December 29, 2008

I'm on YouTube

Representing SNK crew and hiphop in the Gulf. Check out their Website.

With lyrics:

Woke up in the morning out the bed and let my feet touch the ground,
I got the Canon in my head you know the beat set to pound.
But first I gotta converse with my man
throw on some Chucks bust this verse for SNK and Sultan,
hit the streets of Muscat,
you know the weather is hot
cool out with this track
watching fedha yetu stack.
Tunajaribu kuwaletea kitu freshi sana,
especially lyrics we specialize in putting hurting on ya.

Well representing style we go miles for the freshest dough.
Staying with a smile through my trials I confess through flow
Playing with the fire so the heat will just ignite my soul.

You'll never understand, I'm always over your head, cuz I'm the type of MC that multiplying my bread
and then I stay baking
You stay caking
I roll with SNK man, you know they stay breaking.
And I'm thankful y'all just to be in this booth, you see I'm cold like Duluth
I can melt a polar ice cap like a inconvenient truth.

Check my facts, I was born to rock a crowd
you can call my crew the warrants cuz we serve and knock so loud.
Wondering how? We broke it down, flips headspins and pounds now.
Umetuona sasa, tunashinda kikosi chako, na chukua kwako, wewe huna budi isipokuwa jina lako.
Well we're SNK,.
You gotta pay to play.
Breaking sneakers, breaking posers, breaking knowledge till the break of day,
rivals we slay, so you better come correct.
We got the heaviest artillery we firing from upper deck
and there's one last thing you know its part of the plan
we be on stage with the planet in the palm of our hand
and the night is late, but you know the crowd wanna stay,
everybody throw their hands in the air and scream SNK!
@2008 Nathaniel 'Nader' Mathews


December 28, 2008

Symbolism and Allegory in the Quran

This is from The Message of The Quran
Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam and one of the great Islamic scholars of the twentieth century, in my humble opinion. This relates to several earlier conversations I was having with different groups of people. This is a really amazing essay and I think is relevant to the methodology of scriptural iinterpretation in other contexts as well.

When studying the Quran, one frequently encounters what may be described as
"key­- phrases" - that is to say, statements which provide a clear, concise indication of the idea underlying a particular passage or passages: for instance, the many references to the creation of man "out of dust" and "out of a drop of sperm", pointing to the lowly biological origin of the human species; or the statement in the ninety-ninth surah (Az-Zalzalah) that on Resurrection Day "he who shall have done an atom's weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom's weight of evil, shall behold it" - indicating the inelucctible afterlife consequences of, and the responsibility for, all that man consciously does in this world; or the divine declaration (in 38:27), "We have not created heaven and earth and all that is between them without meaning and purpose (baatilan), as is the surmise of those who are bent on denying the truth."

Instances of such Quranic key-phrases can be quoted almost ad infinitum, and in many varying formulations. But there is one fundamental statement in the Quran which occurs only once, and which may be qualified as "the key-phrase of all its key-phrases": the statement in verse 3:7 to the effect that the Quran "contains messages that are clear in and by themselves (ayat-e-muhkamaat) as well as others that are allegorical (mutashabihaat)". It is this verse which represents, in an absolute sense, a key to the understanding of the Qur'anic message and makes the whole of it accessible to "people who think" (li-qawmin yatafakkarUn).

In my notes on the above-mentioned verse I have tried to elucidate the meaning of the expression ayaat muhkimaat as well as the general purport of what is termed mutashabih ("allegorical" or "symbolic"). Without a proper grasp of what is implied by this latter term, much of the Qur~an is liable to be - and, in fact, has often been - grossly misunderstood both by believers and by such as refuse to believe in its divinely-inspired origin. However, an appreciation of what is meant by "allegory" or "symbolism" in the context of the Quran is, by itself, not enough to make one fully understand its world-view: in order to achieve this we must relate the Quranic use of these terms to a concept touched upon almost at the very beginning of the divine writ - namely, the existence of "a realm which is beyond the reach of human perception" (aI-ghayb). It is this concept that constitutes the basic premise for an understanding of the call of the Quran, and, indeed, of the principle of religion - every religion - as such: for all truly religious cognition arises from and is based on the fact that only a small segment of reality is open to man's perception and imagination, and that by far the larger part of it escapes his comprehension altogether.

However, side by side with this clear-cut metaphysical concept we have a not less clear-cut finding of a psychological nature: namely, the finding that the human mind (in which term we comprise conscious thinking, imagination, dream-life, intuition, memory, etc.) can operate only on the basis of perceptions previously experienced by that very mind either in their entirety or in some of their constituent elements: that is to say, it cannot visualize, or form an idea of, something that lies entirely outside the realm of previously realized experiences. Hence, whenever we arrive at a seemingly "new" mental image or idea, we find, on closer examination, that even if it is new as a composite entity, it is not really new as regards its component elements, for these are invariably derived from previous - and sometimes quite disparate - mental experiences which are now but brought together in a new combination or series of new combinations.

Now as soon as we realize that the human mind cannot operate otherwise than on the basis of previous experiences - that is to say, on the basis of apperceptions and cognitions already recorded in that mind - we are faced by a weighty question: Since the metaphysical ideas of religion relate, by virtue of their nature, to a realm beyond the reach of human perception or experience - how can they be successfully conveyed too us? How can we he expected to grasp ideas which have no counterpart, not even a fractional one, in any of the apperceptions which we have arrived at empirically?

The answer is self-evident: By means of loan-images derived from our actual - physical or mental - experiences; or, as Zamakhshari phrases it in his commentary on 13:35, "through a parabolic illustration, by means of something which we know from our experience, of something that is beyond the reach of our perception" (tamtheelan li-ma ghaaba anna bi-ma nushaahid). And this is the innermost purport of the term and concept of al-mutashaabihaat as used in the Quran.

Thus, the Qur~an tells us clearly that many of its passages and expressions must be understood in an allegorical sense for the simple reason that, being intended for human understanding, they could not have been conveyed to us in any other way.. It follows, therefore, that if we were to take every Quranic passage, statement or expression in its outward, literal sense and disregard the possibility of its being an allegory, a metaphor or a parable, we would be offending against the very spirit of the divine writ.

Consider, for instance, some of the Quranic references to God's Being - Being indefinable, infinite in time and space, and utterly beyond any creature's comprehension. Far from being able to imagine Him, we can only realize what He is not: namely, not limited in either time or space, not definable in terms of comparison, and not to be comprised within any category of human thought. Hence, only very generalized metaphors can convey to us, though most inadequately, the idea of His existence and activity.

And so, when the Quran speaks of Him as being "in the heavens" or "established on His throne (al-arsh)", we cannot possibly take these phrases in their literal senses, since then they would imply, however vaguely, that God is limited in space: and since such a limitation would contradict the concept of an Infinite Being, we know immediately, without the least doubt that the "heavens" and the "throne" and God's being "established" on it are but linguistic vehicles meant to convey an idea which is outside all human experience, namely, the idea of God's almightiness and absolute sway over all that exists. Similarly, whenever He is described as "all-seeing", "all-hearing" or "all-aware", we know that these descriptions have nothing to do with the phenomena of physical seeing or hearing hut simply circumscribe, in terms understandable to man, the fact of God's eternal Presence in all that is or happens. And since "no human vision can encompass Him" (Quran 6:103), man is not expected to realize His existence otherwise than through observing the effects of His unceasing activity within and upon the universe created by Him.

But whereas our belief in God's existence does not - and, indeed, could not - depend on our grasping the unfathomable "how" of His Being, the same is not the case with problems connected with man's own existence, and, in particular, with the idea of a life in the hereafter: for, man's psyche is so constituted that it cannot accept any proposition relating to himself without being given a clear exposition of its purport.

The Quran tells us that man's life in this world is but the first stage - a very short stage - of a life that continues beyond the hiatus called "death" ; and the same Quran stresses again and again the principle of man's moral responsibility for all his conscious actions and his behaviour, and of the continuation of this responsibility, in the shape of inescapable consequences, good or bad, in a person's life in the hereafter. But how could man be made to understand the nature of these consequences and, thus, of the quality of the life that awaits him'? - for, obviously, inasmuch as man's resurrection will be the result of what the Quran describes as "a new act of creation", the life that will follow upon it must be entirely different from anything that man can and does experience in this world.

