September 28, 2017

Omar Suleiman on slavery in Islam

Great lecture by Sheikh Omar Suleiman.

I post it here, because it shows how brilliant people like Omar Suleiman can still be led into cognitive dissonance and unsustainable claims on this explosive issue. They know the Islamic sources with incredible erudition and expound them with clarity, but frequently go astray when engaging in comparative historical analysis.

 Here are some brief comments on the talk:

At 1:11:13 he states there were no ethical systems, before, during, or even for 700 years after the Prophet that, encouraged freeing slaves. Actually the Druze (a group which I doubt Omar Suleiman would claim as Muslim) abolished slavery in the 11th century. Also, the Sassanids (under the influence of Zoroastrianism, I believe) had before Islam elaborated a series of laws regulating treatment of slaves, and encouraging emancipation. Gregory of Nyassa, going much further than the Prophet Muhammad, and several hundred years before he lived, says: "...God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?" Because of these overlooked examples, I don't think Sheikh Omar Suleiman's particular historical claim can be sustained.

 Right after that he says, "we [as Muslims] only expand within permissible bounds." But if you apply that universally, there is nothing absolutely prohibiting slavery in the Quran or hadith. There is only 1)limits on treatment of slaves & 2) encouragement of manumission. There is nothing absolutely prohibiting slavery in the original sources of Christianity by the way.

 I am not convinced by his 'abolitionist' trajectory and invoking of the 'sunset clause' around 1:16. Presentism on this issue is fairly rampant in our community, and I think he is engaging in it here. Slavery didn't wither in Islam, after the death of the Prophet. In fact it grew as Islamic civilization grew. And its death was hastened not by the Prophet's call for manumission, but by radical abolitionists, western and non-western.

Suleiman's discussion of zakat immediately after thoroughly confuses the issue. He then follows up with an allusion to the world economy of the time being dependent on slavery, implying that Islamic civilization somehow ended that dependence. But the historical record is pretty clear that Islamic civilization increased the dependence of the world economy on slavery and significantly expanded the slave trade.

Finally, a word about the practice of manumission. We often view it as a liberal practice. But manumission also sustains slavery. It doesn't solve the root cause of inequality between people. More importantly, it can subtly encourage people to think that slaves will be a permanent part of the moral landscape, and thus divert more radical approaches to human equality by the enslaved themselves by saying that Muslim or Christian virtue is already attainable for slaves...ergo no need to be free! Nevertheless, I appreciate Sheikh Omar's attempt to sincerely deal with a difficult topic.


April 27, 2017

Happy Thursday from Jose Chameleone

Years later, and this song still cranks. I'd put it up there with Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" as one of the greatest pop songs of all time. It has the same joyful and infectious feel of Jackson's best work.


