Thursday, 23 April 2015

A few photos from my book launch at 'Books&Books' (Miami). March 18th 2015.

(Published by Bloomsbury Academic, London. 2015)

Surrounded by books and an interested audience

Sporting my alma mater's tartan tie, University of Glasgow. Sharing a joke with a member of the audience about Mirza Ghalib, the Mughal poet, featured in my book.   

Signing my book for a reader

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Sufism won't solve Pakistan's problems - Using Sufism to counter religious terrorism is not the solution to Pakistan's problems - and it's risky. by Bina Shah

| War & Conflict, Politics, Pakistan, Asia  Source: Al Jazeera

Religiously motivated violence has steadily haunted Pakistan over the last 10 years, with the rise of militants and extremists who believe it's their holy duty to wage war on non-Muslims. The latest horrific episode: The Lahore church suicide bombing on March 15 which killed 16 Christians; two Muslim bystanders were also lynched and burned to death by an angry mob in the aftermath of the bombing.

As the author of the novel "A Season For Martyrs", which examines the fusion of Sufi tradition with the power structures of Sindh, I have watched with caution as western think-tanks have thrown up Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam with an emphasis on tolerance, peace, and love, as a means of combating this ideology of violence. Yet, I strongly believe that this is a misguided policy; using Sufism to counter religious terrorism is not the solution to Pakistan's problems.
Head to Head - Pakistan: Victim or exporter of terrorism?
Since 9/11, Pakistan has witnessed the weakening of state institutions, the confusion of political leadership, the uncertainty of whether or not to continue to nurture or disown the state's "strategic assets", that is, religious militants it has sponsored - and the relentless attacks by the Taliban and other militants against civilian, military, police, and minority targets.

Secularism as solution?

Many Pakistani liberals posit secularism as the solution: They theorise, or fantasise, that going back in time to erase the dictator General Zia-ul Haq's Deobandi imprint on Pakistani society - in other words, to eliminate his Islamisation project from both the statute books and the annals of history - will ease Pakistan's pain and bring this divided country back together again.

On the other hand, western think-tanks, ever concerned with the rise of militancy in Pakistan and its ramifications for western interests, decided that Sufism could be a means of countering hardline radicalism in the Muslim world. 

A 2007 RAND report urged western governments to "harness" Sufism; similar reports emerged from the Heritage Foundation, the Libforall Foundation and the Nixon Center, supporting the idea that Sufism, with its "politically moderating" effect, could supplant Salafism, whose local expression in Pakistan is the Deobandi movement.

Muslim and other scholars hit back at this plan, calling it misguided. The peaceful Sufi/violent Salafi dichotomy, they argued, did not stand up to scrutiny; Sufism could be used as much to advocate violence as Salafism. 

In Pakistan, even Barelvis, a moderate sect influenced by Sufism and opposed to Deobandism, have enacted or supported violence. The murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was committed by Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi, in 2011; Barelvi clerics have rallied for his cause ever since.

Many Pakistani liberals posit secularism as the solution: They theorise, or fantasise, that going back in time to erase the dictator General Zia-ul Haq's Deobandi imprint on Pakistani society ... will ease Pakistan's pain and bring this divided country back together again.

Still, this didn't stop the Pakistani government from trying out the formula: It formed a Sufi Advisory Council in 2009 to try and spiritually convince radicals to lay down their arms.
Since then, shrines and Sufi leaders have continued to be attacked all over Pakistan: the Baba Farid shrine and Sakhi Sarwar shrine in Punjab, Lahore's most famous Data Darbar shrine, the shrine of Sheikh Taqi Baba in Balochistan; and the assassination of the Sufi leader Faqir Jamshed in Dera Ismail Khan, in northwest Pakistan.

Complete reversal

The work of Farzana Shaikh, a Chatham House fellow and author of "Making Sense of Pakistan", represents a complete reversal from the discourse taking place about Pakistan's problems with extremism among its liberal intelligentsia: That religious extremism has come about because of the religious right wing's stubborn certainty that being a Pakistani equates to being a conservative Sunni Muslim, and that violence is a way of eliminating from the fabric of Pakistani society those people who don't fit that definition.