This being so, it is not enough for man to be told, "If you behave righteously in this world, you will attain to happiness in the life to come" , or, alternatively, "If you do wrong in this world, you will suffer for it in the hereafter". Such statements would be far too general and abstract to appeal to man's imagination and, thus, to influence his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal to the intellect, resulting in a kind of "visualization" of the consequences of one's conscious acts and omissions: and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all that man will experience after resurrection from whatever he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other hand, establishing means of comparison between these two categories of experience.

Thus, explaining the reference to the bliss of paradise in 32:17, the Prophet indicated the essential difference between man's life in this world and in the hereafter in these words: "God says, 'I have readied for My righteous servants what no eye has ever seen, and no ear has ever heard, and no heart of man has ever conceived"' (Bukhãri, Muslim, Tirmidhi). On the other hand, in 2:25 the Quran speaks thus of the blessed in paradise: "Whenever they are granted fruits therefrom as their appointed sustenance, they will say, 'It is this that in days of yore was granted to us as our sustenance' - for they shall be given something which will recall that

[past]": and so we have the image of gardens through which running waters flow, blissful shade, spouses of indescribable beauty, and many other delights infinitely varied and unending, and yet somehow comparable to what may be conceived of as most delightful in this world.

However, this possibility of an intellectual comparison between the two stages of human existence is to a large extent limited by the fact that all our thinking and imagining is indissolubly connected with the concepts of finite time and finite space: in other words, we cannot imagine infinity in either time or space - and therefore cannot imagine a state of existence independent of time and space - or, as the Qur'~n phrases it with reference to a state of happiness in afterlife, "a paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth" (3:133): which expression is the Qur'anic synonym for the entire created universe. On the other hand, we know that every Qur'anic statement is directed to man's reason and must, therefore, be comprehensible either in its literal sense (as in the case of the dyãt muhkamdt) or allegorically (as in the ayat-e-mutashaabihaat); and since, owing to the constitution of the human mind, neither infinity nor eternity are comprehensible to us, it follows that the reference to the infinite "vastness" of paradise cannot relate to anything but the intensity of sensation which it will offer to the blest.

By obvious analogy, the principle of a "comparison through allegory" applied in the Qur~ãn to all references to paradise - i.e., a state of unimaginable happiness in afterlife - must be extended to all descriptions of otherworldly suffering - i.e., hell - in respect of its utter dissimilarity from all earthly experiences as well as its unmeasurable intensity. In both cases the descriptive method of the Qur'ãn is the same. We are told, as it

were: "Imagine the most joyous sensations, bodily as well as emotional, accessible to man: indescribable beauty, love physical and spiritual, conscious­ness of fulfilment, perfect peace and harmony; and imagine these sensations intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world - and at the same time entirely different from anything imaginable: and you have an inkling, however vague, of what is meant by 'paradise'." And, on the other

hand: "Imagine the greatest suffering, bodily as well as spiritual, which man may experience: burning by fire, utter loneliness and bitter desolation, the torment of unceasing frustration, a condition of neither living nor dying; and imagine this pain, this darkness and this despair intensified beyond anything imaginable in this world - and at the same time entirely different from anything imaginable: and you will know, however vaguely, what is meant by 'hell'."

Side by side with these allegories relating to man's life after death we find in the Qur'ãn many symbolical expressions referring to the evidence of God's activity. Owing to the limitations of human language - which, in their turn, arise from the inborn limitations of the human mind - this activity can only be circumscribed and never really described. Just as it is impossible for us to imagine or define God's Being, so the true nature of His creativeness - and, therefore, of His plan of creation - must remain beyond our grasp. But since the Quran aims at conveying to us an ethical teaching based, precisely, on the concept of God's purposeful creativeness, the latter must be, as it were, "translated" into categories of thought accessible to man. Hence the use of expressions which at first sight have an almost anthropomorphic hue, for instance, God's "wrath" (ghadab) or "condemnation"; His "pleasure" at good deeds or "love" for His creatures; or His being "oblivious" of a sinner who was oblivious of Him; or "asking" a wrongdoer on Resurrection Day about his wrongdoing; and so forth. All such verbal "translations" of God's activity into human terminology are unavoidable as long as we are expected to conform to ethical principles revealed to us by means of a human language; but there can be no greater mistake than to think that these "translations" could ever enable us to define the Undefinable.

And, as the Quran makes it clear in the seventh verse 3:7, only "those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]: but none save God knows its final meaning."


Bombings in Gaza

How is this being reported on CNN, Fox News, and NBC? Is it being reported at all? Its a big deal here, as well it should be. I was sitting watching Al-Jazeera with my host mother and she made the observation: "Its these actions that create recruits for al-Qaeda, that help encourage hatred of whole peoples." Well said. I have heard it said, in defense of Israel, that Hamas fired first, and that the Israelis are wiping out 'terrorists'. By and large, the first statement is true; Israel performs these bombing strikes in retaliation. But in retaliation for WHAT? Does the fact that 4 people were killed by a Hamas rocket attack justify flattening homes and villages and killing nearly 300 people?

The logic that justifies such actions is the logic of raw power, the power of the world's most powerful military (US) and all the privileges it brings. It is not the logic of justice, or even the logic of revenge (eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth) but the delusional and dangerous belief in the supremacy of pure force. And this belief is in my opinion, infinitely more threatening to the world at large than the irresponsible provocations of a ragtag militia turned government in Gaza.

From The AP
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli warplanes pressing one of Israel's deadliest assaults ever on Palestinian militants dropped bombs and missiles on a top security installation, a mosque, a TV station and dozens of other targets across the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Sunday.

Some 280 Palestinians have been killed and 600 people wounded since Israel's campaign to quash rocket barrages from Gaza began at midday Saturday, a Gaza health official said. Most of the dead were Hamas police. Israel launched some 250 airstrikes in the first 24 hours.

Israel's prime minister said the campaign could last longer than initially anticipated and the Israeli Cabinet approved the callup of thousands of reservists at its weekly meeting Sunday. Infantry and armored units were already headed to the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion.

Militants, unbowed, kept up the pressure on Israel, firing dozens more rockets and mortars at Israeli border communities Sunday. Two rockets struck close to the largest city in southern Israel, Ashdod, some 38 kilometers (23 miles) from Gaza, reaching deeper into Israel than ever before. The targeting of Ashdod confirmed Israel's concern that militants are capable of putting major cities within rocket range. No injuries were reported.

The Palestinians' moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, a fierce rival of Hamas, urged the Islamic militant group to renew a truce with Israel that collapsed last week.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council expressed serious concern about the escalating situation in Gaza and called on Israel and the Palestinians to immediately halt all violence and military activities. The U.N.'s most powerful body called for a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and for opening border crossings into Gaza to enable humanitarian supplies to reach the territory.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak allowed limited supplies of fuel and medicine to enter Gaza.

Many of Israel's Western allies urged restraint on both sides, though the U.S. blamed Hamas for the fighting.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Israel's closest ally on the Security Council, said "the key issue here was not to point a finger at Israel. The key issue was to urge all parties to end the violence and address the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza."

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said that in the face of constant rocket attacks, Israel had "no choice but to go on a military operation and the only party to blame is the Hamas."

The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired more than 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week and 10 times that number over the past year.

Streets were empty in Gaza City on Sunday as most residents stayed home, fearing more airstrikes. A few lined up to buy bread outside two bakeries. Schools were shut for a three-day mourning period the Gaza government declared Saturday for the campaign's dead.

Hamas police kept a low profile, wearing jackets over their dark blue uniforms and walking close to walls, hoping to evade the detection by Israeli pilots.

Aircraft struck one of Hamas' main security compounds in Gaza City — a major symbol of the group's authority. Health officials said four people were killed and 25 wounded in the attack.

A column of black smoke towered from the building and some inmates of the compound's prison fled after the missiles struck. Hamas police nabbed some of them.

