Friday, 27 July 2018

Wildfires in Greece, God's Will and Inner Strength



Thought for the Day – Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork – Republic of Ireland – Friday 27th July 2018
The prime minister of Greece has declared three days of mourning as the country tries to take in the scale of death and devastation caused by the wildfires.  I read a heart-breaking story yesterday about a mother who has lost her infant grandson, two of her cousins, their children and all of her worldly possessions. Her daughter is in intensive care.  ‘God doesn’t give us the words to describe such things,’ her mother said.

Her words go to the heart of pain, suffering and death.  I’m all too familiar with the pat religious response that it’s “God’s will”, but I’m also aware that such a philosophical response is very hard to accept in the face of physical and mental adversity.  The challenge is, as the Greek Mother said, finding the words to understand and console a broken heart.  Words are important, but sometimes no words can help us understand. 

I recently met with a group of trainee hospital chaplains in Cork in Ireland, who wanted to know about the Islamic responses to illness and death.  There are Islamic traditions which talk about illness being a blessing from God, that God does not burden a soul more than it can bear.  These are difficult words that push faith.  It was refreshing to hear that these hospital chaplains were not in the business of saying ‘God wills it’.

We all deal with crisis and pain differently and find peace through different actions. I learnt this first hand when my Dad passed away a few years ago, and each one of us in our family dealt with it differently.  It’s these real life situations that, for me, complicate what’s written down in Islam.

The young boys who were trapped in a cave in Thailand are said to have used meditation to get them through, and now they’re spending time in a monastery to reflect further on what happened to them.  Reading about difficult experiences like these, make me think, that people often move forward with this tension:  that God may will it, but more so because God gives strength.


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Wednesday, 28 March 2018

OBITUARY: Saba Mahmood — pioneering work in battle of ideas


March 17, 2018

SABA Mahmood, professor of anthropology at the University of California (UoC) at Berkeley, passed away on March 10, 2018. The cause was pancreatic cancer. 

Prof Mahmood specialised in sociocultural anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt. 

Born in Quetta in 1962, she came to the United States in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. She received her PhD in anthropology from Stanford University in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to UoC in 2004, where she offered her last seminar in fall 2017. 

Prof Mahmood made path-breaking contributions to contemporary debates on secularism, opening up new ways of understanding religion in public life and contesting received assumptions about both religion and the secular. 

Against an increasingly shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, she brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. 

Her publications and presentations have reverberated throughout the humanities and social sciences, profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable and critical approach to religion in modernity. 

As a scholar and teacher, she embodied and followed strong moral and political principles, offered keen analyses of colonial and capitalist power in her account of secularism’s modernity, and formulated new ways of understanding the subject of feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury, the rights of religious minorities, and comparative legal analysis of religious and secular family law and sexual regulations. 

Together with anthropologists Talal Asad and Charles Hirschkind, Prof Mahmood showed secularism to be a complex political formation that produces differences among the religious traditions it seeks to regulate. In her words, “political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganise substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices”. 

Secularism never escapes its own religious histories, nor does it ever achieve autonomy from the religious formations it aims to regulate. In fact, the distinction between public and private life central to secular reason draws its bearings from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. This Christian religious framework, focused on belief, contrasts sharply with religions such as Islam which foreground strongly the role on embodied practices within religious life. As a result, she argued, secular epistemologies cannot grasp the way that Islam articulates religious values, misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices. 

Pious Muslim women
 
Within feminist theory, Mahmood challenged readers to understand that the pious Muslim women she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but engaged in distinct hermeneutical approaches to reading the Quran in schools of their own, cultivating religious practice as a form of ethical conduct. 

Challenging views of subjective freedom bequeathed by Western moral philosophy, she made a bold and challenging argument: to understand pious women within Islam one had to conceive a subject defined in its relation to the textual and imagistic representations of the divine. 

Women who engaged in a religious practice of this sort, she argued, ought to be understood as engaging in ethical practices of self-cultivation. 

In her last work, she studied discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regime. Against the view that tribal and religious differences are evidence of the incomplete process of secularisation, she showed how religious differences, and conflict, have been exacerbated under secular regimes of power. Far from realising ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and inter-faith violence. 

