Celebrating Saudi Arabia’s National Day

In case you missed it, September 23 was Saudi Arabia’s National Day, the oil-driven nation’s 4th of July. Not surprisingly many people, proud of their country, took to the streets to celebrate. But what is good for the state is not necessarily seen as good for the faith, especially in the conservative Wahhabi/Salafi variety that weds tribal origin with a dogmatic theology. The tension between a strict form of Islamic practice and the diversity that instills cultural practices has always been a problem, perhaps even more so with the wealth economy that the current generation of Saudi youth has grown up in. In 1927 King Abdul Aziz established the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and The Prevention of Vice. In short this is known as the “religious police.” For those less familiar with Islamic doctrine, this relates back to the classic Quranic principle of al-amr bi- al-maʿruf wa-al-nahy ʿan al-munkar, generally translated as commanding right and and forbidding wrong. There is a long history about the use of this penchant phrase, analyzed in detail by Michael Cook in his Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a work of over 700 pages.

Abdullah Hamidaddin has written an interesting commentary on a recent tragedy on the Saudi National Day in which a car of religious police chased a vehicle that apparently was thought to contain two drunken men. In the chase the car careened off the road, killing the driver and his brother. The religious police fled the scene, but the chase was captured on a cell phone video. When the video was posted to social media, there was an outcry to rein in the zealous religious police. In this case it turned out the men had not been drinking.

What were these “thought police” thinking? I say “thought” rather than “religious” police, because the very nature of the committee leads to a kind of witchcraft mentality. (more…)

Top of page from 1347 CE copy of Miftah al-‘ulum of al-Sakaki in the al-Aqsa Mosque Library

The British Museum is sponsoring a project to digitalize Arabic manuscripts in the al-Aqsa Mosque library of Jerusalem. Details below and at their website:

EAP521: Digitisation of manuscripts at the Al-aqsa Mosque Library, East Jerusalem

The main goal of this project is to preserve the historical manuscript collection housed at the Al-aqsa Mosque Library in Jerusalem. The Al-aqsa Library located at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem serves as a primary research center for Islamic studies and as a reference library for scholars and students from Jerusalem and other Palestinian cities. The library’s rare and most valuable collection consists of approximately 2000 manuscripts. The manuscripts were acquired by the Al-aqsa Library from prominent scholars, private collections, and from libraries in Palestine that have ceased to exist. The materials selected for this project represent 119 manuscript titles in the most immediate need of preservation.

EAP521/1: Al-Aqsa Mosque Library Collection of Historical Manuscripts [12th century-19th century]

“This manuscript collection contains 119 Arabic language titles that span over several Islamic periods from the 9th century CE to the end of the Ottoman rule in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the manuscripts relate to aspects of the Islamic religion, but also cover Arabic literature, the Arabic language, logic, math and Sufism and provide a unique insight into centuries of Arabic culture in Palestine. The numbers of pages of original material represent double pages, often librarians of islamic manuscripts use one number for every two pages. ”

Digitisation is planned primarily as a means of preservation in order to create high-quality archival digital copies of the original source materials that are at risk of deterioration. Environmental factors, wear and tear of manuscripts due to poor storage conditions, the lack of security at the library, and the unstable political situation in Jerusalem contribute to the sense of urgency and make digitisation of these unique manuscript materials a top priority. (more…)

By Qasim Rashid and Chris Stedman, Religion & Politics, March 5, 2013

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

For many of us, it’s easy to appreciate Jefferson’s eloquently stated advocacy of religious freedom of conscience, as well as the idea that all individuals should be able to express religious or nonreligious positions independent of others’ beliefs. Likewise, at the United Nations, both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” to all individuals. But, in spite of international agreements and Jefferson’s beautiful words, the reality is that these tenets are often forgotten.

Today, few corners of the world are immune from the oppression of conscience. Last year, Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai captivated the world after the Taliban viciously attacked her for promoting education for girls and women. Nearby, Pakistani Christian Rimsha Masih’s future and safety are still uncertain after she beat a blasphemy charge. In 2010, the Taliban murdered 86 Ahmadi Muslims on account of their faith. In Indonesia, Alexander Aan continues to languish in prison for the “crime” of professing his atheism, and atheist Alber Saber has been persecuted in Egypt for his lack of faith. In Iran, U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini is serving an eight-year prison sentence for the alleged crime of preaching Christianity. And these examples are just a snapshot of what Pew reports as roughly 75 percent of the world—5.25 billion people—that live under some sort of social or governmental oppression of religious conscience. (more…)

For International Women’s Day, it is important to reflect on issues that are of significant impact on women around the world. Let’s start with a beginning, the Genesis one. The original creation story familiar to Judaism, Christianity and Islam starts out with man alone. Not only is the first man not like other animals, which he has no problem naming, but he has no family: no nurturing mother, no moral father, no brothers or sisters. He was formed as a lump of clay with breath and a spirit connection to the divine. Even the presence of God, his creator father figure, was not enough for this lonely man. Surely this garden paradise was hell for the man alone.

So God put Adam to sleep, extracted a rib and fashioned a woman to be his mate. But again this was still a fool’s paradise with no other human beings around the first pair. No doubt it was less boring, but there seem to have been few challenges for the couple, since everything they needed (except clothes which were not yet fashioned) were at hand. Yes, they had each other, but apparently only as a brother and sister might. Until that fruitful day when Eve bit into the knowledge of good and evil, it must have been boring beyond belief. Disobedience by the pair, something quite normal for all children who could hardly know better, led to a disaster for the first couple, their children and all children ever after. So the story goes. Hell would now shift from the lonely boredom of Paradise to the sweat and blood reality of a world where both had to work for a living.

