An artist as philanthropist : Umm Kulthum as an exemplar

For those who know Umm Kulthum , the Egyptian singer and iconoclast, they are also familiar with her role in rallying the entire Arab world together, in times of great need. Her role as the ‘voice of Egypt’ is well known. Not so well known may be her role as a philanthropist.

Umm Kulthum
Photo credit : Al bustan culture center, Philadelphia

 

We recently  attended an event honoring Umm Kulthum in Washington D.C. organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that organized an event as an homage to the great artist. Here are some interesting vignettes from the panel discussion that discussed not just her philanthropy, but also her life, her  career and the forces that shaped it.

  • Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl, who made the transition to Cairo, the big city, with a lot of grace
  • As she did this, she remained true to her roots, often referring to her humble origins
  • While maintaining a dignified presence, Umm Kulthum was a trendsetter of sorts – both in terms of style of singing and her own image
  • She contributed to the post-six day war period through her own salary  and her own wealth, towards the Egyptian state, which needed all the money, for its war efforts
  • She also encouraged women to donate jewelry, towards the war efforts
  • Her greatest contribution was to showcase Arab unity, when it was most needed, through Art
  • She was a businesswoman, diplomat and an artist.

As an exemplar of the value of giving oneself, and one’s time, Umm Kulthum demonstrates that an artist can make a difference. And it is perhaps fitting that she is celebrated, to this day; almost 40 years after her death, as one of the most important singers in Arabic language.

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.

           

Conclusion

            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.

 

References

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.

Can democracy take root in the Arab world?

As Syria burns, Iraq implodes and Tunisia and Libya struggle to democratize, one question remains central to framing discussions of participatory governance – Is democracy possible in the ‘Muslim world’? Is democracy an ‘internal wound,’ that has been left to fester for too long, within the Arab/Muslim world, as Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi argues? She says, pointing to Islamic history that, since the advent of Islam, there have been two traditions within Islam – the intellectual and philosophical tradition of the falasifa, of the Hellenized philosophers and the Sufis of Persian and Indian traditions and on the other hand, the Kharijite tradition of political subversion – which has been violent and bloody. This tradition continues, as we look around the Arab world and the struggles for power that are ongoing.

 As Mernissi says “The two traditions raised the same issues that are today told are imports from the West, issues that Islam has never resolved: that of ta’a (obedience to the Imam or leader of the community) and that of individual freedom. Political Islam resolved these issues neither in theory nor in practice, for the idea of representation was never effected, although the idea that the Imam is chosen by the community is deeply rooted in the Sunni Islam.” (1992, p.21). This choosing of the Imam by the majority is a democratic element that has been part of Islamic history, no matter how one reads it. The first caliph and those onwards, till Ali were chosen by consensus of the community, though it was not an ideal participatory voting mechanism, as we know it today. Some of these age-old tensions are still playing out, in many ways. This could be considered a part of the power-struggle within the house of Islam, at the risk of sounding orientalist. But there is a grain of truth to this.

I explored some of these questions a few years ago, when I took part in a two semester course called Democracy in the Middle East at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, as part of my MA in International Relations. This was in 2009, when life was stable in the Middle East and it would be a while till the word ‘Arab Spring’ would become part of everyday lexicon. Some of the bigger questions that we grappled with, as part of the seminar, taught by Dr. Miriam Elman were: Is Islam compatible with democracy, Are the countries of Middle East and North Africa inherently not able to adapt democratic means of governance and to what extent has history played a role in the way things are.

