Muslim blogs

If Beale Street Could Talk: An Unusual Protest Film

The Platform - Sat, 09/02/2019 - 10:22

Barry Jenkins takes the magic of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk to produce a film that elevates young black love amidst rising mass incarceration of 1970s USA

* Contains spoilers

US films The Farm: Angola, USA (1998), After Innocence (2005), The Central Park Five (2012), Kids for Cash (2013), and most recently Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), have explored the brutality of mass incarceration and the United States criminal justice system in both fiction and documentary. Unlike these, however, Barry Jenkins’ new Oscar-nominated adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), holds also to a steadfast commitment to being a story about young black love.

The film, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, portrays Clementine “Trish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and her fiancé Alfonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) as the Romeo and Juliet of early ‘70s Harlem. Their commitment to each other defies the stars – and white supremacy in the United States – that align against them.

In this story, the ubiquity of white supremacy and sexual exploitation, rather than the tensions between Fonny and Trish’s family, cause the main afflictions for the lovers. One fateful night, after the love-struck pair finally finds a landlord willing to rent a flat to a young black couple, Fonny fights off an Italian-American man who sexually harasses Trish at a convenience store. In defending himself and his fiancé, Fonny attracts the attention of a racist policeman, Officer Bell, who is eager to haul Fonny to jail for assault. Enraged that he does not win the support of witnesses, Bell later avenges himself by framing Fonny for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. Bell’s perverted anger against Fonny, his lust for Trish and his manipulation of the victim’s memory of her own rape, stand in stark contrast to the purity of love and warmth between Trish and Fonny – and the kindness among the small community of people who work hard to save the couple from the heartlessness of New York City’s criminal justice system.

After the riots of the mid to late ‘60s, Harlem was emblematic of both the city’s vibrancy and its decay. Despite persistent calls for community programmes rather than imprisonment, a “tough on crime” rhetoric led to a massive rise of the United States’ prison population during the ‘70s, focusing heavily on New York City (see Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration by Devah Pager). According to reporter German Lopez, “In response to a tide of higher crime over the preceding decade, state and federal lawmakers passed measures that increased the length of prison sentences for all sorts of crimes, from drugs to murder.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that the incarcerated population has increased by 700 per cent since the 1970s, with black men imprisoned six times the rate of white men, and the incarcerated population of black women double that of white women.

Explicit allusion to this historical context is largely absent from Jenkins’ Beale Street, which chooses instead to celebrate the beauty of romantic and familial love. Yet this exploration of young love, rather than a more direct documentation of crime and imprisonment policies, is in line with Baldwin’s own priorities; he dismisses “protest” novels, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Richard Wright’s Native Son, as pamphlets rather than literature. In his 1949 essay, Everybody’s Protest Novel, he writes, “[T]he avowed aim of the American protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility.” The protest novel, overly simplistic, moralistic and sentimental, he writes, becomes “an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene” because it dedicates to its cause, not to the complexity of the human experience.

It is no surprise that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Beale Street is, similarly, not like other films about mass incarceration, as it focuses even more on the love theme than Baldwin perhaps intended. Unlike the film, Baldwin’s novel explores the ugliness and psychological ramifications of the United States’ justice system through Fonny’s desires, desperation and “stink” – down to the graphic stickiness of his unwashed body and his bodily fluids when he is in jail. The film erases the novel’s examination of Fonny’s own family and the tragedy of his father’s life, and even excises the vulnerability of Fonny’s childhood friend and ex-con Daniel, with whom Fonny reconnects before he is wrongfully imprisoned. Daniel, framed for car theft, recounts to Fonny and Tish the wretched stench, shit and sickness that surrounded him when he was first incarcerated, and painfully opens up about the trauma of seeing men raped and being raped himself.

The film shies away from these images of abjection, and indeed evokes the nostalgic beauty of its ‘70s Harlem setting. It focuses primarily on the depth of Trish and Fonny’s love, the gentleness with which they hold each other and the ease in which they look into each other’s eyes. From Trish’s parents, Sharon and Joseph (played by Regina King and Colman Domingo respectively), they inherit an enviable ability to rise above the trauma of the mass incarceration, poverty and violence that surrounds them.

A central message about mass imprisonment only emerges towards the end of the film through a short historical montage showing black men being arrested and detained – the briefness of which may seem to weaken the film’s political ambitions. However, the film’s preservation of the poetic beauty of Harlem, and of Trish and Fonny, succeed in presenting the image of a people who find a way even in a dead end – a people whose love remains undeterred by the forces that threaten to tear them down and rip them apart.

Photo: If Beale Street Could Talk

Categories: Muslim blogs

Facing Extinction: New Book Explores the Ongoing Genocide of the Rohingya

The Platform - Thu, 07/02/2019 - 20:30

A meticulous, fact-based and historical approach to the ongoing Rohingya genocide 

From 25 August 2017, as the horror of the brutal ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims unfolded, I found myself immersed in Al Jazeera’s coverage of the news while working there. Within a few weeks from that fateful day up to 680,000 Rohingya people took shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh, leaving behind their homes in Rakhine State and carrying with them the harrowing stories of death, destruction, rape and other forms of barbarity committed by the Myanmar army and chauvinist Buddhists. Sadly, the crisis didn’t begin on that terrible day. Al-Jazeera had been diligently covering the Rohingya plight since 2012.

The Myanmar government has been deploying the infamous post-9/11 rhetoric – the “global war on terror” – to justify its actions, using the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) as an excuse to destroy the whole population. ARSA, a small rag tag group with no support from the Rohingya, first emerged in October 2016 when they killed nine police officers in northern Rakhine. This resulted in the systematic attacks on the Rohingya. An adviser to the European Center for the Study of Extremism, Maung Zarni, told Al Jazeera that “this is not a terrorist group aimed at striking at the heart of Myanmar society as the government claims it is, they’re a group of hopeless men who decided to form some kind of self-defence group and protect their people who are living in conditions akin to a Nazi concentration camp.”

The Rohingya, a minority ethnic Muslim group numbering between 1.6 to 1.8 million, have been living in Myanmar’s western coastal state of Rakhine, with connections to the land since the 8th century. However, they are not considered by the regime as one of 135 official ethnic groups and were stripped of citizenship rights from 1982, after facing a series of vicious evictions since 1978.

The media and human rights groups have reported on the intense human rights violations carried out by the Myanmar military since the October 2016 ARSA attacks. In late November, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which showed that about 1,250 Rohingya houses in five villages had been burned down by the security forces. Many Rohingya have fled Myanmar as refugees to take shelter in nearby Bangladesh, particularly in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazaar. Since 2017 there has been an influx of 919,000 refugees who have been displaced from their villages in Rakhine state. Most have joined the 300,000 Rohingya already residing in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar following their displacement in previous years.

I first came across the Rohingya crisis in 2013 when I watched a documentary called The Hidden Genocide. It was a testimony of a people fleeing the land where they were born and had lived for generations. But what informed me more about the Rohingya is Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari’s book The Rohingya Crisis: A People Facing Extinction published in May 2018. In it, in a concise yet detailed way, he brings to light the scale and barbarity of their suffering, especially since the military takeover of Myanmar in 1962.

