January 25, 2021

Webinar Presentation: Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Modern Indian Ocean

A short and very basic introduction to how slavery and racism interrelate in the making of the modern world, particularly the societies of the Indian Ocean. This webinar was originally given to a virtual audience of students at Christ University in Bangalore.


November 19, 2020

Arab-Islamic Slavery: A Problematic Term for A Complex Reality

Here's a link to a short essay I wrote for Research Africa on the conceptual and historical problems with the term 'Arab-Islamic slavery'.


June 25, 2020

Teleologies of abolitionism in modern popular understandings of the history of Islam and Christianity

There are a lot of misleading teleologies in the modern appropriation of abolitionism by contemporary Muslim and Christian faith communities. In the eagerness to uncover an 'abolitionist' impulse in their religious past, one frequently observes scholarly and popular efforts to 'prove' that some Muslims or Christians abolished slavery before it became a global norm. There have also been many efforts to portray the founders of these religions themselves as abolitionists. This is complicated by the long history of warfare on the frontiers of Christian and Muslim states, which produced many slaves.

 While I appreciate efforts to uncover these 'lost' histories, I also think it is helpful to define what 'abolitionism' is and what it is not, in the interest of greater clarity about the past. Most Christian and Muslim faith communities have historically had strong prohibitions on enslaving co-religionists. This attitude had long coexisted with a tolerance of enslavement as punishment for being captured in a battle or a war. Prohibiting the capture and sale of co-religionists is not functionally equivalent to an abolitionist viewpoint, although it may have helped in certain ways and at certain times, to stimulate abolitionism's more universalist vision. The prohibition against selling or enslaving co-religionists did not extend to those outside of the 'civilization' created by these universalist faiths, or to the idea of slavery, ownership by another, as being inherently immoral.

 If prohibiting capture and sale of co-religionists was functionally equivalent to abolition, In fact the impulse to extend the name 'abolitionist' to anyone who tried to curtail or regulate the slave traffic of co-religionists, leads to logical and historical absurdities. Are we to regard Bathilde, wife of Clovis II, as an early abolitionist because she outlawed the traffic in Christian slaves in the Merovingian state? Is the Ethiopian emperor Gälawdéwos an abolitionist, for propagating an edict against the illegal slave trade in Christians in 1548? Were the slaveowning founders of the United States 'abolitionists' for banning the slave trade from Africa? I have similar doubts about labeling West African Muslim leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries who similarly tried to curtail the TRADE in CO-RELIGIONISTS, as abolitionists. I would distinguish between people who wanted to end the slave trade or who were outraged by its excesses, from the militant position of abolitionism. Perhaps this makes me a bit out of step with recent scholarly trends, which have tended to take a 'lumping' approach to the phenomenon of abolition, rather than the 'splitting' approach I favor.

 I have argued in the Journal of Global Slavery that abolitionism is a modern discourse with origins in the brutal regime of trans-Atlantic slavery and can only with great difficulty and inconsistency be mapped onto the further past of most faith communities. There is a nonviolent wing exemplified by Quakers, the Great Awakening, and the anti-slavery efforts of people like Olaudah Equiano and Otto Cugboana, as well as an armed resistance wing exemplified by Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Sam Sharpe, the Haitian revolutionaries and the Bahian Muslim rebels. Abolitionism was not the natural working out of the 'inner logic' of the Abrahamic faiths, but a modern response to the contradictions in those discourses which had allowed slavery and the slave trade to continue to flourish. I think it is valuable to make these distinctions so we can gain a more sophisticated historical sense that, just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged as a response to, and was influenced by the Holocaust, the modern human rights revolution of abolitionism was a response to the brutalities of forced migration of Africans across the modern Atlantic, and was first and foremost a diasporic phenomenon of the Americas. My JGS article.