Prof Mahmood authored Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015) and Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005) which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association. She co-authored Is Critique Secular? (Fordham University Press, 2011) and co-edited Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago, 2015). Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish. 

Prof Mahmood was also the recipient of several honours and awards, including the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and fellowships at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. 

Prof Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor. Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she keened to the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, the delights of cooking and sharing excellent food. She cultivated with joyous attention her relationships with family and friends. 

She mentored her students with remarkable care and intensity, demanding their best work, listening, responding with a sharp generosity, coming alive in thought, and soliciting others to do the same. In her final months, she affirmed the values of thought and love, leaving now a vibrant legacy that will persist and flourish among all whose lives were touched by her life and work. She is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, her son, Nameer Hirschkind, and her brothers Tariq Mahmood; and Khalid Mahmood, who lives and works in Pakistan. 

Judith Butler is a philosopher and gender theorist whose work has influenced political philosophy, ethics and the fields of third-wave feminist and literary theory. Since 1993, she has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is now professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Programme of Critical Theory.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2018

Friday, 8 December 2017

Dr. Kecia Ali - Muslim Scholars, Islamic Studies, and the Gendered Academy



The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) hosted its fourth annual Ismail Al Faruqi Memorial Lecture at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Boston on Sunday, November 19, 2017. Dr. Kecia Ali (Boston University, Department of Religion) delivered the keynote lecture, titled “Muslim Scholars, Islamic Studies, and the Gendered Academy.” In her speech, Dr. Ali situated ongoing and gendered contestations in Islamic Studies within a number of broader contexts: the history of the AAR (currently the largest American organization dedicated to the study of religion), contemporary crises in higher education, and our shifting national climate.

Professor Ali began her talk by tracing the origins of the AAR to 1909, when it emerged as a Protestant organization called the National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI). It was only in the 1960s, after a number of internal debates, that the organization assumed its current title. This shift, however, came with new challenges and debates: Was the AAR to welcome only theological and confessional approaches to the study of religion? What of critical-analytical and political approaches? Professor Ali - an AAR member of almost two decades - emphasized that the assumed bifurcation between the two continues to represent a wider problem.

As Muslims became increasingly involved with the AAR after the 1960s, criticisms arose from two parties simultaneously: non-Muslim academics concerned about maintaining ‘non-biased’ scholarship, and Muslims worried about the potential for “inappropriately constructed Islamic theological work” taking place outside of conventional centers of Islamic learning. The latter worried AAR would be “run by a cabal of progressive Muslims with activist agendas,” and some even went so far as to decry the alleged heterodoxy (and sometimes even “apostasy”) of Muslim scholars affiliated with the AAR. The conservative critics of the former category instead emphasized the necessity of “safely critical” studies of religion, characterized by supposed moral neutrality and analytical distance. Dr. Ali problematized these accounts by demonstrating the (gendered) workings of power in both contexts.

Beyond challenges within the AAR, the general decline in public research funding, the crisis of “adjunctification”, recent threats to Title IX protections, and the shortage of tenure-track positions are all issues that disproportionately and negatively impact women in the academy. Through mechanisms like gatekeeping tenure committees, ever-changing “standards of excellence”, all-male panels, and discriminatory funding agencies, the (neo)liberal university maintains itself as a site of institutionalized sexism. However, as Dr. Ali suggested, to speak only of these mechanisms is to under-emphasize other sites of gendered contestation, including recent and ongoing public accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape within and beyond the academy.

The most technical part of Dr. Ali’s talk, however, focused on the politics of citation. In this portion of the lecture, Professor Ali discussed four books by three well-known Muslim male scholars and noted the shockingly low citation of female scholars (Muslim and otherwise) in each. In one case, female authors comprised a little over 1% of the works cited. Dr. Ali asserted that the widespread tendency to frame the findings of Islamic Gender Studies and its emerging canon as ‘common sense’ highlights the devaluation of women’s scholarly (and other) work.

Dr. Ali traced this form of devaluation in 1980s media representations of Lois Lamya Al Faruqi - the late musician, expert on Islamic art, and professor at Temple University. While few newspaper-references to her husband Ismail Al Faruqi (a co-founder of IIIT and the Study of Islam Unit at AAR) mention her, Lamya Al Faruqi’s accomplishments frequently appear peripheral and sometimes even invisible compared to those of her husband. By centering the voice of Lamya al Faruqi, Dr. Ali redefined IIIT’s annual Al Faruqi Memorial Lecture and situated it within ongoing and timely conversations in Islamic Studies focused on gender, power, and equity.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

UCC academic: A changing Ireland scares some people - a Conversation with Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

DR Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork (UCC) is passionate about the way we view religion.

