Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Muhaddithats: Muslim Female Scholars in History

Did you know that there has been at least 8,000 women Islamic scholars in the past 1400 years? I didn't. Here is an intriguing story from today's New York Times Magazine. It is interesting that Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia has agreed to publish the forty volume biography of these women. Let us see if Saudi women -or for that matter men- will acutally have access to this biography or if it will be considered too incendiary for KSA's fossilized religious establishment.

A Secret History

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.

(Continued Here)

Syrian Bloggers in Solidarity with Kareem Amer

Fellow bloggers worldwide, but especially Middle Eastern bloggers need to vehemently protest the sentencing of Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman (Blogger name: Kareem Amer) to a four year prison term for his dissenting views. We all realize that blogs afford us a degree of freedom of expression and exchange of ideas that is sorely lacking in our part of the world where information is tightly controlled by authoritative governments and where conservative societies stifle discussion of important topics that are considered taboo. I personally believe that such freedom of expression is vital to instigate reform and move the Middle East out of its intellectual and cultural stagnation.
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

Egyptian Blogger Kareem Sentenced to Four Years in Jail

Twenty two year old Egyptian blogger from Alexandria and former Al-Azhar student, Kareem Amer (Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman) was sentenced to four years in jail for his personal posts critical of the government of Hosni Mubarak, for his secular writings and criticism of sectarian strife in Alexandria last year. He was initially arrested for several days then released in 2005. He was dismissed from Al-Azhar last year which then filed a complaint against him with the public prosecutor. He was rearrested last fall. The charges against him included: Spreading data and malicious rumors that disrupt public security- Defaming the President of Egypt- Incitement to overthrow the regime upon hatred and contempt- Incitement to hate “Islam” and breach of the public peace standards- Highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of Egypt and spreading them to the public.

The language of the charges is sickeningly familiar. It is the language that paranoid authoritarian governments use when they feel threatened, when someone tells the TRUTH. They ring hollow as if drawn up by a bored bureaucrat, the same set of charges paraded out thousands of times before; all they had to do was change the name of the accused. And for what? Abdel Kareem just expressed his thoughts, he did not incite or threaten violence, he did not undermine the security of the country. His only true crime is that of having and expressing critical thoughts, an inexcusable deviance for an autocratic and corrupt regime much more difficult to deal with than a bomb tossing terrorist. Citizens of such countries are expected to be subservient automatons without critical thought. They are supposed to act like castrated sheep, bleating meekly and bowing to the almighty, infallible leader, Hosni Mubarak (or Bashar al-Assad, or, or.....).

I am equally disgusted with the behavior of Al-Azhar's administration. What they have done is shameful whether they acted as a tool of the government or of their own free will. Are the tenets of Islam so fragile that they cannot withstand the criticism of a single free thinking blogger?

This is a dark day for Middle Eastern bloggers as well as for democracy and freedom of expression in our region.
More information at: Free Kareem

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

History Matters!

I am writing this at the risk of appearing to perseverate. However, I think it is an important enough to make it worth restating.

In an exchange of comments on a recent post, a blogger questioned why I brought up the issue of the Lebanese civil war in discussing the current crisis in Lebanon. The short answer is that the current polarization of the Lebanese along sectarian lines is the direct result of unresolved issues that were left to fester under the surface since the end of civil war. There is no doubt that the present political context and immediate problems are very different than those of 1975 but when you boil it down to its bare essentials, there is little difference. Each side claims to be the "real" Lebanese and will reference different versions of history to support their claim.

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.
(Photograph: A.K. with Photoshop)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Kassir: On Being Arab

I must admit that prior to his assassination, I knew little about Samir Kassir. The short biographies about him suggested a man of great intellect and wide breadth of knowledge and interests in history and politics. He was a vocal critic of the Syrian government yet by no means was he reflexively anti-Syrian. Born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, Kassir was close to Syrian intellectuals of the Damascus Spring.

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 .

Being Arab is more a long essay than a book and is divided into seven chapters with titles that would suggest utter desperation and disgust with the state of the Arab world. With titles such as The Arabs are the most wretched people in the world today, even if they do not realize it, you would think that it is an all out attack on everything Arab. It is nothing of the sort. Kassir sets out to analyze what he calls Arab malaise and its root causes. This is an impassioned, honest analysis by someone with a clear sense of what his Arab identity means and who cares deeply about the future of this part of the world. Unlike many critics these days, Kassir does not believe that Arabs are intrinsically programmed to fail.

Kassir re-examines current perceptions of Arab history and its trajectory from the Islamic golden age, the long age of decline, the 19th century reawakening (Nahda) and into the twentieth century. The perceptions of what these periods of Arab history mean depend on one's political and religious affiliations. On the one hand, purist Islamic fundamentalists recognize only a very brief golden age and recognize no positive accomplishments of Arab history or culture subsequent to that. At the other end of the spectrum, and interestingly, coming full circle to meet the fundamentalists, are some Western anti-Arab propagandists who recognize no Arab accomplishments even dismissing the accomplishments of the Golden age. One of the cornerstones of current criticism of Arab society is the failure of the Nahda to propel Arab society into modernity. Kassir, showing a profound understanding of Arab history and culture of the last one hundred and fifty years, begs to differ. He spells out the many accomplishments of the Nahda and argues that its positive impact started to wane only in the past generation.

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:
"So it is not just that the West needs to re-examine its stance. The Arab world in particular needs to make a profound effort to eradicate the ambiguities that encourage a logic of cultural confrontation. This mean first putting victimhood into perspective. We must replace Arabs' customary assumption of victim status not by cultivating a logic of power or a spirit of revenge, but by recognizing the fact that, despite bringing defeats, the twentieth century has also brought benefits that can enable the Arabs to participate in progress."

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

Lebanese Heroes: Women Clearing Cluster-Bombs

A Swedish agency charged with clearing the tens of thousand American-supplied, Israeli delivered cluster-bombs in South Lebanon has found numerous women volunteers ready to take on this dangerous task. At a time when the Lebanese political scene is dominated by self-serving politicians trading ugly accusations, these women are a breath of fresh air.
Their courageous, selfless act for the common good is exemplary. They are true patriots.

Allah yahmeehom (May God protect them).

Friday, February 02, 2007

Terror-Free Oil: War on Terror Lite

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.