Why focus on praxis, rather than on thought?

In the study of religion, is ‘thought’  more important than the everyday reality of those who practice religion? By ‘thought’ I include all the teachings, conceptions of ‘ideal society’ and life that every religion teaches.  This is a hard question to answer, as ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are two sides of the same coin, but in some cases, the practice assumes greater significance, as ‘ideal conditions’ for practice of the religion do not exist and those who believe in a certain religion tend to improvise and adapt their practices to the situation they find themselves in.

In the case of American Muslims, I suggest that the study of praxis is more important than that of ‘thought’ or ideal conceptions of society. The latter is not insignificant, but marginal, since the strategies that American Muslims have used to survive, build their communities and thrive have been based on pragmatic decisions, improvisational practices and a more ahistorical understanding of Islamic practice. Much of scholarship on Islam in the Academy normally occurs with the lens of ‘Islamic thought’ and in analyzing how classical scholarship by Imam Ghazali, Imam Hanafi or others has continued to influence day to day life of Muslims. On the other hand, there a strong focus on analyzing political movements and radical movements in the Middle East – in terms of trying to understand how these could

One instance of such practice is offered by Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, who argues that Muslims in Portland, Oregon are offering such examples, as praying in the car, when it is time for prayer, instead of missing it – while doing away with the prostrations – as it is not possible, while driving. He suggests that such instances are not uncommon in the U.S. Another example he offers, writing, as part of the Portland Pluralism project is that of not washing one’s feet during the ablution (wudu), before the prayers. This practice, while allowed in the fiqh, or Islamic legal tradition is not often practiced by Muslims in other parts of the world, but is done, quite regularly by those in the U.S., as many Muslims are uncomfortable washing their feet in public bathrooms.

Even in the case of practicing philanthropy, I have seen this improvisation taking place. The very notion of international humanitarian giving can be seen as an improvisation, based in the pragmatic needs of the community. While original conceptualization of zakat and sadaqa encourage believers to give to their immediate relatives, or neighbors, this form of trans-national giving can be seen as a recent innovation.

Another area of improvisation in philanthropy is interfaith work. It is regarded with some suspicion, among the more conservative members of American Muslim society. By philanthropy, I mean all forms of ‘voluntary action for the common good’. While organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands for Humanity and the like are focused on international work, with some significant work being carried out locally, as well; there are hundreds of local community organizations, operating independently or through mosques – in some cases – that are working to not only build networks of support, but also

One of the most interesting cases I have seen, during my time living in Washington D.C., was the practice of using a church for Jum’ah (Friday) prayers. This is a regular practice and has been ongoing for a while now. The ADAMS Center in Washington D.C. uses the Church of Epiphany for the congregations. This has been an ongoing activity, much earlier than the recently publicized event of Muslims praying in the National Cathedral in D.C. While the symbolism of Muslims praying in the largest Cathedral in the city is not to be dismissed, some see it as a PR stunt. Note that this occurred during the troubles in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. A rather cynical friend in Blacksburg connected these two events and suggested that it is a conspiracy of the ‘zionists’ to tell Muslims that they should offer their sites to Christians and Jews to pray. While his logic is indicative of some of the suspicions that some Muslims harbor, it doesn’t take into account the improvisational nature of Muslim practices in the U.s., where Muslims have taken Christian names, married their women and have had a fluid and accommodating relationship with other religions, races.

            Another example that I can offer from my own experience is that of the definition of a ‘Muslim’. In the U.S. unlike in many other parts of the world, the definition of who is a Muslim is very fluid. For instance, does the Ahmadiyaa community, which is considered ‘heretical’ in the Indo-Pak region is a full member of the broader Muslim community, at least in theory. While there are not as many interactions between the community and its non-Ahmadiyaa Muslim communities, the situation is at least better than in the Sub-continent, where members of the community have been actively persecuted for their beliefs and Pakistan has labelled them non-Muslim, as they believe in the prophethood of their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed.

All of this is not to suggest that somehow orthodox beliefs or systems of thought are irrelevant in the U.S., but only to indicate that the way we study traditional practices among American Muslims must be re-looked at, in the context of the growing felt need of American Muslims to find common ground and find space for their way of life, among others, who do not always share their beliefs. Does this answer all our questions about how Islam is evolving in America? Not really, but at least, it offers a honest and true perspective of things as they are, not as they should be.

Rambam’s reminder during Ramadhan – Conversations in Philanthropy # 2

Rabbi Maimonides, or Rambam as he is popularly known was one of the foremost Jewish scholar, who lived in Islamic Spain in the 13th century. He was born in Cordoba, present day Spain, during the Almoravid Empire in 11135 AD and died in Egypt in December 1204. He was a Rabbi, preacher, physician. Rambam is best known for his “Guide of the perplexed,” a classic in Jewish jurisprudence and ethics. His scholarship and vision for an ethical life continue to inspire millions and represents a boundary-crossing venture, across cultures, religions and value systems. He may be considered a “liminal figure,” one who went beyond his own narrow religious realm and contributed to the broader mosaic of scholarship in Philanthropy, ethics and law.