Dr Bari provides a commentary on the history and the current predicament of the Rohingya people. His book, which takes a meticulous evidence-based approach, provides a denunciation of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign. He proves, from expert opinions, that what the Rohingya are going through is nothing less than genocide and argues that the international community, through the UN, must ensure their full repatriation to their homeland with full citizen rights. Myanmar refuses to acknowledge the status of the Rohingya as a people with a history in Rakhine State, instead insisting that they are Bangladeshi immigrants who should return to Bangladesh. The government has gone so far as to refuse to use the word Rohingya to describe them, using “Bengali” instead.

The nine chapters in Dr Bari’s book cover the origin of the Arakanese (now called Rakhine) Muslims, how Arakan thrived before colonialism, the period of colonisation and its aftermath, Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya, and rape and crimes against women and children. It also includes the definition of genocide, how the Rohingya persecution has fit this definition, how geopolitical and other factors have so far failed to help the Rohingya in their plight, and lastly but perhaps most importantly, what should be done.

The writer draws a historical picture to verify the longstanding connection between the Rohingya and Rakhine State, dating back to the 8th century when Arab Muslim traders first traded in the area. Notably, in the early 15th century, with the patronage of the Sultan of Bengal, Jalal-ud-din Mohamed Shah, the Arakanese King, Min Saw-Mun, won his throne back and took in a large contingent of Bengal Muslims to Arakan in 1430. In subsequent centuries, even though the Arakan kings were Buddhist, Muslims became part and parcel of Arakan and contributed heavily in statecraft, business, culture and commerce.

Dr Bari highlights the humanity shown by Bangladesh to the Rohingya refugees. However, he criticises the two regional powers, China and India, for their failure to put pressure on Myanmar to solve the crisis and their focus instead on their own economic and political interests. He mentions the less-than satisfactory role of Myanmar’s former colonial power, Britain, as well as the UN impotence in bringing Myanmar to task and facilitating the repatriation of the Rohingya with their citizenship rights. He also emphasises the lack of leadership and embarrassing unwillingness of Myanmar’s civil leader, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to intervene.

Dr Bari quotes Professor Gregory Stanton’s definition of Genocide which consists of eight phases: classification, symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation preparation, extermination and a denial of a people. He echoes with some prominent individuals that the depth and breadth of persecution of the Rohingya is nothing less than genocide.

It will soon be 25 years since the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia took place, yet the term “never again” that was promised after the Holocaust is becoming hollow as the world refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past. Dr Bari’s book is a plea to action to the international community, politicians, advocacy groups and civic leaders. His book serves as an excellent resource and facts-based deposition that I would recommend for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the Rohingya, the current situation and what should be done. It is a book that should be read by all, and particularly those interested in human rights and justice, and those who want to prevent the atrocities of the past being committed again.

The Rohingya Crisis: A People Facing Extinction by Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is available for purchase from Kube Publishing.


Categories: Muslim blogs

Poem: Ode To Iain Duncan Smith

The Platform - Tue, 22/01/2019 - 23:19

for Liam

Oh Minister for Worry and Work.
Your head is a perfect egg
waiting for the teaspoon
to come crashing down on it.

You’re on the side of hard working
arses who haven’t stopped to take
a wipe since Maggie were a lad,
men in white cars who know
there’s nothing up with the youth
of today that having pointless orders
screamed in their ears before
five in the morning wouldn’t quickly cure.

You’re delighted to this afternoon
announce that every home in Britain
whose curtains remain drawn after eleven a.m.
this coming Monday will receive
in the post a leaflet outlining the cheapest
possible methods of unassisted
suicide for the terminally work shy:
the advantages
to both themselves and the taxpayer
of a quiet razor blade
over jumping from footbridges
onto motorways
hardworking families are busy
driving up and down.

Image from here.

Categories: Muslim blogs

Dramas of Affection and Enslavement in Roma and The Second Mother

The Platform - Wed, 16/01/2019 - 14:22

Latin American cinema gets to grips with the legacy of colonialism

Winner of Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, and new Netflix release, Roma is the latest film directed by Mexican Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The film takes place in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, where Cuarón grew up. The narrative takes place in Mexico after the country hosted the 1968 Olympics, the games that impassioned the student movement and eventually led to the massacre of students in 1971. It also offers an interesting comparison to the Brazilian movie, The Second Mother, directed by Anna Muylaert in 2015. Both productions explore the heritage of slavery in Latin America from the perspective of housekeepers who are exploited by colonial racism.

In Roma, the housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) occupies a “place at the family table” but is repeatedly reminded of her status. The family shows their affection to Cleo as they constantly declare “I love you”, but are shown in the next moment asking her to cook or clean for them. Boundaries are clearly set between them, even though Cleo is in the bosom of the family. Cleo is a passive subject in the action, her passivity marking a sign of systematic exploitation indicated by the words, “I would like to be dead.”

The maid’s story is similar to that of Libo, who worked in director Cuarón’s own family, and whose perspective informs the script. As Cuarón revisits his memories of Libo, he needs to distinguish his own privileged point of view from hers, a poor, indigenous woman subject to systematic racism. The camera follows the action in scenes that comprise of a single, one-take shot (one of the director’s notable techniques).

The filmmaker does not attempt to offer a tribute to Libo as an individual. Latin American countries have thousands of such “Cleos”, whose position is evidence of an unjust hierarchy. The sense of personal testimony in Cuarón’s film makes a political statement about class inequality and working conditions, as does his casting of a non-professional native Mexican, Yalitza Aparicio, in a role which embodies resilience.

The domestic working system that Cuarón explores reflects how affluent white classes across Latin America are afforded the best education and job opportunities, while people of colour face poverty, subservient jobs and racial bias. This stems from the colonial era, between the 16th and 19th century, when indigenous and African people were enslaved by white European colonists. To this day, indigenous people and Afro-descendants continue to feel the effects of colonial oppression.

The maids in Roma live in a modest small room in the back of the house, historically related to the shanties where slaves used to sleep during this colonial period. They live where they work and receive a low salary, undertaking exhausting journeys without rest, and enduring a heavy workload, echoing the legacy of racialised slavery.

According to resources, in 2015 there were about 23 million domestic workers in Mexico, often indigenous women. That same year, Brazil established a law in defence of domestic workers which granted their rights – such as unemployment insurance, limits on working hours and paid holidays – yet only a minority of employers abide by it today.

The female Brazilian director Muylaert released a film called The Second Mother in 2015, where she also revisited her childhood memories of a maid exploited by an upper-middle-class family. In her film, the leading character Val (Regina Casé), a domestic worker, undergoes a personal transformation upon the arrival of her daughter Jessica, both of whom live in the small back room of the house.

Jessica confronts Val’s exploitation and racial discrimination, while her mother lectures her about “the dos and don’ts” of a servant. As the daughter of a servant, a submissive attitude is expected from her, while her masters make fun of her plans for her future. At one point Val states: “There’s no need to explain, we are born knowing what we can and can’t do.” These unspoken laws put people of colour at the bottom of society; despite there being no segregation law, they are ghettoised, particularly in Brazil. But Jessica eventually rebels against her treatment and demands better conditions.

The ongoing reality of these two cinematic stories is highlighted by the campaign, Eu, Empregada Doméstica (Me, The Maid) by activist Preta Rara, where she posts the anonymous testimonies of genuine maids. Diverse stories describe the cruelty of the rich against poorer women, including making the servants eat with separate cutlery or outside the house.

