The Critical Thinking Muslim

                                                                                                —Image from ModDB 

“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.” – Carl Sagan

The Muslim world possesses a wealth of knowledge, especially in regards devotional literature, theology, and jurisprudence, yet we have not transformed our knowledge into thoughtful and well-executed ways of addressing our most pressing needs. Muslim communities throughout the world face a plethora of problems: poverty, authoritarianism, civil war, neo-colonialism, occupation, sectarianism, sexual exploitation, corruption, social inequality, civil war, natural disasters, etc. Even American Muslims, who are largely shielded from these perils, are challenged. We face a number of issues: cronyism, crime, domestic violence, poverty, ineptly run institutions, sexism, tribalism, infighting, isolationism, Islamophobia, and an inability to address the needs of marginalized members of our community. The American Muslim community is increasingly literate, with unprecedented access to traditional scholarship and information. Islamic institutions of learning are filled to the brim. Although the American Muslim community is predominantly middle class and highly literate, we somehow still seem ill equipped and are stuck in a quagmire (Pew). We are unable to talk to each other, work together, and develop a common vision. That special something is missing and that something is Critical thinking.

As Muslims, the command to “seek knowledge” is almost like a mantra. But how often are we encouraged to think on a higher level, let alone think critically? This is especially important to think about considering how God speaks of comprehension and thinking in the Quran. Tafakkur تفكر is the reflexive form of the root فكر, which means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder, muse, speculate. Tafakkur means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder muse speculate revolve in one’s mind, think over, contemplate, and consider. It is mentioned in the Quran 17 times. In Surah A-Rum verse 8 Allah says:

Do they not contemplate within themselves? Allah has not created the heavens and the earth and what is between them except in truth and for a specified term. And indeed, many of the people, in [the matter of] the meeting with their Lord, are disbelievers. (Sahih International)

The word for “Intellect” is ‘Aql عقل, meaning sense, sentience, reason, understanding, comprehension, discernment, insight, rationality, mind, intellect, intelligence. The verb form that we will see commonly used in Qur’an is عقل to be endowed with (the faculty of) reason, be reasonable, have intelligence, to be in one’s senses, be conscious, to realize, comprehend, and understand. In the 49 references of the word in the Qur’an, God often speaks of the disbelievers who do not comprehend.
In Surah Baqarah verse 276, Allah says:

And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We have believed”; but when they are alone with one another, they say, “Do you talk to them about what Allah has revealed to you so they can argue with you about it before your Lord?” Then will you not reason? (Sahih international)

Another important Arabic word that corresponds to critical thinking is the word for logic, منطق which means the faculty of speech, manner of speech, eloquence, diction, enunciation, logic. All three terms, are important to consider when we think of critical thinking. And, I will discuss later, we will see how Muslim scholars employed critical thinking in their struggle to determine what God intended for us to do when an issue was not explicitly stated in the Quran or Hadith literature. Critical thinking implies:

  •  that there is a reason or purpose to the thinking, some problem to be solved or question to be answered.
  • analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information (CTILAC)

Without these two, we were seriously hamstrung. While having the faculty for critical thinking, our community has either ignored its tradition of critical thinking or underdeveloped due to reactionary thinking. As a result, we are a bit hamstrung by our own intellectual deficiencies. I say this with all respect, because we have many knowledgeable people, but they are not good problem solvers and their analysis and evaluation of information is lacking.
As a result, we hit a number of roadblocks. Many Muslims see Islam as a monolith and try to impose their rigid and authoritarian models on others. Our leaders are unable to come up with solutions to problems that were never imagined by classical or early modern legal and religious scholars. Individuals with little experience in non-profit development or leadership, build institutions with little understanding of how to meet social needs. And lay members of our community lock horns in heated theological and juristic debates that take away from a sense of fellowship and coherent communities. Our communities are fragmented by endless polemics where labels and plastic words substitute for real engagement with our differences and our commonalities. All of these problems come about because critical thinking in Islamic studies and devotional education is not something that is valued within our community. Despite our undervaluing of it, there is a great need for critically thinking Muslims, from your average lay member of the community, leaders, and scholars.

If we understand our own legacy of critical thinking and continue to develop critical thinking at all levels of devotional and Islamic education, Muslims will be better equipped to deal with our most daunting challenges. Before going into our legacy of critical thinking, it is important to understand how the term is currently used. The term “Critical Thinking” encompasses a wide array of ways of thinking and processing information. Scriven and Paul write, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” In my experience of teaching, from a high school to college level classes, the most important tool I have tried to help my students develop has been critical thinking. One of the best ways of seeing critical thinking in action was to have students write research papers with sound arguments. That is because “in essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.)” (Adsit). But I often found that most students lacked not only discipline and curiosity, but also an interest in developing their higher order thinking abilities. Instead, they often focused on trying to get the right answer, rather than learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. When students don’t think well, they don’t write well. Writing is a higher order level of thinking, but anyone can write without thinking, just as someone can speak without thinking on a subject. But eloquent and logical speeches and well written papers reflect disciplined critical thinking. And both can be subject to critique by others who are keen to see logical fallacies, misuse of sources, or failure to include other factors.