June 11, 2020

Muslims, gender protection under the law, and Bostock v. Georgia

From the RFI brief in Bostock v. Georgia: "The purpose of the brief is to set forth orthodox Sunni Islam's position that sex is biologically determined upon conception, and that to interpret "sex" to mean gender identity would have applications that impinge on Muslims' religious rights." Some things that have been bugging me about this whole debate are 1) the meaning of 'biologically determined' to an 'orthodox Sunni Muslim' who does not believe in biological evolution, 2) the legal meaning of 'sin' under US civil rights law, and 3) the idea of a specific protection for 'religion', when there is no objective determination of what a religion is and religions frequently deems other religions as inherently sinful or misguided. Biology is a human science that today holds that all life on earth came into being through natural selection, aka without a creator. So when orthodox Sunni Muslims reference 'biological science' as an authority to interpret the meaning of sex and gender in the laws, it would seem that in order to avoid the charge of cherry picking, they would have to also believe in the authority of biological science to interpret the origins of human beings through evolution. If they don't, then this claim that gender protections impinge on a Muslim's right to believe in biology is nothing more than a private religious matter that religious claimants are seeking to impose on the public square with thinly veiled 'public reason' sentiments. By the logic of 'sin' presented in the brief, the fact that Muslims have to accomodate Catholics atheists, polytheists and other 'loathsome' beliefs in American life is given surprisingly short shrift. Surely the authors know of robust historical and contemporary debate among Muslims about whether or not it is even PERMISSIBLE to live outside of the sovereignty of a Muslim ruler. According to a number of orthodox Sunni Muslim authorities from the past and present, it is sinful to live in a non-Muslim state and Muslims have an obligation to emigrate. THAT contradiction in Muslim American life was once much greater than the sex/gender issue, and acknowledging that would seem to undermine their case that the 'sex/gender' issue is some kind of Muslim 'rubicon'. Finally, notice, that the Muslim Bar Association filed a separate amicus brief in this case, opposing the RFI brief. This represents to me the thorniest part of the case: how are secular courts supposed to offer accommodation for a 'religious' point of view, when it means adjudicating internal disagreements over non-creedal issues like this? It is an impossible task. In fact, 'religious' protection as a category is on even shakier conceptual grounds than sex/gender protection. There are two basic biological sexes (and a handful of intersex and gender identity expressions). With religions, no 'religious' group can totally agree with any other religious group as to what a 'religion' is and is not. In fact, many religions have beliefs that logically entail that another group's religious beliefs are 'sinful'; thus a protection of one religion's rights can entail 'sin' for another group. I'm not a lawyer. My main point is that I think this issue is blown waaay out of proportion by the average person's ignorance about intersex issues and the relationship between sex and gender. In that confusion, reactionary organizations like the RFI can position themselves as 'standing up' for Muslim rights by opposing protections for others. Recall how this case started: "Gerald Bostock, a gay man, began working for Clayton County, Georgia, as a child welfare services coordinator in 2003. During his ten-year career with Clayton County, Bostock received positive performance evaluations and numerous accolades. In 2013, Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Shortly thereafter, Bostock received criticism for his participation in the league and for his sexual orientation and identity generally. During a meeting in which Bostock’s supervisor was present, at least one individual openly made disparaging remarks about Bostock’s sexual orientation and his participation in the gay softball league. Around the same time, Clayton County informed Bostock that it would be conducting an internal audit of the program funds he managed. Shortly afterwards, Clayton County terminated Bostock allegedly for “conduct unbecoming of its employees.” (https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/17-1618) My own opinion, from reading about the case, is that in addition to the inconsistencies I listed above regarding justifications for specific religious exemptions from the 14th Amendment, Muslims in America who are filing briefs like this are actually arguing for the right of Bostock's employer to fire him, simply for being gay in public. In doing so, they are demonstrating a callous shortsightedness (probably also motivated by fear of losing control over their institutions), which will come back to haunt them.


June 3, 2020

Islam, Christianity and LGBT in the United States: What do we owe to each other?

This is a response to Mobeen Vaid's reflection from Feb. 19, 2020. The author of this piece is an excellent, incisive writer. I enjoy reading him, in spite of my substantive disagreements, because he makes me think. This piece is not the best example of his abilities. In fact, I think the piece shows that the author has some blind spots, some unexamined bigotry on the LGBT issue, as do many of your Muslim faves on this issue. To see why, and to see what I believe to be the shortcomings of his approach, it may help to imagine the post below being written by a Christian about Muslims. To understand the validity of this comparison, we need to erase the Eurocentric distinction of distinct "religious" and "non-religious" communities in modern society. This doesn't mean denying that certain groups think of themselves as religious groups, rather it means seeing that IT MATTERS how, and with what language, groups relate to each other in a plural society. Under US law, religious groups don't have a privileged right to an authentic identity that exceeds that of any other group. In the US, there isn't a meaningful legal distinction between the protection for religious identity, and the protection for sexual identity, although today a number of conservative Christian legal theorists are highly invested in making the distinction. However, both are legally protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. A thought experiment I often perform when thinking through the subtleties of this issue, is to imagine if a Christian wrote about Islam, the way Vaid writes about LGBT. I can see a Christian 'apologizing' for centering their point of view unequivocally with the following, betraying their profound anxiety about losing followers: "There are increasingly Christians who are attracted to the abominable heresy that is Islam, who are still trying to live a life of fidelity to Jesus Christ, in spite of the increasing public tolerance for Islam's perversion of the gospel." or, an edited version of a sentiment expressed in Vaid's article, from a Christocentric perspective : "Today, Christian activists and politicians are free to support masjids being built in majority Christian neighborhoods, the legalization of polygamy, the practice of the sharia, restrictions on Christian religious freedom, and basically any other pro-Muslim program without receiving even mild push back or concern from anyone other than a few nominal corners online." We can recognize the 'right' of someone to express these opinions, about Muslims as well as gays and lesbians, even if we find them distasteful. But if it is important to critique the above sentiment as partial and based on low-information and a degree of hysteria, then it is equally important to challenge the sentiments expressed in the linked piece by Vaid. With study, we should be able to recognize that the Christian perspective I articulated above is Islamophobic, even if it is a valid generalization from the perspective of an authentically, orthodox Christianity. Similarly, LGBT-phobic Muslims are expressing a clearly recognizable form of bigotry, even if it is a valid generalization deeply rooted in Muslim religious orthodoxy. There are a number of shortcomings and contradictions in modern social progressivism, which Vaid is an eloquent critic. But these contradictions pale in comparison to the contradictions that would arise if orthodox Muslim and Christian views of human sexuality were implemented on a universal basis in US society today, or even ONLY within their respective communities. With its shortcomings, 'liberal progressivism' still provides a valuable safety valve for victims to escape from some of the more damaging views of sex and gender relations emanating from within religious communities.