The Second Mother helped spark the discussion about racial discrimination and gender inequality. Muylaert achieved acclaim from critics and awards worldwide, including the Berlinale, Sundance and Critic’s Choice Awards. The movie helped establish women’s presence in the film industry, as Muylaert became the first female director in 30 years to be pre-selected as Brazil’s deputy entrant for the Oscars.

Although both movies portray similar situations common to women of colour in Latin America, the most notable difference in both films is one of style. Cuarón’s film explores camera movement – his choice of black and white cinematography gives the film a poetic quality. His techniques focus on the implicit meanings within images and gestures that make dialogue unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Muylaert’s movie pays close attention to dialogue and casts Regina Casé – a well-known comic actress – as the lead character. Casé’s performance adds a sense of naturalness to the breakthrough moments of critical awareness achieved by the character Val. The director opted for static takes from the kitchen where most of the action takes place, in order to tell the story from the servant’s point of view and, once more, to use her as a reminder of the servant’s “rightful” place. In contrast, repeated airplanes flying overhead give Cuarón’s Roma a sense of fluidity. Muylaert instead incorporates the idea of change as the audience follows Val’s growing realisation of her own oppression.

Roma deservedly won Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Golden Globes and is predicted to win multiple Oscar nominations in February – while its Netflix platform provides a prominent stage for a foreign movie. Both Roma and The Second Mother are important tools for opening up the discussion on domestic workers globally, scrutinising abuse and residual colonial racism in Latin America.

However, it also shows a lack of representation in the cinema industry, as ‘Masters of Big Houses’ are needed to tell the story of the working classes of the shanties. From class inequality to international relations, Latin America still suffers from the slumdog complex, which values the knowledge and production of white Europeans above their own. Nevertheless, Roma is a Mexican movie spoken in a combination of Mixtec and Spanish languages, and so it represents a political stand against the mainstream conventions in the cinema industry, while telling an uncomfortable truth in the form of a poetic verse.

Image from Roma here

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Tides Are Turning: Climate Optimism for 2019

The Platform - Sat, 12/01/2019 - 15:22

Despite the headlines, the past year was a turning point for climate action.

Even for those who don’t regularly engage with or care about so-called ‘green issues’, you’d be hard-pressed to ignore the fact that – according to the newspapers – 2018 was not a good year for our planet. But behind the alarmist headlines and anxiety-driven inertia that the prediction of imminent doom has fuelled, there lies some good news; there is a lot that can be done about climate change, as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that, even as individuals, the choices that we make really do matter.

In many ways, 2018 was a bad year. We found out that we only have 12 years left to address the climate crisis if we want to recognise the planet that we’ll leave behind to future generations. We also learned that we’ve wiped out 60% of species populations in the past four decades, as well as half of the world’s shallow coral reefs. We were told that our obsession with (and inability to properly dispose of) plastic has seen it end up in the stomachs of over 90% of the world’s sea birds, and we saw Brazil – the Amazon rainforest’s largest home – release its worst deforestation figures in a decade. We experienced heatwaves and freezing cold spells, and saw hurricanes wreak havoc throughout the Atlantic. We watched on as drought drove caravans of migrants from their homes – forcing them to risk their lives crossing borders – and stared in horror as devastating wildfires destroyed the livelihoods of people many would have assumed were wealthy enough to lift themselves out of harm’s way.

Fortunately, unless you happen to be the 45th president of the United States, there is some cause for optimism amongst all of this destruction. The events of 2018 have – once and for all – removed any semblance of credibility from the climate change denial movement. While global warming was once flippantly dismissed as an intangible and distant threat to easily-forgotten, low-lying third world nations, the past year has shown it to be an undeniable reality that is alarmingly relevant, and threatening, to a global audience. The fact that climate change is now tangibly affecting everyone has finally given a sense of urgency to the search for a solution.

Alongside a renewed focus on the need for rapid decarbonisation, emissions reductions and a mass disruption of global supply chains, another simpler solution gained some much-needed traction in 2018: the conservation of biodiversity. It is estimated that up to 37% of the solutions required to keep global warming below 2 degrees centigrade may lie within nature herself. So-called ‘natural climate solutions’ promote the unparalleled potential of forestry and agriculture to accelerate carbon capture, reduce emissions, and improve the resilience and protective capacity of ecosystems around the world. And while they provide a global incentive for the protection of nature, rendering the conservation of biodiversity a necessity rather than a green privilege, they also have the potential to improve the lives of populations around the world.

It is no secret that climate change predominantly affects the world’s most vulnerable people, from low-lying coastal communities to poor rural populations who depend on the land for their livelihoods. It compounds environmental stress and undermines development gains by affecting economic, social and political systems. It forces people from their homes, pushes them into poverty, and removes their access to basic necessities. Despite these individuals having contributed little in emissions to the global climate crisis, they have suffered disproportionately as a result of it. For such communities, natural climate solutions hold life-altering potential. Alongside their simplicity, immediacy and relatively low cost, they can – through effective implementation and management – provide much-needed sustainable livelihood opportunities for local and indigenous communities.

The widespread recognition of the importance of local and indigenous communities in implementing conservation initiatives was another significant win for 2018. Though protected area management has historically been characterised by the forced evacuations of locals, the Illegal Wildlife Trade conference that took place in October of last year demonstrated that this approach is no longer being tolerated by the global community. Placing the implementation of conservation projects firmly in the hands of those who know the land was a central focus of the conference, and is an approach that is being used across the world. While this approach is not yet universal – Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro being the most dangerous example of resistance to it – the progress has been significant. The upgraded status of the Mountain Gorilla from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’ at the back end of last year is one such example of this.

The year 2018 also had a lot to say to those who have been convinced that, as individuals, they can’t make a difference when it comes to climate change. Whether you look at Sir David Attenborough, who has been credited for kick-starting what can only be described as a Plastic Revolution, or Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who inspired a wave of climate protests across the globe before being invited to speak in front of the United Nations at the end of last year, 2018 taught us not underestimate the power of the individual in driving global action on climate.

But 2018 also showed us the environmental potential in collective action. As businesses around the world responded to consumer pressure to curb their environmental impact (no one ever thought McDonald’s would ban plastic straws, and Shell’s move to link executive pay to carbon emissions targets was truly unprecedented), it was supermarket chain Iceland’s heartwarming Christmas advert that gave true cause for climate optimism. In the campaign, Iceland partnered with Greenpeace to announce the removal of palm oil from their own-brand products and to expose the devastating impact of palm oil deforestation around the world. It received such widespread support from individuals and businesses that it led Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, to commit to removing deforestation and ‘dirty palm oil’ from its supply chain.

So while the headlines may remember 2018 as a year of climate disaster, I’ll choose to remember it as the year that gave me hope, put a nail in the coffin of climate change denial, and convinced me that 2019 could be a real turning point for the future of our planet. As long as we recognise that the choices we make as individuals, consumers and citizens really do make a difference.

Image from here.

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Listening of the Soul

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Sat, 15/12/2018 - 01:47

Islam holds humans to be a special creation. Ennobled by God, they are His vicegerent on earth and look forward to a sublime destiny. Their ancestor Adam was the exalted creature in whose direction God ordered the angels to prostrate, even while his splendor drew the envy of Satan. They are indeed incomparable wonders in the creation of God. Yet, despite this exalted stature, there exist many humans who view themselves as nothing more than a random assortment of molecules and atoms.

