David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

21 January 2014

Willow Wilson's Egypt

I have now finished leading the five (well attended) public library discussions in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I devoted blogs to the first two books (Prince Among Slaves and Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith)

I now turn to the last two, and here, The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson.

I don’t believe you are serious about interfaith dialog unless you can sincerely understand people who convert to another faith and you can see how that faith enriches their lives. If you’ve followed my blogs, you know I don’t subscribe to theological pluralism – all religious paths go up the same mountain and ultimately lead to the summit. Rather, I believe that all religions make truth claims, which often clash with truth claims made by other traditions. Islam and Christianity have much in common, but they disagree about each other’s central claims – Jesus and the cross on one side, and Muhammad and the Qur’an on the other.

But true respect of the religious "other" demands an effort to listen with great emphathy. That’s why, whatever your faith commitment, you should read conversion accounts in order to understand as much from the inside as possible how others live their faith. And if you’re a Christian, in particular, you should read The Butterfly Mosque. Well, I’ll give you three other reasons to read it:


1. It’s beautifully written, and if you like a good romance, you’ll definitely like this one! Wilson is an artist, and a very accomplished one at that despite her young age (b. in 1982), in three genres so far: 1) her graphic novel Cairo (2007) was named one of the 2009 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens by the American Library Association; 2) her comic series Air was nominated for the Eisner Award; 3) her first novel, Alif the Unseen, won the 2013 World Fantasy Award (see picture above). Then one more award: this autobiography was named Best Book of the Year by the Seattle Times (Wilson now lives with her husband and two daughters in Seattle). She’s now writing a Marvel comic series whose heroin is a Muslim teenage girl.


2. Wilson leads you deep into the cultural recesses of Egyptian society. As someone who lived there three years starting in 1989, I was completely fascinated. Within weeks she falls in love with an Egyptian fellow teacher and, with the blessing of his clan, is married to him the next year.


3. Here is a finely textured reading of Egypt’s diverse Muslim currents. During the months Willow and her roommate Jo lived in the poorer and xenophobic neighborhood of Tura, they had ample opportunity to explore their feelings toward the islamists – whether the more puritanical Salafis or the more political Muslim Brotherhood types. As a journalist, she was twice given the chance to interview Egypt’s highest cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa; and on another occasion, deep into the desert near the Libyan border, she interviewed the female leader of a Sufi order.


Without spoiling the book for you – I do want you to read it – let me expand a bit more on what I just wrote. And because it’s such an intimate story, I’ll use her first name, Willow.


The Islam Willow embraced

Raised in a staunchly atheist home in Colorado, Willow felt deep down that there must be some kind of higher power. A prolonged illness that ate up a good part of her college career at Boston University only sharpened the gnawing questions in her soul. Just a few days into her treatment, the three people who best cared for her were Iranians:


“Semidelirious, I took this as a sign. Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim. As it happened, the adrenal distress lasted a year and a half” (p. 7).


What her bodily weakness did for her, however, was to open her eyes to the infinite. “My insignificance had become unspeakably beautiful to me,” she discovered. She goes on,


“I had a faint attraction to Buddhism, but Buddhism wasn’t theistic enough; the role of God was obscure or absent. I would have liked to be a Christian. My life would have been much easier if I could stomach the Trinity and inherited sin, or the idea that God had a son. Judaism was a near perfect fit, but it was created for a single tribe of people. Most practicing Jews I knew took a dim view of conversion. To them, membership in the historical community of Jews was as important as belief.

            In Islam, which encouraged conversion, there were words for what I believed. Tawhid, the absolute unity of God. Al Haq, the truth so true it had no corresponding opposite, truth that encompassed both good and evil. There were no intermediary steps in the act of creation, God simply said, Kun, fa yakun. “Be, so it is.” I began to have a feeling of déjà vu. It was as if my promise to become a Muslim was not a coincidence but a kind of inversion; a future self speaking through a former self” (pp. 12-13).


As you read through the book, you discover a woman who has “surrendered” to God (the meaning of islam), but is wary of human authorities. She remains a practicing Sunni Muslim woman, conservative in some ways, yet always willing to probe deeper and farther afield. She even convinces her husband to let her travel alone for a 3-week reporter’s trip through Iran (two chapters in the book), providing an evocative encounter with Shia Muslims in a land of beautiful gardens over which a pall of sadness seems to hang.


Willow’s Egypt

You will love the people seen through Willow’s eyes, warts and all. You’ll envy the layers of communal protection and kindness that extended families provide – reservoirs of wisdom, and at times, of bigotry. But here I focus on Willow’s depiction of the “fundamentalists” – I think that is relevant to what I’m trying to do on this website. I want to provide as much context and inside perspective for you (especially western Christians), in order to understand how incredibly diverse the world of Muslims really is, culturally, theologically, and religiously (e.g., its mystical practices, like Sufism, and many of its local, pre-Islamic folk practices). Not all Muslims are of the same cloth, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Willow comes to the conclusion, fairly early on, that she should inform her colleagues, whether Egyptians or internationals, about her conversion to Islam. “There would be no avoiding the crisis when it came, so I decided to force it. I ran up the flag, so to speak, by putting on hijab,” she tells us.

This deliberate act of “coming out,” as she puts it, did cause quite a stir. Many Egyptian Muslims were thrilled, as you might imagine, but not all. That is because the scarf she chose to wear that day, in typical Willow fashion, was “apple red, a color that ensured my ultra-conservative colleagues [I add, those identifying with the Salafi movement] would be as shocked as my non-Muslim ones” (p. 107).

Then she chooses to contrast “moderates” and fundamentalists” (or “ultraconservatives” – but prior to 2011, the Salafis had not yet entered politics, and many continue to shun it). In her words, “My moderate Muslim colleagues and friends – moderate is a terrible word, since many of them are very passionate about their religion – accepted me without a batted eye . . . They simply began to greet me with as-salaamu alaykum instead of ‘hi’, and included me in the silent glances that would go around the room when secular or western coworkers launched into critiques of religion.”

The next paragraph is so very illuminating, as it could be easily transcribed into many other religious contexts. Converts are “sitting ducks” for well-meaning archconservatives, who relish the opportunity to reengineer the lives and identity of these hapless souls:


"Converts are a favorite prey of fundamentalists; they are often isolated, confused, and in need of reassurance, which radical Muslims are only too happy to give. In my case, they were confused. The way I wore my scarf, and the colors I chose, made it clear I was not crying out for help or seeking support … It must have been disturbing to radicals that a convert could find mere Islam more appealing than their tight-knit community. This is the death knell of radicalism: Muslims who have achieved a personal understanding of the religion can inspire doubt in extremists simply by standing in front of them. It’s a simple fact, but one with the potential to change the world” (p. 108).


Tura, the above-mentioned section of Cairo, is home to the infamous prison that houses (and routinely tortures) political prisoners in the thousands. In those days they were mostly Muslim Brothers – as they are still today, ironically. That’s also where Mubarak stayed with his two sons after the revolution toppled him. This is the setting where Willow is led to meditate further on the “fundamentalists.” For one thing, the neighborhood mosque was excruciatingly loud. Here I have to quote her witty, satirical prose:


“This mosque we quickly came to hate. Its muezzin announced the five daily prayer times in gravelly shrieks, broadcast at full volume over a set of speakers that were comically expensive and well-maintained when compared to the degree of poverty in which so many of the mosque’s attendees lived. To call this institution a fundamentalist mosque sounds almost tongue-in-cheek; it was rabidly conservative, and if it had been situated in a less neglected neighborhood, there’s a chance its leaders would now reside in the prison just half a kilometer away. As it was, Tura was a convenient location for extremism to fester, and so we awoke promptly at four a.m. every morning to the screams of the muezzin, who rattled windows and set dogs to howling for a considerable radius. Few people ever complained. Most were too afraid of the extremists to speak up; the rest were too worn down by the brutality of daily life in a poor neighborhood in a police state to be bothered. And daily life was brutal. There is no kinder word for it” (pp. 122-3).


This harsh living experience for Willow and Jo did offer some insights on “why they hate us,” as Americans were asking after 9/11. The antiwesternism that is endemic to the Middle East (as I can attest myself) goes like this: “the vast majority resent [the West] because they perceive it to be a military and economic juggernaut bombing countries into rubble, putting local industries out of business (though this title is slowly passing to China), and succeeding and succeeding where the Middle East fails. Religion never enters the discussion” (p. 135).

This is in complete contrast to the islamists (she doesn’t use that term):


“On the other hand, the fundamentalists we could see from our bathroom window hated us for very religious reasons. It became clear to me, living in the shadow of that brainless minaret, how little the anger of our local extremists had to do with military America. While the situation in Iraq gave them political legitimacy and direction, and a dangerous amount of emotional leverage with average Muslims, it was not the reason they were angry. They hated the America that exports culture. They were aghast at the suggestion that enlightenment could be bought on tape, and that right and wrong were fluid and could change from situation to situation. They hated being made to sympathize with adulterous couples in American movies. They hated the materialism that was spreading through Egypt and the Gulf like a parasite, turning whole cities – Dubai, Jeddah – into virtual shopping malls, and blamed this materialism on western influence


All of this is true, I concur. But there is more to it, at least if you want to include the jihadis – which you should. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence after their “great persecution” in 1954 (the fitna) and as an organization it has kept to that course. That they are losing many younger elements to a more radical ideology since last summer’s military government’s massacre of more than a thousand of them is clear as well. But my point is that Sayyid Qutb’s more radical ideology hatched in the 1950s and early 1960s in the shade of the 1954 fitna harkens back to centuries past when the world was truly divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War (see my two blogs on jihad, “Holy Wars: Israelites versus bin Laden,” and “Jihad Revisited”). So there’s a way theology and law got tied up in the past to justify aggressive military campaigns and Sayyid Qutb’s revamping it in modern garb stands ready to use for the more radically inclined among islamists.

Despite that needed addition, I wholeheartedly recommend The Butterfly Mosque. It will open for you a captivating window into the lives of Egyptians, their hopes, their dreams, the kindness they dispense so naturally, and the brutal hardships that come with their territory. And, more importantly, you’ll get to know Willow herself. That, you won’t regret!


As Christmas nears, my thoughts turn to Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories, where I taught three years (1993-96) at the Bethlehem Bible College (BBC). The family of its founder, Bishara Awad, is a wonderful example of Palestinians who, having lost their father to a sniper in their West Jerusalem neighborhood in 1948, found the grace to forgive and engage in nonviolent peacebuilding.

Bishara’s son, Sami, founded the Holy Land Trust , that is making its mark in the wider Palestinian society and abroad. Dedicated to the spiritual principle of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the center . . .


“aspires to strengthen and empower the peoples of the Holy Land to engage in spiritual, pragmatic and strategic paths that will end all forms of oppression. We create the space for the healing of the historic wounds in order to transform communities and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model for understanding, respect, justice, equality and peace.”


This is particularly appropriate, since Jesus, whose birth all Palestinians proudly celebrate this week, Christians and Muslims, was foretold as “the Prince of Peace” (as well as “Mighty God,” Isaiah 9:6).

Another personal connection is that Sami Awad launched his initiative as part of a wider project set in motion by Robin Wainwright in his millennial celebration of Jesus’ birth through the Journey of the Magi (read about the details of this “pilgrimage for peacehere). Robin was a good friend of the BBC and that is how I heard about this reenactment of the ancient journey of the wise men.

So here I was with Robin and a dozen others from various countries holed up in a Baghdad hotel for a couple of weeks after the outbreak of the second Intifada, early October 2000. Still, despite a delay of a week, we started off with our camels and pilgrims' gear (reminiscent of the white Hajj garments) from the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon. I walked with them for the next week, passing through the Sunni Triangle, first Falluja, then Ramadi.

Partly because we were protesting the sanctions imposed against the Saddam regime, we were welcomed with great enthusiasm by Muslims and Christians along the way. But more to the point was that, though this journey two millennia ago is not found in the Qur’an or Sunna, it certainly is part and parcel of the region’s collective memory. Everyone knew exactly what we were trying to relive and how our own pilgrimage was intimately connected with that message of peace.


The Bright Star

Matthew 2 speaks of Magi coming to Jerusalem (“wise men,” or “royal astrologers”) from the east saying to King Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him” (2:2). They are told that, according to the prophecy (Micah 5:2) the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. When they arrive by night in this little village (10 kms from Jerusalem), Matthew tells us that the star went ahead of them and . . .


. . . stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mat. 2:9-11).


If we turn to Luke’s gospel we have some close parallels with the Qur’an, as the birth of Jesus is announced by the miraculous birth of John to an elderly couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife (Q. 3:36-40; 6:85; 21:89-90; 19:1-15). At the end of Luke’s first chapter, we read Zechariah’s song, which ends this way:


And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”


The theme of “the morning light from heaven” echoes the earlier passage in Isaiah, which states that the coming of Messiah will shine God’s light into the darkness: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light, for those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isaiah 9: 2).