May 5, 2020

Studying racism in pre-modern Muslim contexts

Some thought provoking methodological reflections on my timeline recently, mostly critiques of Cemel Aydin's book, The Idea of the Muslim World. I was particularly taken with this argument: "Perhaps the better argument is that such ideas [the Muslim world] represent a rebirth of classical ideas, and are not simply some construct of colonial modernity, even if colonial modernity created the conditions in which they gained new salience."

 For historians, who ideally are trained to see things in terms of dynamics and evolution, rather than origins, this idea makes intuitive sense. However, I've seen a lot of reluctance among Islamic studies scholars to apply this  methodology to forms of social prejudice and governing distinctions with roots in the premodern Muslim past, that also clearly affect modern social life among Muslims. Indeed, in popular Muslim circles the exact opposite is usually claimed. A popular take from a few years ago attributed most all recent critical revisionist scholarship on the issue to 'Orientalism' and anti-Muslim Afrocentrism. I do not think such a position can be sustained. Put simply, my contention is that racism(s) in the Muslim tradition (like in the Christian or Jewish traditions) have an independent pre-modern history that was not erased by colonial modernity and thus continues to impact the present.

 In a comment left below the article linked above, one cogent commentator, Sarah, asked: "Is what religiously matters to Muslims whether it was “American” racism, or whether there was discrimination at all? Are we discussing personal-level xenophobia, cultural ideas, the history of religious legal institutions, or the possibilities of religious primary sources?" In short, a lot of today's simplistic constructions of Muslim history around race are reflections of genuine contemporary hope and faith in Islam as an alternative to the systemically embedded racism of a morally exhausted post-civil rights US society. From this perspective it is understandable why scholars might be reluctant to talk about how modern forms of Muslim racism have much deeper roots than colonial modernity, fearing they will lend support to the rantings of racist western bigots. But in doing so, scholars leave themselves no way of meaningfully analyzing forms of racism originating from people thoroughly steeped in the Islamic tradition, well before the west became the west. When these are analyzed, it is rare to see commentary that goes beyond modern notions of generic anti-racism, in which race is merely a sinful aberration.

But the roots of racism within this 'special world-system' of Islam are complex, not merely the manifestation of human sin, or the universal tendency to favor one's tribal in-group. Remember that forms of racial difference have always co-existed ideologically with socially leveling ideas, sometimes within the same religious or political group. Belief systems with the ambition to universally reorder all humanity into a new community, can give birth to their own unique forms of systemic exclusion. While not unilinearly linked to color or complexion, Muslim forms of racism took shape in the historical patterns of acculturation, accumulation and dominion that accompanied the worldly success of Muslim empire. Scholars might profitably analyze the whole cluster of ideas in the Islamic tradition relating blood, culture, color and lineage, as ideas about race. We might then see more clearly how race, as an assemblage of ideas about physical and cultural traits, informed the creation of multiple cross-cutting social hierarchies of value in Muslim societies.

 TL:DR , saying 'race and racial difference is a modern colonial construct' is about as conceptually useful as saying 'the Muslim world is a modern colonial construct'. That is not to deny that a particularly pernicious form of racial difference, birthed in the European colonial encounter, had a world-historical impact and continues to operate globally. Race was an indispensable tool of governance in the colonial Atlantic world. But the Americas are not the origin of the construction of racial difference, any more than they are the origins of capitalism. In each case one needs to carefully unpack the historical meanings encompassed within the modern discursive signs.