But humans are much more. We are the only creatures capable of writing and reading the essays populating this publication, an ability atheists attribute to a sort of evolutionary miracle. In The Origin of Species: A New Song, published in the British Blackwood’s Magazine in 1861, a poet acknowledges the distinguishing nature of our speech, yet notes our kinship to a “dumb” animal:

  An Ape with a pliable thumb and big brain,
  When the gift of gab he managed to gain,
  As a Lord of Creation established his reign,
  Which nobody can deny.1

Muslims affirm, of course, that God can give non-human objects the power of a type of speech. We read in the Qur’an, for example, “The Heavens and Earth and all therein glorify God. There is nothing except that it glorifies Him in praise. However, you fail to comprehend their glorification. Verily, He [God] is Clement, Forgiving” (17:44). Likewise, “On that day she [the Earth] will testify about all that had occurred [on her surface]” (99:4). Similarly, “Their ears, eyes, and skin will testify against them concerning what they used to do. People will say to their skins, ‘Why did you testify against us?’ They will respond, ‘We were made to speak by God, the Enabler of all speech’” (41:20–21). As with humans, it is God who makes the speech of these objects, as well as of insects and animals, intelligible.

For believers, however, humankind also possesses an incomparable ability to speak that represents not an evolutionary accident but a revolutionary gift from God. Writing in 1894, Rev. B. G. Johns mentioned, “Speech was God’s gift to man … the gift was to him alone as distinct from all other living creatures.”2 The Qur’an affirms, “The Merciful has taught the Qur’an. He has created the human; taught him articulation” (55:1–4). It is interesting that God, in these verses, does not use the word kalām (speech) but rather bayān (articulation). This linguistic usage bypasses the debate concerning the ability of anials to speak and leads us immediately to the unique distinction possessed by humans—namely, the ability to speak expressively, employing syntax, grammar, and rhetorical devices in the context of a propositional language, all aspects of language that remain undetectable in other creatures.

The distinction of human language has always confounded philosophers and scientists alike. How do we explain such a categorical and revolutionary difference in the human, who exists, in the view of the accepted scientific paradigm, only because of an evolutionary process that links him to all else in the animal kingdom? Surely another creature could be found to approximate our linguistic prowess; still, we continue to be frustrated in our search for that creature.

This evolutionary-revolutionary dilemma has occupied our greatest minds. In his The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes, Mortimer Adler posits that the pivotal issues informing this debate revolve around speech and language.

  For Muslims, listening can be even more important than speech, for it is the ability to listen that serves as the beginning of spiritual guidance.

Due to our matchless linguistic abilities, Adler believes there is a revolutionary difference of “kind” and of “degree” between humans and other animals. Still, there exists an open question as to whether the difference in kind is “superficial” or “radical.” A superficial difference would attribute the same underlying psychological processes to both human and non-human animals, while a radical difference would maintain “that man has the power of propositional speech because he has the power of conceptual thought, whereas the non-human animals lack the power of propositional speech because they lack the power of conceptual thought.”3
The Listening Animal

While much has been written about human speech and the distinction it bestows upon our species, far less attention has been paid to the human’s ability to listen. For Muslims, listening can be even more important than speech, for it is the ability to listen that serves as the beginning of spiritual guidance, which in turn is a critical means for achieving the raison d’être of human existence—namely, serving God. We read in the Qur’an, “I have only created the jinn and humankind that they serve me” (51:56).

For the conscientious believer, the highest function of our ability to listen is to support the journey to God while still in this world. Success in that journey is predicated on a person’s ability to nurture his soul, or the nafs, which Muslim scholars understand as the essence of a person, as the part of the human constitution that serves as the locus of emotions, appetites, and passions—whether praiseworthy or blameworthy—and that gives the physical human body its personhood. Like the physical body, the nafs can change; it possesses the ability to move beyond its basest form, the lustful or bestial soul (al-nafs al-shahwāniyyah/al-bahīmiyyah) to the realm of human perfection (al-nafs al-kāmilah).

A clear example of the soul’s capacity to listen is found in an incident that occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Badr, a decisive encounter between the fledgling Muslim community and the idolaters of Mecca. The companions heard the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ addressing the dead Qurayshī idolaters, “O ¢Utbah b. Rabī¢ah, O Shaybah b. Rabī¢ah, O so-and-so, did you find the promise of your Lord to be true? I found the promise of my Lord truthful.” Hearing this, ¢Umar b. al-Khaţţāb said, “O Messenger of God! The people you are addressing are lifeless cadavers.” The Prophet ﷺ, showing the souls of the physically dead could still listen, replied, “I swear by the One who holds my life, you all cannot hear what I am saying any better than them. Rather they are incapable of responding.”4

A qualitative realm within ourselves and the universe serves as a source of joy and wonder for us, enabling us to transcend worldly challenges and live lives that are far more than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short—a fate Hobbes feared for humans existing in a state of nature, unchecked by an overarching authority of considerable strength. True religion, placing us on a journey to God while dwelling in this physical realm, puts us in touch with the Source of all strength and elevates us above the Hobbesian state of nature.

Here, the listening of the soul comes into play. Al-Ĥārith al-Muĥāsibī, one of the first Muslims to systematically analyze the soul’s journey to its Lord, reminds us that this journey begins with careful listening. He mentions at the very beginning of his seminal work al-Ri¢āyah li ĥuqūq Allāh (Carefully Guarding the Rights Owed to God),

  I encourage you to listen carefully in order that you may understand everything God is calling you to. Give priority to what I say in response to your [enquiry]. Perhaps God, Mighty and Majestic, will allow you to benefit from my response in terms of your guarding the rights He has over you and to properly convey [knowledge of ] those rights to others. Verily, God, Blessed and Exalted is He, has informed us in His Book that one who listens in a manner which God loves and is pleased with, will find a reminder, rather, an admonition, in what He listens to. God, Blessed and Exalted is He, says, “Surely in this is a reminder for one who has an attentive heart and listens as a careful witness.”5

An Inner Conversation

Who is this attentive listener? The ears receive sounds as they are well designed to do. The brain processes those sounds, translating them into the patterns of language we are so familiar with, but what part of the human is being spoken to here? Al-Muĥāsibī provides an answer: “Whosoever listens to the Book of God or words of wisdom, or knowledge, or to an admonition and only speaks to his soul what he has heard, he calls his heart to witness what he is listening to.”6 This listener, ultimately, is the soul, for the soul is receptive to those messages that may elevate or debase it. Communication with the soul and its ability to listen are among the keys to both the actualization of our humanity and our salvation.

Wahb b. Munabbih, a Jewish rabbi before his conversion to Islam, delineates the etiquettes that should properly govern the process of communicating with our soul. He says:

  Among the etiquettes of attentive listening: stillness of the limbs; lowering one’s gaze; focusing one’s hearing; one’s mind being present; and a conviction to act on what one hears. This is true listening in a way God loves and is pleased with, exalted is He. The servant restrains his hands from any distraction that would preoccupy his heart from careful listening. He lowers his gaze from anything that would distract his heart. He calls his intellect to attentiveness so as to only address his soul with what it is listening to.7

We may even concede here, if only for the sake of argument, that the intellect (¢aql) al-Muĥāsibī refers to is a material byproduct of neurological functions. Still, we cannot deny the continuous conversation between the intellect, the heart, and the soul. As spiritual essences, the heart and the soul are part of an inner conversation, one that allows the human to transcend the strictly physical properties to which modern science reduces him.