Critical thinking is something that develops with practice. It is something we have to train for. Scriven and Paul write that critical thinking is a set of skills that help us “process and generate information and beliefs.” They also a “habit,” or inclination based on intellectual commitment, “of using those skills to guide behavior.” Critical thinking helps an individual recognize the following:

i. patterns and provides a way to use those patterns to solve a problem or answer a question
ii. errors in logic, reasoning, or the thought process
iii. what is irrelevant or extraneous information
iv. preconceptions, bias, values and the way that these affect our thinking. that these preconceptions and values mean that any inferences are within a certain context
v. ambiguity – that there may be more than one solution or more than one way to solve a problem.” (CTILAC)

Critical thinking is not limited to subjects, so religious thinking has also benefited from critical thinking and in fact, our own tradition of scholarship shines due to our classical medieval scholars’ commitment to critical thinking. One very insightful friend of mine reminded me that we go to college and pay for the skills that our classical scholars had developed. While people outside of the academy have natural inclinations towards certain aspects of critical thinking, often those skills are sharpened and refined during the process of learning a discipline. There is a stark difference between the ways someone like Suhaib Webb discusses a topic, drawing on his years of study and a lay member of the community. People recognize disciplines such as astrophysics and medicine, but often experts on subjects involving in the human experience are not as respected. And people will delve into these subjects without the requisite critical skills or mental rigor to truly engage with them. I found this out as I went into graduate school and developed my field of expertise on Islam in Africa and African History. Friends and family members would discuss a subject and if somehow my view did not agree with theirs and I explained my stance, I would experience their resentment. I learned to be quiet for the sake of peace, even if a loved one was speaking on an issue they were largely ignorant about. Our own willful ignorance in our community is especially detrimental to developing critical thinking. This is especially the case in terms of how some groups of Muslims overlook the 1400 year legacy of critical thinking and scholarship that has allowed our tradition to maintain continuity without a central body or leader to guide it.

Before I took my first course on Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudents) at Zaytuna in the late 90s, I had no idea about the rich legacy of critical thinking in Islam. I learned about the skills qualified jurists needed to draw on the Quran, Sunna (Prophetic traditions), scholarly consensus, and qiyas (analogy) to come up with rulings on new issues. That basic class whet my appetite on the study of Usul al-Fiqh (Sources of Islamic Jurisprudence), which I later studied a bit in graduate school. Usul al-Fiqh is concerned with the source of Islamic law and methodology in which legal rules are deduced. Kamali explains that the process by which scholars use to deduce sources to try to understand Shariah, Holy Law, is ijtihad. (1). The rules of fiqh use various methods of reasoning, including “analogy (qiyas), juristic preference (istihsan), presumption of continuity (istishab), and rules of interpretations and deduction.” In essence, Kamali points out that Usul al-Fiqh provides standard criteria for deriving correct rulings from the sources (2). However this standard of criteria is now overlooked by many who use ijtihad to come up with convenient rules that can lead to one of two extremes: ultra-liberal positions based on Western inclinations and not on Quran and Sunnah or ultra-conservative positions that purport to be derived strictly from Quran and Sunnah but violate the spirit of Islam.

Before delving further into this discussion, I must admit that I feel woefully ill equipped to engage in any Usuli debate on some religious issue. However, I find that many Muslims will become locked into debates that were never solved by our most gifted jurists. Often lay Muslims, with access to translations of the Quran and volumes of hadith, in addition to treatises and polemics, will derive their own rulings on religious matters based on their understanding of a Quranic verse or a hadith. According to Kamali, historically “the need for methodology became apparent when unqualified persons attempt to carry out ijtihad, and the risk of error and confusion in the development of Shari‘ah became a source of anxiety for the ‘ulama” (4). As a champion of inquiry and free thinking, it is difficult for me to openly admit that I understand their anxiety. But the reality is that our community is struggling with a crisis of authority, and that is mainly who has the authoritative voice in interpreting Islamic law.

The independent, thinking Muslim may feel like he/she is engaging in critical thinking when approaching the highest sources. However, a critical piece is missing. Ebrahim Moosa writes “… untrained in the various exegetical and interpretive traditions, lay people are not aware that a complex methodology is applicable to materials dealing with law, even if these are stated in the revelation” (121). Most lay Muslims are not trained in the language or historical context to know whether a verse was a commandment to a specific group of people at a specific time or to all Muslims of all times. Nor do they always know whether a verse was simply a statement of fact at a historical moment. Similarly, Muslims will use a statement of the Prophet (s.a.w.) without any context or understanding if it was a religious injunction and apply it to their lives. While ignoring aspects of that scholastic tradition, they will draw on it to reject a hadith and say it is da’if (weak). Or they might draw on the polemical writings of a classical author to dismiss the ideas of another tradition. Yet, they often draw on these traditions in sloppy ways that result in more confusion. Sadly, this is because many of the polemical books were written, not for lay people, but for other people who have the requisite skills and training in evaluating and analyzing sources and discipline in reason and logic.

This does not mean that a lay member of the community solely rely upon someone else’s critical thinking, rather that we recognize our own limitations in our knowledge and training and leave open some room for ambiguity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so willing to condemn others if we don’t have the skills to even assess the validity of their stances. This requires humility which many, me included, often lack. Humility is an important part of sincerity, which is an important component of purifying our intentions before going about any endeavor. When I first converted to Islam and read my few dozen books, I felt a lot more sound in my knowledge than I do now. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or my deficiencies in training. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The less arrogant I feel about my own knowledge and the more in awe I feel of those scholars who wrote without laptops and cut and paste. Even as we have unprecedented levels of literacy in our community, we must fight narrow mindedness and gathering up of information without being able to judge and assess or use that information for the greater good. And through developing our critical thinking, that Islam is more expansive, rather than restrictive and reactionary. Our greater comprehension through this intellectual struggle will be a truly enriching and humbling experience.

