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Bernie Sanders And The Mirage of Religious Freedom

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Is the view that only Christians can go to Heaven an expression of islamophobia? Or is it just a basic tenet of (many denominations of) Christianity? Or is it both?

Last week, Bernie Sanders opposed President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought. His opposition was predicated on specific theological views Vought expressed that Sanders characterized as bigoted and islamophobic. One year prior, Vought argued that, according to Christian doctrine, Muslims are theologically deficient and “stand condemned.”[1]

The politics of this episode do not matter as far as I am concerned. What matters to Muslims is understanding what is considered to be the line between acceptable belief and unacceptable bigotry.[2]

The Mirage of Plurality

Interestingly, several notable American Muslim organizations echoed Sanders in urging the Senate Budget Committee to oppose confirmation of Vought, citing his theological views and denouncing them as islamophobic.[3] As a member of the same American Muslim community that these Muslim organizations represent, I am concerned about such denunciations.

The concern is simple. If Christians can be attacked, disqualified, marginalized, and condemned for their theological views, then so can Muslims and, as it turns out, many central beliefs of Islam would be and are considered by many Americans to be sheer bigotry in some shape or form.[4]

We have to take a step back and look at the bigger implications of debates like this. In the fallout of Sanders’ statement, both left wing and right wing groups found his position incorrect.[5] [6] To demand that Christian politicians and government officials believe that Muslims are eligible for Heaven is tantamount to imposing a religious test, and that would be a violation of religious freedom, where both the left and the right hold religious freedom to be a sacred tenet of secular democracy. Sanders was wrong because Sanders imposed his standard of acceptable belief on others and that is a violation of freedom of religion and conscience. Open and shut case.

But what is being ignored is the larger question of how the notions of bigotry and discrimination can very easily be used and are being used to attack certain religious beliefs. This is a question that has far reaching implications for the very notion of separation of church and state itself.

To get a more solid sense of what is at stake, consider these concrete questions: Would Bernie Sanders support a Muslim nominee who believed that same-sex acts and relationships are sinful and a crime in the eyes of God? Would Sanders support a Muslim nominee who believed that only men and not women can serve in imam positions and lead prayers? Would Sanders support a Muslim nominee who believed (and frequently testified) that all religions other than Islam are categorically false and that there are no gods other than Allah?

These are just some basic established tenets of Islamic belief and practice, but they are seen as homophobic, misogynistic, and intolerant views worthy of condemnation and scorn as far as certain increasingly vocal factions in the West are concerned, factions that are found on both the political right and left.[7]

The Mirage of Privacy

The unavoidable conclusion is that insofar as a “free” and “healthy” society is one that minimizes the acceptance of “hateful” and “discriminatory” views such as these, then that society ipso facto must marginalize or otherwise curb certain religious beliefs. And it is important to note that none of these beliefs have to be public. They could all be privately held. In the case of Vought, imagine if he had not made any public statement about Muslims but nonetheless, at the hearing, Sanders directly asked him what he thought about Islamic theology. Could Vought express his private beliefs in that scenario? Or would he have to lie in order to avoid Sanders’ disapproval?

As far as Sanders is concerned, he is trying to determine whether Vought is a bigot and being a bigot does not require public pronouncement of bigoted views. We can certainly see this (to a limited degree) when it comes to anti-black racism. The billionaire Donald Sterling was rightly ousted from his position as owner of his professional basketball team, not because he privately expressed racist views to his girlfriend, but because he was a racist.[8] The erstwhile CEO of Mozilla Firefox, Brendan Eich, was ousted from his position, not because he donated to a campaign in opposition to same-sex marriage, but because he was a “homophobe.”[9] In other words, even if beliefs deemed bigoted go unexpressed and are carefully hidden in the furthest recesses of one’s mind, in a realm as “private” as possible, one is still liable for those beliefs in a secular state. And we can even imagine technology that could be invented for the purpose of rooting out “hateful” beliefs that people might be concealing in order to discover all the bigots and expose them to utmost social and political, if not legal, sanction.

Even without technology, “heathens” can be sniffed out. Consider how just recently the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic party, Tim Farron, was essentially forced to resign because of his Christian beliefs on abortion and homosexuality. For years, Farron had been very careful in keeping his beliefs on these issues private and maintaining that his religious perspective would not interfere with his public, political support for “reproductive and LGBT rights.” But that was not enough assurance for the thought police, as he faced incessant pressure to express his true views on the matter. Once it became clear that Farron had less than full-throated enthusiasm for abortion and homosexuality, his fate was sealed.[10]

The Mirage of Secularity

Those who defend Sanders’ line of questioning argue that it is legitimate to interrogate private beliefs because private beliefs can have public consequences in the form of one’s public actions. And, of course, public actions matter for those seeking public office.[11] That is a very plausible line of reasoning, but it is also one that completely undermines the principle of separation of church and state. Consider a simple scenario: If I am a Muslim living in a secular democracy, I should be concerned about a Christian becoming a legislator because, even if this Christian lawmaker vows to uphold a secular neutrality in his work and to keep his private beliefs out of office, nonetheless those beliefs will inherently affect who he is, what he thinks about the world, what he sees as right and wrong, and, ultimately, what he decides to do in his job. As such, there is a non-negligible probability that he will pursue legislation that I will either fundamentally disagree with given that we are coming from two different religious traditions or that might even negatively impact me in my life as a believing Muslim. Therefore, as a Muslim and a rational actor, I would definitely have to bear in mind the private religious beliefs of a Christian running for public office. And a Christian would reasonably have those same concerns about a Muslim politician’s beliefs. It is difficult to see how either line of thought is mistaken much less “islamophobic,” “christianphobic,” bigoted, immoral, and invalid.