July 15, 2019

Zombie Faith and Our Global Crisis

You hear a lot in religious studies about the 'return' of religion, how people, contrary to secular modernist predictions, didn't abandon faith, but returned to it, revived it. Of course, I agree, but many types of faith were revived, in many different religions. I've been studying some of these expressions, and I think we need to talk about one type of faith that has made a 'comeback' today in global religious communities of all kinds.
I put 'comeback' in scare quotes, because, in spite of its hyper-emphasis on fidelity to tradition, this isn't the same faith of the believer of old, in which a person's conviction made them into a better person with other people of all kinds, and gave them hope that the world in which they were oppressed was not the only world. This was faith as vital life force, faith as the 'substance of things hoped for'. This new faith is more like Gage, from Pet Semetary, a sort of undead changeling. It is zombie faith.
This new zombie faith is methodologically nationalist in orientation, characterized by ressentiment, filled with huffy irritation, envy and a sense of victimhood. Zombie faith is always petulantly demanding that one cannot claim they are a person of said faith unless x x and x characteristics are met. It is anxious about its own dissolution, and about what is perceives as its declining relevance. It muses violently at those who reject it. It snarls at information and critical evidence as 'harmful' to faith. It demarcates a strong line between a faithful self and a non-faithful other, and then sees knowledge emanating from the non-faithful as threatening. It identifies itself as the only and supreme epistemological foundation. It identifies itself completely with what public morality should be. Zombie believers sometimes debate about permissibility and the boundaries of faith in ways that personally have always terrified me, as if they were the admissions committee to the pearly gates themselves.
Zombie faith is extremely self-conscious about some of the more obviously bizarre 'unseen' things it is required to believe to maintain its faith, and will defend them as essential to faith. Yet this self-consciousness stems from the knowledge that it insists on the belief in unseen things foundationally, while rejecting out of hand naturalistic conclusions that have been the subject of decades of detailed study and evidence compilation. Like nationalism, this denial of the 'other' is not rational, but rooted in fear and anxiety. In its more reflective moments, zombie faith is uneasy about the many low information suppositions that make up its intellectual apparatus, while regarding things which methodological naturalism has high information answers for (biological evolution, for instance), as conspiracies to take one away from belief.
Zombie faith will try to make that information liability into a strength, by turning to post-modernist individualism, specifically the idea that no one has a right to challenge my fundamental conception of what I believe or what I use to arrive at that belief. ("You don't know me!") Another strategy used to cover the information deficit is to insist that people of zombie faith have a unique insight, a sixth sense, that others just don't have the ability to get, because they're blinded by scientism or arrogance. Zombie faith may also give itself the imprimatur of intellectual respectability by turning heavily to scholastic theology, preferring to have intellectual conversations with the dead, who they can exalt as an obviously superior type to the 'atheist' philosopher of today. In this way they can avoid having to confront the epistemic revolutions of the modern age. Zombie faith will tell itself that the reason people are critical of its faith is that they have insufficient grounding in these sources they use.
Today's zombie faith has absorbed some of the worst qualities of nationalism, and yet, like nationalism, it still offers an invaluable succor to the average person on the street. In the absence of the old faith, the people turn to zombie faith, as a sugar lover would turn to stevia, because it appears to offers a 'sweetness', a certitude and ethical orientation that ordinary modern life, with its runaway global political corruption, its hierarchies of extreme wealth and poverty, and its degradation and destruction of the earth, is unable to.
None of this should be read as an attack on the ethical dispositions of compassion and care which faith (yes, even zombie faith) can provide. Nor should it be read as a vindication of today's scientific consensus. The challenge for critical decolonial thinkers on the ground today, when engaging with religion, is to engage the psychological need many people have for this zombie style of faith, to cultivate a sense of wonder and mystery that draws on the old faiths, and to use the high-information contexts of empirical observation that come to us from detailed naturalistic study of the world to fuel the urgently needed and revolutionary changes required to address the current climate crisis, among other urgent issues in global civil society.


Anti-abortion Muslims and the Christian Right in America under Trump

Relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but the thing that vexes me about this emerging Muslim right wing partnership with Never-Trump Catholics on abortion is not so much that Muslims are allying with people who hate them. Actually many Catholics respect Islam for both what it has that Catholicism has, and also what is has that they feel Catholics have lost (Jeremy McLellan made a career out of it). No, what I dislike about such efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade are their quixotic nature.

I understand and respect those who feel abortion is wrong. But Roe v. Wade wasn't about mandating abortion, and the point of making abortion legal wasn't to criminalize unborn babies, but to reduce suffering in the world by giving the mother final and absolute say in ending her pregnancy. This is not the place to get into all the ethical complexities of the why of that decision. It is a guaranteed right, according to the Supreme Court. With respect to the priorities of Muslim Americans, unlike abortion, alcohol is explicitly haram in the Quran. Why doesn't one see Muslim Americans joining a prohibition bandwagon, or creating one? Why are some Muslim Americans jumping on the ethical bandwagon of extreme Catholics?

Those few Muslim Americans salivating about overturning Roe v. Wade havn’t paid attention to the larger history of how abortion was established as a right in the first place in America, and who accomplished it. Abortion wasn’t legalized through the fiat of a corrupt ruler. The last seventy years have seen popular movements completely transform the legal and social landscape with regard to gender, sexuality and civil rights. These transformations were painful, they came from below and they were an extension of the Black civil rights insurgency of the 1960s. Now a small group of right wing Muslims comes along and wants to ally with arch-Catholics to roll back these protections. Both groups don’t seem to realize that many of those they are allying with don’t want to stop with abortion or LGBT, but will continue onto the 14th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, labor laws etc. Jumping on the anti-abortion bandwagon in the current political climate is the height of foolish naiveté.


April 1, 2019

"Hang On" or "Antonia's Dream" (a brief foray into fiction)

Based on a true story...

