Thursday, September 30, 2010

Do Muslims Deify Muhammad?

A friend asked in a recent discussion if Muslims worship Muhammad. As with all good questions, the answer is not as simple as it might appear.  It took me back to the Asool, the basic texts of Islam as exemplified in the Quran, the Sunnah, and the books of Fiqh.

On the surface, of course, the theological answer is an unequivocal "No". To associate anything at all with Allah is Shirk, the greatest of all Kaba-eer, the major sins. Muhammad himself proclaimed  in Surat Al Kahf (Quran 18:110), "I am only a man like you, to whom it has been revealed that God is One."

At the same time, the Quran sends a mixed message. Surat Al Maidah (Quran 5:92) is one of many verses that enjoins Muslims to "obey Allah and obey his Messenger". Muhammad  never once told Muslims to obey God without tacking on, "and me as well". If there was any doubt that obeying Muhammad was equivalent to obeying God, the Quran specifies in Surat Al Nisa (4:80), "He who obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah." Similarly, there is not a single verse in the Quran that condemns disobedience against Allah without equating it to disobedience against Muhammad. This warning in Surat Al Nisa (4:14) is only one of many, "Whoever disobeys Allah and his Messenger will be cast into the Fire to suffer a disgraceful torment."

If obedience to Muhammad is equivalent to obedience to God, and disobedience to him is the same as disobedience against God, does not the Prophet have a position equal to God?

Christians are known to finish their prayers with the expression, "In the name of Jesus." The reason is that Christians believe Jesus is God, and he promised that prayers made in his name would be answered. Could anyone imagine Muslims similarly praying, "In the name of Muhammad?"

Well, yes. An authentic Hadith that occurred after the death of Muhammad, and which can be read here, noted that whenever there was a drought Caliph Umar bin Al Khattab would ask Abbas to do the rain prayer. The prayer was, "Oh Allah, we seek intercession with you by your Prophet and we ask you for rain." The Hadith ends by saying, "And they were given rain."

During his years in Mecca Muhammad had condemned the Quraysh for their belief that their gods Allat, Uzzah, and Minat were effective intercessors in obtaining favors from God. Only a few years after his death, his followers were invoking his name to receive these same favors.

Not only the name of Muhammad but even his grave was used to evoke rain. A Hadith that can be read here describes the people of Medina pleading with Ayesha, wife of the deceased Prophet, to remove the ceiling over Muhammad's tomb in a time of drought so that nothing would separate his corpse from the throne of God. As soon as they did so, rain poured down. Even the decayed body of the Apostle, according to Muslims, was effective in persuading Allah to send rain.

Perhaps the greatest indication that the position of Muhammad is greater than the place of God is the punishment given to those who offend either the Prophet or Allah. Many Hadith are similar to the one that can be read here. Caliph Umar bin Khattab was informed that a man had been executed for apostatizing from Islam. When the Caliph asked if the man had been given three days to change his mind, he was informed he had not. The Caliph became angry, explaining that a Murtadd should be put in prison for three days and fed bread and water to see if he would recant. Only then should he be executed.

There is no three day grace period granted in Islamic law to those who offend the Prophet. They are to be killed immediately. An Arabic Manual of Law entitled Kitab Ahkam Al Quran (The Book of Quranic Rulings) repeats that the apostate Murtadd is not to be killed until he has been given the opportunity to repent and return to Islam (the reference is available here). Those who insult Muhammad, however, are given no such opportunity to change their minds.

Atheist websites, artists, filmmakers, and authors by the thousands mock God, but Muslims are not up in arms about that. Thousands of people are leaving Islam behind, and even the strictest Salifists agree they should be given a few days to recant. But the cartoonist who draws an unfavorable image of Muhammad, or the scholar who concludes after careful analysis of the original texts that the 62 year old Prophet's sexual conquest of a 17 year old Jewish girl named Sofiya, after torturing and beheading her husband, father, and brother, could only be described as rape, is not even given three minutes, much less three days, to reconsider.

So back to the original question, do Muslims worship Muhammad? Theologically, they can argue they do not. On a practical level, I'm not so sure.

(For readers who know Arabic, this subject was discussed by Rashid in his program Daring Question here and some of the material was adapted from that program).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Part 2 - Islam's Threats Against Egypt's Copts

This is part 2 of the translation of a recent Al Jazeera interview "Accusations the Coptic Church is Aggressively Encroaching Against Egypt and its Laws." Part 1 is available here. My own comments will come at the end of the interview.

Ahmad: In light of all this disturbing news, there is a scheduled referendum in the Sudan that will divide it into two countries, one in the north and another in the south. This plan has been hatched for 20 years, and maps have already been drawn to do the same thing in Egypt. Could it happen here?

Muhammad: There are indications of that in incidents taking place here and there throughout the country. These incidents seem small, but they are not random. Sometimes they are represented in monasteries agitating against the state about property rights and things like that. They represent a concentrated effort to prepare the way for the day when the Copts will demand that Egypt be divided so they can have their own country. There might even be demands for numerous states; the Nubians could demand their own state was well!

Ahmad: Invaders throughout history have tried to divide Egypt, but without success.

Muhammad: Egypt has always maintained its unity. For the first time a scientific, organized, ongoing  effort is taking place. It has been continual since President Sadat first placed Pope Shenouda under arrest. We are facing a concentrated effort to prepare the way to divide Egypt into two countries.

Ahmad: Would it not be in the interest of the Copts to have their own country?

Muhammad: No, that would be the most dangerous thing they could do.

Ahmad: Why?

Muhammad: The Copts only represent, as you said, 6 % percent of the population. How could they have a country equivalent in size to 6 %? How would they access the Nile, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean? How could they remain in contact with the outside world? Where would this little country be located with its 6% of the population?

Ahmad: By the way, this 6% is taken from an old census. For years, neither the Copts nor the Egyptian government have officially announced the percentage.

Muhammad: The ratio has not changed. From the time of the British Empire until now, the percentage of Copts has ranged from 4-6%.

Ahmad: They say they are more than 12%!

Muhammad: They say that, but if it were true they would request the government to release the official census. I call upon any Copt to ask the government to do that. The reason they do not is that they know the official statistics are against them. It would not be in their interest to establish their own state.

Ahmad: Many articles have discussed the merger of power and wealth in Egypt, but the discussion is now the merger of power and the Copts. It is described as a marriage between the top officials in the government and the leaders of the church that plays a major role in the inability of the government to confront the church. The minority benefits at the expense of the majority. How do you see this?

Muhammad: I don't know who is marrying whom, since I don't have the marriage register at my fingertips, but I do know that the weakness of the government in confronting the church is greatly inciting the Muslims.

Ahmad: Why is the government so weak in confronting the Copts?

Muhammad: As I said before, the government is tyrannical. An oppressive government retains its strength by forming alliances with strong elements inside it, as this government has with the Copts. The government cannot oppress everyone, so it oppresses the weak and forms alliances with the powerful.

Ahmad: Are we heading into a dark tunnel? Are there not reasonable people in the church and the government who can stall this off?

Muhammad: There are reasonable people on both sides, but in a time of sectarian sedition no one listens to reason. When the loudest voices are those such as Father Bishoy calling for supremacy, no one listens to the voice of reason.

Ahmad: We invited Father Bishoy to appear on this show with you, but he declined.

Muhammad: I wish Pope Shenouda himself would come on.

Ahmad: I've been asking him ever since the program began, but he always refuses.

Muhammad: I would just like to hear him explain how he has the audacity to say repeatedly that he cannot be judged by the Egyptian judicial system. Once a woman asked him about the Islamic ruling that two women from the same family cannot nurse the same child. He had the gall to tell her that was a stupid prohibition! How can he say something like that and have it published in the press? The only people who reply to him are those the government considers extremists and terrorists. There is not a single official voice to confront them.

Ahmad: Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa recently issued a fatwa that it was imperative to turn over religious converts to the community they came from, because that is what the Prophet Muhammad did.

Muhammad: The Prophet never did that!

Ahmad: Are you aware of the fatwa?

Muhammad: No, but you are telling me he said the Prophet did that.

Ahmad: He was talking about turning Wafa Constantine over to the church.

Muhammad: OK, you are talking about Christians who convert to Islam, and he is saying the Prophet did that. That information is not correct; the Prophet never did that. The Grand Mufti was talking about the special terms of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah between Muhammad and the people of Mecca when he returned in victory to the city. Among the terms of the treaty was that if anyone converted to Islam in Mecca and then subsequently migrated to Medina, they would be returned to the people of Mecca.

But the Quran says in Surat Al-Mumtahanah (60:10), "When Muslim women come to you as immigrants, do not send them back to the unbelievers. The unbelievers are not allowed to marry them, but if they were previously engaged to unbelievers pay their dowry for them. You are then allowed to marry them." Not a single female convert to Islam was ever returned to her people in the entire history of Islam until Wafa Constantine was turned over to the church! For 11 days an intense debate took place on whether she should be rendered back to the Coptic church. May God reward the courageous men who argued she should not be, and may God judge those who forced them to do so. Not a single Muslim convert had been been turned over in 14 centuries, no matter what the Grand Mufti said.

