On Islam and Liberty

Mustafa Aykol is a Turkish journalist who wrote Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, which I haven’t read yet, but have ordered from Amazon. I’ll be reviewing it later. For now, here is a video of Aykol speaking on the subject of “Faith versus tradition in Islam.” He says that there was a liberal trend among Muslim intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th century and attempts to explain the rise of Islamism and Islamic terrorism in the latter part of the 20th century.  His comments are thought-provoking. Let me know what you think.


Book Review: In the Country of Men

In the Country of MenIn the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have many Libyan friends I met here in the U.S. and it was interesting to read a novel which gave some insight into what their lives have been like since Gadhafi took control 42 years ago. I liked this book very much, but only gave it three stars because of the last part which felt rushed and somewhat unsatisfying. The main part of the novel brings us intimately into the life of a young boy growing up in Libya shortly after Gadhafi’s takeover. In the last part, which is almost an epilogue, we’re are rushed through the rest of his childhood when he was sent to live in Cairo under the care of a guardian and didn’t really live in Libya again for any length of time. Of course, the dilemma is that only those who have escaped from Libya have been free to write about it, so there is not much out there that is more current. Perhaps this author will attempt to follow-up this book with one that goes into more details about the last four decades.

Libyans are a wonderful people and it breaks my heart that they have had their lives impoverished and restricted by Gadhafi’s dictates. I only hope and pray that their present fight for liberation with be successful and that they will soon be able to speak and write freely about their rich heritage and history.

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What the People of the Book Teach About God’s Nature

On one crucial point, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are in agreement. All insist that faith in God is the first requirement. But then that’s the prerequisite of any religion, isn’t it? The differences lie in the what each religion teaches about the nature of God.

Let’s take Christians. They teach that God is love. You hear that over and over again. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son …” Christians believe that by dying on the cross for our sins, God (through Jesus) showed how much He loved us. Why else would God go through all that if He didn’t?

One of the criticisms that Christians have about Islam is that Allah is not primarily a loving God. They seem to need proof that God loves us, and that that proof is provided by His sacrifice on the cross. Muslims believe that God is continually showing His love for us and that the only proof we need is 1) that He created us in the first place; 2) that He is always there for us; and 3) that He is a Merciful God. Besides, why should God have to prove anything? He is God.

It’s completely erroneous to say that Allah is not a loving God. First of all, Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the great prophets of God and that we are to heed his teachings. We accept what he taught about God’s nature. But Jesus never said that God was a Triune God. The Christian Church developed the concept of the Trinity by putting together certain things that Jesus did say with the opinions of New Testament writers and of theologians who lived centuries after Jesus.

Christians start off wrong in their dealings with Muslims when they assume that Allah is a completely different God than the one they worship. The One God is the same whether He is worshiped by Jews, Christians or Muslims. But men try to shape their understanding of God according to the tenets of the religion they follow. Jews emphasize God’s omnipotence, Christians emphasize His love and Muslims emphasize His totality.

That’s why Muslims believe that Allah has 99 names. His nature can’t simply be summed up in one sentence. He is omnipotent and loving, but He is much more than that. To be fair, Jews and Christians also believe that God’s nature is complex. And we all agree that that God is unknowable exactly because He is God.  But we can also rejoice in the fact that God hasn’t left us completely in the dark about His nature.

All the People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) believe that God reveals Himself in His Book(s). Each of these religions believes that their Book is the last word on God. (But only the Qur’an truly is the last word.) That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn about God from reading the other Books. We can use the Qur’an to guide us as to what has been corrupted in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, but I think it’s important to familiarize ourselves with the pictures of God that we find there.

You can tell a lot about what a person believes about God’s nature by the rules that they follow. Jews follow the Ten Commandments which start out with God stating that He is a jealous God, and that therefore we are not to have any other Gods before Him. Christians like to sum up what Jesus taught in the phrase, “Thou art to love the Lord God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Muslims take seriously God’s admonitions to worship and follow Him alone. All three emphasize different aspects of what God expects from us, but we can learn from them all about the God’s nature.

No one religion can say that it alone has a complete understanding of God. We need to remember that when we interact with each other.

See these charts that compare Judaism, Christianity and Islam.






Moving Closer to God

I’ve been reading What’s Right With Islam by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf lately. He has a very easy-to-read writing style without being simplistic.  He writes about our spiritual life as a journey of development as we open up to God more and more. I never thought of it in quite that way before. I just thought, Oh, I have to obey all these rules to show God that I’m obedient/submitted. But that’s making obedience the end, when the end is actually communion with God. A fine difference but a hugely important one.

Claude Monet, Bend in the Epte River Near Giverny, 1888

I read an analogy the other day about how some people look at a Monet painting and all they see are the dots while others see the whole picture. The writer said that’s like Muslims who get so hung up on the rules that they lose the sense of what they’re all for. They don’t see the whole picture.

Imam Rauf also writes about how some people will emphasize some of the names or attributes of God to the exclusion of the others, but that gives them a limited picture of God and prevents them from entering into complete communion with Him. He said that the one who has embraced all the 99 names of God will be the most blessed when he enters Paradise. The point is that when you know God so fully, you will be able to commune with Him that fully when you are in Heaven. (Imam Rauf also described Hell as lack of communion with God.)

It’s true that when we’re caught up in our own little world of human emotions and motivations we feel trapped. The feeling is almost like panic. I don’t want to be here, we cry. I don’t like the way this feels. Let me out of here! That must be what Hell feels like, only to the nth degree. But the more we practice the things that move us closer to God, the less panicky we feel. At least that’s the way that I experience it. My recent experience of not getting the jobs I interviewed for is a case in point: I was so overcome by hurt and feeling rejected, and so full of anger, I just wanted to lash out—I thought that would ease my pain. But it wouldn’t have; it would only have made things worse. When you do that, you’re moving away from God, not toward Him. You’re descending into Hell.

