Friday, August 23, 2019


Here's a picture of the eminently great thank you gift that my friend Mike gave me in return for driving him up to and then five weeks later back from the Montreal airport. He was often to visit his wife in Estonia and was, as is often the case for us living in Vermont, flying out of Montreal. He was not required to get me a gift, obviously, but for a long time he and I have had this tradition where the drivee always brings the driver a shirt from where we went. Normally our only rule is that the tshirt has to be completely random and relate to nothing. For instance, one time he brought me back a dive shop tshirt, even though neither he nor I scuba dive. With this gift he clearly raised the bar:

Mike and his wife had made a side trip to Finland, and thus the souvenir Finland hockey jersey (which I foresee as a staple for all future Winter Four Sport Triathlons). For those not in the know, and that included me until yesterday, Suomi is what Fins actually call their country. No one is actually certainly where Suomi comes from, which is fine because there's not complete agreement upon the origins of the word Finland either (essentially, people inside of Finland don't call Finland Finland, they call it Suomi, but the Fins, being kind souls, put both names on their international hockey jerseys to satisfy folks both inside and outside the country).

I feel in some ways this jersey has been fifteen years in the making because it reminds me of the famous/infamous Finlandia story from the summer I spent teaching in India. Because I've told the story many times I assumed that it was featured on some blog post or another, but I went back through my India posts and couldn't find anything (which is why I've tagged this post with the seemingly odd tag of India; now I feel like I need to go to Finland to justify a tag of Finland). Anyway, fifteen years ago when I taught in India I met these two European women who were backpacking across India, and we ended up bumming around for a couple days. They both assured me that they thought I could pass for Finnish (and I don't think they were trying to pick me up because, 1) I'm me, and 2) even by my ridiculously low standards that a terrible pickup line). Fast forward several weeks later when I was approaching the end of my time in India, and I was clearly exhausted of Indian merchants or touts pestering me (assuming that someone this big must be awash in disposable cash). Touts would routinely plop down next to you and ask where you were from, and then the process would begin of getting into your pocket. So, thinking back on what the women had told me, I had this inspiration to say: "Finlandia!" The idea being that I understood just enough English to grasp that I was being asked a question, but not enough to haggle or negotiate. I didn't want to must make up a country, but I also wanted to choose a country that while people would be familiar with it there would be a very small chance they would speak the language. Oddly, this ridiculous scheme worked. That said, since Fins refer to their country as Suomi and not Finland, I was actually giving myself away as both a rube and a faker.

What It Means - Day 158

Normally this is where I would be posting a passage from the Quran or the ahadith, and that was the initial plan for this day's post, but, as is so often the case when I'm running one of our Discography music discussions, somewhere along the way it wandered off course. Obviously, this is completely fine because there's no great structure to this year's discussion anyway. Anyway, what bumped me off the initial posting was an article I read, not about Islam, actually, but instead about Christianity. The article briefly related the main points of a study that claimed that while regular attendance at weekly church services tended to make you more conservative politically, daily readings of the Bible, in isolation from attending the services, tended to make you, in some ways, more liberal politically. It raised all sorts of interesting points, including the role that Christian churches, especially the Evangelicals, play politically, but what interested me was the disconnect between what the faith is supposed to be and how it is practiced. How many Tweets or Facebook memes have we seen that quote the passages about quote passages about caring for the immigrants while people who are seemingly religious seem to get almost a perverse joy out of mistreating them? As I'm wont to opine, faiths are founded by an individual or individuals with a clearer view of the divine and how we can treat each other better, but then corrupted, and turned into religions, by generations of mean-spirited pricks. All of this made me think about my own faith and whether the same dynamic holds true: would reading the Quran and ahadith by themselves in isolation make you more politically liberal than regularly attending serves with a group every Friday? Or, divorcing yourself entirely from political issues, is there a fundamental difference between the time you spend with your holy scripture and the time you spend with your religious community, or, well, your religion? Isn't the point of religion to help guide you to the greater essential truths that are revealed in your scripture (whatever that scripture might be)? If your lived religious communal life leading you someplace different than a life spent simply reading and meditating on your faith, which one is the right path? I know that we should say that it's clearly the same path (just as in Islam we will often claim that there is actually no separation between the secular and spiritual world because of the omnipotence of God), but I don't know if I believe that.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

What It Means - Day 157

"And We sent no warner unto a town, but that those living luxury therein said, 'We disbelieve in that wherewith you have been sent.' And they say, 'We are greater in wealth and children, and we shall not be punished.' Say, 'Truly my Lord outspreads and straitens provision for whomsoever he will, but most of mankind know not.' It is not your wealth or your children that bring you nigh in nearness unto Us, save those who believe and work righteousness - theirs is a manifold reward for what they did, and they will be secure in lofty chambers.'"
Quran 34:34-37

