Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

BBC Radio Scotland – Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Monday 29th October 2018

America is reeling from what is believed to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent US history, carried out during a baby naming ceremony at a Synagogue in Pittsburg.   It’s hard for us to imagine the pain and suffering caused to the Jewish community at this time and our thoughts are with them.  A friend of mine in the US asked yesterday whether it was now time to have armed guards at Churches and Synagogues. 

Throughout the six years I lived there, I could not understand the way in which guns are a part of American society. I experienced first hand the impact of a drive by shooting in Miami.  What I remember most is the way in which the community pulled together to heal and strengthen.   

We live in uncertain and distrusting times. Sadly these sentiments are now finding their way into popular politics in a way that can divide and cause great harm to communities.  I work in Ireland now and in the recent Irish presidential elections, one candidate made controversial comments about the traveller community.  It was interesting to see how different sections of Irish society made clear that such sentiments were not welcome. All over the world we see people struggling to find peaceful and respectful ways to live together. 

Building and strengthening understanding between people, where there is currently suspicion and a sense of difference, is a hard task.  There is much to do in bridging our religious and cultural divides.  It pushes me to reconsider concepts such as Jihad – sacred struggles, which in my view, are to uphold good and beauty in ourselves and the society we live in, to strengthen our bonds in pushing against hate for love.  But I recognize that there is not one shared understanding of Jihad.  We all have to find our own words and ways to counter hate crimes as we resolutely continue to build the conditions for a caring community. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Eid al Adha 2018

BBC Radio Scotland - Thought for the Day – Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Republic of Ireland – Wednesday 22nd August 2018

The Islamic pilgrimage season of Hajj is coming to an end and Eid is being celebrated throughout the world.  I celebrated Eid yesterday with family and friends here in Glasgow.  I was talking with a friend about Eid being a festival of sacrifice on the way to lay some flowers at my Dad’s grave.  Eid is a time when Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, only to have him replaced by a ram.  It’s a difficult story to make sense of. It challenges our commitment to God, to family and our thoughts about sacrifices. Eid is then a time to reflect upon the Qur’anic statement that neither their meat nor blood reaches God but faithful piety, showing kindness and goodness to those less fortunate.   
I was thinking about these tensions yesterday when it was revealed that the British businessman Richard Cousins, who died alongside his family in a plane crash whilst in Australia at New Year, had left £41 million to Oxfam with £2 million going equally to his two brothers.  How do we balance our commitments and responsibilities in life?  It made me think about the many sacrifices that my own Dad made as he crossed over from Pakistan to set up home in Scotland.   

For many Muslims who can afford to, this is a time when animals are sacrificed all over the world.  The meat is distributed to the poor but some of it is also kept at home.  These religious acts strengthen the connection between us but recently Muslim organisations have been advocating for vegetarian and vegan options to Islamic sacrifice.  Some Muslims are thinking differently about sacrifice and charity. I guess it differs from person to person but, for me, this time of Eid makes me think about the relationship between my faith, religious acts, and making the world a better place for us all.

Eid Mubarak

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.


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.