Yet, according to Shaikh, it's precisely Pakistan's uncertainty, not its certainty, about what it means to be Pakistani that has led the country to this critical point of desperate soul-searching amid one extremist-backed attack after another. 

Until the nation engages critically with Islam, trying to pin down whether or not a Muslim country's raison d'etre is to provide a homeland for Muslims or to actually "defend Islam" - with all the troubling implications of that motivation - Pakistani will continue to flounder.
Shaikh calls the enterprise to recast Sufism as the counter to violent extremism terribly risky.
"The geopolitical context has changed; the competing narratives of Islam have all become more increasingly violent." 

Bringing Sufism - or the Pakistani state's co-opted version of Sufism - into the mix has the potential to backfire, tearing the country further apart rather than healing its divisions.
And what effect would these political machinations have on the ordinary worshipper at a shrine, women and men who seek solace and security through their supplications?
"They don't know anything about it," says Shaikh. "They just don't understand why their shrines are now being bombed." 

Using Sufism as a tool in a game of ideologies will only result in more attacks of this nature. Far better to let the Sufi saints rest in blissful ignorance of what the state might make of their legacy.

Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani writer from Karachi. She is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

I am humbled and honoured to receive a formal invitation to address and lead the Scottish Parliament at Time for Reflection on Tuesday 23rd June 2015.

This will be my second invitation to lead Time for Reflection. The first was in May 2008 (see below).

I will reflect, in some way, on my move to the USA in 2009 and now returning back to Celtic lands, closer to my beloved Scotland, as Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork, Republic of Ireland, my position at Cork commences June 1st. Thanks to Members of the Scottish Parliament, Joan McAlpine and Humza Yousaf for their continued support.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Why White People Freak Out When They're Called Out About Race

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

ISIS and Authority By Kecia Ali on February 24, 2015

Last week, Graeme Wood caused quite a stir with his article “What ISIS Really Wants.” It focused on the apocalyptic religious vision of the group and contended that ISIS was, as a scholar quoted in the article put it, “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,” including on the things most shock and repulse observers, such as slavery.

Though Wood grants that most Muslims do not support ISIS, and acknowledges in passing the role of interpretation in formulating its doctrines, the overall impression conveyed by the article was that Muslims who deny that ISIS is a fair representation of Islam are either apologists or simply do not really know anything about Islam. Others have offered rebuttals of many of the points in the article, and Bernard Haykel, the scholar quoted, has offered a more nuanced articulation of his views. More than one commentator has pointed out that by treating ISIS as a legitimate representative of the Islamic tradition, seriously religious and dedicated to the texts “shared by all Sunni Muslims,” it fosters an unholy convergence of interests between extremist Muslims and Islamophobes.

Wood is right about some things and wrong about others. ISIS is laying claim to the tradition and the texts they cite are in what we may call the canon. Still, to quote approvingly and without clarification Haykel’s contention that “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” seems quite a stretch. To be sure, it is not the job of religious studies scholars (or U. S. presidents) to judge which groups are “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” Rather, we must understand how various actors make claims to represent, understand, or further their tradition. That does not mean there are no distinctions that can be made, no criteria by which to situate those religious claims in a historical and social framework.
Some attempts to assess ISIS’s legitimacy have focused on the fact that reputable Muslim authorities – clerics, scholars, ‘ulama – uniformly distance themselves from ISIS and condemn its brutal tactics.

Though unwilling (for sound theological reasons) to declare leaders or followers of the Islamic State apostates, some have been willing to describe its actions as sinful, evil, or even “un-Islamic.”

But these arguments from authority worry me too. When women do something “impermissible” – lead Friday prayer, open a Women’s Mosque, interpret the Qur’an in feminist ways – self-described “traditional” Muslims offer similar condemnations: these acts–and these actors–are outside the pale of tradition. Regardless of the sophistication of the arguments presented, the response is that those who make them are not properly trained. What authority do they have? In sum: how dare they?

