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VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1 IN THIS ISSUE Oman: An Indian Ocean Empire Misbah Princeton’s First



Oman: An Indian Ocean Empire


Princeton’s First Magazine Exploring Islam and the Muslim World


2 Misbah Magazine Exploring Islam and the Muslim World EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Babur Khwaja ’09 EXECUTIVE EDITOR Joy

Misbah Magazine

Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Babur Khwaja ’09


SENIOR EDITOR Wasim Shiliwala ’09

DESIGN AND LAYOUT Waqas Jawaid ’10

CONTRIBUTORS Shagufta Ahmed GS ’07 Nour Aoude ’10 Ahson Azmat ‘10 Nancy Coffin R. David Coolidge GS ’08 George Hatke Aman Kumar ’10 Barbara Romaine Sohaib Sultan


Printing of this journal is made possible donations from private indi- viduals and generous grants from the following sources:

Office of the Dean of Religious Life Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts Princeton University Center for Human Values Undergraduate Forum Princeton University Council of the Humanities Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies


The cover photograph, titled “Dhows Coming Back Home,” was taken by Ld Germain, and is used under the Creative Commons License. It features the traditional arab ship used in the Indian Ocean, the Dhow.


Misbah is Arabic for “lamp ,” a symbol of illumination. Misbah Maga- zine explores the ideas, history and development of Muslims and Islam in the world. It is offered free of charge to all students, faculty and staff of Princeton University and the surrounding community. All questions about donations and off-campus subscription and advertising rates should be directed to misbah@princeton.edu.

Views expressed in Misbah Magazine do not necessarily reflect those of the editors, sponsors, trustees or of Princeton University. Letters to the editor can be directed to misbah@princeton.edu and may be edited for length and clarity.




Editor’s Note



Harry Potter and the Two Traditions


Ahson Azmat ’10

Mitigating Subjectivity: The Primacy of Qur’anic Memorization (Hifdh) for the Future of Islam in America


R. David Coolidge GS ’08


Reflections on the Essence of Ramadan


Sohaib N. Sultan


Oman: An Indian Ocean Empire


George Hatke

The Druze of Lebanon


Nour Aoude ’10


Journey Through Kosovo


Shagufta Ahmed GS ’07


A Translation of Ibrahim Aslan


Barbara Romaine


Foreskin and All


Aman Kumar ’10


Mahmoud Darwish


Nancy Coffin


2 Photo by Prasoon Rana Editor’s Note Dear Readers, The first issue of Misbah was well-received,

Photo by Prasoon Rana

Editor’s Note

Dear Readers,

The first issue of Misbah was well-received, and we hope to build on that success in future issues. Now, we have expanded our content to include significant contributions from non- Muslim writers. We hope that this trend grows stronger, because the non-Muslim voice provides an important perspec- tive to what we hope develops into a thorough and provoca- tive discussion on Islam and the cultures of the Muslim world. To an extent, we created this magazine as a form of out - reach in response to the narrow messages that the mainstream media conveys about the Muslim world. Those messages are not always false; it is just that in isolation they do not convey the diversity of thought and richness of the arts, history and culture of Muslim civilizations. A basic knowledge of those histories contributes immensely to furthering tolerance and rational debate. But the primary focus of the magazine is inward, not out- ward. The media’s focus on Islam’s problems is less due to any bias or agenda and more because of internal failings within the Muslim community. Virtually no Muslim country today shows the intellectual, cultural and scientific achievement and vibrancy that we see from coming from Western nations. In fact, some of the most vibrant thoughts and developments on Islam are coming from people living in the United States and Europe. This was not always the case, and we hope that by looking at the achievements in Islamic cultures, analyzing his- torical legacies and honestly confronting our own traditions that we can help to stimulate a re-awakening in the Muslim community. This publication is one marginal, but important effort in that direction.


marginal, but important effort in that direction. Sincerely, Babur Khwaja Editor in Chief Misbah - Exploring

Babur Khwaja Editor in Chief


Harry Potter and the Two Traditions

by Ahson Azmat

The controversy between those who see our species and our society as a lucky accident and those who find an immanent teleology in both is too radical to permit of being judged from some neutral standpoint. In year 6 of Harry Potter’s schooling, he talks to a professor at his school about “horcruxes,” which, we learn, are pieces of the soul a wizard can separate from himself in order to cheat death. Through a complicated alchemical process, the wizard breaks his soul into distinct pieces, stores them inside vari- ous little objects, and preserves his life so long as any of these objects remain intact. The idea is very taboo, even in the wizarding world. Notions of defeating death and conquering mortality are considered aspects of “Dark” magic, practiced only by the corrupt and evil, the “bad guys,” as it were. Harry’s professor, quite understandably, hesitates to talk to Harry about this subject. After much pressure, he finally explains the process to him, though he admonishes him for asking about such a Dark idea. In the end, however, he concedes, “it’s natural to feel curiosity about some of these things…wizards of a certain caliber have always been drawn to that aspect of magic.” This observation is, I believe, applicable beyond children’s literature into diverse fields, such as religion, psychology, poli- tics, and philosophy, among others. What I’d like to comment on here is its insight into a very general field of comparative religion, or culture, or sociology. My thesis is this: certain people (or more specifically, a certain type of people) tend towards a certain type of thinking. This thinking is creative, confident, dynamic, independent, and assertive. It pushes boundaries and breaks rules, justifying its behavior on the al- tar of self-preservation, self-importance, and self-centeredness. It is found and indeed characteristic of a growing, liberal, humanistic West, is absent in the classical Islamic tradition, and the binary therein represents an impasse beyond which mutual understanding is distinctly unpromising.

