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.

Is God a White Racist?

Since Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, there has been a renewed national conversation about race in America. While most thoughtful analysts agree that there is a wide racial divide in the country, no one has come up with a definitive answer as to how to solve it. Despite decades of government, non-government and civil society efforts, the issues of racial discrimination, racial tension persist. While different racial groups have responded differently to this situation, the response by American Muslims is of particular interest to me, given that Islam is supposed to be ‘race-blind,’ according to popular understanding. A related question that is important is: How do Muslims make sense of black suffering, fully believing that God is beneficent and merciful?Michelangelo-Creation_of_Ev

‘Does Islam ‘do’ race?’ asks the scholar Sherman Jackson, one of the most well-known scholars of Islam in America. Even if at face-value, Islam does not address race as a question, since most Muslims argue that race is a ‘social construct’ that the white man came up with. Even if Islam does not do race, ‘Islam does reality,’ Jackson reminds us, urging us to be aware of the vast differences between the race-neutral languages that most Muslims use versus the presence of racially discriminatory practices and ideas around us. Jackson argues in his book Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering that universalizing tendencies of many immigrant and overseas Muslims about ahistorical truths and ‘race-free’ discourses won’t help and that we must engage with the discourse of race, instead of ignoring it.

Jackson points to the work of William R.Jones, whose book Is God a White Racist? has brought to fore the question of how to make sense of black suffering in the world. This question becomes relevant to those religions that insist that god is benevolent and merciful – a fact that Islam endorses, time and again. If God is all powerful and benevolent, then the protests of Blacks against their condition could be considered a revolt against the will of God and the only appropriate answer to this situation would be ‘quietism,’ argues Jones. Jones’s critiqued all existing Black theologies in favor of secular humanism or humanocentric theism, which he believed offered a solution to Black suffering. The biggest critique of Jones has been his complete negation of Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, who is supposed to embody suffering of all mankind. But Islam does not suffer from this problem. While considering Jesus as a prophet, Islam rejects the notion that he died for the sins of all humans.

Consider the following: Every Surah of the Qur’an begins with the phrase ‘In the name of Allah, the beneficent and Merciful.’ The question that Jackson is bringing up is how can Sunni tradition, or rather Blackamerican Sunni tradition make sense of this dichotomy between reality of Black suffering and the claim that God is all loving and merciful? A powerful and important question indeed. The challenge before Blackamerican Muslims has been how to overturn these structures of oppression, rather than just accept them passively, within the theological framework that Islam offers, says Jackson. This is similar to the struggles that Malcom X went through after his break with the Nation of Islam, says Edward Curtis in his book Islam in Black America. Curtis argues, against conventional understandings of Malcom’s life that he sought to separate out religion from his politics – post his break from the Nation of Islam (NOI). One may recall that the NOI was a racist, black supremacist organization that believed that Allah did not have a place in heaven for the ‘blue eyed devil’, i.e., the White man. This followed his realization that while Islam sought a race-blind adherence to the religion and universal brotherhood, the problems of Blacks in America were real. So, Malcom sought to align with Pan-Africanism to address this specific issue, before he was assassinated, argues Curtis.

So, how does mainstream Sunni theology reconcile Black Suffering with the belief a merciful god? Before we authoritatively answer that question, Jackson suggests that we look at the way Muslim theology developed. He offers a rather insightful look into the evolution of various schools of thought – Muta’zilite, Ash’arites, and the Mutaridities. While the first group of scholars are the ‘rationalists’ the latter two are ‘traditionalists’ operating in the rational tradition. Questions of anthropomorphism, the createdness of the Qur’an and related areas are where they differ and this has important implications on how they view reality. For instance, whether the Qur’an is a created word of uncreated can have implications on the extent to one which can have flexibility in interpreting the text- versus using it literally.             Of course, there are verses in the Qur’an such as “O mankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Qur’an. 49: 13). Tariq Ramadhan, another well-known scholar tells us that such reminders are handy, when one has to reconcile between the daily realities and the larger principles on which one has to base one’s life. Muslim jurists have worked hard to explicate the challenges of dealing with vast diversity that we find amidst ourselves, while staying true to our religious ideals, Ramadhan suggests. But Jackson seems to be taking this argument one step further by arguing that a Blackamerican Muslim theology must be developed to address these challenges, while remaining conscious of the universal arguments made by mainstream Sunni Muslims, around the world. A uniquely Black response is needed, as it addresses specific issues of Blackamerican Muslims, he contends.

