April 27, 2010

Out of Zanzibar with Alwiya Omar


April 20, 2010

The Muslim News: Kadhi Courts in Kenya

By Ahmed Nassir Abdullahi

Kenyans have religiously co-existed for a remarkably long time. The debate spinning around the Kadhi’s courts seems to unnecessarily strain the harmony.

This debate has generated considerable ill-feelings ever since the country undertook the constitutional review process.

This endless agitation against the Kadhi’s courts, coupled with a new policy that targets the Muslim community, seems to be forcing Kenyan Muslims to rethink their stand on a number of issues, including the Kadhi’s courts. A faint sign of an emerging paradigm seems piping from a distant.

We have heard the views of some of the churches, especially from Central Province, which is categorical in their opposition to the Kadhi’s courts. They wrongly but deliberately equate Kadhi’s courts with Sharia law. I think it is fair to say that these views are very extreme. Two issues arise on this.

First, it is almost certain that the views of the majority of Christians in the country are different from those of these vocal churches. The overwhelming majority of Christians in this country don’t have a problem with the Kadhi’s courts.

The courts have been in our constitution all along and it has never been a source of discord.

Second and more fundamentally, where do these churches get the prerogative that they can sit in judgement over the constitutional rights of the Muslim community? Who has erected for them this high pedestal from which they piously pontificate to the rest of the country?

Constitutional making is a progressive process that makes what we already have just better. It is not about the curtailment of rights that are already in existence.

The Muslim community has fairly been silent on the Kadhi’s courts and its place in the constitution. Whereas a number of Muslim organisations and some individuals have voiced their support for the courts, the majority have fairly been silent. The silent majority compromise two groups.

The majority have assumed the posture that the issue is non-negotiable and the churches are without jurisdiction. However, there is a minority among the silent, especially at the Coast and in Nairobi, who advocate an extreme view.

The Muslim extremists have their views and are an antipode to the extreme views of some of the churches. Their views are that the vociferous opposition to the Kadhi’s courts that cater for the needs of the Muslim minority means one thing.

These far right Muslims think that in light of the intransigence of some of the churches, it is time to go full throttle and demand the introduction of Sharia law in Coast and the Northern regions.

Their views are informed by the place of minorities in the history of the world. Historically, when a religious minority is oppressed and denied the right to practise its religion, a corresponding right to demand the maximum crystallises in law and in morality.

From the perspective of these fringe Muslim groups, there are issues that inform the need to introduce Sharia law in these regions, and underscore the constitutional imperative to accommodate Sharia.

The Coalition government has lately reached a consensus when it comes to the Muslim community. It has, over time, come to see Northern Kenya and the Coast Province through a new spectrum informed by flawed and fussy intelligence.

According to the coalition, these regions pose a mortal danger to the rest of the country. This new attitude, underpinned by both overt and covert oppression and intimidation, seems to have implanted in these regions a corresponding need to rotate outside the usual axis.

Second, there is a need for the country to learn from our neighbours if we are to avoid their mistakes. Sudan is a country that holds many lessons. The policies, principles and the struggle of the people of Southern Sudan didn’t just come out of the blue.

It was forced on them by the North. Successive governments in Khartoum had deliberate policies that dehumanised the South.

At one time, even Sharia law was forced on both Christian and animist inhabited regions of the South. It was because the North refused to give a constitutional recognition to the difference between the North and the South that the latter has taken the trajectory it adopted over the years.

Through the twin issues of opposition to the Kadhi’s courts and the new policy of the coalition government, the Muslim community, just like Southern Sudan, is being forced to see themselves as being different from the rest of the country. This situation is pushing them to Sharia as a shelter.

We must stop pulling the country in different directions, because pulling it together might prove difficult in future. Kenyans must reject both Christian and Muslim extremists.

Ahmednasir Abdullahi is a former chairman of the Law Society of Kenya


Muslims in Kenya Back Kadhi Courts in New Draft Constitution

Nairobi — Muslim religious leaders on Friday said they were ready to dialogue with Christians on kadhi's courts.

The head of the National Muslim Leaders Forum Abdullahi Abdi, speaking at a press conference at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, said they meet some of the Christians at the Inter-Religious Council, and would be willing to speak to them on the nature of the courts.

He said Kenyans, will live together after the referendum. "We are at the beginning of campaigns. The winner will take it," he said.

He declared their unanimous support for the draft constitution and launched campaigns to have more Kenyans register as voters."We believe (the draft constitution) has many virtues. We call upon Kenyans to vote 'Yes' in large numbers," the leaders said in a statement read by Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims chairman Prof Abdulghafur El-Busaidy.

At a separate press conference at Parliament Buildings, Dujis MP Aden Duale said Muslims are not backing the proposed constitution merely because it includes kadhi's courts.

Mr Duale said those supporting the proposed laws were especially pleased about the proposed devolution, the bill of rights, resource allocation and the pure presidential system.