The previous verse spells out who those people are: “Galilee of the Gentiles” – all those mixed peoples (as a result of forced immigration by the Assyrian overlords just before the time of Isaiah). Certainly from the perspective of the religious elites of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, the poor, mostly landless, Galileans who directly benefited from Jesus’ teaching and miracles, were “lost in darkness.” The irony, of course, is that many of "the lost" embraced the light of Jesus the Christ (Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah”), while precious few among the religious leaders seriously pondered Jesus’ astounding statement:


“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).


The Light of Creation

Here we run into a vexing yet hopeful chapter of Muslim-Christian dialog. For all the reasons I mentioned in my Christmas blog two years ago, this celebration of Christ’s birth is the one feast with the most commonalities between Christians and Muslims. The Qur’an’s veneration of Jesus and Mary, particular his virgin birth, Mary’s strong piety and purity of heart, Zechariah and his son John's connection to the event – all this and more point to striking convergences.

At the same time, as we all know, this common ground veers quickly into our most striking divergence. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Muslim conviction about the “light of Muhammad” (nur muhammadi), which God created before anything else. It’s not just that Jesus in Islam is no more than a prophet, his miraculous birth notwithstanding. It’s that Muhammad, who in the Qur’an is certainly no more than a man, has acquired with time some of the attributes of Christ.

No, there is no trinity in Islam, no eternal preexistence of Muhammad at God’s side, no direct role for Muhammad in God’s creation – unlike Christ (“all things were made by him and for him,” Colossians 1:16). But according to a hadith, his soul was created 360,000 years before God began the creation of the world – a soul in the form of a primordial light:


One Day Sayedena Ali [as] Asked . O Muhammad [s], I pray you tell me what the Lord Almighty created before all other beings of creation. This was his blissful reply:

Verily, before your Lord made any other thing,

He created from His own Light

the light of your Prophet [s]


You can find this teaching in many sources, as this belief is near universal in Muslim circles of all stripes. But let me point my readers to a Sufi website belonging to one of the oldest and most widespread orders, the Naqshbandi order. Its name, appropriately, is "Nur Muhammadi." There you will find many other details, some of which no doubt will be peculiar to the Turkish source from which they are quoting.

Yet, lest you think this idea of Muhammad’s preexisting soul and light is only a Sufi one, let me quote briefly from a beloved poem written about the Prophet and read aloud by Muslims in many lands on his birthday feast (the Mawlud) for the last seven centuries. The Egyptian scholar al-Busiri (d. 1294) was said to be gravely ill with a high fever when Muhammad appeared to him, threw his cloak (burda) around him and healed him. In gratitude he wrote this famous poem, al-Burda. Here is a small excerpt, an eloquent illustration of some of the popular piety that has arisen around the person of the Prophet:


“Muhammad is the lord of the two worlds, the earth and the heavens and the animated beings, spirits and men of every sort, from the Arabs to the foreigners . . .

He is the confessor, the form and meaning which have been completed; finally the Omniscient placed him apart to be the beloved of the Generous . . . Leave off speaking, I forbid you, the word of praise of the Christians for the prophet Jesus . . .

. . .

Every miracle that came with every prophet could only come true because of the light of the prophet, that is why they too received the gift to perform miracles. He is like the sun because of his virtues, and they are like stars, this we know, in order for their light to shine, it is necessary that the sun has not yet come out, that there is darkness . . .”


Back to Christmas

I remember with fondness the time Prof. Chandra Muzaffar invited me to be one of two respondents to his keynote address at the 2008 international conference he had convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the theme, “Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace.” It was indeed a great privilege. One thought I included in my ten-minute response is relevant to this blog.

Speakers during that conference came from many religious traditions, and in particular, Buddhism and Hinduism. Since Muzaffar was espousing a form of theological pluralism (see the last part of my blog on Eboo Patel for a discussion of this), I had decided to push back a bit:


“Yet, as believers of all faiths will testify, some truth claims will necessarily remain incompatible, although admittedly not verifiable today. They concern the nature of the divine or the hereafter. At some point beyond history as we know it now, for instance, Jesus Christ will come back to this earth, according to both Muslim and Christian belief. Will he marry, kill the pigs and burn the crosses (according to well-attested hadiths), or will every knee bow to him and confess him as Lord (Philippians 2:10)? We shall have to wait and see. Or none of this at all will happen, as Buddhists and Hindus believe. But in the meantime we certainly can lock arms and put to work our common ethic of love, compassion, courageous denunciation of all forms of evil and injustice and risk our very lives for peace. This we can agree on and that’s why we’re here!”


The same of course can be said of Christmas in a circle of Christian and Muslim friends. Just as I wholeheartedly congratulate my Muslim friends on the occasion of Id al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), for instance, so our Muslim neighbors and friends have always congratulated us on the occasion of Christmas.

Yes we share a good deal of respect and admiration for Jesus, son of Mary. But only we Christians bow down with the Magi come from ancient Persia and Babylon to worship the newborn child.

So … a very happy and blessed Christmas to all readers to whom this applies! And much love and good wishes to everyone for the year ahead!

Regarding 2014, my own prayer in the name of the Prince of Peace – and all of our prayers – should go especially to those suffering from the cruel ravages of war in Syria and to the couple of million refugees trying to keep warm in camps in nearby countries. May God have mercy and bring peace to Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and to all those places so much in need of it!


A law journal asked me to contribute an article on Muslim and Christian understandings of human rights, so I was thinking about recent sources. Then like most of you, I heard about the Pope’s first “apostolic exhortation” last week – mostly because Francis, as the media portrayed it, was so critical of capitalism.

So, hopeful and curious about the first document authored by the new pope, I decided to read it (about 224 pages in the official pdf version).

I was not disappointed. I found several passages in the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that were helpful for my paper and, more importantly, as a Protestant Christian, I was genuinely inspired by its content and strengthened in my own faith.

But before I get into the document, let me share some of my past to help you make better sense of this blog.


My Catholic experiences in Algeria

Of my sixteen years in the Arab world I spent the first nine years in Algeria (1978-87). I served as assistant pastor for the first four years in the only English-speaking Protestant church, the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, and then five years in the French-speaking Eglise Protestante d’Algérie.

For the first eight years I lived as a single person in community with other internationals related to the church. In fact, my lifestyle was very similar to that of my Catholic friends, priests and consecrated brothers and sisters of various religious orders. We all lived simply, and I would support myself financially through occasional jobs translating or interpreting from French to English or vice versa. In community it was share and share alike and I didn’t need any regular income.

Just a five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I first lived was the White Fathers’ Diocesan Center – arguably the best Arabic language school in North Africa at the time. I first went through their 3-year course in the Algerian Arabic dialect and then attended classes with a Lebanese priest who taught modern standard Arabic to Algerian government cadres who had found themselves severely off-balance with the ongoing “Arabization” campaign imposed by the state. Like me (I grew up in France), their education had all been in French. In that setting, Father Mousali was amazingly adept at inculcating Arabic grammar and vocabulary using the newspaper and a love for the language at the same time.

Besides the fact that I made many friends among my Catholic colleagues along the way, two events stand out. The first was my official ordination into the ministry in 1982. I was associated with a small congregational denomination, which, amazingly, approved an ecumenical setting for the ceremony in Algiers. It lasted just under two hours at the Anglican church, with a variety of other clergy participating, including the Catholic archbishop Henri Tessier, who at one point offered a spontaneous prayer of blessing in French, English and Arabic.

Four years later, he attended my wedding, along with Cardinal Duval and a good two hundred other people, Algerian and internationals. Through our common efforts in the Bible Society and in other venues, these exceptional leaders had become true friends.

I have to say, I learned a great deal about spirituality and new depths of the Christian tradition from my Catholic friends in Algeria.

And yes, I’ve been teaching as an adjunct at a Catholic university for the past seven years – another good experience!


Pope Francis and “The Joy of the Gospel”

This document is no official pronouncement on theology or church law, like an encyclical or an apostolic constitution. It’s a pastoral letter by the pope addressed to his worldwide parish, in this case specifically exhorting Catholics to live out their faith so as to draw non-Christians to the love of Jesus that is for everyone. The Church as a whole should be focused primarily on its mission:


“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation . . . As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion’” (p. 25).


The reformation the Church that he proposes is entirely aligned with this objective – making the Church, from its leaders down to each faithful, truly follow its Master, who lived only for others, and in particular, the poor and disenfranchised. Instead of turning inward, it must turn outward.

Like many previous such papal pronouncements, this one was occasioned by a Synod of Bishops in October 2012 on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” So his “exhortation” follows up on the theme of the “new evangelization.” But clearly, Pope Francis feels this theme is providential. You feel it in the passion of his writing:


“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?"

“Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.”

“A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary” (pp. 196, 198, 203).


Plainly, Francis believes Jesus is for everybody. But nowhere does he say that embracing Jesus means people become Catholics or Christians. Though of course that remains an option for those who so desire, his concept of evangelism is much broader and more comprehensive. Two concepts help bring this idea into focus. The first is the framework Jesus used for his own teaching – the Kingdom of God:


“The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society” (p. 142).


In a way reminiscent of much Islamic discourse today, Pope Francis contends that religion cannot be restricted to the private sphere or be exclusively about people’s welfare in the hereafter. Rather, “the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being” (p. 144). He explains:


“Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society … And authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that [sic] we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice’” (Benedict XVI, p. 145).


The second concept that informs his view of evangelization is that of Christ’s incarnation. God who sent his Son as a human being in order to redeem the human race continues through his Holy Spirit this work of redemption both in the lives of individuals and in societies writ large. Each human being was created in God’s own image and “is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives” (p. 204). For this reason God cares too about the social, economic and political structures that bind people together. But it starts with treating our neighbor as if she were Christ himself:


“God’s word teaches us that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’” (Mat. 7:2).


God’s infinite care for every human being is what also animates his desire to see justice implemented on all levels of human society. Perhaps the word “solidarity” best captures this aspect of Catholic social teaching, and in particular the message that Pope Francis aims to communicate here.


Pope Francis and human solidarity

We already read this phrase above, “The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics’, the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’” This theme must also be placed alongside another Catholic doctrine, the preferential option for the poor. Here is one helpful explanation of it:


“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salva­tion came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18).


It is precisely at this juncture that you can begin to situate the pope’s thoughts on economic issues. This is where human solidarity comes into play:


“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual” (pp. 149-50).


It is this divine call to solidarity that sparked this oft-quoted passage of the document:


“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (p. 45).


This passage too was often cited in the news – loving one’s neighbor means looking at changing unjust economic structures:


“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” (p. 46).


Francis is clear that he’s not interested in this or that political ideology. Unsurprisingly, an article in the Economist commented on this document under this title, "Left, Right, Left, Left." The truth is, he’s a lot harder to categorize than that.

My only concern in this blog is to point out his robust message of social justice based on the inalienable human dignity of each person by virtue of creation. At the very least, you can sense this kind of compassion fueling Nicholas Kristof’s recent column. What is more, following the example of Jesus will lead us to boldly stake our solidarity with the poorest of the poor:


“It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others” (p. 164).


Reminiscing about my Catholic friends who truly lived in solidarity with the poor in Algeria only reinforces the challenge I feel from Pope Francis’ exhortation. How can I – how can we, no matter what our religious affiliation might be – do more “to leave this world somehow better than we found it”?

I understand your puzzlement in reading my title. Why would I link the illustrious (principal) author of the US Declaration of Independence and its third president with 38-year-old Indian Muslim immigrant Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core?

The answer is that Jefferson consciously paved the way for Muslims to be citizens of the country he helped to found, just as much as Catholics and Jews – a very controversial idea at the time. And Eboo Patel, hand picked by President Barack Obama to join his inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, is a highly effective mobilizer of young people of all faiths for community service across the US. He may also be the most eloquent advocate for religious pluralism as a fundamental American value.

Before I turn to Jefferson, let me say that this blog grew out of the third public library discussion in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I had posted a blog on the first book we discussed, explaining more about this series in September (“The First American Muslim Celebrity” ). This time it was Eboo Patel’s book, an autobiography and the story of the Interfaith Youth Core, Acts of Faith: The Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007).


About “Jefferson’s Qur’an”

It so happened that one of the books our library chose to display for this series of discussions was just published, Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Spellberg, who teaches history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells in an interview (in one of the largest pan-Arab newspapers, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, published in London) how she accidently ran into an advertisement for a play in Baltimore, Mohamet the Impostor in 1782. Intrigued by the fact that Islam seemed to be much more known and discussed in early America than she had previously thought, she also wondered whether there might not be other more favorable views about Muslims and Islam.

Two years later, she found evidence of that view, which, though limited, was being presented forcefully by some rather articulate and powerful people, including some politicians and lawyers in North Carolina. There were also founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

A good eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, still in law school, purchased a 2-volume copy of the Qur’an – which resurfaced in public view, by the way, when Representative Keith Ellison swore allegiance in 2007 with his hand on this Qur’an. We know from future events that Jefferson most likely consulted this Qur’an several times in his life.

But the most likely reason for his purchase was his keen interest in the works of English philosopher of the previous century, John Locke, and a few other intellectuals of the time who believed that Muslims should, along with people of other faiths, enjoy civil rights in the Commonwealth. Here’s how Spellberg puts it in her Introduction (see this long excerpt):


Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship. As they set about creating a new government in the United States, the American Founders, Protestants all, frequently referred to the adherents of Islam as they contemplated the proper scope of religious freedom and individual rights among the nation’s present and potential inhabitants. The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity. And if the latter, whether political equality—the full rights of citizenship, including access to the highest office—should extend to non-Protestants. The mention, then, of Muslims as potential citizens of the United States forced the Protestant majority to imagine the parameters of their new society beyond toleration. It obliged them to interrogate the nature of religious freedom.”