            Vicky Langhour (2002) points to the arguments made by some scholars that substantive democracy may need to be stalled in the authoritarian countries of the Middle class till there is a solid middle class that can demand legitimate democracy. This is operating on the assumption that the only alternative to the existing autocratic regimes is that of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Al’nahda etc…) who are as bad, if not worse than the current authoritarian rulers for democracy – so goes the argument. She says: “The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.” The wide spectrum of Islamists from MB to Hamas to Hezbollah all demonstrate the various stripes in which these parties come. The question really is : Is the West willing to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party, once it is elected democratically. Now that Hamas does rule the Gaza strip, it is still not treated as an equal partner in dialogue by Israel. So, how does one deal with such hypocrisy from those who purport to promote ‘democracy’? This is a legitimate question and one that is being asked in the Muslim majority countries. Langhour suggests using economic incentives such as trade agreements and other incentives to push Arab governments to move in a certain direction – in terms of allowing greater participation among the political parties etc. But the West certainly cannot pull strings now, as it has in the past, given the recent wave of anti-Western sentiment and ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

 

Is the Middle East exceptional, in some way?

Eva Bellin (2004) asks the question if the countries of the Middle East are in some way exceptional, in being resistant to democracy – by virtue of culture or economic development? No, she says and adds “The Middle East and North Africa are in no way unique in their poor endowment with the prerequisites of democracy. Other regions similarly deprived have nonetheless managed to make the transition. Civil society is notoriously weak in sub-Saharan Africa, yet twenty-three out of forty-two countries carried out some measure of democratic transition between 1988 and 1994. The commanding heights of the economy were entirely under state control in eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the vast majority of countries in this region successfully carried through a transition during the 1990s.” She says that there isn’t one or even many preconditions for democracy, as it is a complex process. The question she asks is why there has not been even an attempt towards democratization. Given that she wrote this piece in 2004, that question has been answered now, with the Arab Spring and democratization of Tunisia and Libya, though the latter is struggling to keep it up. Drawing an insight from successful revolutions, she argues (based on Theda Skocpol’s thesis) that “Democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.”One can apply this reasoning to Egypt and Tunisia and see why the former failed as a successful revolution and the latter succeeded.

            In conclusion, it could be said that democracy needs not only an ecosystem in the form of civil society, an educated class of people who want change but also some preconditions – which are by themselves not necessary to guarantee it, but may facilitate its arrival. Finally, there is something to be said about the role of super-powers and the neighbors in a country. To what extent are their influences playing into the formation of alliances and networks of people is crucial to understand, as well. Also, it may be wise to remember Mernissi’s reminder that “the Gharib (West) is still Ajib (strange). The strange is always fascinating and as in the tales of the Arabian nights, one never knows that foot to stand on when faced with the unusual. Something that fascinates you, but you don’t understand, can eventually destroy you. Western democracy, although it seems to carry within it the seeds of life, is too linked in our history with the seeds of death. But the death of whom? Of the authoritarian technocrats or the powerless intellectuals? Of the officials who are the watchdogs or the people who raise the challenge?” (p.21).

Mernissi’s is a positive and hopeful vision of the future of democracy in the Arab world. She ends her book using an allegory of the Simorgh from Farid Attar’s classic Poem The Conference of the Birds, a classic written in the 12th century, an equivalent of the modern day classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. “The Simorgh is us” she says, arguing that the realization of all the best ideals of a Western liberal democracy and Islamic state are better individuals and a better community. Once we realize this, then the end result would be perfect, she seems to be saying. This is a vision that cannot be wrong or faulted. And in the years and decades to come, one can hope that it is realized by all those who are concerned about the future of the Middle East and its people.

 

References

Mernissi, F.(1992). Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Peresus Books. Cambridge, MA

Langhour, V (2002). An Exit from Arab Autocracy. Journal of Democracy. Vol 13, No.2

Bellin, E (2004). The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics. Vol. 34. No.4

Hyper-patriotism in the heart of Manhattan: My visit to the 9/11 memorial

 I visited the National September 11 Museum, more out of curiosity, rather than any sense of wanting to know more about the tragedy that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. While most of us know the facts – enough to know the bad guys, the heroism of the people involved and the reactions from dubya and what transpired later on, what is not so well known is the narrative of 9/11 and how it is being shaped. While I respect the sentiment with which the memorial was built – to honor the lives of 2,977 people who died on that fateful day- the execution of this vision leaves much to be desired. While the memorial is beautiful, the museum fails on many accounts.