One prisoner trapped under the rubble waved his hand in the hope of being rescued. Two other prisoners helped a bleeding friend walk through the debris.

Minutes after the strike, Hamas police defiantly planted the movement's green flag in the rubble.

"These strikes fuel our popular support, our military power and the firmness of our positions," said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator. "We will survive, we will move forward, we will not surrender, we will not be shaken."

Senior Hamas leaders went into hiding before the offensive began, shutting off their phones. Hamas' Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, spoke on a televised address on Saturday evening but it was not immediately clear where the address was taped.

Earlier, Palestinians said Israeli bombs destroyed a mosque outside Gaza's main hospital in Gaza City; the military called it a "base for terrorist activities."

In southern Gaza, aircraft targeted a Gaza tanker truck, touching off a blaze that raged out of control and spread to about a dozen nearby houses. One of the main medicine warehouses supplying local pharmacies in southern Gaza was attacked in another sortie.

Local residents said the tanker and the warehouse contained supplies that had been smuggled in from Gaza through underground tunnels with Egypt, suggesting Israel was widening its offensive to go after businesses that are a source of income for Hamas.

Warplanes attacked the headquarters of the local Hamas television station early Sunday, but it continued to broadcast from a mobile unit.

The initial waves of attacks Saturday focused on key Hamas security installations and rocket-launching pads.

Gaza health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said at least 280 people were killed, including 183 members of Hamas' uniformed security forces. It was not clear how many of the others were gunmen or civilians.

The civilian casualties included a 15-year-old boy who died in southern Gaza on Sunday in an attack on a greenhouse near the border. At least 644 people were wounded, Hassanain said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was unclear when the operation would end. The situation in southern Israel "is liable to last longer than we are able to foresee at this time," he told his Cabinet.

Benayahu said Israel's objective was not to halt all rocket attacks but to cripple militants' intention and motivation to assault Israel. "To change the situation, we don't have to go after the last of the rocket launchers," Benayahu told Army Radio.

The rockets that struck close to Ashdod, extending the militants' reach closer to Israel's heartland, landed some 23 miles (38 kilometers) from Gaza. Gaza's Hamas rulers have been stockpiling weapons in recent months, including medium-range missiles. Until Sunday, the deepest targets inside Israel had been the city of Ashkelon and the town of Netivot, which are about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from Gaza.

Since the campaign began, around 150 rockets and mortars have bombarded southern Israel, according to the military's count.

In Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people about 11 miles (17 kilometers) from Gaza, bustling sidewalks immediately emptied after a rocket fell downtown. "I am afraid to walk," said Tzipi Moshe, 59, nervously puffing a cigarette as she ran into a building for cover.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, dominated by Abbas' Fatah movement, called a one-day commercial strike through the West Bank and urged Palestinians to take to the streets in peaceful protests.

Israel's military was on alert for possible disturbances in the West Bank. The campaign has inflamed public opinion across the Arab world, which has responded with protests and condemnations.


Additional reporting by Aron Heller in Ashkelon. Amy Teibel reported from Jerusalem.


Passing Time by Making Lists in the Airport

The Best Things about Oman

1. The attitude of the people. Its so different than in the United States in terms of people's willingness to be open and helping...for no reason at all. For instance, me and a friend were stranded in a patch of deep sand at night, and two guys pulled over and helped push us out. This was just one instance of many. This cultivation of caring has been almost totally lost in the United States at least.

2. The Adhan. Its easy to measure your life by the calls to prayer, and there is a masjid virtually any place you go, including the mall and the airport! Praying was never so easy.

3. Its not Dubai. There are no tall buildings, and life moves at a more relaxed pace--i.e. it does not seem as if you are living in a giant construction site.

4. Somehow the Omanis cultivate both a healthy sense of piety and the openness to allow other cultures to be themselves and practice their religion.

5. Al-Jazeera International. Not unique to Oman, obviously. But anyone who watches it for a few hours will be absolutely astounded at how little of what is truly news actually gets reported on the major US networks.

The Worst Things About Oman

1. Some people cannot drive. And Omani drivers will tail you and flash their lights repeatedly if you are going slower than them on the freeway (even if you are going more than the speed limit). Seriously. I am lucky to be alive.

2. Taxi drivers will rob you absolutely blind (like one who asked 5 riyals for a 500 baisa fare) if you 1) are obviously from America or Europe or 2) don't know the usual fare or don't ask for it ahead of time.

3. Occasional moments of what may be termed 'cultural exaggeration'--i.e. Those people who claimed Omanis 'invented' Swahili to communicate with Africans.

4. The treatment of Bengalis, Pakistanis, Phillipinos and other house and farm labor is really low (though there are exceptions).

5. The heat. Self explanatory.


December 24, 2008

Last Days in Oman


December 23, 2008

A Bend In the River

"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

So begins V.S. Naipaul's classic of African literature. My last week in Oman had me searching for something to fill the spaces between the history and physics reading. I was pleased to pick up A Bend in the River a masterpiece from an extraordinarily gifted writer. I must tell you I "finished" it in two days. I say "finished" because my copy ends on page 286, as Salim the narrator heads downriver, escaping from the small town in the Congo where he has made his life. The last page is a like an ending, but I am left mysteriously wondering if there is more from Salim, whether the narrative has room for his other life at the end of that steamer voyage. Instead, the last few sentences read: "the sky hazed over, and the sinking sun showed orange and was reflected in a broken golden line in the muddy water. Then we sailed into a golden glow." A full stop, but not an ending.

Naipaul has both fascinated with his brilliant prose, and vexed with the often reactionary observations of his narrators, so much like autobiography. The man has undeniable talent, but I felt as I did when reading Paul Theroux's book Dark Star Safari; the man is grouchy, content with his sweeping views of 'Africans' and seemingly obsessed with the achievement of Europeans in contrasting his society with theirs. In this way the book reminds one of Heart of Darkness Perhaps this is a particular feature of our narrarator that Naipaul has captured with great skill, but, having read other of Naipaul's work, I suspect that Naipaul is able to write so penetratingly into Salim's mind because he himself feels the ambivalence of place, the loneliness, and the slight contempt of the privileged outsider.

Salim's family is from Africa, part of an Indian trading caste (the Khoja) who were originally Hindus but converted to Islam, particularly Ismaili Shi'a Islam. Salim introduces himself as an outsider/insider: "The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean. True Africa was at our back. Many miles of scrub or desert seperated us from the up-country people; we looked east to the lands of with which we traded--Arabia, India, Persia. These were also the lands of our ancestors. But we could no longer say that we were Arabians or Indians or Persians; when we compared ourselves with these people, we felt like people of Africa."

Salim feels insecure in his family, because they are static, falling behind in changing times. He wishes to get away. He lacks the religious conviction of his fathers and brothers and does not have a temperament like them to be "buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider that nature of their lives." This pessimism of Salim's "can drive men to do wonders" and it pushes him into Central Africa as a shop owner in Kisingani (one of the many way stops for the ivory trade, it was founded in 1883 by Henry Stanley). But even there, he writes of his displacement and loneliness, in a deliberate way: "I seperated myself from them. I still thought of myself as a man just passing through. But where was the good place? I couldn't say. I never thought constructively about it. I was waiting for some illumination to come to me, to guide me to the good place and the 'life' I was still waiting for."

Salim's commentary on both Africa and Europe reveals this insider/outsider dynamic. On the one hand, he and his family have mixed African-Indian servants, speak Swahili, and occupy a long established niche in African commerce. But one of the overriding themes of the book is the ambivalence of Salim's racial and cultural heritage. For instance, while his family and tribe continue to live in Africa and avoid political discussion of Africa's future, Europeans (through the eyes of Salim) are a more creative force in the modern world, and this makes him both envy and despise them:

"The Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different; and they could act in this way because they had an idea of what they owed to their civilization. It was their great advantage over us. The Europeans wanted gold and slaves like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues"

This dynamic finds expression in the affair he begins with Yvette, the young and beautiful wife of a European professor whose 'expertise' on this region of Africa is a penetrating example of the uses and misuses of historical knowledge. Salim reads the scholar's articles and eats with him and Yvette in their home, and then leaves to be with the latter at his house. He finds their company stimulating and it takes away his loneliness; this is the optimistic period where Salim and others in the new African university (The Domain) live "in the companionship of that pretence, to feel that...we all lived beautifully and bravely with injustice and imminent death and consoled ourselves with love."

