Thursday, 21 May 2009

Faith Healer: Reza Aslan

Religious historian Reza Aslan calls for a return to Islam's tradition of tolerance

Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan, 35, is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2005).
Smithsonian magazine, October 2007

What did you hope to accomplish with No god but God?

The book was an attempt to break through the cacophony of extremist and radical ideas about Islam. I felt as though the vast moderate majority was being completely ignored. I wanted to write a book that would express the Islam of the majority to a non-Muslim audience and give them a primer on the history, theology, practice and diversity of Islam. More importantly, I wanted to reach out to Muslims themselves, who are being bombarded by these different ideas of what they should believe and how they should act, and give them a counterweight to the voices from the margins.

In the book, you talk about a "Muslim Reformation." What do you mean?

I'm talking about a phenomenon that occurs in many great religious traditions, a conflict between institutions and individuals over who has the authority to define the faith. While this tension is always there, in times of great social or political upheaval, it can rise to the surface, often with catastrophic results. Islam has been going through this process, this fracturing of authority, since the colonial period. It's resulting not just in a breakdown in the traditional sources of authority in Islam—the mosques, the schools of law, the clerical institutions—but in new sources of authority arising and becoming widespread through the Internet. These jihadist elements, these groups like Al Qaeda, are very much a part of this Reformation. They are about as radically individualistic and radically anti-institutional as it gets in the Muslim world. But this is precisely what happened with the Christian Reformation: radically individualist interpretations of the religion battling it out with each other over ascendancy.

How long will it take before the conflict dies down?

I think we're witnessing its twilight. That doesn't mean it's going to get any better or less violent—probably quite the contrary. We can't talk about it as though one side is going to win and one side is going to lose. These tensions will always exist. But I think there is every reason to believe that with a proper approach to combating jihadism, it can go back to what it was before, a fringe group that will always be a problem and a threat, but certainly not the kind of global phenomenon that it has become since September 11, primarily as a consequence of the West's response.

What would be the proper response, both from the West and from moderate Muslims?

Moderate Muslims are belatedly recognizing that jihadism is far more a threat to them than it is to non-Muslims and that the only way to defeat an ideology of Islamic Puritanism or Islamic militancy or Islamic bigotry is with an ideology of Islamic pluralism, of Islamic peace, of Islamic tolerance. And that ideology is not going to be created by the West. It's going to be created by Muslims.

Why did you make islam your life's work?

I have always been interested in religion, ever since I left the country of my birth, Iran, in the midst of a revolution that, while not Islamic in nature, certainly was fueled by religious enthusiasm. The power that religion has to transform a society was deeply ingrained in me. And I've always had a spiritual interest in these issues. In college, I began to study world religions and the phenomenon of religion. In graduate school, I began to focus on my own traditions in an academic way and had almost what I'd describe as an intellectual conversion to Islam.

Did your focus change after September 11?

I was teaching Islamic studies at the University of Iowa at the time. After September 11, it became very clear to me not only that there was this great need for someone who could provide a bridge between the West and the Islamic world, who understood both and could communicate one to the other, but also that I didn't have a choice in the matter. There was a real responsibility that had been dropped on my shoulders from heaven above, and it would have been immoral of me to not take up that cause. I feel as though I really have no choice. I'm not alone in this. I speak to a lot of people like me in Europe and the United States who are working, not just to reframe the perceptions of Islam but also to battle this jihadist ideology. And none of us asked for this job. I was planning on becoming a novelist until all of this happened.

Is this a calling in the traditional sense of the word?

It really is. Part of it has come from my own intellectual and spiritual pursuits, but a lot of it comes from my education. I was taught by the Jesuits at Santa Clara University, and in the Jesuit tradition of Catholicism, it's constantly pounded into your head that you are responsible for the world, that there's no way to shirk that responsibility. I think it really came home to me after September 11 what it was that I was being called to do.

