The Ethical Brilliance of an Eye for an Eye

It’s all too common to view the Abrahamic injunction of an eye for an eye to be somehow barbaric or, at least, a regressive form of justice in this day and age. Most of us have heard Gandhi’s famous saying of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. Critics of faith often cite this verse as a harsh even vengeful form of retribution, especially as it exists in the Old Testament:

“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21-24)

The Quran reaffirms the verse, but adds a crucial proviso in the form of mercy and forgiveness:

“And therein we prescribed to them: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth…But whosoever forgoes it out of charity, it shall be an expiation for him.” (Quran 5:45)

Elsewhere in the Quran, retribution (Qisas) for murder is elaborated on further:

“O you who believe! Retribution is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain: freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female.” (Quran 2:178)

Now here’s why this is such a brilliant ethical construct. It’s not establishing a rule allowing for enmity and bloodshed it’s setting a limit to curb violence. God Almighty is not condoning vengeance He’s explicitly stating that one cannot exceed the limits set by the ruling:

“The broad legal, social, and cultural context of this verse is the system of tribal feuds and vendettas in the Arabia of the time, which, as the commentators describe, would often escalate to proportions way beyond the original crime. Thus one tribe might retaliate for the killing of a man by killing not only his murderer, but many other members of his tribe…”(Study Quran, 76)

In other words, before this revelation in both the Old Testament and the Quran, vengeance and retribution often existed on a level of unmitigated savagery.  The Abrahamic decree demands that if retaliation is necessary it can only be meted out in equivalent measure to the criminal act either by punishment or just recompense:

“Against the prevailing practice, the verse is understood to maintain that responsibility for a crime is dictated precisely by the nature of the crime. Hence the wording of the verse implies that retribution for a crime against a woman [or freeman or slave] could neither fall short of nor exceed the retribution appropriate to that crime…” (Study Quran, 76)

Rather than encouraging violence, enmity and bloodshed, both the Old Testament and the Quran discourage it while not disregarding the rights of victims either:

“Moreover, because the maximum revenge is limited to the execution of the perpetrator and vendettas are forbidden, it is a way of preserving life.” (Study Quran, 78)

While the New Testament asks that we nobly turn the other cheek, it’s fair to argue that Matthew 5:38-42 is directed at the individual on an existential level rather than a communal one:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

The Old Testament and the Quran are enacting a kind of legislation whereas Matthew 5:38-42 encourages magnanimity and forgiveness from the victim(s) not from those in authority. In that sense, one can argue that the latter part of 5:45 in the Quran echoes the sentiment found in Matthew 5:38-42.

Also, turning the other cheek is not always practical, wise or possible. For example, say an individual preyed upon children in a small village. There’s little recourse but to seek some form of justice for the safety and harmony of the community.  One cannot simply turn the other cheek and let the crimes go without putting the entire community in serious jeopardy.

Still, the Quranic injunction provides us with both the ability to seek retribution, but also the ability to forgive as a form of expiation. Herein lies perhaps the wisest form of justice.

 

 

 

Dealing with Lust, Our Dumbest Desire

If we’re being honest with ourselves, sexual desire has reduced most if not all of us men to howling baboons at one point or another. Not to say that we’ve always acted upon it, but there’s a reason why even Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright and contemporary of Socrates, referred to lust as the mad master. Sexual desire is a most powerful impulse. It’s compelled men throughout the ages to do great and terrible things. Certainly, it can reduce the best of us to ignoble bottom feeders:

“We have certainly created man in the best of stature; then We return him to the lowest of the low.” – Quran 95: 4-5

Now when I say lust is our dumbest desire, I mean dumb in a colloquial sense as in oxen, donkeys, Donald Trump, your typical seemingly mindless beasts. Rational thinking goes out the proverbial window.  So does our spiritual acumen.  Such desires consume us in a manner tragically similar to the vain attempts of your neighbor’s dog on your poor, innocent leg.

As Muslims our initial response to sexual desire is often complete denial as in, “Nope! Not me! I’m not horny at all! Never! Why am I sweating? Steam?” While this is noble it’s also a tad naïve. Denial then leads to sort of white knuckling of desire wherein we start to maniacally pray through grinding teeth to the point of lockjaw and tooth loss.

Of course, praying is necessary, but just throwing up haphazard duas while caroming about your family’s living room like some rabid bull half on fire is not exactly the best approach (And no one wants to end up like George Costanza in that fatal Glamour magazine incident).