Salim's discussions with his friend Indar reveal one of the book's dynamic figures. Indar leaves Africa, goes to university in London, and returns as a Lecturer in The Domain. Indar, like Salim, wanted more, but unlike Salim, he was rich and more ambitious. He tells Salim, "I found myself growing false to myself, acting to myself, convincing myself of my rightness for whatever was being described. And this is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them."

Of course, the affair ends badly, the situation under the unnamed but obvious character of The President (Mobutu) gets steadily worse, and Salim has to flee. The plot is simple, and the characters, when they are not Indian or European, seem curiously immune from Salim's otherwise penetrating interior gaze. Rarely do we see or hear about the inner life and thoughts of any African from Salim. Even his closest companion, Metty, the mixed Indian-African, is always there attendant to Salim's needs, obsequious, and seemingly concerned only with his female liasons. In the end it is Metty who Salim suspects of betraying him, after Salim tells him he can no longer take care of him. None of the African women Salim sleeps with in the brothels merit so much as a name, and there are only two other African characters who are given any narrative importance. One is Zabeth, a customer from a forest village who Salim admires for her enterprise and attachment to her village traditions. The other is her son, Ferdinand, a boy who grows into a man during Salim's stay in the Congo. I felt Ferdinand was more of a narrative device than a true character, he exemplifies for Salim the ambivalence he feels about the new generation of Africans. For Ferdinand was put in Salim's care by Zabeth, and at each juncture of the novel, Ferdinand straddles the ideological and social debates of post-colonial Africa: loss of tribal allegiance, European education, the African personality. Eventually it is he, as a newly appointed appendage of the post-colonial state, who saves Salim's life.

I always feel a sense of quiet pessimism upon finishing Naipaul's work. His prose tends towards the themes of decay and stagnation, loneliness and the loss of stability in the world. As a writer he must have struggled with this most explicitly as an Indian from Trinidad who was educated at Oxford. I suspect that in writing this book, Naipaul drew quite heavily on his own 'African experience' as an Indian minority in a majority African, postcolonial country. There are bits of him in both Salim and Indar. Of course, writing is autobiography, so this shouldn't surprise, but it ought to make one aware that the position of relentless outsider is not the only legitimate position of a writer, but the product of a unique background. (see Alan Nest's excellent review of the book which touches on this) I can identify in some ways with Naipaul's internal anguish. But I am still debating whether one has to, like Ferdinand, choose an identity and be subsumed by it, or pay the price of loneliness and exile like Salim for the sake of writing with a critical distance. I am not sure this is even the correct way to frame this debate. Can one maintain a critical distance, be true to oneself, and still be a participating member of a given community. Is it really that easy? Is 'fitting in' worth the inevitable price? Are these questions only relevant to those who, through some trick of fate, have lost their own true identity? For historians and anthropologists who want to consider the value of their own knowledge and who they produce it for, these are essential questions to fit within an ongoing critical self-analysis.


December 22, 2008

Hip Hop in Oman

The tourist brochures in Oman promise plenty of Orientalist action; their glossy interiors replete with opportunities for camel riding, authentic Arabian dress, 'experiencing' the desert, and listen to the sounds of the oud as you relax beneath the stars.

But beyond this marketed image of an essentially static, ancient and unchanging Oman lies a more complex reality which the youth of Oman are giving voice to through a unique medium: hiphop.

The history of hiphop's birth and development lies in the Bronx, NY parties Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc used to throw, but today's hiphop has come a long way from those backyard parties. Its a global, multi-billion dollar enterprise, and every marketer wants a piece of the action. Here in Oman, Red Bull now sponsors an annual festival called Lord of the Streets, a massive exhibition of X-games sports, music, and energy drinks. This year's festival attracted a record crowd of young people. I went, pen and tape recorder in hand, to find out if this was merely the product of the mind of a marketing genius or an authentic indigenous expression of hiphop culture.

For marketers in general, Oman has a vast potential. With a brand new infrastructure, steady economic growth, and a ballooning youth population, its no wonder that Red Bull chose to stage a festival here. Hiphop is a global culture, and the history of Oman exemplifies this global flavor: in the parking lot two guys perform freestyle battle raps in Swahili. Malikah, an up and coming female MC from Lebanon, delivers spitfire lines in Arabic to the eager crowd of Swahili, Pakistanis, Indians, expatriate Europeans, and myself. "Raise your hand if you love Red Bull," yelled the host. In the parking lot, Ali Hamed Al-Lawati and his friends explained, "We love hip hop, you know we just try to represent to the fullest extent. Ali heard R&B and started to write lyrics. I joined together with my brother and we formed a group. Big Pun is one of my inspirations as well as Tupac, Notorious BIG."

Qassim, Ali's brother, added, "I am originally from Sur, but I work in Muscat. We knew about hip hop now 7 or 8 years. At that time I was in deep shit.I met with my niggas over here all the way from Wadi Kabir. I thought I was the only one who was doing this, but accidentally I found out my neighbor loved hiphop." Eighteen year-old Kita Rise Up from Bling Boys crew told me, "I love Eminem records on the TV. I used to draw….I didn’t have time to draw so I just wrote something one day and I rhymed it."

I asked a number of people in the crowd how hiphop and Islam 'fit' together; did they see any contradiction. "I think the leaders of Islam are totally against it, and if they could stop it they would. But me I am not an extremist, I have my limits. There is deen and there is dunia," opined Nawaf, 23, from Muscat. Added Qassim, "Sometimes it doesn’t fit but we try to fit it. We don’t believe rappers have to sell weed or anything. We don’t have tattoos or none of that. Its hiphop its bringing the whole nation together." Sultan Khalfan, the co-founder of SNK crew, one of the original Omani b-boy crews, agreed, "Hip hop didn't change who we were, except to make us more athletic and fit. We pray, and we try to show Oman a good image of this artform."

Kita, who has his own crew known as Rise Up Bling Boys, had his opinion on hiphop in the Middle East in general, "Hiphop is strange for us as an Arabian people, so everyone has their own style. For me, I dream that hiphop can be better than this. In the US its like perfect, here its like less than bad. I know people that spent 18 years on this rap music. We need change and we are Muslims, so the music must be clean."

And what is the attraction of hiphop? "Its always about giving opportunities for kids to express themselves," added Malcolm Marquez, who has lived in the Middle East from three years and is originally from Australia. Marquez, a talented and energetic MC who placed second in the Freestyle Rap Battle, also b-boys and paints. He felt hiphop was a 'cleansing' force: "Kids need a way to cleanse aggression. They need to be given a chance to say whatever they want from their heart and mind...we gotta see the bad and the ugly."

The event, which was held in the parking lot of Muscat's largest mall, was coordinated by Ahmed Deek, a Lebanese businessman living in Dubai. "We are changing the mind of Arab people about hiphop," he explains. "The event actually started in Dubai in 2006. We started with sports like BMX, inline skating, and then we saw potential for b-boying. We brought it to the b-boys we knew and asked them, what do you need to do hiphop?" According to Deek, although many people were originally hesitant, shy, or scared to support, the vision for the festival kept growing.

Although Deek emphasized that they had no problem with the local authorities, the festival came grinding to an abrupt halt in a "thats-so-hiphop" moment" involving the police inquiring about the permit for our site. Apparently there had been complaints. But the party did not stop. We moved on to the Holiday Inn for the Freestyle battle finals in rap and b-boying.

The energy and talent on display was truly impressive, and the conversations continued long after the show ended at 3:00 in the morning. I sat down with three b-boys to get an idea of the history of Omani b-boy culture: Zillahunt Cyphaz,B-Boy Balong, and Sultan Khalfan.