The Dujis MP said the debate over the courts is not warranted given that they would be in Kenyan law whether or not the proposed laws are passed.

The constitution was passed by Parliament, but the Catholic Church and some evangelical groups have vowed to fight it because of its provisions on abortion and kadhi's courts.

Christian leaders are also opposed to the retention of kadhi's courts in the proposed constitution under Article 169 and 170, which limit their authority to disputes over personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance, where all the parties are Muslims and agree to take the case to a Kadhi.Federation of Kenya Employers chairman Patrick Obath also joined the Yes proponents and said at a press conference: "As concerned citizens, we think the constitution should be adopted."The African Parliamentarians Network Against Corruption urged Kenyans to vote for the laws, saying that passing the draft would boost the fight against graft. They said the new laws would establish "strong, transparent, independent and accountable arms of government." They urged Kenyans to read the proposed draft before the referendum.


April 19, 2010

Religion and Approaches to History (A Peoples History of Monotheism?)

Picking up where A. Thompson left off in his insightful discussion of monotheistic religion: One thing all religions need to do, above all, in order to make themselves more relevant and less reactionary, is to avoid making essentializing statements about their history. Notwithstanding the enormous positive impact Christianity and Islam (to name the two major examples) have had on world culture and world society, there is an almost unbearably facile tendency on the part of some of their adherents to engage in a complete whitewashing of the more 'unsavory' aspects of that history. The violence and corruption of the medieval church, the at times rapacious conquest of the early Muslims--these histories are either conveniently forgotten or, if they are mentioned at all, made external to the faith, i.e. they were just a few bad apples. This tendency was aptly described by Wilfred Cantwell Smith:

"This process [of recovering lost history] turns disruptive only when, as has sometimes happenned, the grip of the need to defend is tightened to the point where this delight in greatness, this compensatory self-satisfaction, becomes the compulsive cause rather than the honest result of historical reconstruction. Historiography is then designed alsmot explicitly to nourish and to support one's predelictions. It seeks not to analyse or to understand the past, but to glorify it; that is to glorify oneself. The purpose is not investigation but aggrandizement, not intellectual accuracy but emotional satisfaction."
Smith, as usual, has a penetrating insight here. There is a certain approach to religion and history which sees religion as being 'under attack' by secular forces (Although such charges are usually trumped up, since religion did far more to indict itself than secularism ever could, the motive power of the perception is nevertheless real) and thus rushes to write a history absolving X religion, showing it to be the perfect way, the answer to all our problems, WAAAY better than those other religions, and what would we do without it? While I cannot accept the ignorant rantings of such blowhard atheists as Christopher Hitchens, I equally cannot accept these canards employed in religion's defense. Bottom line, since I cannot accept either approach, I need a new method. Simply defending religion through idealizations and essentializations of its quite checkered history is not only intellectually dishonest, it is bad for the soul.

I define religion as a way of getting closer to God. This obviously includes a great deal under its umbrella. The difficulty comes when X religion claims Y religion just 'doesn't get it'. They are infidels or kaffirs, or they worship cows, or they drink the blood of Christ, or they are going to hell because they don't have the right belief ABOUT God. The sincerity with which these views are propounded do not lessen their incredible shortsightedness. Christians claim Islam is the 'religion of the sword'. Muslims accuse Christians of deifying Christ without bothering to understand what the faith of a Christian might mean for him/her personally. Jews and Christians also battle it out over the divinity of Christ. Now there is nothing wrong with believing in something and standing to defend it. But such an approach has a law of diminishing returns. Instead of trying to get closer to God, many religious adherents are frantically trying to convince everyone else how naturally great and superior their own belief is! And in doing so, they strain logic and credulity.

As a convert to Islam, I wondered for a long time what it truly 'meant' to be Muslim in an ultimate sense. And the best and most general idea I could come up with, after considering all the evidence, both internally and externally, is that Islam is a joyful response to a Divine Reality. I have my own reasons why I consider it 'better' than other religions in this respect, but these are mostly private and personal. Nevertheless, in actual fact, there is a practical tension between Islam as an inner response and Islam as a public cultural matrix one shares with and participates in. Thus the most forward thinking intellectuals now working in the Islamic tradition are those who propose that a distinction should be made between the nucleus of the Islamic revelation (the Meccan revelations), and those rules (the Medinan revelations) which were brought to the early community, and thus constitute an integral part of the social milieu of the Prophet.

The need for this approach becomes clear if we compare the ideals of an Islam touted by its public boosters (The "Islam is the solution for everything" people) and the actual treatment of human beings under modern day Islamic state experiments. Without engaging in an essentialization of Western values, I think it is safe to say that the three foremost examples of Islamic state implementation today--Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran--have an absolutely horrible record with regard to the treatment of religious minorities, not to mention women. All obfuscations aside then, if Islam is in its essence aiming for what is supremely right and completely just, then it cannot justify such things as the penalty for adultery, the equivalence of a man's testimony with that of two women, slavery, the status of the 'other' under shari'a, and so forth.

