City of Brass

City of Brass


a response to Arnold

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

One of my erudite commentors, Arnold (who I know quite well from other internet venues and have met personally), asked the following question in the thread to my last post:

Irrespective of my well-known unbeliefs, I always have avoided showering believers with disrespect regarding their great historical personages. That goes for Avraham, Yeshua, Muhammad, Gautama Buddha, whomever founded the religious faiths of India, China and Japan, and the Baha’i offshoot of Islam that developed in Iran. After all, who is to say that my visions merit believability any more than theirs?

Having said that, I wonder why believers in general and Moslems in particular get as pugnacious as they do over perceived slights to their prophets? Having been born and raised in this land, you know as well as I do about the spirit of bored and uncaring skepticism toward religion that has overtaken western civilization. In the consciousness of large numbers of people of this era, studied insults heaped on great men such as Muhammad reflect nothing more than the way they treat their current national leaders.

So instead of retreating before this kind of barrage in shock and anger, why don’t make a better effort to understand their social psychology?

As for individual western Muslims or groups of them muttering threats of assassination, don’t you think these are matters best left to the police authorities?

I did not know that a statue of Muhammad had been built into the US Capitol. I’m not certain how the sculptor knew what he looked like. At least from my understanding that graven images purportedly are forbidden under koranic law. Or am I wrong about that?

Anyway, western Moslems ought to consider what I have written here. You make more headway treating people who defile you as mindless and grossly impolite idiots than you ever can accomplish by threatening them with bodily harm or death.

By the way. I still think american Islam some time in the future will wind up resembling some sort of mild protestant christian church group or reform jewish synagogue group, with watered-down observance standards even if the orthodoxy of original Islam remains unchanged. That’s the nature of cultural and civilizational assimilation. Let me know what you think of that.

My response to Arnold:

Let me point out that American muslims do not as a rule get “pugnacious” about their faith. In fact you have one dude, on one website, making a stink. That guy gets a lot of attention from the media because he is the exception, not the rule.

I refer you to the link in my post at the end about the muslim women lawyers’ visit to the Supreme Court (the KARAMAH organization). Read their report and note their respectful approach to the issue, how they discussed their concerns and acknowledged the intentions of the sculptor. Is that “pugnacious” ?

In fact, refer to everything I have ever written, and tell me what cause you have to believe that I am not representative of my community. I remind you that the purveyors of violence in this country are overwhelmingly non-muslim. Such a man flew a plane into a federal building in Austin, another destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma, another murdered a doctor in cold blood. None of these men, unlike the shooter at Fort Hood, could be characterized as having “snapped” but acted out of deep conviction and resolve. So, I ask you, where is the threat? Who is being pugnacious?

And I will say simply that things that are sacred must be defended – in words, and reasoned argument, and dissent, and protest – and that is what muslims, American or worldwide, do as a general rule. We revere our Prophet; we don’t expect you to revere him, but just like my mother and my daughters, I won’t suffer insults to them without an answer, a statement.

South Park insulted our loved one in this way – but not as maliciously as other insults elsewhere, as I acknowledge. In response, one nut, on one website, went too far – and the American muslim community *shut him out* and said unambiguously, “you are not us”.

I’m sorry Arnold, but I disagree with you. We aren’t your problem. In fact, we are already the solution.

Let me also add to my response above, I agree that when anyone, muslim or otherwise, makes a threat it should be left to the authorities. The two idiots running their puny website have brought greater and well-deserved scrutiny upon themselves.

I just want to reiterate here that the American muslim response to insult to the Prophet was mostly indifference and wounded silence. Ony one lone nut on one lone website made any threat – the rest of us have behaved as anyone would to an impolite fool slandering our loved ones: by ignoring them. Instead, we’ve saved our critique for the real idiots in this silly tale – the ones who think Islam and the Prophet SAW actcually need defending from mere cartoons.

Related: Manas at Ijtemaa.net makes a similar argument, asking “why report the radical voices first?” I think it’s truly because they are the exception that make them so alluring, to our media-entertainment complex.



  • Bosda

    The odd things are:
    1)There IS NO image of Islam’s Prophet in the cartoon. There is only the image of a bear costume. The appearance of Mohammed is hidden. Is the image of a cartoon bear costume sacred?
    2) Mohammed is NOT IN the bear costume. Later in the episode, it is shown that the person in the bear costume was actually Santa Claus, not Mohammed at all.
    A cartoon is like a dunce cap. Most people see it, & realize the teasing doesn’t apply to them. But a foolish few put on the dunce cap, & loudly proclaim how well it fits!
    In closing–
    “Enjoy yourself, or try to learn – you will annoy someone. If you do not – you will annoy someone”. —— Mulla Nasrudin

  • http://wishsubmission.wordpress.com/ Manas Shaikh

    Did you come up with “news-entertainment complex?” It’s very apt. :)

  • Byron

    The interesting thing is that Parker and Stone didn’t try to portray Mohammad in a negative light. I watched each episode where they showed or tried to show him, and the worst they could be accused of with respect to Mohammad is irreverance. There was nothing inherently insulting done to his character. There was absurdity, but that’s it.