March 31, 2017

Tradition and Change in the Encounter Between Islam and Secularism

One interesting aspect of the modern struggle for freedom for Muslims to practice their faith in the USA and Europe is how that struggle changes all the parties involved, in unexpected ways. Americans can fret about 'creeping sharia', Europeans can rail about secularism, and even ban the headscarf in the EU, but they can't keep more and more Europeans and Americans from converting to Islam, and indeed it seems, the more they rail, the more attractive Islam seems to free-thinking Europeans and Amricans, who wish to discover the religion for themselves. In other words, the kind of exclusionary hardcore secularism promoted by many Europeans and American atheists is precisely the kind of ideology more likely to drive people towards committed religious belief as a countercultural move (especially when they see the connection between Islam and the Black Freedom Movement in the US). And if anything the struggles over Islam expose how secular atheism can be just as much an exclusionary, hateful and doctrinal ideology as what these same atheists imagine Islam to be. Secular atheists of the left will try desperately to argue that the secular right in Europe and the US is not the 'true' secularism, but the fact is that secularism itself is being reshaped by struggles around Islam, and will continue to evolve in unexpected ways as a result of this encounter. On the other hand, traditionalist Sunni Muslims seeking the freedom to practice their faith in an American context can rail against liberalism and secularism all they want, but they will have to tolerate Ahmadis, Shias and other Muslim religious dissidents who would be persecuted and killed with nary a peep about human rights in majority Muslim countries (countries they often travel to because that is supposedly where the faith is the 'purest'). They will have to share religious space along LGBT communities who are politically mobilized in ways unfamiliar to those immigrating from majority Muslim countries. They will have to reckon with the close association between Islam and hip-hop in the US, while the scholars they learn from regard music as haram. Most importantly, they also have to share space with atheists, who are, along with Muslims, the least popular religious group in America. In advocating for religious space in America and Europe, using secular principles, Sunni Muslims are already beginning to shift, fudge or simply reject the faith's basic attitudes toward atheists, who the Quran condemns in the strongest possible terms. No doubt there will be a considerable amount of double think around this shift, but it is happening and it is already changing the practice of American Muslims I know (Europe I am much less familiar with). As much as this horrifies the likes of certain Muslim bloggers and preachers, Islam itself is being reshaped around its struggles with liberalism and secularism, and will continue to evolve in unexpected ways as a result of this encounter. What I personally take from this: Don't let anyone tell you that a civilizational clash is occurring, or that either Islam or the West has a superior moral code. Study civilizations and beliefs from the perspective of insiders, but don't assume the insider's beliefs are always valid. Don't let anyone convince you that secularism or Christian values or civilization or Islam "must be defended." Don't let anyone tell you not following a particular Abrahamic book means you have no metaphysical or moral foundation. Defense of abstractions, whether they be books or ideologies, can be necessary. But these same defenses can also quickly turn into a willingness to sacrifice others for the sake of your book or your ideology. There is an African proverb, "when two elephants fight, the grass gets crushed". Today's violent struggles are manmade fights for geo-political and worldly power that have brought untold horror to "the grass" (the people). At this point it is of little utility which elephant crushed whom. Some of us need a more limited focus on local principles of reciprocity and treatment of our neighbor. Some of us need education on what Islam is and what Muslims believe. Some of us need to remember that black Muslims were in America before most white Christians or atheists. Some of us need to stop assuming that a man with a beard and a thobe hates women and gays, or that a woman with a hijab was forced to put it on. Some of us need to be as outraged by violence in Mosul as we are about violence in Paris. Some of us need to stop implying that liberal Muslims are insincere goons and toadies. Some of us need to stop believing that all unbelief is just ingratitude. Some of us need to learn more about our own beliefs, and acknowledge both the good and the bad in them. Some of us need to look within at ourselves and our own civilization before we criticize. Some of us need to remember our debts to atheist freedom fighters like A. Phillip Randolph and W.E.B. Dubois before carping about the evils of atheism. #dailyrant #rantover


February 14, 2017

Hope and Pessimism

Hope and pessimism are dialetically related, twins of the same womb of human frailty, and counteracting medicines for the human soul. In an ideal society they exist in a tenuous balance. I have come to the conclusion that the modern America I live in is addicted to an idea of hope without pessimism. We want to believe that it is already possible to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without constraint. This is the hope of fools, blind to history, the hope of addicts and hedonists blind to the limits of pleasure, the hope of utopians blind to tragedy. It is the hope of settlers blind to others in the landscape, seeing in that land only reflections of their dreams and nightmares. They thus interpret the land, and its peoples resistance to settler attempts to impose those dreams, as willful evil or primitive savagery. Similarly, they interpret the failure of these dreams as a personal moral failing, rather than a permanent feature of existence. Hope thus unconstrained by its opposite naturally devolves into amnesia, fantasy, and a desperate drive to feel and appear happy. It manifests itself in more extreme versions as a morbid fear of death. It looks anxiously to the future when all human limits will be removed, while manifesting a contempt for the past and an inability to remain present. I do not mean to condemn hope outright. Without it we perish, for it enables visionaries to dream of better tomorrows. But the way it manifests itself in American political discourse is as an unbearable and unsustainable naivete, a belief that one can have progress without sacrifice, patriotism without tragedy, and prosperity without end. On the right, it manifests itself as the manifest destiny of white christian america, the alleged culmination of history and humanity. All others are considered savages, primitives, expendables, terrorists. White prosperity comes to be seen as the ultimate moral good, and anything that threatens it induces a series of moral panics. On the left it bubbles up as the idea that we are all progressing easily and naturally towards a liberal ideal, and that all we need do is tinker with a few things and wear a few safety pins to get there. The left's fetishism of King as a prophet of this liberal progress ignores King's own well-developed sense of struggle, tragedy and pessimism. In conclusion, I would like to see Less false hope and More hopeful pessimism.