Now apologists will argue in response that we cannot ignore context, and it is certainly true that the penalties outlined in Quran and hadith were not always applied. It is true that manumitting a slave was considered an eternally meritorious act in Islam, unlike the on-the-ground reality of the institution of chattel slavery in the West. It is true that at the time of the Prophet, Islam actually improved the rights of women in that society. But it is the height of foolish arrogance to assume that
, for all times and places, implementing these legal penalties and rules as a legal code in will result in the emancipation of women or the establishment of God's justice. Islamic countries, even those where shari'a is implemented through the judicial code, have outlawed slavery, admitting that the Prophet's pronouncements about it were aimed at its eradication. This is patently a social and contextual judgment, so why is it so difficult to undertake the same move when it comes to rights of women or other ideas?

Getting back to my original statement, it is obvious that Christian and Islamic histories have distinct and unique approaches to politics and political theory. Their histories overlap significantly but, as Carl Brown has explained, they developed into world religions out of vastly different social situations. Along the way, power became an emblem to implement Divine Reality, and Divine Reality became the de facto and often de jure explanation for an excercise of political power, however arbitrary. In the process the two were thoroughly confused. Therefore one step towards removing the confusion and telling an accurate history of religion is to untangle the two. Let the Divine do its work, as it continues to do, in the lives of people across the globe. Inshallah, if religious people can learn to think more historically they will recognize what M. Kane called "A Peoples History of Monotheism". That is, the histories of those who opposed rigid dogma, corrupt authority,
and worship of idols. Those who eschewed violent conquest for power's sake, but promoted active resistance to authoritarian government. Those who felt compelled to respond to a Divine calling, something irresistible which called them, not to withdraw from the world, but to engage it in the most wholistic and organic way they were capable of.


Yaar! - Kiran Ahluwalia

from an interview with Kiran:

This ghazal is one of the classics -- lyrics written in the1860’s. The melody, however, is a contemporary composition of my teacher, Vithal Rao. This ghazal was written by the last Emperor of Delhi, Bahadhur Shah Zafar, 1775-1862. In 1857 there was a national uprising known as the Great Indian Mutiny. Zafar was convicted by the ruling British as leading this mutiny. He witnessed the execution of all his sons and was himself deported to Rangoon. But the loss of Zafar the King was the gain of Zafar the poet. Zafar died in Rangoon in 1862.


April 16, 2010

"Intellectually Black and Socially South Asian": Michael Muhammad Knight

excerpt from Sepia Mutiny:

(the pic is of W.D. Fard)
What’s interesting about Knight’s story for our purposes is the role South Asian Americans play in his books, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistani Americans. At one point early in “Blue-Eyed Devil” (and I can’t find the exact passage for some reason), he describes his engagement with Islam in America as “intellectually black and socially South Asian,” and the phrase has stuck with me.

Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America began as a series of columns Knight wrote for the website Muslim WakeUp! between 2003 and 2005. Some chapters are personal accounts of hanging out (and sometimes hooking up) with Bangladeshi American girls he meets in environments like ISNA. These chapters alternate with travel experiences and encounters, all loosely structured around resolving the identity of the figure who inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, a figure known as W.D. Fard (or sometimes Wallace Fard Muhammad).

One of the major threads in Blue-Eyed Devil is the thesis, which Knight investigates at length, that this pioneering figure in black Islamic theology, W.D. Fard, may have actually been from South Asia, rather than the Middle East, as was originally thought. There is at least some evidence uncovered by Knight and others (none of it overwhelming) that Fard may have come from India via Fiji. After 1934, Fard disappeared for awhile, and officially no one knows what happened to him. However, the successor to Elijah Muhammed in the black Muslim community in the U.S., Warith Deen Muhammed, claimed that Fard re-appeared as a “Pakistani” Imam in the Bay Area named Muhammed Abdullah starting around 1959, and died in 1976.

The prospect of W.D. Fard as a South Asian immigrant is a thesis not so much proved as explored in Blue-Eyed Devil. But it presents an interesting image: this founding figure in black nationalist Islam may not have been of African, but South Asian, descent.