  • Diamontes

    Ah, but the problem is not one nut case.
    The problem is if that one nutcase (or the worldwide aggregate of nutcases) are right in their interpretations of the Koran, Hadith and Sunnah.
    Is it the case that slandering the prophet of Islam is punishable.
    If there is an argument that counters, ie bint marwan?
    The majority of Muslims will not commit violence in the name of their religion but that is not the same thing as saying their religion does not condone violence in various circumstances.

  • Kitch

    I see you still insist that it’s OK to defend being insulted. Yet say nothing about the holy texts mandating that you act in violence on that insult.
    I disagree that it’s OK to be insulted in that text, but I defend your right to be insulted. But if you do not reject the passages texts that mandate murder and don’t stand up against those who embrace those, you are not part of the problem but part of the solution, whether you want to frame yourself as moderate or not.
    Here is the problem:
    Danish cartoons are published. I have not seen one moderate muslim comes out to stand next to the cartoonist to defend his right to speak. No, they yell and scream and threaten in words in visible mass protests (a right you claim). The extreme have a culture of anger to thrive on and go act.
    Things will be good when thousands of real moderate muslims will stand up and move to protect the innocent. There should be camps of tents near the cartoonists house watching his safety. There should be web sites calling for the safety of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Rushdie by moderates. There should be replications of the original version of the south part episode by moderates that comment how this should not only be allowable but necessary and that any threat or act of violence will never be tolerated and that you will support any efforts to stop purveyors of violence.
    But no, you insist that your taking offense is justified but you are better than the murderers simply because you didn’t act on the mandates of you holy texts.
    As said you are part of the problem and not the solution. You do not defend your brother from harm but support the anger against him, but hold yourself blameless if they do take harm.
    That doesn’t mean that what you say isn’t worlds better than just plain calls for killing, but it’s the same as saying it’s OK to fan flames as long as they don’t actually burn anything down, when the right, safe and good solution is to dispense with the flames altogether.
    First step is to defend the Danish Cartoonist, who instead in your previous post you have called worse than the southpark people. Will you do that or will you just claim to be part of the solution to feel good about yourself? I’d be nice if you actually put out flames rather than justify them.

  • Diamontes

    Islam is as we all know based on the sunnah of its prophet.
    In at least two cases I can think of he condoned the killing of people he considered slanderers.
    So, what does a moderate do with that?
    Also, I think (not that it matters) that Aziz is a person of integrity. I would never want to hurt his feelings and would never talk about his family.
    But Muhammad is a world historical figure.
    I have every right to read, for example, sirat rasul allah by ibn ishaq and, realizing it is not used to form law, still take it as an important insight into his personality and character. I have the right as a human to consider him as a positive or negative figure based on that reading.
    If your wife is Margaret Thatcher or father is Napoleon you would have to suffer hearing indignities as well.

  • My Turn

    It is strange that the West would accept Muslims only if they followed Western rules, including observing freedom of speech when that speech is designed especially to insult our Prophet SWA. Alas, we Muslims have our own rules that have been dictated by the Qur’an and the Sunnah and which are being followed by almost two billion muslims world wide. No matter how moderate a muslim might be, by definition, as a muslim, he/she has to follow those simple rules. It is simply forbidden in our religion to display our prophet Muhammad’s likeness. To learn about the man and his character, one can simply read history, the way one reads about Alexander the Great. You don’t need the image to understand this powerful, unique character. You can’t make fun of our prophet merely because you have the right to exercise your freedom of speech. It’s more productive to show that you respect others’ religions. To get along with any culture/religion, you would have to respect the cultural differences. wouldn’t our world be happier and more peaceful this way…
    The “melting pot” produced Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Italian-American, Arab-American… and so on. We are all Americans and yet each community is still allowed to maintain and practice its cultural background and rules.