“I always try to push people to consider is that religion isn’t a thing,” Dr De Sondy explained.

“So, I always joke to my students; I say ‘When you see Christianity, Judaism or Islam walking in the street, please say hello from me.’ It sounds very odd but I always ask them ‘Well, what am I trying to get you to think about?’

“It’s about the manifestation of those religions. So I say to my students: ‘What is Christianity, who is the best Christian?’ And they’ll be like ‘Well you’ve got Catholics, you’ve got Protestants, and you’ve got everything else in between.’ I’ll say ‘Well, Muslims are exactly the same’ and that diversity is often not appreciated. So that for me is something that I’m trained to do and what I think I was hired to do here at UCC.”

Before Dr De Sondy joined UCC in 2015, he spent six years teaching and lecturing in the United States. He had one year in upstate New York and five years in Florida.

Born and raised in Glasgow, he decided to make the move to Cork to bring him closer to home.

“After six years, I just wanted to come back in some way; to get a little bit closer back to Scotland.”

The study of contemporary Islam at UCC examines the religion from the 18th and 19th century onwards.

“But for me, it’s about dealing with very contemporary issues,” Dr De Sondy said, including subjects like gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and pluralism.

“So that’s my core focus, in Islam but also in religion generally, that’s what I look at.

“What’s written about it, what people have said. To relate it specifically to scripture, to the Koran, but also to kind of look towards the lived realities.”

It’s a lot more exciting to look at Islam this way, he believes, than the way in which the religion is usually presented.

“We like to present very neat boxes of what Muslims should and should not look like,” he said.
“When Muslims don’t fit that box, we get very frustrated. When you meet a Muslim woman who doesn’t cover, who could identify in any of the sexuality spectrums, it’s very confusing to people because people think ‘I need Muslims to look and to act in a specific way.’ I think is part of my interest in the field of contemporary Islam: to see and to look at lived realities which are very, very diverse.”

“You know Ireland is changing,” he continued.

“Ireland is changing and whenever I now speak to people I say ‘I, in a sense, am your future.’ When you have a brown-faced person whose heritage is equally split, my heritage is Pakistani so I always say I’m 50% Pakistani and 50% Scottish, with a Scottish accent.

“This is what Ireland is going to look like within the next 10, 20 years and I think that scares the living daylights out of people! And people say ‘Oh but we’re such a small nation, just four million people’ but Scotland is the same.

“It’s not an us and them and I’m not trying to make it like that but the reason why I’m saying it is because, for me, I think that the Celtic fringes are very welcoming, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to Ireland because there is a connection between Scotland and Ireland and Wales.”

Scotland embraced diversity, he said.

“From what I can gather, the vast majority of the Irish want to embrace it too.

“The problem is, you have a small minority of people who want to strengthen the cultural divide. A small minority of people who don’t want to appreciate diversity, who don’t want to appreciate pluralism and that I think is unfortunate.

“I’m greatly strengthened by the new president who has come to UCC who spent 30 years in the States and has been talking a lot about diversity and about equality and that makes me feel very happy. To be very honest with you, there were times when I first came here and I thought ‘What am I doing here?’

“I really felt my skin here, especially at UCC. For all sorts of different reasons, the university is very white. When I was in Miami, when I was teaching in Miami, I didn’t feel that. I was surrounded by a very thriving Latin-Cuban culture and on a similar level, in Scotland, it’s not like that.

“Universities there are very diverse. But you know, as I began to speak to more and more people, they said to me: you have to help us understand this, how to move forward from this and strengthen this and that’s what has been what’s kept me here because I see there is a lot of promise and there are a lot of people who are saying very, very good things.”

But there are a lot of people who say the opposite, Dr De Sondy said, adding that he was reminded of this recently after reading some of the online comments left under an article he wrote.