These specious criticisms are nearly impossible to counter, even when those spouting them do not necessarily offer more nuanced or methodologically sophisticated answers. The simple appeal to widespread scholarly agreement leaves me unconvinced.

Take the example of the Open Letter to Baghdadi published last September. Among other things, it condemns ISIS’s violation of what the letter describes as a century-old consensus on the abolition of slavery.  (Though presented in a press conference, the letter attracted virtually no attention from the mainstream media – unlike the shocking violence that prompted it.) Undoubtedly well-intentioned, the letter makes a hash of both history and the classical tradition, with its ahistorical declarations (“No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery”) and simplistic proclamations of things that are “forbidden in Islam.” The letter was signed by 126 male Sunni scholars and leaders from around the world. Since its publication online, others, including a handful of women, have signed.

Admittedly, this letter, which affirms “the prohibition and criminalization of slavery” as “a milestone in human history,” offers a much more compelling ideal than ISIS’s propaganda magazine, which signals “enslaving the families of the [disbelievers] and taking their women as concubines” as a sign of its own legitimacy and prowess, and reminds its readers that denying or mocking scriptural permissibility for slavery renders one not merely “weak-minded and weak hearted” but also an apostate. Still, however appealing it is to believe that slavery was, as the letter states, “something the Shariah worked tirelessly to undo,” such wishful thinking does not provide a firm foundation for criticizing contemporary injustices.

The most troubling thing about the Atlantic article is the static definition of tradition that Wood uses. In his view, tradition is a body of texts. Legitimacy emerges from texts. Practices consonant with the texts – or that are interpreted as being so – are therefore “Islamic.” Muslims who say otherwise – as he admits the overwhelming majority do when confronted with ISIS – do not have much ground to stand on. But the rejection of ISIS on the basis of its distance from the classical tradition and its unacceptability to contemporary scholars who claim to constitute the legitimate inheritors of that tradition is not a panacea either. Too frequently, the weapon of “scholarly consensus” has been wielded against Muslim women who overstep its bounds—not, as ISIS has done, in a quest for domination, but in a quest for dignity.

Kecia Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her newest books are The Lives of Muhammad and the co-edited Guide for Women in Religion, revised edition. Her earlier books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006),Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She currently serves on the Membership Task Force of the American Academy of Religion and serves as president of theSociety for the Study of Muslim Ethics. She lives in the Boston area with her family.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Reclaiming the Prophet Muhammad in Iran By Christiane Gruber 1/31/15 at 11:26 AM

Published in Newsweek - All Rights Reserved, Copyright

Figure 1, Mi'raj Mural Tehran 2008A new film about the Prophet Muhammad is slotted to have its debut this Sunday at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran. Directed by Majid Majidi, the biopic’s cost has exceeded $30 million, making it the most expensive Iranian movie shot to date. Well before its release, the film was the subject of criticism due to the physical presence of Muhammad on screen. Although the Prophet’s facial features are camouflaged through light and shade strategies, the Sunni clerics at al-Azhar in Cairo nevertheless attempted to halt its release so that “an undistorted image of the Prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims."

Figure 1: A five-story mural depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s celestial ascension, in Tehran, Iran, in 2008. 

This latest disagreement over filmic portrayals of Muhammad reveals ongoing anxieties regarding visual representations of the Prophet in the Islamic world. However, such divergences do not appear to be based on sectarian grounds, as the movie covers Muhammad’s childhood until the age of 12. Sunni and Shi‘i debates over the life of the Prophet tend to revolve around the events of his adulthood, especially whether he appointed ‘Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his rightful successor. As Majidi himself has noted, the film purposefully skirts these sectarian debates over the life of the Prophet in order to present a positive and united presentation of Muhammad to international movie audiences.