I knew this old woman by the name of Antonia who was my neighbor when I lived in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. She was a lovably eccentric but strangely wise soul. She used to come to my apartment on Saturday mornings, to say hello, in her awkward but disarming way, bringing some store bought pastries, a tradition she began soon after I moved into the apartment on Ashland. I invited her in; we would usually sit and she would simply ask after me and my life. After exchanging greetings that day, she made tea and sat at my table, regarding me with a quizzical but slightly humorous gaze, or so I thought.
She told me she had been raised Baptist and I related to her my experience of various sects and denominations of both Christian, Buddhist and Muslim belief. We often spoke of the days news, and the books we were reading. She had unusual reading habits and an extremely large library with books pouring out into her whole house, in a state of organized chaos. Sometimes in our conversations, she would ask me if I had ever dreamed of flying and would often stare at me with the most dispassionate yet serene gaze as I stuttered that I hadn't. I also frequently poured out my heart to her, about my failed relationships, my struggles with faith, and my relationships with my family.
This has been nearly ten years ago now, but I still remember the remarkable story she told me that day. In one of the comfortable silences that often pervaded our conversations, she told me matter-of-factly: “Donnie Hathaway came to me in a dream when I was 12 years old.”
We both shared a love of this amazing musician, who had tragically taken his own life in the midst of a brilliant career.
Still it was an unexpected thing to hear. I didn't know what to say, so I simply said, "what happened in the dream?"
She continued, “Well, I only knew him from my parents record collection. But one night in late April 1980, I was listening to "A Song For You", with my father on his record player, before bed. Later I fell asleep easily."
Antonia continued, "I found myself on the edge of a canyon in a dry landscape dotted with green. Looking around, I began to climb to the top of a large pine tree on a ledge midways above an enormous canyon. Sheltered in the pine's branches, I emerged eventually into a sky of intense blue. The wind whistled by my face and I looked down over an enormous green valley filled with trees. As I looked around, I saw to my surprise, Donnie Hathaway appearing out of the trees of the valley below, flying upwards without visible effort or support, while playing a chord on an instrument seemingly made of a living plant. I sat transfixed.
He held my throat in hand, cradling it. I opened my mouth and he spoke directly into my gullet. It was as if I was digesting his utterances into my stomach. He spoke the following words:
""There is no such thing as ‘religion. There is only something called ‘knowledge of the world’ which encompasses that which is seen and unseen."

He then spoke the following in an instant, almost as a download into my brain:
"We know we are made up of chemical compounds, molecules, atoms, and neutrons interacting in highly complex ways that enable our brain to function. You must integrate the full sensory and motor apparati of the body, including the brain, to learn to 'taste' and subtly evaluate your own experiences of yourself and others. The most relevant context for achieving true wisdom is an understanding of the patterns of behavior of human communities, developed through this evaluation. In college settings, the pedagogical approach to this pattern evaluation is called ' the humanities'. But you can and must also learn such things from navigating the college experience itself. You can also learn it outside of college. You can learn these patterns in a variety of ways, first and foremost by listening closely to what people say, observing what they do and developing a basic empathy for their experience as you naturally have for your own.
Most people have a carefully calibrated mix of 'theist' and 'atheist' assumptions about reality, based on what they think is sinful or shameful. These ideas are frequently in flux. This flux can seem like the arbitrary and inconsistent wind of the fickle mind, but it is in reality an appropriate response to the complexity of existence, though often seen by extremists on both sides as being either insufficient faith or too much superstition. No one can appoint themselves an ultimate guarantor of an unseen reality, nor an arbiter of conscience of the ultimate validity of the sometimes abortive processes of faith and doubt in the individual.
Most important for children is to instill a deep sense of security and love in the child by setting boundaries for it, that must also evolve to meet the growing capacity of the child's sensory, motor and higher brain functions. Ideally parents provide a degree of stability that will allow the child to forms and inform their identity while incorporating flexibility, questioning and a rational autonomy that helps insulate the child from vulnerability to cults, which often prey on misplaced but sincere faith.
The messages we need to live together, to extend the life of the human species in a sustainable manner, and to live in balance with all the seen and unseen forces, is transmitted all around us by reality itself. There is no need to debate who is and isn’t correct about such abstractions like theological conceptions of God. It is strange and contradictory that the messengers of a supposedly all powerful God come every thousand years or so and to a limited swath of humanity, in a particular language. Some civilizations actually do not appear to have a theistic conception of the ULTIMATELY REAL at all. Study the messages of the tradition of your parents, as well as other traditions, whether theist or non-theist, but do not only rely on words spoken or written by someone else in the past to make your judgements. You must also independently evaluate the character of the adherents of these traditions through the power of your own sensory apparatus and intuition. You must purify this intuition to use it well; it can also be a deeply creative source. How do you think I made the song "Giving Up"?
But you must remain humble of your own inherent limitations. Please learn early on and deeply that your experience is a combination of many different inputs, including that which goes by the name of ‘tradition’. You are also a mammal, and a complex organism with many unconscious desires. If you choose the language of God to understand this truth, then: God speaks in words, but more importantly God generates new experiences and new reality every moment. Listen to the world in silent contemplation, listen to humans in compassion, and you will eventually find the wisdom you need to survive a variety of challenges.""