Here's a brief passage from the 34th surah, Saba, always rendered as "Sheba." It's another of the myriad passages in the Quran that attack the glorification of wealth. Instead, the emphasis is placed on those "who believe and work righteousness," one of the over fifty times when the two concepts are linked.  It's difficult to read these words and think of the crass "rich man" who inhabits the White House at the moment, replete with those cringe-worthy pictures of his family in that golden apartment. Decades ago, probably lining up with the election of Reagan when America began its great disassociation with reality, we began to worship wealth (we can all remember the popularity of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous); it would be a pity if Trump were truly the president that we as a country deserved.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What It Means - Day 156

"O you who believe! Reverence God and speak justly."
Quran 33:70

And here's another passage from the 33rd surah, al-Ahzab, here rendered as "The Parties." As I've made clear many times, there's no logic to this year's challenge of discussing faith every day for a year. So, if you're looking for a progressive argument that will lead us to an extraordinary finish I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. I've been rereading al-Ahzab lately, and so you're getting several blog posts related to that specific surah. Growing up, as I did, in the country I guess it would make sense that I would be drawn to an admonition to speak justly, as we are simple folks in the Hoosier hinterlands. Although, to be fair I just drove through Indiana and Ohio on the way back home to see family and friends it's painfully obvious that the state has unapologetically turned into Trumpistan - so clearly truth of justice don't matter much any more. In commenting upon this verse Nasr tells us, "Speak justly enjoins testifying truthfully, speaking in a manner that is upright and free from any corruption, and speaking so the outward locution corresponds to the inward meaning." (Nasr, p. 1040)  Keeping in mind that this verse was revealed at a time of widespread illiteracy, and in an area without a centralized law code or much of a structured central government, it's easy to see why saying what you mean and meaning what you say was important. However, I think that this is an universal concept. It's only when we fail individually that the need for greater authority to "make" us do what is right becomes more necessary.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What It Means - Day 155

"Indeed, you have in the Messenger of God a beautiful example for those who hope for God and the Last Day, and remember God much."
Quran 33:21

"This is among a number of verses that establish the importance of obeying the Prophet and following his example, even in matters not addressed directly by the Quran." (Nasr, Study Quran, p. 1025) In some ways I guess today's posting is the other side of yesterday's discussion of the role of Muhammad as the Last Prophet or the "Seal of the prophets." As I've proposed several times, is there a danger that we as Muslims, in our drive to revere the Prophet, that we might potentially turn him into what we always accuse the Christians of doing with Jesus (although, obviously, not to that extent)? It can be a delicate balancing act. He is held up as a perfect example of a man, although not perfect. In the Quran we are reminded that he was human, and God also admonishes him in surah 80, "He Frowned," for making a mistake. Whenever it is argued that the prophets are infallible I, truthfully, get a little uneasy. Still, he lived a life that provides so many examples of how to navigate through the complexities that we face on a daily basis; "the Prophet's words and actions are considered to provide the archetype of a life lived in full submission to God." (Nasr)  As Ali ibn Abi Talib reported, "He was the most generous of people, the most truthful of people in speech, the gentlest of them in temperament, and the noblest of them in social affability. If omeone saw him unexpectedly, he was awestruck by him, and if someone associated with him knowingly, he loved him . . . I have never seen the like of him, either before him or after him." (Nasr, p. 1025) So, Muhammad is revered both as a prophet who revealed messages from God, but his very human life is also studied and remembered as a template.

Monday, August 19, 2019

What It Means - Day 154

"Muhammad is not the father of any man among you; rather, he is the Messenger of God and the Seal of the prophets. And God is Knower of all things."
Quran 33:40

This last spring in the travel version of my Dar al-Islam class we read Qasim Rashid's The Wrong Kind of Muslim, which the students found deeply moving. As I've chronicled earlier in this series, Rashid was kind enough to Skype in with us and talk about his experiences as a human rights lawyer, political candidate and the persecution that he faces as an Ahmadiyya Muslim. One of the reasons why the Ahmadiyya face such persecution from mainstream Muslims is the belief that they view their founder as a prophet (it's not quite that simple, and even Nasr when he Skyped with us glossed over it a bit as he walked us through the complexity of the Ahmadiyya belief system). It's a theological problem inside of Islam because Muhammad is commonly viewed as the final prophet, or the "Seal of the prophets." Logically, then, this topic must be a constant theme that runs throughout the Quran, right? Actually, no. The verse above, which is drawn from the 33rd surah, al-Ahzab, here rendered as "The Parties," is the only time it is referenced in the entire Quran.