Worse, self-flagellation rears its ugly, barbarous head. That devilish voice we sometimes confuse for our conscience begins to tell us how weak and useless we are, how ineffective our faith is and how damnation and ruin are surely upon us. Suddenly, we are drowning in two kinds of despair: Hapless lust and a foolish lack of faith.

Do not minimize God Almighty’s mercy and forgiveness because you are overwrought with shame, guilt and embarrassment. That is a serious transgression in and of itself. Often such despair leads you down even darker paths if you allow yourself to wallow in self-pity:

“Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” Quran 39:53

Even if you acted upon your desire in some wild, illicit manner – pornography, a hookup, a trip to ye ol’ strip club or brothel – there’s no need to turn into some repentant 80’s televangelist. Don’t get me wrong. We’re reaching the peak of stupidity here, but you’re not allowed to curse yourself and the world around you either. Just because you’re on fire doesn’t mean you get to burn the entire house down too. Pray for forgiveness, counter your transgression with some bold act of goodness and learn to avoid temptations in the first place.

I know I know, avoiding temptation is easier said than done when you’re exhausted from studying at your local café and some pretty gal suddenly strides across your weary eyes adorned in Lululemon’s latest offering in yoga ‘pants’ a shade tighter than halal sausage casings:

“Then suddenly, as though a dry path appeared through the Red Sea, Satan saw the beauty of women, and he began to dance. ‘More! More!’ The hazy eyes, the fascination of a soft cheek, a cheekbone, a reddening lip, the glance that burns a man like a cumin seed on a hot fire-brick!” – Rumi

Perhaps, that first glance couldn’t be avoided, but the second, third and fourth certainly could have been. Never mind the fact that you’ve set yourself ablaze, you might even need a neck brace after all that gawking.

For men, especially young men, living in the modern world it can seem like just about everything is offering some kind of sexual fantasy – billboards, advertisements, commercials, cheeseburgers (I’m looking at you, Carl’s effin’ Jr.).  Even a trip to the gym is full of sexual provocation (Mind you all of this is as much the fault of men as it is women if not more in so many instances). Heck, some days when I go lift at 24 Hour Fitness I can’t tell if I’m at the gym or a strip club. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they start offering lap dances in the squat racks either.

Still, we do have a choice, a better, higher and wiser choice:

“The kernel of true manhood is the ability to abandon sensual indulgences…These matters are as real as the infinite is real, but seem religious fantasies to some, to those who believe only in the reality of the sexual organs and the digestive tract.” – Rumi

Instead of caving to desire or self-flagellating about like some guilt-ridden idiot, learn to laugh a little. I mean it. Laugh at the impulse and how silly it actually is. You may die of hunger and thirst, but no one’s ever died from horniness. It certainly isn’t the end of the world either no matter the outcome.

We don’t overcome our impulses by denial, despair or indulgence, but through a healthy and wholesome discipline.  Discipline teaches us not to feed our desires in the first place. A spark is much easier to handle than a forest fire:

“Fiery lust is not diminished by indulging it, but inevitably by leaving it ungratified. As long as you are laying logs on the fire, the fire will burn. When you withhold the wood, the fire dies, and God carries the water.” – Rumi

Amen.

 

 

ISIS, Machiavelli and Martin Luther

Most Muslims are at their wit’s end trying to defend Islam against the horrific actions of ISIS and their ilk. Many have even gone to great theological lengths to explain how ISIS is diametrically opposed to the tenets and principles of Islam. Unfortunately, the efforts of these well-intentioned souls often fall on deaf ears. Rarely, if ever, are the naysayers and Islamophobes informed in any meaningful way on hermeneutics or exegetical constructs concerning matters of faith. Usually these critics, many of whom are academics or supposed intellectuals of some repute (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchen, etc.), abandon any attempt at critical evaluation and reduce themselves to henpecking literalists to bolster their misguided claims and accusations – ironically enough, the same foolish methodology that fundamentalists like ISIS employ in their draconian attempts at indoctrination and terror.

Never mind the most obvious, but seemingly lost fact that Islam is, by no means, monolithic. There are upwards of 1.5 Billion Muslims in the world today whose beliefs are incredibly wide and varied in scope. Asking a Muslim what they’re doing to combat terrorism is like walking up to some random Mexican and asking them what they’re doing to fight the Cartels. Or perhaps a more perfect analogy is asking a Nigerian what they plan on doing about gang violence in South Central Los Angeles. In other words, it’s a nonsensical and loaded inquiry based almost entirely on gross, superficial gleanings informed by wild ignorance and fear-mongering.