  • cortes

    Sorry My Turn, the Western world isn’t interested in accepting or denying Muslims. It’s more realistic to say that the Western World isn’t interested in hearing about them… but, that’s just as we don’t feel like hearing about anybody else either. We want to be left alone to mind our own business. We want to be able to do what we choose and that is why we have moved to this country or why we do not leave this country.
    When you begin to impose rules on us, based on your culture, we will react. Fine, you don’t depict Muhammad because you feel it’s disrespectful, we don’t care. What’s that got to do with us. Stay out of our business, if you don’t like what you see, look somewhere else. If you can’t accept that these things go on, then go somewhere else where they can’t. Stop threatening violence and likewise, we will stay out of your life.
    The world will never be all Muslim, so keep your culture and rules to itself. I hope they have some flexibility as the world changes.
    There is also nothing wrong with reaction to the depiction of Muhammad, but it should be reasonable and it should abide by the laws of the land. Write an angry letter, start a grass-roots boycot.
    Your behavior and mindset is outdated and, think what you will of it, but our culture’s more mature understanding of mutual respect and our culture’s years of experience living in a heterogeneous world will either serve as an example to you or will punish you if you continue to behave without maturity and open mindedness.
    You’re either part of the free world or you’re not. There’s no embracing parts of it while repressing others. This is how life is lived here. Welcome.

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

    I would like to point out that “My Turn” and Aziz, clearly disagree on this issue, so anyone who refers to “Muslims” as forcing their beliefs on others is overgeneralizing. “My Turn” is also overgeneralizing when he says “It is simply forbidden in our religion to display our prophet Muhammad’s likeness.” Muslims in Turkey and Persia have depicted the prophet for centuries. And Kamarah’s reaction to the statue on the supreme court building was tolerance. Also, although many Muslims disagree with me on this, I see no reason to believe that Islam forbids Non-Muslims from making images of the prophet. Kitch is mistaken when he refers to “the holy texts mandating that you act in violence on that insult.” Neither the Koran nor the Hadith says any such thing. The Koran forbids Muslims from making images of the prophet, but says nothing about Non-Muslims. The purpose of this rule was to make sure that Muslims did not make the prophet a “partner with God”, and worshipped the one God. Obviously that is not a problem when a non-Muslim makes an image of the prophet. Furthermore, forcing non Muslims to refrain from making pictures of the prophet would violate the principle that there should be no compulsion in matters of religion.

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

    “In at least two cases I can think of he condoned the killing of people he considered slanderers”
    In those two cases, it was not the case that he considered them slanderers. Two of his followers made this judgment and did the killings, and he did not condemn them after they did the killings. These are not pretty stories, but I think they are best explained by the fact that Muhammad’s position in his community was precarious, and he couldn’t afford to alienate people who strongly supported him, even when they went too far in their support. Muhammad was an orphan who lived in a society where family connection was the only unifying social force. He was trying to introduce what was then a radical new idea: that people from different families could form a single community under the banner of the same religion. He sometimes had to make compromises to hold his community together. There are numerous other passages in the Koran and the Hadith which preach tolerance, patience, and urge people to suffer insults patiently, which show that Muhammad did not want his followers to see this kind of pugnaciousness as admirable.
    Muhammad was the only person in history who was a great spiritual leader, a great military leader, and a great political leader. This was why he often had to do things that other spiritual leaders did not have to do. There are terrorists who have cited these hadiths in defense of terrorism. But even in conservative Saudi Arabia, these interpretations have been condemned.

  • cortes

    Overgeneralization or not, if I painted a picture of Muhammad I would be at risk of being killed. I will not accept that kind of life for myself or for my country.
    While that behavior exists, regardless of what moderates believe, there is a danger.
    What is being done about it?
    Muslim is as Muslim does.
    If anyone takes South Park from me, I will have Jihad against them. It’s just a TV show.
    Philosophical question. If this issue is about idolotry, then symbolizing Muhammad is unacceptable. How about the name? Aren’t words symbols? The word “love” surely doesn’t encompass the entirety of the experience, but it triggers a thought or a feeling in us when speak, hear, or read it. Is verbal or written transmission of the name improper? How about communication about what Muhammad said or did? Should the experience alone be taught and the stories and words, verbal or written, be dropped? Maybe Muhammad meant it to be more like zen?
    Or, maybe some influencial religious figure created this tradition and it stuck. Again, maybe it’s time for revisions. This seems impractical. Can’t people regulate their own worship? How about putting the advice against idolotry out there as a good tip. Maybe make sure, given the current events, that the proper response is understood by the common people.

  • cfoak

    Very interesting discussions on this blog. I personally never liked the melting pot analogy cause the connotation is that everyone just kind of melts until we are all pretty much alike. I prefer the Salad bowl analogy cause although the parts of the salad are mixed together, they still retain much of there own uniqueness. In the US there are all kinds of different cultures with their own distinct customs and beliefs which may sometimes seem strange. If we learn to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of all cultures; it would go a long way to respecting each other and hopefully being able to resolve conflicts without having to hate on each other.

