City of Brass

City of Brass


the River of Islam

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

In response to my post on the Air Tran Flight 297 debacle, Dave Price at Dean’s World complains:

I worry that even liberal Muslims like yourself are more concerned with defending your faith than acknowledging its problems and reforming it.

Shouldn’t liberal Muslims be sympathetic, if not having these fantasies themselves (preferably distinguishing fantasy from reality a bit better than this guy)? We’re on the same side here, right?

Lets be absolutely clear here.

Liberal muslims are sympathetic indeed to the very simple idea that there are illiberal muslims out there who do bad things, and they keep claiming that it’s in the name of the faith. But we are NOT concerned with defending our faith. We are concerned with defending the West, not Islam. Specifically, those ideals of the West which are the reason we came here and immigrated here. Those ideals are the ones under siege when a liar like Tedd Petruna can find a willing and credulous audience.

You want liberal muslims to “reform” Islam. NO. Theres nothing – NOTHING – to reform. I follow my faith and I am as good a citizen as you or anyone else. over one BILLION muslims are like me. The number of muslims who kill other people in the name of faith is a tiny fraction, and about equal in numbers to the number of Christians who murder people every day in America. Those Christians might kill people for economic reasons instead of self-declared religious ones; fine, then will we now demand that “liberal capitalists’ reform capitalism? Nonsense, and irrelevant.

Ultimately what matters is what people DO – and when I tell you that I am a good citizen partly because that is part of what MY faith tells me to do – to be a good example, to live humbly, to be a source of succor and comfort to my community, regardless of their creed – why do you dismiss me? The life choices I make are informed by my interpretation of faith; the violent actions of the extremists are informed by their interpretations of faith. Yet MY kind outnumber theirs by hundreds of thousands to one.

What you really mean by “reform your faith” is to be more protestant – water it down, make it a culture instead of a creed, stop wearing funny hats and trim our beards and stop with the ncessant praying and not be so serious about God all the time. Thats what you really want. You want us to be salad bar muslims, but look at Switzerland where the muslims already are like that – and they get a minaret ban. Meanwhile, the hard core jihadi is going to look at my abandoning my principles (to appease your precious feelings) and conclude what, exactly? That he’s wrong, because so great a muslim as Aziz Poonawalla and his ilk have renounced prayer and now drink alcohol and eat pepperoni?

Islam is eternal. It will always be greater than what any one muslim or non-muslim makes it out to be in the narrow confines of their heart. To demand that I reform it is like asking me to change the course of the Nile. And yet, boats on the nile don’t just passively follow the river’s course – they can navigate it in any direction. So too with muslims. Most go along the current, but some go upstream.

If you demand that *I* change MY Islam, then you’re a fool. And a tool, playing right into Osama bin Laden’s hands.

I will never compromise my faith nor my identity as an American patriot. I’m sorry for you if you think these grand, noble concepts are so puny in your eyes as to conflict.



  • Your Name

    Radical Islam is the #1 threat to world peace. When the Muslims love their children more then they fear humiliation and worship honor we’ll see peace in the world.

  • http://muslimbuddhist.blogspot.com Your Name

    Aziz,
    After reading your blog for some time, I don’t see any reason why you should have to change your faith in any way whatsoever for my sake. This doesn’t mean I agree with everything you believe about abstract issues of Theology and ethics. But I see no reason that I should feel any threat from the fact that we have these differences.

  • tropic

    You write “The number of muslims who kill other people in the name of faith is a tiny fraction,”. No this fraction is not so tiny. I am a practising muslim who lives in a 97% muslim majority country. There are daily 2-3 bombs explosions here killing 20-30 innocent muslim people everyday, killed in the name of their own faith. We have a serious problem here and this needs to be resolved. Mr. Poonawala is hiding his face in the sand like an ostrich and crying everything is ok, everything is ok….