The reality is that the likes of ISIS are neither driven by the tenets of Islam nor can be challenged by them. Battling ISIS on theological grounds is a mostly fruitless effort. The supposed beliefs of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen are simply a threadbare disguise. At root, they are driven by greed and power, not living a virtuous life as a defined by the Quran and the example of the Prophet (pbuh).

With that in mind, let’s put aside all the seemingly endless theological refutations against the horrific crimes committing by ISIS. Instead, let’s turn to Niccolo Machiavelli, that shrewd, provocative Renaissance philosopher whose seminal work, The Prince, details the acquisition of political power by any means necessary – something ISIS is hell-bent (pun intended) on achieving.

 Virtue and Vice in a Machiavellian World

 Virtue and vice have no inherent metaphysical value in relation to power according to Machiavelli. They are simply tools to facilitate gaining and maintaining authority. Of course, this runs completely counter to any religious notion of virtue and vice, but no matter.  Concepts of goodness have no teleological or eschatological purpose in Machiavelli’s sociopolitical world.  Virtue is simply a means to a decidedly worldly end:

“Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power…” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Notions of goodness and salvation are mere abstractions to be manipulated when necessary (I’m reminded of that sad and profound scene in the film Paradise Now where some two-bit mullah tries to convince the main character to become a suicide bomber). Machiavelli even argues that ethics and virtue in a classical, Aristotelian sense can be outright foolish and impractical. In fact, in The Prince Machiavelli elaborates even further and insists that acts considered wrong or deplorable might need to be committed for the sake of achieving and maintaining power:

“The term that best captures Machiavelli’s vision of the requirements of power politics is virtù. While the Italian word would normally be translated into English as “virtue,” and would ordinarily convey the conventional connotation of moral goodness, Machiavelli obviously means something very different when he refers to the virtù of the prince. In particular, Machiavelli employs the concept of virtù to refer to the range of personal qualities that the prince will find it necessary to acquire in order to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things,” the two standard markers of power for him. This makes it brutally clear there can be no equivalence between the conventional virtues and Machiavellian virtù.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To be clear, Machiavelli is not contriving some diabolical sociopolitical theory from thin air.  He is simply drawing from endless examples throughout history to assert his claims.  As a result, vice and virtue are relative concepts and ought to be gauged mainly by whether or not they facilitate one’s sociopolitical might.

The Brutal Measures of Martin Luther

What’s often lost in all the volatile discussions about Islam, Islamophobia and terrorism, especially here in America, is just how violent the roots of Protestantism are. Many are aware of atrocities committed under the banner of Catholicism (Crusades, Inquisitions, Conquering of the Americas, etc.), but America is largely Protestant. Most of us simply know Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, as a rebellious German priest who challenged the Catholic hegemony that enveloped most of Europe. However, few are aware of how he evoked the name of Christ in a very Machiavellian sense to justify the barbarous oppression and slaughter of thousands of the German working poor desperate to free itself from the crushing boot heel of feudalism.

Martin Luther was desperately trying to consolidate power with various German princes against Catholic rule. To do so, Luther twisted Christian virtue as he saw fit. In fact, the following quote could easily echo the words and sentiments of al-Baghdadi or Bin Laden:

“The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything, so their ears must now be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders…He who will not hear God’s word when spoken with kindness, must listen to the headsman, when he comes with the axe.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

Even more compelling in a Machiavellian sense is how Luther manages to deform the very notion of God’s mercy and later condemn any act of rebellion against authority as blasphemous (of course, he fails to acknowledge his own monumental act of rebellion against the Catholic Church):

“The Scripture passages which speak of mercy apply to the kingdom of God and to Christians, not to the kingdom of the world…Rebellion is no joke, and there is no evil deed on earth that compares to it.” – Martin Luther, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants

To be clear, it would be in gross error to associate Luther’s brutality with Christianity as a faith and philosophy.  Not only in error, but nonsensical as well.  Luther certainly was fueled by aspects of zealotry and self-righteousness, but these driving forces were diametrically opposed to the supposed virtue he espoused.  Instead, it was greed and power that ultimately drove him to encourage such injustices.

Like Luther, al-Baghdadi and his ISIS henchmen distort, corrupt and deform the beliefs they supposedly profess to pursue their nefarious ends. Sadly, this is nothing new. Human history is replete with such mayhem and corruption whether it’s ISIS, Pope Urban II, Mao, Stalin, etc. And, thank God Almighty, it is also full of brave souls who continue to defy such tyranny no matter the odds. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Jinn, Tall Tales and Night Terrors

Jinn exist. As Muslims we accept this as fact. The Quran dedicates a Surah to these otherworldly beings and the Hadith mention them with some frequency. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even dedicated a mosque to the jinn right near Masjid al-Haram.

Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with exhausting amounts of fanciful tales regarding jinn that usually fall somewhere between wild imaginings and blatant superstition. An uncle of mine (may God rest his soul) had an insufferable habit of saying salaam to every breeze that passed through an open window. He also claimed to have traveled with a jinni companion numerous times. I suppose that’s more convenient than Uber, but I digress.

Of course, there are some stories that inspire a good deal of apprehension as well. If true, many of the popular films and novels about possessions and hauntings – The Exorcist, The Conjuring, The Entity, etc. – suggest the handiwork of malevolent jinn. Some of us even have our own stories that reveal something more than just tall tales.

A Christian friend of mine recently recounted his terrifying experience with what he referred to as a demonic presence years ago as a teenager. Apparently it involved actual physical harm. Now a film producer well into his 30’s, he could not finish the story without welling up in tears. One of the most startling aspects of his many encounters was suddenly seeing a ghastly figure of a man standing in the middle of a lonely, rural Texas highway while driving home. The apparition appeared out of nowhere. He couldn’t brake in time. Strangely enough, his old Mustang passed right through the figure. My friend turned to his then-high school sweetheart riding alongside him and asked if she had witnessed the ghastly man as well. Puzzled, she denied seeing anything. He was certain he was losing his mind. Ten years later she finally admitted she saw the apparition as well. She was simply too terrified to acknowledge it for all those years.

My own experiences are, at the very least, peculiar. Since my late teens and well into my twenties I routinely experienced night terrors. While it’s clinically defined as a sleep disorder, actual studies and findings are nebulous at best, especially when one digs deeper for causes (The documentary, The Nightmare, currently on Netflix is worth viewing. The production values are not great, but the stories provide sufficient explanations about the mystery of night terrors).

Night terrors usually occur when one is in a state of sleep paralysis. Most importantly, in almost all of my experiences and those of others my surroundings remained identical with ‘waking life’ so to speak. Unlike a typical nightmare or dream, one is fully aware and conscious. However, one simply cannot move. At best, I could pry open my eyes or twitch an arm or leg. Often this is when I would sense another presence in the room.

Not until I lived in a single-wide trailer on the outskirts of a rural, college town as an undergrad was I finally assailed by the full scope of night terrors. By most outward aspects at the time, I was a pretty degenerate college student, drinking, partying and pursuing the opposite sex with foolish, ignoble intentions. Inside that trailer though and in secret from most of my peers, I’d begun my lifelong pursuit of faith in all its various guises. Though I’d read the entire Quran in Arabic as a boy, my comprehension was exceedingly poor. I began to read as many English translations of the Quran I could find. At the time, I must have had at least five different translations of the holy book to cross-reference alongside innumerable works by notable scholars on Islam. I also began studying other religious traditions on my own and at the university – something that to this day has afforded me greater understanding of my own faith in Islam.

This is when I began routinely waking up into a state of sleep paralysis at odd hours of the night. Unable to move at all, strange, vaguely human shadows would appear along the periphery of my half-open eyes. These figures would grab at me, crush against me, stealing my composure and breath. The pressure was often unbearable. Worse, at times I’d feel molested, caressed in incredibly inappropriate ways. Only after considerable panic, was I able to shake myself fully and finally awake; that is, awake as we traditionally define it. Sometimes I would be so disconcerted and frightened, I would be forced to turn on my bedroom light and stay awake for the remainder of the night.

Understandably, the veracity of my experiences may leave some wanting. Nonetheless, I should perhaps detail my most horrifying, yet strangely enlivening night terror that occurred before a great shift occurred inside of me. On one particular night having exhausted myself from studying both for my degree in Philosophy and from my own pursuit of faith I woke up, yet again, in a state of sleep paralysis. Face down and on my stomach I felt some hopelessly strong, unnatural force driving itself into my back effectively pinning me down on my mattress. I could hear pages being rapidly flipped on my desk from the many religious books scattered there. And for the first and last time I heard a voice. Deep, unnatural and almost bestial in nature it simply said, ‘don’t believe.’