"First of all, explained SNK member Zillahunt Cyphaz, "its called b-boying, its not breakdancing, that was the name Hollywood gave it. You start with rhythm, flavor, and foundation…from there you make up your own style and your own flavor. that’s how you make your name in the scene. Me I b-boy because I love it. Before some of us were doing football, martial arts, streetball and other different athletics."

Hiphop in Oman according to various SNK members, has enjoyed a fantastic growth. Since 2006 there have been major changes; From three serious crews there is now triple that. Even young kids are doing it. All this from a DVD that one of the crew, Abdu Salaam, brought from Malaysia in 2001. In Malaysia Abdu Salaam had been exposed to the growing b-boy movement; he brought back with him the DVD of Battle of The Year 2000, the World Cup for breaking. Says Sultan, "We watched the video and we saw flips, windmills, head spins, and we said, we HAVE to try this!"

Sultan and Abdu made copies of the DVD for their circle of friends and in no time they and three others were practicing all the time, trying to imitate the moves in the DVD. One of the crew members studied at the French Institute and gave SNK its performance debut at a talent show for the students there. After the show, according to Sultan, they were approached with many other offers to perform. A couple shows later, and some were suggesting the fledgling (and nameless) crew could get paid to perform.

The name SNK stands for Serve and Knock; the moniker originally came from the video game company. "I used to win at every videogame I played," remembers Sultan, "especially SNK games." At the end of 2002, Sultan told the crew he wanted to name them SNK. They finally had a name to add to their growing reputation.

After four years of doing shows locally and adding to their reputation, 2005 saw SNK breakers enter their first b-boy competition, in Dubai at a Motor Show. They placed second. The following year they traveled to Bahrain and won 1st place in the "Bring It On," freestyle battle.
"The Bahrain competition really put us on the map because we represented Oman and people back here were very excited and happy to see us doing so well." Back in Oman, they started to get publicity from Omani magazines like The Week, Hi, and several major newspapers. At the end of 2006, they even caught the eye of a BBC producer who saw their frontpage spread in The Week. The BBC wanted to interview the crew but were concerned about copyright issues surrounding the SNK logo, and asked Sultan about the origins of the crew's name.
"I basically came up with Serve and Knock at that point," he remembers, "because the BBC wanted us to flip our shirts over, and I and to convince them that we were not copying the company logo."

So what is the future of hiphop in Oman? B-Boy Balong was optimistic, "So far its going the right way, if it keeps going like this, then it can become very known, like having events like every few days."
Added Zillahunt, "Oman is going the right way. Over in Bahrain, people know about hiphop but they don’t know the real hiphop; its just commercial. In Oman b-boying is the strongest element…if it wasn’t for some underground MCs and the bboys, hiphop would have been dead for real…like Rakim, up to now he is still holding it down."

Next SNK has their sights on becoming a truly global b-boy crew. After a visit from Howard University Alum Michael Henderson, SNK met with the famous choreographer and dancer Debbie Allen, who subsequently invited them to audition for an Omani cultural showcase at the Kennedy Center in March 2008. They will be the first dancing group traveling to the United States to represent Oman.

SNK had not been without their doubters in some circles. Some people inevitably saw their activities as un-Islamic. Indeed, they were not originally invited to audition for Debbie Allen's show, but after they finished the other Omanis were shocked to discover that they too were Omani. But the attention has been mostly positive after seeing how SNK conducts themselves—clean living, praying regularly, and encouraging each other in the spirit of brotherhood.
"No offense but the government looks at sports that never bring positive results but never notice the sports that are putting these countries on the map. Nobody knows the dancing team but they are raising Bahrain’s name up. Now in Korea they have meetings with the ministry about doing diff events across the nation. They really take care of hiphop," said Zillahunt.

He added, "We are not going to go in a negative way but we will just be positive because hiphop doesn’t bring enemies. Hiphop is peaceful, like religion it brings us like brothers. Hiphop is in the blood. Through bboying respect comes between nations. Its not peaceful its superpeaceful. We are always brothers."


December 18, 2008

Scholars in the Empire: Sketching a Framework for Understanding

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِي قَرْيَةٍ مِنْ نَذِيرٍ إِلَّا قَالَ مُتْرَفُوهَا إِنَّا بِمَا أُرْسِلْتُمْ بِهِ كَافِرُونَ

Never did we send a warner to a population, but the wealthy ones among them said: "We believe not in the (Message) with which ye have been sent."

Sura Saba (34:34)

This verse made me stop and re-read it. It struck me with the force of electric shock actually. NEVER, says the Qu'ran, was there a message of truth sent down in which the rich and established ones didn't say, "Naw, that can't be true, and anyway, its not for us." NEVER.

Revolutionary knowledge such as that brought by the Qu'ran, is always a threat to established authorities. Even scholarly authorities (kinda ironic, given the way US development dollars and oil revenue are the engines fueling how the Saudi discourse of Islam dominates Islamic education, Islamic publishing, and the production of Islamic knowledge)

The role of the scholar is to be a witness against imperial projects. Scholars deny their calling if they avoid speaking against totalitarianism, fascism, colonialism, and all forms of immoral societal control. The modern empire—transnational, transcapital, and transformational—is a fusion of older imperial projects with the newest technology and techniques available for social control. Our understanding of empire has broadened. Although the image may still conjure up Darth Vader and authoritarian regimes with power over vast stretches of territory, today’s real empire—i.e. those who exercise true ‘imperial perogatives’ over the globe, are not always openly tied to projects of police repression, military might, and a developed ‘center’. Centers and peripheries are ever-shifting and there are smaller peripheries within larger geographical units representing the center. The beast has more than one belly! Today’s empire may condemn police tactics on the periphery because the center has been so thoroughly pacified. Today's empire is about the mobility and power of a global elite to shape the discourse of the major knowledge-producing institutions of our day and age.

That is to say: Although violence is still the most blunt and often effective tools in the imperial arsenal (see Iraq, 1991-2008), today’s empire shapers have a variety of more sophisticated techniques for quelling a more educated populace as well as dissipating the righteous rage of the downtrodden into a million different diversions.

The empire produces knowledge about the world, but it also produces ontology…that is it shapes what is to be known and makes it the truth. The various agents of empire have very sophisticated tools of media, mass marketing, and international finance mechanisms at their disposal and scholarship is not immune from the power of these tools. If you operate in say, Europe or America as a scholar, you do have certain freedoms—to write, to publish, to say what you like. But there are subtle ways in which the ontology of knowledge in the West is able to counter the antihegemonic strains within its plurality and maintain its core intact.

What I envision the scholar doing is using the tools of the empire—all the latest, most sophisticated conceptual frameworks for ‘studying’ the world and especially other cultures, and using these lens to look at the empire itself. Instead of using the masters tools to build our new house (an alternative to imperialism in all its forms), we are using those tools to burn down the masters house, or if it remains flame-retardant, then brick-by-brick, we will reveal all the shiny promises of instant gratification, value globalization, and ‘development’ to have its own dark-side.

There is a duality at the heart of this project, inevitably. Its a duality I am reminded of when I read that Farid Esack, the noted Islamic liberation scholar, was the Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Professor at Harvard University (come to think of it, I think Prince al-Waleed sponsors more than a few things at Georgetown too). I do not think this duality can be avoided, especially if one wants access to the latest and most sophisticated resources and to keep abreast of the variety of theories produced within these institutions. I would rather someone produce the truth from a position within the empire than produce inferior scholarship outside of it. And this in itself may be a false dichotomy. But after watching enough videos and homemade DVDs from amateur 'professors' and 'teachers' claiming to be bringing knowledge to the people while spitting PURE unscientific NONSENSE, I've come to believe that right knowledge doesn't necessarily depend on being 'outside the system.'