Ahmad: I have an email suggesting that the Grand Mufti works for the Coptic church!

Muhammad: No, Ali Gomaa is an honorable man.

Ahmad: Why do the Grand Mufti and the Shaykh of Al Azhar not come out and make official statements against these things?

Muhammad: If the Grand Mufti said that the Prophet allowed Muslim converts to be turned over to their people, he should correct his mistake. The Prophet never said that.

Ahmad: Father Bishoy leads the church's Clerical Court that judges errant priests, and some people say he will succeed Pope Shenouda.

Muhammad: Coptic papal succession is determined by lot, and no one knows how the lot will be cast.

Ahmad: Egypt Today did an interview with Father Taklah, a priest exiled to a monastery in Wadi Natroun where priests who run afoul of the church are sentenced for years in small, cell-like rooms until they finally pardoned by Pope Shenouda. Father Taklah has been there for years. Is the church allowed to imprison people independent of a legal trial?

Muhammad: According to Egyptian law, if the problem is related to an infraction of church policy the church has the right to do that. Even government organizations provide disciplinary measures for people who break their laws. But if a crime is committed against the law of the land, the government must be informed. Father Bishoy said in his interview today that some people illegally exaggerate their church contributions for tax benefits, but they do not inform the government of this fraud because they do not want to embarrass those people. If people are doing that, it is a crime and the government must be informed.

In the Hadith the Prophet gave the order that Christian leaders of Yemen should not be replaced. In the same way, we are not calling for the replacement of Coptic officials, but we are saying that if crimes have been committed, the state must be called in to impose justice.

Ahmad: Father Taklah was asked in the interview what he would do if he met with Pope Shenouda. He replied that he would kneel at his feet and plead, "Forgive me, master, for I have sinned." Would the Pope allow him to do that?

Muhammad: Not only that, but the Pope might or might not forgive him. He has absolute power in this. The purpose of interviews like this is to terrorize the Christians, to make them ask, "If a priest who made a mistake was exiled for years and years, what might happen to me?" It was right of the newspaper to publish the interview, but we cannot just say this is an internal church matter that we Muslims have no right to talk about. This is a humanitarian and national issue, related to human dignity. That man was exiled to the desert for years, and I must defend his honor as a Christian just as I would defend the honor of a Muslim.

Ahmad: Last year the press reported that the church established its first institution to evangelize Muslims. It is called "Jesus Set Me Free", and is led by a female Egyptian lawyer named Nagla Imam who converted to Christianity from Islam. A former Al Azhar professor named Muhammmad Rahouma who also converted to Christianity said that the American army would not remain silent if those Muslims who wanted to become Christians were oppressed.

Muhammad: And Father Bishoy claims that the Church is not being strengthened from abroad! Is not announcing that the American army will support you an example of receiving strength from abroad? Where is this professor and this lawyer now? If they are living in Egypt, then Egypt must be a land of complete freedom. And if they are living abroad, Egypt gave them the passports to travel freely. Who are these people to claim that the American army would come to support a handful of recanters and converts?

Ahmad: Father Markos, who is the Coptic Minister of Information, said in an interview to the German media in 2008 that the Egyptian government does not allow Muslims to convert to Christianity.

Muhammad: Where are these converts? I wish they would present themselves one by one. I challenge the church to openly announce the names of those who convert to Christianity, just as we do with those who convert to Islam. Give me one example of someone who was oppressed or killed because they converted to Christianity! Let Nagdi Imam or Muhammad Rahouma come forward and tell us how they were persecuted! The real persecution is done by the Church to those Christians who accept Islam. I would like to have one single person tell me he or she was a Muslim and converted to Christianity!

Ahmad: What about those Christians who revert to Islam and are then turned over to the church?

Muhammad: Their rendition is a punishable crime because it infringes upon their freedom and the constitution does not allow it.

Ahmad: It is against their freedom of religious choice?

Muhammad: It is more than that, it is against their human rights. For the Pope or anyone else to exile or imprison anyone in violation of their human rights is a crime punishable by the constitution. Not only that, but the constitution does not place a statute of limitations upon these crimes. If our constitution remains as it is, perpetrators of these crimes can be judged even after 100 years. By the way, there is a complete file prepared of those Copts who have committed those crimes, and they will be judged!

Ahmad: We are facing some serious problems, not simply the rendition of a woman who converted to Islam!

Muhammad: Yes indeed, it is a matter of not respecting the constitution and destroying personal freedom. It is not just a matter of freedom of religious choice. Let anyone convert to Islam who wants to, and let anyone become an unbeliever who wants to! By the way, I proposed a solution to the problem of religious affiliation on our identity cards in a book I wrote that is being studied in universities today.

Ahmad: Just issue ID cards that do not mention religion at all?

Muhammad: No, that would not be a solution. How would we then know who can marry whom, or who can be buried where? The solution is simply to write the original religion, followed by the new religion and date of conversion. For a Christian convert to Islam, it would record the date of conversion, and for a Muslim it would record the date of apostasy. One of the Egyptian courts that agreed with my suggestion even took it a step further. It said that the ID card should represent the true identify of its bearer. If the person carrying that card had changed from one religion to another, their ID card should represent that change, because their current religion and the religion they were born into are both part of who they are. The MOI has begun this, but the backlash is from the Copts who do not want ID cards of converts to represent their former religion. They do not want the cards to indicate that these people jumped from one religion to another, or that they were not firm in their faith. A man whose ID card shows he changed his religion will find it more difficult to find a bride because people will think he is unstable. These people want to hide the true identify of the converts.

Ahmad: The MOI is always announcing the discovery of this or that extremist group, all Muslim of course. Sometimes it is true, and sometimes it is false. Now we learn of weapons being stored in churches and Coptic demonstration all over the place, but we never hear a word of any extremist Coptic organization in Egypt!

Muhammad: We don't even hear anything about Joseph Gabalwi and his father who smuggled explosives from Israel.

Ahmad: But if a Muslim is arrested for anything, all hell breaks loose!

Muhammad: Of course. Let a Muslim be arrested on a drugs or weapons or smuggling charge and see what happens.

Ahmad: And Israel is involved!

Muhammad: Israel is not only involved, it is at the heart of the matter. For a long time Israel has been at the heart of the Copt problem, the Nile water crisis, and Egyptian-Arab relations. The Egyptian people are aware of all this, but the government remains silent in the face of the enormous pressure being put upon it.

Ahmad: Why does Al Azhar University not respond to all this? Perhaps the late Shaykh Tantawi was right when he reportedly said he would be the last Shaykh of Al Azhar and it would die after him!

Muhammad: No, the newly-appointed Shaykh of Al Azhar Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb is a good man, a Sufi, and perhaps he will revive some (Sufi-related) courses some people have been wishing would be taught there. By the way, there is a second woman who converted to Islam and was turned over to the church by an Islamic organization, may God judge it! She was the wife of a priest and her name is Mariam Abdallah. To this day, no one knows where she is or what happened to her. There is also the recent story of Camellia Shahata (whose story is told here), but she did not convert to Islam. The first two women however, Wafa Constantine and Mariam Abdallah, did convert and what happened to them was a crime for which there is no statute of limitations.

Ahmad: The Copts are vocal and the Muslims are silent! Is there no solution apart from the demonstrations that could result in chaos no one has the power to stop? How can relations be restored to where they were for the past 14 centuries?

Muhammad: I call upon Coptic leaders to work for what is best for the Copts. I call them to the voice of reason. I call upon them to sit and discuss the calamity that will befall them if they continue their present course of action. I still remember Pope Shenouda saying to me in our first meeting years ago, "Dr. Muhammad, if the Muslims stop going to the Coptic grocers, barbers, doctors, and pharmacists, how will the Copts survive?

Ahmad: Twenty-five percent of Egypt's doctors and pharmacists are Copts.

Muhammad: He said to me, "How will those grocers, barbers, doctors, and pharmacists stay alive? We Copts can only survive in the midst of Muslims." He was correct. Where we are today, with Copts ignoring the rulings of judges, threatening martyrdom, storing weapons in their churches, and claiming that the 94% Muslims are the guests of the 6 % Copts, will start a fire that no one will be able to put out! The poem will come true that says:

When the voice of reason cannot extinguish the flame,
Its fuel will be the bodies of its victims.

My comments:

1. Everything in Islam, including the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, goes back to Muhammad. Some of the Jewish women whom Muhammad expelled from Medina after beheading their male family members went to the agricultural region of Khaybar. As soon as Muhammad established a truce with the people of Mecca, thus eliminating his final enemy, he led his 10,000 soldier army to Khaybar and informed the farmers they could stay alive if they gave him 50% of all their produce. This was the first example of the dhimmi, the non-Muslims who are allowed to live in a Muslim society if they accept the restrictions placed upon them by the majority.

For 14 centuries in Egypt the Copts lived as good dhimmis. For the first time in their history, they are demanding all the rights and privileges granted the Muslim majority. This is what Ahmad and Muhammad are strenuously objecting to in the above interview.

2. Ahmad complained that Egypt's billionaires are all Copts, and that Copts own Egypt's main industrial and communications companies. There are, however, few if any Copts who are department heads in Egypt's government universities, directors of Egypt's government hospitals, and judges in Egypt's courts. The simple fact is that Muslims do not like Copts in positions of legal authority over them. It is impossible to imagine a Coptic President or Prime Minister of Egypt. Copts thrive in the areas in which they are allowed to grow.