In her dream, the old woman told me she was surprised to find herself speaking the following words to Donny Hathaway, as if in a trance. Actually, she said, it was as if she was singing the words together with him, as if it was a duet:
""Human life and human history is largely just a string of pointless miseries, fruitless endeavors, and civilizations that failed because of human hubris, greed and unsustainable inequality. There is beauty there too, amid the detritus of our repeated and arrogant ruin, of history repeating itself. In their ultimate failures humans managed to form social units and communities to cooperate for common good, and have at times treated each other with remarkable sensitivity and real love, which in turn contributed to a humanly obtainable model of excellence and human flourishing. Some say, if you want wisdom, do not endeavor. But do not neglect to fulfill the obligations immediately in front of you. Often larger truths emerge from this prosaic mosaic.
Look around you at what the people believe; they are mired in ignorance. Do not be too harsh with anyone, except for those who come to you and engage in obviously bad faith. Among all peoples of the world, there are those who have a deep and beautifully profound faith in a good God or a good Force that governs, guides and sometimes rewards their life and accomplishments.
The concept of God is often treated psychologically as a fetish object by some monotheists, in spite of their denigration of its material manifestation as idolatry. This is not only a 'theist' family affair; non-theist 'religions' such as Buddhism also condemn practice, of the other from their limited psychic viewpoint.
God is neither good nor bad, in any conventional moral sense with meaning to human social life. God is sometimes referred to, misleadingly, as our ‘father’. But a father is supposed, even obligated, to protect his children from danger. God knows the future and so allows human evil to happen to these so-called children, including mass killing. He listens to the cries of today’s starving in Yemen and weeps, or laughs, but doesn’t intervene in any rationally comprehensible way we can understandor communicate about. And on goes the killing, fueled by human greed, not Godly punishment.
There are many Gods, there is only one God, there is no God. All of these statements are true and false at the same time. Don’t accept any of these contradictory statements as ontological. Debating whether non-theism or theism is true is like debating whether light is a wave or a particle. The fervency of the true believers ontological preference bears very little relation to the ULTIMATELY REAL or to the hearts of those who hold fervently to it.
‘Belief' is not measurable or ultimately definable in any consistent unitary doctrinal fashion. Although there have been many attempts. it is frequently so subtle that an orthodox believer will totally lack faith, in spite of his rhetorical affirmations of the same. Meanwhile the most ignorant “kaffir” or unbeliever may have iman enough to move mountains. The ways of this quality are indeed ultimately mysterious. Avoid judging in spite of a preponderance of evidence one way or the other. For non-theists, faith would be closer to an idea of an 'unveiling' of the senses', which drills a deep insight and deliberation into one's daily practice and existence.
Atheists will sometimes put on airs of superiority, rooted in the faith they have in limited human rationality. Yet take away their material comforts, take away their faith that the world is rationally ordered, and you will see their true character many times emerge. Religious leaders and atheists share one main quality and that is hubris.
To judge anyone, look at how they treat children, orphans and widows. Pay less attention to words and more to human action. which are easily ‘prettified’ by the intelligent.
Education can be a path to truth or a path to ignorance. Many words do not always bring clarity.
Don’t be in a hurry to express truth in words, for the more this something is talked about, the further the experiential intuition gets from it.
There are many spiritual teachers today, promising an easy path to prosperity or knowledge. They may have the right words, the right robes, the right instruments of mystical communion, and yet their heart may well be as hard as a mountain of granite.
There are many political leaders today, promising the kingdom of God on earth. Remember that material inequality always generates the conditions for social upheaval. But do not expect a political messiah. Power is something humans have inherent difficulties handling in large quantities.
Our species has demonstrated at times a remarkable ability to live together and spontaneously organize itself with ingenuity and originality. One doesn't need a Harvard degree or any other fancy piece of paper to know how to do this.
Beware of painting the self-organizing tendency in human communities as primitive or chaotic and beware of those who label it so. Many times the proposed western alternative is the exertion of violent coercion to carve out an arbitrary and damaging concept of sovereign ownership so as to be able to impose a usually highly abstract and violent notion of order. The wealthy will try to use the barrier created by this violence to insulate themselves from uncertainty. Eventually the quest for total security rots the hearts and brains of these people.
Don’t be in a hurry to make a name for yourself. Be in a hurry to listen to everything and everyone.
Reading is the habit of listening to the dead. Use it to relate empathetically with the living. Engage in it daily."