That inner conversation, predicated on the soul’s ability to listen and to speak, is a discourse on salvation. Satan speaks to the soul through subtle temptation, and desires to deceive it into believing that carnal lusts and desires represent its highest aspirations; he knows that if he can keep the soul trapped by its physical appetites, it will be ruined and therefore damned. God, however, speaks to the soul through prophecy and revelation, calling it to the fulfillment of its spiritual potential, a potential consistent with its non-corporal nature. He beautifully mentions the role of listening in the human quest for true liberation, which is the liberation of the soul from the shackles of carnal desire.

  As spiritual essences, the heart and the soul are part of an inner conversation, one that allows the human to transcend the strictly physical properties to which modern science reduces him.

The struggle between the exalted spiritual reality God calls the soul and the lowly carnal appetites and passions by which Satan wishes to ensnare the human is best exemplified in the struggle of the soul at its second level of development, the rebuking soul (al-nafs al-lawwāmah), one of five manifestations of the soul mentioned in the Qur’an. The other four are the commanding soul (al-nafs al-ammārah), which has previously been referred to as the bestial or lustful soul; the contented soul (al-nafs al-muţma’innah); the pleasing soul (al-nafs al-rāđiyah); and the pleased soul (al-nafs al-marđiyyah).

The commanding soul commands what is evil through its unrestrained passions, which seek to be satisfied without consideration for the limits established by the divine law. Its urgings, therefore, are vile and rejected by the ethical standards made known to us through prophecy and revelation. The rebuking soul begins to question the urgings of the commanding soul and rebukes it for its excesses and contraventions of the divine law. It vacillates between accepting and repulsing the urges of the commanding soul, an interaction that unfolds as a grand conversation between these two manifestations of the soul. Al-Qāshānī describes this struggle in the following manner:

  The rebuking soul is one that has been illuminated by the heart in a way that enables it to become aware of its slumber-like heedlessness and to awaken in order to begin the rectification of its state. It vacillates between responsiveness to the requisites of submission to the Lord and the call of its physical nature. Every time it responds to its dark nature and disposition it is checked by the light of Divine awareness and begins rebuking itself.8

The rebuke mentioned by al-Qāshānī is part of the internal dialogue. The rebuking soul might well say to the commanding soul, “You know what you did was wrong and in contravention of the divine law!” The commanding soul, true to its confinement in the prison of appetites and lusts, could respond, “Yes, but it felt really good!” It is here that the role of spiritual training becomes crucial, for if the rebuking soul can be conditioned through spiritual exercise to focus its gaze onto the light shining forth from prophetic guidance, it gains insight that becomes a salvific rope that pulls the soul from the realms of delusion into the domain of truth and reality. In this state of preparedness for ascension to higher realms of reality, the soul is referred to as the inspired soul (al-nafs al-mulhamah).9

The inspired soul is capable of hearing scriptural and other spiritually uplifting messages that are the sources of its inspiration. Prior to attaining this spiritual station, it was incapable of hearing those messages; hence, it was especially vulnerable to the whispers and suggestions of Satan. Shaykh al-Shabrāwī mentions in his treatise Marātib al-nafs (Degrees of the Soul), “It has come to hear, without an intermediary, the whisperings of the angel and those of the devil, whereas in the previous station it heard nothing, being still close to the degree of animals.”10
Taking the Soul into Account

To return to al-Muĥāsibī, his name is a descriptive one, indicating the frequency and intensity with which he took his soul to account by examining its deeds. That process of accounting (al-muĥāsabah) occurs only through one of the most involved conversations with the soul, a conversation that Imam al-Ghazālī extensively discusses in his magnum opus Iĥyā’ ¢ulūm al-dīn (Reviving the Religious Sciences).11 The essence of what Imam al-Ghazālī mentions there has been succinctly summarized by Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbī in his masterful work of Qur’anic exegesis, al-Tashīl li ¢ulūm al-tanzīl (Simplifying the Sciences of Revelation). Commenting on a sentence found at the end of the first verse of the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, “Surely God watches over you,” he writes:

  You should know that awareness of God’s surveillance will not be firmly established until it is preceded by two things: conditionality and pledging, and then followed by accounting and censure. As for conditionality it is the servant making it conditional for his soul to be constantly obedient to God and to leave all sin. Pledging involves a covenant he convenes with his Lord to be obedient. After this he maintains a continuous awareness of the surveillance of God over him.

  Thereafter the servant takes his soul to account over the condition he has imposed on it and the covenant he has convened with it. If he finds his soul has been faithful in fulfilling the covenant he has convened with God, he praises God. If he finds he has broken the binding condition and breeched the requisites of God’s surveillance, he rebukes his soul in a way that restrains it from involving itself in a similar breach. He then returns to conditionality and contracting and subsequently tests his faithfulness through self-accounting. [If necessary] he repeats this cycle until he meets his Lord.12

All of the stages Ibn Juzayy mentions involve a sincere conversation with the soul. The aspirant instructs his soul that he is placing a condition on it to obey its Lord and that he has entered into a contract with God to uphold that condition. He then engages in regular self-examination of his soul to evaluate whether he has been faithful or treacherous to the covenant. If he has fallen short, he strongly rebukes his soul. In this internal conversation, the individual addresses his soul, and the soul listens.

Imam al-Ghazālī illustrates the rebuke of the soul, saying:

  O soul! How great is your ignorance! You claim wisdom, intelligence and sagacity while you are the most imbecilic and stupid of all beings. Do you not know what lies ahead of you of the Garden and Hell and that your fate is to become a denizen of one of them soon enough? So why are you making merry, filled with laughter and preoccupied with amusement while you are being summoned to that overwhelming affair?...

  Woe unto you O soul! If your boldness in rebelling against God arises from your belief that God does not see you then how very great is your disbelief! If it occurs despite your knowledge that God watches over you then how very great is your imprudence and your brashness!...

  Woe unto you O soul! How amazing is your hypocrisy and your false claims! You profess faith with your tongue while the traces of hypocrisy are clearly visible upon you….

  Woe unto you O soul! It is not fitting that the worldly life deceives you, or that you are deceived by the great deceiver (Satan). Consider yourself, for your affair is no one else’s business. Do not waste your time for your breaths are limited. With every breath that issues forth from you a part of yourself has expired. Take advantage of your health before you are afflicted with disease; your free time before you become preoccupied; your wealth before you are tested with poverty; your youth before old age; and your life before your death. Prepare for the Hereafter in proportion to the time you will spend in it….

  Woe unto you O soul! I only see you becoming comfortable and affable with the world. Therefore, it will be difficult for you to leave it. You are, however, rapidly approaching the point of departure. You are intensifying your love for the world. Consider yourself heedless of the punishment of God and His reward, likewise of the horrors of Doomsday and its states. Do you not believe in the death which will come between you and your loved ones?...