Every other reference to Muhammad being the final prophet are found in the ahadith, that is, the sayings of the Prophet himself. As Nasr explains in the Study Quran:

"That the Prophet is the Seal of the prophets is understood to mean that he is last Prophet sent to humanity. The Prophet is reported to have said, 'No prophethood shall remain after me, save for true visions', and 'Messengerhood and prophethood have ceased. There will be no messenger or prophet after me.' The most frequently cited hadith pertaining to his place as the Seal of the prophets states, 'My likeness among the prophets before me is that of a man who has built a house, completed it, and beautified it, yet left empty a place for a brick. Then the people come to the house, are amazed by it, and say, "If only you were to place this brick, your house would be complete!" I am this brick.' According to the Prophet, being the Seal of the prophets if one of six qualities that distinguish him from other prophets: 'I have been favored above the prophets in six things: I have been endowed with consummate succinctness of speech; I have been made triumphant through dread; war booty has been made lawful for me; the whole earth has been made a place of worship for me and a means of purification; I have been sent to all created beings; and the succession of prophets has been completed in me.'" (Nasr, pp. 1031-1032)

Coming back around to the Ahmadiyya, there rationale (and I'm dramatically simplifying here) is that they are not arguing that Muhammad was not that Seal of the prophets, rather they are reading the definition of Seal of the prophets differently. Essentially, they are completely agreeing that Muhammad delivered a final version of the faith, but that other prophets might arise in response to specific needs, but that these later prophets would not be changing any the foundational decisions delivered through Muhammad (again, I'm over-simplifying out of necessity, and doubtless both sides would disagree with my shortened take on things; still, I think it serves our purposes here).

I could get into a big discussion about the validity and value or the ahadith as compared to the Quran itself, which is potentially a big issue here because the majority of claims that Muhammad was the final prophet are from the ahadith and not from the Quran itself, but let's put that aside for the moment (and I may or may not come back to this touchy subject, not because I'm afraid of angering anybody, but rather that I don't like to talk, at least not too deeply, about subjects that I don't know a lot about). Let me take worst case scenario here (at least worse case scenario from a traditional Islamic view): that Muhammad was not, in fact, the final prophet. Do I, personally, think that this would somehow damage the integrity and importance of the Prophet's message? Of course not. We've talked before about how all religions can be guilty of falling into the tyranny of the most recent. Buddhism grew out of Hinduism, and certainly there had to be some early Buddhists who thought, "Wow, thank goodness we showed up and fixed that mess." Just as Christianity grew out of Judaism, and felt so certain of the superiority of their refined vision that they slapped their holy scripture on the back of the Jewish one and called things complete. I would argue that there's at least a danger that our emphasis on Muhammad as the final prophet could easily become a version of the same sort of chronological tyranny. What matters to me (and, again, this is just me talking) is the extraordinary clarity and beauty of the vision laid out in the Quran and the ahadith, not whether or not there may or may not have been later prophets. We are reminded to complete with others only in excellence, and I think we should turn that lens on ourselves as well.

And finally, this brings us back to the Ahmadiyya again. They are so incredibly and consistently dedicated to serving humanity that they perpetually lap more "mainstream" Muslims, but yet they are persecuted horribly inside of Islam because of their views of their founder. If we're quite willing to persecute and in fact kill members of a sect of our faith - and a sect that routinely does a hell of a lot more for the world than we do - then we have a strange view of what the faith is about.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

What It Means - Day 153

"Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience."
Muhammad, Hadith

I made the point recently to a friend that you should never choose a religion that you could CLEP out of. By that I meant that while many of us look for religions that are a "good fit" I would argue that it shouldn't be so comfortable that we aren't challenged and thus don't grow and evolve. Americans are very lazy people, and I think this is one of the reasons behind the growth of the mega-churches that aren't really churches in any true sense. You have mega-churches run by clowns like Joel Osteen which are simply glorified self-help meetings; they ask nothing of their followers, other than to write a check, of course. And as I've pointed out several times, this doesn't mean that the only path to God (whatever that means) is exclusively through a specific organized religion, or any organized religion for that matter. Rather, what I'm saying is that the path takes time and dedication and sacrifice, and, of course, I'm not particularly good at any of these virtues. Anyway, this is a rambling path to say that I was drawn to my faith as much by the "bad match" as by the "good fit" aspect of Islam. A classic example of the former would be patience, a virtue that is stressed repeatedly in the faith but which I'm not known for (ask any of my friends). We are told repeatedly throughout the Quran and the adhadith of the virtues of patience, and it is a constant staple in my daily prayers.

I'm not saying that Islam is not a good fit for me, because it is, but I also struggle with it every day. I struggle with the daily demands of being a Muslim, but also sometimes with some of the basic tenets of the faith (or at least how they're interpreted). Truthfully, there are certain aspects of the faith that I simply reject, for any number of reasons.