Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Posts Tagged ‘Islam

Muslim communitarianism

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For some reason, The New York Times ran a decent article on the “Innocence of Muslims” fiasco and its black-swan backlash.

Here’s an interesting bit:

When the protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers here said. It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.

That demand, in turn, was swept up in the colliding crosscurrents of regional politics. From one side came the gale of anger at America’s decade-old war against terrorism, which in the eyes of many Muslims in the region often looks like a war against them. And from the other, the new winds blowing through the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which to many here means most of all a right to demand respect for the popular will.

“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail Mohamed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany. “We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights,” he said, adding, “The West has to understand the ideology of the people.”

Even during the protests, some stone throwers stressed that the clash was not Muslim against Christian. Instead, they suggested that the traditionalism of people of both faiths in the region conflicted with Western individualism and secularism.

Read more.

Written by M. James

September 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Culture, News, Politics, Religion

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Turkey: sectarian leanings?

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As Turkey becomes the leader in a newly-democratized Sunni-majority Middle East, events like this may become more common (here):

Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice president, who was sentenced to death on charges of masterminding the murder of rivals, has said the Turkish foreign minister has assured him that he stands by him after the sentencing.

“[Ahmet] Davutoğlu called me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m with you’,” Tariq al-Hashemi told Turkish Habertürk TV in an interview on Tuesday. “I will never forget this,” the vice president added.

Hashemi fled to Turkey after Iraq’s Shiite-led government issued the charges against him in December, the day after US troops withdrew from the country. He would receive a retrial if he agrees to return to Baghdad, but the vice president has refused, saying he will never get a fair hearing in a Baghdad court.

The next day, NINA reported that Iraq responded by hitting Turkey where it hurts:

Baghdad / NINA /– Trade Ministry announced stopping giving permission or licenses for Turkish companies and stopped enrolling in the registration of its subsidiaries.

But if all goes well, Turkish construction companies—well-represented in Iraq—will soon have plenty of contracts to rebuild from the rubble in post-revolution Syria.

Written by M. James

September 13, 2012 at 4:17 am

Nursi on sincerity and brotherhood

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Or “How to Regain Imperial Power”

I was handed a neat little booklet titled “Sincerity and Brotherhood” not too long ago. It was all in English, and claimed to be from Said Nursi‘s Risale-i Nur Collection. Having just been implored by a Turk to read Nursi in English rather than Turkish (significantly better, in his opinion), I was delighted to run across the booklet. And so, on yet another unpleasantly long bus ride (not an uncommon phenomenon), I began to read some Nursi.

It was not at all what I expected.

One thing was made clear to me from the outset: Nursi is very political, and very much a product of his times (late Ottoman Empire). There are two parts in the booklet: One on “Sincerity” and one on “Brotherhood.” But they really aren’t about sincerity or brotherhood—they are about how sincerity and brotherhood are instrumentally useful for delivering Muslims from their humiliation and disgrace as a civilization. In fact, the whole booklet reads like an apology for the collapse of Islamic civilization.

Here’s how it begins:

The agreement among the people of misguidance is on account of their abasement, and the dispute among the people of guidance is on account of their dignity. That is to say that the people of neglect – those misguided ones sunk in worldly concerns – are weak and abased because they do not rely on truth and reality. On account of their abasement, they need to augment their strength, and because of this need they wholeheartedly embrace the aid and co-operation of others. Even though the path they follow is misguidance, they preserve their agreement. It is as if they were making their godlessness into a form of worship of the truth, their misguidance into a form of sincerity, their irreligion into a form of solidarity, and their hypocrisy into concord, and thus attaining success. For genuine sincerity, even for the sake of evil, cannot fail to yield results, and whatever man seeks with sincerity, God will grant him it.

From this excerpt, it is not entirely clear what “attaining success” means, but it seems to me that Nursi is speaking of imperial power—the imperial power that has been lost by the Ottoman Empire and gained by the godless Europeans.

What surprised me was that, immediately before explaining the success of the “people of neglect,” Nursi accuses them of being “sunk in worldly concerns.” In order to avoid calling Nursi a hypocrite himself, we can only assume that imperial power is either (1) not a “worldly concern,” or (2) a “worldly concern” that only Muslims are allowed to have.

The implications of this view—if it has been conveyed to me accurately by this booklet—are enormous. From the man who is regarded as perhaps the most notable Turkish-Muslim Sufi in history, this is not what I was expecting.

Written by M. James

August 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Understanding Turkish “secularism”

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There are multiple—primarily inaccurate—interpretations of what “Turkish secularism” means. I have intended to post about this in the past, but I have never run across a clear explanation of the phenomenon to cite. What makes the effort even more difficult is that the meaning of “secularism” in Turkey is changing. This post is merely an effort to lay the groundwork for further analysis if, or when, I manage a fuller, more concise understanding.

