City of Brass

City of Brass

no condemnations, please

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

As a follow-up to my earlier disagreement with Rabbi Hirschfield, it’s worth looking at what other muslim bloggers in the Islamsphere have to say about the New York Times article about the Hezbollah death shrine in southern Lebanon:

Angry Arab As’ad: What is Robert Worth’s point in this article? That Arab children love and enjoy terrorism?”

Arabic Media Shack: “Israel used and celebrates the terrorists who fought for its cause just
as much as the Arab side does.  For example, if you can prove that you
were a member of the Stenn Gang or Irgun during the Mandate era, the
Israeli government  today will give you a medal.  That’s celebration of
terrorism just as much as what is being said in the Mughnoya piece. “

AMS goes on to ask whether we can have equal opportunity condemnation, but actually I prefer that we ask no one to condemn anything. This incessant “Condemn This” routine is tiring.

Palin vanilla

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

When John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, I googled her and found her to be a very interesting mold of Republican, who took on her own party in Alaska and fought against the entrenched corruption in her state. She also had a pretty compelling personal story, in terms of her journey from hockey mom to public servant. My first reaction was therefore disappointment, because pulling Palin out of Alaska seems like eating your seed corn. Young, policy-driven leaders like Palin and Louisiana governor Bobby Kindal are GOP 2.0, the kind of Republican that the GOP needs to lead it out of the wilderness from which it is inevitably headed after this election cycle. It’s leaders like Palin and Jindal, in the mold of Schwarzenegger, who will be needed to recast the GOP as a party of solutions rather than ideology, along the lines advocated by Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat in their new book, Grand New Party.

As John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, however, Palin is relegated to the status of hyper-partisan attack dog. In one prime-time televised speech she’s completely squandered whatever future she might have had as an appealing moderate Republican leader and is now diminished. If McCain loses, her political career is over. Having donned the mantle of hyper-partisan, social conservative warrior princess, she can’t easily reclaim the moderate mantle.
So be it. Palin has set a new course. But watching McCain’s speech Thursday night, which is more McCain 2000 than McCain 2008, I am struck by just how different the political landscape would be right now had Palin delivered a speech aimed at wooing the independent voter rather than exciting the base.

Arguably, the social conservatives who fell so easily into line with Palin’s appointment that they gave her a standing ovation before she’d said a single word, would have fallen into line come election day. And with both McCain and Palin giving persuasive appeals to the middle rather than stemwinders, real inroads might have been made towards Obama’s voter coalition.
However, it’s clear why McCain chose the lower road strategy – because the independents are independent, whereas the base is more predictable. McCain’s team doesn’t want to put all their eggs in one basket, so they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. McCain alone could not excite the base, but by positioning Palin as a persecuted martyr (with the media playing the villain) and stoking a culture war, the social conservatives can be mobilized. Meanwhile, McCain will woo the middle by taking the rhetorical high road and pointedly mentioning key issues like alternate energy sources, global warming, and expressly non-ideological talk of finding solutions from “both sides of the aisle”.
If everything falls into place, they theoretically could pull it off – but the problem is that the independents are watching Palin, too. And they didn’t like what they saw:

“Who is Sarah Palin? I’m sorry but I still don’t know anymore about this young lady tonight than I did last night … The way it looks to me, she’s the Republican vice presidential nominee for one reason: because Hillary wasn’t selected.” — Mike Kosh, 38, West Bloomfield independent

“Sarah Palin is a self-described ‘pitbull with lipstick.’ She spent little time helping Americans learn who she is. She is a cool, poised speaker, but her speech contained few statements about policy or the party platform…. I am not convinced that Palin’s experience as a mayor or governor in Alaska meet the qualifications to be vice president much less one stroke or heart attack away from being commander in chief.” — Ilene Beninson, 52,

Berkley independent
“Nothing worked for me. I found her barrage of snide remarksand distortions to be a major turn off. She is not a class act. The most important point she made is that she will be an effective attack dog.” — Jan Wheelock, 58, Royal Oak independent

Those were from focus groups in Detroit, MI (a critical swing state). Meanwhile, former Hillary voters in Nevada (another swing) were put off by Palin’s deragotory tone and lack of any policy specifics:

one attendee kicked off the discussion by saying “she’s a good speaker, and a crowd pleaser,” the rest of the room articulated their agreement. “I didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was,” said another respondent. But then another woman added: “Once she started mudslinging, I thought, it’s the same old crap as other politicians. McCain used her to get the women’s vote. And she’s using McCain.”
“Thank you,” another woman responded. “That really upset me; there was no need for that. It was snippy.”