Antonia said at this point her whole body began pulsating with some heartbeat that appeared to be within the intricate structural body of the sky itself. She could hear the chittering sound of sparrows somewhere below her in the tree. Donnie Hathaway spoke again: 
""Remember if there isn’t a God, then anything is permitted to humans in an ultimate sense. This is the most monstrous idea imaginable. Therefore we need God. Human beings as a species cannot live totally without some concept of the ultimately real. It informs our actions and generates both useful prohibitions and a vital survival energy.
But if there is a God, this raises probably the thorniest and most irrational problem in theistic thought. God is good, but God permitted/allowed/intended for millions of humans to die at the hands of diseases, millions of others by the instability of the planet he created, and millions more by their fellow humans. He threw his 'children' to their own devices in the most cruel and calculated manner imaginable. If there is a God (and herein lies the controversy, he is truly a sadistic monster of the worst kind. Instead of imprinting a guide to conduct in his creation, he divided humanity into languages, taught them contradictory philosophies, and then set them against each other to debate and fight about the meanings of words he allegedly spoke 1000s of years ago and which are frequently not even in their first language. God cannot be 'good' and still be God, unless God intends and also creates and actually is the source of, evil itself.
To hold these two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time is the path to a profound and indescribable truth. This is why it is better to root the idea of good and evil in the consequences of human conduct, in individual terms, but also in terms that minimize the destructive tendencies of hubris and hierarchy, that in turn give birth to material inequality that generates violence and instability.""
The old woman said that by the time the musician had finished saying this portion, his head was glowing like polished brass, so that she could see her own reflection in pure outline in the shape of his brow. He was smiling gently at her.
Her head was spinning and her palms were sweating onto the fragrant needles of the pine tree. She was aware of her heart beating rapidly in her chest. High in the sky overlooking the verdant valley of her dream, she suddenly felt more deeply grounded and at peace with her own body and self than she ever had before.
Donnie stopped playing the plant-like instrument, and was gradually now surrounded by millions of shimmering spheres, seemingly made of clouds, and looping around him like double helixes. She began to hear the following words--"Allahu La ilaha Ila Huwa al-Hayyul Qayyum"--recited from the mouth of a glowing Donnie Hathaway as he seemed to float away from her on the updraft of some powerful current from the valley below, though she could feel no wind. The phrase of what she only later learned was the Quran resonated and echoed for some time off the walls of the canyon.
"And then I woke up," she told me. She fell silent as I sat totally absorbed by her remarkable story. Slowly the profound and mystical impression of the narrated dream faded from the atmosphere of the room. She pulled something from a small black backpack next to her chair. "I wrote everything down that we had said together." She produced a plain blue spiral notebook and laid it on the table next to me. "You can read it if you want."
She passed me the book, and I saw her neat handwriting, in elegant thin lines of dry ink curling across the page, a written account of the dream she had just related.
As I perused the notebook, Antonia received a call from another friend and had to excuse herself. As I read her words from the notebook, I still had so many questions. Her story of her dream seemed quite surreal, and yet it was a dream, so what else did I expect? As I turned further in the notebook I saw more entries, many of them quite ordinary for a twelve year old girl, like her excitement going on a field trip to Brookfield zoo and seeing giraffes for the first time. There were also lists: like goals she had for herself by age 50, or all of the different kingdoms and phylae of life. She had also written down other dreams, though in no other one was she ever visited by anyone else.
When she came back from her call, I asked her If could make a copy of the dream from her notebook and she told me that I could, but that if I wanted to publicize the dream-advice, she did not want to have her name associated with it. She told me, "write it in a fictional story, change my name, and wait ten years before sharing."
The next day, as I copied the dream notebook into a Word document, a feeling of unease flickered back into view after the pleasant shock of discovery of the remarkable dream. I was mired in debt and my job was stressing me out. I had been feeling on edge, and my grad school routine, with long hours of solitary study, had left me feeling ever more frequently isolated and lonely. Yet the old woman’s words had lodged deep within my body and I turned them over in my mind constantly over the next few days.
Ten years later, as I re-write this into the emerging space of social media networks, I have still never dreamed of flying. But I never forgot the wisdom of Antonia's dream. Whenever I get into a state of deep anxiety, whenever I feel overwhelmed, whenever I doubt, whenever my spirit is troubled I think of the lyrics of the timeless song, “Someday we’ll all be free”, by Donnie Hathaway:
“hang onto the world as it spins around, just don’t let the spin get you down."
the end.
(written by Nathaniel M, March 2019)


