City of Brass

City of Brass

ahlan wa sahlan, ya Shehre Ramadan

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Last night at sunset, according to the Fatimid lunar (Hijri) calendar, marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Today I am observing the first fast.
These are controversial statements, because the majority of muslims adhere to the hadith that each month begins with the visual sighting of the new crescent moon. The Saudi ulema have even issued a fatwa to the effect that astronomical calculations are not valid and that moonsighting is the sole acceptable method. Shayk Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna institute concurs, laying out the case for moonsighting in impressive scholarly detail (PDF link). However, in 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America adopted the compromise position that astronomical calculations were indeed valid, especially as a means for ruling out physically-impossible moonsighting reports. Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Shaykh Yusuf, pointing out that the act of witnessing the new moon itself is not an act of worship in and of itself, and is merely a means of telling time. Another thorough and scholarly essay by Dr. Louay Safi notes that the choice is not between moonsighting and calculation, but rather personal testimony and calculation. Further essays and reading material on the debate are available at the Fiqh Council’s website.

In practice, muslims rely on moonsighting by a local religious authority or organization. The specifics of moonsighting vary widely from country to country, meaning that the start of Ramadan might vary by one or two days across the muslim world. This year the general consensus is that Ramadan 1429H begins on Monday, September 1st, though technically in North America the moon will not be physically visible to the eye until September 2nd, so some may elect to begin fasting on Tuesday.

This complexity in method worldwide carries over to the Western muslim community, of course, as muslim immigrants initially tend to adheres to the tradition of their homelands. But there is intense cross-fertilization between muslims in the West – something that occurs nowhere else. Ultimately it boils down to a personal judgement as to which method to use: moonsighting, calculation, or hybrid methods. Who said the gates of ijtihad were closed?

Obama speech word cloud

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I plugged the text of the speech transcript into wordle and got this result:
Obama DNC 08 speech word cloud
The main theme of the speech is clear from the cloud: the promise of America. It’s worth noting that Obama uses that word to refer to an ideal, a description of the American Dream, which put simply is that anyone can succeed here if they work hard. It’s not a mere litany of government handouts, as others have insinuated, but rather an appeal to the idea of America, its immigrant roots, and it’s fundamental character.
And it’s also worth noting that Obama drew a sharp distinction between himself and John McCain, firmly establishing the fundamental case for why Obama-Biden is indeed an agent of change, whereas John McCain would be in all respects a Bush Administration third term. As Obama forcefully said, “change doesn’t come from Washington; change comes to Washington”.

The Obama speech

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Magnificent.

I don’t think even the most cynical observer or committed Republican partisan could watch that speech all the way through and not be moved. It was simple, yet soaring; it was idealistic, but gritty; it was about him, but it was about us.

Some of the highlights (weighted towards the beginning of the speech – I lost interest in note-taking as the speech progressed):

The speech was a moral call to arms: “We are better than the last eight years” and of course, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

Patricularly moving was his description of how his mother, his father, his grandfather, and his grandmother all contributed to him standing on that podium – and yet, he pointed out, his critics will never understand that the campaign isn’t about Obama at all.

And finally, the speech was a ferocious indictment of John McCain’s false claim to being a maverick:

“We are here because we love this country too much to let the next 4 be like the last 8. Eight is enough.”

“What does it say about your judgment if you think George W. Bush was right 90% of the time?”

Though it must be noted that Obama had genuine praise and respect for McCain, saying several times that he believes McCain loves his country, and it’s not that McCain is wrong because he doesn’t care, it’s because he doesn’t know. The quote about “a nation of whiners” hit particularly hard – and spoke volumes.

Still, I did have my quibbles. On oil and energy independence, no mention of the Electric Future alternative. Also, a ten-year timeframe for true energy independence seems an impossible goal, I just can’t take that seriously. Most discomfitting was the stance towards Iran, though the reality is that anything even slightly more nuanced than “stop Iranian nukes at all costs” would have been immediate fodder for the AIPAC/Israel-first lobby. But these are indeed quibbles – at least compared to my more serious disagreements with Obama, but that we can save for later. Tonight was a night of true grandeur, hope, and vision, and it stirred this patriot’s soul.

It’s on.

Random House gets slapped

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I think that Random House’s claim to have pulled the Jewel of Medina over concerns about violence are simply not credible – and rather cowardly, to hide behind the hypothetical muslim horde. If perhaps they thought they could get away by playing the victim card, though, they were mistaken – the scions of free speech have roused themselves in fury over RH’s betrayal of free speech values. First, it was Salman Rushdie decrying censorship where none existed, now it is a group called the Langum Charitable Trust which has issued a press release stating that Random House’s books will no longer be considered for any of the literary awards that the trust hands out in various categories. I was forwarded the text of the release via email:

August 25, 2008:

Random House and Cowardly Self-Censorship

Random House recently dropped its plans to publish Sherry Jones’s book The Jewel of Medina solely on the grounds that its publication might be offensive to some in the Muslim community and might lead to acts of violence by radical Muslims. While any publisher has the right if not the duty to refuse to publish books that lack literary merit, Random House had previously decided this manuscript was highly publishable. It paid a $100,000 advance, and had arranged for foreign publication, Book of the Month Club selection, and Quality Paperback Book Club selection.

All that triggered Random House’s repudiation of its promise was the receipt of some fairly slight information that there might be violence. Serious ideas, even if offensive to some, flourish in books. Random House has exhibited a degree of cowardly self-censorship that seriously threatens the American public’s access to the free marketplace of ideas.

While this manuscript is not in any of our prize areas, Random House’s actions represent a threat to all literature. We understand that the author’s agent is attempting to find another publisher. Meanwhile, we can not pretend that this type of cowardice will disappear without serious remonstrance. Until The Jewel of Medina is actually published, The Langum Charitable Trust will not consider submissions of any books, for any of our prizes, from Random House or any of its affiliates. We do this reluctantly, since our most recent prize in American historical fiction went to a Random House title. Nevertheless, this issue must be confronted.

It is regrettable that with our national Banned Books Week only one month away, we still must concern ourselves with these issues.

Of course, Jewel of Medina is not a “banned book” nor is RH’s refusal to publish the book tantamount to censorship of any kind. However, I agree with the Langham Trust that RH’s actions were cowardly. Any pressure upon RH that induces them to rethink their decision – or at least, dissuade other publishers from doing the same thing with respect to books about Islam – is a good thing.

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