In fact, we readily recognize this basic principle when it comes to normative issues seemingly unrelated to religion. If I am a part of the “pro-gun” demographic in the US, all else being equal, I will vote for candidates who share my pro-gun beliefs and oppose those who do not. I support candidates on the basis of shared beliefs because I reasonably assume that those beliefs will translate into actions, namely political actions that directly or indirectly support pro-gun legislation and public policy.

But then, what about any of this changes if my beliefs happen to be “religious” in nature? And, more importantly, who decides what is or is not “religious”? Because if we are willing to accept that “religious” beliefs are uniquely problematic in context of secular governance, then deciding what beliefs are “religious” and which ones are “non-religious” makes a huge difference and whoever is bestowed with the ability to decide either way yields tremendous power.

Case in point: Are Sanders’ universalist beliefs about who is or is not eligible for salvation religious or non-religious in nature? Those supporting Sanders characterize his beliefs as simply anti-discriminatory, with the understanding that anti-discriminatory beliefs are acceptable beliefs to uphold, enshrine in law, and ultimately impose on others in context of secular governance. Those criticizing Sanders, however, characterize his beliefs as inherently religious. According to them, Sanders is subjecting Vought to his particular theological understanding of salvation and that is unacceptable in a secular state. In other words, the acceptability of Sanders’ line of questioning crucially depends on whether his beliefs are characterized as religious or not.

Yet, is it not alarming that these important questions concerning religious freedom and the nature of secularism hinge on such subjective and malleable determinations of what is properly described as religious or not? If that is truly what separation of church and state ultimately is predicated on, that should not give much comfort to secularists committed to religious freedom, whether they be on the political right or left.

The Mirage of Liberty

The core of the problem according to legal and religious scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is that the relationship between the law and religion fundamentally depends on a coherent and analytically sound definition of religion itself.[12] But then, who has the authority to provide such a definition? Attorneys, judges, legislators, and other legal officials are not religious scholars or otherwise in a position to opine on spiritual matters on any given religion, let alone all of them. And even if they were religious scholars, they would have to base their legal and governmental decisions on their personal understandings, which others might not view as religiously correct. In short, defining religion in a neutral yet robust way is a practical, if not theoretical, impossibility, and without such a definition, the guarantee of religious freedom has little substance.

To make matters more fraught, the fogginess of both the concepts of religion and discrimination makes it easy for certain political factions in secular democracies to target those with opposing beliefs. In the US, the charges of homophobia and misogyny have been used to great effect in legislating and adjudicating against conservative Christian business owners on the issues of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, respectively.[13] In Canada, the now infamous “anti-hate” pronoun bill requires individuals to respect the “pronoun preferences” of the transgendered, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs about transgenderism, gender fluidity, etc.[14]

(Of course, the left does not have a monopoly on restricting religious belief and practice. The political left typically appeals to anti-discrimination and anti-misogyny in their effort to disenfranchise certain beliefs and practices, whereas the political right appeals to national security and public safety against “foreign ideologies.” The dubious reasoning, of course, is that putting restrictions on an “ideology,” or what the powers that be have labelled as an “ideology,” such as socialism, black liberationism, or islamism, does not contradict religious liberty.)

As far as Muslims are concerned, we can see an analogous dynamic play out in secular states throughout Europe and increasingly North America. Whenever political groups in these nations want to attack Muslims and Islamic law, they cite discrimination and bigotry (or national security or the preservation of national identity, depending on the country and political group in question).[15] For example, much of the justification used for the various hijab ban proposals in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere is that hijab is inherently discriminatory against women.[16] Proposed bans on the Quran are justified on the basis that the Quran is “hateful” towards other religious traditions.[17] Islamic law as a whole is opposed because, among other things, within Sharia are “homophobic” condemnations of same-sex acts.[18] The call to prayer (adhan) is banned because it includes discriminatory statements against the gods of other religions (e.g., “There is no god except Allah).[19] The building of new mosques is also opposed because, among other things, Muslim prayer arrangements that separate men and women are seen as discriminatory to women.[20]

Some claim that the anti-Islam laws and policies in these countries are contrary to religious freedom. In reality, they are perfectly conformant with the ideals of religious freedom because it is understood that secular systems of law must promote the public good and ensure the legal rights of all even if it comes at the expense of the religious freedom of some, where discrimination is taken to be contrary to the public good. Of course, what is or is not rightly deemed discriminatory depends on what are taken to be legal rights, and that is a question that is in constant flux, punctuated every few years, in the US at least, with landmark Supreme Court decisions.[21]

What is crucial to note is that once specific anti-discrimination laws and policies go into effect, they have a significant impact on Muslim understandings of their own religion. Muslims shudder to think that their own religion is bigoted, racist, or misogynistic. To avoid that designation, Muslims will point to those “problematic” aspects of their faith and eventually, in one way or another, excise them from what they consider correct Islamic theology.

