Friday, 11 January 2013

Muslims engage in quest to understand evolution ~~~ British Muslims acknowledge a common misunderstanding of evolution but still differ about how to reconcile faith with science


Yasmin Khan 
Published in The Guardian, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Wednesday 9 January 2013 11.09 EST


More than 850 delegates flocked to a seminal conference in London on Saturday about the compatibility of modern evolutionary theory and Islamic theology – despite scaremongering and the refusal of Islamic student societies to participate. Determined organisers had overcome pressure to cancel by changing the venue from Imperial College to Logan Hall at the University of London. The event was the brainchild of the Deen Institute, which runs courses to promote critical thinking among Muslim students and kindle rational dialogue within Islam. The need for dialogue is urgent, because to date there has been little open discussion within British Muslim communities on this divisive subject. Recent debates in the US suggest that evolution is not as much of a problem theologically to Muslims as it is to Christian creationists, but there is work to be done to clarify the situation.

Evolution … contested territory for Muslims. Photograph: Philipp Kammerer/Alamy

One of the speakers was Professor Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "Muslims must revolutionise their perspective on evolution if they are to move forward in the 21st century," said Abouheif, who considers himself to be both a scientist and a sincere believer. He is a veteran of debates like this. "Biological evolution is a fact. The evidence is overwhelming and indisputable," he said.

Beamed into Logan Hall via satellite was Dr Oktar Babuna, a spokesperson for Harun Yahya – founder of the controversial Turkish creationist movement that has often been accused of obscuring clear scientific thinking.

Babuna's impenetrable polemic was relentless. "Evolution is not a scientific theory," he said, "as it has yet to be verified by scientific evidence. In fact, evolution has already been falsified."
He maintains that no evolutionary mechanism has been found. His logic is that if successive minor changes had accumulated into a big change during speciation, transitional forms would outnumber the original and transformed species in the fossil record. But, according to palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, the record showed otherwise.

Much to the amusement of the audience, Babuna repeatedly offered a £5m cash prize to anyone who can find a transitional fossil.

Abouheif's swift rebuttal fell on deaf ears. He pointed out that the expectation of finding transitional fossils erroneously presumes a gradual and linear model of evolution (Gould and Eldredge proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972 to explain the absence of transitional species). He lamented that Babuna was dragging us back to Darwin's 1859 version of evolution before the discovery of DNA.

Fatima Jackson, a biological anthropologist at the University of Maryland, offered a compelling alternative narrative. Nothing in biology would make sense outside the evolution paradigm, which she defined as a "basic organising tool". She reconciled her faith with science by holding to the belief that the singularity of life is a manifestation of the unity of God. In her view, exploring natural phenomena helps to bring us closer to God. "Evolution doesn't replace faith, it complements it."  Each primate, she said, "has its own trajectory from a common ancestor which has diversified". Humans are a part of the natural world and not a unique creation. "You can't just push the fossils away," she cautioned, citing an article by Sheikh al-Turayri, who asserts that the question of evolution is purely a matter for scientific inquiry.
 
Dr Usama Hasan, a senior researcher in Islamic studies at the Quilliam Foundation and a part-time imam, said Yahya's creationist arguments were easily discredited (though he later confessed to previously teaching Yahya's fallacy, before deeper research into the subject). His current stance has provoked outrage and even death threats.

Hasan courageously presented evolution as a theory initially recorded by Muslim thinkers. For instance, he said, William Draper refers to the "Mohammedan theory of the evolution of man from lower forms, or his gradual development to his present condition in the long lapse of time."     Unsung champions of evolution from the Muslim world included Al Jahiz and Ibn Maskawaih, a 10th century scholar. Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah explicitly describes an animal hierarchy, said Hasan.  But these claims were vehemently refuted by Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, Islamic instructor for the Al-Maghrib Institute, who said the descriptions were meant in a different context and that these scholars were not experts in either theology or biology.

Hassan argued that his views on evolution were firmly within the limits of Islamic thought and that difference of opinion was permissible. Qadhi disagreed: "It is sacrilegious to have two different Islamic opinions on this issue."

But Qadhi distanced himself from Yahya's creationist camp. "It is a mistake for Muslims to say we don't believe in evolution." Most of the principles of evolution posed no problems for Islamic theology, he said.

It was fine for Muslims to believe there were dinosaurs, speciation among hominids and even a common ancestor for all animals on Earth – except for one exception – mankind. "We are an honoured species distinctive from animals in terms of meta-cognition, language, morals, creativity and religion."

He addressed the ultimate sticking point for the majority of Muslims: "God created Adam to fit into the grand scheme of things. Adam and Eve did not have parents – they did not evolve. Any other position is scripturally indefensible."

Hasan denied that belief in evolution inevitably leads to atheism. "Science tells us how we were created, revelation tells us why." Just as science could not measure the existence of souls there was no experiment that could validate or deny the existence of God, he said.