3. Muhammad and Ahmad threw out unverified "facts", such as that of the Christians smuggling explosives into Egypt and stockpiling weapons in churches. According to one report I read, the explosives were simply fireworks. American forces in Iraq often found weapons stored in mosques, but I have never heard of a church in Egypt being used to store weapons.

4. Muslims have no understanding of Christian theology, and often impose a Muslim understanding on Christian history. Because martyrs in Islam are people killed in battle, Muhammad and Ahmad assume Christian martyrs are the same thing. They are totally unaware of the 2000 year Christian history of martyrs who die for their faith.

5. The burden of restoring Coptic-Muslim relations was presented in this interview as being solely upon the shoulders of the Christians. No awareness at all was expressed of what Muslims could do to improve these relations.

6. Perhaps the greatest irony of the interview was Muhammad's description of the arrogance of Pope Shenouda. What did the Pope do that Muhammad saw as extremely arrogant? Pope Shenouda dared to suggest that the ruling of a 7th century Arab warlord concerning who could or could not breastfeed a child was silly. Now that's Coptic arrogance for you!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Part 1 - Islam's Threat Against Egypt's Copts

On 23 September the popular Al Jazeera program Beyond the Borders featured the interview, available here in Arabic, "Accusations the Coptic Church Is Aggressively Encroaching Against Egypt and its Laws." Because I believe the interview represents a threat against the Copts, I am translating it rather than merely presenting a summary (which has already been done here). The translation is abridged only to avoid repetition and statements not germane to the main topic. It is quite long and will be divided into two parts, with part two available here.

My own comments will follow the interview, which was held between host Ahmed Mansour and Muslim scholar Muhammad Salim Awah.

Ahmad: Greetings from Cairo. Egypt is experiencing a period of unprecedented religious polarization with the Copts demanding their right to evangelize Muslims, build churches freely, and occupy high positions in the government while at the same time motivating international organizations and Western governments to take action against the Egyptian government. The government says it is giving more to the Copts every day, especially following Pope Shenouda's announcement last year that the Church supports the transfer of power from President Mubarak to his son Gamal. Some observers have gone so far as to say that the government's acquiescence to Coptic demands could threaten national stability. Others fear it will result in Egypt's Muslim majority having to seek their own rights in their own country. In a response to these Coptic demands in 2007, the Minister of Manpower announced that the Copts, who  form only 6 percent of Egypt's population, possess one-third of the country's wealth and own Egypt's largest automobile, communications, and construction companies. She pointed out that a recent edition of Forbes magazine noted that 3 Copts were on the list of the Middle East's top billionaires, whereas not a single Egyptian Muslim was on the list. The Copts also occupy many important positions in the Egyptian government, including two Ministries, and are 25% of the members in the pharmaceutical and medical unions. According to some reports, Copts hold 40% of the capital in Egyptian banks.

The situation reached a new level when the Copts began demanding their right to proselytize Muslims and protect new converts, especially women. This raises an entire new set of questions for the Pope related to the freedom of religious choice, compliance to the laws of Egypt, and the strong relationship that has linked Copts and Muslims in Egypt for 14 centuries. Our guest for this interview is one who has closely followed this subject, scholar and legal professor Dr. Muhammad Salim Al Awah. Greetings.

Muhammad: Greetings to you.

Ahmad: In a 2009 interview Pope Shenouda described Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt as abnormal. What brought this relationship, which was strong for 14 centuries except for isolated incidents of unrest, to this low level?

Muhammad:  Let me begin by saying that the Coptic-Muslim relationship in Egypt is a brotherly, long lasting, humanitarian one that cannot be broken or divided. It cannot be broken in the sense that it has existed throughout history. It cannot be divided in the sense that anyone who imagines the Copts leaving the fabric of Egyptian society to establish their own state, or anyone who fancies forcing the Copts out to form a new country is deceiving himself. This long-standing relationship can be damaged by corruption, neglect, and mistakes made on both sides, but it will endure.

If the Pope were speaking today, his words would be even more pessimistic. Coptic-Muslim relations have been deteriorating since 2003 when Wafa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic Priest, was forcibly returned to the church by the state following her conversion to Islam. Following counseling sessions that were unsuccessful in convincing her to leave Islam, she was taken to a monastery that we always suspected was the Father Maqar Monastery.  The second-highest official in the Coptic Church, Father Bishoy, recently confirmed she is indeed there working as a translator, and that anyone is free to visit her. The first part is true, but the second part is a bald-faced lie. No one can visit her!

Ahmad: But Father Bishoy added that the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) knows where she is, and that she has retained her Christianity.

Muhammad: Again, the first part is correct. the MOI knows where she is and how she spends every second of her day. They monitor the activities of the monasteries. But his statement that she is still a Christian is a complete lie. Wafa converted to Islam and she remained a Muslim after she was turned over to the church by the state in spite of the immense pressure put on her.

Ahmad: The government prohibited her freedom of choice when it turned her over to the church. Why is the government powerless in front of the church?

Muhammad: The government is weak because it is a dictatorship of tyranny, oppression, and corruption. When it is weak, it is subject to pressure. One of our political figures has said that because the government was weak, it concedes to the church in turning over converts to Islam. Where is our constitution that exists to protect freedom of chose? Those women who chose Islam and are now imprisoned have been denied their right to choose.

Ahmad: Even while preparing this program I noticed a daily escalation in the Coptic-Muslim polemic. Some Copts say the Pope and the church represent a red line that cannot be criticized, but even  President Mubarak is criticized by the Egyptian press. Does the constitution allow anything in Egypt to be above criticism?

Muhammad: No one is above criticism, and everyone is accountable to the constitution.

Ahmad: But the church as a whole is above and beyond the limits of the constitution!

Muhammad: The church and some Copts want that, including the Father Bishoy you referred to earlier. He wants the church to be above the law and the constitution. That would be a tragic mistake which would put part of the state above the state itself, and cause the whole state to collapse. Their demand that the Pope not be accountable to the constitution is an impossible situation no one will accept.

Ahmad: I read several articles recently, including some written by Copts, that accuse the Pope of isolating the Copts. Who is really to blame? If the Coptic-Muslim relationship lasted 14 centuries, why is the reign of Pope Shenouda III bringing it to the brink of disintegration?

Muhammad: Ever since Pope Shenouda was exiled by President Sadat to the Monastery of Saint Bishoy in 1981 and only allowed to return to Cairo 5 years later, the church has increasingly confronted Muslim organizations to the point it insists Muslim medical and educational programs cease. From time to time it demands Islamic education be lessened in the schools. Ever since the Pope's return, church officials have been making irresponsible unfounded statements that inflame the Arab street. This reached a zenith with the Wafa Constantine frenzy in 2003, and since then Muslims have been unable to relax. How can they, when a convert to Islam can be turned over by the government to an institution that is above the law and can be imprisoned by that institution in an unknown location? From 2003 until just a few days ago no one even knew where Wafa Constantine was being held. That is more than seven years!

Ahmad: What would cause the Republic of Egypt to concede its authority and give equal power to what some have called the Republic of Pope Shenouda?

Muhammad: The church is more than a republic, it's an empire! A republic has laws and a constitution that provides rights and responsibilities to its citizens. But what happens inside the church is subject to the power of the church, and no one can do anything about it.

Ahmad: Father Bishoy confirmed that today, when he said that what happens inside the church concerns only the church, and all others are guests. Are Muslims only guests?

Muhammad: Can you imagine that more than 14 centuries after Islam entered Egypt a senior Coptic official like Father Bishoy, who is in charge of church discipline, could say something like that?

Ahmad: He was quoted as saying, "Do you Muslims want to govern us in our own churches?"

Muhammad: No, we do not want to govern the churches, but the legal system in Egypt governs all of Egypt's institutions including the Coptic church. Can you believe what he said? This Father Bishoy is saying, We welcome Muslims as guests - the Muslims who represent 94% of Egypt's population - but now they want to govern our churches! If you read the entire interview, you will see that these comments had nothing to do with the questions that were being asked him. Why would he go beyond the subject to say things like that? It is because there are hostilities suppressed in his mind, buried in his subconscious.

Ahmad: They want to do whatever they want with no accountability.

Muhammad: You are correct. This shows there  is a deeply buried antagonism in the church that wants to create sectarian strife in this country and set it on fire. By God, any Muslim who would accept...

Ahmad: Father Bishoy is the second most powerful man in the church, and he can say things like this and no one takes him to task. But there is much more. Last year Pope Shenouda announced on the TV station  owned by Coptic billionaire Naguib Suwaris that he favored Gamal Mubarak assuming the Presidency after his father, and that the Copts would follow suit. He said that the alternative to Gamal Mubarak was ignorance. Is there a tacit agreement between the government and the church about this?

Muhammad: This is not the first time the Pope made that announcement. It was first stated in 2005 at an international Coptic conference in Egypt with attendees from all over the world. They came together to determine only one matter, which was Coptic support for President Mubarak and his son. Of course anyone has the right to support Gamal Mubarak, but if the church votes as a bloc it will destroy the country.