[Note: In order to keep this article digestible, I will continue to develop the themes in later posts to explore other aspects of critical thinking in our community. So, please consider this a part 1 of a longer series. ]

References
Adsit, Karen I. “Teaching Critical Thinking Skills”
http://academic.udayton.edu/legaled/ctskills/ctskills01.htm
retrieved August 13, 2011

CTILAC Faculty Critical Thinking & Information Literacy Across the Curriculum http://bellevuecollege.edu/lmc/ilac/critdef.htm11/18/98. Retrieved from Internet August 13, 2011

Foundation for Critical Thinking “Critical Thinking Professional Development for K-12” http://www.criticalthinking.org/professionalDev/k12.cfm
retrieved from the internet August 20, 2011

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK, 2003

Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam” Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. One World Publication, 2003

Pew Research. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” May 22, 2007

The Quran: Sahih International Almunatada Alislami; Abul Qasim Publishing House http://quran.com

Scriven, Michael and Paul, Richard. “A Working Definition of critical thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul” http://lonestar.texas.net/~mseifert/crit2.html
Retrieved August 10, 2010

The Oppression of Muslim Brothers (Revised) 8/14/2008

I haven’t written a short story in years. Inspired by reading “Living Islam Out Loud” I decided to try to place myself in the brothers’ shoes. Let’s see what happens when Islam is used to oppress the male gender (second revision 8/14/2008):

In a masjid somewhere in America, two Muslim brothers sat in a musallah after the Maghrib prayer. With a sense of urgency, most of the other brothers shuffled out, jumped in their cars, and headed home. But these two brothers lingered a bit longer. They had recently become regulars. At this particular masjid, only a handful of the brothers attended the daily prayers regularly, like the owner of cell phone shop down the block who also lived 15 minutes away, the building caretaker who was rumored to have a cot in one of the utility closets despite having a home a lovely family in distant suburb, and the brother who always saw jinn in everyone’s eyes. He was crazy enough that he didn’t need to work, but spent his days thumbing through Sahih Bukhari looking for proofs and signs of the Last Days. Then there were commuting brothers who came for Friday Jumu’ah. The ones who came for Maghrib prayers dropped by the masjid on their way home. For them, the masjid was a buffer between the high paced demands of the workforce and the relentless demands of their families.

For the most part, it remained unspoken, but the musallah was a place of respite for all weary, lonely, and even the few crazy brothers. Not only did they fulfill a duty incumbent upon the Muslim community by attending the masjid, but they found solidarity. They were not alone in carrying their burdens. The whole society looked down upon them as villains and oppressors. Yes, maintaining their manhood and dignity in a world that vilified them was often hard to do. Even the partition wall behind them reminding them that even the Muslims saw them as sexual beasts and and all Muslim women needed to be rescued and protected from the Muslim male threat. No one discussed how heavy male gender definitions could be. They were the protectors, the providers, the guardians, the gatekeepers, the initiators, the listeners, the doers, the deciders, the leaders, and the supporters. Everyone made demands for their time, the mothers, wives, children, extended family, co-workers, bosses, even the Muslim community, everyone. But there were times when only the handful of mosque regulars seemed happy to see them. In the masjid they could have some peace of mind. Their wives, children, and families could not fault them. Establishing salah at the masjid could never be considered a blameworthy thing. Thus the masjid was a refuge where these brothers could consolation and solidarity in the silence, as they remembered their Lord in unison.

One day burdened with the shame and humiliation that he had long endured, one of the brothers finally broke his silence and turned to his friend: “Ya Akhi, please make du’a for me. I’m asking Our Lord to give me strength.”

“May Allah make it easy on you, brother,” the other replied, sensing his brother’s verge of emotional collapse. He urged him to open up.

The brother seemed reluctant to share his burden, but with some prodding he finally said: “Marriage is hard, akhi. I have prayed istikhara I don’t know what to do. ”

“Have you talked to the Imam, brother?” The other asked.

The brother lowered his voice: “I’m not even sure if he’s going to be able to help me.”

“Brother, this is all new. You seemed so happy at the iftar this Ramadan. Masha’Allah, brother, your deen seems so strong, you are representing the faith well with your courage to dress sunnah. My wife commented on how well your family seemed to be doing.”

“Ya Akhi!! Please can I confide in you?”

“InshaAllah, please brother,” He gestured to the exit, “Let us step outside of the musallah.” The brother passed, looked around. “First I gotta call wifey to let her know I’m coming home late. She gets real sensitive when I don’t eat dinner while it’s hot. But I’ll tell her some crisis came up at the masjid. That’s telling the truth, right?”

“Right! My wife is going to be upset cause I should be doing stuff with the kids. I’m already in hot water akh.” So the two Muslim brothers walked out of the masjid. One brother called his wife and walked out of earshot.

Ten minutes later, he returned to his friend with a distressed look on his face. It was clear he had been chewed out. “Okay brother, this has better be serious. Im dead meat when I get home. Ya Rubi!”

As they walked to the car, the troubled brother burst out: “This whole Islam thing is supposed to make you help you feel whole, like a man…but…but….I feel emasculated.”

“Brother, what are you talking about? You clearly are the man of the household. Why does your wife insult you? Maybe you should correctly guide her to proper etiquette between husband and wife. Have her read….umm…that book something about Muslim marriage. You know,
Gender Equity and not Equality
Islam teaches us that—”

“You see! That is the problem, akhi, she is using Islam to belittle me, to undermine me, to make me feel so inadequate! Basically undermining my manhood with all these rules!!”

“Oh no brother, she’s not one of those. She must have attended classes over at that center! I’ve been telling brothers to avoid sisters who frequent that place!”