“Islam does not discriminate against people who want same-sex relationships,” it is argued. “Those doctrines that indicate otherwise are just homophobic interpretations that have been imposed on our LGBT-affirming faith!”[22] “Islam does not discriminate against women in prayer,” it is asserted. “Those doctrines that say women should pray behind men and that men’s and women’s spaces in the mosque should be separate are just patriarchal distortions that have been imposed on the Muslim community and have no basis in revelation!”[23] “Islam does not discriminate against religious minorities or preach salvific exclusivity,” it is declared. “Those theological views to the contrary are just medieval manifestations of base tribalism!”[24]

Muslims might debate the plausibility of any of these claims (hopefully not seriously). What cannot be denied, however, is how the secular state’s legal conception of discrimination significantly impacts Muslim belief and, in anthropological terms, actively constructs Muslim subjects who modify their religious doctrines and practices in order to bring them into conformity with dominant cultural and institutional structures. Christians, of course, face the same pressures, though not quite to the same extent given how much Christian tradition and history has influenced Western culture writ large.

The Mirage of Neutrality

Much more can be said and cited on conceptual difficulties surrounding the notion of religious freedom and its role in secular law and the lives of believers. But one takeaway that is relevant to Muslim faith in these trying times is that the idea of secular religious freedom is not a straightforward value that one either accepts or rejects.

This is important to recognize because Islamic civilization (past and present) and Islamic law are viciously and incessantly criticized for lacking a healthy respect for religious freedom in contrast to modern Western civilization and secular law. This creates doubts in the minds of many Muslims about the morality and basic humanity of their religion. The reality, in the phrasing of academics like Talal Asad, is that Islamic law creates spaces where certain expressions of plurality of belief and practice are allowed while restricting that plurality in other spaces.[25] But so does every other system of law, including the liberal secular ones that claim to uphold religious freedom.

Law by its nature is restrictive in its allowance and disallowance of certain human behaviors and beliefs. As philosopher Stanley Fish plainly put it, “How can a law that refuses, on principle, to recognize religious claims be said to be neutral with respect to those claims?”[26] The only question is, which kinds of recognitions or lack thereof are considered legitimate. This is first and foremost a metaphysical question that requires appealing to values and normative commitments that may not be “religious” per se, in the sense of flowing from one of the commonly recognized traditional religions like Christianity and Islam, but nonetheless is metaphysical and evaluative in essence. As I and others have noted elsewhere, liberal secularism lacks the language and the conceptual resources to sustain a robust debate on that metaphysical level and so has to resort to smuggling in such commitments under the guise of promoting and maintaining “liberty” and “equality” and curtailing “hate” and “discrimination.”[27] [28]

Recognizing and understanding these basic points can do a great deal towards dissolving Muslim doubts. It also provides Muslims in the West a more realistic picture of how their faith can be impacted and even manipulated by the larger forces of the secular state, a picture undistorted by the rosy yet hollow assurances of religious freedom.

Ultimately, Muslims in the West should internalize the fact that even though the law of the land has no concern for the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, the secular god is invoked and his commandments are written into law and his doctrines are imposed on all. And if he decides that Muslims should stop wearing hijab or that no more mosques should be built or that no more children should be circumcised or that no more halal meat should be sold, etc., etc., then those decisions will be enacted despite the hymns of “religious freedom” sung in the holy temples of the divine secular godhead.

The Mirage of Frailty

So what should Muslims do with this newfound understanding? What is the practical takeaway? Recognizing reality, of course, is in itself a boon and even if there were no other “practical” implications, the mere knowledge that something is a deceptive mirage has transformative impact for a Muslim’s state of mind and heart, not unlike how realizing that the worldly life (dunya) is not the permanent abode it appears to be propels the believer to new heights of spiritual awareness.

Beyond that, a couple of practical points do come to mind. First, Muslims in the West must come to grips with the fact that their religion is under intense scrutiny from committed secularists on both sides of the political aisle. In the US, for example, the right wing has ramped up “anti-Sharia” activism.[29] The primary claim they make is that Muslims who accept Sharia are extremists. This is because the Sharia prescribes, among other things, hudud punishments and is, in general, at odds with and anathema to certain “modern” values.[30] Having established that, it is then easy to argue that Muslims as a whole are a threat to national security and Western civilization and culture.