 From the time of Muslim reformer Saad Zaghloul until now, people have struggled to make Egypt a non-sectarian country. The main objection to the Muslim Brotherhood has always been their desire to have a religious state. If the Copts join the ruling party as a religious bloc, they will be able to elect  candidates of their choice. Father Bishoy said in his interview that President Mubarak has been the best thing for the Copts. So why are they complaining?

Ahmad: He also said Gamal Mubarak loves the Copts.

Muhammad: Exactly. So why are they flooding the world with their demonstrations and complaints of persecution and discrimination? They want to create social unrest that will destroy everything. This dissension is being led by the church.

Ahmad: The church leaders aren't being blamed for anything and do whatever they want with impunity. If it is true that they have an agreement with the government, and can do whatever they want...

Muhammad: And if the country is set on fire as a result of this agreement?

Ahmad: Who said it will be set on fire?

Muhammad: It will be if things keep going the way they are.

Ahmad: They say they are oppressed and are demanding more rights. They want the right to build churches. They have established an organization to proselytize Muslims led by a woman who converted from Islam, and claim this is their right. Father Bishoy said in a previous interview they are even granting certificates to Christians who convert from Islam.

Muhammad: Muslim scholar Dr. Nabil Luka Bibawi just published a book about Muslims who become Christians, and vice versa. He said that efforts to convert Muslims are shrouded in complete secrecy with no government control, whereas dawah to Islam takes place in the open with full knowledge of the government and conversions publicly registered at Al Azhar University. These secret attempts to convert Muslims are serious and dangerous, but that is not the subject of our conversation today. We are now talking about their claim that we Muslims are their "guests", that only they have the right to govern inside their churches, and the statement of Pope Shenouda that no legal charge can be brought against them for anything they do that is in accordance with church doctrine. My God!

Ahmad: According to Christian tradition, the church does not get involved in politics. The election of Egypt's president, whether it be Gamal Mubarak or anyone else, is a political and not a religious issue. But all these Coptic statements are political statements.

Muhammad: They are clear political issues that have nothing to do with Christian teaching, which is to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. If you bring this up to Father Bishoy he replies, "This is our country. Do you want us to not speak about the politics of our country? And the Muslims are our guests!" This kind of talk will have repercussions and is very, very dangerous. God knows the fire that will be lit as a result of these statements. I call upon Pope Shenouda to renounce them rather than start a fire.

Ahmad: Are you calling on him to make a recorded statement?

Muhammad: Yes, and to renounce what Father Bishoy said. If these statements are not condemned, they will set the whole country on fire.

Ahmad: Matters are much more serious than that. Last month the Egyptian Security Forces interdicted a cargo ship coming from Israel with explosives hidden in its holds intended for Egypt. They arrested the owner of the ship, Joseph Gabalwi, who is son of the Deputy Bishop of Port Said, Boutros Gablawi. The public prosecutor wants to search the churches in Port Said, and there are many reports that the monasteries there are stockpiled with weapons. According to the Copts, however, their monasteries and churches are beyond state control and cannot be searched. Meanwhile Muslims are arrested daily on weapons and extremism charges.

Muhammad: That is correct.

Ahmad: No one can deny this information, which is public knowledge. There are many reports of weapons stored in monasteries, and these things coming from Israel.

Muhammad: First of all, I am extremely sorry that this involves Deputy Bishop Boutros Gabalwi. His father was the pastor of the church on the street where I grew up in Alexandria and his sons, including Boutros were all our childhood friends. In spite of this, he and his son got involved in this crime that reached the point of smuggling weapons from Israel to be stored in their churches that could only be used against the Muslims.

Father Bishoy said today they were even willing to seek martyrdom. Martyrdom can only be achieved in warfare. The church and some of its leaders are preparing for war against the Muslims. The tragedy is that these stories are not being followed in the press; even the story you mentioned of the intercepted ship was given hardly any media coverage after it was first reported although the press is full of stories every day about Muslims who supposedly do something wrong. Hardly a word was written about this Copt who is importing explosives from Israel!

Ahmad: I have many small clippings, such as the one you mentioned from 2005 where the Pope said they would support President Mubarak and his son. No one pays any attention to them, even though they are important and dangerous.

Muhammad: No one pays any attention to these attempts to spread sedition in the country. The media is frightened and cowardly and they only  publish these items on a small side column where no one will read them. They do not realize that when Father Bishoy talks about martyrdom, he is talking about war!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The War on Adjectives

Adjectives are vital to American cultural and political discourse. Pamela Geller is not just the owner of a blog, she is a "rabid, shrill, extreme, right-wing conservative, hate-mongering Islamophobic blogger." Barack Obama is not just our President, he is a "Muslim-appeasing, socialist, teleprompter bound, uncaring, empty suited, corporate America lackey, Chicago syndicate President".

I learned in high school that adjectives are words used to describe nouns. They are much more than that to those conveyers of opinions whose words tumble from our television screens and car radios, through our blogs, newspapers and magazines, and across the Internet. Adjectives are the soil used to grow an idea the communicator favors, the paint used to adorn the canvas of a personality he or she finds attractive. These same adjectives are the poison that tear down ideas and the darts that destroy the people this same communicator does not like.

Some people find it important to attach a label to everything, whether it be a person or an idea, like a scientist labelling a specimen in her laboratory. Having attached the label, they then relate to the person or concept in light of the label they have given it. Right or wrong, accurate or misguided, once labelled the target will never be viewed as anything else. Anything they have to say will be interpreted through the label put on them.

The result is that real communication does not take place. Speaker B waits impatiently for Speaker A to stop talking, so he can use his adjectives to tear down everything she has said without even being able to accurately rephrase it.

So my solution is to launch the War on Adjectives. Force talking heads and pundits to express their ideas clearly and succinctly without giving them an unlimited use of adjectives to cover the shallowness of what they are actually saying. It might take a while for them to learn to discuss Sarah Palin's ideas if they are unable to describe her as "polarizing", or to articulate Nancy Palosi's goals if they cannot minimize her as a "progressive liberal", but it would be worth the wait.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Youhanna Yahya Zakariya - From Muhammad to Jesus

On the day that Islam's second Caliph, Umar bin Khattab, accepted Islam an associate named Khabbab said, "Just last night I heard the Prophet praying that Allah would strengthen Islam by bringing Umar bin Khattab into it."

(Note what Muhammad's prayer was not. It was not, "God please strengthen Islam by teaching Muslims to love each other, honor their spouses, forgive their enemies, and enable their sons and daughters to be all that they can be." It was, "God strengthen Islam by giving us more influential people.")

Why did Muhammad want Umar to become a Muslim? Early biographer Ibn Ishaq informs us that Umar was a strong warrior. Before he accepted Islam, Muhammad's Quraysh tribe would not allow the Muslim converts to pray at the Kabah. After Umar accepted Islam, he forced the Quraysh to allow the Muslims to pray there.

Islam has always taken pride when influential people become Muslims. In our day, this is particularly true when they are Westerners.  As noted here, Al Jazeera did an entire interview with Kristiane Backer, a former MTV hostess who adopted Islam.

Although I am certainly not an "influential" Westerner, I experienced this years ago in West Africa when I met some Ahmadiyyas engaged in Dawah, calling people to Islam. They invited me to their house for further discussion and while there asked if I would accept a Quran. When I agreed, their next question was whether I would be willing to be photographed taking the Mus-haf. I had no problem with that, and was photographed in a formal shot of me accepting the Sacred Text. It was only as I later reflected on the evening that I realized the photo would be sent back to Ahmadiyya Headquarters in Pakistan as a trophy of another Westerner who had come to the Nur, the light of the Prophet.

To be honest, I find the stories of Westerners who do accept Islam to be shallow and uninteresting. Some are disullusioned ex-pastors who discover the Bible is not the perfect, literal Word of God they once believed it to be. Rather than use the experience to grow in their understanding of faith, they continue their search for a perfect book and become easily convinced it is the Quran. Others are attracted by Sufi culture or music, and still others are women who come under the influence of a Muslim boyfriend or Shaykh.

On the other hand, the stories of people who leave Islam are to me much more interesting. They seem to have gone through a spiritual or intellectual search, and often pay a great cost to follow their reason and their conscience.

I listened to another of these stories this week on Rashid's show Daring Question on Al Hayat TV, available here in Arabic. Yahya Zakariya grew up in a Muslim family in Egypt, where his father was a senior officer in the Egyptian army and his mother was an educator. Yahya became a musician, receiving his BA and MA in Arabic music and composition from Egyptian universities and a PhD from Cambridge in the UK. He was also a serious student of Arabic, and received a second MA in that subject. He returned to Egypt from the UK where he taught music in Egyptian universities and also directed Arabic classical orchestras in Cairo.

Yahya married a Muslim woman and had two children, but the marriage ended in divorce with him having custody of his children. This increased responsibility led him to study the Quran more seriously with the belief that as he got closer to God, God in turn would protect his children. Yahya smoked and drank, but believed as many Muslims do that if he fasted both during the month of Ramadan and six additional days afterward, God would forgive him for those bad habits.