  • paagle

    Aziz, I don’t know if you correctly id’d Dave Price’s desires when he called for an Islamic Reformation, but from my perspective you’ve just clobbered a strawman. I don’t care what you refrain from eating or drinking, how you cover your head, how you style your beard, or how and how often you pray – so long as you don’t bother me about it. Still, I’d love to see an Islamic Reformation. What could that possibly mean, if not the possibility of sitting down with a clean-shaven Aziz Poonawalla for beer and carnitas during prayer time? I’ll try to explain…
    I don’t know what to make of the Platonic Ideal “River of Islam” you describe. When I think of Islam its nothing to do with this abstract Islam. I think, rather, of the documented experiences, deeds and words of Muhammed, and the communities and belief system(s) which followed. Muhammed seems like he was good guy in a 7th century Middle East context. He was certainly a genius. Unfortunately he engendered a lot of resistance, perhaps because anybody who resists great evil engenders resistance in turn. In any case, by virtue of fighting back and winning he governed. And when he governed Islam became normative. After he died Islam continued to expand. Everywhere it went it tended to govern and become normative. While non-Muslims didn’t suffer much relative to the intensely tribal standards of the day, the non-Muslim culture did tend suffocate over time. This, I believe, was part of Muhammed’s genius: Islam wins over time while being a gentle enough master to take advantage of non-Muslim human resources in the short term.
    I’ll cut to the point, since this is rapidly becoming an essay. What I REALLY want is not that you become a salad bar Muslim with regard to personal practice. What I want is a theologically sound renunciation of all the aspects of Islamic practice that have throughout its history resulted in the insistence that it be normative except where it is weak. This would constitute a Reformation. I want you and your fellow liberal Muslims to take these arguments to the fundamentalists, to the illiterate, to all Muslims without the benefit of your experience in a truly pluralistic society. Because they won’t listen to me. I’m not a Muslim, don’t understand Islam and don’t particularly care to invest the enormous time and energy required to debate in its terms.
    As it is I fear that, like Muhammed, Muslims will be pluralistic until there’s enough communal tension. Then they’ll demand that their God-given, superior system apply to everybody. And then there’ll be no going back without things getting really ugly.

  • J. Kactuz

    Quote: I am a good citizen partly because that is part of what MY faith tells me to do – to be a good example, to live humbly, to be a source of succor and comfort to my community, regardless of their creed – why do you dismiss me?
    I dismisss you because of what you, Muslims, collectively, do and what you believe. You discriminate against non-Muslims. Yes, it is YOUR kind of Muslims that discriminates against non-Muslims in islamic countries, that support vile apostasy laws and want to end freedom of speech. It is your kind of Muslims that listesn to Imams preaching hate and violence against non-Muslims, and you do nothing. You kill each other and us. It is your kind of Muslim that accepts a book of a god that delights in torture (unless skinning people alive and pouring burning oil over them is fun) and it is your kind of Muslims that follows a prophet that attacked, plundered, murdered, tortured, enslaved men women and children and raped. He did this — as written in your own writings, and yet you say “praise be upon him” and consider him a great example.
    I hope that answers your question.
    Lets face it, Muslims, including those in denial like you, cannot and will not live in peace with non-Muslims. Everywhere Muslims go, they take their hate and violenbce and denial with them. Muslims are like the guy that stepped in dog poop, walks around the neighbor’s house, but can’t figure out why people are upset.
    Kactuz
    PS: Paagle obvious hasn’t read the hadith.
    PSS: I doubt you are a “patriot”. In case you haven’t noticed, Islamic values are not those of the West and America. You might say you believe in “freedom of speech” “freedom of religion” “Equality” and separation of religion and state, but I say you only do this for your ego. Until Muslims in Islamic societies change and start practicing tolerance, until Muslims renounce the hate and violence in the hadith and quran, I think it is logical to assume you are dishonest.