What makes the situation dangerous for Muslims is that the left, which recently has been keen to defend Muslims in terms of civil rights, is not willing to defend the Sharia. In fact, when push comes to shove, the left has shown a willingness to join the right in demanding, or at least pressuring, Muslims to denounce those provisions of the Sharia they find objectionable in terms of sexual ethics, women’s rights, salvific exclusivity, etc.[31] These dynamics are clear when one observes the views prominent Muslim activists and academics aligned with the left express on these shar`i topics, most notably their endorsement of same-sex marriage and the same-sex “lifestyle,” their enthusiasm for “trans rights,” their denouncements of gender separation, and their heterodox positions on many other well-established facets of the Sharia.[32]

At this point, the Muslim community in the West should, as a practical matter, be concerned about whether or not the Sharia as a normative and aspirational ideal can survive this onslaught and be preserved for their descendants. It is indubitably true that certain prescriptions of the Sharia are not, according to the Sharia itself, immediately operationalizable or even applicable to the contemporary Muslim community living in non-Muslim states. But, that does not mean that those particular prescriptions should be excised or otherwise censored, much less denounced. The Sharia has been transmitted in its entirety for 1400 years, generation after generation, and as soon as it reaches our generation, we as a community resort to hacking away at some of its most well-established provisions because we happen to find ourselves in a position of global political weakness at this moment in history? Is this what we want to leave for future generations to inherit?

In the face of this dire situation, we must not relinquish our grip on the Sharia, even though this may be akin to clutching a burning hot coal. As far as our political discourse is concerned, we can also push back against the external pressure by insisting that Muslims have had a long history of living under non-Muslim rule and their commitment to the Sharia was not an impediment to peaceful coexistence. But contrary to liberal secular delusions of grandeur, this coexistence was not due to the beneficence of religious freedom, but due to the fact that the Western world has been a fairly religious place relative to what it has become in the past three or four decades. Western civilization and culture has historically accommodated God’s law, or at least the concept of God’s law, even if, in practice, God’s law meant little for actual governance. As Christian scholar John Milbank observes, that ethos of respect for Divine mandate could comfortably accommodate the Muslim belief in Sharia, even if it did not accommodate all of its actual provisions.[33] But times have changed and in the postmodern world, the thought of a person being even nominally committed to God’s law is an affront to humanity. If Islam is going to survive in the West in any meaningful form, Western Muslims must resist these pressures, even if only in their hearts.

 

End Notes

[1] Green, E. (2017, June 08). Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test for Christians in Public Office. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/bernie-sanders-chris-van-hollen-russell-vought/529614/
[2] I have written on the topic of religious freedom and secularism elsewhere
[3] CAIR National expressed its position on its official Facebook page. Other American Muslims groups, e.g., Muslim Advocates, expressed similar positions, as cited by NPR.
[4] To follow this line of thought, read the argument forwarded by Ismail Royer.
[5] Davidson, J. D. (2017, June 14). Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Think Christians Are Fit For Public Office. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[6] Green, E. (2017, June 08). Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test for Christians in Public Office. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[7] Beinart, P. (2017, April 11). When Conservatives Oppose ‘Religious Freedom’ Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[8] Golliver, B. (2014, April 26). NBA investigating Clippers owner Donald Sterling for alleged racist comments. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[9] Lopez, T. (2014, April 04). We Shouldn’t Forgive Brendan Eich for His Homophobic Past—Yet. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[10] Ahmari, S. (2017, June 15). Liberalism: Believers Need Not Apply. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[11] Zogby, J. (2017, June 10). Sanders Is Right. Russell Vought’s Nomination Should Be Rejected. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[12] Sullivan, W. F. (2007). The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
[13] Koppelman, A. (2012). Gay Rights, Religious Accommodations, and the Purposes of Antidiscrimination Law. Southern California Law Review,88(619), 619-660. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674067561
[14] Bill C-16. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[15] The threat of “Islamic terrorism” has been the justification most often cited to attenuate Muslim legal rights in both the West and in many Muslim countries, but the plausibility of this line of reasoning, at least in part, depends on demographics. Most policy makers are forced to recognize that only a miniscule percentage of any Muslim population is inclined to violent extremism, and that percentage is typically smaller than what is found in the average population. Given this limitation, anti-Muslim, anti-Islam polemics in popular media outlets seem to have shifted in recent years to focusing on how Islamic law is contrary to liberal values of freedom, tolerance, sexual autonomy, etc.
[16] Murray, T. (2013, June 26). Why feminists should oppose the burqa. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[17] PETITION: The Quran to be removed from sale in Australia due to Section 18C violations. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[18] Yiannopoulos, M. (2016, June 12). The Left Chose Islam Over Gays. Now 100 People Are Dead Or Maimed In Orlando. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[19] Taylor, B., & Williams, A. (2008, March 13). The Adhan at Harvard | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[20] Richardson, H. (2014, September 22). Why Oppose the Building of a Mosque? Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[21] Sullivan, W. F. (2014). The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[22] Markoe, L. (2016, June 17). Muslim attitudes about LGBT are complex, far from universally anti-gay. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[23] Sanghani, R. (2015, August 11). The truth about ‘patriarchal’ mosques and their women problem. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[24] Wormald, B. (2013, April 29). Pew: Islam and Interfaith Relations. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[25] Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[26] Fish, S. (2010, October 25). Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[27] Haqiqatjou, D. (2017, March 27). Hijab and Sex: Does Islam Respect Free Choice? Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[28] Smith, S. D. (2010). The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[29] Aboubakr, H. (2017, June 18). Where are the Moderate Muslims? Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.
[30] Wormald, B. (2013, April 29). Pew: Islam and Interfaith Relations. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[31] Howell, K. (2016, January 16). Bill Maher: ‘Fantasy’ to think Muslim refugees will ‘fit in’ in Western countries. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.
[32] Haqiqatjou, D. (2016, June 16). An Open Letter to the Muslim Community in Light of the Orlando Shooting. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.
[33] Milbank, J. (2010, August 23). Christianity, the Enlightenment and Islam. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Asad

    June 25, 2017 at 11:57 PM

    Great article this is a necessary realization for our Muslim ummah

  2. Avatar

    Rebecca

    June 26, 2017 at 11:12 AM

    Thank you for a well-considered, articulate argument/article.

