What Next for Syria?

Syrian city of Aleppo

The conflict has turned a corner as the Syrian government regained control of Damascus and begins pushing into rebel-held areas.

LobeLog interviewed Josh Landis of Syria Comment to ask him what happens next. The full interview is worth reading, but here are a few excerpts on competing regional policies.


Idlib was one of the poorer regions of Syria. It was a Muslim Brotherhood and rather Salafi place before the revolution. Now it’s become a dumping ground for all of the defeated rebel forces that have been pushed out of the various rebel pockets. They’ve all been pushed into Idlib, and it’s become this very unhappy collecting point.

Today we’re seeing lots of violence there internally, between militias that are vying for supremacy. But also, Turkey is protecting Idlib. Turkey does not want it to be conquered, because in doing so Assad would push tens of thousands of militia fighters into Turkey. That will make the refugee problem much more difficult for Turkey and saddle Turkey with up to 100,000 hardened rebel fighters, many of whom have links to al-Qaeda.

This gives Turkey a lot of incentive to take Idlib province and try to set up a satellite statelet that can act as a holding province for these rebels.


Israel wants Syria to remain weak. The civil war has opened up a lot of potential for advances on Israel’s northern border. It’s destabilized that border, but at the same time it’s weakened Assad tremendously. He’s no longer a military threat to Israel, and the militias that are now along the border also don’t pose a threat.

Even if they have links to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda they’re small and have no missile capabilities or other advanced military technology. Israel would like to be able to preserve those gains and consolidate its control over the Golan. It’s now pressing the United States to follow up on its Jerusalem recognition by recognizing the Golan as Israeli territory.

United States:

The U.S. has closed off all of the major highways out of Syria to the east. International trade for Syria has been blocked off and sanctions tightened. The U.S. is dead set against international organizations playing any role in Syrian redevelopment so the U.S. can continue to strangle Syria and keep it extremely poor.

You might argue that this is bad from a counterterrorism perspective because it will create more instability, but I think the U.S. is willing to pay that price because it won’t hurt the U.S. directly.

We’re not sure exactly what the U.S. is promoting in Syria, but all the talk coming out of Washington reflects an effort to squeeze Syria politically, economically, diplomatically, and militarily in order to unseat Assad and replace him with a government that’s going to be pro-West and anti-Iran.

Any favorites?



Abortion and its Complications, in Egypt


Abortion Egypt
via Mada Masr

Ireland is in fierce debate over its future with abortion. Such high-stakes battles are often called a culture war.

Abortion, like war, is a terrible thing. Even if one believes it is necessary, it is still death. Defining it otherwise, depending on one’s convictions, makes it almost worse than war. It is the prevention of life.

From war, at least, can come great virtue. All too often, abortion comes because of convenience.

Except in Egypt. Even when a willful choice, it is anything but convenient.

The good journalists at Mada Masr wish Egypt could be otherwise. On Safe Abortion Day, September 28, they posted a heart-wrenching two-part article, telling three stories of women aborting.

So as background, here are the essential facts:

Egypt has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The law, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s, punishes women who intentionally abort a pregnancy with imprisonment. Abortion is not permitted on any grounds, including rape or incest.

The only exception is that a woman does not face punishment if she attempts to abort unsuccessfully. The Doctors Syndicate Code of Ethics also allows physicians to perform an abortion if the woman’s life or health is threatened, but this is a moral, not a legal, duty.

While there is a widespread assumption that this restrictive stance to abortion is rooted in religion, the origins of the law are colonial in nature. Articles that are still in force today were based on items in the French Penal Code.

The article does not tackle the controversy of whether abortion is legal in Islam. For those interested, here is how BBC and Wikipedia cover it. For many of our Muslim friends it is a non-issue.

But as will be seen, judicial rulings made little difference to the following three women.

Story one concerns a woman who had to hide away for her abortion, as she afterwards struggles with the morality of her choice.

Story two is of a woman in a forbidden relationship despite a knowing mother, which the abortion threatens if the wrong people find out.

Story three is of a married woman whose pregnancy puts her life in danger, only to be left unattended by doctors reluctant to get involved.

Please click here and here to read the article, but I’ve excerpted the most poignant sections below.

Story one

Had I been married, I would have had the abortion at home. There would have been no need to make up excuses to escape my family during that time. I would have been able to receive my friends at home, or at least I would have been able to use the bathroom freely without having to kneel whenever I passed in front of the window so the neighbors wouldn’t notice me.

Had I been married, I would have been able to go to any hospital as soon as the bleeding started. I would have been able to pretend that this was an accidental miscarriage and I would have received medical attention.

Had I been married, I would have received the news of my pregnancy differently, even if I decided to abort in the end.

Much of my resentment arose from the feeling that I was doing something illegal, even though it’s my own body. If I were in a different country, I might have been able to go to a hospital and request counseling. It’s disturbing not to be able to ask for help, to feel oppressed under a guardianship imposed by law and society.

Even though I had read over and over that a fertilized egg has no soul, I felt that I was killing my son or daughter. I felt the pain of loss and I was troubled by my questions:

Why did I have to do it this way? Perhaps I was worried more about the standard of living and the kind of life we had — if I didn’t have to struggle so much to eat and drink and do everything else, would I have opted to keep the baby?


Story two

I had always heard that male partners disappeared in these situations and that the whole relationship would end soon after. …

Every time I used the bathroom, he waited for me and took the sanitary pad to throw it away. This comforted me. I felt accepted. He wasn’t disgusted by my blood. I didn’t have to worry about the practicalities. I stayed focused on the pain I felt in my lower abdomen.

It’s such a false notion that only a husband will act responsibly and care for you — the notion that you should get married in order to have a man by you. No, the truth is that the man who took care of me during that period was one with whom I had what society sees as an illegitimate relationship.

Despite my persistent need to have a woman by my side at this time, I never imagined that my mother could be that woman. Our relationship wouldn’t allow it.

Everything I do goes against everything she believes in. I am in a relationship, which she knows about from Facebook. The idea of being in a relationship was itself too liberal for my conservative family.

The more important point was the future of my very small family, whose escape from my father was brought about by circumstances in which I played a key role.

Our separation from my father made my presence at home a source of strength to my mother. I was the eldest daughter and always supported her. I was the one who encouraged her to leave home when she was still with my father.

We were a family paying the price for choosing our own peace of mind. That price was living in a home beneath our social standing and having much less money to spend than we were previously accustomed.

So I faced a dilemma: If I left them, this might drive them back to my father. Also, if my father learned of this, he might force them to return, arguing that my pregnancy was proof that my mother was unable to handle us on her own.


Story three

I closed my eyes to the sight. My son was wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. His heart was beating slower and slower, until it came to a complete stop. I stopped screaming. My mother stopped crying. And I drifted out of consciousness.

I saw blood and wished I were asleep. I wished I hadn’t been awake for that experience, and that I didn’t relive it dozens of times in my nightmares.

I felt my soul escape my body to watch me from above. I was knocking my head against the wall. My sister’s skin was under my nails mixed with her blood. I grabbed at her with a strength I didn’t know I had.

She was crying, my mother screaming. My father was looking for the doctor who had already told us he wouldn’t help until he saw a head coming out of the womb.

“Haram [it’s wrong],” he said, very simply, judging me in my worst moment, as I both pitied and hated myself. From one in the afternoon until 11 at night, he left me to kill my son on my own.

The two doctors were in agreement, saying that the fetus would die. They provided the reports that they told me would allow me to have an abortion in any hospital.

I was allowed an abortion because I am a married woman and because the pregnancy was a risk to my health. They insisted, however, that neither would perform the abortion himself.

The first told me nicely that he doesn’t do abortions, and the second said that he wouldn’t do anything. I went to see a third doctor, but he was religious and said it was haram. His voice joined the first two: Even if I went through labor, I would still have a dead child. I surrendered.

I went home and listened to all the things I didn’t want to hear on that day. “You will be compensated. You will be rewarded. God’s will is never bad,” my family said.

Throughout, I felt my son resisting my body’s attempts to eject him. I was his home, but I was kicking him out. I was his safety, but I was expelling him. I felt him fight to stay alive, as I fought for him to die.

“Just open my stomach and get him out!” I screamed. I felt guiltiest at this point: He was still alive. His heart was still beating. My body wants to get rid of a living baby, a baby I claimed to love beyond belief, a baby whose ultrasound pictures I cherished, a baby whose every heartbeat was precious.

Every two weeks, I’d gone to the doctor just because I wanted to see this baby. But in that moment, I would have done anything just to get rid of him. I just wanted it to be over.

My father ran again through the corridors looking for someone to cut the cord, yelling like a man who was about to lose two lives, one of whom was struggling for his last breath.

Finally, the hospital manager intervened and severed the umbilical cord himself. He refused to give us any documentation of his involvement, or of any other doctor’s in my case, perhaps fearing legal ramifications. Before we left, and based on his request, a friend of my father’s, a gynecologist, came and cleaned my uterus in an operating room.

I walked to the room with blood dripping down my legs. My son was dead, and I was in a room lacking the most basic hygiene. I felt I was a woman having an abortion in a shady backroom clinic in Cairo.

I parted with my placenta and my faith. He departed to a new world, and I remained here for them to blame me for the loss. They forbade newlyweds from visiting me. “It’s a bad omen,” they said. I was faced with judgment from beginning to end. I was made to be guilty for a mistake I never made.

And then, a few months later I found out I was pregnant again and my first reaction was that I couldn’t deal with this.

I carried my pregnancy to term. I have a baby girl who is coping with a chronic disease for which there is no cure. I love her, and I accept her. My pregnancy and labor with her was very different. I continued to hear the same provocative consolations, however, things like, “You see, God rewarded you well.”

Story one struggled with guilt. Story two worried about shame. Story three was hit with religion.