This time, however, I didn’t wake up terrified. I woke up emboldened, smiling even. I finally understood that whatever I was experiencing, I was doing something right. From this point forward I began putting my whole trust in God during these nightmarish episodes. And it worked. Every time I woke up in a state of sleep paralysis and felt the telltale signs of another presence I vehemently began to pray. Most often I would simply repeat Surah Fatiha until I could break out of this dejected state. It’s difficult to put into words, but the prayer formed a wall of protection around me and this wall only grew more fortified and impenetrable with each successive encounter.

In fact, I knew that it was over to a large degree when I had a final, most telling dream. In the dream (an actual dream), I sat upon a park bench on the edge of a vast, impenetrable pine forest. Slowly, dozens upon dozens of shadows emerged from the woods surrounding me. I continued to sit without fear, trusting God. They could do nothing. I felt victorious.

It’s as though these unnatural, negative forces unwittingly compelled me toward faith not away from it. Perhaps this is a part of God’s great wisdom for all that we suffer. Again, I was utterly helpless in those moments. My physical prowess meant absolutely nothing. I was young, strong, had boxed and wrestled for some time. None of that could avail me. Only my trust in God could.

Many people who have suffered from night terrors insist that fear fuels the encounters. As my fear decreased and my trust in God Almighty increased the attacks trickled down to nothing as did the actual episodes of sleep paralysis.

Are night terrors the result of insidious jinn? Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but if you were to force my proverbial hand I think there is much more at play than just one’s subconscious. The dreamscape is certainly filled with mysteries.

My own experiences certainly changed me though and for the better, at least, so I hope though God knows best. Every so often I still have a night terror. It can still be disconcerting, but it’s as though my very being retreats into my heart as I recite Surah Fatiha and am fortified by God Almighty. I can feel the prayer course through my spirit as it vanquishes any attempt at frightening or harming me.

For certain, in all those horrifying episodes I’d discovered something incredibly beautiful. In such moments of complete helplessness the only thing I could do is call upon God’s Power and Mercy – something we often neglect to do when our day-to-day life invades us with all its distress and distractions. Amen.

 

 

 

An Olive Branch to Ex-Muslims

There’s a fair amount of understandable anger and vitriol among those that have left Islam alongside a dizzying amount of issues to contend with – one’s family, one’s identity, one’s place in the grand scheme of things, etc. I say understandable because it’s a fair reaction to a belief that people often feel or have felt confined and bound by due to their upbringing and, dare I say, misinformation from mullahs to muftis to one’s own relatives. And before that triggers an onslaught of naysayers and ad hominems, hear me out. I was just like you if you can believe it.

In short, I grew up in an Islamic household in small town America that went from fairly normal to fanatical upon moving to Saudi Arabia for a spell. My parents (yes, I still love them dearly!) became obsessed with rules and strictures to the point of absurdity. Many of you know the drill – the most mundane, trivial misstep resulted in perishing in hellfire for all eternity. Worse, I attended a parochial school in Saudi Arabia where teachers habitually slapped students around. For example, if our feet were not perfectly aligned with one another during prayers, a brutal turd of a teacher would sneak up behind us and whip our feet with a rubber hose in the supposed name of Islam. Imagine going from a sweet old lady as one’s grade school teacher to that. I habitually vomited every time I stepped off the bus out of anxiety and fear. Thank God my friends were mostly refugees who taught me to toughen up. Back in the States I could only relate to folks generations before me who had similar stories growing up in Catholic schools.

Upon returning to America three years later, my older brother and I quickly began to shed our religious skin. We grew wild the way preachers’ sons in America grow wild. We lived two very different lives: the one inside our home and the one outside. My brother abandoned God entirely while I simply grew to hate Him. For many former Muslims I sense that same resentment toward Heaven. For some, it’s difficult to shuck the belief in God altogether. Instead, a rueful spite forms. I get that as well.

Later, as an adult I grew even wilder, slowly entering a wilderness of proverbial sin and despair (even if we don’t use the term ‘sin’ I certainly wasn’t making good choices) in part because I inherited all my orphaned father’s unrequited ghosts and because of the inherent sense of dislocation than many sons and daughters of immigrants feel or have felt no matter where they are. Still, I managed to publish my first poem in The Seattle Review around this time. I’d finally captured how I’d felt as a boy on paper, warts and all, regarding faith and loneliness:

A Small, Dark Boy

I thought I could pray
hard beside the schoolyard wall
right before the recess bell
to keep from being this

permanent stranger in the only town
I had known. All the pretty girls
seemed to fall between the spaces
of my open hand. I had to
pray a little more. I thought

I could betray what I knew
to be imminent: for a long while
I would have to be alone.