February 4, 2017

American History X

Part of the difficulty of having real political conversations in the United States is that many of us learned our own history so poorly. For all those looking to know more about American history, I would suggest starting with Howard Zinn. A People's History of the United States. Here I've written a brief primer, from Reconstruction to Trump: After the Civil War, the first genuine democratic experiment in this nation's history began in the South, with blacks and whites holding office on an equal basis, combined with an attempt to make amends for slavery and to institutionalize (make permanent) equality under the law. This era was called Reconstruction. This progressive era was brought to an end by southern whites angry over how 'politically correct' abolitionists had run all over their right to own slaves. Northern whites were mad that the government was spending too much time helping the ex-slaves, and not enough time on them. While northern whites looked the other way, southern whites violently 'took back their region' in a movement known as Redemption. They helped sweep Andrew Johnson into office with promises to clean up the 'corruption' allegedly caused by northern 'carpetbaggers' in league with southern blacks. Andrew Johnson later became the first American president to be impeached. 'Redemption' was made possible because at the time whites in the United States were weary of the 'Negro problem' and put 'national unity' ahead of human rights of the vulnerable. After Brown v. Board, in 1954, a new democratic experiment began, culminating in the overturning of 'separate but equal' and the institutionalizing of protections of the right to vote, especially for blacks in the South. This progressive era was brought to an end by southern whites angry over how 'politically correct' civil rights activists had run all over their right to have segregated schools and other institutions. Northern whites were mad that the government was spending too much time helping blacks (the Great Society, Head Start, etc), and not being 'firm' enough with black protestors, who many whites believed were agents of chaos, crime and Communism. Southern whites and disaffected northern whites helped Richard Nixon into office, in a 'backlash' against the establishment candidate, liberal Hubert Humphrey. Nixon later resigned rather than face inevitable impeachment. The 1968 backlash was made possible because at the time whites in the United States were weary of the 'Negro problem' and put 'national unity' ahead of human rights of the most vulnerable. After Barack Obama's election in 2008, a new era in our democracy began. For the first time in our country's long and sordid history, a person of color held the highest office. A new era seemed imminent. No more would racial dog whistles be able to win elections. While Obama's election was nowhere near as momentous in its legal implications as the first two movements, it did help spark a national conversation on race, and under his presidency a new wave of activism emerged against police violence. This (relatively) progressive era was brought to an end a few days ago, by (mostly) whites angry over how 'politically correct' liberals had ignored their concerns and their pain. Northern whites especially were mad that Hillary had done nothing to address decaying conditions of white working class life in de-industrialized towns across the Midwest, and she was seen as catering to BLM activists while ignoring their economic concerns. Fueled by the rise of a new alt-right (all white) media sphere , whites helped Donald Trump into office, in a backlash against the establishment candidate, liberal Hillary Clinton, who ran a tepid campaign marred by allegations of corruption. Some have predicted a Trump impeachment, because he enters office with a hitherto unprecedented number of outstanding legal cases. This 'whitelash' was made possible because many whites were tired of the 'black lives matter' problem and felt the dual pressure of economic stagnation and declining demographic significance, and put 'national unity' ahead of human rights of the most vulnerable. Others, while not explicitly motivated by racism, ignored or overlooked Trump's history of racist dog whistles against our current president, including an eight year history of suggesting that Obama was a Muslim born outside the US who didn't love America. #election2016 #Americanhistory


Religion, Monotheism, and Ancestral Tradition

Religions that shift veneration away from accomplished and wise ancestors to more abstract, anti-iconic notions of divinity are most successful in times of social crisis, when elders fail in their duties and the collective wisdom of past ancestors seems unable to address the complexity of interpersonal conflict, ecological crisis or the breakdown of political order. In such moments the idea of calling on a force/idea that transcends local ancestral wisdom (a High God) becomes more and more powerful. Originally the High God and the Ancestral traditions could coexist in mutual harmony. But social crisis has tended historically to weaken the ancestral tradition and strengthen the High God tradition (who is seen as above it). This is at least part of the explanation why the original Egyptian religion was weakened over time and eventually abandoned. The reasons for this gradual shift are something I am still studying. Historically, the vulnerability of ancestral transmission as a form of active wisdom, has been replaced by the idea of wisdom as coming in the form of 'revelation' from a High God. An exclusivist 'High God' paradigm has become the new 'norm' of religious practice, condemning the older tradition of ancestral transmission as paganism, shirk, idolatry, kufr, superstition, etc, and projecting itself as ancient and unchanging and true, over against the false idolatry of the ancestral tradition. When believers in the exclusivist High God tradition complain about the anti-iconoclasm of the Wahhabis, they are really complaining about the epistemology at the very core of their own professed tradition, taken to its logical extreme. My own opinion is that the healthiest belief systems have to make room for both communication with ancestral traditions, broadly conceived (an open question is: what does it mean to communicate with ancestors in 2016, when those links were severed in past generations?), and the High God tradition as a form of transcendent 'outside' knowledge. The old ways are not always the best ways, nor are the new ways necessarily an improvement on the past.