Years after he drafted the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and later as president, after he had fought a war against the Muslim ruler of Tripoli, he stated that the bill intended to include Muslims. As ambassador in London (1786) and later as president, Jefferson negotiated with two Muslim ambassadors. On the second occasion, in Washington, DC, Jefferson delayed the state dinner from the afternoon to after sunset because of the Ramadan fast.

We know too that Jefferson made use of his knowledge of Islam in a letter he wrote to the two leaders of Tunis and Tripoli with whom he was at war at the time (for more on this, see my blog, "Barbary Pirates and a US Treaty"). In one of them he chose to close with a benediction, asking God to “preserve your life, and have you under the safeguard of his holy keeping.” This obvious reference to the God of monotheism, likely meant to tone down hostilities, is all the more interesting, given that Jefferson himself was more of a Unitarian and deist than a Christian.

The data Spellberg uncovers about Jefferson and his attitude to religious freedom and Muslims in particular – all of this sounds very familiar today. Jefferson was the first American president “to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the eighteenth century.” Barack Obama was the second.

It’s true that Muslims were brought into the debate about religious freedom almost as a theoretical foil, since Jefferson did not seem to know that thousands of American slaves were actually Muslims. It was more of a trope to offer full citizenship to Catholics and Jews. Still, unlike President John Adams, Jefferson did not see the checkered US relationship with the Barbary Muslim states as anything to do with religion. If anything, religion for him might be a tool for improving those relations.

My last point has to do with today’s conservative discourse making much about Islam being foreign to American history and values. Islam was vigorously debated during the founders’ generation. I quote again from Spellberg’s Introduction:


The cast of those who took part in the contest concerning the rights of Muslims, imagined and real, is not confined to famous political elites but includes Presbyterian and Baptist protestors against Virginia’s religious establishment; the Anglican lawyers James Iredell and Samuel Johnston in North Carolina, who argued for the rights of Muslims in their state’s constitutional ratifying convention; and John Leland, an evangelical Baptist preacher and ally of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, who agitated in Connecticut and Massachusetts in support of Muslim equality, the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the end of established religion at the state level.”


Eboo Patel and American religious pluralism

Recall Spellberg’s quip: “The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity.” Eboo Patel exemplifies – admirably, and with great energy and charisma – this ideal of the United States as “a religiously plural society.”

His book, Acts of Faith, tells a compelling story of a young immigrant born in Mumbai, India, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago trying hard, like every other teenager around him, to fit in. Drifting at first – he and his brother were “more focused on being goofballs than getting good grades” – his life changed when a middle school science teacher challenged him to earn his way into the Challenge science class. And he did! From then on Patel embarked on an academic path that eventually sent him to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.

I’ll highlight only a few details of his life – I really do want you to read this book! – touching on two themes that impacted his life mission of stirring up interfaith youth activism.

The first is about how his successive girl friends mirrored and shaped his own religious journey. In high school it was Lisa, the bright Mormon girl with whom he would spend hours discussing highbrow literary works. Then they were off to college, Lisa to Brigham Young University and Patel to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Lisa, realizing that Eboo was not going to convert to Mormonism, wrote a farewell letter. Eboo, sobbing now, realizes that in fact he too had already moved on. College life was filling his lungs with fresh air, of which he wanted so much more!

That is where he meets the Jewish student Sarah. That relationship lasts much longer and generates many more shared experiences – even doing a summer road trip across the US. Sarah however, increasingly drawn to her Jewish roots, decides to do a year of study in Jerusalem, where Eboo comes for a visit. Perhaps it was inevitable, but in the end Sarah tells Eboo it’s best they part ways. Through many tears once again, Eboo tells her she’s lucky to have found a religious community to which she can wholeheartedly belong.

True, Patel’s family had raised him in the ways of Ismaili Shia Islam. Shia Muslims are only about 15% of all Muslims and maybe 10% of those (about 10 million) call themselves Ismailis, looking to the Harvard-educated and philanthropist extraordinaire Aga Khan as their spiritual leader (“Imam” in the Shia sense). As a boy Eboo’s mother taught him the special prayers that Ismailis recite once in the morning and twice in the evening. But both parents were highly successful professionals whose religion in practice was little more than being good people in society. If anything, it was his Indian grandmother who most influenced his faith, insisting from the start he marry an Ismaili (listen to his TED Talk about the female influences on his life).

Eboo Patel in college was still searching for spiritual meaning anywhere and everywhere. Even at Oxford, he fell in love with a beautiful Hindu woman. Still, he was beginning to yearn for his own path. The turning point happened when he and his Jewish friend Kevin, who until then was trying hard to be a Buddhist, meet the Dalai Lama in India, thanks to the intervention of a Chicago Catholic monk, Brother Wayne. By this time, the idea of an interfaith youth alliance for community service was beginning to take shape and the Dalai Lama embraced it immediately – especially the service aspect. But just as significantly, the Dalai Lama stressed how crucial it was, if such a project was to succeed, for them to be better grounded in their respective Jewish and Muslim identities. He urged them to hold on firmly to their own faith while saluting the best in the faith of others.

The second theme I wanted to highlight about Patel’s journey has to do with the word “service.” Perhaps even more influential than the women he loved along the way, were his own experiences in community service. His parents had involved him early on in the YMCA and Patel had immersed himself in soup kitchens and in tutoring disadvantaged children throughout high school.

Then in college he discovered the Catholic Workers houses, the movement Doris Day had launched. And even later when settling in a poor neighborhood of Chicago to teach in an alternative school for drop outs, he lived for many months at the St. Francis Catholic Worker House. A year later he was basking in the success of a weekly potluck dinner he had started and that was now drawing about a hundred young adults, all engaged in some form of community service. But most of them were very secular, and it dawned on him that the tradition of service to the less fortunate he learned from his parents as part and parcel of their Ismaili Muslim faith really did need a spiritual component.

It was thanks to a convergence of factors involving Brother Wayne and another mentor committed to interreligious dialog that Interfaith Youth Core was born. In a way, it was a happy marriage between the bohemian and generous spirit of the non-religious twenty-somethings who flocked to those potluck dinners and the growing interfaith movement that he and Kevin discovered through Brother Wayne – people sharing their religious faith with one another, but focused on common service.

Speaking of marriage, you’re probably wondering about Eboo Patel's love life. Soon after the launching of the IFYC, he finally listened to his friend Kevin’s advice and looked up this Indian-American civil rights attorney friend of his. And good thing he did. It was love at first sight! She too was from the Gujarat state of India, a Sunni Muslim who nonetheless came to appreciate (but not embrace) Eboo’s Ismaili faith. A few months before the wedding, Eboo had come full circle. His grandmother in Mumbai welcomed her grandson’s fiancée with open arms, greeting her in the Sunni way, “As-Salaamu alaykum!” Even in his own marriage, he would model pluralism.


Theological pluralism and civic religious pluralism

One of the most respected voices in promoting “a religiously plural society” in America today is Prof. Diana Eck who heads the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Since 1991 Eck and her teams across the country have conducted research on how people of different faiths are coming together in America’s cities to make them better places. Think about it. This kind of advocacy is promoting a level of interfaith understanding of which Jefferson and his ilk could only dream. That is exciting. And many individuals and organizations are creatively and courageously moving the bar of interreligious dialog higher, despite all the hatred and bigotry that still captures much of the discourse in this country.

Eboo Patel’s intuition is unique among these voices. “Reach the youth in their teens and give them positive experiences of serving alongside teens of other faiths,” he urges. As IFYC has shown, these are life-changing experiences for them, which will only multiply as they grow older and train their own children.

There is one more aspect of Patel’s work I want to close with. In the beginning, he found it difficult trying to coax religious leaders to sent their youth to the IFYC. They were all reticent for the same reason: “our youth barely know their own faith tradition – won’t they get confused in sharing with kids of other traditions? Worse yet, won’t they be tempted to convert to other faiths?”

Patel developed the following points to explain the IFYC:


1. Young people are already immersed in their schools and neighborhoods in a religiously plural society. The challenge is: how can they maintain their own religious identity?

2. The IFYC is committed to strengthen those identities (helping them to become better Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.).

3. “The truth is, our religious traditions have competing theological truth claims, and we simply have to accept those” (p. 166). There is no use arguing, for instance, about what “salvation” is, or who is “saved.” Religions are definitely not the same.

4. The IFYC’s approach is “shared values – service learning.” Starting with the values different communities of faith hold in common, like friendship, loyalty, compassion, mercy, and hospitality, the leaders encourage kids to think about how their tradition teaches those values. And usually a story comes up.

5. To sum up, writes Patel, “the only route to collective survival really, is to identify what is common between religions but to create the space where each can articulate its distinct path to that place. I think of it as affirming particularity and achieving pluralism” (p. 167).


So in effect, there are two kinds of pluralisms. Theological pluralism is a theological view stating that differences between religions are only surface deep, but that in the end they all come out in the same place. Put differently, they are all different paths up to the same mountaintop.

Patel disagrees, as do I (and as does Stephen Prothero in the book I use in my Comparative Religion class, God is not One). Each religion answers different questions relative to the human condition. And when the questions are similar, the answers differ.

By contrast, civic religious pluralism is simply a formula that recognizes that in all the global cities of our day (and especially in the west), people of many faiths live side by side. In order to diffuse tensions and avoid potentially disastrous conflicts, these diverse communities must find ways to interact meaningfully and respectfully. They must be willing to listen and learn from one another, and commit to build on common values so as to work for the common good of all.

John Locke in 17th-century England and many of the 18th-century American founders already realized that civil rights – including freedom of conscience and religion – by definition must apply to all citizens, no matter what their religion. Class and race did not yet figure in their calculus, as their reliance on slavery sadly testified. Yet theirs was a conviction about human dignity that was to grow, widen and mature beyond the stain of colonialism and the barbarity of two World Wars. In fact, are still trying to work out the implications of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Eboo Patel stands firmly in this legacy, strategically choosing to focus on the younger generation of Americans. Religious pluralism is indeed an “American” value – a profoundly civic virtue. It is also our best hope for a more peaceful and just world for all its peoples. Though we may define “God” in different ways, we are all called to be his trustees on the planet we share. May we all live up to this sacred trust, starting with the most vulnerable in our own neighborhoods.


My first blog dealt with the interpretive assumptions and methods of the Salafis (the “Neo-Traditionalists” in Adis Duderija’s book, Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam). So who are these “progressive Muslims” who stand in such contrast to the ultraconservative Salafis?

In his Introduction, Duderija announces that for the second half of the book he will be “drawing on the works of leading progressive Muslim thinkers such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omid Safi, Farid Esack, Ebrahim Moosa, Kecia Ali, Amina Wadud, and others” (p. 3). All but one (Farid Esack, and maybe Amina Wadud nowadays) are academics teaching in American universities. What they do have in common, at least in terms of this label, is that they and others contributed to a sort of manifesto in 2003 – a book Omid Safi edited, entitled, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism.

But lest you think it’s all about American Islam, Safi wrote this in an article that same year:


“Progressive Muslims are found everywhere in the global umma. When it comes to actually implementing a progressive understanding of Islam in Muslim countries, particular communities in Iran, Malaysia, and S. Africa are leading, not following the United States” (quoted in Duderija, pp. 121-2).


Duderija explains that progressive Muslims share in the general reforming trend of the “classical modernists” of the 19th century – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Abduh. They also represent a clean break from that “modern” movement. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to write that Duderija himself was writing from a “postmodern” perspective (a complex idea that my book Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – now in paperback – seeks to elucidate).

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three areas progressive Muslims are most concerned about (realize too that this is a very diverse group of people with a whole spectrum of views on many things and who, additionally, pride themselves in that diversity!):


1. Postmodern hermeneutics: they believe language is fluid, evolving and giving rise to multiple meanings. Hence, a text doesn’t speak for itself. What is its literary genre? What are the circumstances of its production? What is known about the author? But equally, what are some of the lenses through which a particular reader or commentator has approached the text? Personality, culture, sociopolitical circumstances, academic discipline, school of thought and more – these are some of the filters that affect how the text is absorbed and understood. But it’s not only true that we have to investigate a sacred text’s historical context if we want to interpret it correctly, but also that no interpretation is final, since readers at different times bring different questions and concerns to the text. In the end, meaning is mostly constructed by the reader – like what I said about theology in the first blog. It too is always worked out in particular contexts and therefore remains a very tentative, ongoing, and hopefully humble enterprise.