  Woe unto you O soul! Will you have no shyness? You adorn your exterior for the people, yet in private you are openly lewd before God! You are shy before the creation yet you display no shyness before the Creator. Woe unto you! Is He the most contemptible of those who gaze upon you? Do you enjoin good upon the people yet you are defiled by vulgarities? Do you call to righteousness but flee from it yourself ? Do you remind others of God yet forget Him yourself ? O soul! An unrepentant sinner is more odorous than filth and filth cannot cleanse something else. So do not long to cleanse others while you yourself are filthy.13

If the spiritual traveler is able to convince his or her soul that it has a lofty destination and the rigors of the journey are well worth the struggle, it ascends to the level of the contented soul (al-nafs al-muţma’innah). At this level, the soul is adorned with attributes that reflect its contentment with God. Shaykh al-Shabrāwī mentions these as “liberality, reliance, forbearance, activity in worship, gratitude, contentment with destiny, and fortitude during hardship.”14

Having attained this station, the soul is now ready to listen to the most joyful words imaginable, addressed to it from a merciful God. Those words have been revealed and preserved in the Qur’an, where they serve as an impetus to every true spiritual seeker until the world as we know it is no more. God calls to that soul, “O you contented soul! Return to your Lord, pleasing to Him and He pleased with you. Enter amongst my servants. Enter into my Garden” (89:27–30).


Categories: Muslim blogs

Where Islam and Nationalism Collide

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Fri, 14/12/2018 - 06:20

Islam contains teachings that clearly argue against the most important elements of nationalism.

The nation-state, which involves wedding a specific people to a sovereign territorial entity, is a modern phenomenon. For example, the Italian city states did not unify into a coherent modern nation-state until the late 1850s. The unification of Germany under Prussia did not occur until 1871. Even though there were many French kingdoms, and even a French empire under Napoleon, it could be argued that France did not emerge as a viable modern nation-state until Jules Ferry established universal public education during the nineteenth century. Outside of Europe, excluding European settler states, such as the North and South American states established and dominated by European elites, with the notable and oftentimes neglected exception of Haiti, one cannot meaningfully discuss the existence of functional nation-states until the twentieth century.

Nationalism, the sentiment inspiring a people to establish an autonomous state, is also strictly modern. It can be seen as a political offspring of Romanticism, part of a nineteenth century European reaction to the universalizing and anti-authoritarian tendencies of the earlier Enlightenment. There are, however, elements of nationalist thinking, along with the political arrangements they birth, that are ancient. Examples would be the civic pride exuded by Pericles in his famous speech on the eve of the Peloponnesian War and the Greek city states themselves.

Islam contains teachings that clearly argue against the most important elements of nationalism. Foremost among these elements are the chauvinism and exclusiveness engendered by the nationalist project. It is worth contemplating whether Islam can play a role in shaping an effort to move beyond nationalism.

A Deeper Look at Nationalism

Nationalism has been defined as “the belief that each nation has both the right and duty to constitute itself as a state.”1 According to this, and most other definitions, the essence of nationalism involves the wedding of a nation to a state. However, if we are to understand the dynamics involved in the formation of national consciousness, the organizational impetus that moves a nation to seek statehood, we need to understand five ideas: nation, state, fear, anger, and victimization. We will mention these ideas below and outline how Islamic thought might respond to them, before presenting a more coherent Islamic response to the idea of nationalism.

A nation has been defined as “an historical concept founded on a cultural identity shared by a single people.”2 Islam does not reject the idea of a nation. All of the prophets before Muĥammad ﷺ were sent to specific nations. However, if the shared identity informing national consciousness leads to a scheme where the rights or humanity of other groups are denied by an exclusive quest for sovereignty on the part of an individual group, Islam questions the ensuing nationalist enterprise for the reasons that will be presented.

The state is a political unit defined in terms of a population, demarcated borders, and an autonomous government. The creation of a state is the ultimate objective of a nationalist movement, as is the case of most stateless nations. The potential destructiveness of nationalism is rooted in the fact that most states or the geographical regions they are based on are nationally heterogeneous, and most nations are stateless. If the nationalist aspirations of all people were vigorously pursued, a state of perpetual war and severe, ongoing persecution would likely ensue. This is one of the grave dangers created by the current rise in identity politics in Europe and America.

For example, here in the United States, the rise in white nationalism runs counter to the fact that white Americans will most likely soon be a demographic minority. That being the case, to orient the policies of the country in a way that narrowly prioritizes the interests of white folks would lead to a disaffected, disenfranchised, and dissident non-white majority. The opposite is also true. Normal political life would be severely compromised by such an arrangement, and the threat of violence as the final arbitrator in settling political disputes would be greatly enhanced.

Again, nationalism involves the effort of a nation to create or maintain an identity with a state. Three critical factors play a vital part of that identity formation process: fear, anger, and victimization. Fear is one of the principal factors motivating a nation to consolidate its control over a particular territory and create a state. Such fear revolves around a real or imagined enemy that is seen as a threat to the existence or interests of a particular nation. Although one of the positive benefits of group solidarity has often been security, when the promise of security is couched in fear and the ensuing emotions are manipulated for political purposes, the consequences can be extremely destructive.

Such manipulation has sadly been part of the formula that has led to most modern-day genocides. This security/genocide consanguinity is perhaps best illustrated in the horrific slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsis by the majority Hutus in 1994. Commenting on the propaganda campaign that preceded and accompanied that genocidal episode, Samantha Power notes, “As genocidal perpetrators so often do as a prelude to summoning the masses, they began claiming the Tutsi were out to exterminate Hutu and appealing for preemptive self defense.”3 That appeal was answered, resulting in one of the most intensely brutal massacres in history.

Islam strives to remove fear as a motivating political force in human affairs. We read in the Qur’an, “Thus does Satan attempt to instill the fear of his dupes into you. Do not fear them. Rather, fear Me, if indeed you are believers” (3:175). In this verse, God tells the believers not to fear their enemies but to fear Him. Perhaps more importantly, as they establish their political community, they should establish it on the fear of God, not on the fear of a real or imagined human adversary, often described in contemporary discourse as “the other.”

Anger is the actualization of fear. In other words, anger is one of the greatest psychological factors urging people to act against the source of their fear. One of the greatest sources of such anger is a feeling of victimization. Ernest Gellner, one of the foremost writers on nationalism, explains the role of victimization in contemporary nationalist thought thus:

  As the tidal wave of modernization sweeps the world, it makes sure that almost everyone, at some time or another, has cause to feel unjustly treated, and that he can identify the culprits as being of another “nation.” If he can also identify enough of the victims as being of the same “nation” as himself, a nationalism is born. If it succeeds, and not all of them can, a nation is born.4

As is the case with fear, Islam rejects anger as a motivation for political action. Commenting on the Qur’anic verse, “When the unbelievers had set up in their hearts the zealotry [for battle] which they had demonstrated during the days of ignorance, God sent calm and tranquility upon the Messenger and the believers…” (48:26), Imam al-Ghazālī says, at the beginning of the introduction to a chapter on the condemnation of anger in his famous Quickening the Religious Sciences, “The unbelievers are condemned for the unjustified zealotry they manifested due to their anger.”5

One of the keys to beneficial political decisions, or decisions of any type, is a firm intellectual calm and clarity. For this reason, Islam expressly forbids a judge from issuing a decision in a state of anger.6 The above verse extends this principle into the realm of political action. It was revealed concerning the critical negotiations between the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ and his Meccan adversaries over the terms of the treaty that was struck at al-Ĥudaybiyyah. The followers of the Prophet ﷺ are praised for not allowing their anger over the apparently humiliating terms of the treaty to distort their better judgment, thereby preventing them from accepting what the Messenger of God ﷺ deemed advantageous to the Muslim cause. Here, anger is clearly rejected as a basis for political action.