Yahya then mentioned several questions that had bothered him throughout his childhood. Once he happened to be the only person praying in the mosque, and inadvertantly prayed in the wrong direction. The Imam then informed him that his prayer had been rejected by Allah because he was not facing the Qiblah. "Isn't God everywhere?" Yahya asked himself. "How can he refuse my prayer because I pray in the wrong direction?"

A second question that crossed his mind as a young boy in Islamic class was, "Why, every time we mention the name of Muhammad, do we say, 'May Allah pray for him and grant him peace?'. If Muhammad is perfect, why are we always asking Allah to pray for him?"

The third question was, "Why do we invoke Allah's curses upon the Jews and the Christians every Friday at the mosque? Why do we ask Allah to make their wives widows and their children orphans? What have they done to us to make us curse them?"

Yahya wryly commented that even though these questions came and went, he didn't spend a lot of time pondering them. Like most Muslims, he lived by the Egyptian proverb Saah li-Albik wa Saah li-Rabbik: "Do what you need for yourself, and then do what you have to do for God".

It was only after he seriously began to study the Quran that Yahya discovered that rather than leading him closer to God, it was increasing his doubts and questions. Surat al-Mu'minun (23:12-14), for example, states that Allah puts the Nuftah in a "safe place". Allah then turns the Nuftah into an Alaqah, and next turns the Alaqah into a Mudrah. The following step is to transform the Mudrah into an A-tha-mah, add Lahmah and Voila! An expectant mother goes into labor and a child is born.

To believing Muslims, this is an example of Muhammad's supernatural understanding of embriology and another proof of the miracle of the Quran. The Nuftah is supposedly the fertilized egg, the safe place the womb, the Alaqah the first stages of the fetus, the Mudrah the fetus as it advances, the Athamah the skeleton, and the Lahmah the flesh (comment: this theory was first proposed by a Greek philosopher named Galen one thousand years before Muhammad).

Yahya's question was simply, "How can the Quran say the bones are inserted in the latter part of the pregnancy, and flesh is added on after that? If a woman has a miscarriage earlier in her pregnancy, are their no bones nor flesh?"

As an Arabic scholar, Yahya next began to notice grammatical mistakes in the Quran that scholars could not explain (as an example for readers who know Arabic, look at 7:56. Why is the ta in rahmat an open ta and not a ta marbutah? And why does qarib have tanween in the nominative case, rather than the accusative case as it should with an open ta? And if rahmat is being used as an adjective in the feminine gender, why is qarib masculine?).

What was the response of Imams and Shaykhs when Yahya went to them with his misgivings? It was the same quote from Surat Al-Maidah (5:101,102) that thousands of Muslims receive when they pose similar questions, "O you who believe! Do not ask questions about things that might cause you problems when they are explained to you. People before you asked similar questions and lost their faith."

After a year and a half of finding no answers to his questions, Yahya simply and quietly left Islam. The thought then occured to him, "As Muslims, we believe that Islam came to correct the errors of the Jews and the Christians. If I no longer believe in Islam, perhaps I should examine the religions it came to replace." He knew nothing about Judaism or Christianity, and asked a Christian member of his orchestra to introduce him to a Jew so he could obtain a copy of the Torah. To his surprise, the Christian informed him that the Torah was the first part of the Christian Bible. Yahya obtained a copy of the Bible, began to read it for himself, and eventually decided to follow Jesus.

Just as he had wanted to follow Islam all the way by seriously studying the Quran, Yahya wanted to follow Jesus wholeheartedly by being baptized, but it took months to find a Christian church in Egypt willing to baptize him (comment: am I the only one who finds it sad that the same Muslims who demonstrated just last week to defend the alleged conversion of a Christian to Islam would threaten the pastor who baptized a Muslim into the Christian faith?). He finally found a courageous priest willing to baptize him, and publicly proclaimed his faith in Jesus.

Yahya then told an amazing story that might seem strange to Westerners who take dreams much less seriously than people in the Muslim world. He wanted his two children, who were now teenagers, to follow him in his new-found faith but they were reluctant to become "Christians", second-class and often despised citizens in Egyptian society. One night his son burst into his room announcing he had just had a dream accompanied by a light that filled the room. A voice informed him that his name would be Yusuf (Joseph), and his sister would be Miriam (Mary). The very same night Yahya's daughter saw a dream in which Jesus informed her that he wanted her to follow him. Both children were baptized soon afterwards.

As could be expected of one in Yahya's social position, opposition to his new faith was severe. His family disowned him and relatives threatened to have him killed. He was summoned to Al Azhar University, where Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Guma cursed him and declared him a Kafir. But his faith remains strong.

Friday, September 17, 2010

International Literacy Day and the Arab World

International Literacy Day, translated in some parts of the world as International Illiteracy Eradication Day, was observed on September 8. According to UNESCO and Arab League Education Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) statistics, close to 100 million illiterates live in the Arab world. Two-thirds of these are female. These are people unable to read at all; the number who can sign their names but are functionally illiterate and unable to make it through a book, newspaper, or magazine is even higher. Of a total Arab population of less than 350 million including children, that is a staggering number of people.

Al Jazeera broadcaster Khadijah Qinni recently hosted two Arab education experts, Hanan Al Amri from Jordan and Mustafa Boushouk from Morocco, on her TV show to discuss the problem. Hanan believed the solution for illiteracy was developing new educational strategies for the Middle East. Mustafa thought the problem could be solved by increasing Arab awareness of the benefits of literacy.

I've been around the block a few times. Over 40 years have passed since I went to India for a 5 year sojourn, and it's 25 years since I went to live in North Africa. Hanan and Mustafa said nothing I did not hear decades ago, and the rate of illiteracy, particularly among Muslim girls, is increasing by the year.

It is ironic, but I believe the main reason Arab girls are illiterate is the one reason Muslims refuse to even consider. Muslim women are uneducated for the simple reason that Muhammad placed no priority on the education of Muslim women.

Muslims love to quote selected Hadiths to prove the Prophet's perspective on any particular subject. Ask your Muslim coworker about Jihad, and he'll tell you a story about the Prophet saying the greater jihad was purity of heart. Ask a Muslim friend about women in Islam, and she will quote the Messenger saying that Paradise is at the feet of Mothers. Inquire about Islam's attitude toward the Jews, and listen to a story of Muhammad's kindness to the Jewish neighbor who threw garbage in the Prophet's yard. Ask about education, and hear that Muhammad said Muslims should search for knowledge even if they have to go all the way to China.

Unfortunately, that is not the way to discern what Muhammad really felt about any given matter. To do that, you have to follow his actions during the 10 years in Medina when he was in control. Not only was the education of women non-existent on his list of priorities, he even took steps to ensure that the educational opportunities that could have been available for them were removed.

One of Muhammad's first steps in Medina was to draft what Muslims proudly call Islam's first constitution, the Concordia of Medina. The entire document makes only one reference to women: "A woman shall only be given protection with the consent of her family."  The message is clear. A woman cannot be protected from abuse or domestic servitude (or illiteracy) unless the men who control her life agree.

Medina was a Jewish city when Muhammad first moved there. The Jews who lived there were educated and literate. Muhammad's own grandfather, Abdel Mutalib, had spent his youth in Medina being educated by the Rabbis. Muhammad could have given his own wives, as well as the illiterate Arab tribespeople who were his converts, the same opportunity to learn from the Jews that his grandfather had. Instead, he kept his wives behind closed doors and expelled the Jews from the city.

If not education for Muslim women, what was Muhammad's priority? In one word, warfare. He created scenarios of the sensual paradise awaiting those who died in battle, and then sent his followers off to die in battles he initiated to build his empire. The Mujahid (the fighter), not the Muallim (the teacher), is guaranteed heaven in Muhammad's Quran.

Has anything changed today? Read what Indian Educator Sam Singh says here about the priority Muslim families place on the education of their daughters in the school he founded in India. Drive through Heliopolis and Nasr City in Cairo, and compare the grandeur of the military complexes and the villas of the generals with the dilapidated government elementary schools in any city or village throughout Egypt. Go out into the desert and see the rows of sparkling new military tanks (built with US taxpayer money) that will rust where they sit as Egypt fantasizes being invaded by Israel, an enemy that exists only in its imagination.

Hanan Al Amri and Mustafa Boushouk were half right. The Arab World does need a new educational strategy, as well as an increased awareness of the benefits of educating Arab women. They just don't realize this will only come to the extent they are prepared to leave Muhammad behind.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Camellia Shehata and Questions That Should Be Asked

Al Jazeera TV recently ran the story, available here in Arabic, of massive demonstrations taking place in Egypt over a young Coptic woman who supposedly converted to Islam and was subsequently kidnapped by her Church. What I found even more interesting than the story itself was the way it was presented, and questions that could have been raised but were not even part of the equation.

Broadcaster Khadijah Qinna set the stage in her opening comments. Camellia Shehata was said to have accepted Islam and fled from her Christian environment. Some days later she was forcibly returned to her church by the Egyptian security forces. She has been detained by the church ever since. Thousands of Muslims are demanding that the government intervene to set free this Muslim convert whose human rights were violated when she was kidnapped by the church.