This new Muhammad film does not emerge out of thin air. In addition to earlier movies (like Akkad’s The Message) and others still in the making (by Qatar), Majidi’s large-scale project is part of an effort to visually reclaim the Prophet and his legacy in Iran that has been under way since the Danish cartoons of 2005. While reactions to the cartoons in some Arab, Sunni and especially Salafi quarters included issuing of decrees stipulating that “images of prophets are disrespectful and caricatures of them blasphemous," a vastly different response has unfolded within Iran over the past decade. Indeed, Iran has launched a number of artistic, educational and public relations projects since 2006, itself dubbed by Ayatollah Khamenei “The Year of the Noble Prophet." As a result, celebratory depictions of the Prophet have emerged in full force, with Majidi’s film the latest outcome of these officially sanctioned endeavors.
Figure 2 Salam Gol-e Mohammedi, page 18, like the sun, low resAmong them, one of the most visible Iranian responses to the Danish cartoons is a colorful mural depicting Muhammad’s celestial ascension, which was painted in 2008 on a five-story building located on a major thoroughfare in central Tehran (Figure 1). Sponsored by Tehran’s municipality, the mural beautifies the capital city’s urban space much like the vibrant and sometime surreal compositions by Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo. Notably missing here are portraits of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, as well as Palestinian and Iranian martyrs. In their stead appears a pictorial eulogy of the Prophet based on a 15th-century manuscript painting. While the original illustration shows Muhammad’s facial features, the contemporary mural renders his face as if a blank slate. This erasure of the Prophet’s facial features most likely is because the image is in the public domain instead of tucked inside a private manuscript. It is also a likely result of the more reactionary and intransigent Muslim responses to images of Muhammad in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy.

Besides this mega-mural, a number of other Prophet-centered products have been made for the Iranian market since 2006. Targeting a juvenile audience in particular, a series of illustrated books written in simple prose and verse aims to teach children about Muhammad’s life and miracles. These books include images of the Prophet, who often is depicted with a veiled face and solar halo, as can be seen in one image in which he is shown extending his arms to receive revelations at Mount Hira (Figure 2). The text that accompanies the colorful illustration informs its young readers that Muhammad was like the summer sun and the full moon, emitting both light and enlightenment into the world.

Figure 2: The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations on Mount Hira in an illustration from the children’s book “Greetings, Rose of Muhammad,” Tehran, 2006.
Figure 3 Muhammad's birth

Just like these Iranian children’s books, Majidi’s film takes up the question of childhood. The film’s major scenes indubitably will reiterate some of the more famous episodes of the Prophet’s youth, including his highly auspicious birth and his being recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira. Visually depicting these pivotal moments of Muhammad’s early life is by no means a new phenomenon in Persian lands. Indeed, from 1300 CE onward a number of manuscript paintings represent Muhammad’s birth as a luminous, angelic event (Figure 3). The texts that buttress these images inform us that, when he was born, Muhammad illuminated the entire world with his cosmic radiance, which rose upward to set the heavens and stars alight.

Figure 3: A radiant Muhammad is born and held aloft by angels in Hafiz-i Abru's “Quintessence of Histories.”

Persian illustrated manuscripts also depict Muhammad’s foretelling as a prophet at the tender age of 12, when he visited the city of Busra in Syria. It is at this time that the Christian monk Bahira recognized the signs of the young boy’s future prophethood through a series of natural phenomena, like the bending of a tree’s branches and/or a cloud providing him with shade, as well as the “seal of prophecy” mark imprinted on Muhammad’s body (Figure 4). The latter episode belongs to a corpus of Islamic narratives that relate that the Prophet was announced and foretold as a prophet by a Christian holy man, who had read about his coming in the Bible.
bahira 4
Figure 4: The young Muhammad is recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira in Rashid al-Din's “Compendium of Histories.”

The story of Muhammad’s youthful “seal of prophecy” recognition is a popular one across Islamic lands even today. Over the course of the 20th century, a number of mass-produced images of the young Muhammad—composed in a wide array of creative variants—were made in Iran. These appeared in banners, posters (Figure 5), postcards, carpets and stickers until they started to be suppressed in 2008. 