Islam also argues against appeals to a sense of victimization. As opposed to seeking an external culprit or scapegoat to blame one’s problems on, Islam encourages individual and group responsibility. God says, in a revealed prophetic tradition,

  Rather it is your actions which I reckon for you. Then I reward you fully for them. Therefore, whoever finds good, let him praise God, and whoever finds other than that, let him blame no one but himself.7

The Prophet himself ﷺ said, “Everyone of you is a steward, and each of you will be asked concerning his wards.”8 This cultivation of individual responsibility is so essential in Islam that the person who lacks any wards or possessions is to be reminded of his guardianship over his very body and to do those divinely sanctioned things that are best for the preservation of that body. Ibn Ĥajar al-¢Asqalānī comments on the above tradition:

    The single person, who lacks a wife, servant, or child, is responsible for his very limbs, to insure that they   implement the commandments, and avoid those things that are forbidden in speech, action, and belief. Therefore,   his limbs, faculties, and senses are his wards.9

These and similar narrations make it clear that Islam wants each individual to take responsibility for his or her actions and to begin to address undesirable situations by seeing how he or she has fallen short in meeting the conditions God has established for the attainment of favorable outcomes. A similar analysis could be made for groups and their collective fates. In a worldly sense, they are responsible for their own uplift or debasement. God says clearly in this regard, “God does not change the condition of a people until they change the state of their souls” (13:11). Thus, the idea of waiting for someone else to change one’s condition runs counter to the divine scheme governing human society.

From the above discussion, it should be clear that Islam is against exploiting fear and anger, or cultivating a sense of victimization in order to create the fanaticism that drives a nationalist agenda. It should be noted that this fanaticism, which is closely described by what we will term fanatical tribalism (¢aśabiyyah), has been specifically condemned by the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ. When the Prophet ﷺ was asked about fanatical tribalism, he replied, “It is aiding and abetting your clan while oppressing others.”10 He also said, “One who is killed under the banner of fanatical tribalism, raises the banner of fanatical tribalism, or aids a party on the basis of fanatical tribalism has died a death of pre-Islamic ignorance.”11 These condemnations by the Prophet ﷺ are aimed at cutting off a dangerous source of disunity and discord within Muslim ranks, but they are applicable for all societies.

In the Muslim context, before accepting Islam, the Medinan tribes of Aws and Khazraj were engaged in long and destructive internecine warfare. Islam united their hearts and joined them politically under one banner. Their unity was subsequently threatened by the effort of a third party to stir up fanatical tribal fealty among them. That effort was staved off by the direct intervention of the Prophet ﷺ. The Qur’an condemns the fanaticism pulling the two tribes apart as disbelief: “O Believers! If you obey a party from those previously given the scripture, they will return you to disbelief after your faith. How could you ever revert to disbelief while the Scripture of God is yet being revealed and His Messenger is yet with you? Whosoever holds fast to [the Religion of] God will be guided to a straight path” (3:100-01). Again, the disbelief referred to in this verse is not their actually leaving Islam; rather, it is their reverting back to the divisive chauvinism that characterized their pre-Islamic condition.

These narrations illustrate that Islam in no way endorses the idea of mobilizing to pursue an exclusivist political agenda based on tribal or national bonds. Such mobilization, which lies at the heart of the nationalist venture, does not only run counter to clear Islamic teachings: it has been the source of many of the most brutal and costly wars in recent history and has also manifested itself in all modern genocidal campaigns.

A More Coherent Islamic Critique of Nationalism

It is interesting to note that, in Islamic teachings, Satan attempts to base his superiority on accidental physical differences. God mentions in the Qur’an, addressing Satan, “What prevented you from prostrating yourself to Adam when I ordered you to do so? He said, ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while you created him from clay’” (7:12). This prototypical racist appeal to physical differences is reflected in the rhetoric of many bigots, past and present. Satan, blinded by his arrogance, apparently forgot that Adam’s distinction lay in the fact that his supposedly low physical origin was mitigated by other characteristics, such as his incomparable intellect and his ability to spiritually transcend the limitations of his physical composition.

The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ emphasized the fact that physical distinctions are irrelevant in the sight of God. He said, “God does not look at your physical forms nor at your wealth. Rather, He looks at your deeds and your hearts.”12 This prophetic tradition argues against using physical distinctions arising from the accident of birth as the basis for any claims of superiority, or as the focal point for the creation of chauvinistic movements or states.

Islam posits that humanity shares a common ancestry. God says in the Qur’an, “O humankind! We have created you from a single pair, a male and female, then made you into nations and tribes in order that you come to know one another [not that you may despise each other]. The most honored of you with God is the most pious of you. And God is Well Informed, Knowledgeable” (49:13). God also says, “O humankind! Be mindful of your Lord who has created you from a single soul, and created from that soul its mate, and has brought forth from them multitudes of men and women” (4:1). Humanity, as these verses emphasize, has a common ancestry, which creates inseparable bonds between us. Islam, in this regard, does not sanction schemes, such as conflicting nationalisms, that negate or trivialize those bonds.

Furthermore, Islam advocates the essential equality, human worth, and dignity of all people. God says, “And their Lord accepted their prayer, and answered them, ‘I will never allow the work of any of you, male or female, to be lost. You are of one another’” (3:195). These and similar verses emphasize that the fundamental worth of all humans transcends the divisions of race and gender. Understanding this equality is central to an understanding of how Islam approaches the issue of nationalism.  While recognizing the validity of national, racial, tribal, ethnic, and cultural differences, Islam views them as signs of God’s creative power, not as the foundation for the creation of mutually destructive political agendas. We read in the Qur’an, “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth and the variation of your languages and colors. Surely in this are signs for those possessing knowledge” (30:22).

Islam also acknowledges that distinct peoples, nations, and tribes can be vested with unique historical missions. We read in the Qur’an, for example, “The Romans have been defeated, in a nearby land. However, after this defeat of theirs, they will soon be victorious, within a few years. And with God is the Command, in the past and the future. And on that day, the believers will rejoice” (30:2-4). The point here is that God decreed this victory for the Romans as a people. Their historical destiny as a people was to defeat the Persians. Conversely, the Persians, after their initial triumph, were destined to be defeated by the Romans. God also says concerning the idea of distinct nations, “Every nation has a fixed term. When that term expires, they can neither delay nor hasten [their inevitable demise]” (7:34). This idea of distinct historical missions is further borne out by the fact that nations, prior to the advent of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ, were addressed by prophets sent specifically to them. Noah (peace be upon him) was sent specifically to his people. Hūd (peace be upon him) was sent specifically to the people of ¢Ād. Śāliĥ (peace be upon him) was sent to the people of Thamūd. The message of these and other prophets was directed toward their respective peoples, constituting a divine affirmation of their distinct national identities.

Other national distinctions can be found in the following statements of the Prophet ﷺ: “The prayer call is for the Ethiopians,”13 “Faith and wisdom are Yemeni,”14 “The Europeans are the most forbearing of people in the face of tribulation, the quickest to recover from a calamity, the fastest to rally after incurring a defeat and the most merciful to the weak, the orphans, and the poor.”15 Narrations conveying distinctions of this type are quite numerous in the prophetic tradition.