The gender gap, foretold in the curses on Adam and Eve, has many variants, but the vast majority of societies give the male precedence. Post Eden became a man’s world, where brother kills brother and the line of begats is male to a fault. One assumes all this begetting involved sex, but the opening chapters of Genesis are strangely silent about sex. One can understand the desire not to draw attention to the original incest, but one wonders about the libido of these descendants of Adam and Eve. By the time of Noah sex is a serious issue, one in which the “sons of God” saw that the “daughters of men” were “fair”, at least in the sense of fair game. So when we are told “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5), we have finally arrived at and beyond what might be called the gender gape. (more…)

The International Qur’anic Studies Association (IQSA) was formed in 2012 as a consultation leading to an independent learned society for scholars of the Qur’an. The Society of Biblical Literature was awarded a grant for this consultation from the Henry Luce Foundation, which was announced [link to press release] on 29 May 2012. The founding directors of the IQSA steering committee are Gabriel Said Reynolds and Emran El-Badawi, with administrative support for the consultation and grant from John F. Kutsko.

The goal for the consultation is to form an independent, international, non-profit learned society, whose members include scholars of the Qur’an from universities and institutions around the world. This collaborative work involves meetings, publishing, and professional development. IQSA will be a network for a diverse range of scholars and educators, and it will serve to advocate for the field of Qur’anic studies, in higher education and in the public square. Its vision of Qur’anic Studies is interdisciplinary, and it seeks to involve specialists in literature, history, archaeology, paleography, and religious studies.

As such, IQSA is not just a professional guild for scholars; it also welcomes the participation of the public. Its diverse governing body and members come from Islamic as well as Western societies. A core tenet of IQSA is “mutual understanding through scholarship.”

The steering committee is preparing to launch IQSA as an independent organization during three-year consultation, which involves drafting its official charter and developing its program resources. Membership in IQSA will be open and unrestricted, and you are invited to become a part of the IQSA network.

Visitors are encouraged to join the IQSA e-mail list through the homepage.

A documentary (The Light in her Eyes) on the teaching of the Qur’an to women in Damascus aired on PBS last July and is now available for viewing online until January 12, 2013. To view the trailer or the entire film, which was made before the recent violent protests rocking the Syrian regime, click here.

The angel Israfil from the Aja’ib al-Makhluqat of al-Qazwini, Mamluk, period. Illustration in the British Museum

[The following is part six of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part five, click here.].

Concluding Remarks

The most important part of any lecture, assuming one is not completely turned off in the first minute or two, is supposed to come after the words “in conclusion.” In conclusion. This means there must be a need to conclude something. Regarding the Quran as a great book, there is little need to conclude anything. The mere fact that this talk was scheduled and that you came shows that a sacred scripture commanding the attention of so many people on earth warrants consideration. Regarding how Muslims view the greatness of their Great Book, there is too much to conclude, too great a gap in experience, too challenging a call for empathy. Rather than try to tell you what the Quran is in a nutshell, I would simply ask that sometime soon you try reading it or at least a selection of excerpts. A good place to start is the superb translation of select texts by Michael Sells’ Approaching the Quran.

However, having raised the issue of The Satanic Verses in a lecture on the Quran, a final comment does need to be made. If I were to simply tell you that most Muslims approach their sacred book quite differently, as I see it, than others approach their scriptures, you would probably say “alright, so things are different, so they have a right and we have a right, so what?” Even if the statement of faith outlined in the fatiha or the line of reasoning articulated by a brilliant scholar like Ibn al-‘Arabi is instructive, you would probably still walk away tonight basically unchallenged and unchanged. (more…)

Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses

[The following is part five of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part four, click here.].

The Struggling Believer’s Novel and the Text

I could easily continue this discussion of the views of Ibn al-‘Arabi for hours, days, or weeks (how long would it take to simply read 17,000 pages in his major work?) It is valuable to probe with a believer like this great scholar into the depths of his own meaning-rich search through the language of the Quran. But much has happened in the past 750 odd years in the Islamic World. Muslims, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in a broadening discourse defined in large part by the overtly Christian West, even though any distinctive Christianness may have largely eroded. In contrast, Ibn al-‘Arabi lived in a world in which the Quran’s detractors — those who did not grapple with this Arabic text as a revelation — were few and far away. To be sure there were debates over the form of the revelation, although these were tilted to orthodoxy rather early on. But in his day there was no viable reason in the Muslim context not to accept the Quran as revelation.

Muslims over the past couple of centuries have been compelled to defend the Quran against what they believe is a secular war aimed at the integrity of their religion. The heartland of Islam since the 16th century has been dominated by Ottoman Turks (Muslim converts, it must be remembered) up until this century, with European colonial powers nibbling away at the often frayed edges of the Sublime Porte. The more recent raw power politics of this century, be this the regimen of Western-trained military elite takeovers, the imposition of secular Israel in a predominantly Islamic Middle East, the cleric-driven drive for a militant, rejectionist radicalism in Iran and Afghanistan, the dirt-poor rage of simple Egyptian fundamentalists, the cold war Sadaamizing of Kuwait, the collective blinking as Bosnia bleeds non-Christian blood — these events have sharpened the frustration and anger of Muslims wherever they are. And at least three out of four Muslims are not in the Middle East. While we only rarely see these events on our evening news, for Muslims they are far more than ubiquitous sound bites; they are rather like pages torn without mercy, without compassion from their great book. (more…)

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