Knight’s narrative involves contemporary desis to a considerable extent. One passage, which gives a strong indication of Knight’s complex relationship to South Asian American peers, is in a section where he talks about going to a Muslim Summer Camp in the U.S.:

Often I’d try to boost my Muslim cred by wearing the right kind of hat but only ended up looking like a crazy convert with something to prove. Which I was, of course. I had taken a decent religion and made it real crazy, crazier than any of the good normal kids at my Islamic summer camp back in Rochester. All those desi teenagers would go out between lunch and Zuhr to play basketball or soccer or man-hunt and I’d sit in the office pouring through Bukhari with the imams telling me that it was okay to go outside and play, that even Prophet Muhammad enjoyed sports. I had soon read enough to teach kids my own age who had been raised with Islam around them all their lives. I remember one summer-camp afternoon when all the kids sat in a circle in the mosque and the imams asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be an imam or an alim and assumed that everyone else would say the same thing, but one after another it was all doctor, engineer, computer programmer. It blew me away; I thought we all wanted to live in mosques and read the Qur’an all day. (3)


April 13, 2010

Dully Sykes--Anapendeza


April 6, 2010

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics

In a 1946 seminal essay titled "Politics and the English Language," the British novelist George Orwell bemoaned the decline of post-World War Two English prose by pointing out that what was troublesome about some major English writing then was lack of precision, sheer incompetence, and vagu

This insight is at the heart of Brown's discussion in this timely book on Islam and politics. The author offers the most refreshingly sober analysis of the Islamic phenomenon; a welcome addition from someone who has spent his entire career analyzing modem North African and Middle Eastern societies by using original sources and
treating the Muslim world in the most balanced of ways. Brown focuses his analytical lenses on three interrelated phenomena: first, Islam as theology; second, Islam as history; and, third, Islam as politics. As a result, he presents an overwhelmingly clear picture of the interplay between these three factors in classical and modem Islamic societies. This type of analysis is the more welcome after the tragic attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, when every Tom, Dick, and Harry has become a specialist on Islam and the so-called Islamic terrorism. In his insightful analysis of the issues at hand, Brown cuts through the thick of it all by advocating a clear method of studying the Islamic religious phenomenon.

A scholarly approach or a scientific study of religion, he correctly maintains, ought not minimize the impact of religion on life but, on the contrary, ought to shed important light on the interplay between theology and other social and historical factors. That leads him to suggest that the Muslim people must be judged by the same "rules of logic and evidence" as other people (p. 19). Brown, just like Edward Said, is disturbed by Western perceptions of Islam and the Muslim people and is anxious to make sense of the complex historical and theological relationship between the Muslim world and the West. Once and again, he affirms the notion that Islam belongs to the Abrahamic family, that is, it is akin in its theological worldview to both Judaism and Christianity and "that the more Jews or Christians know of their own religious heritage the better able they are to understand Islam" (p. 21).

Aside from its theological core, Islam grew out of an urban environment and is "marked by an urban bourgeoisie outlook" (p. 27). Brown elaborates in a subtle way on the Benedict Anderson thesis of the "imagined communities" discussed in his classic work, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1993). Because of its Abrahamic theology, its bourgeois and urban dimension, its literati class, its Sufis, the intellectual leadership of formative Islam was able to imagine a universal community of believers who could transcend ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries. Although he does not refer to Anderson's major study, Brown seems to be heading in the same direction of analysis. The Muslim notions of politics, he asserts, developed mainly in the formative phase against this background of universal imagining, and hence Muslim political theory is replete with such terms as the ummah, dar al-Islam, dar al-Harb, and dar al-Sulh. However, Brown stresses that in spite of the central role of the ulama, the main intelligentsia in classical Muslim society, in providing a universal imagining to the Muslim ummah, no corporate "church" body has ever existed in the Muslim world. The ulama, especially in the Sunni world, have more or less stood with the status quo by refusing to support opposition to the political authority. The mainstream Muslim ulama, providing legitimacy, put their weight behind an Islamic tradition that was pro-status quo and pushed their notion of orthodoxy often with the support of the political authorities. Brown clarifies the important connection between the ulama and the ruling elite in Muslim societies, a relationship of cooptation or at best cooperation: "The Sunni ulama have almost never acted in an organized fashion as if they constituted an institutionally distinct, hierarchically arranged body" (p. 33). Brown provides us with the necessary conceptual tools to delve into such central questions as the education of the ulama, their relationship to the state in the classical era, and their role in the dissemination of religious
knowledge. It is crucial to examine these points in light of the modem developments in the Muslim world, especially in light of the relationship between state and religion. In the wake of independence from colonialism, many Muslim countries created Ministries of Religious and Islamic Affairs and encouraged a class of ulama to be the official spokespersons of Islam. However, opposed to that, a new class of Muslim activists and thinkers emerged in modem Muslim societies, thus giving a new voice or representation to Islam and the problems facing
the Muslim world. It is interesting to examine the dynamics of the relationship between "official Islam" and activist Islam in contemporary Muslim societies. One can take the Wahhabi case in Saudi Arabia, the Turabi case in the Sudan, and the Shiite case in Iran. In Iran the ulama have, more or less, controlled the state since 1979.

How is one to view the relationship between religion and society in the modern Muslim world? What is the role of colonialism in this relationship? Brown admits that there have been major shifts in power relations between the Muslim world and the West in the past two centuries. Brown refers to the confrontation with the West or the Western impact but never explicitly to European colonization, the single most important event in the development of modern Muslim societies. It is in this context that one can understand the interplay between three major forces in the colonial Muslim world: Islamic forces, colonialism, nationalism, and a fourth force, Communism, in the case of Indonesia.