Khadijah then interviewed two Egyptian guests who presented quite different versions of what happened. Coptic human rights attorney Naguib Gabriel claimed that Camellia had simply left her house following a marital dispute and returned a week later. An office at Al Azhar University officially records all Coptic converts to Islam, and this office has no record of anyone with her name having converted.

Khadijah next asked Muslim scholar Fadel Soliman for his opinion. Fadel immediately went on the offensive, saying that of course Camellia had converted of her own free will and it was a lie to claim she had not. A campaign was being staged by the church to prevent people from choosing Islam.

This interview took place on 8 September. The following day Camellia herself released a Youtube video, available in Arabic here, in which she firmly denied that she had converted to Islam or been detained by her church.  She acknowledged there were personal issues in her life that had caused her to leave her home, but did not go into detail about them and indicated they were certainly not the business of the government or the media.

As I tried to piece the puzzle together from the Arabic media and find out what really happened, the following thoughts crossed my mind:

1. The Coptic Church does not allow divorce. This puts Christian women who are in abusive or otherwise difficult relationships in an unenviable situation with no way out. It is possible that some of these women would choose Islam simply for the possibility of obtaining a state-issued divorce.

2. Al Jazeera described the thousands of Muslims shouting outside their mosques as "demonstrators". These were in fact not demonstrations at all, but simply crowds of men enflamed by the sermon they had just heard to shout curses and insults against the Coptic church and Pope Shenuda. It is sad to me that Egyptians are uninterested in demonstrating against the poverty, corruption, and illiteracy that exists in their own country, but can be whipped into a frenzy by an Imam's Friday sermon to protest an alleged conversion to Islam that did not even happen.

3. Muslims protest by the thousands to defend the rights of non-Muslims to convert to Islam, but it does not go the other way. It is impossible to imagine a demonstration at central Cairo's Tahrir Square with Egyptians protesting the right of a Muslim to become a Christian, or simply leave Muhammad behind. In reality it is not a question of "human rights" at all, but only "Muslim rights".

4. The story of Camellia Shehata's alleged conversion to Islam was conceived and spread by hatred. One Imam repeated it after the other, and the press and TV followed suit until it reached Al Jazeera and was broadcast throughout the entire Arab world. But it was all based on a lie.

5. Will Al Jazeera present Part Two of this story, acknowledging Camellia's testimony that she loves her Church and would never leave her Savior for Muhammad and Islam? Will Khadijah Qinna invite her as a guest as readily as she invited Fadel Soliman? I doubt it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kevin Higgins and a Night in Knoxville

While driving to a family reunion in the hills of northern Georgia last weekend, I stopped for the night in Knoxville. I knew that Tennessee cities are famous for live music and wanted to know who was playing where. Someone told me the Bistro on Gay Street had great food. Their website led me to the performer of the night, a singer-songwriter from west Texas I had not heard of named Kevin Higgins.

I went early for dinner to make sure I had a good seat for the nine o'clock show. Soon after eight Kevin arrived with his wife Barbara, the second person in his two-piece band. They looked tired, but began setting up their instruments and speakers. They had arrived with a local resident who was their host, and shortly before nine a few of his friends showed up. Kevin and Barbara began right on time, and played and sang their entire concert - for 6 people.

I loved every song. Kevin writes and sings about traveling across America, experiencing gratitude and heartbreak, making love under the stars, about small-town dreamers, drifters and schemers. I felt a connection, perhaps partially because he's not much younger than I am, and realized the gulf that separated us from the next generation. The Sapphire down the street was packed with hundreds of young people laughing and drinking, but no one wanted to hear the songs of a lifetime of hopes and disappointments. Even a few tables at the back of the Bistro had customers noisily enjoying each other but expressing not the slightest interest in the music. I was wondering how impolite it would be to ask them to please shut up.

At the intermission I went up to buy their latest CD, Find Your Shine, and struck up a conversation with Barbara. She was from Rochester and had found her way to Los Angeles as a young woman to immerse herself in heavy metal. Ten years ago she met Kevin. They both realized the LA scene was no longer theirs, and moved to west Texas to write and perform their songs. They were beginning a one-month tour that would take them up the East Coast and across the mid-West before returning home. They had been doing this for the past 10 years.

I wondered how they could make a living. Then I thought of the thousands like them, driving hundreds of miles every day to perform their songs to small crowds in bars, clubs, and restaurants across the nation. If I had a list of heros, I think people like Kevin and Barbara would be near the top.

You can hear some of their songs as well as check their schedule here as well as here. One of my favorites from the Find Your Shine CD, entitled Alone Star, goes like this:

Life and limbo in a motel lobby,
Call it a career or call it a hobby,
Grab your free cup of coffee and a muffin
and the road goes on....the road goes on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Steamroller and the Mouse: Violent Versus Non-Violent Islam

In 1998 I watched an al-Jazeera TV interview with a handsome, soft-spoken, eloquent, charismatic young man I'd never heard before. He stated that after the first Gulf War, America had promised that its forces would leave Saudi Arabia, the land of the Two Holy Mosques, within six months. Seven years later they were still there. If American troops did not leave, he warned, America would be sorry. His name was Osama bin Ladin.

As I watched him I thought, "He really means this. I hope someone far above my pay scale takes him seriously." As it turned out, few people did. When American embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, President Clinton's response was to send a few missiles to Afghanistan and blow up the al-Shifa (it means healing in Arabic) pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum. There was even less reaction when the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen two years later. It took 9/11 for America to realize it had a problem on its hands.

I had the same feeling - I hope someone other than me is taking this seriously - recently while watching this debate on al-Jazeera between pro-Jihad scholar Nader Al Tamimi and Muslim advocate for non-violence Jawdat Saidhosted by Dr. Faisal al-Qassem.

Leading up to the show, Faisal asked his viewers to respond to an online poll. The question was, Do you believe that a non-violent  Islam is an impractical, outdated theory? Sixty-five percent of the respondents said Yes, only 35% said No.

Jawdat Said spoke first. He based his argument for a peaceful Islam on his understanding of human psychology and the Quran. Man was the only being created with a superior brain, he argued, and Allah intended him to use his brain and not his brawn to resolve conflicts. Allah offered this responsibility of moral integrity to the Heavens, Earth, and Mountains in Surat Al Ahzab (Quran 33:72) but they refused,  so he gave it to man (Yes, he does take this literally). If Japan could rise from the rubble of WWII to  become a world power without the use of force, and Japan did not even bear a spiritual message, what could Islam accomplish with its message from God's Final Prophet?

Faisal then gave the microphone to Nader Al Tamimi. Like a steamroller squishing a mouse, he demolished the arguments of Jawdat Said. "Praise be to Allah who gave Jihad as the most powerful weapon in the Muslim arsenal. Jihad brought Islam from Arabia to the Levant, and then to Iraq, North Africa, and as far as Spain. Jihad is a two-edged sword; it enables the weak to conquer new territory, and then protects Islam in that territory. After Khalid ibn al-Walid led the Muslim army to victory in Syria, he left to fight the Battle of Yarmouk. The Syrians wept asking, "Are you again leaving us to the Byzantines?" The Copts in Egypt begged the Muslims to save them from Byzantine rule, and the Spaniards pleaded with Tariq ibn Ziyad and Musa ibn Nusair to save them from the armies of the Visigoths. The Movement of Liberation through Jihad that was begun by Muhammad ended 10 centuries of Byzantine, Persian, and Visigoth rule, and spread Islam throughout the world.

"Our brother says he begins with the Quran! Surat Al Bakarah (2:216) says that fighting is ordained for Muslims whether they want it or not. According to Surat Al Imran (3:142), Allah keeps those who refuse Jihad out of heaven. They will plead that they prayed, fasted and performed the pilgrimage, but he will ask, "Did you do Jihad when it was imposed upon you?" Jihad is an individual obligation imposed upon us today. Our Prophet said that Jihad will continue unabated until the Day of Judgment. That is why I applaud the Mujahideen of Iraq who put an end to America's scheme for the region. President Bush said he was leading a campaign to change the map of the Middle East from Tangiers to Bahrain. The American Chief of Staff said after Iraq would come Syria, followed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Mujahideen in Iraq caused them to rethink their plans and flee, and the same thing is happening in Afghanistan. Allah says in Surat Al Baqarah (2:251) that he uses one group of people to push back another, so the earth is not filled with their evil. There are billions of bacteria in the human body, but our immune system prevents them from spreading disease. The immune system is constantly on guard; if it fails or becomes weak, the bacteria will prevail. An ideological form of AIDS is widespread throughout the Ummah, led by misguided thinkers, and only the immune system of Jihad will stop it. When the British ruled India a movement of Jihad arose to force them out. A similarly misguided thinker named Ahmad Qadiani claimed to be the awaited Mahdi and taught Jihad had been replaced by proclamation. There is a place for preaching, but there is also a place for Jihad. There is a place for treatment and medicine, but if the infection is too wide-spread the only remedy is surgery!"

Faisal next asked Jaudat if it were not true that preachers of non-violence such as himself were only tools in the hands of the West. He replied there was another side of Jihad, quoting a Meccan Sura (25:52) where Allah told Muslims to engage in Jihad against the unbelievers by earnestly preaching the Quran.