  • Ritch

    I think it would be nice to be a salad. Let me try to tease out where the difficulty is.
    The issue is that there is a demand from one part of the salad that all other parts of the salad observe their mandates. As poignant example take criticizing aspects of the Islamic faith and actions take in its name. Can one comment on these things or not? The state of affairs, it seems to me is that one side insists that not following the mandate to not discuss and criticize the practical ramifications of Islam is beyond discussion. There are two stances: One is, we will be offended but we do not agree that violence is the way to go. The other is that of being offended and seeing one’s salad (faith, tradition) to allow, in fact demand threats and violence.
    How is one to coexist under either of these. So someone actually does get killed in the name of Islam. Talking about this will get you threatened and potentially killed as well.
    But I do not see a discussion that say, hmm, maybe the problem is actually that we should allow other parts of the salad to comment on what they observe? And to depict, in their tradition what they tend to depict? That’s an enlightened position that I have yet to see. I have read begrudged “live and let live” remarks from moderates when Rushdie got knighted, and not a single bravo. I also have yet to see a moderate come out and call the Danish cartoons a justified commentary to actual murders that have happened and a condemnation of any censorship against them. Instead I see moderates that seek alternative ways to act against the cartoons.
    Is that the salad we want? Tolerance between believe systems is not a one-side street. Believers in Islam through the device of being offended cannot and should not set the absolute standard what can and cannot happen. This is not tolerance. Tolerance requires that both sides have a part in the decision.
    And frankly as long as there is violence that is (sadly rightly!) justified by the texts of Islam and not a reform within the faith the takes a strong counter, and in fact enlightened position, we will continue to have this problem. The enlightened position is to defend the rights of others to speak even if you vehemently disagree with the statement. Even moderates don’t seem to agree to that principle.
    But this argument is not just about free speech and Islam. There are many many problems in how non-Islamic traditions approach belief in Islam. I strongly disagree with what is going on in France and Switzerland, for the very same reason. Yes there the state power and methods of democracy lead to the problem. But here is the difference. I can at least criticize France and Switzerland without fear of potential death! And the law books of these governments don’t mandate death for those criticizing the laws that are currently on the books.
    The issue at stake here is more serious than limiting personal freedoms due to intolerances in believe system. It’s that the believe system supports intimidation and homicide. In this climate there just isn’t much of a discussion about other things. The south park episode is mild by almost any standard, in fact the Danish Cartoons are mild compared to depictions of Jesus I have seen (and I support those depictions be allowable!). Theo van Gogh died for having made a movie pushing the envelope in criticising the role of women in Islam. The point about all of these is that any criticism is dangerous and even the moderates do NOT come out and say, criticism is not only allowable but necessary! Some do come out and say, violence is wrong, but that is not enough. No, instead people are offended and we have a second wave of upset when Rushdie got knighted, when open-minded folks would have realized that it has (a) nothing to do with the satanic verses and (b) if it had, the commentary should be on its literary qualities and nothing else, because after all its a novel and (c) most importantly the live and well-being of people comes first! There should have been memorials and vigils for dead translators and publishers held by moderates. Did we see any? I’m happy to see any references to them.
    If grief is too much to ask, perhaps there should have been at least some applause rather than or in addition to protests.
    But it would be unfair to claim only Islam lacks enlightnement. The Vatican plays a tricky role with respect to recent books by Dan Brown. The daVinci code depicts Christian faith structures in an unpleasant light (in fact it depicts it as murderous). And so does its sequel. There are calls were calls for bans and obstructions, but all these motions are at least non-violent. Here too the Vatican should have taken these not as “blasphemous” as they stated in their ban of having it played in churches, but they should have recognized it as “fiction”.
    Bigoted, violent intolerance is wide spread. I still remember vividly when CDs by musicians who dared to criticize the wars in Afganistan and Iraq were bulldozed and burned, a picture not unlike when fanatic Germans burned books of fiction by such harmless authors as Erich Kaestner.
    I think we should stand against all those kinds of intolerance, but most against those to which we are the closest. Hence moderates are in the best position to condemn intolerance, even if it does not directly relate to harm to people, but relate to the insistence of being angry and offended.
    Ultimately the whole notion of blasphemy needs to go away. It does not work in a salad because it only really applies to the believers. If an atheist says there is no god, and all the “messiahs” were just people, perhaps con artists, that should be speakable and that would be statements of non-fiction. Yet non-fiction critics also live in fear when it comes to criticizing Islam. Take Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
    So yes in that sense I appreciate Aziz’s original title “freedom to blaspheme”. That’s what we need. We need that freedom, but in consequence blasphemes will become meaningless, because it’s just criticism, caricatures, or misunderstandings that are left after that.
    That we have a long way to go can be seen in many strands. For example here is an article chronicles the denouncement of terror from moderates: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/index.php/archives/4581
    It’s funny though, because some of the same scholars essentially follow the same thought process. Yes X is blasphemous, but rather than kill, lets do other things like get state censorship etc.
    Problem is that the moderates agree with the extremes on the right outcome, i.e. that “blaphemous” expression be stopped. They disagree about the method. So there is a fatwa being issued against terror. I think that’s great, but it’s only the first half of the problem, because clearly the hope in return is censorship and achieving the same outcome.
    Ultimately that article is about how fatwa isn’t such a bad thing (and how really non-muslims just plainly don’t know it’s real meaning). I find this hard to swallow, when way too many translators and publishers of Rushdie got hurt, threatened or murdered, yet the anger is still being upheld as justifed! Again a case of lack of perspective. It doesn’t matter if fatwa is non-binding or binding. The suggestion to kill another by a religious authority is the problem and the anger that fans this suggestion is a problem, not what word we attach to it. I’d just call it incitement to murder, and a just religion would oust phony leads who call for it. As best I know Iran has upheld the fatwa because the Khomeni is dead and is the only authority to recant it, so it’s standing today. The problem is, how people react. That article should have denounced the fatwa against Rushdie and not tried to nuance its meaning which is just plainly irrelevant, when people get hurt. It should advocate for the freedom to observe and criticize, but it doesn’t. The article is dated March 2010, and this is how far we are from a sane dialogue.
    If people can learn to not take criticism or alternative perspectives so darn personal, thing will be a lot better all around.