2. Ethical values are paramount: without discarding or even disparaging the rich legacy of Islamic law (Shari’a in the sense of fiqh – the accumulated jurisprudence of the four Sunni schools of law and the Shi’i Ja’fari school), progressive Muslims view that body of knowledge as honorable but also time bound. Another way of putting this is to return to my first two of three lenses I offered in the previous blog. They reject ethical voluntarism (something is “good” because God commands it) in favor of ethical objectivism (good and evil are moral absolutes, i.e., they exist independently of God and humans). With regard to their theology of humanity, they believe that humanity’s divine calling as God’s earthly trustees equips and mandates them to rule over creation with justice, compassion and love. Specifically, they are to defend the rights of the poor, the discriminated against and the most vulnerable (especially women) and fight all manifestations of arrogant power (“empire”) so that all human beings are given the chance to live free, with dignity and the basic amenities of life.

This means that any past rules and injunctions of Islamic jurisprudence that do not meet these criteria need to be revised to fit humanity’s new understanding of a good society. After all, these values are clearly taught by the Qur’an and the Sunna. Human rights, therefore, democracy and the rule of law apply to all, Muslims and non-Muslims. International law is a necessary requirement of a world of nation-states and deserves to be continually submitted to debate and refinement by members of the international community.


3. A politics of liberation: Farid Esack is a veteran of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and Omid Safi is an Iranian-American who is outspoken in his critique of both the authoritarianism of the Mullah-driven Iranian regime and the arrogance of the global American empire. Social justice not only means liberation for those economically oppressed by neoliberal capitalist policies and the selfishness and greed of the rich. It also means gender justice, which they see as a crying need in most Muslim-majority countries. Hence, a vibrant feminist discourse runs through most of their literature and animates their activism in many places.


The progressive Muslims’ “ideal believer”

Only three authors from this perspective have written about this topic, the South African Farid Esack, the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur and the late Nasr Abu Zayd who was condemned as an apostate by a Cairo Shari’a court in 1995 and finished his career in the Netherlands. For my purposes here, I’ll stick with Esack and his book, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997) and Duderija’s general thread about how progressives see the issue of the religious Other.

Here is a summary of some of the points Duderija makes in this section of his book (pp. 169-77):


1. The Sunna is much more than a collection of hadiths, bearing in mind too that progressive Muslims are much more skeptical about the authenticity of most of these individual reports. So with respect to the “religiously hostile” hadiths quoted especially by the Salafis, “they contradict the concept of Sunna as based on the overall Qur’anic attitude . . . toward the religious Other as well as on the Prophet’s praxis [or “practice,” a term Esack borrowed from Christian liberation theology], which is an embodiment of that attitude” (p. 171, emphasis his).


2. The Qur’an embraces a position of inclusivism, even of pluralism, with regard to other faith traditions. Term like islam (submission to God), iman (faith in God), kufr (unbelief), ahl al-kitab (people of the book), din (debt, obligation, but later used at “religion”) and the like do not point to a particular “reified” religious identity and institutional framework (as “Islam” came to be known subsequently), but rather are dynamic and “multi-dimensional, i.e., having a number of meanings and connotations ranging from an intensely personal/spiritual to doctrinal, ideological, and sociopolitical, but all of which are inextricably intertwined.” Those meanings change over time, he adds, and “they are linked to issues of righteous deeds and conduct, i.e., to orthopraxis [“right action,” as opposed to orthodoxy, or “right doctrine”).

Some Qur’anic verses are often cited in this regard:

“To each of you We have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed He would have made you a single people but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of all matters in which ye dispute” (Q. 548).

“If it had been the Lord’s Will they would all have believed all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind against their will to believe!” (Q. 10:99).

[The immediate context is the permission to fight in self-defense] “Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure?” (Q. 49:13; see also 22:40).

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an) and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians and who believe in Allah and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve” (Q. 2:62; 5:69; 22:17).


3. Faith in God is tied to good works, and especially the mandate to bring about social justice. This is one of the main points of Esack’s book based on his own experience of nonviolent struggle against the evil apartheid regime in the 1980s alongside people of other faiths, and in particular Christians steeped in liberation theology (its origins go back to Marxist-inspired Catholic groups in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s; it then attracted many Protestant theologians in South Africa and elsewhere).

This connection is clearly drawn in the last verse quoted above, yet it can be seen consistently taught throughout the Qur’an, as in the Bible, of course (consider Jesus’ teaching that a tree is known by its fruits and James’ emphasis on the idea that faith without works is dead). In this respect Duderija quotes from Khaled Abou El Fadl’s hard-hitting book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. Abou El Fadl, who is also the editor for the series of books in which Duderija’s was published, draws a stark contrast between the “Puritans” (or extremists, of Salafis of all types) and the “moderates":


Moderates argue that not only does the Qur’an endorse [the] principle of diversity, but it also presents human beings with a formidable challenge, and that is to know each other [Qur’an 49:13]. In the Qur’anic framework, diversity is not an ailment or evil. Diversity is part of the purpose of creation, and it reaffirms the richness of [the] divine. The stated goal of getting to know one another places an obligation upon Muslims to cooperate and work towards specified goals with Muslims and non-Muslims alike” (quoted in Duderija, p. 177).


The progressive Muslims’ “ideal woman”

On this this topic the literature is vast indeed. Yet apart from some differences in emphasis and methodology, these feminist writings agree on the essentials. As Duderija puts it, the views of the Neo-Traditionalist Salafis (NTS) are “sociologically contingent and tainted.” He continues,


“Thus, they reject the classical view of the inherently active female sexuality and the concept of the female body being innately morally corrupting . . . They also consider the NTS conceptual linking of women to the notion of causing social chaos (fitna) is based on flawed assumptions concerning the nature of female (and by implication male) sexuality.”


The misogynistic hadiths often quoted by NTS writers are “considered essentially as remnants of the patriarchal nature of the interpretive communities in the past.” In the words of Indian scholar Muhamad Ashraf, “Progressive Muslims have long argued that it is not religion but the patriarchal interpretation and implementation of the Quran that have kept women oppressed” (p. 178).

Specifically, these are some of the hermeneutical strategies this school uses to “construct” an egalitarian theology of gender (a very partial list):


1. Keeping the historical context in mind, while separating the contingent from the universal: take this verse that tells the believing women to cover themselves with a jilbab (large, loose cloth like a cloak):


“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful” (Q. 33:59).


Asma Barlas, in her book, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, shows that the cultural context in 7th-century Arabia was that of slavery:


“[In] mandating the jilbab, then, the Qur’an explicitly connects it to a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse by non-Muslim men was normative, and its purpose was to distinguish free, believing women from slaves, who were presumed by jahili men to be non-believers and thus fair game. Only in a slave-owning jahili society, then, does the jilbab signify sexual non-availability, and only then if jahili men were willing to invest in such a meaning” (quoted in Duderija, p. 180).


So the command to wear a body-covering veil was not meant for women at all times and places. Khaled Abou El Fadl agrees with the slave woman/free woman distinction but also comments on Q. 24:30 (“let women cover their bosoms with their head cloths”). He argues that that the khimar (like a large scarf) worn around the neck was often thrown back leaving the head and chest exposed. In fact, women in Mecca and Medina at that time, he adds, often had their chest partly or wholly exposed, even if their heads were covered. Also the phrase “and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent” points to the prevailing societal custom, a category in fact within Islamic jurisprudence. In that context, it was often to include current practices as perfectly acceptable, except that with the passage of time these conventions became sacrosanct and unchangeable.


2. Focus on the equality verses: if you decide that verses cannot be taken out of context and that the context includes the whole of the sacred text, then you can take a further step by stating that those verses that exemplify the overarching ethical values of the Qur’an are the only ones meant to be universally applicable. I’ve written elsewhere about the popular movement in Islamic law today that is focused on the “purposes of the Shari’a” (maqasid al-shari’a). Those are first and foremost the wellbeing (maslaha) of humans in this world and the next; but then also all the values of justice, equality (including gender equality and justice), compassion and love (especially in the context of marriage). So the following texts become the standards by which all other verses are classified (given here in M. A. S. Abdel Halim’s Oxford World’s Classics translation):


“Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect” (Q. 30:21).

“It is He who created you all from one soul, and from it made its mate so that he might find comfort in her” (Q. 7:189).

“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all-knowing, all aware” (Q. 49:13).

“To whoever, male or female, does good deeds and has faith, We shall give a good life and reward them according to the best of their actions” (Q. 16:97).



“Women are but sisters (or twin halves) of men.”

“The best of you are those who behave best to their wives.”

“The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect in faith he is.”


These and other verses, argue progressive Muslims, repudiate the wrongheaded assumptions of the classical jurists (and many transmitters of hadiths before them), according to which women are “essentially sexual rather than social beings,” and therefore inferior by nature to men. As in other cultures of the ancient near east – all strongly patriarchal – gender inequality was assumed to be part of the natural order of human existence. For all these peoples a “woman’s biology determined her destiny” and marriage contracts included elements common to slave-owner relationships (“in essence, a woman’s reproductive rights are exchanged for her maintenance,” p. 183).

Duderija cites a publication by an Indonesian progressive think tank, Fahmina (Hadith and Gender Justice: Understanding the Prophetic Traditions, by F. Qodir – unfortunately I couldn’t find any trace of it online). This provides an example of how a growing number of Muslims worldwide are rethinking the traditional Islamic legal norms relative to marriage:


The Qur’an has outlined several principles that guarantee the achievement of successful marriage. One of these requires that a husband-wife relationship ought to be joint or two-way relationship in which one side is equal to the other. In such as [sic] even and equal relationship, one side acts as a companion who completes the other, with no superiority or inferiority issues involved. The picture of such a harmonious and parallel relationship of husband and wife is portrayed in an extremely beautiful poetic language by the Qur’an as in “your wives are a garment for you and you are a garment for them (Al-Baqarah, 2:187).


3. Concept of the text’s moral trajectory: if you look at qur’anic injunctions regarding women in the context of its time, you will notice a divine design going far beyond that particular socio-historical context. The principles of equality, justice and love are enunciated in the text and the specific guidelines that are given clearly correct some of the worst practices of the time – for instance by forbidding female infanticide, by guaranteeing female property rights, and so on. But one shouldn’t stop there. God couldn’t drastically change those cultural practices in one blow. He’s a gracious pedagogue who knows that change among humans can only be best achieved in a progressive manner. So he gives each new generation the responsibility to transform the social order more and more in conformity with the ideals revealed in the sacred text. In Abou El Fadl’s words,


The thorough and fair-minded researcher would observe that behind every single Qur’anic revelation regarding women was an effort to protect the women from exploitative situations and from situations in which they are treated inequitably. In studying the Qur’an it becomes clear that the Qur’an is educating Muslims how to make incremental but lasting improvements in the condition of women that can only be described as progressive for their time and place” (quoted on p. 184).


I’ll stop here, hoping that if this is a topic you find interesting, you will do more reading on your own – starting with Duderija’s book! Here's an excellent summary on Islamic feminism by one top scholar, Margot Badran. Also, I have dealt with the issue of religion and patriarchy from a wider angle in three blogs, showing that gender issues are a challenge to people of all faiths today. Finally, in “resources,” I went into much greater depth exploring the theology of the most controversial of Muslim feminists, Amina Wadud.

More than anything, however, my hope is that in taking our lesson from Duderij’a’s important book, you have grasped how crucial hermeneutics are in reading sacred texts and thus in shaping one’s theological orientations. Indeed, hermeneutics go a long ways in explaining why Salafis and progressives seem to be living in different worlds.

This is the first of two blogs based on my review of Adis Duderija’s book, Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Duderija picked two Islamic movements that are polar opposites. OK, so the jihadis are more extreme than the Salafis, but only because of their recourse to violence as the means to establish God’s reign on earth. Nevertheless, their way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an and Sunna are very similar. Just keep in mind that as within any religious movement there are multiple factions and nuances (see my blog about Salafis).

On the other end, you can find many “secular Muslims,” that is, non-practicing but still tied to the cultural trappings of their Muslim upbringing, and handfuls of free-thinking Muslims who work hard at keeping their “heretical” views under the radar, who are more liberal than “progressive Muslims,” the topic of the next blog.

So in the middle you have this hodge-podge of “mainstream Muslims,” a term impossible to define unless you point to a particular country and a particular socioeconomic context. That said, one good indication of what majorities of Muslims think on a variety of issues comes from the 2008 book based on a very extensive Gallup Poll in over 35 different Muslim nations (Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, eds., Gallup Press).


Duderija’s postmodern methodology

For Duderija and many other progressive Muslims, “late modern” or postmodern theories of hermeneutics (how texts are read and interpreted) give us the best tools to study religion and the people that subscribe to them. In this vein, “theology” (how we construe God to be and how humans are supposed to relate to him, her or it, if you’re Buddhist) is “constructed” by “communities of interpretation.”

By the way, this was very much the perspective I used in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. Here’s how I defined theology in the Introduction:


“an ever-growing and evolving reflection—in the light of sacred texts and in interaction with a specific religious tradition—that leads people to better articulate their relationship to God, provides answers to the ultimate questions of human existence, and gives shape to a life-style in the world as community that best reflects that understanding. As such, theology must always be constructed within a particular socio-political, historical and cultural situation.”