Tears welled up in the brothers eyes: “Yes, she is. She’s no joke! Look you see this beard! You know I was clean shaven before I got married. She said she liked the way I looked when we first began courting. She started attending halaqas, then she took the marriage rights class….after that, everything changed. She said she was tired of representing Islam wearing full hijab while I blended in. After every night of her insulting me for saying I looked Western, like a little boy, like I hadn’t gone through puberty, I couldn’t take it anymore. She said I wasnt a true Muslim until I followed the Sunnah. She was right, clean shaven wasn’t Sunnah. So I grew this.” The brother pointed to his face.

“Brother, you should do things because you want to please Allah. You have to correct your intention.”

“But akhi, my beard is not good enough. She said that I must grow it long, long enough that I can grab it in my fist. She keeps telling me I am vain!! Of course my co-workers started looking at me funny. I’d come to work and they’d look at me like, ‘wha?…” I started getting profiled wherever I went. I now hardly go anywhere except from home, to work, to the masjid. At the same time, she started talking about my dress. She said I was imitating Westerners by wearing suits, slacks, dress shirts, jeans and t-shirts. She threw out all my clothes and said I have to wear either thobe or shewar khamis!! Now I am wearing the pajama pants all the time, Akhi! I had nothing else to wear at work. Of course this caused problems working at the advertising agency. Clients didn’t feel comfortable with me. They weren’t buying that religious freedom argument. Eventually I lost my job!!

“It doesn’t stop! She also criticized all the men who prayed with their heads uncovered. She told me it was not sunnah to go with my head uncovered. So now akhi I cannot leave the house without a kufi, turban, or kefiyya on my head. I have tried looking for a job, but the only place I can get a job is stocking cans in the local halal store!!”

“Wow brother, your wife is extreme. How are you holding up, financially. I mean do you need some help?”

“This has been a calamity!! Financially, though, things are going fine. She has begun working from the home. Her business is soaring. But now that I bring so little in, she says that I have relinquished many of my rights. Akhi, I have no rights in my own home! Now she says it is her home since she pays the rent. She is demanding her mahr. I have no money left! You know her family made me sign $10,000 for the marriage contract. She has made me pay back money for nursing our children. Four kids, times two years nursing each one of them, times 365 days of the year, times 4 hours a day, times thirty dollars an hour!! You do the math!! That was all of my savings. Now, my little bit of money goes for paying for a maid. She says she has no obligation to clean up. She tells me that she can go to the imam and divorce me just because she doesn’t like me. I mean, come on man! How I am supposed to feel like a man, like a human being under these circumstances!”

“Brother, may Allah make it easy on you. I have seen sisters use Islam to oppress their husbands. Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course Akhi!”

“Brother, sometimes, I don’t feel like a man either. My wife, man, my wife….oh this is so bad. Astaghfurfullah!! I know we’re not supposed to talk about what goes on with our spouses, but this is hard. You see, when we do it, she makes me keep going. She says that according to Islamic law I do not have permission to finish until she is satisfied. You see how hard I work. I’m tired sometimes and she never is. She then says I am a sorry husband for not fulfilling my duties. She sometimes says she can leave me, that she has a case according to this book she read on marriage law.”

“Ya akhi, that is hard. I didn’t know you were going through it.”

“That’s why I come to the masjid after Maghrib and hang out long past ‘Isha. I have to get reflect, meditate, get some rest before I head home and have to deal with her demands.”

The other brother sighed, knowing his misery was a part of a broader system of oppression, “Yes, that’s why I’m here, Akh.”

“Brother, don’t get me started. This stuff goes deep. Don’t get me started about my mother, whew!! Paradise lies at her feet sometimes. But wallahi, she makes me carry her on my back. No kidding, really like in the park sometimes and even in the mall!”

The brother sighed, “Ya akhi, I don’t know who has it worse, you or I?”

“Brother we both do. But our reputations would be ruined if we’d commit the most hated thing by Allah by divorcing our wives. I believe we will be rewarded in the next life is we just bear it.”

“Ya Rubi, surely with every difficulty comes ease.”

akhi: my brother
Ya Rub: My Lord
Astaghfurullah: God forgive me

(c) 2006 The Oppression of the Male Gender: Dialogue Between Two Muslim Brothers
Aziza

Diary of a Lax Muslim Pt. 2: Trendy Muslims and Titles We Take for Ourselves

Muslims love titles. We love to create nisbas for everything (adding an “ee” sound to a location or characteristics. Hence Wahhabi, Sufi, Salafi, Sunni, Shi’i, Farsi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali, Naqshabandi, Mevlevi, Qadiri, Khariji, Deobandi, Maghribi, Sharqi, Ifriqi, Faranji, Arabi, Turki, etc…. Add that “i” and VOILA!! You have created another group or divide. We like group titles and nisbas so much that you’d think we added the “ee” to crazy. Muslims love nisbahs as much as Americans love “isms.” Communism, Capitalism, feminisism, traditionalism, protestantism, Catholicism, fascism, socialism, communalism, liberalism, conservatism, republicanism, humanism, pragmatism, etc…. I have read debates in blogs and online forums. I have read articles and critiques of various scholars and groups where nisbahs are used like curse words. People often use nisbahs to essentialize other groups in order to assert their superiority. Often, we may take a nisbah for ourselves in order to mark ourselves as distinct from those “other” Muslims. Those “other” Muslims don’t have the right Islam. They are deviant. They miss the spirit of Islam. They are extreme. They are too lax. They are irrational. They are too backwards. They are too westernized. They are too cultural. They don’t have a Muslim identity. They are too nationalistic….etc. Give a group a nisbah and those generalized traits that we have ascribed to that group apply for all eternity. When we attach a nisbah to an opposing group, it is sort of a way of dehumanizing them and invalidating their point of view.