Faisal responded incredulously, "You want to engage in Jihad against Israel and America, who are trampling us underfoot, with verses from the Quran?

Jaudat replied that was correct, and he would prove it from Islamic history. When the parents of Muslim Amar ibn Yasir were killed by the Quraysh in Mecca, Amar sought revenge. Muhammad told him to be patient because he would gain Paradise. This Quranic principle of returning evil for good, said Jaudat, has been lost in Islam. Because we fight America with our weapons, we only gain their hatred and hypocrisy. Why not acknowledge that Western society has invented all the modern means of transportation and communication used today, and work with the West rather than resist it?

Only after Muhammad established rule in Medina, continued Jaudat, was force permitted to maintain justice. An early Islamic movement known as the Kharijites were as committed to Islam as are the Mujahideen today but they killed Ali, the Fourth Caliph and son-in-law of Muhammad thinking that would get them closer to Allah. Ali's death ended the Caliphate of the Rightly Guided and ushered in a circle of violence that has never ended.

It was back to Nader, who expanded on his earlier statement that Jihad is a two-edged sword. The first side, enabling the Muslim to conquer new territory, is Jihad at-Talab or offensive Jihad. Protecting Islam after it conquers that territory is Jihad ad-Defaa, or defensive Jihad. Every Mathhab, or school of thought, has agreed throughout Islamic history that if the Kuffar occupy a single inch of Muslim territory or take a single Muslim prisoner, it is incumbent upon each Muslim living in that territory to engage in Jihad ad-Defaa to force the occupier from that territory (Yes, this does include all of Israel). If the local residents are unable to achieve victory, neighboring territories are to help. If they are still unable to dislodge the occupier, the entire Muslim Ummah must get involved. This includes every man, woman, and child, young or old. Woman who normally cannot even leave the house without permission of their fathers or husbands are ordered to do so when waging Jihad ad-Defaa.

Nader was not about to leave unchallenged Jaudat's comment about the West being the Mother of Invention. They stole that concept from us, he thundered, when we ruled Spain. Why do we not invent and produce today? Our rulers will not allow us to. We must engage in Jihad to remove them from power. "I am not calling for riots in the street," he cautioned, "But I am calling for civil disobedience to change the situation."

As Nader had finished his first argument with an illustration from medicine, he ended this one with an example from agriculture. A farmer carefully cultivates his fields, he noted, for the good of his own livestock, not for that of the foxes and rabbits outside that he prevents from even entering the fields. Arab rulers today consider their countries to be their private farms, with the produce going only to their families and cronies and allies in the West.

As with most Arabic TV debates, the substance was all in the first half of the interview. The two men were more interested in getting their point across than in really listening to each other, and in the second half basically repeated what they had said earlier. I'd like to close with this comment:

As I noted earlier, Nader Al Tamimi came across as a steamroller and Jaudat Said as a mouse. But even a mouse is a giant in a colony of ants. Many of the "mice" find their way to the West, where we see them as giants of Islamic moderation and intellect. They teach in our universities, represent Islam on TV, and their books fill our bookshelves. They advise our Presidents, Diplomats, and Generals.

Just as we ignored Osama bin Ladin in 1998, we ignore the Nader Al Tamimis of 2010. Who has even heard of him? The "peaceful Muslims" would have us believe he is insignificant, only representing a fringe of the Arab and Muslim mentality. I'm just not so sure all is as calm as it appears.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Burning Elvis and Burning the Quran

Thirty-five years ago my brother burned my Elvis records. At the time I was in India. He thought he was doing God's will. Included among them was Elvis' Greatest Hits Volume 1 which I had bought when I was ten years old. It contained Heartbreak Hotel, All Shook Up, Hound Dog, and Jailhouse Rock. I still remember most of the lyrics.

How did I respond to my brother's zeal for God? Other than, "Damn it Sam, wasn't that going a little overboard?" - nothing. I didn't hold it against him, try to burn his house, or threaten his family. I'd almost forgotten about it until this week when the furor surrounding a church in Florida threatening to burn the Quran brought it back to mind.

The media is all over this story. Google it, and you will find the pastor called every name in the book. Well, not really; read 20 stories and you'll see the same adjectives repeated 20 times. If the church goes through with its threat, I imagine every news channel in the world would love to be there with its cameras when the first ayah hits the flames. A rabbi here warned us of the seriousness of this action (tears), reminding us that people who begin by burning books end by burning people (heavy sobs). General Petraeus stated that American soldiers in Afghanistan will be endangered if the event is not called off.

I just have three questions, one for the media, one for the rabbi, and one for the general.

My question for CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and all the others is, Why are you focusing all your attention on the stupidity of the pastor, and none on the stupidity of the people who will kill, burn, and maim when their book is burned? No one will be hurt if the Quran is burned. Wounded feelings, Yes; wounded bodies, No. Bruised emotions, Yes; bruised heads, No. Injured emotions, Yes; injured people, No. Hurt sentiments, Yes; patients in hospitals and bodies in morgues, No.

And I have a question for the rabbi. You went on and on about the "sacred book". Have you read (I mean carefully read) what it says about your people? Do you know what Muhammad did to your people in Medina and Khaybar? Can you connect that, not just settlements in the West Bank and checkpoints at Gaza, with the hatred many Muslims feel towards your people?

My last question is for the general. Are you really telling us that we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars, and our soldiers are sacrificing their lives and limbs by the thousands, to help a people who will kill us if we burn a book 99.9 percent of them cannot read? (The only "Quran" is the Arabic Quran; any other translation is considered merely an interpretation and the vast majority of Afghans cannot even read that).

I guess I do have another question, one directed towards myself. Are we all going just a little bit crazy with our inability to think creatively, out of the box, beyond the pale of political and social correctness, or is it just me? Perhaps I was affected by the burning wax of those Elvis albums more than I realized.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Response from (and to) Kristiane Backer

Following this post in which I discussed Kristiane Backer's recent interview on al-Jazeera, she asked me to post her response. I am glad to do so, and will add a few comments. Kristiane said:

"Interesting observations although sadly biased and disrespectful towards Islam. I would never utter disrespectful words about any religion because they all come from God, and as Muslims we are asked to believe in all angels, scriptures and Prophets and make no distinctions between them. (Second to last verse in Surat Bakara)

Regarding your comment about repelling evil with good, this is actually a verse of the Qur'an. And of course every Prophet would have taught this principle. God sent different messengers with the same truth because people have always been weak and were deviating..

You left out my main point which is that we need to revive the spirit and the qualities of Prophet Muhammad. That we need to follow his inner teachings, i.e. his moral and ethical teachings rather than focus so much on the outer forms (length of a beard or size of a hijab). So you misunderstood and therefore misrepresented what I said as I have never emphasised the rituals but always the inner dimension. Godwilling you'll be able to read it in my book one day where I have elaborated this point in several chapters.

By the way I didn't say Islam is the best religion, maybe it was wrongly translated. I believe all authentic religions lead to God.

And in fact have a lot more in common than what differentiates them. The differences are on the level of form, (rituals) the commonalities in the ethical teachings+ the Divine root..

And yes it is important that we as human beings come together, focus on our commonalities, respect each other in our differences and work together for the common good.


Best wishes and God's guidance to His light


And my comments:

1. As someone who takes seriously accuracy in language and translation (and avoiding the bias and misrepresentation to which Kristiane feels I am victim), I checked to see if I had  mistranslated her saying "Islam is the best religion". Kristiane spoke in an inaudible English that was translated into Arabic. I translated the Arabic back into English - a risky venture at best - and  summarized her 50-minute interview in a few pages. I have now posted at the original post a full translation of her response to Ahmad's question. The relevant sentence was, "You will only be able to achieve happiness and spiritual enrichment through Islam. Islam is the best religion for that because it gives you a deep connection with Allah."

2. There is a difference between looking at a religion devotionally (as most people do) and examining it critically. Speaking devotionally, Kristiane says she would not speak disrespectfully of any religion. A religion is a system of thought just like capitalism, narcissism, atheism, or any other. It can be examined critically and does not need to be respected. Yes, you treat people with respect, including those who think the world is flat or was created 6 thousand years ago, or those who believe a person who did the things Muhammad did (or Joseph Smith for that matter) could be a Prophet of God, but you do not need to respect what they believe.

3. In response to my suggestion that "Respond to evil with good" was more like Jesus than Muhammad, Kristiane correctly said it was in the Quran. It's repeated several times, including 13:22, 23:96, 28:54, and 41:34. What I find informative is that these were all Meccan suras. My study of the life of Muhammad is leading me to conclude that Muhammad's relative, Nestorian priest Waraqa bin Naufal, taught Muhammad all he knew about the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel of Matthew to the Hebrews (the text followed by the Nestorians) with the hope Muhammad would replace him as the leader of Mecca's Nestorian Christians. Muhammad's union to Khadija was essentially a Christian marriage, and his message for 13 years in Mecca was a continuation of Biblical principles. For that reason, he said some things that sound like they came from the Bible. Only after Muhammad found a tribe to adopt him as leader and moved to Medina was he able to put his political and economic goals into practice. There was no "return evil with good" in the next 10 years of Muslim expansion until Muhammad's death.