In light of this, Duderija is looking at two very different schools of thought among Muslims and trying to dig up the theological and philosophical assumptions that make them interpret the sacred texts so differently. To simplify a bit – hopefully even to clarify his position, I hear him making three interconnecting points. As I put it in my review, Duderija uses three different lenses to highlight these two schools’ interpretive assumptions:


1) A theology of humanity, and in particular, what it means for humans to be God’s representatives or trustees on earth. Are they empowered by God with a moral compass enabling them to discern a righteous path based on the ethical imperatives of the texts amid the changing conditions of human societies? Or are they morally disabled, needing therefore to apply literally the teaching of the hadiths (like the early ahl al-hadith movement), or the body of rules laid out by the jurists of the classical period (Islam of the madhahib, or the various schools of Islamic law)?


2) A philosophical position on the status of the good: first, an ontological statement – is an act good in and of itself (ethical objectivism), or is it good only because God commands it (ethical voluntarism)? Then an epistemological statement, connecting to the first lens: can humans access that knowledge in the first case? In the second case, by definition, this knowledge cannot be attained apart from revelation.


3) A philosophical position on the status of language and meaning production: all premodern (and even modern) views proffer a positivistic view of language. Its external signs, from philology to syntax to grammar, represent an absolute and immutable signifier that, if carefully adhered to, yields for every reader of every place and time the same meaning. Starting with the 19th-century Romantic thinkers and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher language became identified with the human being in history. In other words, a significant gap appeared between historical events and the language used to depict them – a gap, I would add, which grew wider with the work of 20th-century philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, and even more so with postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty and Edward Said.


What’s behind the Salafi method of interpretation?

For the sake of space, I’ll address this question in bullet form. A useful complement to this, and particularly the Salafi view of history and their own evolution over time, see my blog, “Whence the Salafis?”


1) The Salafi version of “true Islam” is rooted in their particular Sunni vision of early Islam. In fact, this is not only true of Sunnis versus Shia, but also of groups like progressive Muslims. This is so because the Prophet Muhammad ruled only ten years in Medina (622-32) and the four Companions who succeeded him in Medina (the so-called “Rightly Guided Caliphs”) were all assassinated, except for the first one, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, who died two years after Muhammad himself. There was a great deal of turmoil in the first sixty or so years of the early Muslim community and the way one chooses to tell the story hugely impacts one’s theological orientation.

The Salafis derive their name from the Arabic “al-salaf al-salih” (the righteous forbears), who naturally include all the Prophet’s Companions (as a title it’s always capitalized), some from the next two generations and a select few scholars over the ages, almost all of them harking from the Hanbali school of Islamic law (Saudi Arabia being the only country where it’s the official ideology in tandem with its 18th-century revivalist version, Wahhabism).

All these salaf are “righteous” – for one specific reason: they are the people who collected reports about what the Prophet said and did (hadith) and, as many of you know, the two sacred texts of Islam are the Qur’an and the Sunna (the Prophet’s righteous model that all believers are called to emulate as much as possible in their own lives). For the Salafis, the Sunna IS the body of hadiths that have been sifted and authenticated in the six main collections (with three others often referred to as well) and they are the direct heirs of the early movement to collect these hadiths in all corners of the Islamic empire in its first two centuries. These pious individuals are collectively called ahl al-hadith (“the people of hadith”).


2) They are primarily focused on the hadiths (in their view Sunna), secondarily on the Qur’an. For them any hadith in the official, semi-canonical collections clarifies, amplifies and settles the meaning of the Qur’an – not the other way around.


3) For them, the meaning of these texts is both clear (to any reader in whatever age or context) and attached to the letter itself. No need for any theory of interpretation, they say. Just do what the text says. This is theological literalism or textualism. It’s the position that most rules out any role for human reason. Humans don’t know right from wrong, even though they think they do. They need revelation, which God has made available in great detail for questions of daily life.

In philosophy, as mentioned above, it’s called “ethical voluntarism”: an act is good only because it is commanded by God. Being kind to one’s neighbor is only good because either you find it commanded in the Qur’an or in the body of hadiths. Of course, this is an extreme position, and in fact Islamic law as it developed in its various schools in the classical period (10th-13th centuries CE), was more flexible than that. And that’s the point: the Salafis condemn the jurists of the schools (ahl al-madhdhahib, “people of the schools of law”) for using too much human reasoning in their development of the law. Tools such as qiyas (analogical reasoning) or considerations of maslaha (public good) are actually tools of the devil. They draw you away from what God and his Prophet commanded.


4) Theirs is an ahistorical reading of the texts. By this I mean that the detailed admonitions and advice given by God in the Qur’an and the Prophet during his 22-year ministry (the hadiths) was not just addressed to a 7th-century Arab Bedouin audience but to people of all times. There is no contextualization of the message whatsoever here, and no distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law.


There are many other points I could make, but I just want you to get the main idea. My last two sections are the most interesting (though you need the first two to make sense of the whole), as they give you two fascinating case studies – what the Salafis teach about salvation and women.


The Salafi “ideal believer”

Whereas the qur’anic data can seem to point either to pluralism (sincere Christians and Jews will go to heaven) or to exclusivism (only Muslims – and the “right” kind – are saved), the hadiths are almost totally on the exclusivist side of the spectrum. So instead of seeing the qur’anic passages which are especially harsh on the Jews as a reflection of the very real political tensions between the Muslims and the Jewish community when Medina was at war with Mecca, any and every verse applies to the Jews at all times.

Let me give you three examples of hadiths on this topic:


“Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘Suhayl ibn Abu Salih said: “I went out with my father to Syria. The people passed by the cloisters in which there were Christians and began to salute them.” My father said: ‘Do not give the salutation first, for Abu Hurayra reported the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) as saying: Do not salute them (Jews and Christians) first, and when you meet them on the road, force them to go to the narrowest part of it’” (Abu Dawud collection, 5186).

“Narrated ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar: ‘Allah’s Apostle said, ‘You [i.e., Muslims] will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, O ‘Abd Allah [i.e., slave of Allah]! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him’” (Bukhari collection, 4.176).

“Narrated Abu Hurayra: ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) observed, “By Him in Whose hand is the life of Muhammad, he who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me, but does not affirm his belief in that with which I have been sent and dies in this state (of disbelief), he shall be but one of the denizens of Hell-Fire”” (Muslim collection, 284).


As it turns out, this mistrust and even hostility toward members of other faiths also stems from a particular Salafi doctrine called al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and severance). In a nutshell, it involves surrounding oneself with “true” believers and shunning all unnecessary contact with those outside. A contemporary Salafi writer, Qahtani, puts it this way:


“When Allah granted love and brotherhood, alliance and solidarity to the believers He also forbade them totally from to [sic] allying themselves with disbelievers of whatever hue, be they Jews or Christians, atheists or polytheists” (Duderija, p. 92-93).


From a sociological perspective this “enclave mentality” is typical in many religious communities of various faiths in our age of globalization – “it’s us the true believers against a hostile world.” For more detail on this see my blog on fundamentalism.


The Salafi “ideal woman”

Duderija indicates three important assumptions both Salafis and classical Muslim jurists brought with them in pondering this question. It’s important therefore to note that most of the following is common to the traditional writings of the jurists in their various schools as well as to the more puritanical Salafis today. These assumptions fall in three areas:


1. The nature of female (and male) sexuality: males and females are essentially different and their differences revolve around their sexuality. Male superiority over the female is both ontological and sociomoral – the man is more intelligent than his female counterpart, and more capable of leadership and wise ethical judgment. But the assumption with the most consequences for Muslim societies is sexual in nature: the female body is morally corrupting for men who find women impossible to resist. Here is Duderija interacting with the work of Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (she will reappear in the next blog):


“On the basis of classical Muslim literature she argues that Muslim civilization, unlike the modern Western one, developed an active concept of female sexuality regulating female sexual instinct by ‘external precautionary safeguards’ such as veiling, seclusion, gender segregation, and constant surveillance. What underpins this view is the ‘implicit theory’ based on the notion of the woman’s kayd power, that is, the power to deceive and defeat men, not by force but by cunning and intrigue. This theory considers the nature of woman’s aggression to be sexual, ‘endowing [the Muslim woman] with a fatal attraction which erodes the male’s will to resist her and reduces him to a passive acquiescent role.’ As such women are a threat to a healthy social order (or ummah), which, as we shall subsequently see, is conceptualized as being entirely male” (Duderija, pp. 101-102).


The following two hadiths stress the danger that women pose to society:


“Abd Allah b. Masood narrated that the Prophet said, ‘[The whole of] the women are ‘awra [first meaning is “deficiency” and second meaning applicable here is “female genitals” – a good example of how language reflects culture] and so if she goes out, the devil makes her the source of seduction.’”

“Abd Allah b. ‘Umar narrated that the Prophet said, ‘I have not left in my people a fitnah [meaning ranges from temptation, enchantment and infatuation to intrigue, sedition, and civil war] more harmful to men than women.’”


It is this category of hadiths that gives fuel to Salafi scholars to place all manner of restrictions on women. Shaykh Ibn Baz (1910-99) was an influential Saudi jurist and Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti for the last six years of his life. He was also a self-declared Salafi. Just to explain: all of the Saudi jurists, and especially those with some kind of official function, follow the Hanbali school of Islamic law, the most rigorous and literalistic of the four Sunni schools of law. These jurists are also Wahhabi, that is, giving allegiance to the puritanical movement of reform initiated by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), which has now become the kingdom’s official ideology (Wahhabism). But some Wahhabi clerics have also identified with the wider (and much more recent) movement called Salafism, which can tend to be even more puritanical and exacting in its rules than Wahhabism.

Ibn Baz leans on these kinds of hadith to say that women may not drive cars; that they may not sit privately with any man; not work with any men; not receive any visits from a man not in their family and not travel anywhere without a male-guardian. Concludes Duderija, “Thus, religiously ideal female Muslim identity, as we will argue subsequently, would be constructed along the lines of their complete ‘invisibility’ in the public domain of males” (p. 105).


2. Women and the public sphere: as mentioned in the last sentence, classical Islamic law and certainly Salafis today impose a number of rules and regulations limiting women’s social participation, including the religious obligation of hijab (headscarf, but also requiring a modest, form-covering shawl over the rest of the body), niqab (some kind of veil covering the face; in typical Salafi fashion women are totally covered in black, including gloves), segregation of the sexes and seclusion of women in particular.

On that last point, here are two hadiths to support that view:


“Narrated by Abd Allah b. ‘Umar that the Prophet said, ‘The prayer of a woman in her room is better than her prayer in her house and her prayer in a dark closet is better than her prayer in her room.’”

Narrated by Abu Bakrah, the Prophet is reported to have said, ‘Those who entrust their [sociopolitical] affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.”


Here I have to interject: in the picture on top of this page you have a Salafi couple, but you know for sure this picture could not possibly have been taken in the Muslim world, and certainly not in the Arabian Gulf countries. There couples would never have any physical contact in public (even holding hands); the man would likely be walking ahead of his wife; there would never be any display of affection in a public place. This is Europe, and in light of the article, I would guess Germany. Read these two women’s stories – how they were transformed from club hopping socialites with a string of male relationships to becoming deeply satisfied (from what they say) Salafi wives, by way of a born-again like experience.


3. Marriage and spousal rights: “the premodern Islamic jurisprudence developed a system of sharply differentiated, interdependent, gender-based spousal rights and obligations” (p. 103). Duderija leans on a book by Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University (a progressive Muslim), to say that “marriage, in essence, was a type of ownership (milk) based upon a contract between the parties giving rise to mutually dependent gender-based rights and obligations.” The key word here is “ownership” – the context, let’s not forget is a patriarchal society with sharp social stratification built on slavery. Here is a longer quote that is mostly taken from Ali’s book, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence:


“At the core of this contract was a transaction whereby a wife’s sexual availability was exchanged for her right to be financially supported and maintained by her husband. Furthermore, she states that ‘at its most basic, the [classical] jurists shared a view of marriage that considered it to transfer to the husband, in exchange for the payment of dower, a type of ownership (milk) over his wife, and more particularly over her sexual organ (farj, bud’).’ Based on this concept of marriage, women’s constant obligation to be sexually available to her husband resulted in granting to her husband a total control over his wife’s mobility so much so that it could prevent her from going to the mosque, family, visiting her parents, or even from attending the funeral of her immediate family, including her parents and children. This view of marriage, in addition to other laws pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the strictly associated gender differentiated marital rights and obligations, resulted in the creation of a hierarchical, authoritarian marital relationship and the creation of a classical Islamic tradition based on male epistemic privilege” (p. 103).


Now that you see those three areas of assumptions clearly spelled out, you can imagine where that mindset focused on a literal application of hadiths might lead Salafi clerics. Whereas Muslim countries, particularly in the postcolonial period, have made great strides to mitigate the worst of this legal framework so as to promote the participation of women in all sectors of society (recall that six Muslim-majority countries have had female heads of state), there has also been a growing tide of conservative religiosity in Muslim circles as happened among other faith traditions since the 1970s. This of course – combined with all the instability and wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and especially the impact of Saudi petro-dollars used to spread the Wahhabi gospel to all continents – has been fertile ground for the growth and spread of Salafi-like doctrines and practices.

How do progressive Muslims counter this textualist and unabashedly patriarchal reading of the Qur’an and Sunna? That will be the topic of my next blog.

