City of Brass

City of Brass

the State of the Ummah, 2014/1436

posted by Aziz Poonawalla
"You are the best nation produced as an example for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah ." - Quran 3:10

“You are the best nation produced as an example for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah .” – Quran 3:10

I tuned into President Obama’s 2014 SOTU for a while last week – mainly because my daughter was tasked to watch 15min minimum for school, a limit to which she adhered to precisely – and was struck by how futile the speech seemed. It isn’t Obama’s fault any more than it was Bush’s fault during the previous Administration that these things are only watchable by diehard fans or diehard opponents. To someone like myself who voted for Obama and strongly supported him, am still genuinely in admiration and excited about him being in office, but is basically a realist about the limits of Presidential power, the SOTU is an empty shell – a COTUS-required exercise wherethe President defends his policies and lays the groundwork for his agenda in the upcoming year. Obama being who he is, he still tried to appeal to the unity of the American people, a theme he has consistently sounded ever since he burst onto the national stage with that incredible, unforgettable keynote at the DNC convention in 2004. The problem is that Obama’s ideas can not survive our political process. There’s something truly broken with our politics, and I found an incredibly insightful analogy for why it is broken this morning, in a essay about What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest – namely that politics isn’t like a family, or like a business, but rather it is like football:


Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game. You ever think about why football games are they way they are? You have all these guys hitting each other so hard they cause each other permanent brain damage. So why do they do it? …

They do it because that’s how the game works. They do it because the rules are you line up in front of the other team and then you hit them as hard as you can. They do it because, for one side to win, the other has to lose. And they do it because, if they don’t do it, they’re off the team. Football has no place for conscientious objectors.

The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.


If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.

This might sound like we’re all soulless, power-hungry careerists just trying to grab power, but we’re not. Everyone in this room believes their ideas will make this country a better place. Everyone here believes the best thing that can happen is that their side gets the power to put those ideas in play and make people’s lives better … This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.


Put more succinctly, American politics is a zero-sum game between two teams, and the score of that game (elections) has nothing to do with the health of the spectators, and everything to do with the job security of the coaches and franchise players. As the essay says, elections don’t change this – they only swap out the players, not the rules of the game.

This makes me wonder about what the community of Islam is like. We also have a concept of unity akin to “united states” – the Ummah. Is the Ummah a zero-sum game? For some of the players, yes – those who have a very strict vision of what Islam is, and seek to impose that idea on everyone else. And there’s the rest of us, who just want to play the game for the love of the game. The problem is that just like politics, those with the zero-sum view have an inherent advantage over the ones who do not – and over time, they exert greater and greater asymmetric influence over the infrastructure. This is as true of gerrymandering districts as it is of funding imams for mosques.


There does need to be a “zero-sum” response to some degree. For example, the rise of the committed political left, an activist class in US politics that was born during the Bush Administration and empowered by blogs and the web. However, without wholesale commitment of the entire Left to this political jihad, the way the Right has, they will always be at a disadvantage. This is why we have seen Republican presidential candidates increasingly pander to their base’s right wing to get the nomination whereas Democratic ones tend to dismiss the Progressive Left and play for the middle. The Tea Party has far more power and influence than the Progressive Caucus. That’s the price we pay for our principles.

What is the lesson for Muslims here? Do we need a “liberal” response to the wahhabist/extremist faction? There isn’t an easy answer here. It’s something we have to consider and discuss, as a community. As an Ummah, if that word is to ever have any true meaning.


je ne suis pas Charlie #IamNotCharlie

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I am not charlie

I fully support the right, and I also deeply appreciate the sentiment, of the cartoonist Luz, who is one of the survivors of the despicable attack on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that was attacked by Al Qaeda last week. Here is Luz’s (translated) statement in full:


I invoked all the talents of the magazine, all those who were not there any more, all those were still there, I said to myself, we must do a drawing that above all makes us laugh, and not one on the emotional charge we are victims of.

I had the idea of drawing this character of Mohammed, as it’s my character, because he existed, at least in people’s hearts, and in any case he exists when I draw him.
He is a character that got our offices burned, and a character who at first got us treated as the great white knights of the freedom of the press because the offices had burned down. Then a year later when we redrew the character we were treated as dangerous provocative and irresponsible. So this character led us to be called either white knights or provocateurs, whereas we are above all cartoonists who draw little people like children do.


The terrorists were once kids, they drew like us, like all kids, then one day they perhaps lost their sense of humour, perhaps their child soul able to see the world from a bit of a distance, because that’s Charlie – being able to draw the world from a small distance. So I drew saying to myself: “I am Charlie”. That was my idea but it wasn’t enough.
The only idea left was to draw Mohammed, I am Charlie. Then I looked at him, he was crying. Then above, I wrote: “All is forgiven”, and then cried. We had the front page, we had finally found this bloody front page. This was our front page.