Your family left Iran in 1979, during the revolution. Were you forced to leave?

My father has always been a deeply anti-religious man—a militant atheist. I think he had such a distrust of the clerical establishment in Iran that he had a premonition that they were going to try to seize power once the shah had gone and once the post-revolutionary chaos really set in. Unlike the rest of his family. Nobody else really left. We left fairly late; we were [among] the last people to leave the country before the airports closed down.

Considering that his cynicism about religion was proved right in a way, how does your father feel about what you're doing now?

Now that I'm successful, he's very happy. He's always been unconditional in his support of whatever I wanted to do, but I think he always thought to himself, "How did I raise this boy?"

Does he support your ideas too?

He may be anti-religious, but he's deeply anti-Islamic. He read the galleys of my book, and it was hard for him to understand everything. He actually ended up reading the book three times, and afterwards he said to me, "I think I really get it, I think I get what you're saying. It makes a lot of sense." That was a wonderful moment for me.

Is he less angry at Islam now?

I think he has a better perspective on it now. He's still a committed atheist.

You have a new book coming out in 2008, How to Win a Cosmic War. What is a cosmic war?

Well, the term "cosmic war" is something that was created by my mentor, [University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist] Mark Juergensmeyer. Many religiously inspired terrorists, confronted with a conflict that cannot be won in any real or measurable terms, recast the conflict into cosmic terms, so that they're not fighting a real war; they're fighting an imaginary war that's actually taking place in heaven, not between nations or armies, but between angels of good and demons of evil. That's the kind of conflict that the jihadists are fighting. And the reason that we are doing such a poor job of counteracting the jihadists' mentality is that we're fighting the exact same unwinnable conflict. The way you win a cosmic war is by refusing to fight in one.

This conflict exists in the real world too. How should we define it?

We define it as a criminal investigation of people that need to be brought to justice. You can't win a battle against an idea with guns and bombs, you have to win it with words. Words become the greatest tools. The rhetoric that we have been using to define this conflict, this religiously charged, us versus them rhetoric, has made victory a more distant prospect. The way that we are talking about this conflict, as though the jihadists have it in their power to bring down human civilization as we know it, does nothing more than validate the jihadists' cause and provide them with the illusion of power.

Do YOU believe in God?

Oh yes. Many people who study history of religions come to the discipline from a position of faith but quite quickly lose that position. But I think it's because so many people, even academics, confuse religion and faith. In the course of their intellectual studies, they recognize that no religion has a monopoly on truth, and in fact they are talking about the same issues, asking the same questions and often coming up with the exact same answers. For some people, that is a reason to no longer believe. For me, it's the primary reason to believe.

What is the difference between religion and faith?

[With faith,] we are talking about inexpressible ideas, transcendent ideas. We need a language with which to talk about it. And religion's purpose is to provide that language. I think the problem comes when the language becomes not a means to achieving transcendence but the end in itself. That's where we are right now. I try to not just educate people about the religions of the world but about what religion actually means, what it's supposed to be. We need not only a better understanding of our neighbor's religion but a better understanding of religion itself.

What Is religion's role in modern society?

If you believe that nothing exists beyond the material world, then you have no need for any kind of religion. But if you believe that there is something beyond the material world, that's called religion. I don't think that religion is becoming less relevant. I just think it's changing.

A former editorial assistant at Smithsonian, Amy Crawford is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Why All the Fuss? Gay Marriage and the Fear of Joy Among Muslims

By Tarek Fatah and Nargis Tapal

Last month, we attended a number of weddings in Toronto. Each had its own flavor, from Pakistani to Palestinian, from elaborate Orthodox church ceremonies to modest mosque rituals. Though the rites differed, the grooms and brides were all beaming with joy.

As these couples embraced their future together, we couldn't help but feel sad for Canada's gay and lesbian couples being pilloried for seeking the same happiness. We were also taken back to a humid August evening in Karachi in 1974 when we were permitted to marry.