Legal abortion in a culture of tolerance promises to do away with these pains. Pains they are, and they are not the only ones. The issues are real, and compassionate care is necessary.

There is forgiveness from guilt. There is freedom from shame. There is redemption in religion.

But I think that like war, abortion – legal or otherwise, necessary or convenient – would do well to keep its stigma. The barriers should be high, lest death, and life, lessen in sanctity. Like war, abortion should never become an easy option.

Like the reception of soldiers returning from war, however, all depends on a culture and community ready to embrace them.

Most pro-life people I am familiar with in the United States are like this. Media often depicts those angrily protesting in front of abortion clinics. I’m not sure who is more numerous, and there is no necessary distinction.

One can rail against cultural license one moment, and comfort a licentious teenager the next.

Listen to her stories. They may not be as frightful as the ones above. But they are all felt fully, in the moment, as a great war.

War is Hell? Yes. Abortion?

Whatever your answer, heaven is waiting. Consider both carefully in the ranking of priorities.


Pope Tawadros’ Weekly Sermon, in English

Mideast Egypt Islamic State
Pope Tawadros II. Photo Amr Nabil

Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church was known as the ‘teacher of generations.’ I had the privilege of attending the beloved 87-year-old deliver one of his Wednesday weekly sermons back in 2010.

Five years later, in post-revolutionary Egypt, I watched his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition. He preached on Esther, and for unrelated reasons, a mini-protest broke out.

Now in 2018, for the first time I have noticed the weekly sermon translated into English, provided by the Coptic Media Center.

I am not certain if this will become a new tradition, but if so it will be fitting. The Coptic Orthodox Church is international, with many English-speaking congregations in the US and Canada (and the UK).

For those interested in the spirituality of the Coptic pope, here is an excerpt from his text. Pope Tawadros spoke on Mark 10:46-52, the story of blind Bartimaeus.

It is entitled: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Lessons we can learn from the story of the blind man for our spiritual journey:

1. Be persistent in prayer: don’t stop asking God for help, with patience & confident faith. Continuous crying out (praying) demonstrates a strong need for help.

2. Jesus hears your prayer from amongst the crowds: your short & simple prayers are heard by Christ and He responds to them.

3. The #1 goal of Satan is to prevent you from reaching Christ: just as the people tried to prevent/discourage the blind man from reaching Christ, Satan does with us when we are praying. FOCUS on the goal: to reach Christ, & do not listen to thoughts of doubt – your own or others’.

a. Remember the miracle of the demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute? (Matthew 12:22) It reveals that sin denies a person 3 things: thinking about Christ, talking to Christ, and seeing Christ.

4. Throw away anything that stands between you and God: be ready to QUICKLY detach from things, habits, etc. God reveals to you to let go of.

5. The importance of your will: “What do you want Me to do for you?” shows that God not only respects your will, but that your CONSENT IS NECESSARY to allow God to work in your situation.

6. You are a partner with God: God will give you the ability to do what is needed to do, but you must participate with your faith, your repentance, your prayers, your persistence, and your will.

7. Be definitive in your prayer request to Christ: Imagine if the blind man’s response to Christ had been, “I want some money,” or “I don’t know what I want,” that would have been a wasted opportunity. Go to Christ prepared, knowing what it is you want Him to do for you.

8. Follow Jesus after He heals you: after Jesus heals/helps you, will you follow Him?

Click here for the full sermon on the Coptic Spokesman’s Facebook page.








How Many ISIS Jihadis in America?

ISIS Jihadis Returning
Photograph by Bram Janssen / AP, via the New Yorker

A recent edition of the New Yorker tackled the problem of ISIS fighters returning to their home countries. Given the controversies in the US about Muslim bans and extreme vetting, it is interesting to note other nations have it much worse:

A new report, to be released Tuesday by the Soufan Group and the Global Strategy Network, details some of the answers: At least fifty-six hundred people from thirty-three countries have already gone home—and most countries don’t yet have a head count.

On average, twenty to thirty per cent of the foreign fighters from Europe have already returned there—though it’s fifty per cent in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Thousands more who fought for ISIS are stuck near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq, and are believed to be trying to get back to their home countries.

Dozens of governments face similar challenges. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that ten per cent of the more than nine thousand foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics who went to Syria or Iraq have come home. (In private, other Russians have given me higher numbers.)

The report, titled “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees,” notes that countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, and in North Africa, such as Libya, are particularly vulnerable.

Here are some more numbers, concluding with America:

Over all, since 2011, more than forty thousand people, from more than a hundred and ten countries, travelled to join ISIS—in addition to the local Syrians and Iraqis who became fighters. Among these jihadis were seventy-four hundred from the West—five thousand of them from Europe.

So far, the numbers of ISIS fighters from the United States have been comparatively low.

More than two hundred and fifty Americans tried to leave the country to join the caliphate in Syria or Iraq.

About half—a hundred and twenty-nine—succeeded, the report says. Some were blocked.

Only seven of those who made it to the battlefield have returned. As of August, the United States has charged a hundred and thirty-five people for terrorism offenses linked to ISIS; seventy-seven have so far been convicted.

Of course, these are the numbers we know, and even small numbers are significant. Terrorists do not need major manpower to succeed.

Even so, allow statistics to guide conversation and the processing of spin. Ideology knows no borders, but two oceans provide valuable buffer.

So does an already robust processing system. Vigilance must never falter, but neither must we surrender to mischaracterization.

Those returning have rights. Muslims coming are human. Let us protect ourselves, but keep our soul.



The Floating Interfaith Bridges to Sinai

Floating Bridge Sinai

Buried in an Ahram Online story about Egypt’s efforts to develop the restless northern Sinai region is a testament to the nation’s insistence on shared identity.

Terrorism in the region has killed Muslim and Christian alike. Part of the problem, analysts say, is that Sinai has been long neglected.

Isolated from the Egyptian mainland, tribal society has been penetrated by militants who draw on a sense of frustration with the state.

President Sisi has promised “utmost force” to eliminate terrorism. But he also recently inaugurated projects to address the economic conditions. These include pathways across and below the Suez Canal, to better link with the rest of Egypt.

Two of which bear special names.

El-Sisi also inaugurated two floating bridges in Ismailia and Qantara, which are named after Ahmed El-Mansi and Abanoub Gerges; two army personnel who were killed in Sinai in the line of duty in recent years.

As every Egyptian knows, Ahmed is a Muslim name, and Abanoub is Christian.

Dozens of security personnel have been killed fighting terrorism. I wrote recently of how casualties cross religious lines.

But to commemorate an bridge connecting Sinai to the mainland, Egypt connects its martyrs from each faith.

The nation has a long way to go to defeat sectarianism, and many may look cynically at a bridge when a church gets ransacked. Just this week a mob attacked in offense of a rumor that a nondescript, not-yet-licensed church would add a bell.

Do not unduly laud Egypt over the name commemoration; it is a far simpler task than civic education.

But neither underestimate its symbolism. Egypt would be much poorer without it.

Video of the opening of both bridges, issued by the Suez Canal Authority (Arabic only). The man on the right is from Bir al-Abd, the Sinai village that suffered the mosque attack, and interrupts the proceedings to say he hopes this accomplishment will help the blood to dry.


The Genesis of Salafi-Jihadism

Salafi Jihadi Surur

Did you know that not all Salafis are jihadis?

Often in popular understanding they of the long beard are the chief perpetrators of religious violence and terrorism.

Many are, but it does not have to be so. Another popular version of Salafism adopts political quietism, believing Islam commands them to obey the ruler — almost no matter what.

The ‘almost’ is because the ruler is required to allow the practice of prayer, and in some fashion implement sharia. If he willingly flaunts this, he forfeits his rule.

But they also believe that Islam teaches that the chaos of rebellion far outweighs the chance that a revolution against defects might possibly be successful.

But where is the sharia line to be drawn, and what calculation of chance might animate a Salafi toward jihad?

Meet Muhammad Surur, a Syrian recently deceased and commemorated in the National as the one who normalized extremism.

Surur was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria until the 1960s. He broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood and moved to Saudi Arabia, where he was influenced by Salafism there.

A decade later, he left Saudi Arabia for Kuwait. In the 1970s, he was part of a leaderless and unorganised religious movement that combined traditional and revolutionary ideas, dubbed the Islamic awakening.

The Sahwa, as the movement was known in Arabic, led to the transmutation of Salafism from a traditional school of thought (dawa) to an activist one (haraki), through the foreign influence of political revolutionaries such as Surur.

In short, political quietism met political Islam.

Still, this doesn’t mean his movement was bloodthirsty. The author notes jihadis and anti-jihadis both hurl insults against one another in Surur’s name.

Even so, Surur believed the Shia were not true Muslims, says the author, and praised himself for anticipating the intra-Muslim divides characterizing the post-Iranian revolution Middle East.

Surur also embraced the Syrian uprising, and was eulogized by the Syrian National Coalition, the political arm of the Syrian Islamic Council.

“He focused in his work on activism and traditionalism, rejecting apathy and passivity, and established a current that combines intellectual work with political activism, in addition to religious knowledge.”

The coalition’s statement is an example of the dangerous tendency to misconceive of the man’s legacy. The political body ignores the impact Surur had on the kind of extremism that sweeps his country five decades after he left it.

Praise for his movement shows the rampant normalisation of extremist ideas prevalent not only by the opposition’s bodies but also by watchers of the conflict.

The article is noteworthy for highlighting an individual who nuances our understandings.

But I find it lacking in one way: Why did the Salafism side of the equation produce such wanton violence?

Traditional political Islamic groups have a more nebulous approach, sometimes embracing non-violence or defined, forceful actions for revolutionary goals. Perhaps I’m being too generous.

Salafi-jihadis have been shaken into political activism, certainly, but where then does the violence come from?

