “One of the main arguments of this book is that often philanthropy works best and strategy is most compelling when the donor brings its value set and assumptions to bear on the process of setting forth a philanthropic direction. Without this critical differentiating ingredient, giving can never reach its true potential. When individuals draw upon their life experience and their reservoir of commitment and caring, however philanthropy can take on problems that government and community stakeholders may not yet recognize or prioritize.” While this does mean that philanthropy can become very ‘personalized’ and extremely undemocratic, it also means that once there is a personal stake in an issue, the donor will invest more of his/her time into it. This could also lead to a related criticism of philanthropy that it makes giving very undemocratic and unequal.

Donor advised funds, Giving Circles, Philanthrocapitalism – these are some of the ‘newer’ versions of how philanthropy is being conceptualized and marketed. For the uninitiated, these are various ways that money is pooled and then used for ‘common good’. While financially, these may be smart and ‘efficient’ ways to conduct philanthropy, there is also a fear that the core of philanthropy is being lost here. I would argue that the ‘values’ part of philanthropy is being increasingly side-stepped and this is not a good trend. While making this normative claim, I realize that there is a greater need for accountability that has become the norm in this field of study and practice.

This tension between ‘values’ of philanthropy and the ‘science’ of doing it right is yet to be resolved. While there is the danger of ‘death by data’ in this field, as increasingly, people are asking for more ‘evaluations’ and ‘results’ of projects and not asking whether the mission objectives are being met, even if people don’t ‘deliver’ results in the short-term. Peter Frumkin argues that this is an important aspect and one that we should not lose sight of. In Strategic Giving, he advocates giving from a values perspective, aligning the donors’ values with the projects or organization that one wants to support, so there is greater coherence in giving. His advice is to look at the following five factors, before planning one’s giving strategy:

1. They must declare the value to be produced through their giving

2. Donors need to define the type and scope of program that will be supported

3. Donors have to select a vehicle or structure through which they will conduct their giving

4. Donors must find a giving style and profile level that is satisfying and productive

5. They need to settle on a time frame that will guide their giving

As Frumkin clarifies: “These five constitute the “philanthropic prism,” and are aimed at moving the field of philanthropy towards a more strategic approach. By thinking through how best to present donors with giving opportunities, that connect to the core of their strategic concerns, nonprofits can improve the quality and sophistication of their grant making appeals.” While insightful and well-articulated, the question is, how many High net worth donors or even small donors think of these factors? Will they stop their ego from getting in their way, as they plan their donations? What about external pressures to give that may contradict their values? All of these questions come up as one examines this advise.

Finally, as Schervish and Ostrander point out, the claims that philanthropy makes towards people are normative and not coercive, or transactional. A politician may stand for election and promise certain changes or reforms, in exchange for your vote and this makes it a purely transactional exercise, while a nonprofit leader cannot do the same, they add. This makes the sector unique in a sense of being both bound by certain norms and also free from the sort of ‘effective’ results that it is supposed to generate. The results that philanthropy generates are ‘affective’ instead of ‘effective’ they add. This may be hard claim to sustain, in a tough economy and constricted budgets. While the ‘values’ and ‘science’ could be a false dichotomy, and one that we can overcome, with some thoughtful planning and care, it is imperative that neither dimension is ignored. Being conscious of both aspects of philanthropy may well be critical for keeping the sector relevant and vibrant.

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time


He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.


Is “God Bless America” problematic ?

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” – John F Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“ Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” – Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast meeting, February 6, 2014


Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:

The two speeches quoted above were made with a gap of  more than fifty years. Despite this, one can see the reference to God, America being a religious nation and the rhetorical use of faith in both these speeches. This rhetoric of religion goes back to the founding of the nation itself, one could argue. Why does an American President have to invoke God to appeal to his own people and the rest of the world? Despite constitutional separation of religion and state, why does this occur so often? What role does this “Civil Religion” play in America. I will examine these questions in this short article and look at the intersection of religious and political rhetoric in the American public sphere and explore whether this is problematic and why.

