Sunday, February 25, 2007
A Secret History
By CARLA POWER
Published: New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2007
For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the stock image of an Islamic scholar is a gray-bearded man. Women tend to be seen as the subjects of Islamic law rather than its shapers. And while some opportunities for religious education do exist for women — the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo has a women’s college, for example, and there are girls’ madrasas and female study groups in mosques and private homes — cultural barriers prevent most women in the Islamic world from pursuing such studies. Recent findings by a scholar at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies in Britain, however, may help lower those barriers and challenge prevalent notions of women’s roles within Islamic society. Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a 43-year-old Sunni alim, or religious scholar, has rediscovered a long-lost tradition of Muslim women teaching the Koran, transmitting hadith (deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and even making Islamic law as jurists.
Akram embarked eight years ago on a single-volume biographical dictionary of female hadith scholars, a project that took him trawling through biographical dictionaries, classical texts, madrasa chronicles and letters for relevant citations. “I thought I’d find maybe 20 or 30 women,” he says. To date, he has found 8,000 of them, dating back 1,400 years, and his dictionary now fills 40 volumes. It’s so long that his usual publishers, in Damascus and Beirut, have balked at the project, though an English translation of his preface — itself almost 400 pages long — will come out in England this summer. (Akram has talked with Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States, about the possibility of publishing the entire work through his Riyadh-based foundation.)
The dictionary’s diverse entries include a 10th-century Baghdad-born jurist who traveled through Syria and Egypt, teaching other women; a female scholar — or muhaddithat — in 12th-century Egypt whose male students marveled at her mastery of a “camel load” of texts; and a 15th-century woman who taught hadith at the Prophet’s grave in Medina, one of the most important spots in Islam. One seventh-century Medina woman who reached the academic rank of jurist issued key fatwas on hajj rituals and commerce; another female jurist living in medieval Aleppo not only issued fatwas but also advised her far more famous husband on how to issue his.
Not all of these women scholars were previously unknown. Many Muslims acknowledge that Islam has its learned women, particularly in the field of hadith, starting with the Prophet’s wife Aisha. And several Western academics have written on women’s religious education. About a century ago, the Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimated that about 15 percent of medieval hadith scholars were women. But Akram’s dictionary is groundbreaking in its scope.
I am asking all Syrian bloggers to post the following statement in support of Abdel Kareem's right to express his opinion freely. I welcome any suggestions as to the wording of the statement. Please leave me a comment when you post the statement on your blog:
We, as a community of Syrian bloggers, condemn the arrest and sentencing of Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman for the peaceful expression of his dissenting views. We ask the Egyptian government to reconsider its decision to arrest and prosecute Abdel Kareem. The stated reasons for their action include the preservation of the public peace and state security, and the prevention of incitement against Islam. We contend that his arrest will achieve neither. Silencing such dissenting voices as Abdel Kareem’s, serves only to strengthen the hands of extremists who will not shy away from violence to achieve their goals. Moreover, we remind the Egyptian government that his arrest and prosecution violates at least two articles (see below) of the 1948 United Nations universal declaration of human rights to which Egypt was a signatory.
Relevant United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles:
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Such rights for freedom of expression are also enshrined in the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the 2003 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's religion
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
I had posted an article in January about what Lebanese children are taught and not taught about their history. Here is another recent article that appeared in the Daily Star discussing the matter in more detail. Many if not most Lebanese children get their education in non-secular schools that teach different versions of the history of Lebanon. All schools, however, seem to agree on one thing; when it comes to the history of the civil war, no one talks about it. It is as if history stopped in 1975 only to resume in 1991.
This selective amnesia amounts, in my mind, to criminal negligence on the part of the Lebanese state. It is not the fault of the educators but the fault of the sectarian politicians whose agreement was needed but never obtained for a unified history textbook and curriculum to be taught in all schools. Seventeen years have been wasted since the end of the civil war and a whole generation of Lebanese have no real awareness of what happened between 1975-1990. What they do have are bits an pieces of that history that they gleaned from their parents whose views are colored by their personal experiences and political -and sectarian-leanings. Meanwhile, politicians directly involved in the civil war or their descendants continue to wield power and can manipulate the new generation down the same ruinous road that Lebanon took in 1975. That is not to say that the new generation of Lebanese are ignorant or passive. As the two articles I quoted show, they are aggressively questioning the history that they are not being taught. At the same time, an incomplete understanding to history is what leads the young Lebanese blogger I cited previously to post pictures of both Bachir Gemayel and Samir Kassir side by side as Lebanese "martyrs". I think any impartial view of history could never make a hero out of Bachir Gemayel -or Aoun for that matter.