Why is it that I’m finding a peace in Islam that I stopped feeling in Christianity? I was worshiping the same God. But I didn’t know where to go from there. Islam gives you a blueprint for how to live; Christianity just gives you platitudes. Oh, sure, Christians have Jesus as a model to emulate, but so do Muslims. The Bible doesn’t address human nature the way the Qur’an does. Both talk about man’s shortcomings, but the Qur’an slams the point home. And yet it doesn’t leave it there; it’s not fire and brimstone. It tells us exactly what we must do to transcend the negative parts of our nature. It teaches us the absolute importance of submission and gives us practical examples of things we can/should do to enter into a close relationship with Allah. Again, the point isn’t our being submitted; the point is what is possible because we’re submitted.

Submission manifests itself in three ways: in our actions, our faith (beliefs), and our openness to God. Imam Rauf describes it as a progression. If we stay stuck in any one phase, we will never reach true communion with God. If all we emphasize, for instance, is following the rules, we’ll never experience God as more than a taskmaster. When we start doing what we do because of our faith, we draw closer to God. This is where many people stop. But there’s one more step: letting our selves fall away and all barriers between us and God dissolve. Then we have seen Paradise.

This last phase is a hard one to reach. It’s mainly mystics (or Sufis) who seek to go there. But we all can get glimpses of this degree of closeness to God. When we meditate on God’s nature, when we pray for others, when we lose ourselves in prayer, when we bend to God’s will, when we are overwhelmed by thoughts of God’s grace and mercy. These moments may not come very often, but, inshallah, they motivate us to seek more. The catch is that we cannot experience closeness to God just by willing it; we have to practice it.

What Do Muslims Really Think?

This video is based on the Gallup poll of Muslims around the world as to what they really think about a variety of issues, like extremism, women and democracy.

Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think from Unity Productions Foundation on Vimeo.

Gallup also published a book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, in order to report its findings. It includes commentary by John L. Esposito, Ph.D. and Dalia Mogahed, which clearly analyzes the poll’s results.

From the introduction:

Islam is not to its adherents what it might appear to outside observers: simply a restrictive shell of rules and punishments. To many Muslims, it is a spiritual mental map that offers meaning, guidance, purpose and hope.

For more information, see the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies on Gallup.com, which includes PDFs of core learnings about the Muslim world. For more about the book, go here.

I think it’s important for Muslims to learn as much as we can about not only our religion, but also about fellow Muslims. It’s fine to give personal testimony, but we should also be able to show that we are in touch with what other Muslims think. Too many non-Muslims don’t see the difference between politics and religion or the similarity between themselves and Muslims. We should be able to show them the way.

Phyllis Chesler, Feminist and Islamophobe?

Phyllis Chesler

I hate sentences that start with “most” and end with some ridiculous pronouncement about what “most” are doing.  Phyllis Chesler appears to be a prime offender, judging by her article on Muslim women and the veil. She writes: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.” She also writes that “Most Muslim girls and women are impoverished and wear rags.”

These statements are typical of a person who cares more about justifying her own prejudice than in adding something constructive to the debate. Not only that, but they’re just plain ignorant. Chesler cites examples coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as being typical of the entire Muslim world. She also equates Muslims with Arabs, when in fact this only applies to 20% of all Muslims.

I especially love this statement of Chesler’s: “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves–they are very involved in the global trafficking in girls and women and frequent prostitutes on every continent.” Where does she get her ideas??

But of course Chesler doesn’t care about being objective—or even factual; she has a career to think of. Dr. Chesler (she has a Ph.D in psychology) is primarily a writer and is the author of thirteen books and numerous articles. (Check out her web site for examples of her writing.) She is also a psychotherapist and an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). By her own account, she was “held captive” in Afghanistan when she went to visit her then-husband’s family, an experience that she says made her an ardent feminist. It also appears to have made her into a rabid Islamophobe.

In a 2003 review of one of her books, Publishers Weekly concluded that “Chesler’s tone and lack of intellectual rigor will not help her ideas to be heard by those who do not already agree with her.” (Source: Wikipedia.) From the samples of her writings, particularly those about Islam and anti-Semitism, I concur.

But what about Chesler’s feminism? Is she really a feminist or a neo-con masquerading as one?

From what I can gather, Chesler is the kind of feminist who blames the victim. One of her books, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, more or less says that women are just naturally competitive with other women, resulting in back-stabbing and general meanness. There is no recognition that women are socialized to be competitive by a patriarchal society that encourages them to stake their identities on the men they can “catch.”  (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, just this USA Today interview with Chesler about it, so I realize I may be misrepresenting her views.)

Yes, I know I’m dangerously close to saying that there is only one way to be a feminist or that there is a set platform all feminists have to espouse (pro-abortion, anti-pornography, pro-gay rights, etc.). Although, like all people, I am more comfortable with people who have the same views I do, I recognize that we all have our own versions of feminism, just as we all have our own versions of religion. Dor instance, Sarah Palin calls herself a pro-life feminist. Some feminists are supportive of pornography and sex work. Many women who hold feminist views don’t identify with the feminist movement because they feel that it is too upper-class and white.

Me? I’m just a feminist who believes that feminism is—or should be—incompatible with any kind of racism, prejudice or hatred. For this reason alone, I find it hard to believe that Chesler is a true feminist.