Lax Muslims often think they have risen above this. But I will take a case of a lax Muslim to show how they contribute to the problem. I will focus on the lax Muslim woman whose enthusiasm for practicing has petered out. This lax Muslim may have been disillusioned. Somehow, she may have thought that by praying, fasting, attending the mosque, and replacing clubbing and movies as entertainment with Friday and Saturday night lectures and talks would solve all her problems. She may have thought that by practicing she could find a good husband and financial stability. She may have thought that by practicing, life would be easier and less complicated. But after a few years of floating in the community, this Muslimah begins to tire out.

She may have been frustrated with the neurosis running through her particular community. She may have been put off by some halaqa that may have told her how evil she was for plucking her eyebrows and growing out her fingernails. She may have felt excluded from the mosque politics dominated by men who want to keep women from sitting on the governing board. Or maybe they only allow one token woman. She may have felt burned by some fierce competition over some hot male Muslim brother. That hot Muslim brother may be some rising super star on the lecture circuit. She may hear the call of the dunya and really miss having careless fun. The call of the dunya may be too enticing. She may miss dancing on a Friday night at the local night spot. She may want a T-bone steak, as opposed to devouring some spicy halal paki food. This lax Muslimah may be a muhajabah who wants to feel feminine and not feel the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment. She may even want to wear hijab and curse out the jerk who cutt her off on the Freeway while not feeling like she mis-represented Islam. She may be pissed off for representing the Ummah while the brothers get to be all ambiguous or even be cool and Muslim. Said former muhajabah may resent the fact that Muslim men develop relationships with non-Muslim women. She may resent the double standard. The former pride she took in reppin’ the Muslims dissapates. Former Muhajabah may still like men and wants men to affirm her self-worth. Maybe more than anything else, she wants to feel like a regular girl on the streets.

But said former Muhajabah still wants to be Muslim and would like respect from at least some of the Muslims. But for the most part, the Muslims who practice think she’s wack. Former Muhajabah is angry that the pious Muslims she knows now judge her. Perhaps, they even talk about her behind her back. Former Muhajabah begins to question her faith, but still feels as if Islam is part of her identity. She may go to different scholars looking for dispensation for certain requirements. Maybe hijab is a hardship and even though her life is not in danger, she is tired of funny looks from her possible employers. She doesn’t want to feel guilty, weak, or like a failure.

In her anger and frustration over the way she has been treated, miss former muhajabah lax Muslim begins to curse all the practicing Muslims. She calsl them hypocritical for judging her. Former Muhajabah may begin to find all sorts of faults in the Muslims who follow the sunnah. Practicing Muslims then become the worst people on Earth. She may sound like a mouth piece for Fox News as she generalizes about the Muslims. They are fundamentalists. They are extreme. They need to get with the real world and real world issues. They are isolationists. They are backwards. They are superficial…etc…..

As she moves more and more into a comfortable place of laxity, she begins to take a new-agey version of Islam. She may even call it Sufism, although this is such a general category that can mean a lot of things. Spirituality becomes her primary concern and she doesn’t consider the practicing Muslims spiritual at all. She creates a false dichotomy between purification of the heart and outward practice. Instead, lax Muslim Former Muhajabah thinks of herself as spiritually superior and even more advanced than her practicing counterparts. She may consider herself superior because she read an incomprehensible Ibn Arabi text all by herself. But she’s still reliant upon Chittick to provide his tafsir. While her own personal morality falls within the grey zone, she sees the others as misguided.

I provided this little story to talk about one of the traps that many lax Muslims fall into. Lax Muslims can sound awful self-righteous. But if we are truly sincere, then we will be humbled by our shortcomings and should admire those who maintain their integrity and preserve upright practice. Instead, lax Muslims feel threatened by difference especially when the difference highlights our moral laxity. They may be paranoid about meeting other Muslims, especially practicing Muslims. They may project their own insecurities and think that every devout Muslim judges them. In that process they may become just as judgmental and intolerant as the people who judged them–if not more so.

Many struggling Muslims take on the title of Sufi without really committing to tasawwuf (purification of the heart). I have met numerous pious and sincere Sufis. Last night, the Stanford community held an event with the Mevlevi order and it is was enriching. I have been to Naqshabandi dhikr circles. I have listened to Sufi tapes and Sufi Music. I have spent time at the shrine of Ahmad Tijani in Fes. I came upon my research topic by my experiences in Fes where I saw women from Mali and Senegal praying side-by- side with Fesi women. I realized that the zawiya can facilitated inter-ethnic communication. I do not consider myself a Sufi because I am not in a tariqa, nor have I given bayyan to a sheikh. As an academic, we tend to enjoy difference and the various ways people express Islam. I sort of take an anthropological approach and accept difference. I don’t mind a little flair and innovation is not a bad word. Importantly, I recognize the difference between Islamic ideals and what people do. But I have noticed the ways American Muslims deploy Sufism. Many lax Muslims are drawn more to “spirituality” rather than following the rigors of practice that forces you to do some real self work.

The Sufis I know, the responsible ones, the ones who were Sufi before Sufi became cool are often just as devout as non-Sufis. In the post-9/11 world, Sufis became cool. Real cool. Many of the people in tariqas are often welcoming and kind, but I do not think that they would consider many of those who are picking up books and claiming the Sufi nisbah to be people who are following that tariqah (narrow path). Sufis may just be nicer to a lax or wacked out Muslim, and their motivations for doing so may be numerous. They may be forgiving because it is better to attract flies with honey, than let’s say vinegar.

