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 will say 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 Qadhis 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 seems to undermine their 'ethical ground'. Keep this in mind whenever traditionalists accuse liberals of undermining the basis of a 'traditional' Islamic ethics.

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.

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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.

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