“So that gives you an idea of where we’re at. But I’m an optimist, I’m a real optimist and I really believe that we have to have hope and we have to embrace our differences and be able to allow the differences to exist but you know, I think that is very challenging to a lot people.”

Islamophobia exists, he said, but he prefers to focus on the positives.

“People often say to me ‘Aman, do you think people are racist or Islamophobic?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, of course.’ There are some people like that who exist but I always want to look at the positives. I wonder whether it’s just ignorance, of not having the liberty of being in the company of people who are radically different from you, because that’s how you learn. I say to my students ‘I can make you sit here and read all these books about how Judaism and Christianity are similar, how Catholicism and Sunni are similar, but the experience that you have when you actually sit with a Muslim is going to be very, very different.’”

Dr De Sondy said this fact scares a lot of people.

“Those barriers of being in our little bubble are breaking down through the boom in social media and through how much easier it is to be able to understand because we live in a very globalised world.”

The monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all come from the same root, he points out.

“I’m working on a book at the moment with my former colleagues from Miami; Bill is Jewish, Michelle is Catholic-Christian-Cuban and I’m Muslim, and we’re writing a book together on the history on monotheism. What we’re trying to do is to look at what brings these three faiths together. There’s a lot more that brings us together than tears us apart but sadly there are lunatics and there are crazy people who want to strengthen that divide.”

Dr De Sondy was previously a Religious Education (RE) teacher in Scotland, even writing material about the education of Islam for the Scottish Government.

“One of the best parts of RE that I really liked in secondary and primary schools was the idea of personal search and for me, it’s really important. You can try to spoon feed morality but students have to digest it.

“For me, religion is really important because religion isn’t just something in a vacuum; it’s about understanding culture, it’s about understanding race, it’s about understanding philosophy, it’s about critical thinking and if it’s done right, it’s a very, very good subject. But on the other hand, if it’s a subject that’s going to be about attempts to indoctrinate, or to give very clear-cut morals then this is going to fail. Especially in this day and age, students will rebel against that.

“With my educational background, what I do gather is that you have to set free at some level the enquiring mind of students to make them question and critique and when you do that, religion is a very good subject.

“A lot of these students are coming from very, varied backgrounds and I explain ‘Because the study of religions can be something very, very exciting. It can give you an insight into all sorts of different worlds.”

Jess Casey talks to Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork, about Islam, diversity and religious education in Ireland.

Monday, 30 October 2017

BBC Radio Scotland - Thought For The Day


Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Monday 30th October 2017

The first minister is to apologise on behalf of the Scottish government to gay men convicted of now-abolished sexual offences. Nicola Sturgeon will make the apology at the Scottish Parliament to coincide with new legislation giving an automatic pardon to those affected. 

Minorities who were often silenced in the past now push us to consider the society we all want to live in.  Yet I find that offences against minorities, in this case gay men, are often weaved together in complicated patterns with religious, historical and cultural traditions.  And these patterns were set in place in a time where things were very different.  How do we respectfully bring together the past with the present as we look to the future? This is no easy task and often religious communities will speak in clear terms on traditions but the lived realities are very different.  This is where it becomes important for governments to act in fairness and equality. Yet I’m finding the term ‘evolve’ being frequently used by religious leaders too.  Our thoughts have evolved on issues of slavery, race and women’s rights. 

I’m faithfully assured that within my own Islamic communities, much is being said and done on these issues too.  There is clearly more to do and for many it can be difficult and challenging placing our current sentiments to history. 

In society and also in our own lives, apologies are important but only when we build upon them.  No apology can undo the harm or even the death caused by actions or words.  But they can help strengthen our future by making sure that we build understanding leading to respectful relationships and a society which values differences, equally.  I’m heartened by the students I teach every day who seem to understand and live out differences in ways my generation didn’t.  It is through the humility of accepting a wrong and meeting others who have different lives and beliefs with generosity and compassion that we can build a fairer and brighter society.      

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

We are not that different from Saudi Arabia - Dr. Amanullah De Sondy



The Unites States of America voted with Botswana, Barundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against a UN Human Rights Council resolution which specifically condemned the death penalty as a punishment for consensual same-sex relations. This move has left many in the US specifically and the whole ‘Western’ world aghast.

Here was the US, the leader of the free world, seemingly aligning itself with Islamic countries widely disdained as oppressive on social issues, particularly as relates to gender and sexuality.