Qadhi pointed out that Muslims were not historically anti-science in the way Christianity had been. But he went on: "We need to put science in its proper place". In his view, "science is the study of understanding Allah's creation".

Hassan responded by suggesting that religious scholars who do not understand the sciences should not interfere. "It is not the job of theologians to dictate what scientists can and cannot do. Isn't your attitude holding back the Muslim ummah?"

Qadhi's reply provoked rapturous applause from the audience. "The Qur'an compels us to believe in the super rational; that which is beyond our comprehension."

The debate stimulated intense discussion and I found myself agreeing with different strands from different speakers, but to varying degrees. I am convinced that the scientific rationality of Abouheif and Jackson outweighs the droll scepticism of Babuna. But I was torn between the theological cerebral flexibility of Hasan and the unwavering categorical rhetoric of Qadhi.

As the event closed I was left restless and sensed that others felt similarly conflicted. I tried to envisage how to establish a consensus of Muslim opinion on this topic. Where was the call to action? Who would bring the necessary scholars and scientists together to form a legitimate committee?

The debate has lifted the lid on this Pandora's Box, but the next steps are uncertain. Without more structured engagement with Muslims, the concept of human evolution will continue to be both an intellectual and spiritual minefield.

Yasmin Khan is an independent cultural adviser. Follow her on Twitter @Ya5min_BL

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Prof Mona Siddiqui - Religion, rights and the secular space



Mona Siddiqui OBE, Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies in the School of Divinity and Assistant Principal for Religion and Society, presents "Religion, rights and the secular space".

Recorded on Tuesday 30 October 2012 at the University of Edinburgh's Appleton Tower lecture theatre.

This lecture is part of the University's "Our Changing World" public lecture series, which examines the global challenges facing society, and the role of academia in meeting these challenges: http://www.ed.ac.uk/events/changing-world

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Can “jihad” survive Pam Geller? By Alex Seitz-Wald

Published at salon.com - All Rights Reserved, Copyright


So you want to rebrand a word. It’s hard to think of a more difficult rebranding project than “jihad.”  Since Sept. 11, the term has become synonymous with terrorism and villainy — but now a group of Muslims is trying to reclaim the word from the extremists, and redefine “jihad” to mean something normal and peaceful and good. They realize this won’t be easy.

MyJihad.org bus ad featuring two volunteers, an American-Muslim and an Israeli-Jew. (Credit: MyJihad.org)

The campaign hinges on the idea that “jihad” has two commonly accepted usages. One is the violent, physical struggle most of us are familiar with. The other, which many Muslims and Islamic scholars consider the more correct definition, refers to the inner struggle to do good and follow God’s teaching; Muslims strive to attain this every day. This is the “proper meaning” being promoted by My Jihad, a public education campaign recently launched on billboards and on buses in Chicago.

“The campaign is about reclaiming Islam, and not just ‘jihad,’ from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremists,” said Ahmed Rehab, the leader of the effort, in an interview. “Whether it’s the bin Ladens and the al-Qaidas of the Muslim world, or the Pam Gellers and Frank Gaffneys of the non-Muslim world, ironically — even though they come from the two opposite ends of the spectrum — they agree exactly on the same definition of ‘jihad’ and on the same worldview of Islam versus the rest of the world.”

In fact, the ads were directly inspired by Geller, the anti-Muslim blogger and activist, who has plastered her own billboards on subways and buses in New York. They label Muslims as “savages” and incite viewers to “defeat Jihad.”

“Everybody was talking about the ‘savage’ part, but to me, that’s just sort of an insult — she thinks I’m a savage, I think she’s an idiot, we’re even,” he said. “But the problem for me was the use of the word ‘jihad.’ When no one seemed to care about that, I realized that we have a problem.”

In billboards on buses and subways, smiling Muslims and non-Muslims share universal human aspirations, personalized by the individual “jihads” of the non-actor volunteers who share their struggles. In this context, a jihad is no more threatening than a New Year’s resolution. “My jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule,” one woman with a headscarf and a barbell says. Others deal with raising children, doing well at work, and making friendships with different kinds of people. To Rehab, jihad means that when you are “confronted with two choices, you make the right choice and not the easy one.”

Ads have already gone up on buses in Chicago and San Francisco, and will soon go up in 10 other major American cities and a handful of international ones, including London, Sydney and Melbourne. There’s a website, Facebook page and Twitter hashtag where people can share their own personal jihads.

On Monday, Egyptian activists working with the group even unfurled a giant banner in front of the main church in Cairo wishing a Merry Christmas (Coptic Christians celebrate the holiday on Jan. 7) in contravention of hard-line Islamic proclamations that Christmas should not be recognized.  That may not sound so scary, but the opposition has been predictably vitriolic. The group’s Twitter and Facebook pages have received hateful messages from hard-line Islamists. Geller, predictably, is exercised.