Still, I can’t close on this rather somber and depressing picture of men and women. Just a week ago, a young Saudi comic, shortly back from his university studies in the USA, decided to register his own satirical protest against the Saudi ban on women driving in a song that went absolutely viral on the internet.

Just two things you need to know: Wahhabis forbid musical instruments and one Wahhabi/Salafi shaykh gave a fatwa saying that driving could make women infertile. Read too this short commentary in a British paper; then watch it again and laugh! When the youth rise up with such creativity, humor, and insight, you know that change is in the air!

70 percent of Jews agree with 92 percent of Muslims that American Muslims have no sympathy for the jihadists – that was one of the findings from a 2011 Gallup Poll report called, “American Muslims: Faith, Freedom and the Future.” What is more, large majorities of American Jews and Muslims (roughly both six million) agree on the necessity of finding a two-state solution to the Mideast crisis.

That unexpected common ground between the two communities of faith was one of three rather surprising conclusions of that poll. In this second half I would like to discuss some of the challenges the US Muslim community faces in the coming years. Three challenges came out in the course of the previous blog:


a) The Muslim population is much younger than that of other faiths in America. A related challenge as second and third generations come of age is how the religious establishment – in its many different currents – can find ways to keep them religiously educated and spiritually involved.

A Philadelphia paper ran an AP article about a 31-year-old imam, Mustafa Umar, who works specifically with the younger generation at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Southern California. He is especially well equipped for that task, as he’s a native Californian savvy in the use of social media and a trained Islamic scholar in Europe, the Middle East and India.

When you consider that the great majority of imams in the USA are foreign-born, you begin to wonder how these mosques will be able to retain any hold on the children of these immigrants who grow up in a very free and secular society.

Philip Clayton, provost at Claremont Lincoln University (the first interreligious seminary in the US) now has a program to train Islamic leaders. Clayton puts this challenge pointedly: Mosques that remain insular, focus on ethnic identity, and don't engage with the realities of being Muslim in America won't survive, he said. And the more engaged imams and mosques become, the less likely confused youth are to turn to radicalized forms of Islam, the way the Boston marathon bombing suspects did.


b) On average the Muslim population is poorer than their religious counterparts. This flies in the face of what the famous imam of the Manhattan mosque, dubbed Park 51, Feisal Abdul Rauf, wrote in a 2011 article entitled "Five Myths About Muslims in America." One of the myths he seeks to debunk is that “Muslims are ethnically, culturally and politically monolithic.” That, we know from the recent Gallup poll could not be farther from the truth.

But then he adds that "Muslims are an indispensable part of the U.S. economy. Sixty-six percent of American Muslim households earn more than $50,000 per year — more than the average U.S. household.” Earlier he had been quoting from a 2007 Pew Poll. In any case, what is clear from the more recent poll is that there is a quite a gap in incomes between some of the more recent South-Asian immigrants and some of the other Muslim communities – the difference between the urban poor and the suburban middle and upper-middle class.

Omid Safi, who I introduce in greater detail later, lists this as the very first challenge of the Muslim community in the US:


“The first is overcoming the divide between immigrant and African American communities. It remains to be seen how much unity can be forged between the immigrant Muslim population in America and the African American Muslim population. There are profound class divisions between the two, which often dictate communal, social, and political participation.”


c) Finally, the 2011 Gallup Poll revealed a latent distrust among Muslim Americans of the organization meant to represent them. A 2006 special report by the US Institute of Peace on “The Diversity of Muslims in the United States” (find it here) offers a great list of American Muslim organizations in three categories – religious and interfaith, civic and political, legal organizations. In the Gallup Poll the front runner was clearly the (civic and political) Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), followed by the (religious) Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and then the (civic and political) Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

By the way, CAIR must be doing something right . . . Its Philadelphia chapter (one of 20 nationally) is led by a Jew!


I will now be listing three more challenges as seen through the eyes three Muslim American leaders.


1. For Muslims, and especially the more recent immigrants, to invest in the American political structures. The Iranian-American scholar Omid Safi, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contributed as co-editor and writer to the 5-volume Voices of Islam. In the fifth volume (Voices of Change) he has an essay entitled, “I and Thou in a Fluid World: Beyond ‘Islam versus the West.’” This is the second challenge he puts forth, particularly for the Muslim immigrants:


“Many came to this country for the same reasons that other immigrants have: the pursuit of a better life, the promise of freedom, and so on. Yet at least the first generation of immigrants have often looked back toward their origin as their real ‘‘home’’ and have not fully invested monetarily and emotionally in American political and civic structures. Many immigrant Muslims have led lives of political neutrality and passivity, seeing their primary mission as that of providing for their families. There are, however, signs that this political lethargy is beginning to change in the charged post-9/11 environment, particularly among the second-generation immigrant Muslims.”


I will come back to Omid Safi in a subsequent blog, as he’s a leading voice in "progressive Islam." I used a Friday sermon he gave at a Duke Friday Prayers service in on online course on Islam recently with great effect. You can see why Muslim students, at least the not-too-conservative ones, love to listen to him. My Christian students too found him refreshing and at some level were able to relate to his theme of “what would Muhammad do?”


2. Continue the work of empowering women. Feisal Abdul Rauf is the imam of the famous al-Farah mosque in Manhattan which after 28 years moved to its Park51 location near Ground Zero. More than that, Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan are high profile leaders in interfaith dialog in the US and many other parts of the world. They lead two influential organizations, the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim advancement (ASMA). Khan herself also founded Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) and constantly travels, speaking and organizing Muslim women conferences.

A frequent contributor to the Washington Post and other media outlets, Abdul Rauf posted a piece in 2011 that directly relates to our topic, "Five Myths about Muslims in America." The third myth he chose to debunk was that “American Muslims oppress women.” Now keep in mind that such an article is, by definition, apologetic. He is attempting to rebut a common accusation about Muslims in general. So his first paragraph highlights America’s female movers and shakers:


“According to a 2009 study by Gallup, Muslim American women are not only more educated than Muslim women in Western Europe, but are also more educated than the average American. U.S. Muslim women report incomes closer to their male counterparts than American women of any other religion. They are at the helm of many key religious and civic organizations, such as the Arab-American Family Support Center, Azizah magazine, Karamah, Turning Point, the Islamic Networks Group and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.”


Then he admits that the poor treatment of women and their relatively low status in many parts of the Muslim world remains a great challenge: “Of course, challenges to gender justice remain worldwide. In the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Gender Gap Index, which ranks women’s participation in society, 18 of the 25 lowest-ranking countries have Muslim majorities.”

My point here is simply that among the many recent immigrants from those very countries that do “oppress” women there are some hefty obstacles to overcome in this area. A number of American Muslim women write about these difficulties very openly. No doubt the scholar, mother of five, Amina Wadud is the most controversial of American Muslim feminists (read my piece on her). Have a look at her book Inside the Gender Jihad for a candid personal recounting of her own struggles as an African-American Muslim woman.


3. Overcoming the Muslim victim complex – what University of Delaware professor Muqtedar Khan calls "the globalization of Muslim victimology." Khan wrote that this piece for The Huffington Post was “was triggered by the look of sheer agony that flashed on my 14-year-old son, Rumi's face, when I told him that the alleged Boston bombers were Muslim.”

What is this victimology? It’s “The perception that every problem in the Muslim world from the civil war in Syria, the sectarian violence in Pakistan and Iraq, to unemployment in Egypt and the crashing of my nephews old laptop, is as a result of a deep-rooted Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.”

OK, so there are hot spots in the world where Muslims do feel victimized: “The main themes of Muslim political discourses, besides the Arab spring, are still the plight of Palestinians, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russian atrocities in Chechnya and so on and so forth.”

But is surely very one-sided, retorts Khan:


“We Muslims are selective in our obsessions of injustices; we ignore the plight of Shias in Pakistan, the Kurds in Turkey, Christians in Egypt, or women everywhere. But this idea that Muslims are the victims of injustice is a strong emotional trigger that seems to be built into the Islamic identity and with increased religiosity comes a feeling of Muslim solidarity and heightened awareness of geopolitical injustices. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that there are no injustices, there are many. I am trying to impress that in order to arrest the radicalization of Muslim youth, we need to find a way to enable heightened religiosity without a concomitant spike in anger, frustration and desire for revenge.”


He then writes this phrase as a whole paragraph for emphasis: “Muslims should seek change not revenge.” After all, many Friday sermons around the world end with this qur’anic verse: “Indeed Allah has ordered justice with beautiful deeds” (16:90). Here the Arabic word translated as “beautiful deeds” is ihsan – doing good, really. So here is his parting challenge:


“Ihsan, doing beautiful deeds, is according to most Muslim scholars the highest manifestation of Islam. It is time we taught our kids to take the highroad.”


This plain talk on the part of Muqtedar Khan – no defensiveness here – represents for me the beauty and strong faith I see in many of my Muslim friends. Catholics and Jews found it very difficult for so long to be accepted as genuine contributors and full-fledged participants in this great American experiment. Muslims are now finding their way. That is so encouraging to me.

An extensive Gallup Poll published in 2011 (download it here) reported that “though they continue to experience some perceived bias, both in their interactions with other Americans and in their exchanges with law enforcement, Muslim Americans are satisfied with their current lives and are more optimistic than other faith groups that things are getting better.”

Findings also show that they feel more confident about their financial situation; they have more faith than other religious groups in the integrity of American elections, though they are less likely to trust the military and the FBI – a fall-out, no doubt, of the “War on Terror.”

In this blog I offer a brief synopsis of this 132-page document, singling out what I’m guessing are some of its most startling findings. In a follow-up blog I’ll look at the challenges facing the Muslim-American community, as seen through the eyes of three prominent leaders.


The Gallup Poll’s most surprising findings

By “surprising” I only mean that it is likely to jolt what the average American thinks he or she knows about Muslims in the USA. Fair enough, it’s a human pastime and probably a needed psychological defense mechanism to pigeonhole people outside one’s own tribe. We all grow up categorizing and stereotyping others, or so we are told in any introductory sociology course.

That said, whatever the common impression Americans have of their fellow citizens who happen to be Muslims, it needs to be informed much more by personal relationships with actual Muslims and from dependable sources like this Gallup poll than from TV headline news!

The exact title of this publication is “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom and the Future,” with the following subtitle, “Examining U.S. Muslims’ Political, Social, and Spiritual Engagement 10 Years After September 11.”

This report is actually the product of three separate Gallup polling projects. The first is also the most comprehensive – a joint effort to determine a well-being index for the US population (The Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index) that already involved making 1,000 nightly calls to Americans starting January 1, 2008. In about two and a half years over 800,000 Americans were consulted and among these close to 4,000 self-identified as “Muslim-American.” And as a reminder, Gallup is the oldest and most reputable polling organization around.

So what were some of the most notable findings? I’ll single out three of them. First, Muslims despite their great diversity are generally well integrated in American society. Building on their 2009 early report, the Foreword puts it this way:


“We discovered an educated, employed, entrepreneurial, and culturally diverse community, whose strengths and struggles reflected America’s as a whole. At the same time, our researchers found that young American Muslims, who had spent their formative years during the ‘war on terror,’ were less likely than their generational peers to be classified as thriving and more likely to experience negative emotions, such as anger” (p. 2).


So there was some unfinished business. Between 2009 and 2011 was there any measurable difference in the attitudes of the youth? Two years later, they had caught up in their “thriving index” with their 18-29 year-old counterparts in the Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and Jewish communities. Youth in all categories are consistently more positive and hopeful about the future than their elders.

Now just a note of caution when you look at poll figures for any religious community, but especially for Muslims in the US, since they are the religious group with the most diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Race, along with ethnicity and national background and culture, is a factor among all faith communities:


“For instance, Asian Muslims are easily the most likely in America to be thriving. Black Muslims report more financial hardship than do white Muslims, and black Muslims are somewhat less likely than other Muslims in the U.S. to be satisfied with their standard of living. Black Muslims are more likely than white or Asian Muslims to say they lack enough money to buy what they need or to make major purchases” (p. 16).


Yet, despite the fact that as a whole Muslims struggle financially more than other religious communities, they are more likely than others “to say that national economic conditions are good or excellent and that the economy is getting better” (p. 18).

The authors speculate that this optimism might be related to the fact that 46% of respondents identified with Democrats, 35% with independents, and only 9% with Republicans. They tend to support President Obama’s policies.

The second noteworthy finding (but admittedly less surprising) is that American Muslims are the least civically engaged religious group. In particular, they have the lowest rate of registered voters (65% as opposed to 91% of Protestant or Jewish Americans).

The authors offer three possible reasons:

1. They have the highest percentage of first-generation immigrants

2. As a result, they are less established than others (they have been living where they are now at an average of 10.5 years)

3. It’s especially hard to mobilize US Muslims politically when 55% of the men and 42% of the women feel that there isn’t an organization that represents them. When asked “which Muslim-American, if any, most represents your interests” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) easily topped the list, but with only 12% votes for men and 11% for women. The largest organization came in a distant second position, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) with 4% of men and 7% of women (my take here is that women tend to be more devout). And then third, is the more secular Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), chosen by 6% of males and only 1% of females.