One should not be led, however, to believe that the specificity of the prophetic missions that preceding Prophet Muĥammad’s can be used as a justification for pursuing narrow nationalistic agendas. The specificity of the earlier prophetic messages was abrogated by the universality of the message of Muĥammad ﷺ. God says, describing that message, “Say to them, [O Muĥammad ﷺ!], ‘I am the messenger of God unto you all!’” (7:158).  This verse is especially significant in that it occurs after a lengthy description, in the seventh chapter of the Qur’an, of the earlier prophets and their messages. It is as if God is especially emphasizing the universality of the mission of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ by presenting it in contradistinction to the earlier messages. It is significant that this transition from specific messages to a universal one occurred at the advent of an era when the overland trade routes that would be created by the vast, functionally unified Islamic Empire would integrate the entirety of the known world to an extent unprecedented in history. That is to say, it came just when the world was prepared to receive such a message.

The universality of that message supersedes the idea that the division of humans into their respective nations, tribes, cultural and ethnic identity groups, possessors of distinct historical missions, or any other distinctions should constitute the basis for the creation of destructive, mutually exclusive, potentially belligerent agendas. It also rejects the idea of these distinctions being the basis for any claims of superiority. God reminds us that these differences, informed by the accident of birth, exist as a means for our mutual recognition as well as a display of the creative power of God.

Moving Beyond Nationalism

The defenders of nationalism, while acknowledging its latent danger, point to its great triumphs; specifically, its role in stopping the advance of the twin totalitarian menaces of Nazism and Stalinist communism. However, even here, nationalism does not stand above indictment, if we view Nazism and Stalinist communism as grotesque manifestations of German and Russian nationalism, respectively.

In the lands of Islam, as in other parts of the developing world, nationalism has had its most profound impact on Western-educated elites. Those elites were instrumental in articulating a postcolonial national vision. That vision, as to the meaning, purpose, and direction of the postcolonial state, was initially greeted with significant mass support throughout the Muslim world. However, the systematic and oftentimes cynical negation of any meaningful mass participation in the political process has led to a widespread view of the nation-state as a euphemism for autocratic rule. This perception, coupled with the developmental and strategic failures of the nation-state in the Muslim world, have left many Muslims begging for new forms of political identity and a new basis for political action.

Neither the Muslim world nor humanity at large will be able to move toward a harmonious state where the actualization of true human unity and our collective security are realities if we do not move beyond the divisiveness of nationalism and the nation-state. Improved means of communication and transportation continue to shrink the world. Continuous improvements in weapons technology, conventional and non-conventional, greatly enhance our ability to kill each other. Global problems—such as economic imperialism, terrorism, the global narcotics trade and its associated violence, nuclear proliferation, pollution, climate change, and increasing economic inequality—defy unilateral solutions. In light of these and many other pressing facts, we can no longer accept a scheme where, in the words of William Pfaff, “a nation conceives itself licensed to validate itself by the victimization of another society.”16 The nationalist status quo is untenable. Mutual victimization, an unfortunate result of conflicting national interests, creates conditions that could well lead to our mutual destruction.

That said, nationalism and the nation-state are realities that lie at the heart of the contemporary global order. Therefore, transcending them will require more than a mere understanding of their inherent dangers. New ways of thinking about the meaning of life, humanity, and human civilization will have to be developed, and new institutions will have to be constructed. Many daunting problems related to the meaning of national sovereignty, self-determination, and citizenship will also have to be resolved.

Fortunately, many contemporary developments have already started that process. International financial markets and the real-time operations of the largest multinational corporations have already transcended the effective control of individual states. Although these developments currently facilitate oftentimes exploitative and irresponsible corporate behavior, they are part of an evolving global system that could potentially render the nation-state irrelevant.

At the level of the individual, the concept of human rights and the associated phenomenon of humanitarian intervention present additional challenges to the future viability of the nation-state. The concept of human rights implies that the rights accruing to states are subordinate to those accruing to individuals. The idea of humanitarian intervention accentuates that conclusion as, in the interest of assisting affected individuals, the sovereignty of the state where intervention occurs is oftentimes completely bypassed. Although the idea of humanitarian intervention has been callously exploited (most prominently in Libya, where the fabricated threat of an imminent humanitarian disaster in Benghazi served as the pretext for the American- and French-led toppling of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi), a more principled application of the idea could help us transcend the mortgage the nation-state holds on our collective future.

Likewise, a reevaluation is occurring around the meaning of national citizenship. One of the greatest issues here revolves around reconciling multiculturalism with the political role of collective identities. The critical question is how can a ruling majority, in whose interest the state was founded, meaningfully accommodate excluded, disenfranchised, or marginalized minorities who are also members of the state? If an effective resolution of this issue can be achieved within the legal and constitutional framework of individual states, replicating that solution within the framework of international law should be within the realm of possibility. Both developments, once achieved, will eventually translate into new social and political institutions that will contribute to new forms of politics that transcend the imperatives imposed by reigning forms of nationalism and nationalist thought.

Just as the institutions that facilitated the rise, consolidation, and entrenchment of both nationalism and the nation-state occurred in a distinctive social, cultural, and political milieu—a milieu that was in turn fostered by a distinctive social psychology—a new institutional reality, rooted in its distinctive sociopolitical culture, will require its own distinctive social psychology. Herein lays the contemporary relevance of Islam: Islam provides a set of beliefs and principles that simultaneously foster cultural distinction and universalism, and reconciling these two in an equitable fashion is one of the greatest political challenges of our times, as described above.

At the height of its civilization, Islam was able to meet and overcome this challenge by creating a culturally diverse, politically decentralized, but functionally integrated “global” realm that extended from Spain to China. The fact that an individual such as Ibn Baţţūţah, the great Moroccan traveler, could go from one end of that realm to another, communicate in a single language (Arabic) and be accepted as a judge in the distant Maldives testifies to the globalization fostered by Islam during that period.17

It should be noted that this realm, whose critical glue was Islam, was not exclusively Muslim. The Italian city states, such as Venice, were key players in that system, economically. The Mongol-based Yuan dynasty in China was key to the security of the Indian Ocean, one of the most critical regions in a vast network of economic and social exchange. It is interesting to note that the Yuan dynasty, perhaps the most critical individual actor in that system, had an administrative structure that was heavily manned at its higher levels by Muslims who had fled the ravages of the Mongol invasions a century and a half earlier. Were it not for the ravages of the bubonic plague during the middle of the fourteenth century, that system would have likely endured and played a crucial role in directly shaping what would become the modern world.18

One of the greatest keys to the emergence of that realm was the social psychology fostered by Islam. Perhaps the most important fruit of that social psychology was the creation of a political culture that discouraged the development of nationalist thinking. Such a political culture is desperately needed today as many people begin to struggle with new forms of transnational organization. If Islam is allowed, by both its enemies and advocates, to contribute to a new global sociopolitical consensus by helping to resolve the myriad problems associated with nationalism, both the Muslims and humanity will be well served.

A version of this article, titled “Islam and the Nationalist Question,” originally appeared in Vol. 2, No. 1 of Seasons: The Semiannual Journal of Zaytuna Institute.

Video:  Where Islam and Nationalism Collide, (a conversation with the author) go to:

Categories: Muslim blogs

Reflecting on Quiet Lake and Snow

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Wed, 21/11/2018 - 13:57

The sun she rises over quiet lake.
To let the snow know that there’s no mistake.

To let the morning know that she’s alive.
To let earth know that she will survive

The folly of mankind and all his wars
The pain, disfigurement and all the scars,

Through senseless deeds he’s left upon her face,
Yet fleeting deeds that time will soon erase.

And in the end when all is said and done,
We’ll have the lake, the earth, the snow, the sun.

Photo image: by Imam Zaid Shakir


Categories: Muslim blogs
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