Figure 5, Young Muhammad poster, Iran, 1990s, V&A
Figure 5: The young Muhammad, identified as “Muhammad, the Messenger of God,” on a poster made in Iran in the 1990s.

While the recent Iranian suppression of these images is certainly a response to the Danish cartoon controversy, it also emanates from the discovery of its original pictorial source: an early 20th-century Orientalist photograph of a young Arab boy. Along with the anxieties brought about by this borrowed image, “severe security” concerns in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo caused the Victoria and Albert Museum to attempt to dissimulate its possession of one of these modern Iranian images of the young Muhammad.

Not shying away from depicting this pivotal moment in the Prophet’s youth, Majidi in his biopic shows the young Muhammad arriving at Bahira’s monastery (Figure 6). In this film still, the adolescent protagonist walks down the main aisle of a church as a burst of sunlight streams in from the open doors. This radiance symbolic of Muhammad’s future prophecy floods into the interior space and overwhelms his facial features. This carefully designed visual strategy allows the Prophet to be both visible and invisible—represented and unrepresented—all at once.
Figure 6: In a still from the film "Muhammad, the Messenger of God," the young Muhammad enters a monastery, where he is recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira.
Figure 6 Young Muhammad at Bahira's Monastery, Majid Majidi, Muhammad Rasul Allah, Iran, 2015These paintings, murals, children’s books and films about the Prophet that have been made in Iran since 2006 are illuminating in several ways. First, they show that traditions of representing Muhammad are still well and alive in some areas of the Muslim world. These still and moving images aim to commemorate the Prophet, present his status and legacy in a positive light, and teach a variety of audiences about his life and miracles. 

Unlike in Sunni-Salafi spheres, in which recent responses to the Danish and Charlie Hebdo cartoons have largely comprised a flurry of obdurate injunctions, the response in Iran has been markedly different. Indeed, rather than shying away from or banning images of the Prophet, Iranian leaders, artists and filmmakers have harnessed the creative arts to recover and restore the image of Muhammad in the public domain.
Such images serve as powerful reminders that there is no universally accepted ban on the figural arts in Islam and that traditions of prophetic representation still continue to flourish in Iran today. Above all, they highlight the fact that in Islamic lands there exist two diametrically opposed reactions to defamatory European cartoons: While some actors engage in censorship and suppression, others actively seek the promulgation of the Prophet Muhammad by reasserting the positive power of picture-making.

Christiane Gruber is associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalog of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and post-revolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and crosscultural visual cultures. She is currently writing her next book, titled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Monday 5th January 2015
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
University of Miami, FL

It’s been a difficult start to the New Year with a number of quite dreadful events covered in the news.  One place we hear about often in the news is Israel and Palestine where even the use of these identity markers can bring out impassioned emotions from both sides.  I fly out to Jerusalem today to take part in an American Muslim leadership initiative as the only non-American.  It comes as no surprise that many from all sides have mixed feelings.  It is clearly an extremely complex situation.  I’ve been to Jerusalem several times in the past and I’m all too aware of the politics of such a trip. 

However, I’ve always tried to steer clear of political traps and concentrate on the people.  Jerusalem, the Holy land, to Jews, Christians and Muslims is sacred to them all.  It is then clear that only an inclusive society will thrive and exclusivist claims will and actually always have failed. I remember listening to an American diplomat once who said that if the holy land was just a matter of real estate then it would have been resolved a long time ago. 

I travel to the holy land to see how every day Jews, Christians and Muslims li  I’m also intrigued to see the ways that the non-religious communities find themselves and co-exist.  No one is winning in the current situation and sadly the holy land continues to bleed.  I have very little hope in political systems or even political parties yet I have every hope in the every day man and woman who builds bridges.  It’s not an easy task, especially when we become arm-chair commentators far away.  Another reason why I want to go and immerse myself in the individual voices of Palestinians and Israelis as a Scottish Muslim who wants to see peace and equality in the holy land for all.  Every new year brings with it challenges with a mixture of hope toward the unknown. Our actions can be read and understood in various ways but at the end of the day we must be firm in building bridges.