This interplay gave rise to the modern nation-state phenomenon with various degrees of political, cultural, and economic independence from the colonial center. The heavy colonial legacy along with the need to modernize the state without the appropriate personnel and resources to do so created many challenges for the nascent nation-states. In the Gulf states, because of oil, the challenges were of a different nature. That is why, as Brown notes correctly, in the early phase of the nation-state the "Muslim discourse" was dominated by such charismatic figures as Ataturk, Sukaro, Nasser, and Bourguiba. He notes that in the past few decades this discourse has been dominated by Islamist intellectuals and activists This is true only to a limited extent. The political elite in the contemporary Muslim world are still as powerful as ever, and dissent is rarely tolerated. In addition, a large number of the political elite are pro-West, as opposed to the first generation after independence that was, more or less, anti-West or anticolonial and stressed the importance of independent political and economic development in the Muslim world.

Why, then, the rise in Islamist politics? This statement has to be qualified. Most Islamist movements in the Sunni world have had a tough relationship with the new nation-state and the current military leadership. Some have been banned from politics (Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia are examples). The only example of an almost takeover of the state by an Islamist movement took place in the Sudan, under Turabi. But this experiment has come to naught. It is against the above theoretical background that Brown takes up the issue of Islamism (Islamic fundamentalism) in the modem Muslim world. Here his analysis lacks some theoretical clarity, unlike that in the first part of the book. How is one to characterize the Islamist movement in the Muslim world? First, Brown is correct to assume that Islamism is a multilayered phenomenon in the Muslim world and that it traverses the past two centuries. However, one can delineate several classes of Islamism: precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. The Wahabbiyyah is at the heart of the first class, whereas the Muhammadiyyah; Nahdatu ul-Ulama of Indonesia; the Ikhwan of Egypt; and the Jama'at-e-Islami of India and Pakistan, all products of the colonial eras, comprise the second class. Of the third class, we have the Egyptian Jihad and the Taliban movements. Brown assumes that all Islamist movements are political and thus radical in nature and orientation.

This is far from true in the case of Muhammadiyyah, Nahdatu ul-Ulama of Indonesia, and even of the Tabligh Jama'at, the most dominant revivalist movement in contemporary South Asia. Islamism is, in large measure, the product of modern European colonialism in the Muslim world and the failure of the modem nation-state to accommodate protest movements in their political systems. I think that the weakness of Brown's analysis in this section stems from his failure to accept Western colonialism as a historical fact in the Muslim world. Nowhere does he use the term; instead, he uses such terms as "changes,"" confrontations,"and so forth. It is the fact of colonialism that gave rise to the modem nation-state in the Muslim world, often an exhausted and poor nation-state that resorted to both modernization and repression in its formative phase. In the 1950s, the Masumi Islamist party was repressed in Indonesia, as were the Ikhwan movement in Egypt and the Jama'at in Pakistan. That is why the relationship between Islamism and the state in the Muslim world has been complex. In the case of Wahabbism, Islamism and the state have been allied, whereas in other cases, Islamism and the state have been at odds. The state in the modern Muslim world is a nineteenthcentury creation prompted by European colonialism. As such, Islamism has never been a static phenomenon. It has invented a powerful religious discourse to legitimize itself in the eyes of the masses and to gain political and economic support. Islamism has been in crisis for the last four decades for many complex reasons: first, because the whole of Muslim tradition has been in crisis, and second, because the new guard of Islamism is not satisfied with the achievements or lack thereof on the part of the old guard. This is true in the case of Wahabbism, and bin Laden is an example.

In spite of some major theoretical flaws in the second part of the book, I think this work paves the way for grasping the Islamist phenomenon in its diverse forms in the contemporary Muslim world. My criticism of the second section is not intended to minimize the importance of this book and the solidity of its arguments throughout. Brown has offered us the necessary epistemological tools to come to grips with the complex theme of Islam and politics both in the classical and modern phases of the Muslim world.


April 5, 2010

Culture Music Club: Sabah el-Kheir


Sufis and Scholars of the Sea (book review)

by Rahma Bavelaar. Originally published in Islamica magazine, 2007. Used by permission of the author.

