Monday, 10 August 2009

A Scotsman now in New York: Atlanta, Ithaca and the Solas Foundation

As some of you know I have been appointed as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College, a liberal arts college that has a remarkable reputation in Northeast USA. Here is what the Princeton Review of academic institutions has to say:

“Coeducational and nonsectarian, Ithaca is a nationally recognized college of 6,650 students. As a comprehensive institution, Ithaca offers an excellent foundation in the liberal arts as well as strong professional programs at the undergraduate level. Moreover, all of our degree programs are supplemented by independent and interdisciplinary studies, dual majors, minors, and elective courses in other academic fields. Nearly every state and 67 countries are represented in the student population; 2,800 men and 3,400 women are currently enrolled. Some 400 of those students are enrolled in graduate programs. Founded in 1892 as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, the school eventually grew into a private college offering academic programs in several professional fields. At mid-century the institution's curricula in liberal arts were unified, and the large and diversified School of Humanities and Sciences now forms the core of the Ithaca educational experience. In the 1960s the College moved from downtown Ithaca to its current home on South Hill. Here, the College's 750 acres command a majestic vista of the city of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake.”

I am especially proud to join this esteemed seat of learning and teaching which has already made great strides in philosophy and religious studies (see my departments profile at: and Islamic Studies as it is here at Ithaca College that Professor Asma Barlas holds a chair in politics.

Professor Barlas has been a guiding light for me in my academic study of Islamic masculinities with her groundbreaking book ‘Believing Women in Islam – Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an’ (see book cover and picture of Professor Barlas with Dr. Tariq Ramadhan).

Just before I landed in Ithaca I went to Atlanta where I was invited to attend the marriage of my dear friend Zahra Ayubi, a Ph.D student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with Dr Alireza Soltani. (see photo of me with the happy couple and also Dr. Aysha Hidayatullah to the far left who is Assistant Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco). A wonderful and blessed occasion that saw the merging of two hearts but also of two cultures, South Asian and Persian. I am wishing them much happiness and prosperity for a bright future.

It was during my visit here that I had the chance to also meet two renowned scholars of Islam. Professor Vincent Cornell who is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Emory University and Professor Abdullahi an’Na’im who is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, School of Law at Emory University too. I’m grateful for their encouragement and support throughout my academic studies and it was great to sit and chat with them over food about the new chapter in my academic life.

Arriving into Ithaca was both a nervous and exciting moment for me. Especially that I walked into an apartment that I had never seen before! I am grateful to my new colleague, Professor Rachel Wagner, who assisted me greatly. It was nice also to meet fellow faculty members over the next few days, especially the Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College, Professor Leslie Lewis, Professor Rick Kaufman, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion and Professor Brian Karafin who is also my new colleague in religious studies.

Speaking of academics, I read with keen interest a new project named the Solas Foundation that has been set up by Glasgow-born entrepreneur Azeem Ibrahim to help provide ‘true lessons on Islam’, as reported by the Sunday Herald. Leading the project are Shaykh Amir Jamil and Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammad. Shaykh Amir Jamil commented,

"We felt it was important to re-establish that religious authoritative teaching. If we can get young people listening to the right voices with authoritative knowledge, a lot of our problems of radicalism would be eradicated. And if they do want to raise their voices, let's take them on in a scholarly debate and we will win that debate."

I am pleased that such a project has been set up but remain weary and cautious at several levels. Firstly, there seems to be a gulf between those who are educated as scholars of Islam in western academic institutions and those who have had a more traditional Islamic seminary training in Islamic Studies. I do believe that the methods of each are very different, where universities teaching theology and religion in the west teach from a basis of critical analysis and thought the former are taught from a faith-based, devotional perspective, each worthy in their own right. It is then difficult to argue who has the ‘religious authority’ for I believe that the problem is of authority. Everyone is vying for that position of authority within Muslim communities and mutual respect and humility is lacking. Islamic theology is not a game of winning and losing, there is no one ‘true’ voice, Islam has promoted and celebrated a variety of diverse voices throughout. From the voices of radical mystics known as Sufis to puritans upholding the tenets of Islamic law, such debates you can find in the work of Abduh and Vince, who I mentioned earlier. Two of their books give us an understanding of this rich Islamic diversity that cannot be overlooked (see images). Professor Cornell has edited a wonderful five volume book titled 'Voices of Islam' and Professor an'Na`im who has published groundbreaking work on 'Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a', here is an intro to each,