Photos by author.
Photos by author.

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First off, I must lay bare my own normative biases – I am not a huge fan of memorials – of any kind- and in particular those of the type that are particularly nationalistic or jingoistic. The only exception to this is the Taj Mahal, which is also a memorial, but considered a wonder of the world, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. While I don’t consider nationalism to be utter nonsense, but let’s say that I am deeply skeptical of a project built entirely on just one identity – often based on exclusion, false pride and a visceral suspicion of the other. That is just not me.

The museum is somewhat of an aberration. It is based in perhaps the greatest city in the world – New York – a city that I truly believe represents freedom, diversity; but ironically is highly securitized and represents ‘unfreedom.’ A fact that Adam Gopnik highlights in this New Yorker story. The level of securitization just before one enters the museum is quite shocking, and one feels as if one is about to take off on an aircraft, bound to enter the ‘free world,’ except that one is leaving this free world to enter a world where one is quite literally held hostage. To the credit of the museum curators, the exhibits are quite well organized and often detailed with audio recordings – of the people who were trapped in the towers, of the fire fighters who risked, and often lost lives saving those of others and also that of an astronaut, who said something thoughtful about this tragedy from space.

The museum itself is hard to find. I took the subway to reach the closest station, near the Financial district. Walking around, I got lost twice, having passed West Street, from where one can enter the ticketing area. On reaching the ticketing area, I was finally met by a line of about 100 people before me and the possibility of entering the museum three hours later. Given the summer season and high volume of visitors, this was the earliest I could go. I decided to buy the ticket ( $18 for students, $24 for regular adults). As someone who frequented Smithsonians in Washington D.C. ( all of which are free entry), I feel this is too steep a price to pay. Thank the lord that I am a student and can get some discounts, even if it is $ 6 – enough to buy me a falafel sandwich on the street side food cart. A more scathing review of the museum is here.

On a positive note, the memorial itself is beautiful. It stands at the exact location of the two towers, and has water falling from all four sides, into something like a huge square bowl. The water then goes into a smaller square and into the ground- viewers cannot see the entire depth of the water falling. But it is a touching memorial in many ways – aesthetically pleasing and it also bears the names of all those who died on the side walls. This is truly the most positive aspect of the whole experience.

Firefighters – the real heroes?

One fact that came home to me was that real heroes that day were the firefighters – the first responders, who came together to save thousands of lives. The exhibits are meant to give a real sense of the tragedy and they do. The reaction that many people who visited the museum was quite strong – I saw a few young ladies cry as they saw videos of the devastation that was wrought that fall morning. Others just stood there, in a daze, not believing what they were seeing. To me, it was as shocking a spectacle as it was normal – in a sense that the amount of imagery that I have consciously and unconsciously been exposed to has perhaps dulled my senses. I did not cry, but I did feel a strong sense of empathy with all those who died and a sense of respect for those who responded to the call for help– especially the first responders, including the ones from Ladder 3 Company, all of whom perished that day. “They died, saving the lives of thousands. You must remember that there were over 15,000 people in both towers that the fire fighters tried to save. We lost very few, compared to how many were there in the buildings,” pointed out the old lady who was volunteering as the point of contact at the burnt display of one of the fire trucks.

 

The ‘essentialising’ of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While there is large consensus that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks and extremists who used the rhetoric of Islamic jihad were behind the planning, there is definitely a problem in the way that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is portrayed in the Museum. Some commentators have taken issue with how the rise of Al-Qaeda is portrayed and the word ‘Islamic’ terrorism is a misnomer and that it is terrorism carried out by those who were claiming to follow Islam. Nothing Islamic about their actions. While this may be a linguistic nuance, and one that I would agree with, vast majority of academics and intelligentsia seem complacent and happy with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the word has gotten a lot of play. It seems almost banal to bring it up. Except that it is not banal and harmless.