In discussing the evolution of the four traditions of Islamic theology, Jackson says that the key principle that is important to understand Theodicy is one of divine omnibenevolence – meaning that God could ‘neither sponsor human evil nor reward people or punish them for actions over which they had no effective control’. (p.51). In other words, this means that humans have free will to decide what they want to do. To quote Jackson “This demanded in turn, that humans be endowed not simply with freedom of choice but also with the actual ability to translate their choices into actual physical reality. In this way, no evil committed by humans could be attributed to God, and God could not be deemed unjust for holding humans accountable for their evil actions.” (p.52). This strategy of positioning man in a position that is ‘rational’ and one with agency to decide his/her fate, Mu’tazalites paved a way for a certain interpretation of suffering in this world. This notion of free will or ikhtiyar has come under considerable attack, as Jackson reminds us.

Finally, Jackson reminds us that despite differing in the amount of agency that each school of theology gives to humans, they all agree that there is an element of power in the human hand. “For if humans petition God to instantiate their will to do good, God will inevitably respond,” he says. From this, it seems that be clear that God is not seen as a white racist by any of the schools of Islamic theology and there is also no need for quietism – since racism and any violent oppression is against God’s will – and must be resisted by all people of conscience.

To William R. Jones’s question on whether ‘God is a white racist’, the simple answer, is that he is not a racist. The problem is of course, human will – which in Islamic theology accounts for much corruption that we see amidst us.

How Not to Think of Lobbies in America

How does one think about a special interest group? Are they the ‘tail wagging the dog’? Or more realistically, just power-brokers who are go-in-betweens, managing perceptions, raising money and buying out influence, for those who they work? The answer is something in between. While I don’t agree that lobbies are all powerful, they do wield significant influence that cannot be denied. But they also operate within certain constraints, as Stephen Walt warns us in his article How not to think about the Israeli lobby. Recent failures of the Israeli lobby – including not being able to get the US into war in Syria – (until now) is an indication of its limited influence. It took nearly three years before the U.S. decided to intervene in Syria, and that too, only when ISIL is involved.

AIPACI spoke with a group of American students, quite recently, about ‘Israel Lobby and US Foreign policy’ a topic I am somewhat familiar with. Having researched this topic for over two years while at Syracuse University, I gave up and changed tracks. After a while, I was exhausted – both intellectually and emotionally at the developments (or lack thereof) in Palestine. It is a hard topic to research, especially if one is invested in some way – either intellectually or emotionally. As a bystander, I was not as invested in the topic, but morally; I felt (and still do) that all fair-minded people should intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though the two state solution may not exactly be the way to go. “Israel is like a piece of cheese, with the holes for settlements. How will you ever divide that into two countries”, said one of my favorite professors on campus. I believed him and still do. Though I harbored faith in the two state solution at one point, I don’t think it is practically feasible, given current realities on ground.

The American students I spoke to were critical, skeptical but at the same time optimistic that there is a solution to the crisis. With the Israel lobby question in mind, I did not have to struggle too hard to convince them that those in ‘real’ power had to make hard choices, some wise decisions and come to some consensus on what the way forward is. And to put things in context, I was speaking with students in the ‘Bible Belt,’ and that fundamentalist Christians are more pro-Israel than many American Jews, as this poll by Pew Research shows. The status quo won’t work is something these students realize. Even the most ardent pro-Israeli student in the room realized that the obstacles to ‘peace’ are internal to the Israeli establishment and this discourse is aided by American support. Peter Beinart’s question of whether the ‘liberal Zionists’ ideals’ of a free and democratic Israel that uphold human rights, justice are dead, is worth asking.