  • mk

    Quote: ”and it is your kind of Muslims that follows a prophet that attacked, plundered, murdered, tortured, enslaved men women and children and raped”
    Mr.J.KACTUZ i would like 2 kno tht from where did u get the FALSE information abt our HOLY PROPHET P.B.U.H(well its PEACE be upon him,nt praise be upon him)? i wuld suggest u tht u do a bit of research and study about our Holy Propher p.b.u.h before commenting on his FLAWLESS character.if u really want to kno abt his character then plz read his conquest of Makkah 8A.H,in which he orderd his companions tht no old man,women,children and even plants should be harmed, no man of the enemy shuld be attacked untill he attacks,no house or any other property shuld be damaged and not only this he even announced that whoever shut the door of his house shall be safe and whoever takes refuge in Abu Sufyan’s house(who at that time was a bitter enemy of Islam)shall be safe…
    U comment absolutely CRAP things abt our Holy Propher p.b.u.h n we still reply u wth logics and facts of history,yet u knowledgeless ppl call us intolerant!!
    And let me just tell u tht u r absolutely NO ONE to call anyone dishonest,regardless of mulsim or christan or of any other religion. u c this is a BIG BIG d/f b/w muslims and other communities tht muslims do not point a finger on other’s character and neither do they make any opnions about a community by looking at a single person of a community and generalising it for the entire community!!
    Just a piece of advice next time when u say anything about any religion first do atleast a bit of research!!!!

  • leah

    I am a Christian, not a Muslim, and I enjoy reading your blog to learn more about Islam, and I think you have an interesting perspective on things. I was surprised at how defensive you got at the suggestion that moderate Muslims need to work to “reform” their religion. Maybe reform is not the best word, but I think that it is the responsibility of those of any faith to speak up when people use their religion in defense of something that is wrong. There are actually many examples of where Christians have done this – slavery and civil rights in the US are just two – where Christians needed to challenge other Christians when they used Christianity to justify slavery and segregation. More recently, more liberal Christians have had to challenge fundamentalist right wing Christians who attemt to use Christianity to support views that many of us do not support.
    So when westerners and Christians suggest that Muslims should be making more noise about the bombing of Mosques in Paskistan, and the honor killing of girls and women all over the place, than they do about a Danish cartoon, that is what we are suggesting. We don’t hear a loud enough Muslim outrage against those who are doing things you don’t support in the name of your religion.

  • Mere_Me

    The work needed is reforming “Islamic” countries, to stop harming peoples of non-Islamic perspectives. Sooooo many millions of Muslims seem utterly comfortable with denying the rights of non Muslims.
    Islam needs to be reformed.
    You may think it’s true, but FIVE AND A HALF BILLION PEOPLE do not.

  • Alicia

    paagle, I like your thoughtful response, and mostly agree with it.
    Of course, certain aspects of every religion need to be reformed. Unfortunately, some advocates of reformation want to take their religion back to the beginning, even if that is the 7th century (or the 1st) and some want to reform it to bring it into greater consonance with modernity. Since this is the case, there are often several strains (orthodox, reformed, liberal, conservative, etc.) within the same religion.
    It isn’t about how someone dresses, whether they wear a beard or hijab, whether they eat pork and drink alcohol or not, or refuse to eat beef. It’s about whether each individual has the right to freely choose to practice his or her religion, or non-religion, while allowing others the same freedom. Do the orthodox or the conservative in a religion accept the equality of those who do not believe as they do? Or do they believe in imposing their orthodox beliefs on the rest of us?

