City of Brass

Your recommended Friday reading: Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism: A primer by Shadi Hamid and Rashid Dar. Here is the executive summary:

Islamism: Islamism as a phenomenon incorporates a wide spectrum of behavior and belief. In the broadest sense, Islamist groups believe Islamic law or Islamic values should play a central role in public life. They feel Islam has things to say about how politics should be conducted, how the law should be applied, and how other people—not just themselves—should conduct themselves morally.

Salafism: Salafism is the idea that the most authentic and true Islam is found in the lived example of the early, righteous generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf, who were closest in both time and proximity to the Prophet Muhammad. Salafis—often described as “ultraconservatives”—believe not just in the “spirit” but in the “letter” of the law, which is what sets them apart from their mainstream counterparts. In the Arab world today, Salafis are known for trying to imitate the particular habits of the first Muslims, such as dressing like the Prophet (by cuffing their trousers at ankle-length) or brushing their teeth like the Prophet (with a natural teeth cleaning twig called a miswak).

Jihadism: Jihadism is driven by the idea that jihad (religiously-sanctioned warfare) is an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) incumbent upon all Muslims, rather than a collective obligation carried out by legitimate representatives of the Muslim community (fard kifaya), as it was traditionally understood in the pre-modern era. They are able to do this by arguing that Muslim leaders today are illegitimate and do not command the authority to ordain justified violence. In the absence of such authority, they argue, every able-bodied Muslim should take up the mantle of jihad.

The excerpts above do not do the essay justice. To anyone disinclined to read a bunch of books, reading the full essay is at least a pragmatic alternative.

And then, having read it, please also read Murtaza Hussain’s essay on ISIS’s goal of Eliminating the Grayzone. It’s really short, but I’ll excerpt one paragraph anyway.

Through murderous provocation, the Islamic State seeks to trigger a civilizational war between Muslims and the West, violently dragging both parties into such a battle if need be. There can be no real victory in a conflict with such apocalyptic connotations. Instead, Western nations should remain defiant, making clear through word and deed that they refuse to see the world divided on the Islamic State’s terms.

This stuff matters more than ever now. Reading the excerpts on this page is not sufficient. Just reading the two essays linked above is not sufficient. But it’s a start.

لَقَدْ مَنَّ اللَّهُ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِذْ بَعَثَ فِيهِمْ رَسُولًا مِّنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُوا مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ

Allah showed great kindness to the believers when He sent a messenger to them from among themselves — Surah al-Imran, 164

This week sees two major events – this past weekend was Milad un Nabi (also known as Mawlid), the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad SAW, and today is the third anniversary of the passing of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA, the 52nd Dai ul Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra community. For a believer of my stripes, it’s a kind of emotional whiplash. But in another sense the proximity of these two events serves as a spiritual bulwark, reminding me that there is a discrete and continuous chain of divine authority in which I fully entrust my spiritual well-being. That infinite, divine, indestructible chain continues in the person of the 53rd Dai, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. For an Ismaili Shi’a like myself, continuity is the key – certainly, other groups like the Qutbi Bohras are free to choose whatever continuity suits them, but ultimately all Ismailis entrust themselves to someone. Religion should not be a democracy; there is a specific authority, and then it is up to the believer to decide, to choose – who do I believe? Faith is a single leap of trust, and then everything that follows is purely rational. That leap of faith is driven by something Reason can never understand, however: Love. Hal al-din illal Hub? (What is Deen, but Love?)

Related: my discussion of the controversy over observance of Milad un Nabi, where I argued, “(e)ven accounting for all that is expressly forbidden in Shari’a, there is infinite space for cultural practice within Islam.”

Shadi Hamid, author and fellow at the Brookings Center, is one of my policy-geek heroes. His recent discussion about Islamism and secularism with noted atheist Sam Harris is absolutely worth your time. Recently, on Twitter, he shared 6 books from his bookshelf on Islam and Shari’a that he thinks are essential reading. I liked that idea so I decided to do my own version. Here are my picks for the essential Islam library in the Trump Age:

Misquoting Muhammad by Jonathan A.C. Brown

Misquoting Muhammad by Jonathan A.C. Brown

Misquoting Muhammad by Jonathan A.C. Brown is the book that Shadi suggests is the one he’d recommend to Trump’s transition team. I haven’t yet read it myself but it’s on my list, and I will review it here when I do.