Anne Bang's objective in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea is to explore the history of Islam in the northwest Indian Ocean during the 19th and early 20th century, focusing on the scholarly exchange of ideas between Hadramawt, Yemen, and the East African Coast by looking at the life and works of Ahmed b. Abi Bakr b. Sumayt (1861-1925), the son of a Hadrami immigrant to the Swahili coast and respected scholar and Sufi in the Yemeni and East African intellectual traditions.
Through an empirical study of his travels to and from his ancestral Hadramawt, the family and scholarly links he fored and maintained and his work as a Shafi'i qadi in Zanzibar under the patronage of the British-Omani state, Bang seeks to elucidate several interrelated questions which have as yet received scarce attention in Western scholarship: why did members of the Hadrami tariqa 'Alawiyya become such important exponents of a new, more literate Islam in East Africa? What did they teach and what inspired their teachings? How did they maintain and expand their scholarly network across time and space? Did changes in these networks occur, and if so, why? How did the content of their teachings relate to simultaneous developments in the wider Islamic world? And what was their relationship to the British-Omani colonial authorities in Zanzibar?
The great strength of Scholars of the Sea lies in its convincing use of what are often considered purely "religious" documents, such as scholarly geneaologies (silsilas) and certificates (ijazas), as valuable historical sources that can help elucidate processes of religious change and revival.
Although the overall emphasis of the work is on change, Bang challenges the previously common perspective in Western academia that 19th-century 'neo-Sufism' represented a fundamental break with the classical, supposedly more quietist, mystical tradition of Islam. Her highly detailed description of the historical origins and teachings of the 'Alawiyya brotherhood--which closely follows the 'canonical' version taught within the tariqa itself--she emphasizes the continuity of its theological and spiritual tenets (vested in its members' dual geneaological and spiritual claim to descent from the Prophet), in spite of the far reaching institutionalization of its educational practices in the late 19th century. She also points out the continued centrality of classical mystical and legal writings to 'Alawi education in the Hadramawt and East Africa.
If institutional changes in educational practices were hardly revolutionary in Yemen, they certainly were in East Africa, Bang argues with reference to the 'Alawi scholarly class in Zanzibar, where the Hadrami's emphasis on scriptural Islam and Arabic literacy severely eroded the authority of the Swahili upper class (the Waungwana) and their monopoly, until then, on the primarily oral transmission of Islamic knowledge.
New religious practices, such as public dhikrs (rememembrance) and mawlids, (celebration of the Prophet's birth) which were introduced by the 'Alawis and other new Sufi brotherhoods, greatly widened the general population's opportunities for religious participation but seriously diminished the authority of the Waungwana who had previously monopolized popular religious practices. Bang persuasively argues that new ideas and practices may have radically divergent consequences according to the specific nature of the Muslim community in which they are introduced.
Along the same lines, Bang argues that the association of the 'orthodoxy' with 'Arabness' in the East African context needs to be reconsidered: what were considered highly 'orthodox' devotional practices by the 'Alawi scholars were obviously perceived as highly 'unorthodox' by the Waungwana, who had considered their own mawlid celebrations to be representative of 'proper' Islamic behavior.
Bang's argument for the relativity of such loaded concepts as tradition and reform is further elaborated in her exploration of the influence of modernist and Islamist thought on Hadramawt, and consequently East Africa. Ibn Sumayt's netowrk connected him with scholars in Hadramawt, its diasporas in Mecca, Indonesia and Istanbul, as well as prominent modernist thinkers such as Mohammed 'Abduh and Rashid Rida' in Egypt.
An analysis of the scholarly exchanges taking place through these contacts shows that although modernist thinkers and exponents of the tariqa 'Alawiyya shared a strong interest in social and educational activism (da'wah), their intellectual foundations were entirely different. The activism of the 'Alawiyya in Hadramawt and Zanzibar was primarily and internal development, deriving its inspiration from late 18th-century Hadrami revivalists. It was expressed in the institutionalization of religious education and an increased drive toward da'wah among non-'Alawis and in the countryside, but otherwise remained firmly within the parameters of 'Alawi Sufism. Modernist thought, on the other hand, as expounded by scholars like Mohammed 'Abduh and Rashid Rida--as embraced by a large group of 'Alawi scholars in Indonesia--had its roots in a much more thorough intellectual transformation, formulated in a context of colonial expansion and severely critical of the more esoteric aspects of Islam.
Pointing to examples of educational, agricultural and medical reforms proposed by Ibn Sumayt, challenges overtly static notions of reform, arguing that reform should not be understood as a mere theoretical ideal that is necessarily rooted in ideology (as with the Egyptian reformers) but is primarily about the will to change concrete aspects of society: action which may be rooted in social, political and personal circumstances without implying an intellectual shift. Ibn Sumayt may have shared certain reformist tendencies with modernist thinkers, but this does not mean that he shared their intellectual foundations.
Some critical footnotes may be placed here regarding the theoretical framework in which Bang places reform within the 'Alawiyya tradition which she defines, following previous scholarship, as a shift from the imposition of an external moral code to an internally motivated code for life conduct, i.e. a shift from doctrine to praxis, rather than a shift from apathy to activism. This change of emphasis may circumvent the problematic political implications of the term activism but does nothing to explain why this shift took place, apart from the tenuous implication that previous generations of Muslims did not 'internalize' or 'practice' Islam to the same extent. The well-traveled Hadrami sayyids were doubtlessly aware of the expanding influence of the Western world (an entire generation of Hadramis studied with Zayn ad-Din ad-Dahlan in Mecca, who taught subjects in European History and was a supporter of Ottoman pan-Islamism). Could it be, then, that the expansion of da'wah and popular education had more to do with external influences than Bang concedes to? Could the shift also reflect a new need for self-affirmation in the face of the rapid penetration of foreign and non-Islamic influences into the Muslim heartlands? The consolidation of Sufi tariqas was central to the spread of Islamic teachings among the 'masses' and in many places pursued highly political (often anti-colonial) objectives during the late 19th century, regardless of the non-political nature of their essential teachings.
Furthermore, Bang's conclusion that the shift that took place was not an intellectual one may be premature. The long-term effects of the expansion and institutionalization of education may not have been evident in the early 20th century, but they certainly are today. Unprecedented popular access to religious knowledge has today led to radical shifts in the distribution of religious authority and increasingly eclectic attitudes towards Islamic knowledge. Many other drastic changes on the local and global level have obviously played a role in the increasing 'democratization' of religious knowledge, but expanded access to Islamic education from the late 19th century, as exemplified by the ribats in Hadramawt, certainly formed part of the groundwork for future shifts of a more intellectual nature.
Nonetheless, Bang's research presents powerful illustrations of the complex and intricate dialectics of political social and intellectual developments.
The example of Ibn Sumayt, who was utterly steeped in Hadrami scholarly and Sufi tradition but did not hesitate to ask legal advice from Mohammed 'Abduh, promoted the translation of the Qur'an into Swahili and shared the judge's bench with Ibadhi scholars, shows the infinite complexity of the modes of intellectual evolution across space and time and poses a powerful rebuttal to those who would like to compartmentalize Islamic thought and practice according to sharply defined ideological categories.
Overall, the themes raised in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea offer many leads for future inquiry. In the 20th century the revolutionary expansion of modern communication technology and mass media have both empowered and fragmented religious discourse, generally undermining the traditional authority of scholarly classes such as the 'Alawis. Yet new technological tools also present entirely new avenues for the propagation of their 'brand' of Islam. In fact, the tariqa 'Alawiyya seems to have greatly expanded its global network since the early 20th c., growing branches into European and American Muslim communities as well as building a considerable presence in Islamic broadcasting and cyberspace. Many of the questions posed by Anne Bang can be newly asked about the continued role of the 'Alawiyya in the modern world: How have the networks described in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea evolved and changed since the early 20th century? What have been the effects of modern communication technology, mass media, and new global audiences on the content of 'Alawi teachings and the methods of its transmission (da'wah)? How is 'Alawi Sufism indigenized (as it once was in East Africa) in the Western world, where its discourse is now informing new Muslim identities, political opinions, and ideas about what constitutes normative Islamic 'tradition'?
To conclude, Sufis and Scholars of the Sea offers all that is expected from an historical study of intellectual history: profound knowledge of the classical canon of Islamic scholarship, highly relevant research questions, and thorough engagement with pertinent theoretical approaches to Sufism. It certainly deserves attention from scholars and laymen alike.