Gays and lesbians wishing to marry face a gantlet of opposition and we, as a heterosexual Muslim couple, can empathize with their pain. To become husband and wife, we, too, had to confront deep-seated prejudices. Culture, religion, and family would not permit the daughter of a Shia Muslim of Gujarati ethnicity to marry the son of a Sunni Muslim of Punjabi ancestry.

Four years earlier, our paths had crossed at a noisy demonstration at the University of Karachi. Two 20-year-olds pursuing graduate studies in English literature; one, an orator with two stints as a political prisoner; the other, a Beatles fan with a Ringo Starr mop of hair, who had never been to a protest rally in her life. They fell in love. In true Islamic tradition, she proposed, he accepted.

However, it was not to be that easy. This was traditional Pakistan where nothing happened without parental assent. When news got out that Nargis Tapal and Tarek Fatah wanted to wed, all hell broke loose. Both families vetoed the match. Devastated, we contemplated eloping, and were accepted at Oklahoma State University, but just to get there would cost a fortune, and we were penniless.

With nowhere to run, we persevered and several years later, both sets of parents buckled and gave their consent. To this day, we still cannot understand why it was so difficult to achieve such simple joy. After 29 years as husband and wife, we want no one denied the happiness we enjoy.

Sadly, the gatekeepers of bliss and the purveyors of grief are still alive and well. From prelates and imams to rabbis and pundits, the forces of religion are arrayed against the gay and lesbian community. Once again, we are witnessing an attack on joy and happiness in the name of religion and tradition.

As practising Muslims, we acknowledge that no faith, particularly Islam in its traditional interpretation, permits same-sex marriage or condones homosexuality. However, neither does faith allow hate and bigotry to be camouflaged as a quest for religious purity.

Most Canadian Muslims reject the notion of same-sex marriages and they are perfectly entitled to their beliefs, if, indeed, the issue is one of belief. But we think the position taken by religious leaders attacks the basic humanity of gays and lesbians. Dehumanizing "the other" is the first step to setting them as targets of bigotry and hate. Invoking religion to accomplish this task is shameful.

A Muslim monthly magazine asked its readers in an editorial , "Would you rather have church or state in your bedroom?"

Without answering the question, and oblivious to the implications of inviting church, mosque or state into our bedrooms, the writer goes on to predict moral disaster.

Accepting homosexual relationships as "marriage" will be the last nail in the coffin of human morality, according to the editorial. We Muslims allowed and promoted the delinquency in our daily life and kept quiet; we tolerated the illegitimate relationships of consenting adults outside marriage; we turned a blind eye to the "coming out of the closet" and hid behind the curtain of "hate the sin, but love the sinner" ... Even if we are looked upon in the West as "fundamentalists" or "homophobes," it is an obligation for all Muslims to do our part just as the Catholics are doing.

Last nail in the coffin of human morality? Not the Holocaust, not the genocide in Rwanda, not the massacres in Bosnia? Just same-sex marriage? Not murder, not hunger, not rape, not war, not honour killing, not illiteracy, not sexual assault by clergy, not its cover-up? To the editorial writer, nothing seems to be as vile as homosexuality.

Muslims should know better than to fall into this trap. They have been at the receiving end of slander and hate and it has taken collective action of some courageous people to defend the human rights and humanity of Muslims as equal citizens in our society. Even though an overwhelming majority of Canadians does not believe in the Qur'an as a word of God and Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, as a Messenger of God, we Muslims have been given a status, at least in the law, as equal citizens, no matter how offensive others may find our religion.

The same holds true for the other side. After all, Muslims do not believe that Jesus was a Son of God; or that God should be worshipped in physical depictions such as statues; or that God does not exist at all, as atheists say. However, not only have we learned to accept Canadians with whom we have profound differences of religious belief, we have developed a society in which these differences are no hindrance to our relationship with each other.