Speaking in God's Name by Khaled Abou El Fadl

Speaking in God’s Name by Khaled Abou El Fadl

Speaking in God’s Name by Khaled Abou El Fadl is a really seminal work. It comprehensively deconstructs Islamic jurisprudence and helps educate the reader just how twisted and ahistorical the extreme interpretations of Islam are, that militant jihadists, Al Qaeda, and ISIS embrace.

Mullahs on the Mainframe by Jonah Blank

Mullahs on the Mainframe by Jonah Blank

Mullahs on the Mainframe by Jonah Blank is the first, and to my knowledge only, ethnography of my own religious community, the Dawoodi Bohras. Blank’s thesis is that Islam has room for religious orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) as well as modernity, and uses my community as detailed example of how both tradition and modernity can coexists in a living faith. The book is a bit dated, but the trends that Blank identified have only accelerated.

Approaching the Qur'an by Michael Sells

Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells

Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells is not a complete translation of the Qur’an, but limits itself to a few of the shorter, more accessible earlier revelations. These translations capture the spirit of the text rather than the literal letter. They are a starting point for understanding the Qur’an as a living soundscape rather than just a static text. There’s no better way to begin learning about the Qur’an than this.

No god but God by Reza Aslan

No god but God by Reza Aslan

No god but God by Reza Aslan is the story of the founding of Islam, as well as what came before. It puts the story of the Prophet SAW into a rare historical context, and treats the topic with both a rigorous academic seriousness as well as with the respect of a believer.

I Speak for Myself: All-America edited by Wajahat Ali and Zahra Suratwala

I Speak for Myself: All-America edited by Wajahat Ali and Zahra Suratwala

I Speak for Myself: All-America edited by Wajahat Ali and my sister, Zahra Suratwala, is a collection of essays by American, Muslim men about our proud identity as Men, Muslims and Americans. With a foreword by Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison, it is essential reading. And I’m not just saying that because my sister is co-editor, or because I have an essay in the book myself!

Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid

Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid

And finally, Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid, inexplicably missing from his favorites list! He has graciously sent me a review copy which I’ll finally make some time for during the holidays. Shadi argues that Islam is truly exceptional in a political sense, and requires a new understanding of the nature and purpose of the nation-state and foreign policy.

Taken together, I think that the books above provide a balanced view of Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people, and demystifies some of the aura around Islam as an unknowable Other. This is exactly the kind of understanding that is critical as we enter the age of Trump, fueled by Islamophobia and fear. Civil rights at home as well as human rights abroad all hinge on how we as a nation and as a people act in the years to come.

Related: Shadi’s other picks are also worth checking out:


In 2002, the Bush Administration created a Muslim Registration Database, called NSEERS. It was finally dismantled in 2011 by President Obama and had a perfect score of 0 terrorists caught out of 100,000 registered.

The architect of NSEERS, Kris Koback, was just named to Donald Trump’s Presidential transition team, alongside Islamophobia Industry scion Frank Gaffney (maybe).

Trump spokespeople openly cite the Japanese Internment as precedent for registering Muslims. And our mainstream media helpfully points out that a Muslim Registry wouldn’t even be unconstitutional.

All of which is fine, just fine. Let the Registry come. But I will not register. Whatever the consequence of not registering may be, I will not register.

Perhaps other Muslims may choose to register. I’ll even publish their argument here if they desire. But I will not register.

Some Jewish Americans have stated – with indescribable courage – that if the Muslim Registry happens, they too will register. I do not have enough words to express my gratitude and my awe. Muslims and Jews in America are uniting as I’ve long argued we must, well before Trump. But I ask them to reconsider, because I certainly wouldn’t want them to risk their own civil liberties on my behalf. I will not register. I would prefer that no one register. We need Jewish support for when we refuse to register first; if that civil disobedience fails, then we will need their solidarity, but let’s aim to misbehave first. #DoNotRegister.

“May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.” — Captain Mal