  • paagle

    Thanks Alicia,
    It seems you may agree more with the true pluralism part than with my implication that Islam has had a mixed record on the equality of non-believers right from the start. Thats fine. When dealing with somebody like Aziz live-n-let-live is certainly the part I’d emphasize. The way I see it he’s clearly an all-American type of guy in the ways that truly matter (although do I think he’s missing by refraining from beer and carnitas :)).
    But I can’t quite shake the fear that Islam is more likely than any other religion to produce the type of orthodoxy that does not accept the equality of non-believers. I don’t know enough to say its explicit in its texts (seen some evidence either way, with that nebulous “context” being the all-important factor), but insistence on its superiority in this world is a part of its history from very early…

  • Alicia

    Hi, paagle,
    I agree with the “mixed record” part, too. Certainly, this appears to me (as a non-Muslim, in fact Christian agnostic) to be a time when there is a battle within Islam for the soul of that religion, and a time when the fundamentalists, or Salafists or Wahabists or what-have-you seem to have an outsized influence.
    I am encouraged by a link Andrew Sullivan recently posted to an article about British jihadists who have rejected violence. And I agree that the solution needs to come from Muslims, though I do believe that those of us who are not Muslims need to be honest about our own concerns. People like Aziz Poonawalla give me a great deal of hope.
    I am also a big fan of Irshad Manji, which may not win me any points on this blog. Cheers!

  • http://muslimbuddhist.blogspot.com Teed Rockwell

    For those who are defending profiling on the basis of dress, two questions.
    1) Do you really think that a terrorist would be stupid enough to dress like Aziz, or wear a tee shirt with Arabic on it, while actively engaged in a terrorist plot?
    2) If you really think they are that stupid, why are you so afraid of them?
    Also for those who share my disgust at the J. Kactuz post above: Note that there are no arguments or evidence in it, and so it does not deserve a reply. There is nothing there to reply to, it is merely an emotional rant in which he expresses his feelings of hate.

  • California #1!

    Aziz – what non-Muslims are really concerned about is their security, not habits that don’t affect them, like eating pork. You believe very strongly that Islam is perfect and unchanging, so what people are really asking liberal Muslims is for them to promote an interpretation of Islam which does not call for violence against civilians/the USA or imposing rules which violate what Westerners regard as fundamental human rights. The idea of a reformation is not intended to change Islam itself, but the interpretation of Islam. The hope is that the numbers of Muslims who support terrorism will diminish and the numbers who are tolerant will increase.
    Seen from a Muslim perspective this could be thought of as helping Muslims who have an imperfect understanding of Islam (jihad as the sixth pillar) to become more educated in the true meaning of Islam (more emphasis on peace, tolerance)

  • California #1!

    To everyone else –
    1) Asking Muslims to change Islam is crazy! If you believe it is whole, immutable, and the word of God, you cannot and would not want to change it.
    2) Speaking about Muslims in categorical terms is foolish because there is wide variation amongst Muslims in the beliefs that they have, which parts of the Islamic teachings are emphasized, the role Islam plays in daily life, etc., etc., etc. Muslims are not all this or that. You cannot even accuse them of supporting all the acts of Mohammed or obscure injuctions of the Koran because many Muslims never really think about these doctrinal issues. They simply live the way everyone else in their society lives.
    3) Trying to ask Muslims to reconsider their religion or behavior by criticizing Mohammed is futile. Most Muslims hold Mohammed in such high esteem that any criticism will instantly raise their hackles and shut down any chance of changing minds. From an outsider’s perspective, Mohammed is sacred to them.
    4) Criticizing other Muslims will also shut down the possibilities of changing minds. In my experience Muslims often have a strong group mentality that leads them to circle the wagons against outsiders.
    5) We have to pick our fights wisely. Asking Muslims to change Sharia law to allow for the equality of religions is problematic because Islam is simply not designed that way. It is designed to create an environment where Islamic values are normative and other values are only tolerated to the extent that they do not interfere with the carrying out of Sharia law or the Islamic duties of Muslims. The only places where Islamic values can be normative is in Islamic countries anyhow, so we are not affected by that. The main threat to us is jihadism, and jihadism is becoming less popular as more Muslims are realizing that it has actually brought them more suffering through terrorist attacks in their countries and by leading to Western interventions in their countries.