4. Kristiane suggested I minimized her emphasis on the spirit of Muhammad, and exaggerated her references to the externals of Islam. The all-important question is, "What was the spirit of Muhammad?" Canon Andrew White, a man whose courage I greatly admire, writes that he encourages Sunnis and Shia in Iraq to seek reconciliation "in the spirit of the Prophet". The phrase breaks my heart and I do not believe he will ever succeed, because I see the spirit of the Prophet as the problem and not the solution. Again, looking at the trajectory of Muhammad's life during his 10 years in Medina and how he treated non-Muslims and women there (not isolated stories from the Hadith) gives a clue to the spirit of Muhammad.

Externals are extremely important in Islam. "Did you pray al-'Asr?" or "Is he fasting?" or "Is she wearing the hijab?" are questions you will hear much more often than, "How are you forgiving your enemies?" and "How are you doing in honoring your wife?" To me it is significant that al-Muhajabah, the veiled Kristiane who appeared on al-Jazeera (a photo can be seen here), and the woman you see on her website can hardly be recognized as the same person. I'd bet money it was a Muslim man who advised Kristiane to wear the hijab on TV, and as a submissive Muslimah she did so.

5. A billion Muslims around the world recognize that the farewell in Kristiane's email, "Best wishes and God's guidance to His light", is her invitation for me to join Islam. It is an invitation I respectfully decline.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kristiane Backer: From MTV to Mecca - How Islam Changed My Life

There is a battle of dueling ideologies taking place in the Arab-speaking world far beneath the radar of academics such as Bernard Lewis (The Crisis of Islam) and John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed (Who Speaks for Islam). This battle is not over what type of Islam will prevail but whether or not Islam is true; was Muhammad a Prophet of God, and is the Quran a revelation from God?

Two media entities spearheading this battle are al-Hayat TV and the al-Jazeera program Sharia and Life. When Zakaria Botros recently presented a series on linguistic and grammatical mistakes in the Quran on al-Hayat, al-Jazeera responded with a three-part series on how to read and interpret the Sacred Book. The first program, by Shaykh Ahmad Hasan Farhat and available here for Arabic speakers, was entitled "The Problem of the Quran". Grammatical disputes about minute details of the Quran might seem of little significance to most of us, tantamount to a discussion of whether "who" or "whom" should be used in a particular sentence. They are, however, extremely important to Muslims who believe that every letter of the Quran descended from Allah in perfection. Shaykh Farhat's explanation on  al-Jazeera was basically a repetition of the circular argument often used by Muslim apologists that I have noted here. "The Quran is perfect, and can have no mistakes. Any grammatical mistakes found in the Quran are not really mistakes, because the Quran is perfect and has no mistakes."

I don't know whether or not it was coincidence, design, or fate, but the week after al-Hayat presented the story of Ruba Qewar leaving Islam for Jesus, al-Jazeera's Beyond the Borders did an hour interview with Kristiane Backer, a German woman who announced her conversion to Islam in 2005. She published her story in a book that appeared in German in 2009 and is presently being translated into other languages including English. The interview in Arabic can be seen here.

Kristiane was a well-known personality on Europe's MTV when she become a Muslim. Host Ahmad Mansour's first question was what her impressions were of Islam before she converted. Kristiane replied she knew little except that it had an old religious text and ancient traditions, and that it supposedly persecuted women.

Kristiane then referred to an unspecified personal crisis that caused her much personal anguish. It was that crisis, she said, that led her to Islam. She discovered that the spiritual emptiness in her life which she had hoped would be satisfied by a husband was instead filled by Allah. The crisis took place while she was on an airplane, and her immediate response was to think that if the plane crashed with her aboard her death would be insignificant. She subsequently met Muslims who spoke to her about Islam and played Sufi music that touched her more than any music she had ever heard on MTV. They gave her books that spoke of the freedom of the woman who submits herself fully to Allah.

On a trip to Pakistan she met some poor Muslims who extended love and hospitality to her. Immediately afterwards she flew to the MTV awards in Los Angeles, and could not help but compare the women she had seen in Pakistan with "the women who wore short skirts and had plastic surgery for breast augmentation and wore dark sunglasses in the middle of the night".

Kristiane visited more Muslim countries, including Morocco and Turkey, and became more and more enamoured with the culture and beliefs of Islam. She was informed that spiritual peace could only be gained by following Islam's teachings, and began to practice them herself. She began with Salat, the ritual prayers, attempted fasting during the month of Ramadan, and announced her Shahada in a mosque in London in April, 1995.

Kristiane noted that her first attempt to fast was disastrous. She had been drinking the night before, and by three in the afternoon of the first day had a headache and realized she could never make it to Iftar at sunset. The following year, however, she was able to fast successfully the entire month.

Without going into details, Kristiane stated that she lost her position at MTV, moved to another European channel, but soon lost that job as well. Following a period of unemployment, she relocated to London where she wrote her book and now prepares and presents TV programs on subjects such as holistic health and travel.

In one sense it was difficult for me to follow the interview, because from the very first sentence Ahmad did his best to frame her experience in the context of a persecuted European Muslim convert trying to live her faith in a hostile environment. He repeatedly asserted that she lost her employment simply because she chose Islam. Kristiane, who was speaking in English with an Arabic voice-over, did not specify why she lost her jobs but instead spoke of the great interest aroused in Germany when she announced on TV that she had performed the Hajj in Mecca in 2005. Muslims wrote to say they had been inspired by her faith; one woman said she was beginning to say her prayers again, and a man said he was about to purchase a bottle of alcohol but decided not to after he heard her testimony.

Asked why she had waited years after her conversion in 1995 to publicly speak about Islam, unlike some converts who begin preaching the day after their shahada, Kristiane replied that she was advised by a Shaykh to deepen her own faith before speaking of it to others. Even though she wanted to respond immediately to the negative image of Islam in Europe, she chose to wait years before doing so.

Ahmad next asked an interesting question. "Kristiane," he said, "There are many young Muslim girls who would love to emigrate from Mecca to MTV, but you went from MTV to Mecca! What is your message to them?"

Kristiane replied, "Yes, that seems to be true. Someone in Yemen read my story and sent me a message that said, "Our women want to go from Mecca to MTV, but you migrated from MTV to Mecca." That is only a spirit of consumerism that gives you nothing. You will only be able to achieve happiness and spiritual enrichment through Islam. Islam is the best religion for that because it gives you a deep connection with Allah. When we fast for 30 days to achieve Allah's satisfaction and pray 5 times a day, we link ourselves to Allah. People and women can do that, and remind ourselves of Allah in everything. We can do this and draw closer to him."

When Ahmad opened the phone lines, a caller asked how Islam could best be presented to Europeans. Kristiane replied that Muslims needed to return good for evil, and turn enemies into friends (comment: was it Muhammad or Jesus who taught that?). Muslims should remind Christians they are the People of the Book, emphasize things held in common, let them know the Quran paints a full picture of the Virgin Mary, and emphasize that the Quran honors all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad including Jesus. The prophet Muhammad lived an ideal, perfect life, worthy of emulation.

"Some people," continued Kristiane, "Attack Islam. They say Muslims blow up subways and carry out suicide attacks. What can we do in light of such accusations? (comment: well, how about starting with Muslims stop blowing up subways and carrying out suicide attacks)."

Ahmad asked for Kristiane's response to media reports that many Western women in particular are accepting Islam. She repeated that was correct, why should women not accept this religion that grants them respect and freedom?

Kristiane ended the interview by saying that in spite of all the internal moral strength and peace with Allah she received from Islam, she still had an unfulfilled dream of marrying a Muslim man. I would imagine many viewers would love to be that man!

It was extremely interesting for me to compare the interviews and stories, also available at their websites, of Ruba Qewar and Kristiane Baeker. I'd like to close with a few impressions:

1. As I noted above, Ahmad in interviewing Kristiane repeatedly tried to present her as a victim of Europe's Islamophobia. Although the Christians of Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt truly are victims, that was not even mentioned in Rashid's interview with Ruba.

2. Although both women discussed the person of Muhammad, Ruba talked about the Muhammad who really existed while Kristiane made references to the Prophet she wish had existed. My guess is that Ruba could repeat in detail the biographies of women whose lives were impacted (or ended) by Muhammad, including Aisha, Zainab, Mary the Copt, Sofiya bint Huyayy, Umm Qirfa, Asma bint Marwan, and the unfortunate woman from the Makhzum tribesoon to be without a hand (Book 017, 4187-4190), who had the habit of borrowing things and then denying she had taken them. I'm not so sure about Kristiane.

3. Although this would be a statistic hard to come by, I strongly suspect that a factor in many women accepting Islam is the influence (or lack thereof) of a man. It could be an absent, uncaring, or abusive father, with the woman becoming convinced Muhammad is the father figure she never had. It could be a Muslim boyfriend or husband, or a charismatic Shaykh. Even though many Muslim women are involved in dawah, calling other women to Islam, I still suspect the influence of a man is often part of the equation.

4. A large part of Kristiane's story, as with all Muslim converts, was the externals of the religion - prayer, fasting, pilgrimage. Muslims see the performance of these rituals as pleasing Allah. External expressions of Christianity seemed to be of much less significance in Ruba's story.