February 24, 2019

A Different Take on American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics

A response to a Medium post, "On American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics", by Mobeen Vaid: 

This is a thought provoking piece that I disagree with. By way of opening up a line of critique, consider this short passage from the author: "This recalibrated politics represents a radical departure from the American Muslim community of yesterday that spoke with pride of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, not as cultural symbols who shared an overlapping “identity” with themselves, but as people who contributed in positive ways to society, lived admirably, and embodied the ethics, morals, and values that — and here lies the crucial difference — emerge from a life informed by God’s instruction."
Now I have no doubt that many American Muslims did just that. But to reduce of the history of the 'American Muslim community'-- replete with personality disputes, insane theological hair-splitting, cult-like thinking, ethnic/racial tensions, and a number of prominent spiritually abusive figures-- to a simple group of united pious folks, and to then contrast that putative piety of the past in such a way that subtly communicates that today's activist and progressive Muslims don't seek to live a life informed by God's instruction, is not an argument grounded in actually existing histories. It is a form of cultural anxiety dressed up in the clothes of nostalgia.
It is worth noting in passing that today's focus on sexual autonomy as the far boundary point between 'what Islam believes' and the alleged degeneracy of modern culture, sometimes obscures a useful fact to remember: that Muslim communities of the past argued just as passionately, with plenty of Quranic justification, over issues Muslims today view as relatively minor. In all likelihood in a hundred years or less, controversial issues we now consider pressing will have been definitively resolved and the consensus will be incorporated into religious discourse, through strategic forgetting.
The author asks: "Will we stand by idly and preside over the effective secularization of American Muslims and the reduction of “Muslim” to a mere social identity marker?"
Assuming for a moment that this reduction is what is actually happening, what would *not* idly standing by look like? The author provides some clues about how he thinks about these things in another essay (https://medium.com/…/on-gender-wars-metoo-and-building-a-pr…):
"Muslims need to speak forthrightly about the sex-specific obligations of the Shari’a, even when they are inegalitarian. Obedience to one’s husband in matters of good is necessary for a healthy household (with due recognition to the typical machinations of household disagreement, of course). Non-maḥram men and women must maintain reasonable separation within parameters established in the Shari’a, and both should lower their gaze with the other, particularly when shahwa is felt. Khalwa is impermissible and should not be disregarded absent dire circumstances. Men must retain their responsibility as qawwām over women — providing financially, guiding spiritually, and protecting socially (even — and especially — against those malefactors in our midst)"
These are confident assertions of the necessity of patriarchal control. But unless Muslims are in a position of majoritarian political power, most of these ideas cannot be practically implemented without causing massive social chaos and fitna. The answer often given in response individualizes the response; Muslims 'should want' to implement these things in their own life to protect their piety. There ought to be space for such patriarchal piety to exist; you cannot legislate it out of existence as it forms a deeply held part of the psyche of millions of people. But let us imagine the implications of implementing some version of this vision in a public sphere.
Mobeen Vaid, like many neo-traditionalists, is relatively naive to the pitfalls of that implementation. In the current political climate, most of these proposals would mean instantiating a millet-like form of internal religious government in which 'Muslims' as a bloc govern themselves as Jews did in the Ottoman empire or as Copts do in modern Egypt. Is Vaid prepared for what this entails: the abandonment of the struggle for equal civil rights in a secular public sphere? Vaid completely ignores that many religious people have confidently balanced a set of private conservative beliefs with commitment to a more robustly liberal public sphere. In Vaid's model, it appears that, unless patriarchal piety is publically implemented in the Muslim community, it does not deserve the name of Islam. He quotes Dr. Sherman Jackson, but does not engage with Jackson's concept of the "Islamic secular".
A self-governing Muslim community in the US under patriarchal law would basically look a lot like Mormonism. In fact, many Muslim communities have attempted to replicate the model of Mormons. Very few succeed in overcoming the inherently cult-like dynamic of that kind of formation. The further danger these strictures represent to faith can be understood by imagining what should happen when Muslim parents, like well meaning religious parents in many contexts, attempt to 'crack down' and 'enforce' this hyper-patriarchal model on their children. In societies where patriarchal piety is enshrined in law, private sexual morality is a matter of public anxiety and concern. More often than not, one can observe the spiritual rot this authoritarianism produces. In fact it is rebellion against the harshness of these strictures that is the main producer of atheism in religiously authoritarian states. Progressive Muslim culture, for all its foibles, acts as an invaluable safety valve for critical questioning of internal community dynamics. I want to ask Vaid if he think issues like the imam grooming underage girls in Texas, or Mawlana Saleem in Chicago would have come to light without a critical lens on patriarchal piety, by which to hold the community accountable and shine a light on its processes of governance? The anti-authoritarian impulse of progressivism gives a huge fillip to struggles against the abuse of this patriarchal model. Right now, there are a number of morally upright liberal/left alternatives in the American counterculture that don't come with the heavy baggage of patriarchal purity culture. Vaid would have you believe those are a liability to the Muslim community and an affront to the ummah's piety as a whole. I regard this as an immature view because it does not realistically address the implications of implementing patriarchal piety in governance and law, nor the positive aspects of having a spectrum of thought on social issues without resorting to false universalism.
The emphasis on reviving patriarchy as the route to reviving piety raises some interesting questions as to which of the many Muslim social issues should take precedence for the US-based ummah, for Vaid's is not the dominant model of public engagement. Modern Muslim social justice orgs in the US have rightfully given precedence to liberation theology as the entry point for Islam into the public sphere. But perhaps Muslims should focus more on sexual issues, as Vaid suggests. What about allying with right-wing evangelicals and Catholics on abortion? Or joining evangelical Christians in advocating for a reversal of same-sex marriage equality? This tactic has to be considered very carefully in a climate of Islamophobia. Do Muslims in the US have sufficient institutional power to wage these battles? And at what cost?
Finally, what about socio-religious issues where Muslims would stand alone? How much priority is it prudent to give to issues that were once an integral part of the tradition? Should the Muslim community advocate the government to have the right to punish apostates, as is mentioned in the tradition? Should Muslims advocate for all women who are unmarried to travel with a male companion? Should they endorse the Prophetic sunna of holding slaves and taking concubines? Vague resorts to imagined ideals of 'sacred activism', 'Quran and sunnah', 'ultimate commitments to God' are simply not cutting it. They will all ultimately fail to stem the tide. And in spite of the tone of that essay, not all of that tide is negative. Allowing people to think of themselves beyond and outside of Abrahamic religious identities, esp the globally hegemonic ones of Christianity and Islam, is a positive development overall for religious faith.
The anxiety that many people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, feel at modern statist liberalism is authentic and must be acknowledged and mitigated as much as possible. In many cases the deeply rooted beliefs of religious communities provide some of the best critiques of injustice, tyranny and greed. But religious commentators shouldn't just get a pass in the name of infusing the public square with piety. Instead, anyone within those traditions who is interested in critical thinking ought to scrutinize what is being offered as an alternative to overcome this anxiety. Most of the times the rhetoric of these alternatives far outruns the practical reality of their implementation. Many times there are extremely compelling reasons for rejecting these alternatives, and not all of them need to have some explicit scriptural justification. Some of them are pragmatic, others are deeply rooted in prophetic akhlaq, others in general understandings of the fragility of knowledge, others in a spiritual discipline against religious ressentiment.
postscript: It ought to be noted that this nexus of anxiety-nostalgia I describe also underlies a great deal of modern Hindutva discourse about liberalism. Although tempered in the US by Muslims being a minority, today's global neo-traditionalism shares some profound similarities with the Hindu right wing, in its nostalgia for an imagined social unity, its anxiety about changing forms of sexual autonomy for women, and its antagonistic relationship to modern science. Like the Hindu right, neo-traditionalists are wont to discuss Islam primarily as an aggrieved and victimized subject who has been betrayed by modern liberalism, even in societies where Muslims are an overwhelming majority.


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