It has been the intrinsically tolerant nature of Canadian society that has defined the rights of Muslims as equal citizens, despite our minority status. How can we then campaign against the very values that accord us the dignity we deserve?

If you believe your religion doesn't permit gay marriage, then simply don't marry a person of your own sex. End of story. Why would you wish to impose this standard on people who believe that religion, in their interpretation, does not exclude same-sex marriages?

The same religious groups that today say their only objection to the proposed law is the word "marriage," were at the forefront of challenging Bob Rae's Bill 167 in 1994; a proposed law that did not mention same-sex marriage and spoke only of same-sex rights.

The law drafted by the federal government as presented to the Supreme Court makes an explicit declaration protecting the right of any church, mosque, synagogue, and temple to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

So why the fuss over gay marriage? Could it be the same forces of religion, tradition, culture, and hate that opposed our heterosexual marriage 30 years ago are still making their presence felt? Is it joy that they fear? Happiness, it seems, is an affront; they simply cannot fathom the idea of two people wishing to live together as a family, and to be accepted the way the Almighty created them.

As a happily married Muslim couple who almost weren't, we need to speak on their behalf, even though Islam does not permit same-sex marriages. If gays and lesbians wish to pursue their own path in life, who are we to place obstacles in their way? If their choices are contrary to that of the Divine, only the Divine can be certain. Let us find God in our kindness and compassion instead of hate and self-righteousness. For isn't God the most merciful and the most compassionate?

Only God knows whether we are right in standing up for our gay friends, but we do so in all sincerity and with the hope that no one should shower grief over the happiness sought by another human being. Let us learn to live and let live.

Tarek Fatah is co-founder of the Canadian Muslim Congress and host of Muslim Chronicle on Vision TV in Canada. Nargis Tapal writes short stories and poetry.

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Why the same-sex marriage debate still matters for Muslim Americans

Many Muslims may be receptive to concerns about civil liberties, but feel that they would be compromising their Islamic principles by voting against a ban on same-sex marriage. This need not be the case.

Last November, voters in California, Arizona, and Florida approved ballot measures that prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. The initiatives amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, thereby barring the state from recognizing marriages that do not meet this criteria. Similar measures have passed in eighteen other states since 2004, contributing to a growing national movement to introduce a federal constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage nationwide. The surprising success of these initiatives makes it likely that similar proposals will continue to be introduced in other states and ensures that the controversy over same-sex marriage will continue for years to come.

When confronted with this issue, many Muslim Americans may instinctively support such initiatives, citing traditional Islam's stance against homosexual lifestyles. However, should Muslims' position on this and other political issues be dictated solely by their moral views on homosexuality? Taking a deeper look into these initiatives and their implications suggests that the answer may not be so simple.

Support for bans on same-sex marriage is driven less by moral or religious disapproval of homosexuality and more by a general sense of fear and suspicion of communities that do not share all of the dominant society's values, norms, or traits. This can be discerned by noting that in many respects, the debate over same-sex marriage is a semantic dispute surrounding a largely ceremonial institution. In some states, bans against same-sex marriages do not prevent same-sex couples from entering into civil unions, an arrangement that confers the same rights and privileges as a marriage but is reserved for couples who do not meet the legal requirements of marriage.

Similarly, campaigns against gay marriage have not been accompanied by a movement to overturn the constitutional bar against laws that prohibit private homosexual relations (which was established when the Supreme Court struck down Texas' anti-sodomy statute in 2003). In focusing their efforts on same-sex marriage in particular--as opposed to homosexual relationships in general--the supporters of same-sex marriage bans have effectively acknowledged that their campaign is largely a symbolic endeavor to prevent the extension of equal rights to communities that do not share the dominant society's values.