These lax Muslim Sufi title holders need a nisbah so that they can feel as if they are doing some real self-work instead of backsliding. They take on the label of Sufi, or another such as Progressive Muslim, order to hold on to something. Real self-work is painful and it takes lots of discipline. Unfortunately, many so-called Sufi Muslims have bought into some New Age beliefs about spirituality which outside the traditions. These New Age beliefs reflect a Western phenomena of bastardizing spirituality (whether Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Kabbalism, etc…). People simplify it, commodify it, and wrap it up for mass consumption. Just like it becomes a trend to eat Tofu and sushi, do yoga, drink Lattes, or bubble tea, Sufism becomes that trendy thing over-intellectualized and simplified and devoid of its cultural and historical context.

Too Much Information

So, I was cruising through the worlds of the digital ummah and became drawn into this whole takfir (declaring someone an apostate) debate. It didn’t take too long before I came across this forum posting about Sheikh Nuh Keller’s intervention in a debate between Deobandis and Barelwis(Here’s a site with his info ). You can also check out the forum where I found this here.

On the Shadhili website, someone asked the questions:

“Is someone who has an idea that is kufr or “unbelief” thereby an “unbeliever”?”

You can find Sheikh Keller’s answer here.

I don’t have a problem with the answer per say. I just think that us poor Muslims are overloaded with information. I am not going to question the intellectual abilities of the commentators on the forum, but this subject matter should really be left to scholars of Kalam. I am all for the freedom of information. I struggle with the elitism in Western academia. I also have strong critiques of the way knowledge became specialized in some Muslim societies and often monopolized by certain lineages. In this way, knowledge became used for power. But at the same time, I would have to agree with Ibn Rushd, some matters should be left up to the learned. I wonder how many engineers and rocket scientists would appreciate my input on their projects. Would a geneticist appreciate my input about gene sequencing, based upon what I could remember from my sophmore bio-chemistry? While I can appreciate science and love reading about discoveries, theories, and scientific methods, I just don’t have enough training to begin testing new compounds on my neighbors, let alone their cats.

So, back to my point. The internet has opened up so much discourse. And as I read the text on a late Saturday night (a total testament to my lack of a social life), I found my head feeling like it was about to explode. There was a serious debate that seemed to be underlying the question about takfir. But that debate also seemed narrow in scope, because there was a large emphasis on the debate between the Deobandis and their adversaries, the Barelwis (For those of you who don’t know who the Deobandis and Barelwis are, it doesn’t really matter. Following all the groups gets confusing anyways). The focus on their debate was unfortunate because of the wider implications about the debates on deviancy, innovation, and difference that Many Muslim communities face. For example, how do Sunnis deal with reformist minded Muslims (i.e.Progressive Muslims), individuals who have their own unique interpretations, or sects of Islam that are often accused of being non-Muslims (Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyyas, etc.)?

Perhaps that is the reason why I was interested in the takfir question. What do traditional sunni Muslims do when confronted with versions of Islam that are different from theirs? I realize that my head didn’t hurt because the material was difficult. But, my head hurt with the thought that for some Muslims, an obscure ‘aqidah issues could get a whole community ousted from the ummah. And it kind of bothered me that one of the most erudite American Muslim convert scholars, who wrote a response that was nuanced but thoroughly grounded in traditional scholasticism, was rejected so quickly by a lay person. My head also hurt for the poor converts or young Muslims who are re-engaging their faith. I just hope they don’t run into all this madness. It is really disheartening sometimes.

What makes it sad is that I’m a scholar and I love studying religious change and debates. So I should be interested in how this plays out in the modern world. Right? But, I can barely tell some people what I specialize in without someone giving me a lecture about the misguidance of Sufis. Sometimes it seems as if someone half read a quote from Ibn Taymiyya that was posted in some internet forum without understanding the context. Some have argued that ignorance is bliss. But Western Muslims are often more intellectual and aware of their faith than their counterparts in predominantly Muslim areas. We like to read these polemical works between scholars and make generalizations about them. We have so much access to information that it is ridiculous. Ignorance is bliss? Maybe, and let’s leave the quibbling over these issues with the ‘Ulema. Few of us are trained in Usul al-Fiqh, Kalam, Tafsir, or even Hadith sciences. But yet, it is common to find debates going on in some musallah about this hadith is weak and this and that brother is an innovator (bidaa). I’m sort of tired of the bad translations of some text that was printed in Pakistan finding its way into the hands of some crazed Muslim who goes around declaring this group and that group wrongdoers, misguided, or not really Muslim. Knowledge and information is good. But with all the stuff floating around, we have a bunch of insane people feeling really authoritative as they try to impose their views on the rest of the universe. Sigh…

Diary of a Lax Muslim Woman pt. 1

I wanted to reflect on a number of issues that many of us struggling Muslims face as we try to reconcile our own personal challenges, diseases of the heart, weakness of character, and our desire to be near our Lord.

Devout Muslim scholars, and their followers, have taken various stances on lax and non-practicing Muslims. In some texts, non-practicing Muslims are considered hypocrites. But to me, the Arabic term for hypocrite, munafiq, has such harsh connotations that I don’t think the term fits a non-practicing Muslim. But for the most part, Muslims accept somebody else as a believer and member of the community upon declaration of faith ( saying: “There is no Deity but the One God (Allah is the word for God in Arabic) and Muhammad is his messenger.”)

But let me reflect on the term hypocrite or munafiqun. From what I understand in the early history of Islam. The hypocrites, who are referred to in the Quran, were the groups of people in Medina who joined the Muslim community. They took Shahada, but did not believe in Muhammad’s (s.a.w.) message. Some joined the Muslims for financial or political gain and secretly they worked with the Meccans who wanted to stomp out the Muslim community. Muslims believe that the hypocrites are damned to the lowest depths of hell, lower than those who outright rejected Muhammad’s (s.a.w.) Message.