She has written at least a dozen posts using the campaign’s #myjihad hashtag, which currently represent about two out of every three posts on the front page of her influential anti-Muslim blog. Geller also seems determined to play a game of bait and switch to sabatoge the rival campaign. She registered the domain name MyJihad.us (the real URL ends in .org) and is even trying to run copycat ads that are clearly designed to be confused with Rehab’s. In her ads, the peaceful Muslim is replaced with pictures of Osama bin Laden and the burning twin towers. She trying to get approval from the Chicago Transit Authority for the ads to appear on city buses, but they may be rejected for infringing on My Jihad’s copyright to the template.

One would think that My Jihad is exactly the kind of moderate Muslim voice that Geller — who claims to be so threatened by Muslim “extremists” — would want to promote. But in reality, “the extremists on both sides need each other for validation. And we’re a threat to both,” Rehab said.  Rehab is the executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), but he’s doing this on his own time and with separate funds to keep it a grass-roots effort. What started as a Facebook group less than a month ago has grown into a sophisticated public relations campaign that has already raised $20,000 and recruited dozens of volunteers, most of whom are “soccer moms” who don’t want their kids to feel intimidated at school because of their religion, Rehab said. “These are the army of My Jihad,” he quipped.

But can the popular conception of “jihad” really be changed with some ads and a hashtag?
“I would look at this conflict as I would any other product: We have an image problem,” said Arash Afshar, an Iranian-American marketing consultant who is not involved with the campaign. “This is exactly what Muslims should be doing … The way to combat an image problem is not to simply sit back and hope it goes away. You develop a branding strategy and motivate your already existing fan-base.”

The challenge will be to sustain the campaign, he said, pointing to the similarly buzzy and controversial Israel Loves Iran campaign.

The challenge is no doubt immense, however, explained Jean-Pierre Dubé, a professor of marketing at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. “The problem we have here is that this is a case where we literally want to do an about-face on the interpretation of the word. And there’s so much passion behind how people have used this term that it’s hard to imagine this is something you can change overnight.”

Still, there are plenty of examples of brands dramatically turning their image around, Dubé said. Marlboro, contrary to its contemporary image of masculine ruggedness personified by the Marlboro Man, was initially marketed as a cigarette for women. Its signature red color comes from a red band on the tip designed to hide lipstick stains — “A cherry tip for your ruby lips,” as the slogan went. Likewise, Mountain Dew successfully remade itself as a drink for the X-Games in the 1990s. There’s even some precedent, of sorts, in the religious world. Catholicism essentially tried to rebrand itself in the 1960s with Vatican II, though the success is more dubious.

But those turnarounds took a lot of time and “tons and tons of money,” Dubé noted, and there was hardly the passion around the gender connotation of Marlboro as there is around the concept of jihad. What jihad needs is a “brand hijacking,” Dubé said, like what happened to Doc Martens in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when teenage grunge rockers took over what had been a gardening boot. When Doc Martens executives realized the potential, they immediately changed gears to capitalize on the trend.

The problem here for My Jihad, however, is that there is no central authority in Islam, unlike in Catholicism or with Doc Martens, and thus no “owner” of the brand associated with jihad. So you have Rehab and his cohort trying to execute a “hijacking of a hijacking,” as Dubé put it, to take back the word from the extremists who initially commandeered it. But in the end, no one can rightfully claim to be the final arbiter of the word “jihad.”

If you talk to other Muslim activists, they’ll probably agree that the general usage of “jihad” is an unfortunate perversion, but they are wary to engage in what seems like a losing battle over semantics, especially when there are so many other pressing problems with Islamophobia. Rehab said he’s sympathetic to this argument, but that semantics are important and that his community is starting to realize it. “That was my message to the community. Not only is it so misidentified, but we as Muslims — a lot of us — have resigned ourselves to that and moved on or even stopped trying to change it.”

This isn’t the first effort to change the popular usage of “jihad.” In 2005, Islamic historian Douglas Streusand submitted a paper to the Pentagon arguing that the military should stop using the word to refer to Islamist militants. “If we are calling them ‘people who strive in the path of God,’ in other words — if we are calling them meritorious Muslims — then we are implying that we are fighting Islam, even if we’re not,” he wrote. To make a comparison more Americans would understand, Streusand said calling militants “jihadis” is “like calling Germans during the Second World War ‘National Socialist Aryan Heroes.’”

UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, a prominent critic of puritanical interpretations of Islam, has long campaigned against the modern usage of the word. “When I write an article speaking to extremists and convincing them that they are wrong theologically and morally and legally, I consider myself in a state of jihad. I expect to be rewarded by God,” he told NPR in 2006.