At this point, I began my academic pursuit of philosophy and literature. This led me to the studying of religious philosophy which led me toward various academic scholars of Islam. Now I say Islamic scholars, but most of them were non-Muslims. I’m not talking about muftis or mullahs. It is supremely ironic and cannot be emphasized enough that it was non-Muslims who allowed me to slowly rediscover Islam. If this is an indictment on the current state of Islam as practiced by many Muslims so be it. The Islam I was learning about from scholars such as Anne Marie Schimmel, Carl Ernst, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, etc., was literally night and day to the Islam I was taught as a boy. Even now, ten or more so years later, I continue to devour their works among so many others. Gone was all the fire and brimstone and obsessing over pork and premarital sex ad infinitum (my folks even had a book entitled, Gelatin)! Certainly the principles were not dismissed nor abandoned, but emphasis was put on the big picture, ideas and humanness toward one another in relation to God rather than rote dogma and an often idiotic zeal for strictures. Did I suddenly stumble back onto the proverbial straight path? Of course not. However, it did manage to pry open the proverbial door to both faith and Islam and, most importantly, a genuine sense of peace and contentment (not always, of course, but more so than I ever could have imagined) after so many years of restlessness, ennui and despair.

Of course, I’m not trying to sell you on Islam or anything else, I’m just suggesting that maybe don’t slam the door on God just yet, even if that means finding another path toward Him. And in doing so, be fair, not only to others, but to yourself. I’ve perused a lot of the posts and comments on /r/exmuslim. Many of you are young, highly intelligent and engaging. However, when I read your comments regarding the Quran or Prophet (pbuh) they seem borne more out of frustration and anger than logic or some careful exegetical analysis.

Many of you are avid readers and understand that reading poetry and literature often requires a high level of comprehension to fully understand or, at least, better understand what is being said. Two telling examples for me in this regard happen to be two of my favorite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. When I read these novels in the 8th grade they were just fun adventures and not much else. However, when I reread them in my late 20’s the breadth and scope of these works seemed, at times, limitless, especially, Huck Finn.

I understand that many of you have deep-seated resentments toward Islam and therefore the Quran and Hadith. As result, it’s become quite common (and easy) to henpeck verses, refuse context or a deeper understanding in order to prove its inadequacy. This is more a disservice to your intellect and humanity than anything else. If you’re venting vent. I get it. However, only the most daft of literalists would argue that Ode to a Nightingale is about Keats’ love of ornithology. The same goes for any scripture or religious text as well. At the very least, respect the nature of discourse lest we devolve into rants akin to FOX news.

This is already decidedly longer in the proverbial tooth than I had hoped and there is so much more to be said regarding notions of identity and whatnot, but I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” – William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences

Be well and take care.  Amen.

 

 

 

ISIS, Dr. Jonathan Brown and Concubinage in Islam

“It was in the institution of marriage, however, that Islam made its greatest contribution to women. It sanctified marriage, first, by making it the sole lawful locus of the sexual act.” – Huston Smith, The World’s Religions

 Appeals to Tradition

 The issue of ma malakat aymanukum (“those that their right hands possess”) in relation to sex outside of marriage between husband and wife is a vexing and volatile subject for what seems like an infinite amount of reasons.  Historically speaking, there have been numerous theological interpretations in Islam permitting sex with slave-women sometimes even non-consensual sex. In fact, in a recent AMA on reddit even Dr. Jonathan Brown, an esteemed Islamic scholar teaching out of Georgetown University, indicated as such with a rather strange, anthropological explanation. When asked about the permissibility of raping one’s slave, Brown responded as follows:

“…’slave rape’ is a tough term to decipher from a Shariah perspective. A male owner of a female slave has the right to sexual access to her. Though he could not physically harm her without potentially being held legally accountable if she complained, her ‘consent’ would be meaningless since she is his slave.”