The Meaning of White Nationalism as a Reaction Against Economic Marginalization

Remember, If there is one thing worse than national division post-Trump, it is a false national unity imposed by the dominant. America is....a complex political space. It is at once an independent democratic republic and a white settler colony, both a slaveocracy...and the land of the free. It is land that was stolen/taken from one group, and made into the manifest destiny of another group. White America is that sector of the electorate identifying as white and with the historical experience of 'whiteness'. This historical experience is its common currency, not genes or phenotype or even skin color. It is the historical experience of believing oneself immune from the humbling imposed by history, of being uniquely chosen by God, of being the 'best'. Of believing itself deserving of owning land and people. Of itself as refined, civilized, cultured, etc. White Americans are not the first group to believe this about themselves. But they (we, I am a part) define this attitude in America today. At its worst this attitude is the ultimate form of Satanic pride and hubris. Though White America is not a monolith, for good or for evil, it does have a history regularly marked by violent exclusion and fear of the non-white other. It is that history which must be confronted today more urgently than ever before. In spite of what Lincoln said and Obama recently quoted, don't underestimate the worse angels of America's nature. The worst elements have historically dominated American history. Brief interims of hope don't change that. As the dominant demographic of the American electorate, white America still has the overwhelming power to determine cultural norms and political futures. As we saw in this recent election, this power is especially dangerous right now, because we are living in a time where that once overwhelming dominance has decreased, at the same time that a unified front to defeat climate change is more necessary than ever, and the challenges of living in a global world are ratcheting up in intensity. There is nothing like the anger of a group who honestly believes its hard earned gains are being threatened and eroded by other races, religions and demographic groups. There is an old saying (often attributed to Malcolm X), "when white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia". The meaning of the statement is that when economic and social indicators get worse for whites, they will get catastrophically worse for blacks. But today white America has a cold, and believes it is pneumonia. We are now living through a period where the one time privilege of being white is being gradually eroded. The brutal reality is that the global economy will sacrifice any and all but the super rich as its victims. White nationalism taps into those grievances, offering whiteness (a form of cultural nationalism) as the answer. The work of internal community anti-racism/dismantling white supremacy is a form of spiritual work our community must undertake, and it is key to addressing the appeal of white nationalism and white supremacy. It is a form of acknowledging and confronting, but not validating white supremacist perspectives both overt and covert that exist around us. These perspectives (a form of false consciousness) are found among family members, coworkers, and church members. The goal is to help to cultivate patience, fortitude, forbearance, and compassion among our fellow whites who believe they have pneumonia when its only a cold. Many of them are very fragile when it comes to these issues and that fragility has to be respected, but not validated. They and we as a community have to learn how to live as non-supremacists in our everyday interactions and viewpoints.


Human Rights in America and the Muslim Ban

To understand the concept of "illegal immigration", used to justify this administration's recent #MuslimBan, it may be helpful to revisit the history of slavery in the United States. 1776-1863 "Slaves should only be able to get their freedom legally" 2017 "Immigrants should only be able to get their citizenship legally" Lesson some of y'all Christians need to learn: Legality is a relative concept. Human rights are not. Legality comes from man-made states. Human rights come from an eternal God. I'm not going to look down on any person seeking to get citizenship in the united states of america, when citizenship in a state is the only mechanism for accessing human rights. Some of you advocating deportation of immigrants need to think about this. You wouldn't dare claim now that the freedom of an enslaved human being in the USA was dependent on them getting freedom legally, yet you have the gall to act like you have the moral high ground when it comes to immigration because of "legality." Would you have turned in a fugitive slave in 19th century America because they were seeking to get their human rights through illegal means? If the answer is no, then why would you insist on this legality when it comes to refugees seeking citizenship in 2017? People have a right to use whatever means necessary to access their basic human rights. Setting up fortress-like enclaves based on fictions of manmade legality, in the middle of the largest migration crisis in world history, is like gluttonous feasting in a glass house while surrounded by famine victims.