  3. Avatar

    Abdurrahman R. Squires

    June 26, 2017 at 7:08 PM

    As far as I know, the majority scholarly opinion is that Muslims are allowed to live in non-Muslim countries as long as they’re allowed to practice their faith openly. So what are Muslims living as religious minorities in the West supposed to do when–and I feel that this day might not be very far away–when saying that homosexual acts are a sin is classified as a hate crime or human rights violation? Or, on top of that, Imams at mosques are bullied by such laws into performing same-sex marriages? When that time comes, will we be required to make Hijra to Muslim (or even non-Muslim) lands where we will still be able to express our religious beliefs openly without being charged with a crime?

  4. Avatar

    Eric S.

    June 29, 2017 at 4:46 PM

    Great article! If government is allowed to silence one religious group, it can be used to silence and suppress every religious group.

  5. Avatar

    Omar I

    July 1, 2017 at 5:21 PM

    the other thing that scholars never seem to address is the legitimacy of islamic authorities without a caliphate.

    as i understand it, islamically, without a legitimate caliphate, sharia cannot be enforced by anyone except those who are heads of a family or community who have been given consent by the family or community. but this is contingent on the law of the land. i.e. a woman cannot initiate divorce because she consents that authority to the husband, but without an actual legitimate islamic authority, i.e. a caliphate, no external authority can justly enforce sharia. that’s why most muslim governments are a farce, at least as I see it.

    especially things like corporal punishment, it makes no sense that these things are carried out without a legitimate islamic theocracy/caliphate.

    legal rulings that don’t involve punishments are still to be adhered to for the sake of one’s own faith, but punishments for ignoring them cannot be legitimately enforced, at least as far as i understand.

    id appreciate any info on this if anyone has it.

  6. Avatar

    Moshe H

    August 10, 2017 at 12:02 PM

    This article is relevant to the faithful of all religions who hold specific beliefs. Well written.

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Uncategorized

Loving Muslim Marriage Episode #7: Islamic Modesty vs. Muslim Shame

Saba Syed (Umm Reem)

Published

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Muslims who discuss sex are sometimes met with a call to shame, but if modesty is observed, then is there any cause for such shame? It all boils down to what shame really is, and how it differs from modesty not only in our lives, but also in the lifetime of the Prophet himself ﷺ.

To view the entire video series, visit muslimmatters.org/LMM

Continue Reading

#Current Affairs

The Duplicity of American Muslim Influencers And The ‘So-called Muslim Ban’

Dr Joseph Kaminski

Published

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

As we approach the beginning of another painful year of the full enforcement of Presidential Proclamation 9645 (a.k.a. ‘the Muslim ban’) that effectively bars citizens of several Muslim majority countries from entering into the United States, the silence remains deafening. As I expected, most of the world has conveniently forgotten about this policy, which thus far has separated over 3,000 American families from their spouses and other immediate relatives. In June 2019, the Brennan Center of Justice notes that: The ban has also kept at least 1,545 children from their American parents and 3,460 parents from their American sons and daughters. While silence and apathy from the general public on this matter is to be expected— after all, it is not their families who are impacted— what is particularly troubling is the response that is beginning to emerge from some corners of the American Muslim social landscape.

While most Muslims and Muslim groups have been vocal in their condemnation of Presidential Proclamation 9645, other prominent voices have not. Shadi Hamid sought to rationalize the executive order on technical grounds arguing that it was a legally plausible interpretation. Perhaps this is true, but some of the other points made by Hamid are quite questionable. For example, he curiously contends that:

The decision does not turn American Muslims like myself into “second-class citizens,” and to insist that it does will make it impossible for us to claim that we have actually become second-class citizens, if such a thing ever happens.

I don’t know— being forced to choose exile in order to remain with one’s family certainly does sound like being turned into a ‘second-class citizen’ to me. Perhaps the executive order does not turn Muslims like himself, as he notes, into second-class citizens, but it definitely does others, unless it is possible in Hamid’s mind to remain a first-class citizen barred from living with his own spouse and children for completely arbitrary reasons, like me. To be fair to Hamid, in the same article he does comment that the executive order is a morally questionable decision, noting that he is “still deeply uncomfortable with the Supreme Court’s ruling” and that “It contributes to the legitimization and mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry.”

On the other hand, more recently others have shown open disdain for those who are angered about the ‘so-called Muslim ban.’ On June 6th, 2019, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a Senior Faculty Member at Zaytuna College, Islamic scholar and the founder of the Lamppost Education Initiative, rationalized the ban on spurious security grounds. He commented that,

The so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his potential. But, to be fair, a real Muslim ban would mean that no Muslim from any country should be allowed in the US. There are about 50 Muslim majority countries. Trump singled out only 7 of them, most of which are war torn and problem countries. So, it is unfair to claim that he was only motivated by a hatred for Islam and Muslims.