Salafis esteem the earliest Muslim ages and seek to replicate as much as possible. Does the new revolutionary fervor spark imitation of early Islamic wars?

Or does the Salafi tendency to reject the other and the modern world simply explode when driven to an activist cause?

Political Islamists might utilize violence, or pursue insurrection, but there is something very different about Salafi-Jihadis. Why?

Surur himself is not enough to explain this, however much he may have set it in motion. The author does well to bring us his example, but the article is too short to articulate everything.

But everything is what we need to know, to properly understand and appreciate the other.

Inasmuch as that is impossible, let us try within the space we have. For now, just realize that not all Salafis are violent, even if many have long beards.



Giving Thanks, for Khartoum and Kennedy

Thanksgiving Khartoum Kennedy
via Mormon Newsroom and Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

Happy Thanksgiving to all American friends. Religious freedom is one item of gratitude, as well as positive signs it may be developing around the world.

Consider again these promising signs I’ve been privileged to report on the past two years:

Arab Gulf — Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Indonesia — World’s Biggest Muslim Organization Wants to Protect Christians

Morocco — Arab Christians and the Marrakesh Declaration

Egypt — Let My People Build

Bahrain — Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

Saudi Arabia — The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Italy — Muslims Work for Religious Freedom


Not all is rosy, of course, and some nations pretend nothing is wrong.

Sudan is one of them. But in recent engagement, the United States has religious freedom on the agenda for improvement of ties and removal of sanctions.

As Crux has reported:

A leading U.S. diplomat visiting Sudan said the United States is willing to work with the Sudanese government to help it achieve the conditions necessary to remove its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was speaking on Nov. 17 at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman, located on the western bank of the Nile River, which separates it from the national capital.

Sullivan said “supporting human rights, including religious freedom, has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the United States’ bilateral engagement with Sudan.”

The event at the mosque included leading Muslim and Christian clergy. Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, and the small Christian community has faced harassment, especially since the predominantly Christian and animist south of the country became the independent state of South Sudan in 2011.

The State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cited reports of government arresting, detaining, or intimidating Christian clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.

There is always room for cynicism, and perhaps frequently it is warranted.

Does the United States care more for counterterrorism and military contracts, and will let this item slide if progress is seen elsewhere?

Will Sudan put on a nice face and make superficial improvements, only to squeeze non-Muslim communities once the diplomats leave?

Maybe. But this Thanksgiving, let not cynicism be a landing place. Even the public rhetoric of religious freedom is something to celebrate. It sets a tone; attitudes can adjust over time.

And as the US ambassador told his Sudanese audience, it took a while in America.

“I am the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1880s. At the time they arrived – and for many decades that followed – Catholics in the United States faced widespread prejudice based on their religion,” he said.

“When John F. Kennedy – another Catholic from my home state – ran for president of the United States in 1960, he even had to give a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of president.”

Sullivan said recalling such history “seems quaint” today, but added it took many decades – “it was not easy” – to reach the point where it is “nearly unthinkable” that one’s status as a Catholic in the United States would serve as a disadvantage to a person’s ambitions for life.

“The American experience in this regard underscores that respect for the human dignity of every person – regardless of religious belief or origin – is a key component of not only protecting human rights, but also fostering a society that can flourish, build upon each other’s strengths, and move forward together,” he said.

America has had flaws, too. She still has some, and may be developing others.

But today, around the table, give thanks to God for what exists — both at home and abroad.

Those who love God do not need freedom to follow their faith. But ample facilitation makes our world a better place.

Appreciate, and pray for more. And then, enjoy your turkey.


Must the Muslima Wear a Headscarf?

Hijab Identity Politics

Identity politics are dangerous. Unfortunately Muslims have long been swept up into the fray. Sometimes willingly.

In many traditional and conservative societies, women have covered their heads. This is not exclusive to Islam, whatever the Quran says about it.

But a time came also when Muslims were mobilizing on the basis of faith, using it as a rallying cry. It roughly corresponded with an ascendant European colonialism that weakened the political power Muslims once possessed. It revived in the 1970s, with the surge in popularity of political Islamism.

And one symbol of resistance was the woman. The headscarf became a statement.

It is far more than that, of course. It is a symbol of piety, of faith. It is an act of modesty in an immodest world. Perhaps it is an act of acquiescence to culture, or obedience to husband.

In the end it is a piece of cloth, and from an American perspective we believe a woman should be (mostly) free to wear what she wants.

But to be a good Muslima, must the woman wear a scarf?

I will not delve into the perspectives that say yes, or the traditional interpretations that seem to govern much of the Muslim world. They may well be right.

But in a recent article, the Huffington Post highlighted five scholars who say no. I know some of the names. One is famous and generally well celebrated. Another was marginal and called an apostate.

Here are their arguments.

Khaled Abou el-Fadl

El-Fadl mentions that the illa (operative cause) for the injunction to cover was to protect women from harm and to avoid undue attention from mischief mongers.

He also states that the ma’ruf (generally accepted as good) and the munkar (socially recognized as unacceptable) are based on pragmatic and practical experience.

Therefore, he argues that if the headscarf itself causes women to stand out and put them in the way of harm, and if uncovering the head is not considered socially immodest or licentious, then it would be permissible for Muslim women to not wear the headscarf.

One would hope a well functioning society would not harass women who cover their heads. Does his reasoning then suggest that the headscarf is otherwise an obligation? Should the power of decision be yielded to the mischief mongers?

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi

Like El-Fadl, Ghamidi opines there were injunctions exclusive for the wives of the Prophet. He argues that there are only four instructions that pertain to Muslim women.

These include lowering the gaze, wearing modest clothing, covering the bosom with a piece of cloth, and not displaying ornamental embellishments before unrelated men.

No other injunction other than these has been imposed on Muslim women.

This seems straightforward enough. A general command for modesty may require a headscarf in some cultures, but not in others. But who is to decide? The individual woman? Islam teaches that God judges the individual, so she alone bears the consequences. But who protects society?

Abdullah bin Bayyah

Bin Bayyah adopts an approach based on necessity.

He argues that hardships allow for uncovering of body parts and mentioned how the shins of two of the Prophet’s wives, Aishah and Umm Salamah, were uncovered when they were giving water to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. He also mentions the minority position of Ibn Ashur that women may uncover their hair in public.

Bin Bayyah’s student Hamza Yusuf even asserts that:

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. …

The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

If uncovering hair is admitted to be a minority position, bin Bayyah’s does not seem a very strong argument. A pillar of sharia law is the consensus of community.

His student Yusuf pulls a principle of Jesus, but the Huffington Post excerpt does not go far enough to demonstrate the validity of the principle in Islam. For now it must be enough that some scholars argue so.

Ahmad Ghabel

The late Shia cleric, who had the prominent title of Hojjat el-Islam (authority on Islam), offered ten arguments in support of the viewpoint that covering the head was not obligatory but recommended.

He opined that there was no consensus amongst jurists as to whether hair constituted the awrah (intimate parts) that must be covered.

For the reader desiring demonstrations of validity, the link will offer an academic treatise. But even if something is only recommended, should it not be done? Perhaps it cannot be enforced, but does the woman risk her standing with little recourse?

But as above, the second claim is more powerful. If there is no consensus on what must be covered, then again we come back to modesty, not compulsion.

Nasr Abu Zayd

According to the late Abu Zayd, both the awrah (intimate parts) and the hijab (veil) are subject to socio-cultural norms and therefore are changeable and not fixed. He opined that both are not legislated by Islam but are rather specific to the Arab culture.

Fair enough, but again, on what basis? Not enough here to tell.

For what it is worth, this is the scholar labeled an infidel by an Egyptian court, and forcibly divorced from his wife. I don’t know his story well enough to say which of his opinions most offended the judge.

All religions impose obligations; all societies have their norms. The former is of individual faith; however related, the latter is not wise to transgress.

But some always will, and society needs their creativity. Just not too much of it. It is difficult to know where the line must be drawn.

If this was the only matter, we would probably work it out. Not to justify any particular outcome, but traditional societies seemed to do so, with diverse application.

Some highlight the hijab as a symbol of oppression. Others compel it as a means of control. Some thrust it in your face demanding respect. Others find ways to seduce men all the same.

Too much of this issue is wrapped in identity politics. Let’s just leave each other alone.

Mostly. Unfortunately, the headscarf at this time hits at a collective world conscience on how to balance rights with freedoms, the individual with society.

Maybe we can’t just leave each other alone, but we can be charitable. How wonderful if this was our collective identity.

I Love My Hijab


Can Polygamy be Curbed in Islam?

Islam Polygamy

Islam grants a man the right to take up to four wives, as long as he can provide for and treat them equitably.

As it has been explained to me, the original allowance came early in Muslim history when the male population was greatly reduced by warfare.

Some Muslims argue the original reason for revelation indicates the provision was temporary. Others argue the high standard of practice is nearly impossible, rendering the provision irrelevant.

But many others see it as God’s eternal permission. Only Turkey and Tunisia have outlawed polygamy, though restrictions exist in many nations.

Egypt, apparently, may enter this minefield.

According to al-Monitor, a draft law has been proposed to require the permission of a first wife before her husband can legally marry a second. The marriage would become null and void unless he can submit to the court her written agreement.

The article does not delve into the details of Islamic jurisprudence, and I am in no position to judge. But it does provide several reactions that illustrate how modern Muslims in Egypt regard the practice.

Here are a few excerpts:

Asserting that the draft law is compatible with Islamic Sharia, he [the draft law author] indicated that the Islamic Research Academy would approve it because Islamic Sharia allowed both spouses to add conditions to protect their rights, to preserve their interests and to have guarantees.

One traditional Salafi parliament member deferred to the Azhar to decide if the law is compatible with Islamic sharia. But he had an objection of relevance, akin to the original Muslim situation:

Khalil added, “What second marriage are we talking about at a time when the number of spinsters in Egypt stands at more than 11 million? Egyptian young men are barely capable of getting married once, let alone a second marriage.”