In teaching the history of the civil war there is no need to create monsters or false heroes. The younger generation is perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions from an objective rendering of history. They will learn from that history that the civil war was an obscene, futile and wasteful tragedy. Surely all Lebanese would agree to this characterization of the civil war.
Friday, February 09, 2007
It is unfortunate that after his assassination politics and propaganda have distorted his image by conflating his ideas with those of the Lebanese right, like the Lebanese forces, who now sing his praises just because he opposed Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. I have even seen a Lebanese blogger put his picture next to that of Bashir Gemanyel under the heading of Lebanese martyrs. Samir Kassir would have been offended .
The reasons for the waning modernizing influence of the Arab Nahda are many according to Kassir. The persistent meddling of the superpowers, either directly or indirectly through the unconditional support of Israel, geography and geology (oil), the rise of religious fundamentalism and too narrowly defined, exclusivist, nationalist impulses. This book reminds me of another by Fouad Ajami I read a couple of years ago The Dream Palace of the Arabs. I never liked Fouad Ajami, having been irritated by his statements whenever I saw him interviewed by the American media. Yet I thought the book's analysis to be brilliant though I did not agree with his conclusions that invariably exonerates the West from any culpability in the calamities that have befallen he Middle East. In Ajami's pessimistic outlook is a sense that there is an incorrigible aspect to Arab intellectual thinking, an intrinsic defect. It is easy for him, sitting, as he is, far from the Arab "street", in an American ivory tower, to cast asperions about the Arab mind. Kassir, writing as an Arab intellectual from within, does not succumb to such deterministic cultural labels. That is not to say that Kassir shies away from self-criticism:
In the end, despite the many gloomy chapter titles, Kassir's manifesto is actually one full of hope for the future. He reminds us of the many accomplishments of the last century that have been overshadowed by the many defeats. His last chapter is full of optimistic signs of change such as the development of a more cohesive and inclusive Arab culture brought about by the communications revolution which has bypassed traditional state imposed barriers.
I highly recommend this book. It is a heartfelt plea for change and reform by a great Arab intellectual who will be sorely missed.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Friday, February 02, 2007
To assuage their guilt-ridden consciousness about being the biggest per capita consumers of the world's energy resources, Americans can now fill their SUVs with Terror-Free oil. On February 1st, a gas station in Omaha Nebraska will be the first in the nation to sell Gas that does not originate in Middle East, where of course, every cent made from oil goes to finance terrorism. What is most disturbing about this preposterous notion is that the American public will swallow the simple-minded concept whole and without much question. For the last six years the American media has been filled with stories about how we, in the Middle East, are fed anti-Western propaganda and blame the West for all that ails us. Although, there is more that a grain of truth in this, the Western media fails to look at itself in the mirror. There are deep-rooted cultural biases against Muslims in general and Arabs in particular that were always kept in check by political correctness. Since the terrorist acts of 9/11 though, all pretenses have been dropped and now well-known syndicated columnists routinely publish hate-filled anti-Arab and anti-Muslim drivel without anyone batting an eye.
It is in this atmosphere, compounded by a president who fudges the facts and is fighting an amorphous "war on terror" that the logic of "terror-free oil" becomes acceptable. No facts, context or reason are needed; it sounds good, so it must be right.When I first heard the story, I thought it sounded more like right wing propaganda than anything else. My suspicions were immediately confirmed when I logged on to the Terror-Free Oil initiative site. On the upper right hand side is a changing banner that changed from "God bless America" to "We stand with Israel". Look at their blog links and you realize that this initiative is not about stopping financing of terrorism as much as about anti-Muslim hate mongering.