As insightful a scholar as Brown can be, I think he is categorically wrong in his theological assessment. In fact, I find his response not only in error, but absurd as well, especially when compassion is at the very root of our faith:

“God will not show mercy to him who does not show mercy to others.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Now, of course, the draconian fools that make up ISIS have offered their own abundantly ignorant claims to ma malakat aymanukum. However, as foolish as ISIS is, their terrible decrees tantamount to sex slavery are not an historical exception in the history of Islam. Even now many of the so-called ‘royalty’ in some parts of the Middle East certainly bend and twist the notion of ma malakat aymanukum to allow the consummation of their illicit desires though maybe not with the obvious brutality of the likes of ISIS. Also, whether it’s a despotic warlord or some spoiled prince they most certainly have a coterie of theologians or mullahs capable of twisting and contorting faith to suit their misguided ways:

“There are those who believe that if they study the Quran, and so learn the words of knowledge of religion, and then go to kings and princes to seek favor from them, that they can keep safe their piety. It is not so. From a thorny tree you will get naught by thorns, and likewise you will get nothing from kings except sins to commit.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

The most common arguments permitting sex with ma malakat aymanukum outside of marriage are innumerable appeals to tradition often citing various questionable Hadith for corroboration. However, unlike the Quran, the validity of any given Hadith can be called into question, especially when it contradicts or even seems to contradict the Quran. Also, even if a theological interpretation has remained popular for centuries this doesn’t automatically validate such interpretations as true or irrefutable. Too often I hear fellow Muslims make fallacious appeals to tradition when defending any number of positions on Islam including this very contentious subject matter.

Worse, such appeals and interpretations regarding ma malakat aymanukum have offered a kind of derelict boon for many Muslim men’s wayward desires for centuries. Not for all, but certainly for some. Stories of harems and courtesans decorate much of Arabic poetry and literature and, of course, prostitution remains an institution in many Islamic countries including Turkey and Pakistan. As absurd as it sounds, I can only imagine some wayward brother browsing pornography with his right hand in some feeble, misguided attempt to rationalize his dull desires. Lest we forget, the devil is a lot more clever than we think, especially when leading us astray.

Suffice it to say, there’s quite a bit of exegetical work necessary to fully understand ma malakat aymanukum in Islam. While I’m under no illusions of providing a definite answer to satisfy everyone or put to rest the issue, I’m certain that I can provide a sound argument that demonstrates that any sexual relationship with slaves or concubines is strictly impermissible in Islam unless sealed by the bond of marriage.

The Process of Revelation is Key to Understanding Ma Malakat Aymanukum

Surahs in the Quran are distinguished by when they were revealed either as Meccan in origin or Medinan. The latter indicates Surahs revealed to the prophet post-Hijrah. Thematically, Meccan Surahs tend to focus primarily on God and humanity’s relation to Him. Medinan Surahs tend to detail practical applications of faith such as the treatment of women, laws of inheritance, judicial and punitive measures, etc. Much of what we define as Shariah draws from the Medinan Surahs and these are the final arbiters regarding moral and ethical behavior for Muslims.

The process of revelation (not to be confused with process theology) as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – again, from Meccan injunctions to Medinan ones – demonstrates that sexual relations with slaves were finally decreed as impermissible. Remember, the entire revelation of the Quran took over twenty years to complete. Outside of worship of God and God alone, the practical moral framework established in Islam involved a definite and legitimate process.

Certainly the Quran was revealed in perfection and remains perfect. In relation to ma malakat aymanukum, the early Meccan verses understood that sexual relations were occurring between owners and their slaves. More importantly, these early verses understood that virtually no boundaries existed at the time for the sating of one’s sexual desires. Worse, women had no place or value in pre-Islamic Arabia:

“Drunken orgies were commonplace…marriage arrangements were so loose as to be scarcely recognizable. Women were regarded as nothing more than chattel…” – Huston Smith, The World’s Religions

As a result, the early Meccan Surahs decreed as follows:

“…[Those] who abstain from sex, except from their wives or those their right hands possess…” – Quran, 23:5-6 (Yusuf Ali)

“And those who guard their chastity, except from their wives or those their right hands possess…” – Quran, 70:29-30 (Yusuf Ali)

These early verses are not granting permission they are establishing a very clear boundary. This distinction cannot be impressed upon enough. A limit had now been set on one’s sexual conduct as decreed by the Quran in relation to the existing licentiousness throughout the pre-Islamic community.

As the process of revelation moved forward and the first Islamic community formed post-Hijrah the mandates regarding sexual relations were finally codified in the Medinan verses regarding ma malakat aymanukum:

“If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess: And Allah hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: Wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable: They should be chaste, not lustful, nor taking paramours: when they are taken in wedlock, if they fall into shame, their punishment is half that for free women. This (permission) is for those among you who fear sin; but it is better for you that ye practise self-restraint. And Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” – Quran, 4:25 (Yusuf Ali)

“Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah gives them means out of His grace. And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity, in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this life. But if anyone compels them, yet, after such compulsion, is Allah, Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful (to them)…” Quran, 24:33 (Yusuf Ali)

The Meccan verses set a limit, the Medinan verses established the rule. The Medinan verses make clear that consummation is allowed only within the confines of marriage regardless of social status, be it a free woman or a slave. As a result, any interpretation or ruling allowing for sex with slaves outside of marriage is now deemed a sin.