In this brief article, I will try to trace how his “levels of giving,” can be applied in our daily lives and what parallels that has with the Islamic notion of giving. Given that the holy month of Ramadhan has just begun and most Muslims become very conscious of giving charity during this time, this may be a good reminder for us to revisit some of these ideas.


Islamic theology, Judaic norms: the background of Maimonide’s work

While scholars today expect scrupulous footnoting and acknowledgement of other’s works, this was not the case earlier, as Sarah Strouma in her book “Maimonides in his world: Portrait of a Mediterranean thinker,” pointing to the fact that much borrowing occurred in this period, often without acknowledgement. She points out that the title of Rambam’s most famous book “Guide of the perplexed,” is perhaps inspired by Al-Ghazali’s phrase in his Ihya Ul Ulum, where he mentions god as the “guide of the perplexed.” There is also no possibility of him not being familiar with Ghazali’s work, considering how important he was, during that era. Many scholars have made this argument and there is considerable proof that the Judaic and Islamic traditions meet, often rather closely in their interpretation of various values and norms. This is not to assert that one borrowed from the other, but rather that there has been a lot of influence of one on the other.

Source: maimonides.net
Source: maimonides.net


     Conceptions of social justice in Judaism and Islam

Zakat is the one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligatory capital tax that is to be given each year by a Muslim. It is calculated as roughly 2.5 % of the surplus capital that one has. It is seen as a commandment to give, mandated in the Qur’an and mentioned in various Hadith ( sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). One of the several verses in the Quran about charity is: “Worship none save Allah and be good to parents and to kindred and to the orphans and the needy and speak kindly to mankind, and establish worship and pay the poor –due” (Quran – 2: 83). The notion of purification of wealth is inherent in the idea of Zakat. As Jonathan Benthall, points out : “In this respect, the Quranic principle of purity is similar to what Douglas finds in Leviticus and Numbers, that is to say, contagion comes from the body or from moral failure, not from contact with foreigners or the lower classes as in many societies studied by Anthropologists[i].

Tzedakah is an obligation incumbent on all in Judaism and is seen broadly as “righteousness”, though there is no set limit on the amount of the amount of money/resources to be given away. In Jewish history too, Tzedakah served as a mechanism of taxation – to establish four forms of funds: daily food distribution program, clothing fund, burial fund and communal money fund. (Legge, 1995). Several studies have pointed out that Jews in America view social justice as an integral part of their religion. Judaism can be seen as a religion of action and deeds as opposed to beliefs. Charitable actions toward fellow citizens are just as much mitzvot as more formal worship (Legge, 1995). Sklare and Greenblum (1979) have done extensive work in this area and have demonstrated the notion of a “good Jew”, as one who practices social justice. One can see that the concept of giving in both religious traditions has been one of giving for the poor, widowed and the orphans. Both religious traditions have a similar concept of man being the custodian of wealth, which belongs to god.

At the same time, some scholars have contested this and sought to differentiate the notion of giving and charity in Muslim societies. Jonathan Benthall and Jerome-Jourdan have argued that the humanitarian work carried out by Muslim NGOs’ as being framed in a “social justice” perspective rather than just a normative “charitable” or “spiritual love” context, which he says can be seen as a very Judeo-Christian notion (Benthall, 2003).


Rambam’s ladder of giving – The eight levels

Considering that there are many similarities between how both the religions conceptualize social justice and charity, here is a quick look at what Rambam’s ladder is. In the decreasing order of importance, here is his “levels of giving.”  The goal is always to give at the highest level, when possible, but also to recognize that various “levels” can occur, in ourselves and in others.

1. Helping someone find employment or forming partnerships, so they don’t need your help again

2. Giving to the poor, knowing that no one gives to them

3. Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives and the poor person does not know fro whom he takes

4. Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.

5. Below this, one puts into another’s hand before the latter asks

6. Below this one gives another after the latter asks

7. Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner

8. Below this, one gives begrudgingly

            While these steps are self-explanatory, the spirit behind them is important, as people conceptualize their own giving and give, either openly or anonymously. Ramadhan is also a good time to reiterate the shared values, norms and ethics of self-restraint, justice and social reform that both religions seek to instil in their followers. Perhaps Rambam is a scholar more of us should seek to read and understand.

References :


  1. Benthall Jonathan, The Charitable Crescent- Politics of Aid in the Muslim World, I.B Tauris, 2003
  1. Sklare and Greenblum. Jewish identity on the suburban frontier: A study of group survival in the open society. Uni. Of Chicago Press. 1979.