First, despite how redundant and unnecessary this point is to make again, one ought to be reminded that between 1975 and 2015, zero foreigners from the seven nations initially placed on the banned list (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) killed any Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and zero Libyans or Syrians have ever even been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that same time period. I do not think these numbers have changed over the last 4 years either. If policy decisions are supposed to be made on sound empirical evidence and data, then there is even less justification for the ban.

Second, Bin Hamid Ali comments that ‘the so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his [Trump’s] potential.’ Whoa… hold on; on edge about his potential? For the millions of people banned from entering the United States and the thousands of Muslim families connected to these millions of people, this ‘potential’ has been more than realized. To reduce the ‘so-called Muslim ban’ to just targeting ‘war torn and problem countries’ is to reduce our family members—our husbands, wives, and children—to (inaccurate) statistics and gross stereotypes. Are spouses from Syria or Yemen seeking to reunite with their legally recognized spouses or children any less deserving to be with their immediate family members because they hail from ‘problem countries’? How can one be concerned with stereotypes while saying something like this? Is this not the exact thing that Abdullah bin Hamid Ali seeks to avoid? Surely the Professor would not invoke such stereotypes to justify the racial profiling of black American citizens. What makes black non-Americans, Arabs, and Iranians any different when it comes to draconian immigration profiling? From a purely Islamic perspective, the answer is absolutely nothing.

More recently, Sherman Jackson, a leading Islamic intellectual figure at the University of Southern California, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, also waded into this discussion. In his essay, he reframed the Muslim ban as a question of identity politics rather than basic human right, pitting Muslim immigrants against what he calls ‘blackamericans’ drawing some incredibly questionable, nativist, and bigoted conclusions. Jackson in a recent blog responding to critiques by Ali al-Arian about his own questionable affiliations with authoritarian Arab regimes comments:

Al-Arian mentions that,

“the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration.”  He and those who make up this alleged consensus are apparently offended by Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.  But a Blackamerican sister in Chicago once asked me rhetorically why she should support having Muslims come to this country who are only going to treat her like crap.

These are baffling comments to make about ‘Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.’ Jackson creates a strawman by bringing up an anecdotal story that offers a gross generalization that clearly has prejudiced undertones of certain Muslim immigrants. Most interesting, however is how self-defeating Jackson’s invocation of identity politics is considering the fact that a large number of the ‘blackamerican’ Muslims that he is concerned about themselves have relatives from Somalia and other countries impacted by the travel ban. As of 2017, there were just over 52,000 Americans with Somali ancestry in the state of Minnesota alone. Are Somali-Americans only worth our sympathy so long as they do not have Somali spouses? What Jackson and Bin Hamid Ali do not seem to understand is that these Muslim immigrants they speak disparagingly of, by in large, are coming on family unification related visas.

Other people with large online followings have praised the comments offered by Abdullah bin Hamid Ali and Sherman Jackson. The controversial administrator of the popular The Muslim Skeptic website, Daniel Haqiqatjou, in defense of Jackson’s comments, stated:

This is the first time I have seen a prominent figure downplay the issue. And I think Jackson’s assessment is exactly right: The average American Muslim doesn’t really care about this. There is no evidence to indicate that this policy has had a significant impact on the community as a whole. Travel to the US from those four countries affected by the ban was already extremely difficult in the Obama era.

What Haqiqatjou seems to not realize is that while travel from these countries was difficult, it was not as ‘extremely difficult’ as he erroneously claims it was. The US issued 7,727 visas to Iranian passport holders in 2016 prior to the ban. After the ban in 2018, that number dropped to 1,449. My own wife was issued a B1/B2 Tourist visa to meet my family in 2016 after approximately 40 days of administrative processing which is standard for US visa seekers who hold Iranian passports. On the other hand, she was rejected for the same B1/B2 Tourist visa in 2018 after a grueling 60+ day wait due to Presidential Proclamation 9645. At the behest of the Counselor Officer where we currently live, she was told to just finish the immigration process since this would put her in a better position to receive one of these nearly impossible to get waivers. She had her interview on November 19, 2018, and we are still awaiting the results of whatever these epic, non-transparent ‘extreme vetting’ procedures yield. Somehow despite my wife being perfectly fine to enter in 2016, three years later, we are entering the 10th month of waiting for one of these elusive waivers with no end time in sight, nor any guarantee that things will work out. Tell me how this is pretty much the same as things have always been?

What these commentators seem to not realize is that the United States immigration system is incredibly rigid. One cannot hop on a plane and say they want to immigrate with an empty wallet to start of Kebab shop in Queens. It seems as if many of these people that take umbrage at the prospects of legal immigration believe that the immigration rules of 2019 are the same as they were in 1819. In the end, it is important to once again reiterate that the Muslim immigrants Jackson, Bin Hamid Ali and others are disparaging are those who most likely are the family members of American Muslim citizens; by belittling the spouses and children of American Muslims, these people are belittling American Muslims themselves.