Rehab and his compatriots realize it will be difficult to change the meaning of “jihad,” but he’s hoping the campaign will at least “start a conversation” about a concept that is critical to the practice of Islam, yet completely misunderstood. The same could be said about Islam more generally in the West. The religion, omnipresent in pop culture and foreign policy debates, is still mysterious to so many Americans and its popular image too often dictated by the extremists, and not its everyday adherents. If nothing else, the fact that Geller feels threatened shows they’re doing something right.

Hopefully, this campaign can start to demystify Islam by taking the edge out of the scariest word in the religion and making jihad as quotidian as going to the gym. That’s Rehab’s jihad, what’s yours?

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

An Agnostic Biography of the Prophet Muhammad By Lesley Hazleton

  • The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad
  • by Lesley Hazleton
  • Riverhead Books , 2013   
  • Published at Religion Dispatches: All Rights Reserved, Copyright
  •  
  • What inspired you to write The First Muslim?

    Basically, frustration! I’d read several biographies of Muhammad as background for my previous book, After the Prophet, but though they seemed to tell me a lot about him, they left me with little real sense of the man himself. There was a certain dutiful aspect to them, and this made them kind of... soporific. Which seemed to me a terrible thing to do to such a remarkable life.
    There was a terrific story to be told here: the journey from neglected orphan to acclaimed leader—from marginalized outsider to the ultimate insider—made all the more dramatic by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, faith, and politics. I wanted to be able to see Muhammad as a complex, multidimensional human being, instead of the two-dimensional figure created by reverence on the one hand and prejudice on the other. I wanted the vibrancy and vitality of a real life lived.

    But of course I was also impelled by a certain dismay at how little most of us in the West know about Muhammad, especially when Islam is so often in the headlines and there are so many competing claims to “the truth about Islam.” This one man radically changed his world—indeed he’s still changing ours—so it seemed to me vitally important that we be able to get beyond stereotypes and see who he really was.

    What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Muhammad?
    Let’s take just the two most obvious stereotypes: the lecherous polygamist, and the sword-wielding warmonger. In fact Muhammad’s first marriage, to Khadija, was a loving, monogamous relationship that lasted 24 years, until her death. The nine late-life marriages were mainly diplomatic ones—means of sealing alliances, as was standard for any leader at the time. And it’s striking that while he had five children with Khadija—four daughters and a son who died in infancy—he had none with any of the late-life wives.

    As for the warmonger image, Muhammad maintained a downright Gandhian stance of passive, nonviolent resistance to both verbal and physical assaults for 12 years, until he was driven into exile from his home in Mecca. The psychology of exile thus played a large role in the armed conflict over the subsequent eight years, until Mecca finally accepted his leadership in a negotiated surrender, with strong emphasis on avoiding bloodshed.

    Is there anything you had to leave out?
    I know there’s a tendency to elide certain issues of Muhammad’s life, not least among them the rapid deterioration of his relations with the Jews of Medina, which was especially hard for me, as a Jew, to write about. But to evade such issues seems to me to demonstrate a certain lack of respect for your subject. A biographer’s task is surely to create as full a portrait as possible. If you truly respect your subject, you need to do him justice by according him the integrity of reality.

    What alternative title would you give the book?
    Perhaps "Seeing Muhammad Whole." Or "A Man in Full." But since Muhammad is told three times in the Qur'an to call himself the first Muslim, I knew early on that this would be the title.

    Did you have a specific audience in mind?
    It kind of hurts to think of intelligent, open-minded readers as a specific audience...

    Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
    Far more than inform! The pleasure for me lies in the “aha!” of understanding, of grasping the richness of reality, with all its uncertainties and dilemmas. It’s in the practice of empathy—not sympathy, but empathy, which is the good-faith attempt to understand someone else’s experience. Those who nurture images of Muhammad as the epitome of either all evil or all good may well be disconcerted, but then that’s the point: empathy trumps stereotype any time.

    What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
    The First Muslim isn’t a “message” book. If anything, since I’m agnostic, you might call it an agnostic biography. But I think many readers may be surprised at Muhammad’s deep commitment to social justice, his radical protest against greed and corruption, and his impassioned engagement with the idea of unity, both human and divine—major factors that help explain the appeal of Islam.

    How do you feel about the cover?
    I loved it the minute I saw it. Riverhead brilliantly avoided all the usual obvious images—domes, minarets, crescent moons, camels, and so on—and opted instead for the understated elegance of this classic “knot” tile design.

    Is there a book out there you wish you’d written?
    On Muhammad? No, and that’s exactly why I wrote The First Muslim. The book I wish someone else had written didn’t exist—one that brought psychological and political context to the historical and religious record, and one I actually wanted to read instead of feeling that I should.

    What’s your next book?
    I’m thinking it’s time to explore exactly what I mean by being an agnostic, and how this informs my ongoing fascination with the vast and volatile arena in which religion and politics intersect.