Is soccer a religion?

Source: Creativecommons/flickr
Source: Creativecommons/flickr

This is not meant as a rhetorical question, but a rather serious one. Is Soccer a religion? What makes it one, and if not, why? There are several reasons why one can argue for Soccer ( or football) as you call it, to be classified as religion. “Religion,” which comes from the Latin root “Religio,” which means to practice, or to do something over and again. The problem only begins with semantics, but doesn’t end there. I believe that it is important to clarify what religion means, what its role in public sphere is, and how one is to deal with it, for purposes other than merely spiritual. The role of religion needs to be understood now, more than ever – with seismic changes taking place around us in the U.S, vast political and demographic changes in the Middle East and North Africa and also economic challenges and recession making a deep impact on people in Europe. Many of the explanations offered to us, by journalists, academics and policy makers are couched in the language of “religion.”

There is much more going on in the religious realm, if one pays close attention to it. The debate becomes salient in the context of “football hooliganism,” as in the latest case of Egypt, where 22 people are reported to have died in clashes, following a verdict about football riots in 2011.  Religion in the public sphere is making a come-back, often for the wrong reasons. While the debates advocated by many are outright misleading, there are many nuances to the debate, if one pays close attention and has the patience to look carefully at the intersections of religion and the public sphere.

Jonathan Benthall, a scholar of Sociology of Religion argues that a “religion” has the following 19 characteristics. Let’s see if Soccer satisfies these criterion:

  1. Appeal to supernatural entities
  2. Appeal to an ideal world
  3. Totalizing discourse, creeds, master dogmas and scriptures
  4. Ontology, or an explanation of human beings’ place in nature
  5. Foundation narratives – Narratives that talk about how the world was created
  6. Conversion experiences
  7. Acceptance of doctrinal paradox
  8. Ceremonies, Rituals and Spiritual disciplines
  9. Solace in the face of death and suffering
  10. Martyrdom
  11. Demonology
  12. Moral imperatives based on altruism
  13. Internalization of a moral code
  14. Sectarianism
  15. Identity politics
  16. The sacred-profane distinction
  17. Trance states
  18. From the local to the transnational
  19. Patina – Referring to having survived for a long time.

So what? One might be tempted to ask. While one can argue that Soccer satisfies almost (if not all) of the above criterion, does it become a “ religion,” despite not being considered one in a traditional sense. What about Scientology, which is struggling to being considered as a religion, despite not being accepted by many, including the liberal western states of the United Kingdom and France, where it is being viewed with much suspicion, and treated almost like a cult. This article shows how the “religion” of Scientology is being actively seen as a “fraudulent” faith.

This question of whether something is considered a religion is relevant also because of its public policy implications. There is something to be said about the negative connotation that the term “religion” has in certain circles. Certain societies and intellectual groups actively despise religion and religious practices and anything pertaining remotely to religion is seen with suspicion, if not active hostility.

While the United States guarantees freedom of religion and one can choose to believe in practically anything that one wishes, other parts of the world are not so tolerant. The case against Scientology in France centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test. The Independent quotes her as saying that in the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-meter” to measure her spiritual progress, all fraudulent ways to “extract money.” While this article is not meant to defend Scientology or explain its doctrines, I merely used this as an example to illustrate one of the debates in the public sphere concerning religion.

Any debate about religion in the public sphere these days (and since the renaissance) has centered on how it impacts the “public sphere.” While one can argue about the need to keep religion in the private realm and separate the public sphere and religion – reality is much more complex. Robert Wuthnow, Jose Casanova, Jonathan Benthall – all world-renowned Sociologists and thinkers who have studied the role of religion in the public sphere have argued for understanding, accepting the role ( and indeed, the need) for religion to address some of our social evils such as poverty, hunger and homelessness. And it is hard to argue that religion( through faith-based organizations such as the Church, Mosque, Temple or Synagogue) continues to address these fundamental challenges on a daily basis. Religion is also making a comeback given the economic recession, the lack of government intervention in providing social security ( Western societies are facing this challenge more than others, if one looks at this closely). A recent IRIN article pointed out that just Zakat contributions ( charity given by Muslims) throughout the world is to the tune of between $200 billion to a trillion, which is more than 15 times the global humanitarian development aid, given by all the western nations combined. This staggering potential cannot be ignored.

I would like to believe that globally, there is a shift to pay attention to what religion is – in its various manifestations, its key role in the lived human experience and also its critical contribution to making our lives better. Finally, as Robert Wuthnow  famously said:  “ You may close the door on religion, but it comes flying through the window.” Perhaps it is time we make peace with the idea of religion and learn to live with it.