Main Entry: hyp·o·crite
Pronunciation: ‘hi-p&-“krit
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English ypocrite, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin hypocrita, from Greek hypokritEs actor, hypocrite, from hypokrinesthai
1 : a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion
2 : a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings
– hypocrite adjectiv

Here’s a definition of hypocrite that I picked up from USC MSA Compendium

a hypocrite, one whose external appearance is Islam (praying, fasting, “activism”, etc.) but whose inner reality conceals kufr – often unbeknownst to the person themselves. (See Al-Baqarah: 8-23). A Munafiq is more dangerous and worse than a Kafir.

According to Sahīh Bukhārī, the Prophet said, “Whoever has the following four (characteristics) will be a pure hypocrite and whoever has one of the following four characteristics will have one characteristic of hypocrisy unless and until he gives it up. 1. Whenever he is entrusted, he betrays. 2. Whenever he speaks, he tells a lie. 3. Whenever he makes a covenant, he proves treacherous. 4. Whenever he quarrels, he behaves in a very imprudent, evil and insulting manner.”

So, the lax Muslim may reflect #2 of the English definition of hypocrite. Some devout Muslims are completely intolerant of lax Muslims. I have always wondered why it was so threatening for some people. But I will explore those issues throughout my blog. Definition of lax:

LAX
Pronunciation: ‘laks
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin laxus loose — more at SLACK
1 a of the bowels : LOOSE, OPEN b : having loose bowels
2 : deficient in firmness : not stringent
3 a : not tense, firm, or rigid : SLACK
b : having an open or loose texture c : having the constituents spread apart
4 : articulated with the muscles involved in a relatively relaxed state (as the vowel \i\ in contrast with the vowel \E\)
synonym see NEGLIGENT

Some people still believe that a non-practicing, sinning, or selectively practicing Muslim is a hypocrite. But there is a better Arabic term for a Muslim who openly violates Islamic law, Fasiq or fajir, an evil doer. But I remember reading a famous text, I’ll leave the name out for those who are still a fan (despite disregarding the appalling consequences if you follow the logic to its fullest extent). I remember the author finding hypocrites everywhere. Hypocrites could be secular Muslims, hypocrites could be non-practicing Muslims, hypocrites could be Muslims who wanted reforms in the way Islam was instituted in public life. But this mid-20th century definition of hypocrite, and eventually the takfir movement, would come to have dire consequences for the state of our Muslim community. The kind of hard core takfiring going on reminds of me of the Kharijites.

During the time of the Righteous Caliphs, a small group of fanatical Muslims believed that if you sinned you were no longer a believer, and therefore an apostate. They took this to the extreme and believed that a sinner could be executed. Their fanaticism led them to assisinate, the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.) nephew and son and law, Ali Ibn Abi Talib. They believed he sinned because he gave up his position as leader of the Muslims in arbitration. So, they murdered one of the best of among us. Through their terrible actions, the Kharijites, as they are known in historical record, sparked discussion by some of the best scholars. Many asked:”What makes somebody Muslim?” Shahada got you the club card, but how does one stay a member? Scholars came up with different positions. Only the Kharijites really took the stance that sinning, whether eating pork, drinking wine, or fornicating, equated disbelief. Some scholars argued that only Allah knows if someone is a true believer and it is not for humanity to judge. Others argued that a sinning Muslim was a hypocrite. The dominant position, and most reasonable opinion, seems to be that there are gradations of faith. There are weak Muslims and strong Muslims. Faith can change at a given time, for example Imam Ghazali (d. 1111) wrote about his own crisis of faith. From that crisis of faith, he returned and became the consolidator of sunnism. His works still inspire us to this day.

I hope to reflect on my journey from devout Muslim, to fallen Muslim, and my several attempts to find myself and my way again. I hope it will be an honest and informative blog. While I hope to keep it real, I will try my best not to reveal anyone else’s faults. I will only expose my own in hopes that some of you will avoid the pitfalls that I have been trapped in. For those who have navigated the treacherous dunya without backsliding or falling off, perhaps you can learn a lesson too. My main lesson that I hope to teach yall is the lesson of tolerance because Allah is truly the Best of Guides.

What To Do When Muslims Behave Badly

By behaving badly, I don’t mean Muslims not praying or transgressing personal morality. I mean things that violate someone else’s humanity and dignity. You know, things like genocide, terrorism, enslavement, child abuse, and violence against women. How do Muslims come to terms with the atrocities committed by other Muslims?

Should their actions cause a crisis of faith? Should we reflect upon our core beliefs to understand why the trans-Saharan slave trade occurred, why genocide is going on in Darfur, why there is still the enslavement of blacks in Mauritania, why female genital mutilation is praticed in many parts of the Muslim world inluding Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, and in some parts of the Levant and Iraq? Or should we Muslims try to defend our faith and seek the core spiritual truths. Do we explain that these actions were due to cultural practices, even though the perpetrators may sincerely believe that they are doing some actions in the name of the faith? How do we come to terms with the fact that religious ideology is used to justify all sorts of brutality?

My understanding of these issues have been shaped by my training as a Western scholar. But there is the part of me whose identity is tied up with the cultural religious complex called Islam. Although I try not to let my faith blind me from seeing historical realities, my identity shapes how I understand those realities. I have read several articles that make broad generalizations in their critiques of Muslim/African encounters and Arab/African encounters. Often Arab and Muslim are depicted as synonomous. Right now, Arabs are the only ethnic group that it seems generally okay to say vehemently racist things abou them. Many Arabs are Muslim, but clearly not all Muslims are Arabs. In fact the majority of Muslims come from Indonesia. Few people have bad things to say about Indonesians. But I digress.