4. Muslims are the youngest of any major religious community in the US (average of 36 years old) – “a demographic that tends to be less politically active across faith groups” (p. 26). Interestingly, Protestants are the oldest (55) and the “no-religion, agnostics or atheists” category is closest in age (41).


The third striking result of this poll is the affinity between American Muslims and Jews. On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think this paragraph is worth quoting in full:


“In roughly the same numbers, U.S. Muslims (81%) and Jews (78%) — two of the faith groups most closely associated with the Middle East’s enduring conflict — support a future in which an independent Palestinian state would coexist alongside of Israel. Catholic Americans (83%) also strongly support the two-state approach. U.S. Protestants are the least likely of the major religious groups surveyed to back a two-state solution. Protestant Americans’ relative resistance to a two state solution is significant because of the political influence wielded by this faith group, which represents a little more than one-half of the U.S. population.”


This surprising convergence of the two faith groups most involved in this conflict is a hopeful sign indeed. Let’s hope and pray that the current effort of the Obama administration to bring both sides together, obviously building on this fact, will finally achieve some tangible results. On the other hand, the point about the US Protestant community’s resistance to the two state solution has one simple cause – Christian Zionism, a topic I treated in a longer document in “Resources.”

A final surprising area of convergence between Jews and Muslims in the US is their agreement about the loyalty of Muslims to their country and their strong opposition to terrorism. Let me offer some details.

Considering that Americans often, and very openly, believe that many US Muslims secretly support al-Qaeda and its ilk, the following comes as a surprise to many of us:


“To that end, it is worth noting that Muslim Americans are the least likely of all major religions in the U.S. to justify individuals or small groups attacking civilians. Eighty-nine percent of Muslim Americans say there is never a justification for such attacks, compared with 79% of Mormon Americans, 75% of Jewish Americans, and 71% of Protestant and Catholic Americans. Moreover, the frequency with which Muslim Americans — or any other faith group — attend religious services has no effect on whether they justify violence against civilians” (p. 31).


Keeping that fact in mind, American Jews are the least likely group to suspect American Muslims of sympathizing with al-Qaeda. Whereas 92% of Muslims themselves say that their Muslim compatriots have no sympathy for terrorists, American Jews come in at 70% on this question. By contrast, only 56% of Protestants and 63% of Catholics chose this answer. And even more telling, 33% of US Catholics and Protestants and 31% of Mormons feel there’s a possibility US Muslims harbor some sympathy for al-Qaeda.

Like in the picture above this page, Muslims are better assimilated in the United States than you might think. But of course, as American Jews have long learned, being “assimilated” can also mean, especially for the youth, a temptation to shed the distinctives not only of their family’s original culture, but also of their faith tradition. I’ll turn to some of those challenges in the second part.

Implausibly, the first Muslim to be received at the White House who was not a foreign dignitary was in fact an African slave who had endured hard labor for thirty-nine years. Through a set of amazing “coincidences” Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim (“Abraham, son of the All-Merciful”) had been released by his Mississippi master to be sent back to Africa, but to the latter’s chagrin, not before a highly publicized speaking tour from Chicago to all the major cities on the east coast.

Terry Alford, a recent graduate with a PhD in history, was poking around in Natchez, Mississippi, looking for leads on American slavery for a new book project. Thanks to an enthusiastic clerk at the courthouse, he stumbled across the story of a man who was to occupy his research from Natchez to Washington, DC, and from England to Senegal.

You can read Alford’s book, finally published in 1977, in its thirtieth anniversary edition, Prince Among Slaves.

You can also view a 60-minute documentary on Ibrahima’s life (that was its spelling at the time) or comb through a nicely crafted website on his life and times, both in the Senegambia and the American south.

I didn’t just “stumble” on the book. I was assigned to read it and lead a public library discussion on it – in fact, the first out of five altogether. This is part of a wider nationwide program called “Let’s Talk About It” co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. This unit is entitled “Muslim Journeys: American Stories.” Only 125 libraries among the hundreds in the country who applied for the grant to facilitate these book discussions and film showings were chosen. Our group of about thirty participants was proud of this fact and the hour and a half we had together happily flew by!

In this blog I’ll just focus on three elements that came up for discussion: God’s providence as seen in both the very bad but also the good in Ibrahima’s life; the wider issue of slavery in Africa and beyond; the question of proselytism between Muslims and Christians.


God’s providence and Ibrahima’s unique story

Part of my fascination with Ibrahima’s life has to do with his father, Sori. In the same century (18th) that witnessed the sweeping success of an Islamic scholar teaming up with a military/tribal leader in the Arabian Peninsula (giving rise to the revivalist Wahhabi movement), Sori became the military and political arm of the Fulbe (or Fulani) scholar from Futa Jalon, Karamako Alfa. In fact, Sori became a religious leader in his own right, initiating a long line of like-minded “imams” (almaami) ruling an imamate from 1750 to 1898 in the Senegambia – parts of today’s Senegal, Gambia, and the two Guineas.

Ibrahima followed a traditional Muslim education from seven to twelve, reading the Qur’an in Arabic fluently and memorizing large portions of it. He also mastered reading and writing the Pular language of the Fulbe. He showed so much promise that his father sent him to study in the thriving scholarly city of Timbuktu (which in the 15th century was more populated than any other city on earth).

Ironically, it was his father’s jihad activities that honed his own military skills and eventually landed him in the ambush by coastal warriors that got him sold to a British slave trader in 1788. But just seven years before that, a fortuitous event took place, which many years later would seal his own emancipation in the American south.

A hunting party landed from a British ship included the Irish one-eyed ship surgeon, Dr. John Coates Cox. Unfortunately for Cox, he was separated from his group and the ship left without him. In time he was literally saved by Ibrahima’s father Sori, who had him nursed back to health and invited to settle for a time in Timbo, the capital of Futa Jalon. He was even given a wife and fathered a son before taking leave and, well guarded along the way, found his way back to Ireland. Soon thereafter he sailed to America.

You can imagine the shock and humiliation Ibrahima felt landing on a plantation as a slave, never having to work with his hands before. He managed to run away in the surrounding forest and survive a couple of months. But since suicide was not an option for him as a Muslim, he decided to go back to his master and surrender.

As Alford puts it, Ibrahima had just “hit the nadir of his existence.” Yet, his own educated guess is that Ibrahima’s faith must have led him to that point – striving “to accommodate the will of God as he understood it”:


“Each Muslim must give an account of his life. The Qur’an makes clear that the gates of Paradise are shut to those who murder themselves. However unfair his fate seemed, Ibrahima felt his misfortune came from God. This knowledge, this ‘fatalism,’ was sustaining” (p. 47).


Years later, when Ibrahima had been put in charge of the other one hundred slaves on his plantation and was able to travel to the local market to sell some of his own produce to help with the expenses of his large family, he ran into Dr. Cox, who after a string of financial mishaps in North Carolina had just come to seek fortune in Natchez – of all places!

I’ll let you read the details of the yet tortuous road ahead of Ibrahima, but that encounter eventually led him to garner national attention and in the end settle in Freetown, Liberia, with the intention to travel the extra 200 miles to his home town, Timbo. He died in his fourth month in Freetown, but his example helped to inspire many people both in West Africa and here.


The wider context of slavery

Both the Bible and the Qur’an assume the existence of slavery in the societies to which they spoke. And both seek to mitigate its more heinous effects on people, though without ever seeking to abolish it. Emancipating a slave in the Qur’an is a meritorious act, capable of atoning for certain sins. Jesus’ call to love even one’s enemies, to forgive all those who wrong us, and the way he treated women all point in the direction of emancipation. But he was no political leader, so that question never came up. Paul in his letter to Philemon asks his friend to take back his runaway slave and treat him as a brother, since he had ended up in prison like him and had come to faith in Christ.

Raiding enemy tribes and enslaving the resulting prisoners was a timeworn practice in many parts of Africa. Yale historian, originally from the Gambia himself, Lamin Sanneh wrote in his 1997 book, The Crown and the Turban, that “[t]he penetration of Islam in Black Africa seems to have encouraged the widespread practice of slavery.” He explains:


Trade and war in this context were not mutually exclusive means of acquiring or making slaves. The high demand for slaves, which was everywhere a feature of markets at one time or another, encouraged the forcible capture of weaker neighbors in the event of a dispute” (p. 49).


On the next page, he passes on the experience of a French officer in Futa Jalon (today’s Guinea), who in the 1830s explored this issue with the brother of the almaami:


“I desired him to tell me if these wars of devastation commanded by the Holy Book, were mot more frequently instigated by interest in the great profits his Mohametan countrymen reaped from the results. I gently insinuated my belief that he himself would not undertake to storm one of the well-fortified Caffree towns if not prompted by a successful booty of slaves. After a minute’s consideration he replied with some humor that Mohometans were no better than Christians; the one stole, the other held the bag; and if the white man . . . would not tempt the black man with them, the commands of the Great Allah would be followed with milder means.”


Here then is a good statement of how human greed on both sides – Muslim and Christian – came to be justified, or simply shrug off any ethical implications.

On a slightly different note, how many slaves who survived the deadly crossing to the United States were actually Muslims? Scholars generally estimate that they were between ten and twenty percent of all the African slaves exploited in this country. The PrinceAmongSlaves website offers several testimonies of Muslims who were able to continue practicing their faith. The harshness of their environment generally, and its intolerance of their faith specifically, explains why these testimonies were few indeed, and none of these Muslim practices survived in the next generations.


Mission, da’wa, and the scourge of proselytism

The Spanish, it turns out, “had prohibited the introduction of African Muslims into the Western Hemisphere, but that policy had long been forgotten.” Still, a higher percentage of slaves were brought into the United States and slaveholders were free to regulate their slaves’ religious rituals as they wished.

One negative example has come down to us. “Ayuba Sulayman, a Pullo [Ibrahima’s particular Fulbe tribe] who was a slave on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay in 1730, was mocked and had dirt thrown in his face when he prayed.” But, adds Alford, there were signs of much tolerance as well. In fact, Muslim slaves had the highest reputation among their African brethren:


“The Muslims were to Western eyes, certainly, the most intelligent of the Africans brought to North America. ‘The active and intellectual principles of the Africans have never been completely unfolded, except perhaps in the case of the Foolahs . . . , a great part of the Mandingoes, and one or two other tribes,’ wrote Carl Wadstrom, who visited the Gambia in 1788. True or not, the planters agreed, for they turned to the Muslims for drivers, overseers, and confidential servants with a frequency their numbers did not justify . . . Sober, self-disciplined, and generally honest, a Muslim could be so useful that a planter might give him berth solely for financial advantage” (p. 56).


As for Ibrahima, all the sources point to his consistent and steadfast practice of his faith over the years, yet not without showing signs of great openness to learning from those who taught him Christianity. His wife Isabella, in fact, was active in her local Baptist church (only they and the Methodists would admit slave members) and their son Simon became a lay preacher. From 1818 on, Ibrahima even attended the Baptist church regularly with his family. Yet despite the social advantages and the promises no doubt made by the preachers he knew, he never converted.

Ibrahima remained loyal to his Islamic faith, though he professed to love the stories of Jesus and his ethical teachings, in particular. He was clear, however, that he could not accept Jesus being divine or the concept of the Trinity. Cyrus Griffin, a young attorney in Natchez whom Ibrahima visited often, wrote this about “Prince” in 1827:


“Prince speaks of the Christian religion with strong evidence of mature reflection. I have conversed with him much upon the subject, and find him friendly disposed. [He] admires its [moral] precepts. His principal objections are, that Christians do not follow them. . . . He points out very forcibly the incongruities in the conduct of those who profess to be the disciples of the immaculate Son of God” (p. 81).


This said, several influential people on this tour of the eastern seaboard put some effort into trying to "proselytize" Ibrahima. Perhaps I shouldn’t use that word. It has a negative ring to it, conjuring the idea of pressure, material enticements and other unethical behaviors with the goal of inducing someone to change their religious affiliation.

Let me be clear. As I understand their respective sacred texts, Muslims and Christians are called to witness to their faith, da'wa or mission, firmly convinced that their version of God’s revelation is true and that where differences are found, their faith brings correction to the other. That right to make known one’s faith to others in ethically acceptable ways and the real possibility that one’s interlocutor might switch his/her allegiance is protected by basic laws of religious freedom (e.g., Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And in real life, many do switch on both sides.

It may well be that the effort, for instance, of Reverend Thomas H. Gallaudet, known to us today as “the founder of deaf-mute education in America,” and who expended a great deal of his prodigious energy and influence to help Ibrahima raise money to free the rest of his family, might have stepped over the line. Not knowing all the details, I cannot say. But he did reward Ibrahima’s search for an Arabic Bible with a copy he acquired himself, along with an Arabic translation of a well-known book on Christian apologetics. He no doubt hoped and prayed that “Prince’s” return to Africa would “be the means of opening into the very interior of Africa ‘a wide and effectual door’ for the diffusion of that Gospel to which we are indebted for so many invaluable blessings” (p. 157).