I think the best starting point to understand Turkish secularism is probably an excerpt from Jenny White’s “Islam and politics in contemporary Turkey,” found in volume 4 of The Cambridge History of Turkey:

The Turkish state’s position on religion (laiklik) is more accurately translated as ‘laicism’, the subordination of religion to the state, than secularism, a separation of church and state. The term ‘secular’ is used here to refer to a non-religious identity or one that consigns religious beliefs to the private, rather than public, realm. The laic state controls the education of religious professionals and their assignment to mosques, controls the content of religious education, and enforces laws about the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in public spaces and institutions.

The important thing to understand is that Atatürk’s reforms favored French secularism (laicism) to American secularism. Given Turkey’s Ottoman past, this made sense—Islam had been the state for centuries and it needed the harsher French approach to amend the situation. Atatürk clearly wanted to do to Islam what the post-revolution French did to the Catholic Church.

But almost ninety years on, things have changed: It is hard to see French secularism in 21st century Turkey any longer. This has, of course, led to columnists’ claims of the end of secularism in Turkey and the beginning of the Shari’ah-governed, neo-Ottoman era. But I would like to propose, if a bit haphazardly, that what we are witnessing is the shift from French secularism to American secularism, where the state is no longer so self-conscious as to purge itself of religious individuals, and where religion has become more “separate” than “subordinate.”

This, I think, is the historical charm of the AKP. If nothing else, the current rule of the AKP is a symbol of a maturing secular state. It remains to be seen whether they can restrain themselves in this regard, or if this is a transition to a less apologetic, more religious, government.

Written by M. James

August 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm

At the Blue Mosque: Logic before faith

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In the side rooms of Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the debate between reason and revelation—logic and faith—defies the “norm.” Here, one Turk’s Islam favors reason over revelation, and three American Christians disagree.

The room was small and carpeted. Where there wasn’t Arabic calligraphy, there were books, and where there weren’t books, there were the small, 17th century windows set high in the wall. Low, cushioned benches lined most of the room, welcoming any visitor who was interested in more than just the architecture of the mosque.

Where the benches ended sat the Imam’s humble desk, as if to preside over a meeting. But he was not presiding over any meetings—he was swaying in motion, back and forth, reciting the Qur’an aloud.

The Imam had already welcomed us shortly after we arrived. He asked what we were studying.

“Felsefe,” I said.

“Ah, philosophy,” He smiled widely before returning to the Qur’an. “Maşallah.”

Left: The İmam of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, Emrullah Hatipoğlu, engages in what is probably a less interesting conversation than the one related here (yenisafak.com.tr).

It was over the sound of the Imam’s recitation that the discussion on the other side of the room began. There, three Christian Americans sat with a Muslim Turk, debating theology. Muslim Ghanaians, Christian Koreans, Muslim Nigeriens, and Christian Germans filtered in and out, listening and asking questions—but none stayed the duration.

As the outreach director of the mosque, the Turk was fluent in French and Arabic as well as English, which—after the Americans had exhausted their Turkish—became the language of the debate.

“Islam is the logical religion,” The Turk insisted. While he spoke, he patted the Qur’an—but he consulted it only three times. To consult it was unnecessary.

For all men, the Turk explained, the truths of Islam are self-evident. It is only delusion that leads one away from these truths. Blind faith in false gods, like the Christian God—or “natural science”—makes us ignore, or conceal, the truth. Even worse for these “concealers” is that the one true God does not forgive the association of false gods with Himself.

He quickly qualified his statement: “But nothing is beyond the power of Allah. He can forgive anyone and anything.”

When we asked him to explain how one can come to these logical conclusions about God and His Will without reference to the Qur’an, we were treated to little more than “Isn’t it obvious?” and an exposition about how the patterns, the beauty, and the complexity of the natural world point to the existence of a Creator—the unity of which is necessary. And the unity of which (tawhid) prevents the possibility of  “your Christian God’s three ‘persons.'” Or, as he added with visible disgust, “the Hindu gods.”

I thought it odd that his explanation for the necessary existence of the one true God made extensive reference to natural science (an aforementioned false God), but I wasn’t sure I understood, and chose not to address it.

We explained that his reason for God’s necessity seemed, to us, less a matter of logic than a matter of faith. He had an answer prepared.

“God does not give to man an impossible task,” the Turk explained. “For this reason, the Christian God cannot be. The oneness of God is logical, and we can understand this. But we cannot understand the nature of the Christian God. The true God would not give us the burden of something that we cannot understand.”

I nodded and we asked him to continue—but I did not fully comprehend the emptiness of his statement until the three hours had passed.

No doubt built with logic in mind.