  • cfoak

    It was not so long ago that “moderate” Americans were discussing at the dinner table whether it should be legal for a black person to marry a white person and today those same “moderates” are discussing whether same sex people should be allowed to adopt children. All groups and nations have their issues and there’s evidence that Muslims accross the world seem less tolerant on issues of blasphemy.
    We live in the United States of America where we have the opportunity to model to the rest of the world what it means to live in relative peace in a multi-ethnic community. The salad bowl may not be a perfect analogy, but the idea is that Americans are of all races, ethnicities, and each one’s practices and beliefs should be respected. I realize that dealing with other countries is a complex issue.
    One thing you learn in any basic HR training in workplace conduct is that if a person or group feels offended by a comment or action, then they are offended. Someone else can’t say what is offensive to someone else. Although my gut reaction is to think “what’s the big deal, don’t take it so personal,” I am not Muslim.
    I guess it’s a societal norm situation. What if as a nation it was the norm to look down upon depictions that offend muslims much like it’s offensive to use tar baby images to depict AfroAms. That would go a long way towards improving relations with Muslims everywhere. Yeah, that and stop invading other countries

  • Ritch

    A hypersensitive person or people who mob up on others because they dislike something are hell for the workplace. Hence good companies hire with care, and if they don’t, decent people will leave fast to companies who know how to hire for a positive workplace. However we cannot leave the planet to escape bully-ish types or intolerant silencing attitudes.
    This is no excuse for excessive sensitivity and disregard for the larger impact the insistence of being sensitive has on the surrounding. We should not gauge our behavior by the standard that the most sensitive set, but by sensible standards that are good and fair for everybody.
    The tar baby is a false analogy. That would be plainly offensive. Depicting Muhammad with a bomb as turban is commentary, because violence in the name of Islam exists. We cannot stop talking about violence and its causes just because some claim its offensive. I think we should not forbid the depiction of tar babies but by defending that right we retain our right to criticize the person who put out such images and we should! The problem is that in fact the Danish cartoons are falsely labeled as offensive and pure malice. If that image would solely be there to offend, I would still defend them to be but I would criticize them. As it stands they describe a sad reality we live in and as long violence in the name of Islam exists I will defend anybody who speaks, cartoons, films etc about it!
    It’s like being at the work place, a co-worker made a snide remark, but when you say “Please don’t make snide remarks” the co-worker calls it offensive. And if HR steps in and give that co-worker right you aid in what’s wrong in that situation.
    If there is truth content to be discussed it has to be speakable. This is what is at stake here. And art has to be allowable. Else we do not have freedom but a rule of the most easily offended, and the best way to silence criticism is to call it offensive.
    So yes, people have the right to be offended all they want. I will keep criticizing them if they put their offense above more important values, such as the safety of human beings who did nothing but cartoon, speak, novel, film.

  • Ritch

    P.s. On invading, I second. Injustice has to stop on all sides. But one injustice does not justify another.

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