The head of Azhar University’s fatwa committee did not object:

“This is a permissible condition that has a sound purpose, which is to prevent the harm that may be caused to the first wife in case her husband decided to marry a second woman without her consent.

If a man has the right to marry more than one and consents to waive this right, then the condition [of the first wife’s prior approval] would therefore be valid.

A man can still be capable of having another wife without harming his first wife, since in Islam doing justice between wives is a prerequisite for polygamy.”

The female head of the Arab League’s Women Department disagreed:

“At the beginning of their marriage, both spouses would have strong emotional feelings and would rule out the idea of a second marriage. But as life goes on, a man could consider a second marriage.

I think that the husband should submit to the court the reasons for which he wants a second marriage, and it would be up to the judge to decide whether to allow him or not to do so. The first wife is not a neutral party, and certainly she would not want her husband to take on a second wife.”

A member of Egypt’s National Council for Women said the stipulation is already in personal status law, though not in the marriage contract. But she supports the amendment because there is a one year statute of limitations for divorce, from the time the wife becomes aware of the second marriage. Lawyers (and husbands) have exploited this loophole and kept women in the dark.

But she also finds a supporting rationale:

She further pointed that Muhammad did not allow Ali bin Abi Talib to take on another wife besides Muhammad’s daughter Fatima Zahra because this would hurt her, which confirms that the marriage contract condition of the first wife’s approval on the second marriage is in accordance with Islamic Sharia.

But a Salafi leader dismissed this reasoning:

“Prophet Muhammad and his companions were married to several women, and no one reported that they ever waited for their first wife’s permission.”

He explained that Muhammad’s rejection of Ali bin Abi Talib is a special case related exclusively to Fatima because the second wife was the daughter of Abu Jahl, an infidel.

Hawari added, “Moreover, the prophet did not forbid Ali from getting another wife, but he asked him to divorce Fatima if he insisted on marrying the daughter of Abu Jahl.

After Fatima’s death, Ali married eight women. Therefore, this example cannot be cited when talking about polygamy.”

We had one friend who kept giving birth to girls. She was constantly afraid her husband would take a second wife.

We have another friend whose father’s second marriage proved a source of tension with his children.

A third friend invited us to the marriage of his first wife’s son. We had previously only met his second, but at the door he told us not to mention her name. The first wife didn’t know about it. We had the impression the children did, though, and didn’t object.

Polygamy is complicating, certainly.

Instead of parliamentarians, it would be better to probe instead the Muslim sources and what their commentators have ruled throughout history. It would be better to explore the process by which Turkey and Tunisia outlawed the practice, and see if it had socially acceptable legal justification.

Sometimes bypassed in interpretation of law – divine or otherwise – are the personal stories of those involved.

But in lieu of further study, please make do with the examples above. What do you think?

Here, I only advise to speak with graciousness and humility, holding whatever convictions you deem appropriate.



Islamists Elsewhere

Islamism Asia

The Atlantic has an insightful piece on the history of American engagement with political Islam. It is written by authors previously recommended as scholars of the movement.

The whole is worth reading, but here is an excerpt describing non-Arab Islamist success — outside of the political process.

It is often assumed politics and governance is the standard of judgment. But is that the case?

Pakistan’s Islamists provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Moroccan “model.” Yet it is a counterpoint that very few Moroccans—or Arab Islamists anywhere—seem much interested in.

Jamaat e-Islami, Pakistan’s Muslim Brotherhood analog, usually wins only a handful of parliamentary seats, yet, as Spiegel points out, the movement may very well be more influential than its Moroccan counterpart, in terms of “influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ large.” There are other ways of winning besides, well, winning.

In Southeast Asia, Islamist parties, while gaining a significant share of the vote, have not been able to win outright on the national level.

They have, however, helped “Islamism” spread throughout society and become normalized, with even ostensibly secular parties embracing the idea that Islam—and even explicit sharia ordinances—have an important role to play in public life. The lesson here may appear counterintuitive.

The worse Islamists do in elections, the less of a threat they pose to their non-Islamist competitors, who, in turn, seem to have less of a problem appropriating Islamist styles for their own electoral purposes.

Of course, the causal relationships become complicated: One of the reasons that Islamists don’t do as well in South and Southeast Asia is because they’re less distinctive, since these societies seem to have coalesced around a relatively uncontroversial conservative “middle.”

Democracy empowers and encourages all parties, Islamist or otherwise, to seek the center, wherever that may be. As the center shifts rightward, Islamist groups are further emboldened, particularly in polarized societies where candidates pay little price for their radicalism.

It is little surprise, then, that Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in the world, has seen a sectarian upsurge. (In May 2017, a Muslim candidate who had developed a reputation as a young “moderate” played on hardline conservative sentiment to unseat the governor of Jakarta, a Christian, who was subsequently imprisoned for blasphemy.)

People often say that Islamism has already conquered Egypt, even if the Brotherhood lost. There is a conservatism to society that wasn’t always here, at least as judged by photos of teachers and students from the 1950s and earlier.

Cairo University Islamism
Cairo University, 1959.

There is also this interesting nugget on Islamists at home:

By the time the Arab uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, the United States had already begun thinking about a new approach toward Islamists.

In 2010, the National Security Council began work on a Presidential Study Directive focused on the question of what a push for genuine political reform in the Middle East would look like—including the normalization of Islamists as political actors.

The immediate challenge after the revolutions of 2011 was therefore not one of deciding whether to increase engagement with Islamists—the Obama administration had already come around on that issue—but rather the question of how and to what extent to undertake such a shift.

I either didn’t know or had forgotten this data point. With all the Egyptian accusations that the US was plotting the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the nation, it would have been poignant consideration at the time — and now.


Copts in Egypt’s Textbooks


Copts Egypt Textbooks
Translation: Some pictures of the Roman persecution of Christians. Via Mada Masr.

There is a general understanding that Egypt’s Christians are marginalized in the educational curriculum.

An additional idea is that this came during an Islamization period in the 1970s, or perhaps during Nasser’s presidency.

A researcher examined this question and described them on Mada Masr. Here is his evaluation:

Based on an analysis of Egyptian history textbooks from 1890 until the academic year 2016/2017, it is clear that Egyptian history is narrated from a perspective that values an Arab Muslim identity over other perspectives and voices.

While the tone generally revers and paints Christianity in a positive light, the narrative as a whole is exclusionary in both explicit and subtle ways.

The article as a whole is insightful, and here is an example — of how textbooks changed:

Current history textbooks do not include explicit derogatory references to Christianity or Christians — as some of the earlier textbooks did. In fact, they include extremely positive mentions, albeit concise.

For instance, in explaining why ancient Egyptians embraced Christianity, a 2016 textbook explains that they were attracted by its values of justice, equality, mercy, empathy, tolerance, renouncement of worldly pleasures, and valuing of the afterlife.[11]

However, we need to also be cognizant of more subtle ways that might give value to one identity while diminishing or silencing others. In addition to continuing to use explicit and extensive Muslim referents as highlighted above, more subtle exclusions can also be found in current textbooks.

For instance, they use the word “Arab” to characterize countries such as Egypt and Lebanon even before they had been taken over by Arab Muslim armies. Such references give the historically inaccurate and false impression that these countries have always embraced an Arab identity, eclipsing the richness of their pre-existing civilizations and cultures.[12]

Additionally, several of these history textbooks have continued to address students as if they are all Muslim. For instance, an 1893 history textbook explains that the religious story of David and his son Solomon “must be learned by all Muslims.”[13]

Similarly, a 1988 history textbook encourages students to learn about the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca by asking their relatives who might have performed it.[14]

In discussing civic engagement, current textbooks encourage students to be proud of our Islamic principles and values that encourage us to volunteer in the community and peacefully co-exist with others different from ourselves.[15]

In Egypt it is sometimes necessary to ask the religion of the researcher, often indicated by name. Ehaab Abdou — I believe these names are shared by Muslims and Christians alike.

What is important, however, is quality. The article is too brief to fully evaluate, but he claims a comprehensive scope of research. I don’t have the background in the subject to know if he left out damning specifics; other Egyptians, please weigh in.

The one thing I noticed is that he did not specifically state he evaluated textbooks in the Azhar educational curriculum. Copts sometimes claim this is a source of bias against them.

But on the whole, the article appears to be an evenhanded treatment of a controversial subject.

Few things are as important as the education of our children — and ourselves.


Is the Muslim Brotherhood Linked to Violence?

Muslim Brotherhood Violence
A Muslim Brotherhood flag from Jordan, via the National Review. Credit: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty. Translation: It is a Holy Quran; God is Great, to God be Praise; Prepare [see Quran 8:60]; The Muslim Brotherhood.
The link between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ongoing terrorism in Egypt is a controversial question.

The government says yes, the MB leadership says no, and Western analysts appear split on the issue. Some see the Brotherhood as the fount of all Islamist violence, others note decades of proclaimed nonviolence in a gradualist strategy to transform Egypt.

But not many have done the exhaustive investigative work of Mokhtar Awad, writing here for the Small Arms Survey of the Security Assessment in North Africa Project.

His 16 page report details the emergence of two allegedly MB-linked violent actors, Liwaa al-Thawra and Hassm. Here are his conclusions:

Perhaps the most explicit and significant indication of a connection between the MB and Liwaa al-Thawra is found in the latter’s statement of responsibility for the assassination of Brigadier General Raga’i.

In it, the group says that the operation was in part revenge for the security forces’ killing of MB leader Mohamed Kamal (Liwaa al-Thawra, 2016c).

In the group’s follow-up video after claiming responsibility for the attack, it eulogized slain MB leaders by showing their pictures, including that of Kamal (Liwaa al-Thawra, 2016d).