Consider this: For all the effort at portraying and including all evidence and narratives, the Museum brochure does include a few languages – to ensure that people from around the world understand what they are seeing. I did see Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and German – but noticeably there was no Arabic script. Are the Museum staff telling something through this omission? I find it hard to believe that they left out Arabic – one of the world’s most widely spoken languages from the brochure, in a city that has a large Arab population and also hosts millions of Arab speakers on an annual basis. And I don’t think it is an unconscious omission. There is more to it than just a slip on someone’s part. I find that disturbing. The museum also fails on this account, of leaving out close to a billion people. And is there a valid reason for this?

 

 

Can the ‘Golden Age of Philanthropy’ Transform America?

As I visited Indianapolis last week to attend the ARNOVA Young Leaders Forum, I met some of the people from Lilly School of Philanthropy, the world’s first school of philanthropy. While the two day meeting was meant as a professional development opportunity, it also served as a way for the young leaders – most of who are PhD students – to network and also listen to some of the leading researchers in the field of philanthropy about the ‘state of philanthropy’ in the U.S.

 

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Incidentally, one of my colleagues also forwarded me a newly released report titled A Golden Age of Philanthropy Still Beckons: National Wealth Transfer and Potential for Philanthropy Technical Report released on May 28th by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College points to a new ‘ golden age’ of philanthropy, that could be ushered in, considering the inter-generational wealth transfer of about $59 trillion that is likely to occur in the duration between 2007-2061. I will discuss this briefly, in this blog post. This is the first of a series of blog posts and I will come back to discuss the issues in this post, in subsequent posts.

For the uninitiated, it may help to start off by pointing out that philanthropy is the most American value. As one speaker argued, it is more American than Apple pie – given that more Americans give to organizations than the number who vote or take part in any other social activity. Here are some key highlights about American philanthropy:

–          The average giving by Americans has hovered around 2 % of GDP for the last four decades

–          The total giving (estimated) in the U.S. was about $ 300 billion in 2013, according to Giving USA report

–          Giving to religious institutions has declined over the decades from about half of all giving to only about one-third of all giving in 2013.

Consider a recent story about Detroit in the New York Times that showed that about $ 850 million are needed to rid the city of blight and deprecated buildings. Problems of urban poverty, homelessness are far too big and widespread to be addressed by philanthropy alone. While the figure of $ 300 billion may seem big, when one considers the scale of social problems facing the U.S., this figure is miniscule, compared to the total amount of money needed to ‘fix’ all the problems, provide the poor and vulnerable with services they need and also to invest in the future of the next generation. Philanthropy by itself cannot solve these problems.

 

How is this relevant ?

While the figure of $59 trillion may seem an impressive one and perhaps transformative, several questions remain unanswered too. Would those who get the bequests actually use this money towards philanthropy or would they hoard wealth? What about the newly wealthy, who may not be inclined to support causes that address social issues, but may in fact veer towards political advocacy or other parochial means of spending their wealth. As the press release for the ‘A Golden Age’ report says: “The study reveals a 12 % increase in this “give while you live” trend since the authors 199 study. Over 55 years, nearly $ 27 trillion are estimated to be given through lifetime giving and a further $ 6.3 trillion through estates and various estate planning approaches.” What is of interest to non-profit professionals in this is that the portfolio of transfers is shifting, according to the authors of the report. One of their conclusions is that the transfer portfolio will include nonprofit organizations, donor advised funds, family foundations as well. This diversification of portfolio is what the authors claim makes this trend in giving transformative.

This report and other similar ones point to one important sociological shift in America: Giving patterns are slowly shifting, though giving has somewhat remained at 2 % of GDP over the last forty years or so. This shift towards ‘giving while living,’ may potentially be a game changer, as the report indicates. And there is good reason to believe this claim. But the hype of philanthropy solving all major societal problems is a very big claim that is not substantiated by facts, as the example of Detroit above shows. While I believe in the power of philanthropy to have a transformative effect in certain niche areas, the claims being made in many cases are outright exaggerations.