Sohar: Culture and Society in an Omani Town

Frederik Barth's pioneering ethnography of the Omani town of Sohar was, along his wife Unni Wikan's book Beyond the Veil one of the first ethnographies of Oman ever published. He and his wife obtained rare (at that time) research permits and undertook several visits to Oman in the mid-1970s, where they based themselves in Sohar, which at that time had no electricity or running water.

Many things have changed since Barth and Wikan's study, not the least of which is that Oman is a much more technologically developed, not to mention open country than it used to be. There are paved roads all the way up into remote parts of the mountains and most places now have electricity and running water. Indeed the achievements of Sultan Qaboos in the last thirty years are quite impressive.

Because of these changes, some of the book's details feels a bit dated. I was also constantly annoyed by how much theory Barth uses to demonstrate a (now) obvious point--the fact of someone identifying as Baluchi or Arab does not explain who they are in some final sense. Barth is obviously keen to engage the larger mid-1970s theoretical debates about the role of culture and its relationship to economy, politics and society.

Nevertheless there are good sections in here on women and men, the role of the khaddam and the pattern of social relations. In particular Barth's description of Soharis' approach to conflict and explosive social situations is very insightful.

Ultimately the book is unsatisfying, despite its useful details, because of an almost complete failure to engage with Islam as a factor of analysis in any meaningful sense. There are discussions of capital and labor, of various ethnic groups and their relation to social status, and a general appreciation of Sohari social life. But Barth doesn't explore the obvious impact of Islam on the behavior and lives of the community, or doesn't seem to consider it relevant enough for any sustained discussion.


Maulid in Mombasa 2010

thanks to Suad for the pics....


The World From Islam (excerpt of interview with Sheikh Khalfan al-Isry)

George Negus is a famous Australian journalist who wrote a book, The World From Islam, which was published by HarperCollins and panned by The Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) as "a superficial piece of puffery that fluctuates in tone between the two poles of sanctimony and sycophancy." They are right in a way, but not because of any supposed 'anti-Semitic, T.E. Lawrence syndrome' the reviewer accuses him of. They are right because of this statement from Negus, found on the back cover: "Over the last twenty-five years, I've worked and travelled in more than a dozen Islamic countries. On the basis of this regular and varied contact, I would argue that more than 99.99 per cent of Muslims are not, repeat not, terrorists."