'Despite frequent and extensive publications on Islam, very few Americans, indeed very few non-Muslims, truly understand the faith or the more than one billion adherents who live it. This set presents the diversity and richness of Islam, filling in the blanks and expanding our knowledge and understanding. Portraying Muslims in all their humanity and diversity balances the images that have bombarded society and presents the reader with a fuller and more accurate picture of the Islamic faith and what it means to live as a Muslim--in Muslim communities, and as part of a broader tapestry of pluralism in the nations of the world. What does it mean to share Muslim concerns? To experience Muslim spirituality? What is the difference between Sunni and Shiite sects? Why do Muslims pray so frequently? What is the reality of Muslim marriage and gender relations? What is the meaning of jihad and martyrdom to a practicing Muslim? What role do the arts and humanities play in modern Muslim life? How are Islamic children raised? These questions and others are answered in these volumes, which bring together Muslim voices from around the world, including men and women, scholars and laypersons, fundamentalists and progressives, and others from various cultural, political, and Islamic backgrounds. Personal experiences and poetry are included to illustrate the many different expressions of Islam.'

"What should be the place of Shari‘a—Islamic religious law—in predominantly Muslim societies of the world? In this ambitious and topical book, a Muslim scholar and human rights activist envisions a positive and sustainable role for Shari‘a, based on a profound rethinking of the relationship between religion and the secular state in all societies.

An-Na‘im argues that the coercive enforcement of Shari‘a by the state betrays the Qur’an’s insistence on voluntary acceptance of Islam. Just as the state should be secure from the misuse of religious authority, Shari‘a should be freed from the control of the state. State policies or legislation must be based on civic reasons accessible to citizens of all religions. Showing that throughout the history of Islam, Islam and the state have normally been separate, An-Na‘im maintains that ideas of human rights and citizenship are more consistent with Islamic principles than with claims of a supposedly Islamic state to enforce Shari‘a. In fact, he suggests, the very idea of an “Islamic state” is based on European ideas of state and law, and not Shari‘a or the Islamic tradition. Bold, pragmatic, and deeply rooted in Islamic history and theology, Islam and the Secular State offers a workable future for the place of Shari‘a in Muslim societies."

Every voice must be celebrated but that can only happen when one is secure and strong in their own voice, only when one feels threatened by the voices of the ‘other’ will we charge to ‘correct’ and uphold our fantasies of an Islamic utopia. I firmly believe that everyone should have a right to interpretation and understanding Islam, some may interpret to abuse others but in that situation 'tadafu' is a great way to counterbalance, so it is a concern for every Muslim to counterbalance the interpretation of abuse...

"The law of repulsion [qanun al-tadafu`] is the Islamic interpretation of history and events. Regardless of whether the Jahiliyya began or not, Islam must move along according to its own essential movement, a part of which must be the law of repulsion: "Had God not driven back the people, some by the means of others, the earth had surely corrupted" (Qur'an 2:251)."

Azeem Ibrahim wrote in an opinion piece in the Sunday Herald, ‘Writer and academic Reza Aslan argues that almost 90% of violent jihadists have had no religious education at all.’. So I’m hoping that Reza’s own methods and approaches to Islam and Muslims is upheld by the Solas Foundation, if not, then here is a reminder of Reza’s position but his core point is 'nobody represents Islam!':

I have utmost respect for all those involved in the Solas Foundation but I wonder why eminent academic scholars of Islamic Studies on our own front doorstep have been overlooked in this project such as Professor Mona Siddiqui, who is Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at Glasgow University’s department of theology and religious studies. Such an oversight by the Solas Foundation is possibly further evidence of the gulf between those trained in Islamic seminaries and British (or any) universities. I guess the battle for the soul of Islam continues but let us not forget those wise words of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Iktilaaf ummati rahma’ – ‘differences are a blessing (for Muslims)’ – let us all remain steadfast in this sacred struggle with mutual respect and humility.

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