Civil religion can be defined as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes[i].” Since Rousseau coined the term and used it in his The Social Contract, the concept has become useful in describing this phenomenon of politics coopting religion. Robert Bellah, in his essay Civic Religion argues that “every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not,” by this he means not the self-worship of nation, but conscious subordination of the nation to ethical principles. He uses the example of John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech (quote above taken from this speech) to demonstrate that civic religion seems to be alive and well, in the American political space. He says that the mention of God three times in the beginning para of his speech itself is not just symbolic or empty, but points to a value system that most Americans share and to that extent, it is an acceptable form of speech.

Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all?” The answer, he points out, is that the separation of church and state does not deny the political realm a religious dimension, meaning that there is no prohibition in using religious rhetoric, as long as it is not used to suppress others religious rights or freedoms. Further, Bellah clarifies: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” He further argues that civil religion in America is tied to the history of the founding of the country itself, and manifested very strongly in instances when the very meaning of the nation has been questioned. Subsequently, through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in Bellah’s view represents the very best of the civil religious tradition- as his motives were drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the desire to hold the country together, and not from a particular religious dogma. This tradition seems to have continued till today, with a few aberrations in between.

Bellah is also quick to remind us that it is not all rosy with civil religion. “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight,” he adds.

As a country that has constitutionally separated religion and state, some critics point out,  civil religion blurs these boundaries. Former President George W Bush came under attack in the media and from scholars for the use of religious rhetoric and in particular, use of the word ‘Crusades,’ to describe the Iraq War. Commenting on the Bush years, this NY Times article further contends that “ Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840’s, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but ”manifest” in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: ”’These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.” Both these historical examples point to the ugly use of religion to justify actions that could not stand the test of high moral principles that they promised to uphold.

Moving to contemporary America, President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 6 are indicative of the importance of civil religion in the U.S. Civil religion has arguably made a significant contribution towards the discourse of religious freedoms, as Obama’s speech demonstrates. Obama uses his rhetoric of civil religion to build on his argument for greater religious freedoms both in the U.S. and abroad. He mentions the recent uptick in violence in the Central African Republic, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Burma as egregious instances when the states are not doing enough to protect those who are vulnerable. As he says: “ I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem — sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims.  I’ve felt it in houses of worship — whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok.” This device works, one can argue, to not only bring people together in a shared value system, but also to politically send out a message that all religious groups and faiths will be tolerated. So, in effect, civil religion in this instance can be seen as upholding the First Amendment provision of freedom of speech, which by implication means freedom of religious choice or to not believe. In a post 911 world, where religious intolerance in the U.S. is quite high, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, this rhetoric may be necessary.

Some of the benefits of civic religion are obvious: a) It gives us a value framework that is shared by all, irrespective of a particular faith tradition. b) It could also provide a safeguard for religious freedoms, and not letting the state trample on religious freedoms of people. President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast 2014 is a classic case. His entire speech can be seen as a call for religious freedoms both in the U.S. and around the world. While in a global context, this rhetoric may be seen as being hegemonic, it is not in contradiction with globally agreed norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. The only glitch, it seems is that this ‘values system’ leaves out the non-believers and those who are strongly opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. This is truly a sticky wicket.

Finally, it helps to remind ourselves what Bellah has said about civic religion and its place in American society. He advises that rather than being cynical and denouncing civic religion, which is in any case inevitable, given the highly religious nature of American society, it is better to seek within the civic religious space, those principles that may prevent national self-idolization. Bellah’s point that civil religion is becoming more activist, rather than theological is another interesting and perceptive insight. Looking back at recent history, we can see this in the case of civil rights movement, labor reforms debates, immigration reforms debate and several other initiatives, where religious leaders from various faith traditions have come together to create a discourse based on rights, often acting politically and similarly, politicians using religious rhetoric of ‘god given rights’ to argue for equality and ‘dignity for all.’ In this regard, civil religion can actually be helpful both as a social and political tool. There is no need to fear this public expression of a benign religious value system. What we need to fear is extremism- from both sides : the religious and the atheists.



[i] From Beiner, Ronald, Civil Religion, A dialogue in the history of political philosophy, Cambridge Uni Press, 2011