In this day and age of rampant Islamophobia and fanaticism it’s also vital that we understand that the revelatory process has nothing to do with the decidedly legal concept of abrogation. Theologically speaking, the concept of abrogation exists in the Judeo-Christian traditions and in reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions. Christians believe the laws of the Torah (Old Testament) were abrogated – as in nullified or canceled out – by the Injeel (New Testament).  The Quran explicitly states that it too abrogates previous revelations not the revelations that comprise the Quran itself.  However, there is no abrogation within the Quran.  In other words, God does not change His mind.

Translating Ma Malakat Aymanukum

For the sake of brevity, I stuck with Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Quran. However, it’s also worth noting that Both Ahmed Ali’s and Muhammad Asad’s translations of the Quran delve into the Arabic lexicon to better interpret ma malakat aymanukum. Ahmed Ali translates it as ‘women slaves of old’ to connote the aforementioned revelatory process. Asad takes legitimate issue with the notion of there even being an option present by rooting out the coordinating conjunction ‘or’ in the verses that state, ‘from their wives or those their right hands possess.’ Asad’s notes on verse 23:6 is really worth quoting for its detailed analysis:

“…with the significant difference that in the present context this expression relates to 
both husbands and wives, who “rightfully possess” one another by virtue of marriage. On the basis of this interpretation, the particle ‘aw’ which precedes this clause does not denote an alternative (“or”) but is, rather, in the nature of an explanatory amplification, more or less analogous to the phrase “in other words” or “that is”, thus giving to the whole sentence the meaning, “save with their spouses – that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock]” – Muhammad Asad, Message of The Quran, 23:6

Rather than providing an option in these early Meccan verses, Asad insists that ma malakat aymanukum is simply a reiteration to emphasize one’s spouse(s).

Again, I very much doubt I’ve settled such a large, vexing issue, but for me at least, I find my minor hermeneutics sufficient in understanding ma malakat aymanukum. God knows best. Amen.

 

Awe is The Salve That Heals

“Divine breezes from your Lord waft through the days of your life. Listen! Be aware of them.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Today, outside the window of some random discount gym high atop a shopping center, the massive, frantic 405 freeway spasmed with traffic.  A parade of anxious faces pinned behind their wheels raced toward their respective fates.  Anxiety often masquerades as ambition.  Fixated on fears of failing at some grand enterprise or compelled by the hopeless conquest of purchase, we drive ourselves into the ground.  We must consider again our notions of success in relation to what we ought to value, namely our faith in God Almighty.

Below the staggering wall that carried this desperate river of cars and trucks, a gentle row of small deciduous trees remained undeterred by our neurotic pace. Tucked away by fate or chance, they shifted in accordance to the desert winds of Los Angeles.  A hummingbird, resolute in its fleeting life, darted through the leaves, a whirl of blessed feathers.  I was stuck to the glass, enchanted.  Even through the window I could hear Truth labor in the wind and the trees.  This small music compelled me toward hope, a higher, heavenly hope far beyond the smog and smoke of this volatile city:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” – John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Our days pass with so much monotony, malaise and routine. God and our place before Him are often peripheral, distant concerns. There are jobs, bosses, relationships even groceries to contend with. Worse, there are those seemingly endless wayward impulses that often confound us even more – that is, the things we shouldn’t do but do so anyway out of compulsion, despair and fatigue – junk food, pornography, endless hours in front of the television or computer screen, gossiping, etc.  Sin rarely entices us with much spectacle. More often than not, the devil’s most valuable tools are restlessness and boredom:

“In all the squalid zoo of vices, one is even uglier and fouler than the rest…I speak of Boredom which with ready tears dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.” – Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal

Of course, even our best efforts in pursuit of pleasure and distraction leave us mired in discontent and misery.  We must hone and sharpen our sense of awe and wonder in relation to the Lord of All Things as we once did as children. No easy task, but a task that rests upon our shoulders as Muslims nonetheless. Our prayers, our good deeds, are all reminders for us, but so is this bittersweet world that abounds in beauty and enchantment when the dross leaves our eyes and we can see clearly even if for just moment:

“Wherever you turn, there is the face of your Lord.” – Quran, 2:115

Amen.