The unmarried group also voiced similar objections to the harsh, partisan edge of Palin’s remarks. “I’m not impressed with her at all as a person,” one said, citing her “finger pointing” and general sarcasm after the group had generally agreed that she was a talented public speaker.

So, will the gambit work? My guess is that Palin will succeed in bridging the enthusiasm gap and succeed in mobilizing the Republican base, but the Republican base is a. steadily shrinking and b. as incompatible with the independent vote as oil and water. Palin’s youth and contrast to McCain are a double-edged sword for him, as well. Further, Palin’s personal attacks on Obama triggered a democratic grassroots response, with $8M raised in 24 hours (almost twice the McCain campaign’s $4.5M post-Palin groundswell). Palin cannot erase the Obama campaign’s financial, infrastructure, and ground operation advantages. Also keep in mind that the McCain campaign has decided to gamble on a media scapegoating strategy, effectively ending the media honeymoon he’s enjoyed for most of his career, especially in the years since the 2000 campaign where he’s essentially abandoned his principles for political advantage.

As Marc Ambinder notes, it’s going to be a Palin September. But the spotlight is harsh, and in the end Palin is nothing more than another angry right-winger intent on lobbing the same old partisan attacks that John McCain disavowed one night later. Obama supporters should be more worried about what lies in store next month. Palin isn’t the only surprise coming down the pike.

interview with the author of “Jewel of Medina”

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Alt Muslim has an exclusive interview with author Sherry Jones, of Jewel of Medina fame. It is interesting to note that unlike the Danish cartoonists, it seems that Jones’ motivation in writing her book was to approach Islam from a sympathetic and conciliatory perspective:

ALTMUSLIM: unlike so many other times in our recent history where we are
struggling against people who are really out to vilify us, I sensed
from the beginning that you were doing this out of appreciation or
respect. I don’t think that has gotten through to a lot of people,
regardless of their opinions on the subject matter. Could you elaborate
on this?

JONES: Yes, well I went into my reading with absolutely no preconceived
notions except that Muslims had attacked the World Trade Center and
that the Muslim regime in Afghanistan was very oppressive to its
people, especially women. And so, you might say that my initial
impressions of Islam were negative.

But as I read – books by Western scholars, Islamic scholars, religious
clerics, ancient Arabic poetry – what I gained from my reading was an
impression of Islam being a religion of, primarily, peace. I read that
Muhammad admonished his followers to fight in self-defense only. That’s
really what he was doing all those years too. He was constantly being
persecuted, assassination attempts, etc.

You could say that the revealer of Islam, Muhammad, embodied Islam. He
lived this incredibly ascetic life – totally unmaterialistic, gave
everything away to the poor. He could have lived like a king but he
didn’t. He was very respectful toward women and, actually, I was so
impressed by how he gave women rights that we didn’t even possess in
this country until the early 20th century. He was generous and kind and
compassionate. He forgave people who had done him wrong if they asked
him for it.

The more I read about Islam at the beginning stages, the more impressed
I was. Muhammad endured so much persecution, there was never any doubt
in my mind that he was sincere and that he was a visionary. He gave up
everything for his belief in God and his, I believe, sincere desire to
bring the truth of one God to his own people.

Having developed that respect, out of all the reading that I did – and,
you know, I read some stuff by older historians who claimed that he
went out and conquered in the name of Islam and forced people to
convert. But the newer stuff that I read, the more recent historical
writings, actually refute that. And the impression I gained of him was
of an incredible man and a great, heroic leader.

I think that it is important for muslims to understand the difference here between Jones’ book and actual hate speech of the kind embodied by the Danish cartoons. Jones demonstrates an appreciation for Muhammad SAW that is refreshing. Her interpretation of the relationship between him and his wife is that of a relationship first and foremost. It’s not surprising that she accepts the controversial argument that Aisha was only 9 years old at the time of marriage, since that seems to be the dominant view in the literature, even though it makes no sense when analyzed from historical sources. That supposed age discrepancy prodded her curiosity to write the book in the first place, and I think her intention is a valid literary pursuit. Whether the final product is indeed a sensitive treatment or a racy hijab-ripper is of course a different matter, and we can reserve judgement on its literary quality later, after we’ve actually read the thing.

Jones goes on to say,

I did all this in the service of what I see as a truth. My truth –
this is my vision of what things would have been like based on my own
experiences and my own research and my own intuition and observations
of human nature. I’m very sure of the work I’ve done and the choices
I’ve made. I know why I did everything I did in that book. Maybe at the
time I was doing it I wasn’t always sure, but I revised this book seven
times.