While the statement is, of course, true, it indicates how sickeningly flawed the general Western public discourse is on Islam. When an author feels it necessary to make such a statement, something is very very wrong with public perception. Despite Negus's good intentions, such a statement is presumptous and idiotic in the extreme. To demonstrate why, lets insert other stereotypes of social or religious groups into the equation. E.g.: "99.99% of Hindus don't practice 'sati'" or "99.99% of blacks aren't petty criminals and drug addicts." The very presumption in making such a statement demonstrates in and of itself (in spite of its possible good intentions) what a ridiculous starting point for true dialogue it is. What can those seeking a deeper view of Islam really get from such a facile starting point?

It turns out that Negus's book isn't all bad; there is an intriguing interview with Sheikh Khalfan al-Isry, a notable Omani sheikh who has his own radio program and gives regular programs (in English) about giving da'wah. I have reproduced portions of the interview below:

GN: Non-Muslims--not just in Australia where I come from but everywhere--are thirsty for first-hand knowledge of Muslims. That's why I want to talk to outspoken Muslims like your good self!
K: Yes, but I also think largely sentimental Muslims need to equip themselves with understanding of their own religion. Islam does not want you to follow it blindly. The first thing that is taught in Islam is knowledge. So you should go and open books, Islamic books, that try to teach Islam--how to pray and how to do things. The book of knowledge is the first book, the first chapter.
GN: Are you saying there are Muslims out there who don't really understand Islam themselves?
K: I know many Muslims who go and pray and I usually ask them: 'Why do you pray?' And they say, 'To worship God.' 'Do you know who is God, the one you're trying to worship?' I ask them. 'Yes I know him,' they say. 'He's the Creator. He's the one giver who gives us everything.'
GN: How do you reply?
K:I say 'no' to the slogans. That's what you've been taught, but it's what you know, what you believe that matters.
GN: The same could probably be said of many Christians or Jews.
K: Did you know that half of the Omani population is still at school? More than half, actually, are under the age of twenty. So I say that many Muslims have taken Islam by tradition, by inheritance--not by personal belief.

GN: Is Western materialism affecting Muslims?
K: We have been influenced by the glamour of Western civilization. Islam says that we have been made to be the agent of God on this Earth and that civilizations will be there for us if we have made a difference and co-exist with the differences. Its the differences that make us as we are. It's capitalising from each other, benefiting from each other. In the days of the Prophet himself, as he was advocating the message of the oneness of God, he co-existed with the Jews, the Christians, even with pagans. In the heart of Islam, he co-existed with them.
What we have seen though, is the glamorous picture of the West. Maybe that has influenced Muslims a lot. Maybe the crime of taking that glamour was moral disintegration. Not everything that's glamorous is good. The good thing is that these days the educated Islamic elite are the ones who are making the comparisons. Those advocating boycotting Western and US products are not religious, they are Islamic people who are perceived in the West to be 'civilized'.
An example! If you go to mosques today--not twenty years ago, but today, 2003--you see that mosques are filled, even for the early morning prayer, which is at 4:30, with not only the regulars; you see the working community--workers and professionals--and their kids. Twenty years ago, it was only the elders that went there for early prayers and they didn't have the persuasive skills to entic their kids to go to the mosque. The working community didn't care. They were raised that this was just basic tradition. But today they have gone beyond the obvious of why I have to pray, more to why I should pray, what do I get out of it? And seeing the benefit themselves, they say if this is the benefit I get, I'd better visit the mosque regularly.

More can be found in George Negus's book, The World From Islam.


April 1, 2010

Documentary: AfroIranian Lives

Fascinating documentary on my "to watch" list. From the site:

Afro-Iranian Lives is a documentary produced and directed by Dr. Behnaz Mirzai. Born and raised in Iran, Mirzai moved to Canada in 1997, where she studied slavery and the African Diaspora in Iran. Since then, she has conducted extensive research in European and Iranian archives, fieldwork and interviews in Iran, and published numerous academic articles resulting in this documentary. The movie explores the history of the African slave trade as well as African cultural tradition in Iran, and pays particular attention to socio-economic activities, performances and rituals of the descendants of African slaves in rural and urban communities in the provinces of Sistan va Baluchistan, Hurmuzgan, and Khuzestan. Mirzai’s aim was to visualize the lives of Afro-Iranians, who were widely scattered throughout southern regions along the Persian Gulf, and at the same time could preserve and blend African cultural heritage with local religious and traditional elements. By producing this documentary, she intended to demonstrate both the diversity of Iranian society as well as the reconstruction of a new identity of African communities in Iran.


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