Conservatism, Conservatives and White Supremacy

Although I don't really consider myself a conservative, I have a few thoughts on modern conservatism. Conservatives basically believe in the unchanging preservation of legacies, moral, cultural and spiritual, from the ancient past. They look to these legacies as sources of guidance, and believe they are better guides to what is right and true than contemporary moral attitudes and ideas. Studying the Ancient Egyptians, I am deeply sympathetic to conservatism as a necessary corollary of cultural and religious preservation. When you've created a just society that has stood the test of time, there is something therein worth preserving. This is one reason why the Ancient Egyptians were so conservative. This is also why I respect those who choose to live according to conservative religious traditions, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Conservatism free from attachment to state power or ethnic exclusivity is a powerful vehicle for preserving valuable moral dispositions. But modern conservatism doesn't deserve the name. It is mostly, if not solely, a form of ethnic nationalism based on the supremacy of European white Christian identity. It is not based on the preservation of old virtues, but on the spreading of new diseases of the heart, based on the lust for power. Perhaps there are a few strands of modern American conservatism that meaningfully connect to the universalist spiritual traditions and disciplines of medieval Christianity, but these are largely secondary to the preservation of group power of Euro-Americans in the space of a settler state. In its nationalist garb, this conservatism is basically the national and cultural expression of white supremacy. When a white nationalist like Jared Taylor talks about preserving white culture, he is articulating a conservative white nationalist critique of American liberalism. Listening to Taylor makes me think about how the founders of this American settler republic would react to the contemporary social scene. Arguably they would be more sympathetic to Jared Taylor than to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Which makes me think that Dr. King didn't represent an "American" tradition, nor a conservative one. Rather his work was an attempt to decolonize that American tradition, a herculean effort to reshape America into a more inclusive space. Whatever battered remnants of political virtue we cling to today are legacies of his and other's sacrifice, not the unchanging and hallowed traditions of this nation's checkered history. #BlackHistoryMonth #MartinLutherKing #Conservatism


Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Nationalism and Civil Rights

I find it remarkable that we've reached a point in history where elements of White House leadership are basically anti-Semites or linked to anti-Semites, yet are praised by Israeli leadership because they give more money to the Israelis to build walls and buy guns and "fight terror." The implications of this apparent contradiction are consistent with the views of Bannon and other's ethno-nationalists in Trump's administration. What is ethno-nationalism? Ethno-nationalism basically believes that each ethnicity or race needs their own nation. This belief is a big part of the underlying worldview of Trump and other right wing populists. The message? : "The other" is raping, murdering and taking "our" jobs. This country belongs to "us" and we're taking it back. In the olden days international socialists correctly called this "the socialism of fools." The policy that proceeds from this thinking is as follows: Bannon, Miller and his crew will deride Jewish accomplishments for human rights and civil liberties in the US, while encouraging the racist fortress mentality of right wing Israeli leadership. Lest you think this tendency unique to Israel and its diaspora, the current leadership will also racistly denigrate Muslims as non-Americans while courting the authoritarian leadership of Muslim countries. Contrary to some people in my circles, I do believe Zionism was originally a movement with a deep moral core, as many diasporic movements for nationhood are. But ironically the success of becoming a nation has damaged the moral authority of Zionism, because it had to displace a whole other people in the process of fulfilling its destiny. Israel today, in my opinion, is little better than any other state that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity and religion. "But Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," you say. The US is a democracy too, but that hasn't stopped it being a state based on the once explicit, now implicit dominance of a single group. Democracies can develop a kind of autocracy of the majority, just as pernicious as dictatorship or theocracy. The struggle for universal civic rights, that is, the struggle for governments to transcend the tyranny of BOTH majority and minority, is the most significant unfinished struggle of the modern era, encompassing everything from the Haitian, French and American Revolutions, to the civil rights movement, African decolonization and the fight against fascism. To see the current administration walking that struggle back ought to be deeply concerning for those who have seen where this has led in the past. Hannah Arendt is rolling over in her grave.


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