November 22, 2016

Yasir Qadhi on slavery in Islam

Some thoughts on this thoughtful presentation from probably the most prominent Muslim traditionalist in America. I very much respect his attempts to engage this serious and important issue. Here are some points where I agree and where I disagree:

1. I appreciate how he tries to contextualize slavery, the terms for it, and the meaning of it in the context of different times. This is an important first step.

2. He is right that slavery (broadly understood) was a universal practice across many cultures globally.

3. He is incorrect that Islam was the first belief system to create rules about slavery. Not sure how he could claim this. He later claims that many other cultures had no 'rules' about slavery. Also incorrect.

4. He is also slightly in error about the 'legitimate' source of slaves in Islam. I think that is probably because he's focused on deriving notions of 'legitimacy' from text, rather than from actual practice. That is a long side debate which I will not take up here.

5. The virtues of manumission are frequently mentioned in the books of law. The interpretation we give to this practice, however, is KEY. See point 7.

6. I find the argument that, because there is no specific law legislating FOR slavery, therefore Muslims don't need it and can preserve the tradition intact...interesting. I'm not fully convinced, mainly because I don't think Qadhi has fully faced the historical and epistemological difficulties of this position.

7. I'm glad to see he raises this past disagreement among the ulama. But he studiously avoids the colonial context of abolition (I am sure he is aware of it, as he has spoken out on the impact of colonialism on Muslims before). This silence is curious. If Qadhi is a traditionalist, and he follows the pious ancestors, then what right does he have to call abolition 'more humane' than previous practices? How can he avoid that abolition was almost always and everywhere forced on Muslim countries by colonial invaders? Finally, we should ask ourselves, how does Qadhi know the INTENTION (his word) of Allah apart from The Quran and the actual practice of the early community? The companions took female captives as slaves or sex slaves (there are plenty of documented instances of this in the hadith tradition). By most accounts, even the Prophet practiced this. Isn't Qadhi saying that the generation of Muslims now who have gotten rid of slavery know better than the early Salaf and the Prophet did, since the later generations were the one to fulfill what he claims is the internal logic of the tradition? I would like to know more about how Qadhi would square this with his veneration for the early companions, and the Prophet himself.

8. I have said it once, and I will say it again: The abolitionist hermeneutic is a modernist hermeneutic. And once you have accepted a modernist 'logic' of history where you believe (as Qadhi seems to here, though implicitly) that history has moved progressively towards abolishing a practice that the early companions openly practiced without sanction, then you have rendered most articulations of traditionalism anachronistic. Progressive history makes a lot of traditionalists nervous, because it undermines their absolutist claims to an 'ethical ground'. Keep this in mind whenever traditionalists accuse liberals of undermining the basis of a 'traditional' Islamic ethics. More often than not the 'tradition' they practice is as modern and anachronistic as anything Muslim progressives have yet dreamed of.

9. I say all of this, not to beat a tired old dead horse, but because I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and emotional polemics on both sides of this issue. We need more clear sighted analysis. I think Qadhi himself might benefit from a serious engagement with scholars working on the links between slavery and law, both in Atlantic and Indian Ocean contexts.


November 11, 2016

Donald Trump and the Nafs

Scholars of Islam, Christianity and Judaism have all provided us with excellent models for discerning the inner character of individuals through their actions. Sadly, as we well know, many of those who bear the identity of these religions fail to live out their teachings.
In the Islamic paradigm, what Christians would call the soul is called the 'nafs'. One goal of Islam, which it shares with Christianity, is to lift the nafs out of its preoccupation with the world.
Many very pious religious people voted yesterday. Many of them voted for Donald Trump. Some of them voted out of a desire to see abortion overturned. Others wanted a strong leader. Still others, in the words of Franklin Graham, voted to "stop the march of the atheist progressive agenda."
It behooves believers, Christian and Muslim, to look at the state of our next president's soul. Since he will be someone a new generation of Americans will grow to age under, it is worth asking: what can we know about the state of President elect Donald Trump's nafs, or his soul?
Donald Trump is 70 years old. He has lived a life filled with widely publicized bragging about his allegedly enormous wealth. Anyone who has seen his television shows and celebrity appearances over the past decades knows Trump's persona, and who we are getting as president. He has consistently surrounded himself with other famous wealthy people. He has been unfaithful to his wives, and divorced several. He has been plagued by lawsuits and scandals throughout his life.
The Islamic scholars of old classified the lowest level of the nafs as 'nafs al-ammara bisu. This type of nafs resides in the world of the senses, is dominated by earthly desires and passions, and is subject to the fickle whims of the emotions. This is the nafs that urges us to, among other things, get on twitter at 3am to insult those who we feel have wronged us. It is the self that gratifies itself through seeing its enemies shamed and humiliated. It is a self relentlessly forgetful of its own past shortcomings and mistakes. It is a self eager to shift blame for its actions.
Perhaps there is a side of Donald Trump that I have not seen, a tender, reflective, and self-aware side. If so, he has camouflaged it well underneath his public persona. From what I have seen, we have elected a president who is not only engulfed in his nafs al-ammara, but is completely INFATUATED with it. To be engulfed in the nafs is an understandable condition that many of us share. We all get angry at others, we all sometimes wish ill for other people, we all get cranky. To be infatuated with the nafs, on the other hand, is a sign of a deep instability and imbalance. Western psychologists have commonly referred to this condition as narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. Often behind this mask lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Trump is not the first leader to suffer from this condition, nor will he be the last. Perhaps he will do some good along the way, along with much evil. My wish is that we recognize his true nature and plan/respond accordingly.
The Creator knows best.