  • paagle

    Cal#1,
    I basically agree with your first post, and I see what you’re saying with the second. I agree completely with point #2. Points #3 and #4 go to the heart of what I see as one of the biggest problems with Islam: the filter through which they understand the world is fundamentally different from and often incompatible with ours – making communication very difficult. If you’re right about #3 and 4 then there’s no possibility of meaningful self-criticism in Islam – meaning communication would in any case be about changing our behavior (not theirs), the issuing of threats or the delineation of lines in the sand.
    Point #5 is an important one. Its key sentences are a) “Asking Muslims to change Sharia law to allow for the equality of religions is problematic because Islam is simply not designed that way” and b) “The only places where Islamic values can be normative is in Islamic countries anyhow, so we are not affected by that.”
    I fear you are correct about (a) and I can only agree with the conclusion of (b) in the very very short term. If (a) is correct I think it is extremely important to highlight it and its negative consequences for non-believers. We need to know what we’re dealing with when we allow large numbers of Muslims into our countries, and they need to know what we expect them to compromise on if they’re going to live in the non-Muslim world. Its a difficult balancing act between vigilance towards the aspects of their faith which are hostile to our values and being true to our own values (and thus fair to the folks you describe in #2 who just want to get on with their lives).
    At this point I fear the best case likely scenario is a confusing cultural/ideological cold war.

  • California #1!

    Paagle,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response.
    A) Self-criticism – I think the prospects for outsider driven reform are slim, but insider driven reform is possible. People like Irshad Manji and Al Afghani have done this, and you do have historical differences of interpretation within Islam. Wahhabism can be seen as a reform movement. Points 3 and 4 make the point that criticism of Islam, Mohammed, or Muslims is going to be counterproductive when make by outsiders, but Muslims can change beliefs about Islam by claiming their interpretation is the true Islam, and that Mohammed supported their idea (citing the appropriate hadiths). For example, sometimes you hear Muslims say “Islam was the first democracy” because Mohammed was “elected” by his Shura council. This is an instance of the acceptance of the legitimacy of the very non-Islamic practice of democracy into the Islamic fold, and it is made by claiming not that Islam is changing to please outsiders, but that Islam was there even before the outsiders. Muslims are also very free to criticize Muslims as a whole. We have also seen Western assumptions quietly creep into mainstream Muslim thinking – The idea of human rights and the validity of democracy are widely accepted. This means that we can influence them indirectly. I think this depends largely on the economic and political strength of the US and West. The success of leading civilizations attracts imitation.
    B) About the filter through which they see the world – I think this is dependent more on culture than on religion per se, and open to change, though not directly. So our problem is again mainly with Muslims of the Middle East, and not American Muslims. I think most Muslims raised in America like Aziz basically see the world the way we do. They believe of course in the infallibility of Mohammed, and the perfection of Islam, but they also share basic American values like the assumption of the basic rights reserved in our constitution. They simply understand the two to be compatible. What points of incompatibility exist, like the requirement for the execution of apostates, or the acceptability of having sex with your slaves, are probably never thought about by most American Muslims, and when they are thought of are dismissed as soon as possible because they are disquieting. It is easy to reason with American Muslims on the basis of shared belief in universal rights.
    I do think though, that this dynamic of strong American assumptions could be changed by a critical mass of Muslims, so I agree that we need to limit immigration. If Muslims exist in only a small dispersed minority, they are also faced with the norms of the larger society without us having to visibly oppose questionable beliefs, which is nice. American Catholicism roughly conformed to Protestant ideas of individualstic choice after a long turbulent spell. We could speculate that American Islam might take a similar path, but the power of Saudi ideology in Mosques is working against that – a major problem. How do we combat that?
    On your last points – I’m also inclined to agree with pointing out the negative consequences of Sharia, and taking a strong stand on our civilizational principles, though in a polite way of course. Finally, I hope it’s not quite a cold war. Perhaps hardline Islamism is just a fad, like Pan Arabism, that we can ride out.