In a recent Op-Ed in New York Times, Mairav Zonszein argues that there is a vilification campaign going on in Israel against those who dare speak out against the state.Zonszein says “The vilification of the few Israelis who don’t subscribe to right-wing doctrine is not new. Similar acts of incitement occurred before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But now they have multiplied, escalated and spread.” The discourse of ‘Us vs. them’ seems to have been incorporated by the Israeli establishment, very effectively and any dissent is labeled as anti-Semitism. The most recent ‘war in Gaza’ demonstrated this fact. Social media was abuzz with discussions, fights and arguments about whether Israel had the right to ‘defend’ itself against the rockets that Hamas fired.

The ‘winds of change’ are blowing, if recent developments are any indication. Peter Beinart, in his book The Crisis of Zionism argues that there the continued building of settlements in the West Bank imperil the very existence of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Beinart says that the tradition of debate, open-dialogue that is inherent in Judaism is being hijacked by fundamentalist groups in Israel. While groups such as Americans for Peace Now, J-Street and dozens of others work to build up the ‘moderate’ voice that is liberal, accommodating of the Palestinian demands for recognition, the hawks seem to dominate the debate. These liberal groups are also growing in power and influence, if my discussion with the youngsters is any indication- and so is the public sentiment among American Jews- who are overwhelmingly liberal. On another note, Hamas just gave up control of Gaza to the Unity government a few days ago, according to news reports. As Rami Khouri reminds us, the challenge before us is whether the rival factions will unite. Further to this, I believe something more important than this is whether this unity will hold, and if Israel will recognize this unity. He calls this negligence to establish order within the ranks of PA and Hamas ‘ a criminal negligence’.

Finally, as Walt reminds us, it would help to remember that lobbies are special interests, that operate to achieve their ends. They may at times be the tail that wags the dog, but generally, as a rule; the dog is in control of the tail. Knowing this reality will help clarify any exaggerated claims – whether it is in the case of Israel or the NRA.



What can Islam offer to the World? Part 1

Most often, when journalists write about Islam, it is in connection with something negative. As Edward Said argued, many years ago in Orientalism, there is a tendency in the Western academia and media to focus on the stereotypes of Islam and the Muslim world, at the expense of the ‘reality’ that exists in the Muslim majority countries. At the same time, when groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda go about doing the most inhumane and barbaric acts in the name of Islam, it doesn’t help either. The ones bearing the brunt of these negative stereotypes are over a billion people – who for the most part – I would argue are not as blood thirsty, violent and bigoted as the media portrays them to be. In this vitiated and negative environment, where it is easy to blame everything on Islam and Muslims’ negative attitude towards progress, modernity; is it not necessary to step back and ask the question: What can Islam offer to the world? Not what it has offered, already, but what it can offer– in the here and now – and in the future. In this brief piece, I will focus on economic justice as one of the areas where Islam can offer some solutions.

social justice

Is a dispassionate debate possible and is it worth-while talking about the ‘benefits’ that the Islamic moral and economic system can bring about? While the debates about Islamic economics and its comparisons with the conventional economic system that is dominated by Neoliberal understandings is not possible in this short piece, I will focus specifically on the notion of economic resilience and community solidarity to bring home the thesis that I am proposing. In the context of the debates about inequality, poverty and violence, I am interested in finding out if Islamic systems of economics or social justice can offer some guidance to the world, at large?