Since this whole thing started, I’ve been accused of Orientalism, and
I’ve stopped and I’ve taken a step back to look at myself. How would we
feel if a Muslim wrote a fiction book about Jesus, how would that be
perceived? How would Christians feel? It’s hard for me, though I’ve
tried, to imagine myself among a group of people who feel discriminated
against and co-opted already. I can understand why there would be
resentment and suspicion of my motives.

But I’m really aware and conscious of the choices I made. I have felt
that people who didn’t like my book might challenge me and that we
could discuss it.

I agree with her. And I think that it would be a good idea to discuss and challenge her, respectfully and without rancor, on her assumptions and her choices.

Read the whole interview at altmuslim.com – and there’s an extended version coming ot as a podcast next week which I will link to when available.

translations of the Qur’an

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

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Fasting is the iconic act of piety in Ramadan, but for me the dominant association is actually the Qur’an. The fast is more of a background, passive act of faith. But reading the Qur’an, immersing yourself in its rhythm and poetry, is an active act. In my mind the singular image of Ramadan is not the lack of food but rather that of the muslim seated in the masjid and reading from the holy book.

There are two ways to read the Qur’an – as an act of devotion, or an act of inquiry. The former is to read the Qur’an in its original Arabic, which most muslims (myself included) do not speak or understand fluently. Qur’anic Arabic is a structured, formal language which is not actually used in modern Arabic societies, and it has its own very specific rules (called tarteel) that when followed in the recitation, result in an incredibly melodious and harmonic sound. These rules transcend just the mechanical sounds of the consonants and diacritical marks, and great qaris like Husari and Husain Saifuddin are masters of the art.

One might ask, what’s the point of reading the Qur’an in a language you don’t understand? The answer depends on belief. If you believe the Qur’an to be written by a man, then precisely none.
But if the Qur’an contains the literal Words of Allah as revealed, with
all divinity intact, then the mouth is repeating these divine words.
The eyes see the divine script, the ears hear the divine sound, of the
revelation.

It is said that from heaven, the angels perceive the reciter of the Qur’an as a shining star.

Further, the choice of the language of Arabic was no accident either. The
richness of Arabic poetry in the pre-Islam arabian culture had no
equal, and the Qur’an itself is a work of poetry on a scale that
completely overwhelmed the pagan worshippers. The power of Qur’anic
revelation was confirmation of the divine origin. This innate complexity
is intrinsic to the structure of the language itself:

As an act of inquiry, the Qur’an is read to plumb its infinite depths and attain religious insight. This is in many ways a dangerous intellectual challenge, because even for native Arabic speakers, the Qur’an is a dense and complex symbolic work. There are those who insist on a literal translation, of course, but it is generally agreed that the Qur’an requires some level of interpretation to be properly understood. For the native Arabic speaker, that interpretation may be personally derived, but for the rest of us, the Qur’an must be translated into our own native languages.

The very act of translation itself is a filter, that necessarily strips the Qur’an of its more complex symbolism, leaving only the superficial meanings intact. Skilled translators are able to evoke the sense of poetry of the original text, but there is inevitably some degradation, and the amount depends on the target language as much as the translator themselves. These are obstacles to understanding and inquiry, but not insurmountable ones. As long as these limitations are kept in mind, then there is still much to be gained from reading a translation, just as there is still a richness and diversity of life on the shoreline of the ocean. You aren’t sampling the depths, but the shallows still contain great wonders.

As far as translations to English go, three of the most common online are by Marmaduke Pickthall, Abdullah Yusufali1, and Mohammed Habib Shakir2. All three translations, along with Arabic script and additional commentary, can be viewed side-by-side for any range of ayats desired at the Digital Islamic Library Project‘s Multilingual Qur’an Online site, an indispensable tool. Of these three, I tend to use Yusufali’s The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an the most often, though there is a great discussion of other people’s choices at Talk Islam. Other translations that are highly recommended are Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations and Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Qur’an.

Given the diversity of translations, it’s hard to really recommend one. In fact the best course of action is to pick one, read it through, and then read another one immediately afterwards. Only by reading multiple translations can you really begin to build an appreciation for the complexity of the Qur’an’s message.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent my morning writing this post instead of reading my own Qur’an… time to go rectify that.

Photo credit: Bhiima on Flickr

[1] Yusufali’s biography is a fascinating and tragic read. His father was a Dawoodi Bohra from Surat, India and he was a devoted loyalist to the British Raj. Despite international acclaim for his translation, his life fell apart and he died alone and penniless in London in 1953.
[2] With respect to Shakir, there is some controversy about plagiarism from an earlier 1917 translation by Maulana Muhammad Ali

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