This was not the front page the world wanted us to draw, it was our front page.

This is not the front page that the terrorists want us to draw, as there are no terrorists in it, just a man who cries: it’s Mohammed. I am sorry that we drew him again, but the Mohammed we drew is a Mohammed who is crying above all.


I can’t bring myself to reprint the image of Mohammed (SAW) that Luz has drawn, as is my right and according to my religious values. However. The reason I am appreciative is that the image of the Prophet (SAW) that he has drawn is not the image that the terrorists have in mind. It is not the image that the Islamophobes have in mind. It is, in a real sense, the image of the Prophet (SAW), in emotion, that I have in mind. Qualities of humanity and empathy, of wisdom and of tolerance – the very qualities that hundreds of millions of Muslims celebrate every year on Mawlid al Nabi, as we celebrated last week.

And the terrorists hate that version of Mohammed (SAW) most of all. They hate the version of Mohammed (SAW) that is an inspiration to Muslims, that Muslims love. They want to paint a version of the Prophet (SAW) that is a slave to their needs and goals, political and selfish and hateful.


Which is why, I regret that I can’t join in the viral sentiment of Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) – because the image of the Prophet SAW, though penned by Luz with truly noble intentions, will be and has already been co-opted by those who in action support the terrorists’ interpretations of my religion and my Prophet SAW – the Islamophobes. I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech unequivocally – including their right to be tools. And I don’t begrudge or take offense at the mad rush to buy the new issue of Hebdo with Luz’s cartoon on the cover – but I have no illusions that those copies are bought in the name of free speech alone.

Related – muslims in Paris also are not Charlie. In fact, many people are not Charlie, nonmuslims and muslims alike.


Merry Milad and Happy New Year

posted by Aziz Poonawalla
Indeed, Allah confers blessing upon the Prophet, and His angels [ask Him to do so]. O you who have believed, ask Allah to confer blessing upon him and ask Allah to grant him peace

Indeed, Allah confers blessing upon the Prophet, and His angels ask Him to do so. O you who have believed, ask Allah to confer blessing upon him and ask Allah to grant him peace

This year, Milad al Nabi is closer to the New Year than Christmas! By the Fatimid calendar, Milad (or Mawlid) is today, 3rd January 2015 – which fittingly also coincides with the perihelion of the Earth.


However you reckon the date, this is the time of year where hundreds of millions of Muslims remember with love and joy the memory and guidance of their beloved Prophet, Mohammed Rasulullah SAW.

Mohammed! As Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA said, it is a name that the mouth feels joy in speaking aloud. A Muslim’s love – mohabbat – fr the Prophet SAW is a sign of sincerity, of piety, of shukr (gratitude). What a wondrous gift was Mohammed to mankind! It is with mohabbat for Mohammed that Muslims the world over, for centuries, have prayed salawat – upon Mohammed, be Peace.

Mohammed Rasulullah SAW

Merry Milad to all and to all a good night!

(Of course, there is controversy over this sentiment. For those interested in the debate over Milad, please see my post, Reflection on Milad al-Nabi)


Have a very Muslim Merry Christmas

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Quran 5:46

And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirming that which preceded it of the Torah as guidance and instruction for the righteous. — Qur’an 5:46

And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. — John 1:5


The Islamic new year has begun a couple months ago already, but it is still December to which I associate the closing of the year. The shortest day and the longest night just passed, and it is Christmas Eve. The holiday spirit and the traditions surrounding the holidays have their own cultural significance, one which all Americans share, regardless of whether we are Christian or Muslim or something else or nothing else. However, as a believer, I am grateful for this opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Jesus AS – and I note that the birth of the Prophet Muhammad SAW is right around the corner this year as well. These Abrahamic convergences always make me happy :)


I think that the idea of a War on Christmas is nonsense – if anything, Jesus won. In Texas they even have legal protection for saying Merry Christmas. However, imaginary persecution aside, I do believe that there is a need to put Christ back in Christmas, especially with regards to taking action – charity and forgiveness, values that the Prophet Isa AS urged his followers to uphold year-round, not just for a few weeks before and after the solstice. Muslims have every right to publicly embrace Jesus AS as a Prophet and saying “Merry Christmas” is one way to assert that co-ownership.


The Prophet Jesus – Isa Nabi AS – was indeed a guidance and light unto mankind, which the darkness comprehends not. I will celebrate Christmas by praying salawat upon him and striving to uphold his teachings.

Merry Christmas!

(and don’t forget folks. Santa is a Muslim. Really. It explains everything.)

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