Neo-nationalism, tribalism, and identity politics of this sort are wholly antithetical to the Islamic enterprise. We have now reached the point where people who are considered authority figures within the American Islamic community are promoting nativism and identity politics at the expense of American Muslim families. Instead of trying to rationalize the ‘so-called Muslim Ban’ via appeals to nativist and nationalist rhetoric, influential Muslim leaders and internet influencers need to demonstrate empathy and compassion for the thousands of US Muslim families being torn apart by this indefinite Muslim ban that we all know will never end so long as Donald Trump remains president. In reality, they should be willing to fight tooth-and-nail for American Muslim families. These are the same people who regularly critique the decline of the family unit and the rise of single-parent households. Do they not see the hypocrisy in their positions of not defending those Muslim families that seek to stay together?

If these people are not willing to advocate on behalf of those of us suffering— some of us living in self-imposed exile in third party countries to remain with our spouses and children— the least they can do is to not downplay our suffering or even worse, turn it into a political football (Social Justice Warrior politics vs. traditional ‘real’ Islam). It seems clear that if liberal Muslim activists were not as outspoken on this matter, these more conservative voices would take a different perspective. With the exception of Shadi Hamid, the other aforementioned names have made efforts to constrain themselves firmly to the ‘traditional’ Muslim camp. There is no reason that this issue, which obviously transcends petty partisan Muslim politics, ought to symbolize one’s allegiance to any particular social movement or camp within contemporary Islamic civil society.

If these people want a ‘traditional’ justification for why Muslim families should not be separated, they ought to be reminded that one of al-Ghazali’s 5 essential principles of the Shari’a was related to the protection of lineage/family and honor (ḥifẓ al-nasl). Our spouses are not cannon fodder for such childish partisan politics. We will continue to protect our families and their honor regardless of how hostile the environment may become for us and regardless of who we have to name and shame in the process.

When I got married over a year prior to Donald Trump being elected President, I vowed that only Allah would separate me from my spouse. I intend on keeping that vow regardless of what consequences that decision may have.

Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns / The Columbus Dispatch

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Obituary of (Mawlana) Yusuf Sulayman Motala (1366/1946 – 1441/2019)

Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier.

Dr. Mufti Abdur Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera

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Dar Al Uloom Bury, Yusuf Sulayman Motala
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A master of hadith and Qur’an. A sufi, spiritual guide and teacher to thousands. A pioneer in the establishment of a religious education system. His death reverberated through hearts and across oceans. We are all mourning the loss of a luminary who guided us through increasingly difficult times.

Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier. (May the Almighty envelope him in His mercy)

His journey in this world had begun more than 70 years ago in the small village of Nani Naroli in Gujarat, India, where he was born on November 25, 1946 (1 Muharram 1366) into a family known for their piety.

His early studies were largely completed at Jami’a Husayniyya, one of the early seminaries of Gujarat, after which he travelled to Mazahir Ulum, the second oldest seminary of the Indian Sub-Continent, in Saharanpur, India, to complete his ‘alimiyya studies. What drew him to this seminary was the presence of one of the most influential and well-known contemporary spiritual guides, Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi (d. 1402/1982), better known as “Hazrat Shaykh.” He had seen Mawlana Zakariyya only briefly at a train stop, but it was enough for him to understand the magnitude of his presence.

Mawlana Yusuf remained in Saharanpur for two years. Despite being younger than many of the other students of Shaykh Zakariya, the shaykh took a great liking to him. Shaykh Zakariya showered him with great attention and even deferred his retirement from teaching Sahih al-Bukhari so that Mawlana Yusuf could study it under his instruction. While in Saharanpur, Mawlana Yusuf also studied under a number of other great scholars, such as Mawlana Muhammad ‘Aqil (author of Al-Durr al-Mandud, an Urdu commentary of Sunan Abi Dawud and current head lecturer of Hadith at the same seminary), Shaykh Yunus Jownpuri (d. 1438/2017) the previous head lecturer of Hadith there), Mawlana As‘adullah Rampuri (d. 1399/1979) and Mufti Muzaffar Husayn (d. 1424/2003).

Upon completion of his studies, Mawlana Yusuf’s marriage was arranged to marry a young woman from the Limbada family that had migrated to the United Kingdom from Gujarat. In 1968, he relocated to the UK and accepted the position of imam at Masjid Zakariya, in Bolton. Although he longed to be in the company of his shaykh, he had explicit instructions to remain in the UK and focus his efforts on establishing a seminary for memorization of Qur’an and teaching of the ‘alimiyya program. The vision being set in motion was to train a generation of Muslims scholars that would educate and guide the growing Muslim community.

Establishing the first Muslim seminary, in the absence of any precedent, was a daunting task. The lack of support from the Muslim community, the lack of integration into the wider British community, and the lack of funds made it seem an impossible endeavour. And yet, Mawlana Yusuf never wavered in his commitment and diligently worked to make the dream of his teacher a reality. In 1973 he purchased the derelict Aitken Sanatorium in the village of Holcombe, near Bury, Lancashire. What had once been a hospice for people suffering from tuberculosis, would become one of the first fully-fledged higher-education Islamic institutes outside of the Indian-Subcontinent teaching the adapted-Nizami syllabus.