Read Awad’s full report about Kamal, who served in the upper echelon of Brotherhood leadership and was responsible for mainland Egypt after many others fled abroad.

As for Hassm, there are also indications of connections between the group and the MB.

The one known leader of Hassm who was killed by the authorities, Mohamed Ashour Dashisha, was an Arabic teacher and graduate from the prestigious Dar al-Ulum college at Cairo University. An examination of Dashisha’s social media profiles indicates that he was at least a supporter of the MB and likely a member as well (Awad, 2017b).

More importantly, in November 2016 the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior released a video statement claiming the arrest of several Hassm members. The arrested members’ confessions alleged a direct operational link to the MB (Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, 2016).

Interestingly, the MB admitted that the persons arrested by the government were MB members, but said that they were simply ‘rights activists’ (MB, 2016a).

Notably, neither of the two rival MB factions has yet released any statement explicitly condemning Hassm or Liwaa al-Thawra, or any of their attacks.

Is this enough evidence to establish a Brotherhood connection? Is such establishment even possible?

Certainly, aside from evidence presented by the Egyptian government of such connections, there is little independent, verifiable, and open-source information that sheds light on potential operational connections.

This will likely continue to be the case unless and until an MB leader explicitly admits to a connection on the record. Such a scenario seems unlikely, however, because the violence allegedly used by the MB and Ikhwani jihadi groups serves a specific political purpose.

Unlike Salafi jihadi groups, the MB does not see violence as its sole tactic, nor does it see benefit in claiming responsibility for attacks that would diminish its international standing.

Without a leak or verified interception of official communications, open-source research cannot easily identify or provide definitive confirmation of any linkages between MB and Hassm or Liwaa al-Thawra, or penetrate a clandestine operation that would reveal such a connection.

Regardless of the degree of connection to the MB as an organization, there is little doubt that Hassm and Liwaa al-Thawra have in their ranks and among their supporters either current or former members of the MB and allied Islamist groups. The political context in which they operate makes this all but a certainty (Awad, 2017b).

For your evaluation. Any thoughts?

Postscript: Read also this investigative report from Mada Masr, on how the prosecutor-general was assassinated.


Did the Muslims Conquer Jerusalem?

Syriac Conquest History
A Syriac hymn, manuscript dated to the 14th century.

Did the Muslims conquer the Middle East? History says they did, from both the Western and Islamic perspectives. Much of the self-understanding of modern civilization has been built upon this premise, the resulting Crusades, and eventual colonization by European powers.

Some fear there are signs of a renewed animosity between the Western and Muslim worlds, a quasi-religious competition, even as Christianity has lost much of its ethos and Islam has lost much of its power.

But new research into a third resource questions the history. Scholars and historians know Latin and Greek. Arabic is also readily translated and studied.

But not Syriac, the neglected lingua franca of 7th century life in the Levant, and the language of its native, non-imperial peoples.

The Institute of Advanced Studies recently published one scholar’s research:

Syriac literature was produced by—and conversely sheds light on—communities living on the borders of the Near Eastern polities, considered as a religious minority in the Zoroastrian Empire of the Sasanians, as heretics in the eyes of the Byzantine Orthodox (since the “universal” councils of Ephesus in 421 and Chalcedon in 531 that they refused), and as one of the religions of the book under Islamic powers.

Syriac thus offers a crucial “internal” source for the history of the Mesopotamian region reaching as far as South Arabia and the Far East from the late antique to the medieval era.

Shortly before the rise of Arab/Islamic empire, the Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires were at war, taking and then losing Jerusalem and possession of Jesus’ True Cross.

The literature produced by Syriac Christian communities did not celebrate the triumph of the Byzantine empire, the author described, nor mourn the victory of the Zoroastrian Persians who briefly held the Holy City. They were rather nonplussed by regional politics, and awaited God’s ultimate redemption through one of their own anticipated champions.

So when the Arabs came:

It is striking to see that the second capture of Jerusalem in 636 by the Arabs, only a few years after its retaking by Heraclius, is hardly mentioned in the Syriac chronicles where it is a non-event.

Since the siege ended peacefully, after a negotiation between the Byzantine patriarch of Jerusalem and the caliph, and the city was not stormed by the Arab troops, the capture of the city is not mentioned in the most ancient Syriac sources.

Produced by the communities who were at the heart of the events, Syriac sources compel us to reconsider what “conquests” means.

Modern historians talk about the Sasanian and then Arab-Muslim conquests, but Syriac sources never use the word or concept. There were sieges, battles, military operations that could be catastrophic and dramatic for the local populations, but there were also negotiations and cities taken by treaty.

Contrary to Arab-Muslim sources that would subsequently create the genre of “futuh,” or “conquest” literature, in order to celebrate those who took part in the campaigns and the distribution of the booty, Syriac sources present a situation of occupation and change of rulership more than a conquest as such.

They invite us thus to reconsider the categories, and the agendas, that we have inherited from later Arab-Muslim sources.

There is also an interesting sub-discussion on how intra-Christian debate on the nature of Jesus’ crucifixion mirror some of the issues mentioned in the Quran.

I am wading into deep historical waters, and I am not the scholar to do so. New research often threatens to upend the academy, only to be counter-argued and put in its place. Perhaps the same will happen here.

But the language of local people is a useful counter-balance to official histories, written by either the winners or losers. In this case, both had a vested interest in labeling the actions a ‘conquest’.

Certainly the Muslims would go on to conquer further, only to be conquered later in turn. Such is the history of the world.

But lest it repeat itself unwarrantedly, both sides might do well to revisit their language and understanding of history.

For once again, the Syriac heritage stands in the middle. An ancient faith, outside of power. We have much to learn, and consider.

Image via



The Muslim Brotherhood’s Fatal Mistake

Brotherhood's Fatal Mistake
(via the Washington Post)

In his recent article for Foreign Affairs, Eric Trager says the Brotherhood miscalculated at Rabaa, and in post-Morsi policy in general.

It certainly hasn’t worked out well for them, but I have one small quibble, perhaps:

Indeed, from the moment of Morsi’s July 3 overthrow, the Brotherhood’s leaders understood that they were in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with the new military-backed government.

A ‘be-killed’ moment, maybe. There were extensive negotiations going on at the time, between both international and domestic forces. The official discourse held that there was a way for continued Brotherhood political participation.

Trager outlines the pre-Rabaa violence against Brotherhood protests, though. Many, perhaps including the Brotherhood, didn’t really believe the official discourse.

But the possible quibble is with ‘kill’. Did the Brotherhood realize success depended on their violence? That was not part of their official discourse, nor did it seem an underlying reality, as Trager notes:

Although the Brotherhood mobilized violence against its opponents multiple times during Morsi’s presidency, its leaders called for nonviolence following Morsi’s overthrow, with Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie infamously proclaiming, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.”

The article is full of great quotes, with links. But why is this ‘infamous’? It seems honorable. The Brotherhood was certainly willing to ‘be-killed’:

“If they want to disperse the [Cairo] sit-in, they’ll have to kill 100,000 protesters,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad told journalist Maged Atef two weeks before the massacre. “And they can’t do it [because] we’re willing to offer one hundred thousand martyrs.”

If honorable, it was still tragic, and tragically wrong. Several hundred died, thousands more jailed. But tens of thousands were not willing to pay the price boldly promised.

And it is honorable to risk so much blood? Maybe. Many senior leaders are in prison, but others fled to safety abroad. A good number had family members killed. They bet their organization, and perhaps the prize was worth it.

But Trager shows some were willing to bet more, perhaps undoing my quibble:

From the younger Brothers’ perspective, this was a dangerously naïve strategy, leaving them and their comrades defenseless during the assault that followed.

“Our dear brothers were saying, ‘we are peaceful,’” Amr Farrag, a prominent Brotherhood youth based in Istanbul, later lamented in a Facebook post. “‘Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.’ Fine, so we got smacked on our necks.”

Another prominent Brotherhood youth, Ahmed El Moghir, later revealed that the Cairo demonstration site was “sufficiently armed to repel the Interior Ministry and possibly the army as well,” but that most of these arms were removed only days before the massacre due to senior Brotherhood leaders’ “betrayal.”

So maybe the ‘kill’ is appropriate to go with ‘be-killed’. Take all testimony with a grain of salt.

A good number of policemen died clearing the square. The great majority of protestors were not armed. When the Interior Ministry displayed weapons captured after the operation, they were not that many.

But is that because they were removed? Why? Cold feet? Conscience? Facilitation of martyrdom and political sympathy?

Much more is needed to understand, but the quote is clear.

The Brotherhood is complicated. But they also miscalculated. What next?


Rethinking Political Islam, but then What?

Rethinking Political Islam
(Image: A painting of Mohamed Morsi in France. Flickr/ThieryEhrmann, via The Islamic Monthly.)

The first part of the title is the name of a very good explanatory piece in The Islamic Monthly. It also is the name of a new book by Shadi Hamid and Will McCants, collecting analysis from Islamists published individually at Brookings.

The trouble is, this article leaves me with more questions.

First the good stuff:

In the early 1990s, a new debate around the role of Islam and politics — and more specifically “Islamist” movements — emerged. In an alternate universe, if certain things at that moment had turned out differently, the Middle East’s path might have diverged considerably.

In the first round of Algeria’s elections in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, won 47.5% of the vote and 188 of 231 seats. For the first time, an Islamist party was on the verge of coming to power, not through revolution (as had happened in the case of Iran) but through democratic elections. The country’s staunchly secular military quickly stepped in and aborted the elections, plunging Algeria into a civil war from which it has yet to recover.

And so the debate erupted over the “Islamist dilemma” — would Islamists who came to power through elections cede power if they were voted out of office? Or, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian famously put it, would it be “one man, one vote, one time”?