Muslim Americans should note that these are the same instincts that underlie Islamophobia, as Muslims' distinct values and traditions are seen by some as being antithetical to American culture. Muslims' status as a religious minority in this country thus weighs against extending support to any endeavor that would impose the dominant society's values as law, even in instances where those values may agree with their own. Taking a public stand in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage based on vague notions of "traditional American values" leaves Muslims with little ground to stand on if those values are ever cited to impose laws that may clash with Muslim family norms.

For instance, marriage between first cousins is permitted in Islam but regarded as incestuous and abhorrent by the majority of Americans. If cousin marriage ever became such a pressing social issue that a proposal to ban recognition of marriages between first cousins was introduced, on what grounds would Muslim Americans oppose it? How would Muslim Americans argue in good faith that cousins should be allowed to marry, but homosexuals should not?

Furthermore, in order to fully understand the implications of any ballot measure, its principal backers and their agendas must be scrutinized. Without exception, proposals that would ban same-sex marriage have been spearheaded by coalitions of right-wing Christian organizations, a constituency whose leadership often holds anti-Islamic views and whose agenda is overwhelmingly hostile to the interests of Muslims in America.

On a local level, right-wing Christians have been at the forefront of campaigns to block the opening of new mosques, prevent the balanced teaching of Islam in public schools, and oppose the accommodation of Muslims' religious practices in the workplace. On a national level, the role of right-wing Christian groups in the War in Iraq and their vocal support for anti-Palestinian foreign policies are well-documented. Should such organizations be successful in their efforts to ban same-sex marriage nationwide, they may be emboldened to pursue reforms whose effects may not be so benign. Muslims must give serious thought to the consequences of strengthening this constituency by supporting its initiatives simply because they comport with Muslim family values.

Conversely, the opposite side of the gay marriage debate consists mainly of left-leaning leaders and organizations that may not share Muslims' family values but have taken pro-Muslim stances on numerous other issues of greater importance. The American Civil Liberties Union, which staunchly opposes bans on same-sex marriage, has organized campaigns against policies that disproportionately affect Muslim Americans and assisted many Muslims in seeking to redress instances of discrimination and injustice. Unitarian Christian organizations, among the most prominent religious groups to oppose bans on same-sex marriage, have stood with Muslims in campaigns against the Iraq War and the PATRIOT Act. Supporting a movement whose failure such organizations view as an important objective but whose success would bring minimal benefit to the Muslim community could alienate potential allies on the left whose support is critical to the emergence of Muslim Americans as a politically influential community.

Many Muslims may be receptive to the above concerns, but feel that they would be compromising their Islamic principles by voting against a ban on same-sex marriage. However, this need not be the case. A future vote against a ban on same-sex marriage does not necessarily constitute a vote of moral approval for homosexual lifestyles. No ballot measure can change Islam's clear and unambiguous stance on homosexuality. Rather, Muslims may disapprove of a practice while recognizing the right of other communities to apply their own distinct norms within the context of a pluralistic society.

This principle is not without parallel in the Islamic scholarly tradition. As noted by Professor Sherman Jackson, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, in his paper "Shari'ah, Democracy and the Modern Nation State: Some Reflections on Islam, Popular Rule and Pluralism," tenth century Hanbali jurist Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya held that the Abbasid State ought to tolerate the Zoroastrian practice of self-marriage whereby men married their mothers or sisters. According to Ibn Qayyim, as long as disputes involving such marriages were not brought before Muslim courts and as long as Zoroastrians considered self-marriage permissible according to their own religious laws, Muslim authorities should not interfere with the practice despite its clear conflict with Islamic Law. If classical Islamic scholars have tolerated the divergent norms of religious communities that came under Muslim rule, then why is it wrong for Muslim Americans to exercise the same tolerance as a minority community within a western society?

In order to progress and mature as a politically relevant community, Muslims must resist one-dimensional knee-jerk reactions to issues that are actually multi-faceted in nature. A Muslim stand against campaigns to ban same-sex marriage is not a show of support for homosexuals or homosexuality. Rather, it's a stand against the imposition of the majority's values on minority communities that many not share them, and a strategic move aimed at building the Muslim voice in America.