The years of struggle by Maulana Yusuf to fulfil this vision paid off handsomely. Today, after four decades, Darul Uloom Al Arabiyya Al Islamiyya, along with its several sister institutes, also founded by Mawlana Yusuf, such as the Jamiatul Imam Muhammad Zakariya seminary in Bradford for girls, have produced well over 2,000 British born (and other international students) male and female ‘alimiyya graduates – many of whom are working as scholars and serving communities across the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Saudi Arabia, India and New Zealand. Besides these graduates, a countless number of individuals have memorized the Qur’an at these institutes. Moreover, many of the graduates of the Darul Uloom and its sister institutes have set up their own institutes, such as Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda in Blackburn, Islamic Dawah Academy in Leicester, Jami’ah al-Kawthar in Lancaster, UK, and Darul Uloom Palmela in Portugal, to just mention a few of the larger ones. Within his lifetime, Mawlana Yusuf saw first-hand the fruit of his labours – witnessing his grand students (graduates from his students’ institutes) providing religious instruction and services to communities around the world in their local languages. What started as a relationship of love between a student and teacher, manifested into the transmission of knowledge across continents. In some countries, such as the UK and Portugal, one would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim who had not directly or indirectly benefited from him.

Mawlana Yusuf was a man with deep insights into the needs of Western contemporary society, one that was very different from the one he had grown up and trained in. With a view to contributing to mainstream society, Mawlana Yusuf encouraged his graduates to enter into further education both in post-graduate Islamic courses and western academia, and to diversify their fields of learning through courses at mainstream UK universities. As a result, many ‘alimiyya graduates of his institutes are trained in law, mainstream medicine, natural medicine and homeopathy, mental health, child protection, finance, IT, education, chaplaincy, psychology, philosophy, pharmacy, physics, journalism, engineering, architecture, calligraphy, typography, graphic design, optometry, social services, public health, even British Sign Language. His students also include several who have completed PhDs and lecture at universities. His vision was to train British-born (or other) Muslim scholars who would be well versed in contemporary thought and discipline along with their advanced Islamic learning, equipping them to better contribute to society.

Despite his commitment to the establishment of a public good, the shaykh was an immensely private person and avoided seeking accolade or attention. For many decades he refused invitations to attend conferences or talks around the country, choosing to focus on his students and his family, teaching the academic syllabus and infusing the hearts of many aspirants with the love of Allah through regular gatherings of remembrance (dhikr) and spiritual retreats (i’tikaf) in the way of his shaykh’s Chishti Sufi order.

During my entire stay with him at Darul Uloom (1985–1997), I can say with honesty that I did not come across a single student who spoke ill of him. He commanded such awe and respect that people would find it difficult to speak with him casually. And yet, for those who had the opportunity to converse with him, knew that he was the most compassionate, humble, and loving individual.

He was full of affection for his students and colleagues and had immense concern for the Muslim Ummah, especially in the West. He possessed unparalleled forbearance and self-composure. When he taught or gave a talk, he spoke in a subdued and measured tone, as though he was weighing every word, knowing the import it carried. He would sit, barely moving and without shifting his posture. Even after a surgical procedure for piles, he sat gracefully teaching us Sahih al-Bukhari. Despite the obvious pain, he never made an unpleasant expression or winced from the pain.

Anyone who has listened to his talks or read his books can bear testimony to two things: his immense love for the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and his love for Shaykh Mawlana Muhammad Zakariya Kandhlawi (may Allah have mercy on him). It is probably hard to find a talk in which he did not speak of the two. His shaykh was no doubt his link to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in both his hadith and spiritual transmissions.

Over the last decade, he had retired from most of his teaching commitments (except Sahih al-Bukhari) and had reduced meeting with people other than his weekly dhikr gatherings. His time was spent with his family and young children and writing books. His written legacy comprises over 20 titles, mostly in Urdu but also a partial tafsir of the Qur’an in classical Arabic.

After the news of his heart attack on Sunday, August 25, and the subsequent effects to his brain, his well-wishers around the world completed hundreds of recitals of the Qur’an, several readings of the entire Sahih al-Bukhari, thousands of litanies and wirds of the formula of faith (kalima tayyiba), and gave charity in his name. However, Allah Most High willed otherwise and intended for him to depart this lowly abode to begin his journey to the next. He passed away two weeks later and reports state that approximately 4,000 people attended his funeral. Had his funeral been in the UK, the number of attendees would have multiplied several folds. But he had always shied away from large crowds and gatherings and maybe this was Allah Most High’s gift to him after his death. He was 75 (in Hijra years, and 72 in Gregorian) at the time of his death and leaves behind eight children and several grandchildren.

Mawlana Yusuf educated, inspired and nourished the minds and hearts of countless across the UK and beyond. May Allah Almighty bless him with the loftiest of abodes in the Gardens of Firdaws in the company of Allah’s beloved Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) and grant all his family, students, and cherishers around the world beautiful patience.

Dr Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera
Whitethread Institute, London
(A fortunate graduate of Darul Uloom Bury, 1996–97)

*a learned Muslim scholar especially in India often used as a form of address
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