 

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 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY17d4ZhY8M

Islam, Human Rights and the Secular- discussion with Talal Asad and Abdullahi An’naim – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiTaE863jBI

The Future of Shari’ah is the Secular State – http://en.qantara.de/content/abdullahi-ahmed-an-naim-the-future-of-sharia-is-the-secular-state

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

 

 

What the Religious Right in America can teach us about Pluralism

Religion in the public sphere has not always been problematic, as American history demonstrates. Clergy have taken both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions when it comes to issues such as civil rights, anti-war protests etc. This is seen as in the 1960s, when the clergy lead demonstrations for civil rights while in the 1980s they vehemently protested abortion. This hard-nosed pragmatism is a feature of American public life and will likely continue, says Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Professor of Sociology in his essay The Religious Right and Symbolic Politics (1991). In analyzing the effectiveness of the Religious Right in American public and political sphere, Wuthnow asks: What worked for the Religious Right and what did not? An answer to this may point to the direction in which the future leaders of the Religious Right may strategize, he suggests. Further, Wuthnow shows that the Religious Right has consistently tried to mold public policy, defined as the outcome of the political process with respect to specific substantive issues. While the stated position of the Religious Right has consistently been to ‘uphold morality’, the way to achieve this has varied, depending both on the power that the groups have enjoyed as well as the relations between local and national politics.

photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/
photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/

In an insightful remark Wuthnow captures the paradoxes of American life : “ The American public does not want our public policy makers to be devoid of value considerations, but neither does it want its seminaries and churches to become halls of public administration.” (p.89). By this he means that while there is a great desire to see values reflected in the public sphere, Americans deeply pragmatic in several ways, and are conscious of keeping the separation of Church and State. Americans do not want Clergy to run be Surgeons, nor carry out bureaucratic functions, he reminds us. At the same time, he reminds us that one of reasons the Religious Right was successful in the 70s and 80s was because of its ‘outsider’ image, of being the ‘Moral majority’, standing up for what was right, and being ‘anti-establishment.’ When this gave way to being ‘inside’ the corridors of power, the legitimacy that they enjoyed began to wane. The reason for this is that the anti-government sentiment among most Americans is still prevalent among most Americans, who are ambivalent about the ‘over-reaching’ aspects of the federal government.
Also, this moral majority succeeded post-Watergate and other business scandals of the 1960s and 70s’, when Americans were worried about growing immorality, drugs and teenage pregnancies and a drop in general morality. The ‘flower children’ of the 1960s had grown up and were becoming responsible adults. Further, he argues that it may be prudent to look to the Right for lessons by considering some of the ways in which it influenced public agenda. This theme is well developed and illustrated in his book Red State Nation (2012), where Wuthnow argues that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two religious denominations – Methodism and Catholicism- in Kansas State actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining ground during most of the state’s history. Though Kansas is a paradigmatic case for how the Republican party has established a strong hold, there are many internal debates, inconsistencies and struggles between the Religious Right groups that are not fully appreciated, Wuthnow reminds us. For instance, the tension between Methodists, Catholics and Baptists is not taken into consideration, when we speak about the Religious Right. Nor is the ‘moderate’ side of the Republican Party itself, which in many cases goes against the extreme Republican perspective.
The ‘moral majority’ of today seems to be decidedly liberal, by many measures. As recent studies have shown, the fundamental structure of American family is changing. As this in-depth report by NY Times argues: “Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes. Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” The report goes on to say that increasing intermarriage between races, religious denominations is causing a shift in how people conceptualize kinships. “ In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally. Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” This level of mingling, complication of associational life has not occurred before, according to observers. While there is little doubt that this is impacting the shift towards a more liberal and plural outlook towards moral values, the exact shift is yet to be determined.