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  • Abambagibus

    When the Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet of Islam were published, millions of Muslims took to the streets and threateningly protested. Their voices were loud and angry. When many upon many are radically murdered in the name of Islam, the voices of Muslim non-radicals are soft and barely audible. Not one them has ever taken to the streets in protest. Should those who feel threatened by the points of the crescent therefore conclude that this silence of the so-called moderates of Islam is an indication that in fact they are waffling, ready to fall on the side of the fence more expedient to their immediate needs, and fears?

  • http://www.learningquranonline.com learningquranonline

    “Did you think that We had created you in play, and that you would not be returned unto Us?” The noble Qur’an, Al-Muminoon(23):115.
    http://www.learningquranonline.com
    What Does “Islam” Mean?
    The word “Islam” itself means “Submission to Allah.” The religion of Islam is not named after a person as in the case of “Christianity” which was named after Jesus Christ, “Buddhism” after Gutama Buddha , “Marxism” after Karl Marx, and “Confucianism” after Confucius.
    Similarly, Islam is not named after a tribe like “Judaism” after the tribe of Judah and “Hinduism” after the Hindus. The Arabic word “Islam” means the submission or surrender of one’s will to the will of the only true god worthy of worship, “Allah” (known as God “the Father” in Christianity).
    Anyone who does indeed submit to the will of Allah as required by Islam is termed a “Muslim,” which means one who has submitted to the will of Allah. Many people in the West have developed the sad misinformed trend of calling Islam “Muhammadenism” and it’s followers “Muhammadins.” This is a totally foreign word to Muslims and unrecognized by them. No Muslim has ever called his religion “Muhammadenism” or called himself a “Muhammadin.”
    What Is The Basic Concept of Islam?
    Islam teaches us that this life is a life of worship. We are placed on this earth in order to worship Allah and obey His command. During this earthly life we are subjected to a series of trials. We have the option of enduring these trials and conforming to certain laws, and our reward will be great in the next life, or we may decline to endure these trials and choose to not conform to the law, then we will be made to regret it in the next life.
    Each person will be solely and completely responsible for their own final reward. We are also told that God has designed these laws to make this life a better, safer, and more tolerable one for us. If we elect to conform to them then we will see the result in this life even before moving on to the next.
    We are told that the earthly life is a life of faith and work, and the next life is one of reward and no work. We have been placed on this earth to worship God, fast, pray, be industrious, good, kind, respectful, and a source of uprightness and morality. We are told that God has no need of our worship. Our worship can not increase the kingdom of God nor add to His power, however, it is in our best interests both in this life and the next that we do.
    Unlike some other religions which claim that God entered in a covenant with a certain group of people and that this group is genetically better than all other human beings, or closer to God, Islam on the other hand teaches that no color, race, tribe, or lineage is better than any other. Islam teaches that all humans are equal in the sight of Allah and that the only thing that can distinguish them in His sight is their piety and worship.
    “O humankind! Verily! We have created you from a male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily! the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing. Verily! Allah is The Knower, The Aware.” The noble Qur’an, Al-Hujrat(49):13.

  • Abambagibus

    On this thread there’s been a fiber that professes a sagacity transcending the sagacity of the ordinary and it tells me : “Unlike some other religions which claim that God entered in a covenant with a certain group of people and that this group is genetically better than all other human beings, or closer to God, Islam on the other hand teaches that no color, race, tribe, or lineage is better than any other. Islam teaches that all humans are equal in the sight of Allah and that the only thing that can distinguish them in His sight is their piety and worship.”
    By dint of self-definition, therefore, those of Muslim piety and worship must deem that those of other-than-Muslim piety and worship are necessarily spiritually less than they, which is to say, existentially inferior. This is the kind of logic that causes the not-so-logical to wonder. Accordingly, the prophetic cartoons of the infidels have been hated. But not so the violence of the atypically malefic among you, who may find in such a passage as the above the justification of their deeds. I seek the eradication of my perplexity and not the ignorance of it.

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