But why should we be so shocked? These days, it’s not so easy to divide global culture along even loosely hemispheric lines. Just last month, on September 26, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a decree that will allow women to drive — welcome news to the numerous Saudi feminists who have fought a long battle for this right. It’s a right that women have long had here in Ireland, but it’s an unmistakable sign of forward motion.

And in our own country, we see intensifying debates around the repeal of the eighth amendment, which recognises equally the rights of gestational parent and unborn fetus. Abortion rights are said to be among a number of public referendums that will be put before the country next summer. Whatever transpires with the eighth amendment, Ireland boasts a handful of other progressive firsts: the country voted for equal marriage in 2015 and is now led by a mixed-race, openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Australia, too, is currently in the process of a public vote on equal marriage: polls indicated that the people will vote in support, with results expected after November 7.

And back in the so-called Muslim world, Pakistan’s Allama Iqbal Open University, located in the capital city of Islamabad, has announced that it will offer free education to the transgender community in order to lift the stigma attached with the marginalised community.

All this, and yet we are often expected to accept and act in accordance with the narrative that in some way we Irish are ‘worlds apart’ from countries beyond Europe and North America. Is this really the case? Is it time for us to un-condition our mind and actions in our thinking that the ‘West’ is more enlightened on matters and the ‘rest’ are catching up.

In any country, gender and sexuality are shaped by religion, which has evolved along distinct trajectories but in every case supplies adherents a basis for understanding the world. Today, we are pulled into the politics of understanding, attaching or separating ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. Religion scholars like me spend a long time thinking about complicated issues that are then reduced in public discourse to sartorial matters — what we wear or what we don’t wear.

Binaries reign supreme — and all the more effectively when we try to classify issues of gender and sexuality as ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’. Issues we think of as modern may be inescapably salient in our own times were present but silenced in the past. ‘Traditions’ aren’t so much regressives as they are markers of hegemony —what has been accorded authority. It is the challenge to traditional authority structures in religions and society that has allowed us to finally see vibrant diversity.

The world is changing precisely because of how important diversity, with all its complexities, is to society. The social media boom now pushes us closer to streets and homes to places we never imagined or imagined in the most extreme way. The challenges and counter-narratives are now in full bloom, and the time for generalizing about places and peoples is past.

Ideas and actions grow when they react with each other. As an academic, I appreciate that it is through cross-disciplinary work in the arts and humanities that we begin to explore the deeper problems and questions in all their dimensions. We are beginning to appreciate that diversity and difference enriches our society. And yet appreciating the depth of pluralism and diversity shakes our own world while we move toward appreciating a completely different one, ideally an equal one.

Grand narratives pitting country against country or continent against continent are not helping us understand the world. We see progress made in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan when they expand rights for women and uphold the humanity of transgender people, while here in Ireland we are still arguing about fundamental rights for women.

There isn’t a single continuum from backward to progressive onto which we could plot these current events. It is this diversity and pluralism that challenges the fanatics who play on cultural divides. Adopting a more global approach to the ‘shared troubles’ of gender and sexuality can be effective tools against extremists on all sides.

Unconditioning ourselves from totalizing, dichotomous thinking begins locally. Here at University College Cork, the LGBT Staff Network will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this afternoon (October 12). There will be much cheer and pomp as the President of the University, Professor Patrick O’Shea, leads a succession of distinguished guests addressing the university community. Milestones like these carve out space for us to appreciate our differences and see how, pulling together, we progress. The times of uniformity and monoliths are gone, we are charged now with how we live in our differences, equally.

Amanullah De Sondy is a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork, and author of The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, published by Bloomsbury. The UCC LGBT Staff Network’s 10-year anniversary celebration will take place at the University’s Aula Maxima on October 12 at 4:30pm. All welcome.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The seeds that giants plant


Today I attended a Christian-Muslim conference in Edinburgh. I was stunned by the painting of Marcella Althaus-Reid that hangs in the Rainy Hall at Edinburgh's New College.

During my Ph.D, I shared a platform with her at the Edinburgh Festival on Spirituality. After the talks, she took me aside and told me to keep asking the difficult questions. Looking up at this painting today made me think...these special moments during my academic studies were the priceless seeds. May she be resting in peace.