            The question that I am interested in raising, and one that I heard in April, at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting is this : Can Islam offer anything to our world in the 21st century? And specifically, our economic world? This may offend some believers that is understandable. But for those who are not Muslim, the question of Islam’s relevance in today’s world is a very valid question. Especially, when there is an environment of extreme negative stereotyping of the faith – even those who are peaceful believers are forced to ask: What is going wrong? Are the political dynamics within Muslim majority countries so skewed that they cannot manage to live peacefully, or is something wrong with the cultural dynamics of these societies – following Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis, that there is a perpetual tension between the ‘Muslim world’ and the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Islam’s glorious past, this question is not relevant; since Islam has already contributed much to current Science, Mathematics, Culture, Art, Music, Sports and every conceivable human enterprise. That is not the point. The point I am trying to raise is one of how Islam can continue to be a positive force in the world of 21st century. Given the popular and at times academic critiques of Islam as a ‘civilization’ that needs reform and one that needs to ‘catch up’ with the Western civilization, this question gains importance. I will borrow the concept that Dr. Jane Pollard, of the New Castle University used at the AAG presentation that she made: that of ‘Resilience’. She asked, and quite rightly, if the London’s financial district could learn something from the poor Somali refugees who inhabit the East side of London. These poor, displaced immigrants are hardly the paragons for financial literacy, but, she argued, their habits of philanthropy, supporting one another during times of distress, can teach us lessons in resilience. She shared results from her research that many of the 60 odd individuals that she interviewed give away about one third of their meagre salaries/earnings in tithing or charitable activities, often to help their relatives/friends who are in distress. This concept of resilience of poor individuals and communities can be applied to conceptualizing and building on how communities can survive and perhaps even thrive through trying times, harsh legal and other conditions, she argued.

            My question also gains salience in the context of growing globalization, growing heterogeneity as well as pluralism, around the world. What can Islam teach us about living amidst and with differences? For those who are not aware, Muslims are spread throughout the planet and in fact American Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to research by the Pew Research group. Can Islam’s heterodoxy and pluralism be reinvigorated? Also, while pluralism within Islam is a fact in America, it may not be so evident in other countries, where there is more homogeneity and lack of diversity of opinion and tolerance.


Solidarity, community and faith

Using the notion of cosmopolitanism and cross-border territoriality, Pollard and her colleagues argue that “An alternative form of economic rationality is being constructed and practiced across diverse sociospatial contexts to produce what we term cosmopolitan financial geographies. Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars.” This economic rationality is based on a global ethic of recognizing the Ummah or community of believers as one – irrespective of geographic boundaries. Taking a cue from her work, one can argue that globalization and flow of ideas, concepts and knowledge existed centuries before the term globalization emerged on the scene, with Western powers promoting it. Networks of knowledge and learning were already well established in the Muslim world, as I have written about, in my earlier post on Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler. These networks were also, interestingly, networks of patronage, learning as well as charity. They formed an organic whole and the various parts of the Islamic system learnt, shared and benefited from the nodes of interaction that existed.


How can this exchange happen?

In our globally integrated and ‘embedded’ world, there are mechanisms for sharing of knowledge, insights and a genuine dialogue to occur, if parties are interested. This sort of exchange has been going on, at the level of nation-states, individuals, businesses and scholars. There are many scholars, who are working on comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, development studies and related disciplines that draw upon and build theories of knowledge, societal development and economic development that benefit all of mankind. As Abdullahi An’naim has argued in this short paper, Islamic concepts of zakat can be reimagined for addressing concerns of social justice. Issues of homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger and the like can be addressed through zakat and sadaqa, the religious norms of giving for Muslims throughout the world. In fact, Charity is the third ‘pillar’ of Islam and is fundamental to the practice of religion. With such a strong orientation towards social justice embedded in the faith and its practice, it may seem logical to see how Islamic economic and moral systems can be engaged in addressing some of the key problems before us. And this is precisely what thousands of NGOs, intellectuals and organizations are attempting, around the world.

As Lena Rethel has argued, if one were to look at purely the legitimacy aspects of Islamic finance, then there is no real difference between how Islamic finance tools are being built. They are just replacing the conventional tools, replicating one form of legitimacy with another, she says. This epistemological hegemony of legitimacy is counterproductive to producing a real alternative to the existing Neoliberal framework.

The key insight that Pollard’s research points to, is that we may perhaps have to focus more on microeconomics, looking at how small communities, individuals make decisions, rather than focusing solely on macroeconomic policies and programs. While there are lessons that macroeconomic planners may derive from these small scale projects, the key may be to look at the imbalances at the individual level and aim to build self-sustaining communities that are not as embedded in the current financial system.

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.



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