My guess from reading Alford’s account is that the combined efforts of several benefactors to his cause amounted to the charge of “proselytism.” I personally suffered from this in Egypt (not in Algeria nor in Palestine). Perhaps it’s the Egyptian proud belief that they are still at the center of the world or their tendency to be passionate in all that they do. But dozens of times Egyptians would crowd around me in twos, threes or more and try to convert me to Islam. “You speak Arabic, you’re half way there!” they would often insist. One whole evening once in a Salafi home I was subjected to a 2 or 3-hour intense, one-way harangue to convert. To say it was an uncomfortable experience is an understatement. So I’m very sensitive about this issue, no matter who is trying to convert who!

Ibrahima never gave in to the “intense pressure to convert” (p. 193), as I said. In the end, Gallaudet saw Ibrahima in the same light as some of the Jewish believers in the early church of Jerusalem – “I made the same allowance for [his Islamic faith] that Paul did for the Hebrew converts, who still retained some of their Jewish notions and prejudices” (p. 161).

In his Afterword, Alford says this about Ibrahima’s faith, and I’ll let this be the closing thought.


“Friendly to [Christianity’s] moral teachings, he still adhered to his own religion. His return to Africa gave him the freedom to practice it openly. Once there he also resumed his religious studies. He read and wrote a great deal during the closing months of his life in Monrovia. When his widow Isabella showed the manuscripts to a visitor from Timbo, the man wept when he read them and begged her to go immediately to Futa Jalon with him” (p. 193).

When thousands upon thousands of Europeans were slaughtered during the Thirty Year War in the 17th century was it about the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants? Or more recently, when these two Christian sects were bombing each other in Northern Ireland, was it really about “religion”? Theology did have a bearing on the conflicts somewhere in the very beginning, but it was mostly about political alliances, economic power and influence, and the acting out of deep-seated prejudices about “the other.”

If you say, “religion makes people violent,” you can certainly point to examples where this is plausible, but you would also miss other equally important factors in the equation. Human conflicts, particularly at the communal or national level, are always complex phenomena.

What is certain is that religion has often been used to enlist militants for a cause. This is obviously the case with jihadis today. Youth angry about western foreign policies and seething with rage at injustice around them are vulnerable to the call of self-sacrifice in the path of God. But so were the million or so peasants who in 11th and 12th-century Europe left everything to “fight for Jesus” in the Holy Land (never mind that the Crusaders’ symbol, the cross, was an instrument of torture that killed their Master, “the Prince of Peace,” at age 33!).

The thousands of nobles and knights, we surmise, were often more attracted by the prospect of glory and treasure. And so likely were the early conquests “in the name of Islam” by tribal Arab bedouins in 7th-century Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and from Iraq to India a very mixed-motive enterprise. They knew very little about the new faith, except that vast amounts of booty awaited them on the road to empire.

I write these lines a couple of days after Pope Francis led a 5-hour prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square attended by over 100,000 faithful calling the world’s billion Catholics to oppose western military intervention in Syria and urging both sides to engage in peaceful negotiations to end a very bloody civil war.

In the meantime Italian Muslims had organized a prayer rally of their own and one of their leaders told the Reuters news agency that “Praying for the intention of peace is something that can only help fraternity and, God willing, avoid more war.” He continued, “As Muslims who want peace we have to work so that the values of faith and dialogue prevail over the destruction of peoples.”

But to complicate things even more, the news of an attack by al-Qaeda related Syrian rebels on the Christian town of Maaloula has just bolstered President Asad's claim that he has always been the protector of Christians and stymied President Obama even more in his bid to strike the Asad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. True, Christians since the Arab Spring have been attacked as never before in the modern period. And before that, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has had the unintended consequence of sending half the Christian population into exile. Saddam Hussein too, it turned out, had been more protective of Iraqi Christians.

In terms of numbers, the victims of the Syrian civil war are overwhelmingly Muslim – Sunni in the opposition and Shi’i or Alawi on the government’s side. Religion is just one of the layers of a multifaceted, centuries-old, bundle of tensions.

In this blog I have, therefore, two modest goals. First, I want to alert you to a humanitarian disaster that the media have kept all too hidden. Second, even as this alarming crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) shows definite signs of religious conflict, one should not reduce it to that. It is much more about political power, socioeconomic grievances, ethnic tensions, a grievous colonial legacy and a deplorable history of corrupt and heavy-handed governance.


CAR’s colonial and post-colonial burdens

Adam Nossiter of the New York Times put it this way: “the Central African Republic became independent in 1960 after a brutal six-decade colonial reign by France.” I don’t need to go into detail. All the colonial regimes were “brutal” (though perhaps the British were a bit less so than the French). I know from the stories I heard during my nine years in Algeria (1978-87) that particularly in that country, which the French simply took over as their own, Algerians (literally) as second-class citizens suffered great humiliation and hardship. Naturally, the war of independence (1954-62) was especially violent and vicious. A million and a half Algerians died in that 8-year period, most of them civilians on the sidelines.

If you want to get a feel for the insatiable human penchant for greed, lust and the determination to use one’s power to satisfy those desires, have a look at a long interview with the former Emperor Bokassa 1st shortly before his death in 1996 (sorry, it’s in French). True, Bokassa had committed a long list of crimes during his short reign (1976-79), twenty of which were eventually prosecuted in court with irrefutable evidence. Yet here we find him speaking as a patriot who genuinely, it seems, tried to develop his country, but was blocked at every turn by French and Swiss companies intent on pillaging its treasures without giving anything in return, much less pay any taxes.

What must be particularly galling for Central Africans are the details Bokassa divulges about his friendship with French President Giscard d’Estaing who clearly used him for hunting wild game once or twice a year way beyond the legal limits, for buying up loads of treasures at a steal, and in the end for seducing his own wife. That said, she was the official wife. He did have at least fourteen other wives, having fathered close to fifty children!

It must be said that to understand the context here, the CAR has significant reserves of oil, gold, diamonds, uranium and lumber, but remains one of the poorest countries in the world. What is more, the 4.6 inhabitants of this beautiful country have inherited a dreadful history of political instability since 1960. The CAR has witnessed one democratically contested election (2005) and four military coups – which brings us up to the current crisis.


A borderline “failed state”

Decades of military coups, ethnic tensions in several places but especially in the north, potential incursions by the Lord’s Resistance Army (of Joseph Kony infamy) are among the factors that have crippled the CAR for decades. As a result, the United Nations in the early 2000s set up an agency to help stabilize the CAR, BINUCA (the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic). But the situation rapidly went from bad to worse since December 2012. I’ll let the UN website tell the story:


“Turmoil last broke out when a loose rebel coalition called Séléka – meaning alliance in the local Sango language – overthrew democratically elected President François Bozizé. After seizing large parts of the country in an initial push in December, rebels and the Government reached a cease-fire agreement and other deals in January 2013, in Libreville, Gabon, under the aegis of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

“Hopes for a peaceful settlement of hostilities were short-lived, however. The agreements faltered in March, when thousands of rebels flooded the riverside capital Bangui, sending Bozizé into exile and pushing the country into another vicious cycle of violence, looting, sexual violence and other abuses.”


Against a backdrop of mounting chaos since March 2013, the UN’s goals remain clear: “The priorities are to strengthen the political dialogue for the implementation of the Libreville Agreements, to restore security throughout the territory and create a conducive environment for holding credible elections, as well as to ensure the respect of human rights and provide humanitarian assistance.”

Reaching anyone of these goals remains difficult at best, however. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, addressed the UN Security Council in August, warning that the CAR is “not yet a failed State but has the potential to become one if swift action is not taken.”

Specifically, reports the UN, “About 1.6 million people are in dire need of food, protection, health care, water, shelter and other assistance. More than 206,000 people are displaced within the country, with many hiding in the bush. Nearly 60,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring states, two-thirds of them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The UN envoy to the CAR also warned that without the establishment of a proper political order, “the country runs the risk of descending into chaos and anarchy.” His advice to the Security Council was to provide a peacekeeping mission with 3,500 soldiers with additional troops provided by the African Union.


The religious dimension

First of all, who are the rebels who took over the CAR in March? Who is part of this “loose coalition”? Back to Adam Nossiter’s careful background article:


“The rebels emerged from the barren, more-Muslim north, angered at the neglect of a region inaccessible from the capital for half of the year because of heavy rains and poor roads, accusing the president of reneging on an agreement to integrate some of their fighters into the army.

‘No schools, no roads, really — it’s chaos,’ said Abdel Kadir Kalil, a Seleka commander, explaining why he had taken up arms. Carrying an elaborately carved ceremonial cane on the terrace of the Libyan-built five-star hotel where he lives here, he added, ‘We wanted to develop the country, but the ex-president, Bozizé, he ignored our projects.’”


The ousted president who had first entered the political scene via military coup, François Bozizé, told the French media in August that he hoped to regain power. Apparently, as of this writing, he has sent troops to counter the rebel Séléka forces and contest on the battleground the legitimacy of their self-declared president, Michel Djotodia, also the country’s first Muslim leader, who has promised to step down after elections in 2016. Already, Djotodia’s spokesman has accused the pro-Bozizé soldiers of attacking Muslim villages.

If true, it would be an act of retaliation for the many attacks on Christians and their institutions since March. A Catholic website, for instance, deplored the renewal of hostilities against their own: “Muslims join Seleka Rebels in anti-Christian killing spree.” The short article begins in this way:


“More violence and looting against the Catholic Church in the Central African Republic has been reported by the Fides news service. On Sunday, August 18, missionary priests and nuns of the Sœurs de la Charité at Bohong were forced to take refuge in Bouar some 60 miles away after an attack by the Seleka rebel coalition.”


Interestingly, a Muslim website (www.onislam.net) reports that the Muslim rebel leader’s coup has raised religious tensions “in the Christian-majority country.” On March 31 Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of Bangui, told Agence France-Presse that “We are sitting on a bomb. An evil sorcerer could blow up the whole house. I don’t want us to underestimate the problem.”

The article states that 15% of the country is Muslim (most figures I’ve seen say 10%) and that Christians should not panic: “The different religions have always coexisted peacefully and leaders from both sides have urged people not to confuse the fact that there is a Muslim leader, with the ‘Islamization’ of the country.”

Still in the aftermath of the coup, other Christian leaders appealed for calm. Pastor Nicholas Guere Koyame, head of the Alliance of Evangelicals in the CAR, said in particular, “The new authorities are not there for a religious goal but a political goal. They must present their political agenda to convince the population.”

In the same way, the top Muslim leader, Imam Oumar Kobline Layama, urged the rebels not to be swayed by those “who want to turn this change into a religious problem.” But the Christian community was nervous, and for good reason.

In a long and meticulous Wikipedia article on the 2012-13 CAR conflict, we read that among the parties that signed on to the Séléka alliance was the Chadian FPR, though based in north-east CAR. Rumors have it that others have come in from the Darfur area of the Sudan which borders the CAR. And of course, the worst fear with an ongoing, intensifying struggle is that groups loosely associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (who were active in the 2012 war in Mali) will find an easy foothold in the CAR.

It's not surprising that Christians have been targeted, especially because one of the grievances behind the Séléka takeover was about the corruption of the Bozizé regime and its near total neglect of the northern region which is mostly Muslim. In August the Catholic Herald announced that 15 people had been killed by Séléka and a thousand driven from their homes as five villages in a gold mining area were attacked.

A Carmelite Father who has been in the CAR since 1992 was very worried:


“The situation remains fragile and the killings are continuing near my mission. Thank God, most refugees are being accommodated by local families while temporary shelter is sought for them. But what’s most worrying is that mostly Muslim villages are left in relative peace, while those with Christian or animist populations face harsh treatment.”


Last thoughts

Are there underlying – age-old, perhaps – religious tensions in the CAR? Indeed there are. That said, as I hope to have shown here, there is much more at play. Besides its weighty colonial legacy, the CAR struggles with its own patterns of military interventions, corruption, ethnic favoritism, and as a result poor governance.

One hopes and prays for the success of the UN’s BINUCA program and for peacekeeping forces to provide a sufficient buffer and incentive toward peace and productive negotiation. That of course is the key element: that CAR regional leaders representing the major factions of the political class can come together and hammer out a common solution.

I started out with the way religion can lead to violence, but I want to end with its equally proven potential for peace and understanding. So I leave you with the evocative conclusion in the Catholic Herald piece:


In a peace appeal from Bouar [the district of the Carmelite priest] on Monday, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders said they feared the country now faced “the nigmwo4mare of ethnic or religious war,” and warned that “no creed, either Christian or Muslim, allows violence, murder, theft, robbery and rape.”


May these religious leaders find the will and the way to create together a way forward!



(Sept. 21) I was waiting for more news, but this Associated Press communiqué is all I have. Self-proclaimed Michel Djotodia, presumed leader of the Séléka alliance that took power by military force, issued a decree on September 13 officially dissolving Séléka. We can only guess at this point why he did this. In order to rule, Djotodia needs legitimacy, and no foreign power has recognized his rule. What is more, Séléka has earned an international reputation for pillage, rape and murder. It's not hard to see why he wanted to distance himself from the very group that put him at the helm of the country.

But will he succeed in bringing together the dispersed units of the CAR's army in order to effectively push the various factions within the Séléka alliance back into the north? That would be nothing short of a miracle without some foreign intervention by the AU and others. But if this happens and Djotodia keeps his word about democratic elections, then there is clearly hope for this country that has suffered for far too long!