Sabir Ibrahim is an attorney in Mountain View, California.
This article was originally published at

Monday, 18 May 2009

Michael Muhammad Knight: Taqwacores, Sex and Punks

Miami Herald

Impossible Man. Michael Muhammad Knight. Soft Skull. 336 pages. $15.95 in paper.

The quest for absent fathers is a contemporary American fixation, animating everyone from our president to our pop stars. As Michael Muhammad Knight tells it, his dad, Wesley Unger, is a paranoid schizophrenic who, in the beginning of Knight's coming-of-age memoir, rapes and terrorizes his mother and, in the end, tells his son that Michael is F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Impossible Man is the story of Knight's search to fill that parental void with various obsessions, from Star Wars (humorously, he compares Unger to Darth Vader) to professional wrestling to Islam. The book is a singular journey of one strange, driven youth, told with an excess of detail yet propelled by a frank sense of discovery.

Knight has emerged as a young, original voice thanks to his cult novel The Taqwacores, a pulpish fantasy about Muslim punks in Buffalo that is already the subject of two films. Impossible Man reveals some of the inspiration that turned a white Muslim teenage virgin into a writer of feverishly imaginative blasphemous subcultural prose. Knight is a bit of a JT Leroy, except -- presuming Impossible Man passes fact-checking scrutiny -- for real this time.

Raised in horrific, white-trash conditions until his mother flees with him to upstate New York, Knight escapes harsh reality via various pop-culture surrogates. Fandom transforms into faith when repeated viewings of Spike Lee's biopic of Malcolm X lead him to convert to Islam. Knight changes his name and studies in Pakistan, but ultimately this devotion also proves to be a fad, and the author abandons plans to be a religious scholar.

The book gets a little lost with its narrator at this point; it's hard to fathom how Knight could go from asceticism to running a gory fight club in college. But the writer smartly doesn't try to offer big answers or psychobabble explanations.

The title comes from the superhero protagonist of one of several handwritten manuscripts Unger hands his son. Ultimately, Knight comes to accept his father for the nutcase he is and to find inspiration where he can in paternal babbling. When his father dubs him Fitzgerald, Knight decides to study the writer, and The Great Gatsby becomes the basis for Taqwacores (

In a nice bit of feminist perspective, the searcher recognizes that what's been important in his life is not parental absence but the presence of an extremely tolerant and supportive mother. ''You get into this, you get what you want out of it, and then it's on to the next thing. It's been like that since you were six years old,'' she tells him, nicely summarizing the narrative arc of Impossible Man. The intensity and peculiarity of Knight's obsessions make this memoir a refreshing saga. Whereas much of Taqwacores was indecipherable to people unfamiliar with Islam, this time around Knight takes pains to explain Muslim rituals and Arabic prayers. However, the repeated masturbation scenes (some of them verbatim repeats of passages in Taqwacores) show Knight hasn't quite grown up yet.

Evelyn McDonnell is a writer in Miami Beach.


Product Description
Taqwacores are a legendary group of California Islamic punk bands with their own superstars and customs: Sunni straight-edgers, riot grrls in burqas, and stoned, mohawked Sufis acknowledge the old rules, but live a riotous American tradition of Islam. Buffalo, NY is a collegiate microcosm of the Khalifornia scene where debate rages about whether electric guitars are halal and what the Quranic sources are for an Iggy Pop song. A trucker incarnation of Rumi who leaves love poems at rest stops is among the other Muslim iconoclasts who inhabit this surprising milieu, an intimate, new American Islamic experience.

About the Author
Michael Muhammed Knight converted to Islam at sixteen after reading Malcolm X's biography, and spent two months at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan. He later left orthodox Islam. His writing regularly appears in progressive Islamic venues. He lives in Western New York State.