Why—I later wondered—is “The Omnipotent” logically necessitated to give man only those tasks which he can logically understand? Is it not within the (all-powerful) power of God to instruct man to do such things as pray at least five times daily, to kill one’s own son, or to do other inexplicable things? And is it not the province of man to obey—to “submit” to the Will of God regardless? Is this not the very definition of Islam?

I wondered: Why does this particular Turk put so much stock in logic (so much, in fact, that he justifies his belief in God with an appeal to a “false god”)? Why was it unacceptable to him that his religion could be, at root, a matter of faith? How can the revelation through Muhammad (the Qur’an), by comparison to logic, be so unimportant?

Distilled—my thoughts led me to the only real answer: For some reason, the primacy of logic was very important to this guy, and I’m not sure why.

Three more hours at Sultan Ahmed and maybe I’ll figure it out.

Written by M. James

July 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Culture, Religion, Turkey

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The Conference of the Birds

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Sufi poet Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār’s 12th century poem, The Conference of the Birds, may not be easy to understand in its entirety, but one thing is made obvious: There are long-standing reasons to be skeptical about whether Sufism is really Islam at all.

With the time that an unpleasantly long bus ride afforded me, I recently read Sir R. P. Masani’s (prose) translation of Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār’s Conference of the Birds. In the world of Sufi poetry, Attar is certainly less visible than Rumi—but he also has a different sort of charm. Andrew Harvey, who composed the introduction to the translation that I have at hand, quotes an unnamed Sufi on the difference between Rumi and Attar:

The former, like an eagle, flew up to the height of perfection in the twinkling of an eye; the latter reached the same summit, but it was by crawling slowly and perseveringly like an ant.

Given the subject matter of the Conference of the Birds—the long, painful Sufi path—the latter’s life seems a more appropriate reflection of the trials to be expected from Sufi devotion. But if that isn’t enough to convince you of the poem’s worth, here’s Harvey’s translation of what Rumi himself had to say about Attar (from his Divan):

I am the master of Rumi whose words are perfumed with sweetness. But in everything I say I am only the servant of Attar.

Now that I have (perhaps) established that Attar’s masterpiece is worth reading (which I will maintain), I will say that I found it interesting—but not too enlightening. The poem itself (here’s a quick summary) is one large allegory dotted with smaller allegories, all of which attempt to explain the trials along the Sufi’s path to God and the human errors that cause failure. One problem is that some of the smaller allegories, told as parables, frequently served to muddle the point for me. The all-important Sufi conception of love (which is beyond reason) that the parables tried to demonstrate even seemed contradictory at times, especially with the all-important Sufi conception of “Self”-destruction.

But I won’t go into too much detail about my misgivings right now. Rather, I will take Harvey’s advice and read it again later, hoping to get some more enlightenment out of it. Until then, here’s what I found interesting:

In the poem (here’s the summary again), after braving the seven ruthless valleys (The Quest, Love, Knowlege, Independence and Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment and Stupefaction, Poverty and Annihilation) on their way to the Simurgh (God), the remaining thirty birds (the few successful Sufis) are told off by the Simurgh’s usher at the gate. With nothing left to live for, they break down:

So fervent was their grief, so heart-broken their lamentation that they were admitted to the presence of the Sovereign. But, first of all, a register was placed before them, in which every detail of the deeds that each one of them had done, or had omitted to do, from the beginning to the end, was carefully entered. Seeing this list of transgressions, they were annihilated and sank down into confusion, and their bodies were reduced to dust. After they had been thus completely purged and purified from all earthly elements, their souls were resuscitated by the light of His Majesty. They stood up again, dazed and distracted. In this new life the recollection of their transgressions was completely effaced from their mind. This was baqa after fana, immortality after perishability, life after life’s loss, eternal existence after extinction.

Now the Sun celestial began to shine forth in front of them, and lo! how great was their surprise! In the reflection of their faces these thirty birds of the earth beheld the face of the Celestial Simurg. When they cast furtive glances toward the Simurg, they perceived that the Simurg was no other than those self-same thirty birds. In utter bewilderment they lost their wits and wondered whether they were their own selves or whether they had been transformed into the Simurg. Then, to themselves they turned their eyes, and wonder of wonders, those self-same birds seemed to be one Simurg! Again, when they gazed at both in a single glance, they were convinced that they and the Simurg formed in reality only one Being. This single being was the Simurg and the Simurg this being. That one was this and one was that. Look where they would, in whatever direction, it was only one Simurg they saw. No one had heard of such a story in the world. Drowned in perplexity, they began to think of this mystery without the faculty of thinking, but finding no solution to the riddle, they besought the Simurg, though no words passed their lips, to explain this mystery and to solve this enigma of I and Thou.