Two opposing camps formed: those who believed these groups could be incorporated within the democratic process, as long as they played by the rules, and those who thought their ideology rendered them irreconcilable.

It’s been more than 25 years, and the debate is more or less where it started. In some ways, it’s worse.

The article describes it as worse in the Trump desire to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and I largely agree. There is a significant risk:

Even more worrying [is that] it would affect not just U.S. foreign policy, but American politics and the safety and security of American Muslims.

The camp of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon sees designation of the Brotherhood as an opening salvo against U.S. Muslim organizations and Muslims more broadly, blurring the lines between extremists, Islamists, and ordinary American Muslims.

As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart has argued, the Bannon camp “uses the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law to depict American Muslim political participation, and even religious expression, as a security threat.”

Whatever real challenges there are from Islamism, they must not be manipulated to demonize Muslims. This is happening all too frequently these days.

But there is a historical insight Bannon-types latch onto:

Some of the most prominent American Muslim organizations today were started by members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood decades ago.

Although most of these organizations were never formally linked to the Brotherhood and the influence of their Brotherhood founders has since evaporated, the Trump administration could argue that they should be subject to legal sanction once the Brotherhood is criminalized as a terrorist organization.

Yes, again, the criminalization aspects are very worrisome. But I am curious: Has the Brotherhood influence really faded? The authors know better than I do, for I do not know the American Muslim scene well. But I would be interested to know more about that assertion.

In any case, there are certainly challenges from Islamism, which the authors put forward well:

The illiberal policies pursued by many Brotherhood or Brotherhood-like organizations would harm the cause of human rights in Muslim-majority countries.


On the one hand, the Brotherhood’s many illiberal branches could set back the cause of human rights should they come to power in Muslim-majority countries. On the other, denying them the opportunity to come to power denies another fundamental human right — the freedom to participate in elections — and sets back the cause of democracy.

This is a dilemma. But I’m afraid the concluding advice raises more questions:

The U.S. should chart a middle way.

It should not help illiberal Brotherhood groups win democratic elections but neither should it prevent them. It should not cheer the electoral success of Brotherhood groups but neither should it refuse to work with them once in power if it serves other important U.S. interests.

In other words, it should treat the Brotherhood like any other illiberal political movement.

That seems like sound advice, but one – is it ‘rethinking’? It sounds like what we have always done, at least officially.

And two – is it sound?

On the first count, if our official policies have not been actual reality, we must delve into competing quasi-conspiracy theories. Some say the US has indeed backed the Brotherhood in Egypt, pushing for the ouster of Mubarak knowing full well the Brotherhood was the primary organized political force, perhaps wishing to entrust a new Middle East to Islamists rather than autocrats. Some versions of the conspiracy say we even went further, and funded and nurtured them.

Or alternately, some say we prevented their continuing in power by not adequately opposing the overthrow of Morsi and designating it a coup. Some versions of the conspiracy say we quietly cheered on as his administration was undermined, and are glad for a return of a military backbone status quo.

So which is it? The official reading of US policy is that we accepted the election results that brought Morsi to power, worked with him once there, and then worked with the administration that removed him and subsequently won a popular election. That sounds exactly like the article’s advice.

Except that the publication of the article was timed to correspond with the fourth anniversary of the clearing of the pro-Morsi protest camp, when hundreds of his supporters were killed. It is a news hook, yes. Is it also political sympathy?

If so, why not? They won the elections, though they thereafter lost much of the population. But American policy? Under the advice of the article, should we have stepped in against Morsi’s removal, or let it be?

On the second count, could it not be argued that the US should work to deny illiberal parties from coming to power, of any stripe? Right-wing neo-Nazis in Europe, for example? There are many strands of American politics that wish to isolate and limit their influence in the US. That seems quite right.

So without crossing the line into undermining democracy, if the Brotherhood-type groups are as illiberal as the author’s suggest, would it not be reasonable for the US to seek to prevent their ascendance – openly and publicly?

Perhaps there are wise reasons not to – non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs being a primary one. But I have never liked the one they propose, even if it has logical merit:

On national security grounds, criminalizing non-violent Islamists risks pushing them into the arms of violent groups targeting the U.S., increasing the risk to American lives.

Again, the criminalizing argument is necessary. Human rights extend to those you disagree with. But if a group can be so easily pushed to violence because it doesn’t get its way – that is not a good indication they should be given their way. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Brotherhood proudly proclaims that jihad is its way and martyrdom is its highest aspiration. Islam allows for non-militant explanations of these terms, but Brotherhood groups in Gaza and Syria and Libya have all embraced militancy. The Egypt branch is torn, but even then, its prior choice of peacefulness was tactical.

Would it not be reasonable to work to prevent them from achieving the power necessary for implementation? Reasonable, that is, without undermining democracy and national sovereignty?

But there again is the dilemma, and perhaps the gap between official and unofficial policy.

The article did a very good job setting the scene. I only wish they wouldn’t have cut off the depth of their analysis right when it started to get interesting.

Then again, the authors are prolific on this topic. Surely their answer is found in other texts. Explore freely.

And please read for yourself, and comment with your thoughts. It is a fairly crucial part of American debate these days.



The Egyptian Founder of the Sunday School Movement

Habib Girgis
Habib Girgis, memorialized on the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary of a Coptic Orthodox Church

Perhaps it is likely you find one word in this title a bit odd? We’ve had Sunday School in American churches long before I can remember – could it really have been an Egyptian immigrant?

That would be a tale, but the idea traveled in the other direction. Sunday Schools in Egypt are thriving, and America had a role.

But it is largely due to the tireless work of a Coptic Christian few have heard of.

Habib Girgis is the subject of a new biography published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, written by Bishop Suriel of the Melbourne, Australia diocese of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Here is a review, provided by the Center for Law and Religion. Afterwards I’ll continue the story of cross-pollination.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in a state of deep vulnerability that tore at the very fabric of Coptic identity. In response, Girgis dedicated his life to advancing religious and theological education.

This book follows Girgis’ six-decade-long career as an educator, reformer, dean of a theological college, and pioneer of the Sunday School Movement in Egypt—including his publications and a cache of newly discovered texts from the Coptic Orthodox Archives in Cairo. It traces his agenda for educational reform in the Coptic Church from youth to old age, as well as his work among the villagers of Upper Egypt. It details his struggle to implement his vision of a Coptic identity forged through education, and in the face of a hostile milieu.

The pain and strength of Girgis are seen most clearly near the end of his career, when he said, “Despite efforts that sapped my health and crushed my strength, I did not surrender for one day to anyone who resisted or envied me…. Birds peck only at ripe fruits. I thank God Almighty that, through his grace, despair never penetrated my soul for even one day, but in fact I constantly smile at the resistances…. It is imperative that we do not fail in doing good, for we shall reap the harvest in due time, if we do not weary.”

Habib Girgis remains a pioneer of Coptic religious and theological education—a Copt whose vision and legacy continue to shape his community to this very day.

I must read the book to know the details and his particular impetus. But as I understand the greater trends, the American Presbyterian missionary efforts in Egypt put the Coptic Orthodox Church under great stress. The church, as mentioned in the excerpt, was vulnerable due to a state of internal decay as simony and Biblical illiteracy plagued the faithful. The church kept to its ancient rituals, but little more.

The Presbyterians, following a general failure to work successfully among the Muslims, began converting Copts to the evangelical faith and starting new churches.

Habib Girgis worked tirelessly to renew the Orthodox Church, as described above. His activity furthered the reforms began in the papacy of Cyril IV (1854-61), and continued with Pope Cyril V (1874-1927), the longest serving patriarch in Egypt’s history, who supported it.

The Sunday School Movement that was launched would eventually animate to-be Pope Shenouda III and other eventual bishops. The monastic heritage of the church found new life with an emphasis on education, and Bible reading was encouraged among the young, old, clergy, and laity.

Girgis was declared a saint by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2013.

Today the Presbyterian Church in Egypt is also thriving, but the Coptic Orthodox Church are the revived mother church respected by most. Habib Girgis is largely to thank, and now he can be.

Perhaps also Christians worldwide might realize – oh, Copts have Sunday School, too?


“Why Call for Having a Church Now?”

Muslim Opposition Village Church

From Open Democracy, a translation of local sheikhs in Upper Egypt who led a campaign against the construction of a church in their village.

In late February 2017, a major international conference hosted by Al-Azhar concluded with the issuance of an important declaration affirming Muslim and Christian religious institutions’ commitment to the principle of equal citizenship.

Yet on the ground, in the village of Kom Al Lofi, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of El Minya, the practices of two Al-Azhar sheikhsSheikh Ahmed Mohamed, an employee of the local mosque, and Sheikh Abdel Gawad, the Imam – suggest a very different take on citizenship than that espoused by Al-Azhar.

In an interview with the official mouthpiece Al-Ahram newspaper, both sheikhs categorically opposed the right of 500 Christian inhabitants to have a church in their village, suggesting that the route to social harmony is for the Christians residents to forgo the idea altogether.

Sheikh Ahmed said that as Copts comprise 7.3% of the village, “their numbers do not allow for the construction of a church.” When the journalist asked if 500 people do not have a right to their own place of worship he responded: “We are a Muslim state (Dawla muslimah) and if there was a pre-existing church we would not object to prayers taking place, but why call for having a church now when we need to unite, not cause the occurrence of strife and this is strife caused by the media!”

He suggested that groups outside the village must be inciting this call for a church because the Christian residents are too poor to contemplate constructing one themselves.

When the journalist questioned how the Muslim majority would be harmed by a church being constructed in the village, given that there are ten mosques, Sheikh Ahmed said: “It is not right and it is not conceivable because our religion is against the construction [of the church]. This is a Muslim state and it has been unacceptable from a security point of view since a long time ago.”