Science is not somehow value free in the context of our discussion. For even as the industrialized countries produced some of the most stunning insights into our world through the scientific method, this method was tied to a culture whose core beliefs remained rooted in fratricidal warfare and extreme suspicion of the ‘other.’ It has proved to be a deadly combination, but I would caution against the mistake of blaming science or secularism for all these evils. The secular method of inquiry into the world has yielded the most fruitful and productive insights of any current tradition. Certainly religion must acknowledge the tremendous power of science and indeed, it has largely ceded certain domains to scientific explanation.
When we look at what the empire has done, a part of us must stand in awe of the power it has produced. At the same time, this façade of power is a mere smokescreen for catastrophic weaknesses inherent in its model. The signs are clear: the ‘progress’ of the last century or two in the West has come not only at the expense of the rest of the world, but of the planet itself.

Scholars in the humanities are perhaps more attuned to the political dimension of this problem, while scienctists and mathematicians may approach it more from the perspective of pure knowledge. But all would benefit by asking ourselves: who is the knowledge we produce benefiting? And what is the purpose of being a scholar? We cannot be content with the answer of ‘simply learning more’ but must go on to specify for whom and in what way. Thus one answer might read, “learning more about the Middle East in order to become an area specialist and consult with American foreign policy experts on how to represent American interests in the region.” An alternative answer might be, “To learn about different cultures and broaden my cultural understanding in order to become a bridge or ambassador between worlds.”
Or another answer might be, “To advance in academia far enough in order to gain the necessary freedom and prestige to return to my own country and do development work.” Or “To master the techniques of my chosen field in order to be able to engage in the current debates within that field and by doing so contribute to the progression of the field." To all these I would add my own personal goal: to gain knowledge in order that not only may overall human knowledge be advanced, but that knowledge will help serve in such a way as a historical witness against the violence of empire, against the fashionable babbling of our age, against the two extremes of hip, empty trendiness, and religious literalism stuck in the outmoded debates of a bygone age.

This project entails being down in the trenches, as it were, in the sense that the relevant information for scholars is not merely found among the halls of university campuses and scholarly quorums. For a while now the media has invoked the term 'public intellectual' or 'organic intellectual', so much they have made into a cliche (herein lies my only beef with Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson). For some of these PIs and OIs, the public side has outweighed the intellectual side and they have become too fond of panels and interviews. Nevertheless, the terms have a real and ongoing meaning for those like myself who seek to balance impeccable scholarship (which entails a large amount of time buried in archives and books) and an engaged political stance against the various dimensions of empire.


December 14, 2008

Can You See My Voice: A Modest Manifesto

Received this over the Facebook from a sister in the struggle; it addresses the issue of conceding reason and the mind in religious belief, and it does so not from the perspective of an 'insider' so to speak, a believer. This relates to my conversations with my brother the follower of Ahlus al-Sunnah. What place can reason have at all if one does not trust it to make basic ethical decisions? We were driving to class the other day, and this same brother brought up the Palestinians as a people who were "being judged by Allah." As I pointed out that the Palestinians suffering was due mainly to being dispossessed by militant Zionists, he kept pointing out how the Palestinians brought moral degeneracy wherever they went in the world. I was totally disgusted. How can one attribute a people's suffering to Allah without considering the logical, historical reasons behind their suffering? Can one presume to know the mind of Allah such that one knows when She is punishing her creation? Anyway, the article is primarily about hijab, another practice mistakenly deemed "compulsory" in Islam.

Can You See My Voice? A 'Modest' Manifesto
By Inas Younis

Although I am typically cloaked in full hijab, when it comes to writing, I am always naked in both spirit and understanding. I prefer neither to cater to the vulnerability of those who approach every Islamic initiative with a defensive posture, nor to those who come equipped with preconceived and borrowed ideas, and for whom spiritual conviction is precluded by a state of chronic ignorance and religious constipation.

I am addressing readers who have an absolute confidence in their ability to think.

Fifteen years ago, I attended a Muslim youth conference where I was persuaded to yield to the anguish of an entire Umma (nation) by submitting in full blind faith to a strain of Islam championed by the Afghani rebels (pre-Taliban), who had been invited to motivate us into religious compliance. They appealed to our sentiments by way of an original anthem, exhorting us to hear the weeping of Afghanistan's most innocent victims – the orphans. But words and songs were not required when their paralyzed and amputated bodies served as the most powerful testament to the sacrifice they had made in the name of Islam.

A seed of guilt was planted by the suggestion that our Islamic Umma was reaping punishment because of our religious apathy. And as a condition to our collective survival, we were beckoned to atone for our shortcomings by submitting ourselves to the "cause." The nature of that cause was masked with a generic plea to vindicate the suffering of Muslims by volunteering to amputate something less valuable to a teenager than bodily limbs—our infantile minds. We were called to commit practically, to that which we had been taught to embrace ideologically. It was hardly a sacrifice considering that at fifteen my mind was practically and ideologically constrained by only one thought: the boys on the other side of our segregated lecture hall. But before I could surrender my moral autonomy, I had to extinguish a few reservations.

And so in a public forum I asked the visiting scholar to explain the significance of polygamy. And he replied that "it is a social solution for a social problem." Then I questioned him about hijab , the Islamic headcovering. He pronounced that it is a fard , a religious obligation, on all women. So although I had come in wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, I left in full modest regalia, head scarf and all.

I knew almost nothing of religion, but it did not matter, because knowledge was a minor technicality in light of the precedence that crying orphans commanded. I knew that I must act before I think, because as even the ancient Christians proclaimed, lex orandi, lex credendi , action precedes faith. Now I am thirty years old and a little more difficult to satisfy, and although I still believe that action precedes faith, I am convinced that it is the action of the mind, not the body, which precedes not only faith, but the physical action itself. Fifteen years have passed, and my commitment to faith has not betrayed the cries of the orphans in Afghanistan. In fact, it has only become aggravated by the cries of routinely overlooked victims of persecution—Muslim women. Women's voices are being used, with or without their consent, to wage a resistance movement designed to use them as props in counteracting western colonialism.

Observe the concrete example of this onslaught on women as embodied by the person whom I shall dub "the heart surgeon." I cannot name her, or describe her, because the person who related his recent interaction with this gifted female surgeon, who had saved his life after he suffered a heart attack, has never "seen" her voice. She was clad in black from head to toe and had but two slits in her face veil to allow her a restricted view of a world that was prepared to capitalize on the brilliance of her mind, as if it were a public commodity, without acknowledging her person. A world where she is told to allow her talents to be plundered for the benefit of her intellectual inferiors without the incentive of recognition and respect. A world which insists that her orthodoxy is a testament of her elevated status instead of what it has really become—a visual manifestation of her subjugation.

But what the world of the female surgeon has imposed through physical coercion, ours has sanctioned through the psychological coercion inherent in the decree made by the consensus of those scholars who insist that the peripheral custom of veiling is mandated in Islam. A claim which, I have come to discover, is grounded less on theological evidence than on the religious vulnerability which seeks to use the visual imagery of women as an antidote to the helplessness we are experiencing at the hands of western dominance.

Frustrated by all these visual and intellectual contradictions in my faith, I sought out that very scholar who had satisfied my questions some fifteen years ago. Although he did not remember me, one peek into his lowered gaze and I was satisfied with the purity of his heart.

This time however, I had no mercy on him and started at the very beginning, by concerning him with the question of God. He replied that there are some things you cannot understand or explain. And after I felt hammered by that realization a few more times, I elected to dispose of the esoteric questions and get down to concretes. And so I asked him concerning the modern value of enforcing the hijab. He said that it is his opinion that it is obligatory, but of course a woman can choose.

But where is the choice when her salvation and love for God is contingent on her willingness to comply with those opinions you deem compulsory to circumventing a grievous penalty? So he wisely resorted to the same answers I received from the many
other people whose counsel I sought and finally said, "There are some things you just have to accept, and Allah has commanded it so." I asked him what he thinks I ought to do with my inconsolable mind. He declared, "Where your mind ends, revelation begins." Hence I was left without answers, but I was content nonetheless by the reassurance that answers are not always possible and I should finally take consolation in faith—thus god, thus divine law, thus salvation.

I was prepared to accept matters as they are decreed even if they did not appeal to my intellect. But before I could take one day's comfort in that realization, another irksome question demanded to be asked. What of those matters that contradict human intellect? For even if I succumb to intellectual apathy and blind faith I could not ignore the visual contradiction embodied in that female surgeon. Dumb was one thing, but dumb and blind was more than I could bear to sustain. If I drive myself to accept that my common sense, my intellect, is extraneous in matters of faith, then I must not only accept the corollary of that assertion, but also its remedy—dogma and literalism.