The Simurg thereupon deigned to vouchsafe this reply to them: “The Sun of my Majesty is a mirror. Whoever beholds himself in this mirror, sees there his soul and his body, sees himself entire in it. Soul and body see soul and body. Since you, thirty birds, have come here, you find thirty birds in the mirror. Had you been forty or fifty, you would have beheld forty or fifty. Completely transformed though you be after your journey, you see yourselves here as you were before. At the beginning of your journey, you were numerous, but only thirty of you are able to see Me, and what you see is your own selves.

Finding the Simurg they found themselves and the riddle of I and Thou was solved.

Is this pantheism? Panentheism? How could this have developed out of a tradition that describes its personal God as “King,” “Avenger,” “Praiseworthy,” “Slayer,” “Strong,” “Abaser” and “Independent.” Is this even Islam?

As one Turk said to me last week over a hot cup of tea, “some say this is not Islam at all. But they miss the point. This is above religion—all religion.”

The mere fact that some people think this way is, in my opinion, enough reason to give Attar’s Conference of the Birds at least one read. The ideas may be old, but in today’s Turkey, they couldn’t be more relevant.

Written by M. James

July 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Posted in History, Religion, Turkey

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Before and after: museums to mosques

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The İznik (formerly Nicea) Ayasofya Müzesi (formerly a church) has at last been converted into a mosque. I don’t think I should have to explain the symbolism of the secular state’s museum becoming a mosque—especially in light of the parallel controversy over İstanbul‘s Ayasofya (which is still a museum)—but I will take the time to mention that the conversion was tastefully done.

In fact, the space has been shared so effectively between the faithful and the tourist that the former church now fully serves a dual function of museum and mosque.

The remaining adornments of the former church—of which there are few to appreciate—are not only visible and accessible, but are separated from the carpeted prayer space. Even the altar is left alone.

It was as if when the question of turning the museum into a mosque came up, someone said: “Why not both?” What would be useful to know, of course, is how that compromise was made. Is this Kemalism, still kicking? Or is this “moderate Turkish Islam” at work?

Written by M. James

July 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Gülen declines invitation

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Gülen says prefers staying longer in US to avoid ‘harming positive things’
Today’s Zaman; Jun. 17th, 2012

Turkish and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen has said he prefers staying in the US longer to avoid damaging positive developments in Turkey in a first public response to Turkish prime minister’s invitation to Turkey.

Written by M. James

June 17, 2012 at 4:34 am

Engaging critically with Islamists

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My recent “light reading” hasn’t turned out so well, but something from the cover (as far as I got) of Graham Fuller’s The Future of Political Islam struck me—in a good way.

According to reviewer Professor Fred Halliday:

Fuller argues persuasively that Islamic political movements are, above all, an engagement with the modern world, not a flight from it, and that it is possible to engage critically with their ideas.

I don’t yet know if this is really what Fuller argues—or if he does so persuasively—but if it is, I preemptively applaud him for his effort. As I have expressed previously, it is a common belief that Islam cannot be reasoned with. Or “engaged critically with,” for that matter.

This belief is tantamount to what I have called, in one case, “pleading insanity on behalf of … Islam.” And it may very well be one of the most destructive attitudes in Middle East foreign policy today.

I am not optimistic about reviewing Fuller’s book in the near future, but if the reader has some patience, I’m sure I will get to it eventually

Written by M. James

June 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm

An irony of Islamism

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So to follow up on this post, I read Robert R. Reilly’s Closing of the Muslim Mind in hopes of gaining a better understanding of what Reilly is all about. But before I start criticizing his understanding of Sunni Ash’arite occasionalism—something to be saved for later posts—I’ll say that he wrote a pretty good book. Not only is it an extremely accessible primer on Mu’tazilism and Ash’arism, but it also has an interesting take on modern Islamism as a totalitarian ideology. The only real problem is his thesis—that there is a causal link between Ash’arite ascendancy and modern Islamism.

But, ignoring that for a moment, here’s an interesting bit that relates to a recent post about Turks’ inability to break out of a Western framework, even when criticizing the West. Reilly seems to think that this inability plagues the entire Muslim world (p. 176):

As already stated, the Islamic world was jolted out of its several centuries of torpor only by intrusions from the West. By the early nineteenth century, the West had demonstrated such a decisive superiority over Islamic culture that Islam’s defensive attempts to recover from its influences have been indelibly marked by the very things against which Muslims were reacting. To resist the West, they became, in a way, Western. As Raphael Patai pointed out in The Arab Mind, the very standards by which Muslims measure their own progress are Western. This is amply evident in the UN Arab Human Development Reports, written by Arabs themselves. In a final irony, the most rabid ideological reactions against this state of affairs in the Muslim world are also infused with Western ideology. Islamists practice a perverse kind of homeopathy which uses the very disease from which they are suffering to combat it, but with dosages that are lethal.

Written by M. James

June 1, 2012 at 11:19 am