Christians in Kom Al Lofi used to worship in a building that they used as a church but they were prohibited from doing so by the security forces several years ago in response to opposition from local residents and members of religious movements. Since then, families have travelled for miles to worship at churches in other villages.

In recent months, religious hardliners in these other villages have also objected to visitors worshipping in their local churches. In August 2016, security forces promised to reopen the building in Kom Al Lofi to allow Christians to worship there but they have sought the approval of the inhabitants and religious hardliners in the village – which has been repeatedly denied.

Copts have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation.

On 11 April 2017 – two days after suicide bombers attacked churches in Alexandria and Tanta – local authorities allowed Christians to worship in the building in Kom Al Lofi, but they were met by other residents who threw stones at them. Security forces intervened and arrested the perpetrators, but two days later, on 13 April 2017, the houses of three Christian residents were torched by people in the village in retaliation for their worship in the local building.

(The local sheikhs told the Al Ahram newspaper that the Copts had burnt the houses themselves to attract attention).

Copts in Kom Al Lofi have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation. Rather, last week they issued a widely-publicised declaration calling on the state to protect their constitutional right to worship and rejecting any informal mediation by so-called local leaders or any deal that would treat them like second-class citizens.

While they held puritanical Salafi hardliners and the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for fomenting anti-Christian sentiment, they also rejected on this occasion the authority of local sheikhs to determine what, when, where and how they should worship.

It is a tricky and persistent problem. Before condemning too quickly please recall the concerns of some in the United States when a mosque is purposed to be built in their community.

I would like to better understand the pro- and con- concerning church building in Islamic law. Certainly the top scholars in Egypt have given fatwas of permission.

It is very important to hear the opposition of voices like these, and learn. The rule of law is necessary, but so is the engagement of neighbor.

What to do at an impasse?



A Primer on Salafism III

Salafis Studying
(Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.)

Salafism is often wrongly criticized. But it can be rightly criticized also. The first post in this series emphasized how it is often a popular (meaning of the people) expression of Islam. The first essay here shows how this happens, though I think it errs in conclusion.

The second doesn’t even err, because it doesn’t even say anything. It just is hell-bent on Salafism winning in one particular corner of the world.

Salafism and the Politics of Free Market Religion’ takes an economic approach to the question.

Like economic forces, some ideologies may be best explained as different approaches to the marketplace of religion. In applying this idea to Salafism, we see that it promotes a free market “faith economy.” Salafism seeks to break the monopoly of state religion over Muslim identity, analysis of texts, and daily religious life.

Ok… benefit of the doubt so far. It is an interesting premise.

Salafism, until very recently, was not formally invested in politics. It was, as such, largely distinct from larger Islamist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbul Tahrir, and others. Salafism is not, however, agnostic to the societies in which it operates; many Salafis engage in social education and proselytization programs.

Yes, largely true. He goes on to make the point that most governments in the Middle East have a particular brand of sponsored religion – often not Salafi.

Because the state enjoys a monopoly, it does not need to ensure that its product, state religion, is adequate or appealing to this audience. This usually means the quality of that product suffers, which is why most monopolized religious economies have low levels of popular participation.

While the people yearn for more direct religious participation, the ulema [religious scholars]—at the behest of governments—often support the status quo. This has caused popular resentment toward the scholarly class, which is viewed as backward and obscurant.

‘Yearning’ seems a word too close in sympathy with its analysis. But ok. I’ve often heard this criticism.

Salafism focuses more on an individual’s principles and ethics. It is not enough for the state and scholars to protect the faith. The individual must also “establish the state of Islam in his heart,” which will result in “the state of Islam being established in the land.”

According to Salafism, the individual is elevated above more imperial notions of allegiance and dedication to state. The focus is on individual dedication to a broader set of values, including duty to self, family, and neighbors. In short, Salafism is about a kind of personal transformation.

Much like the Protestant Reformation, Salafism has been able to personalize religion for the masses.

A bit too harsh on state-sponsored religion, perhaps, sometimes. But it is an interesting window into how Salafis see themselves.

But here is the author’s conclusion and recommendation:

In a “faith economy” free from state regulation, greater levels of religious participation, and possibly even civic duty, become possible. By heeding Salafism’s call to deregulate religious identity, authority, and interpretation, greater religious freedoms can be enjoyed by all.

This seems an idea to celebrate – but do you dare? Does Salafism really believe in the deregulation of religion and the state? Does Islam? People should be free to choose what religion to follow? This is the heritage of Ibn Taymiyya and Abdel Wahhab?

Salafis believe in religious freedom? What if they win? It’s a horrible question, but one so many Muslims are afraid of. That’s one reason why there is state-sponsored religion in the first place. And for 1400 years, it’s almost always been that way.

Perhaps in conversation some Salafis might surprise me. In many other ways, several have. But this is not the discourse I’m used to.

The following, though, is rampant in some sections of the Muslim word. It just doesn’t belong as academic analysis.

Syria, the War on Terror, and the Left’s Salafiphobia’ is an impassioned plea to get rid of Assad and call out the hypocrisy of the American left. I get it, Assad’s a bad guy. And I get that that there is likely a whole lot of misinformation about ‘moderate rebels’, ‘extremists’, ‘secular government’, and the like.

I don’t understand Syria, but if you want to pick a side, go for it.

But why here? It’s not really worth excerpting anything except the opening and concluding paragraphs:

The spontaneous, massive protests against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban were an inspiring display of solidarity between non-Muslim and Muslim Americans. As encouraging as public backlash against this draconian policy has been, however, it strongly contrasts with the lack of public support Muslims have received during the past fifteen years of the so-called “War on Terror.”

We cannot truly defeat destructive far right policies and structural Islamophobia if we tolerate these same positions among individuals and groups that label themselves as progressive. Now is the time to make clear that the left will not tolerate anti-Muslim bigotry even within its own ranks.

I’m quite sympathetic to parts of what the author is arguing. Does the war on terror mean perpetual militarism? And there is a great danger. Given that much of this war is being fought against Muslims, it risks ramping up the rhetoric against Muslims in general.

As we have seen in part one, that can be directed against Salafis in particular, even by other Muslims.

But why is this essay even here? The last of six in a series on Salafism, it teaches nothing about its subject. Has Muftah inserted an endorsing editorial?

It was a disappointing ending to a very helpful series. I hope you have benefited from their scholarship, and my piddling comments here and there.

Salafis are human beings. Tear apart or adopt their ideas as you will. But treat them with the honor given them by their Creator, and recognize the fidelity they wish to give back. Just remember, as Paul wrote, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.”

Please click here to review part one and part two of this primer on Salafism.


A Primer on Salafism II


Abdel Wahhab Ibn Taymiyya
Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab (L) and Ibn Taymiyya (R)

If you have been introduced to Salafism in the news or in often critical analysis, two figures are generally named. The first is Ibn Taymiyya, who you won’t likely know much about but may understand he is the source of all Muslim things violent.

The second is Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab, and you may well have heard that his ‘Wahhabism’ is the state interpretation of Saudi Arabia, which funds conservative and perhaps violent Islam around the world.

We would do well to know a bit more about individuals often pilloried, and ‘Understanding Ibn Taymiyya as a Man of His Time’ is a good starting place.

Born in the city of Harran (then Upper Mesopotamia, now modern Turkey) in 1263, Ibn Taymiyyah was already a refugee in Damascus by the age of seven. His family had been forced to flee from their home, in order to avoid the encroaching Mongol invasion, which had overtaken Baghdad in 1258.

The common theme of much of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was relatively straightforward: the desire to achieve freedom for Muslims, both physically and metaphysically. For example, he famously lamented over the manner in which Muslims were enamored and distracted by Greek philosophy.

Ibn Taymiyyah was acutely disturbed by the Mongolian invaders, whom he believed were physically and intellectually colonizing Muslims. The underlying message and purpose of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was, therefore, to free the Muslim community from its foreign conquerors. In order to accomplish this, he argued, it was critical to first free the Muslim mind from the distractions of non-Muslim philosophy.

This is precisely why Ibn Taymiyyah dedicated significant portions of his work to opposing the use of external sources (i.e. sources outside the Quran and Hadith) in theology and law.

To Ibn Taymiyyah, the Quran and Hadith alone effectively addressed issues previous Muslim scholars (and many of his contemporaries) were attempting, but ultimately failing, to resolve through Greek philosophy. In a way, then, Ibn Taymiyyah was engaged in a momentous project of rebuilding Muslim intellectual independence.

As posted yesterday, much of Salafism is about rejection. But perhaps Christians can sympathize – there have been many a ‘Back to the Bible’ with some similarity.

But in his rejection of the Mongols he took a step that has plagued Muslims ever since, though in ways the author thinks he likely didn’t intend:

Unlike many other scholars, he not only saw the Mongols as hostile invaders, but also refused to accept them as legitimate rulers, even after they converted to Islam. He went as far as to issue a fatwa mandating that Muslims fight them.

Much of the Islamic heritage was dedicated to keeping popular obedience to rulers who may not have been upright, but at least were Muslims. And once you start calling some Muslims ‘non-Muslims’, it opens up all sorts of doors.

Extremist groups to distort Ibn Taymiyyah’s views, for their own benefit. For example, ISIS commonly cites the scholar to justify its sectarian crimes. Its members claim that his diatribes against the Shia, Sufis, and Druze clearly sanction their murder.

Ibn Taymiyyah was, however, both sharply aware of this and vehemently against sectarian splits, as evidenced by one of his fatwas: It is not permissible for teachers to sectarianize people and sow enmity and hatred between them. Rather, they must be like brethren supporting each other in goodness and piety.

Certainly we see many Muslims today not ‘like brethren’. In fact we find two actual brethren not like brethren in the story of Abna (the sons of) Abdel Wahhab.