October 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on Islam, Feminism and Tradition

Some Further thoughts on islam and Feminism after reading Daniel Haqiqatjou's post:

 A lot of Muslim traditionalists rightly point to tensions between Islam and feminism. There is plenty of real tension between the two, otherwise there wouldn't be such a vociferous debate about their compatibility. One recent blogger on this issue even called Muslim feminism an oxymoron. It is his position that Islam has a secure methodology for finding the truth, and is in no need of reform from feminists. (

 One of the ways that Muslims who argue against feminism have been able to argue is through the powerful idea that they are the stewards of something sacred and unchanging. Yet many traditionalists I've dialogued with seem unaware that the tradition has in times past absorbed many many foreign ideas and made these ideas its own. This absorption did not proceed through a strict methodological logic. Rather most of the absorptions were the product of historical contingency. And yet the tradition survived.

The abolition of slavery was one such foreign idea. A good analogy for the debates currently roiling the ummah around feminism are the debates around the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. Then, as now, the issue was the relationship to a powerful bundle of discourses about human rights emanating from the West. The question was: is abolishing slavery legally justifiable?

Scholars were divided into two camps at the time. One camp, the traditionalists, rightly pointed out that there was no legal basis for abolition in the fiqh tradition, that the meanings of Quranic verses around slavery were unchanging and not to be abrogated, and that to follow the European countries in abolishing slavery would be a reprehensible innovation. One of the 20th century's most illustrious Sufi Sunni scholars, Yusuf al-Nabhani, held these views. al-Nabhani doubted the sufficiency of human reasoning to abrogate that which God in his book did not prohibit. He and others believed that the abolition of slavery was a doctrine aimed at weakening Islam. The textual criterion was self sufficient, and one could only err in assuming an independent standard for moral progress. In short, the traditionalists then were making the same arguments against abolition that many Muslims now make against feminism.

 The second group were the Muslim modernists/reformers. They argued that the new circumstances of the time called for new rulings and new interpretations on issues previously thought settled, such as the role of women, and the legality of slavery. They argued that abolishing slavery was the right thing to do, Islamically. They used Quran and Hadith, but more abstractly, since there was no clear statement about the evil of slavery therein. But to them, freedom was the essence of the teachings of Islam. Their arguments were premised on the idea that Islam, as a vehicle of human progress, has the capacity to accept change, if it leads to beneficial moral progress, thus assuming that the standard for progress exists independently of the textual criterion. (Amal Ghazal "Debating Slavery and Abolition in the Arab Middle East")

 Something strange seems to have happened in this divide on the way to our present moment. The modernists are still the modernists, still arguing from moral essence, often using an implicit societal standard. But the traditionalists by and large accepted the modernist view about abolition, and made it their own. And they did this without much sound traditional Islamic legal reasoning to support it. Although this was the right thing to do, it also, In my view, fatally undermined any authority the current conservative argument from Islamic tradition has in the contemporary world.

 Muslims the world over, of all ideologies, rightly regard all kinds of slavery with a moral repugnance. Their attitude shows to what degree Muslims are inheritors (and even champions) of Western abolitionist assumptions about modern human rights. A true empirically sound traditionalist position on Islam is extremely rare in our modern world, because a true empirically sound traditionalism would have to acknowledge that abolition of slavery has no unequivocal textual and legal basis in Islam. In other words, a truly consistent traditionalist could still potentially regard slavery as something to be practiced within the limits set out for it in the Quran and Hadith, not as a morally outrageous anachronism. Most if not all Muslims are modernists, even many Salafis, because they accept the assumption that slavery is inherently immoral. Once you start extracting the idea of 'moral essence' separate and above the clear meaning of the text, you can no longer call yourself a traditionalist.

 I wrote all this because, if you're Muslim and feminist, there is little need to spend a lot of time worrying overly much about contradictions that alleged traditionalists point out between feminism and Islam, from an empirical standpoint. Most, if not all traditionalists themselves have their own empirical contradictions to deal with in the way they formulate tradition. Next time a traditionalist asks 'why, if feminism is so important, there is no mention of it in the Quran?', ask them 'why, if abolishing slavery is so important, is there no mention of it in the Quran?' The abolitionist hermeneutic IS the feminist hermeneutic. The Islamic tradition has survived inconsistencies greater than this, and it will survive traditionalist hostility to feminism, and feminism's alleged contradictions to Islam. It will survive, not because of human vigilance, but because of our nearly boundless ability to keep changing, all the while imagining we inherit our moral code from an unbroken chain of tradition.