Hobby Lobby and the debate about religion

Several important legal cases in the past few months have made the issue of pluralism salient, in the American public consciousness. Issues related to marriage equality, Immigration and most recently, healthcare have brought forth some deep underlying tensions in American society, to the fore. While these cases are about particular issues, I would argue that they are ultimately about defining the scope of religious pluralism in America. This case, like the others is about what Wuthnow has called ‘symbolic politics,’ i.e., the strategy of gaining attention for symbolic issues and ensuring that the Right Wing’s agenda stays in the public policy realm. The decisions that courts reach in deciding these cases will have far-reaching implications on how the future generations come to understand the limits of religion. Also, these debates involve ‘factions’, in this case, special interest groups, that are often accused of undermining democratic participation.
I will briefly discuss the impact of religion in the public sphere and use the example of Hobby Lobby case that has challenged the neutrality of courts and the state in implementing laws. In this case, it is the federal healthcare law that is being challenged. While it is not possible to go into all the details of this case, a quick synopsis of this case is as follows: Two companies: Consestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, want to be exempt from providing their employees contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act. While these two firms are not religious organizations, their owners say that they are the ‘victims of an assault on religious liberty’, as the owners disapprove of some of the contraceptives, points out a New York Times editorial.
The question that is at the heart of this debate is whether the contraceptive coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it be to “further a compelling government interest.” The NY Times editorial argues that the Supreme court should not allow the corporations to get away with this, as it would mean permitting the companies to impose their views on thousands of their employees.
As the editors further argue: “If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.” The arguments about religious freedom are being used to deny services to women in this case, as they were used to deny equality to African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. While this particular instance could be seen as ‘government aggression’ against religion, the principle of non-discrimination would be violated if the Supreme Court supports the corporate case.
Beyond the immediacy of the issues we are discussing and the legal wrangles involved, the big issues involved are those of the changing morality in America. This is related not only to the changing family structures, as mentioned earlier, but also increased shift in religious denominations, conversion to other religions as well as a moving away, from religion, generally. An article in The American Scholar points to the declining influence of the Evangelical Church, and the impact this is having on other denominations. Call it the ‘fall of Evangelical Church and the Rise of Catholic Church,’ if you will. As the article argues: “But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.” Simultaneously, while the growth of ‘spiritual shoppers’- those who are religiously unaffiliated but spiritually active, grows, other religions such as Islam gain more converts and the Catholic Church also becomes an attractive proposition for the more liberal minded Millennials, we have the shift of an entire generation of Christians.
Further, pointing to the broader sociological changes, the American Scholar article claims: “ Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.” So, taking a cue from this, one can ask: Are the Hobby Lobby and related cases an attempt by the Religious Right to assert its ‘moral authority.’ Can it be seen as a desperate effort to claim its own moral territory, that it is afraid of losing?
A related concern that comes up, in this examination of the changing demographics, religious affiliations and moral values is: How is the notion of pluralism (pertaining to religion, ethical values, morality) shifting in this context? A careful analysis of the aforementioned factors suggests that there seems to be a gradual expansion of the idea of pluralism. Also, if the Republican Right’s strategies of using pluralism to advocate a more narrow vision of society is not working, might we see a broader vision of pluralism in America? At the level of discourse too, are we seeing a gradual relaxation of how we seek out ‘morality’ in the public sphere. As Connolly argues in his book Pluralism (2005): “ What is needed today is a cautious relaxation of discourse about the sacred, one that allows us to come to terms affirmatively with the irreducible plurality of sacred objects in late modern life. With respect to sovereignty it is important to underline the significance of acts by which deep conflicts are settled; but it is equally important not to elevate them to the level of the sacred.” (2005,p.39). By this, Connolly is referring not to the relaxation of moral norms, but the entrenchment of positions, that often goes when people are discussing deeply normative values.