If I am not permitted to exercise my uniquely human capacity to integrate and conceptualize reality as I experience it then I too would be bound to the same prescriptions which compel that female surgeon to apply religious mandates across every situation no matter what her circumstances dictate. Some environments are innately devoid of any sexual context, where notions of modesty or vanity, female vs. male are completely immaterial, as would be the case in an operating room.. Hijab in the context of some environments, much less extreme than hospitals, does the exact opposite of its intended purpose—it injects the notion of sexuality where none exists. But before we even bother about arguments on the letter vs. spirit of the law, we have to be aware of an even greater, more insidious danger to the natural progression of literal thinking and that first axiom of blind obedience which we have been called to embrace.


If the things we cannot explain and do not understand are the means by which we seek to reinforce our belief in God's presence, if accepting religious law submissively without question, laws and fatwas which are not grounded in intellect but on vague interpretations of revelation, are the greatest reinforcement we have of the validity of any religious claim, then the measure of faith in God becomes contingent on the degree to which one is willing to forgo logic.

What happens when one is able to intellectualize the rigidity of dogma out of existence, is that then tantamount to intellectualizing god out of existence? Is the God who demands adherence in defiance of logic and reason, not the God of superstition? If we accept what we are told, that static laws are moral truths, and then allow others to attach our adherence to them as a testament of our commitment to God, then ask yourself if you are willing to act on it, without just applying it to others and then using repentance as a scapegoat to exempt yourself.

Ask yourself if you are willing to live according to the dictates of the faith-minus-logic world of that female surgeon. Or will you continue to rely on the luxury that a free society permits you by evading the very real and more pertinent question here: do you believe that you have a right not to believe, and still be a believer?

Are you prepared in the name of the God who granted you free will to renounce the attitude towards faith that relies on your ability to not justify things, to not understand, and worse, to resist the temptation to know them, making renunciation of the mind a qualification of faith in God.

If you can't bring yourself to do it, then you are not alone. Countless doctors, scientists, and professionals at the height of their academic fields become absolute numbskull idiots when it comes to matters of religion.

Observe the man who needs confirmation on whether or not he should divorce the woman he loves, should it please his mother, or if he can be alone in an exam room with his female patients? Here is a man who is trained to make life and death judgment calls but cannot make the simplest decisions when it comes to his personal life or work.

Or notice the woman who asks if dancing is permitted if only for her husband. But what is even more absurd than the questions are the answers they were given, which were—yes, divorce her; no you can't be alone with your patient; and yes, you can dance for your husband as long as you do not imitate that infidel Brittany Spears. For more comical examples of the intellectual liquidation of our Umma I refer you to, a site I was referred to by an even more mainstream organization, the Zaytoona Institute.

What is not so comical is the sense of urgency which is driving Muslims to abdicate their commitment to a rational faith in the interest of the anti-rational dogma of legalism according to and championed by our leadership, the abstraction of which can be embodied by a scattered collection of voices who have been eulogizing the merits of an Islamic state, all the while ignoring the reality and corruption which is our Islamic "state."

But here is the secret fear of our leadership, of our mullahs, from which all their irrational decrees are designed to hold back and deflect. It is the deep down realization that the literal materialization of everything they have been preaching has already been actualized in one of the most loyal, literal and failed experiments in Islamic history, Saudi Arabia, the land that is the logical conclusion of our illogical approach to religion. They will of course go into a diatribe about how that sham of a kingdom is not an Islamic ideal but rather its corruption, but they will not be able to tell you why. Not because they do not know why, but because to answer the question why, you have to be prepared to follow through with the answer and its subsequent implication—making public that which you have already painfully conceded in private, proclaiming your independence from every authority that up and till now has held us all emotionally detained and united under a philosophically flimsy banner of blind compliance to Islamic laws which are intellectually indefensible.

Proclaim your independence from laws which have kept women physically or psychologically gagged and men spiritually impotent. Say your farewell to edicts which are supposed to reinforce revelation, but have in essence denied its most fundamental premise, the premise where your mind ends and revelation does indeed begin. Your mind ends at the very beginning, with the most fundamental question and answer from which every other question and answer should stem. Are humans inherently good or evil?

It is with this question that Revelation kicks in with undeniable force and tells me what my intellect cannot, which is that humans are inherently good, a premise which not only makes my faith unique, but which is also one of the firmest of my religious beliefs.

Since our revelation stresses our inherent goodness, our fitra, then it stands to reason that the letter of the law is a superfluous mechanism in harnessing our nature, which revelation says is predisposed to goodness. No legalism or holy spirits are required for guidance if and when our natural proclivity is allowed to serve as our most qualified guide. But our natural inclination is not a given; it is a product of a soul that is under no compulsion, a soul which is completely free. Natural inclinations can only find representation in a world that is free of every variety of coercion and intimidation, making a free society the organic expression and incarnation of an Islamic state, and the more free the society, the more Islamic it becomes.

No amount of rationalizations or explanations can convince any thinking person that a stricter adherence to the codification of our traditions will cure our current crisis. We must stop insisting that ideological unity is measured by uniformity in practice and recognize that ideals are abstract and timeless and their implementation and will have different expressions depending on time, culture, place and circumstance. We should also recognize that pity and loyalty to the feeble minded and spirited of society who seek security through unity and uniformity is a betrayal and a crime against the intellectually gifted members of our society, who will either, in an effort to alleviate their anguish, use their intellectual prowess to become the most destructive force in the trend towards fundamentalism, or leave religion for the masses, and become either disgruntled atheists or mystics.

If uniformity in practice continues to become the standard by which we derive and uphold religious law, instead of reality and intellect, then we will forever be compelled to yield to the lowest common unifying denominator where the exceptions become the rules, the hypotheticals become the standard, and the what ifs become the what should be. And in order to insure uniformity in practice, scholars will be forced to spend their lives making concessions for every single legal contingency. And Islamic scholarship, philosophy, and art will have to be sacrificed in order to relieve the constipation which results from questions like: What if it rains in the morning, can I join my prayers? What if my shorts are one eighth of an inch above my knee? What if my wife kisses me before I had the chance to stop her, should I repeat my wudu?

These sorts of questions become completely legitimate when reason is isolated from religion.

You have only to look at the reality which is our present state to recognize that where there is impotence of the mind and spirit, there is subjugation of the body, specifically women's bodies. If man is the metaphor for the material world, the world of progress and development, then woman is his spiritual counterpart. Man's spirit is bound by his capacity to produce, and whenever man feels he has no power to effect change or to produce material goods, woman becomes the mirror of his castrated spirit. In an effort to alleviate his paralysis in the physical world, he will seek to bind and gag the spirit which demands he fight for it, the spirit which is woman, the spirit whose movements he seeks to control to compensate himself for the tyrannical politics of bigger men who seek to control him.

To resuscitate men's minds, I would like to propose that we initiate a movement to liberate the male spirit by psychologically and physically liberating women from the impositions of religious mandates that are no longer relevant or sanctioned either in letter or spirit. We should do this one scarf at a time, by reevaluating the directive imposed on women to cover their hair and demanding that our scholars publicly declare their confidence in our capacity to think abstractly and redefine ideals of modesty according to the customs and sanctions of current mores. We should acknowledge that anything exceeding those expectations is a testament to a woman's personal desire to hold herself accountable to an individual standard not to be imposed collectively on the entire female population.


In advocating for personal ijtihad (independent reasoning), I am imploring that we rediscover, not eradicate, the Islamic sciences. (For an intelligible book on Sharia, I refer you to Islam: A Sacred Law, by Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf.)

Here, I will examine only one example from Islamic law, which is the command made, through consensus of the scholars, that women must cover their hair. Let us examine the legitimacy of this directive based upon our Islamic sources of guidance minus their entirely male interpretations.