From ‘Ibn Taymiyya and the ibn Abdel Wahhab Brothers’:

Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab—Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s lesser-known older brother [was a] major critic of the early Wahhabi movement. Sulayman wrote a significant refutation of his brother’s work, called The Divine Lightning in Refutation of the Wahhabis (al-Sawa‘iq al-Uluhiyya fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Wahabiyya).

I left the Arabic there for those who like that sort of thing (like me). But here’s the historical context:

Wahhabism first emerged in Arabia, as a localized reform movement aimed at correcting the deviances and errors that Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab perceived to be widespread in the Muslim community.

For Abdul Wahhab, many of the popular religious practices of the day—such as the veneration of saints’ graves, pilgrimage to their shrines, pleading for intercession with God from holy figures, or attachment to relics—smacked of a blatant idolatry (shirk) that reflected an excessive attachment to fellow men, rather than God.

His writings consistently stressed the absolute sovereignty of God, and emphasized the need to perform all acts of worship (ibada), broadly conceived, toward God alone.

At issue between the brothers was a divergent reading of Ibn Taymiyya. But on the following point all three agreed:

Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal rulings never tired of condemning the rampant shirk being practiced by many Muslims of the time, particularly their excessive devotion toward saints and Sufi-oriented mystics.

But remember what he did to the Mongols? Abdel Wahhab the younger took it a step further:

This strict emphasis on shirk is not the most controversial aspect of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s writings, however. That is reserved for his takfīr (excommunication) of those Muslims engaging in acts of idolatry.

Throughout his writings, Ibn Abdul Wahhab declared that Muslims who engage in such idolatrous practices are no longer Muslim—despite their testimony of the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith).

Abdel Wahhab the senior quoted Ibn Taymiyya to show he wouldn’t approve:

It is not permissible to call a Muslim an “unbeliever,” neither for a sin which he has committed nor for anything about which he was in error, such as questions about which the People of the Qiblah (i.e Muslims) dispute.

The following could get a little complex again, like that section yesterday. Skip over briefly, or follow along if you want to see an example of how Muslims dispute among themselves:

A key pillar of Sulayman’s argument against his brother rested on the important distinction between greater and lesser idolatry. This distinction was not found in the Quran, but rather was alluded to in the Hadith traditions, and became a key construct in later Islamic thought.

An act of “greater idolatry” (shirk al-akbar) is typically viewed as something so manifestly idolatrous as to directly contradict Islamic monotheism, taking the person outside of Islam. An example of this would be praying to a stone or wooden idol; one cannot seriously claim to be Muslim and perform this act. An act of “lesser idolatry” (shirk al-asghar) would be an act that is disapproved of, but considerably less serious.

According to Sulayman, the popular violations his brother railed against were shirk al-asghar—crucially falling short of apostasy.

Fascinating. Here’s how it was resolved, as you could likely guess:

As history tells us, however, this debate between the brothers would not be settled by strength of argument, but rather by force of arms, as the early Wahhabi movement gradually spread its influence through conquest across the Arabian Peninsula in the late 18th century.

Two very good essays, showing how Salafism is often mischaracterized and its originators distorted.

But don’t let that get too far. I said in the introduction yesterday that there is still quite enough room for judgment. Sulayman channels Ibn Taymiyya:

From where did you get that a Muslim…if he calls out to a living or dead (saint), or makes vows to him or sacrifices to him or touches his tomb… that all this is greater idolatry (constituting apostasy) … and that he who commits it may have his good deeds wasted, wealth plundered and blood spilt (as an apostate)?

Good. An erring Muslim should not be killed as an apostate. But an apostate can be killed as an apostate.

It is important to nuance and sympathize. But it is more important to stand on principles and not the proper desire to prevent demonization result in unwarranted approbation.

I think the final two essays in the series cross that line, the final one horribly. See you tomorrow.

Please click here to review part one of this primer on Salafism, and here for part three.






A Primer on Salafism

Salafi Women
(Photo: Marwan Tahtah, via Al Akhbar English)

Muftah recently published a special collection of essays on Salafism, under the premise that the popular, conservative, and terrorism-linked interpretation of Islam is often misunderstood and unfairly judged.

I agree, though there are certainly aspects to judge thoroughly.

Six essays were provided –  most helpful, some mixed, and one awful.

I’ll provide excerpts to save you the trouble of reading all of them, with a few comments along the way.

But first, what is Salafism?

From ‘Why are Muslim’s Scapegoating Salafism for ISIS’ Crimes?’:

Salafism, broadly speaking, is an Islamic movement that focuses on teaching tawhid (Oneness of God), emulating the sunna (customs and teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers, and eliminating bid’a (heterodox innovations) from the religion.

That’s a good starting point, but let’s get to the crux of the issue:

ISIS’s theological justifications for terrorism are hardly related to the fundamental principles of Salafism (i.e. tawhid, the sunna, and eliminating bid’a). Rather, the beliefs of ISIS and other such groups have everything to do with the corrupted, misread, and decontextualized doctrines of takfir (excommunication) and jihad (struggle).

In terms of takfir, this entails enforcing “zero-sum,” maximalist boundaries around who is considered a Muslim, and who is a kafir [infidel]. With regard to jihad, it becomes a justification to sanction the wanton killing of any and all individuals who fall “outside Islam”—even if they identify as Muslim.

That’s how many people view Salafism in general. Not that some Salafis aren’t guilty, but why are they wrong?

Consider, for example, the following verse from the Quran: “Whoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed; they are the disbelievers” (5:44 al-Ma’ida). ISIS and its many followers regularly recite this passage to justify their murderous actions against anyone who is a “disbeliever” as “coinciding with the true way of Islam.” Some argue that ISIS’s approach toward the verse is a “Salafi reading” of the Quran, but this is simply inaccurate.

Both the most knowledgeable of the Prophet’s companions in tafsir (exegesis), Ibn Abbas, and the most cited and revered resource for modern Salafis, Ibn Taymiyyah, read this passage entirely differently from ISIS’s interpretation.

They note that the same sura [chapter of the Quran] offers two other denunciations for those who legislate by something other than the Sacred Law. Those who reject the very source of the Sacred Law, as the Jews did, are the non-believers (kuffar, the plural of kafir), while those who believe in the Prophet (i.e. Muslims) but turn away from the Sacred Law out of laziness, selfish interests, belief that it is outdated, or that there is something superior to it, are oppressors (zalimin) or heretics (fasiqin). In other words, those who disregard God’s law are not all kuffars, as ISIS claims.

As this example demonstrates, there is a substantial difference between a “Salafi” reading of scripture, and a straightforwardly bogus reading of scripture. ISIS is involved in the latter, not the former.

Interesting. It is a helpful article, but it would have done well to give a few more examples. But that would be research, not an essay.

Strangely, the essay entitled ‘What is Salafism?’ does a poor job of answering its own question.

What is it exactly that unites Salafism transhistorically? Here, Haykel offers some common but not entirely accurate generalizations. These are, (i) a return to the authentic practices and beliefs of the pious predecessors, the salaf;

(ii) monotheism (tawhīd); (iii) actively fighting unbelief; (iv) the Qur’an and Sunna as the only valid sources of religious authority,

(v) ridding Islam of heretical innovations, and (vi) a belief that specific answers to all questions are found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

That’s not bad, and following the simpler description above is helps reinforce the idea. Unfortunately the author spends most of his time showing how the above don’t quite work. Oh well. Academics.

What he does do, though, is give a very good (ok, and academic) summary of where Salafism came from:

Salafism, simply put, is a form of Sunni Islam that aspires to the model of the earliest Muslims (“the salaf”). Literally, the “salaf” means the forebears, and refers to the companions of the Prophet and the succeeding two to three generations.

The Quran, along with the literature of Muhammad’s traditions produced by these early generations, became the main sources for Salafi interpretation.

But now here comes the jargon. If your eyes glaze over, please come back in a couple paragraphs:

The primordial manifestation of this scripturalist tendency in Islam was the rise or consolidation in the 3rd AH/9th CE century of traditionalism against the rationalist syncretism of the intellectual elite that came to be known as kalam (lit., speech or discourse).

Kalam had its origins in Christological debates [that is, debates about the nature of Christ] and was then absorbed into Muslim practice through the mediation of the Arab Christian milieu in Syria and Iraq.

The salaf, including the eponymic founders of the four Sunni legal schools rejected kalam and condemned its practitioners as those given to whim and desire.

Ok, one more migraine-susceptible excerpt. But if you have a developing interest in Islamic history, this part is really good:

Perhaps the best contemporary description of this nascent movement (that was to become known as “Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama`a”) comes from the matchless prose of their arch-enemy, the Muʿtazili essayist, al-Jāhiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), who labeled them al-Nābita, literally, the “nobodies,” the rootless leaders of the masses, the demagogues.

He describes the Sunni movement as a consolidation of various groups aligned against the Muʿtazila and their rational discourse on theology (kalam). The followers and supporters of their new movement, he writes, included “worshippers (ʿubbād), jurists (fuqahā’), hadith people (ahl al-hadīth), and ascetics.”

There’s more here I could copy, including more info about the Ashari interpretation of Islam, described in my recent Azhar post, if you liked that.

But just to sum up the nature of academia that leaves one more confused through knowing more:

All of these traits have been widely shared by a variety of movements from all different theological backgrounds in Sunni Islam.

Finally, what further complicates the challenge of defining Salafism through self-identification is that there is no unified “Salafi” movement today.

Oh well. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

It is important to note, though, that two important characteristics of Salafism are the rejection of foreign ways of thought and its popular, pietistic appeal.

The first will be emphasized tomorrow in considering two key pillars of Salafism, Ibn Taymiyya and Mohamed Abdel Wahhab.

The second will come the next day treating marketplace religion – and the aforementioned ‘awful’ essay. Stay tuned.

 Please click here for part two of the series, and here for part three.