I am in a society that is largely hostile to both my race and my religious beliefs and practices. Our communities tend to circle their wagons and in this defensive position we are less likely to be introspective or reform driven. Instead, any criticism from outsiders is taken as an attempt invalidate our beliefs and identity. But this does not mean that we should focus on defending our beliefs and cultural practices against important critiques. The truth of the matter is that Muslim women are still not able to secure the rights accorded them in the Shariah. There is a huge difference between High Culture, popular culture. Doctrine and ideology does not determine the actions of individuals. Instead, a full range of overlapping and conflicting interests can drive why individuals and groups choose to do certain things. What I think is important is to expose how individuals manipulate the naivete of their followers. It is important to look at the political economy of any movement. It is essential to look at the material motivations, as well as consider whether or not spiritual beliefs were sincere. And just because someone is sincere in their beliefs, that does not mean that they are not misguided. This is why it is important to move beyond the Us/Them mentality. The Us/Them mentality is really the thing that allows us to behave badly against other human beings. Anyways, that’s my thoughts for now. This meditation will continue…

Wedding Bells

I went to a beautiful wedding this weekend. A classmate of mine married her boyfriend of six years. They are an amazing couple, perfect fit. It was a dream wedding, the kind you see in movies. Everything was well done, with the kind of class and attention to minute details that only the affluent could buy. My friend has told me about some of the snide comments other grad students made about her background. Sure, her father is a wealthy lawyer who’s worked some high profile cases. And sure her new husband comes from a wealthy shipping family. But they are not the Onassis family, dammit!. A lot of graduate students take on this air of poverty, as if they become the long suffering proletariat. Though this was not a proletariat wedding, I have an admiration for my friend’s realness. She also has a sharp mind and a great sense of humor. She’s also not full of the pretensions that mark a lot of academics. Though they envy the world of my friend’s parents and in-laws, almost all of them come from privileged backgrounds. Their parents are lawyers, doctors, professors, and business men. They all exist in a world that seems to operate parrallel my own. When you see the mating habit and partnering customs of your peers, nothing hits home more than the trials and tribulations of being a single (and trying hard not to be bitter) black woman.

As I was cleaning up my hard drive, I came across some scraps of articles I pasted into a word document:

“African-American men are much more likely than white or Hispanic men to engage in polygamous relationships, the scholars found. About 21 percent of the African-American men had at least two partners at the time of the survey, compared with 6 percent of men overall in Cook County.”
“Furthermore, the researchers found that polygamy is more common among better educated black men, who presumably have more income. As a result, the number of men available for stable marriages in the African-American community is reduced, leading to the large differences in marriage rates between African-Americans and whites, the researchers pointed out. About 57 percent of black men have been married, compared with about 72 percent of white men, according to census figures.

from article: “Urban areas organized in well developed partnering markets,” University of Chicago research shows
http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/040109.sex-market.shtml

“African Americans marry at a significantly lower rate than other racial groups in the United States. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that by the age of 30, 81 percent of white women and 77 percent of Hispanics and Asians will marry, but only 52 percent of black women will do so.”
from: “Marriage rate low in black community”
http://www.suntimes.com/special_sections/marriage/day2/cst-nws-black09.html

The numbers of “Blacks who marry whites is still small, just 6 pecent of b lack men and 2 percent of b lack women. “source unknown

This data are like bombs leaving lots of food for thought. There was a movie that came out in January that sent a message to black women which basically told us that our problem is that we aren’t open to dating outside our race. I know a number of black women who don’t, but then again I know a number of black women that have never had a man who isn’t black approach them romantically. Maybe they missed the signals. I also know from experience that black women dating outside their race is looked upon disapprovingly (even at times by black men who themselves are in interracial relationships).

Last year, there was a discussion about serial polygamy organized by the Black Graduate students. I bounced out of that meeting because for some polygamy was a theoretical issue, but I had dealt with that on a real level. I don’t know that stats for how many black Muslim do it, but it is a rather common phenomena, much like our high divorce rates. (These viewpoints are mainly on sunni Muslims, as I don’t know much about the marriage and divorce rates in the Nation of Islam) A number of my second generation immigrant Muslim friends commented on the instability of marriages in the African American Muslim community. They also have noted the tendency for out in the open polygamous relationships among African American Muslim men. Brothers are real quick to be like, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee!! Three strikes you’re OOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUTTTTTT!!” My friend’s husband divorced her three times, and then she had to get married to someone else and then they got back together. He married someone else on the side, then divorced her, but then somehow after their third child they got back together again and are living abroad. Last thing I heard was that they were happy.

Well black women, maybe you found a group who has worse stats than you. Black Muslim women, yeah. We’re like 2 percent the population. Muslims do heavy recruiting in the prisons, meaning that brothas who are unable to secure stable jobs are over represented. And if you’re married to one who is doing well for himself and is attractive, chances are that there will be sistas out there willing to fill in three of the empty slots (he is allowed four under Shariah after all). Also, Muslims do not recognize a marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man. But a Muslim man can marry a Christian or Jewish woman. Not fair? Who said life is fair, the issue is how you navigate the constraints, disparities, and inequalities. Sigh, I guess I shouldn’t complain about the statistics. I am one of the lucky 52 percent thirty year olds. I got married. Sure, I am divorced but the cup is half full, right?

(Disclaimer: This is not to say that all African American Muslim men are naturally inclined towards polygamy. There are some really great families out there and really great husbands. The only problem is that suitable mates for an educated sista are in low supply. )