Historically, the custom of veiling and secluding women was not common in the Islamic world until about three generations after the Prophet's death. This form of dress was adopted from earlier pre-Islamic Near Eastern societies. Jews and Christians also covered their hair. And even
then, the veil was not worn by all women. It was a mark of status worn by women of the upper classes, not by peasants or slaves. It was never a unique or essential practice in Islam, and the Quran did not command all women to cover their heads. The primary source of evidence for its implementation is obtained from Surah an-Nur, which says:

And say to the believing women to lower their gaze and
guard their modesty; that they should not display
their Beauty and ornaments except what (must
ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw
their veils over their bosoms and not display their
beauty…." (24:31, Abdullah Yusef Ali)

The noun khimar, which is translated here as "veil," was worn in pre-Islamic times either as an ornament let down loosely over the wearer's back, or as a protection from the desert climate. Not covering your head was considered a bad practice, as was shaving the beard. Your reliability was questioned when either custom was not followed, in the same way that our current culture questions the reliability of those who don body piercings or tattoos. In accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time of the Prophet, the upper part of a woman's dress had a wide opening in the front, leaving her breasts exposed. Hence the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar is intended to make it clear that a woman's breasts are not included in the concept of "what may decently be apparent" of her body and should be covered.

The significance of the verse is concerned with covering the breast area, juyubihinna, as the verse has also reinforced. There is also no sanction or punishment for failing to observe Islamic dress, as there are punishments for adultery and murder.

The interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars is what a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom. Although the traditional interpreters of Islamic law have been disposed to restrict the definition of "what may (decently) be apparent" to a woman's face, hands and feet, the meaning of illa ma zahara minha is really much wider. The intentional ambiguity of this phrase is to allow for variability in practice according to customs and personal interpretations of modesty.

However there are also other verses which can be taken into consideration when deciding on appropriate dress, such as the specific commands about seclusion (al-Ahzab 33:32-33) which apply only to the Prophet's wives who, as the Qur'an asserts, are unlike any other women. Keep in mind that in traditional Arab society a sexual scandal was a very serious matter that could have been used to discredit the Prophet's mission. The hijab or curtain that was imposed on the Prophet's wives was a measure used to curtail the possibility of false accusations against the Prophet's family. There is a reference to the generality of Muslim women in another verse which states:

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well
as all (other) believing women, that they should draw
over themselves some of their outer garments (when in
public): this will be more conducive to their being
recognized (as decent women) and not annoyed. But
(withal,) God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of
grace! (al-Ahzab 33:59, Asad transl.).

The context of this verse is that some of the hypocrites were molesting women in the street. Accordingly, Muslim women were ordered to dress in a manner that would distinguish them as modest and chaste and not to be assaulted. One could argue that this command is bound b context and time, and as such, dress is used to indicate a Muslim's identity and not necessarily as a measure of the moral status of the woman herself. It would of course also be socially preferable to raise men to respect women and not think that a woman's dress can serve as an invitation or license to assault her.

When the objective of a decree is stated in the Quran, then it is the objective, not the decree, which should take precedence in one's interpretation. One can claim that in light of the current situation we are facing, wearing the hijab has rendered women more of a target for the ill intentioned, and as a precautionary measure, one should not wear the hijab. I would never suggest that this is a good argument, but it certainly will quiet those who imply that the aim of hijab is to protect women.

The final verse with respect to veiling says: As for your women past the age of bearing children, who have no hope of marriage, there is no harm if they take off their outer garments, but in such a way that they do not display their charms; yet if they avoid this it would be better for them. God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (an-Nur 24:60)

Not one of these verses commands a woman to cover her hair explicitly. Even implicitly the emphasis is not on suppressing a woman's natural inclination to be feminine but rather to emphasize that a woman should not dress in a manner that is sexually suggestive.

The other source of guidance we have on the matter of veiling are two hadiths, reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The first of which is narrated below where Aisha said:

Asthma', daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the
Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) wearing thin
clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him)
turned his attention from her. He said: O Asthma',
when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does
not suit her that she displays her parts of the body
except this and this, and he pointed to her face and

Very few Muslims know that this is in Sunan Abu Dawud. The English translation of Sunan Abu Dawud is in three volumes. This hadith is in Volume 3, Book XXVII, Chapter 1535, and Hadith number 4092, titled: "How Much Beauty Can a Woman Display?"

Abu Dawud reports that this is a mursal tradition (i.e. the narrator who transmitted it from 'Aisha is missing), making this hadith a weak one. Few veiling advocates ever point out that this is a weak hadith and therefore should not be used to obtain Islamic

The other hadith, which is sahih (considered authentic), states:

My Lord agreed with me ('Umar) in three things... (2)
And as regards the veiling of women, I said 'O Allah's
Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover
themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk
to them.' So the verse of the veiling of the women was
revealed (Bukhari, v1, bk 8, sunnah 395).

But again this was in reference to the Prophet's wives who were the target of insults and accusations by the "hypocrites." The majority of those who have attempted to interpret the Qur'an to mandate the hijab argue that the vernacular "beauty" includes hair, and its exposure is
therefore forbidden. But the term "ordinary'," means ordinary to the prevailing social customs. How is hair not "ordinary"?

The word "Hijab" itself is derived from hajaba, that is, to hide or conceal. Hijab/hajaba is mentioned eight times in the Quran. But Hijab is never used in the context of a woman's head covering. Even the word khimar really signifies any covering, such as a blanket, dress, or shawl.

What is clear, even after an analysis of various translations and even if one uses the word veil in translation, is an order that the woman's bosom be covered, not that the woman's head be covered. This is not to say that covering the hair does not carry noble connotations. My objective is not to destroy what I believe would be a beautiful custom if it were not marred by the decree that it is obligatory, depriving a woman from the sense of joy that she would derive from choosing it as a genuine expression of her interior state of purity and transcendent beauty.

My objective is to liberate every woman, myself included, who has only adopted the Islamic dress because she was misled into believing that it is an obligation, and even more importantly to liberate all the women who do not wear it from the unearned guiltthey harbor, for what they have been told is spiritual weakness on their part.

I got the impression from the many people I have spoken with that they would secretly agree with me but would rather not rock the boat over what they have, without our permission, deemed a minor issue. I pray that they will evolve the courage to forgo political correctness and stop hiding behind the pretense that it's the woman who is making the choice. Fear, of eternal damnation no less, nullifies the impression that it is a choice.

But my greatest motivation in seeking guidance on this issue was to speak on behalf of those who do not have the luxury to make an independent decision regarding their religious expression. For while I can take off my hijab, I know that the ramifications I, a mere housewife, will suffer in the hands of a few back biters and name callers will be negligible in comparison to the jail time and humiliation a female surgeon in Saudi Arabia would have to endure to assert her right to unveil.

When my friend was lying at the operating table, vulnerable and exposed, he was asked by the thoughtless man who was there to assist in the surgery to furnish some proof that he can pay for the superior quality heart tube which he demanded. The female surgeon terminated his coarseness by giving him her assurance that she would pay for it if my friend could not, proving that she is not only his superior in intellect but also in compassion.

My friend not knowing in what manner he would thank this angel of mercy, in what way he can make her feel singled out, without being rebuked for transgressing any social bounds, elected to do it by means of a poetic note of thanks. She took it from him as if it were a charge slip, only to rush back to plead with him to sign the note. In that act, she expressed both her nature and personality, for while she remains
nameless and faceless and claims no credit for her efforts, she insists that he be given credit for his.

And so in gratitude to the female surgeon who has healed and touched many hearts both literally and figuratively, I in a last literal and symbolic act of faith would like to take my hat off, or rather scarf off to you, my sister in Islam. For tomorrow I will go out unveiled for the first time in the hopes that the world will see you and me with new eyes and, more importantly, with enlightened hearts. And I am hoping
they will join me in public opposition to the veiling of your elegant mind and compassionate voice. A voice which, if it were allowed to sing freely, would triumph over the voices of those who either in their silent resignation or blatant endorsement have contributed to the horrors that will make September 11th both a day of awakening and tragedy for Muslims everywhere.

Inas Younis is a freelance writer residing in the
state of Kansas.

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