 Finally, and perhaps most importantly, abolition also became accepted because the formerly enslaved struggled for knowledge, rights, and attained positions of religious authority. Similarly, a true and profound synthesis between Islam and feminism is already occurring because women are struggling for knowledge, rights and for attaining positions of religious authority. Each and every tradition is an arena of social struggle. The tradition itself will change as a result of these struggles. Accepting those changes will be difficult, especially for men. But I am confident the changes themselves will strengthen Islam and make its conceptions of equality more and more robust. (Bernard Freamon "Conceptions of equality and slavery in Islamic law")


April 19, 2016

IKHLAS Video: "Invisible Blacks, Red Seas and Indian Ocean Worlds"

Dear Readers, Working on some posts...but mostly working on my dissertation. I'm posting here a video of a panel I appeared on back at the end of October 2015 at the University of Michigan, hosted by my colleague Butch Ware's new initiative, IKHLAS. The panel was part of a conference called, "Mystic Motherland: Africa, the Qur’an, and the Esoteric Sciences." The panel was entitled, "Invisible Blacks, Red Seas and Indian Ocean Worlds." Participants included Hillina Seife, Chair, and panelists Imam Dawud Walid, Muhammad Tayssir Safi, Dr. Ousseina Alidou, and myself. Please do check out the rest of the fascinating panels.


March 13, 2016

On why the Asadian turn in Islamic studies isn't far enough

I've written before on this blog about the profound influence Talal Asad's Geneaologies of Religion had on my thinking and scholarship. As with many books that become semi-canonical in the academy, however, Geneaologies has inspired a host of lesser works, combining astute theoretical insights on the Islamic tradition with often astounding shortsightedness and naive idealism
. The critiques of liberalism, secularism and the secular nation-state by Asad, Hallaq, Saba Mahmood and others have succeeded admirably in historicizing these processes of formation and dealing with the particularist and paradoxical edge of secularism's universalist Enlightenment aspirations. 

The aforementioned theorists have been markedly less successful in critiquing  the particularist edge of their own favored discursive and governing traditions. As I've said before, dealing with the Islamic tradition as a 'tradition' doesn't solve the problem it purports to. It only circles back to it by way of a shifting battleground in the same war. For the battle over the Islamic tradition contains precisely the impulse which Asad, Hallaq and Mahmood critique so trenchantly in liberal secularism: the tendency of a governing order to define and put limits on cosmic understandings of human destiny. Secularism is certainly the western state's attempt to do that, but the theorists I mentioned don't go far enough in recognizing the paradoxical nature of attempts to govern the divine, and to place those who don't submit to that governance beyond the pale. They don't deal with the most striking instances of the Islamic tradition's own attempts to govern religious order, and the manifest shortcomings of these attempts, predicated as they are on an unsustainable line (created by the Islamic tradition) between monotheism as order, piety, rational ground and sanctity, and polytheism as shirk, rebellion, illogic and disobedience.

The irony that this is virtually the same line christocentric secularism draws between itself and islam should not be lost on the astute observer. The reasons for this are many, but at least part of it is that Christianity and Islam both are entangled with Aristotelian paradigms, that inform their approach to logic, order, being and presence. Another limitation is a shared legacy of monotheism, which drastically narrows the ability of either tradition to conceive poly or non-theistic ethical traditions. The lack of serious philosophical engagement with non-monotheistic african traditions, as well as non-theistic Asian concepts of the same, stymies them saying anything of deeper relevance to those interested in how mystical imagination can inform governance.

In point of fact, the critique of secularism is defensive. Asad and others working in the US and European academies want to create space for "piety" (as they understand it) to operate more freely in the western public sphere as well as in academia. But they have no answer at all to the problem of governance in the modern middle east or modern society more generally, especially the tension between religiously particularist modes of governance and a presumably neutral state. They have little to say on how secularism might be mystical, or how it might positively inform governance outside the United States and Europe (and what little they do say, I might add, seems to me incredibly shortsighted and privileged by their own positionality) They are able to show that the state is rarely, if ever neutral, but quite unable to conceive a theory of the self and good governance that would serve as a viable alternative to that of secular individualism. I am suggesting here that one reason they are unable is that their own visions are constrained (at least discursively) by an imagination of Abrahamic traditions as being at the center of the earth.

Their attempts to sympathize us to those with religious commitments is an important and vital project. But it leaves unanswered the vitally important questions about how a non-secular governance might look that did not discriminate among its members by religious affiliation. Such a project is vitally important in a time of seemingly ever-expanding religious bigotry at home and abroad.


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