Harry Potter’s library. Photo by Aaron Jacobs.
Harry Potter’s library. Photo by Aaron Jacobs.


The reconciliation of Islam and the West is a very popular project in American-Muslim media. Events, conferences, books, whole periodicals are devoted to this reconciliation, the attempt to harmonize, or at least bring to common ground, Islamic culture on the one hand and Western culture on the other. The two are not alien, this project asserts. They are dif- ferent in some ways, yes, but they are not mutually exclusive, and there is much they can learn from one another. I believe, to the contrary, that this insistence on common ground and similarity is either superficial or false, from the ground up. I believe that the respective intellectual frame- works within which each operate, and through which each proceed to generate a discourse in and about the world, are indeed mutually exclusive, and that common points are semantic, incidental, inconsequential, and, ultimately, misleading. The “West,” of course, is not a monolith; what I have in mind is a growing contingent of liberal, twenty-first century college graduates, cognizant of post-colonial as well as colonial criticism, critical of postmodern as well as modern thought, subjectivist as well as positivist trends. Here, I do not intend to make a normative argument one


way or the other, but rather to comment on what I under- stand to be the governing principles of each tradition, if indeed we can totalize either tendency within discrete bound- aries. This can be a problematic method, of course, but in the context of the sort of sweeping and probably over-simplistic generalizations I am about to make, I think we can justify it, at least for now. We begin with two principles. On the one hand, accord- ing to Islamic tradition, the world is made by God. Islamic sciences posit that His holy book, the Qur’an, is undispu- table, the Word, from which laws are derived and, along with the Prophetic instructions, the religion codified. One of the names for the Qur’an (al-Furqan) in fact, means the “crite- rion,” the barometer upon which morality is grounded. God’s commands are absolute and binding, and the emphasis here is that they do not proceed from what is right and wrong, the distinction an antecedent ontological fixture – they dictate what is right and wrong in the first place, and what posi- tion we should adopt on whatever issue is presented to us. Whether interpreted by formally-instituted Islamic scholars or educated Muslims, all formulations are based on this prin- ciple, that God determines right because He is God, and his Word is infallible. This is not to say, of course, that Muslims are unthinking chattel, or that Islam discourages the pursuit of knowledge or science. To the contrary, Prophetic aphorisms instruct Muslims to learn and teach, to “seek knowledge even as far as China.” The point I am trying to make is that Islamic episte- mology is necessarily rooted in a very specific Word. At a cer- tain point, we reach God, and there, the investigation ends. How could it not? There is nothing beyond Him, antecedent, or more fundamental. On the other hand, in the West, following a tradition adapt- ed by Vico and further articulated by Nietzsche, Foucault, and Said after him, the world is made by men and women, and not by God. History is wrought and understood by men; knowledge of the universe is not received, but made; power is not conferred, but created. And because men have made the world, men can understand it. We do not need revelation, holy books, texts or any sort of metaphysical, extra-sensory faculty in order to live and work meaningfully. Through dili- gence, study, care, attention to detail, passion, and an insis- tence on our own capacities, we shape our reality as we choose to, distinguish right from wrong as we see fit, make laws and fashion societies in accordance with our desires, thought, and intuition. A salient question in this world, then, is, what is morality? Is it something fixed and independent, something we must learn, realize, or discover? Or is it purely relative, something each of us decides, and on the basis of our power, institutes? The question is difficult, and more than two centuries of philosophers have debated it across continents, sub-cultures, war, and empire. The key, however, is this: we decide. We choose how to govern ourselves – we discuss, we argue,

exchange ideas, debate, fight, compete with one another to illustrate why particular expres- sions are better than others, what makes them so, and what to do with them once we’ve demonstrated their superiority. There is no higher authority. There is no savior. We are alone. This is human- ism. This is the founda- tion of post-Nietzschean liberal Western intel- lectual thought, and it is decidedly secular, grounded in a very real moral agency ascribing to us a power, capac-

ity, and reason separate from God. From this Vichian verum/factum equation, we proceed to an important corol- lary: because knowledge is not given from on high or from some crystalline source, it is flawed. It is imperfect, messy, subject to change, manipulation, coercion, deformation, and re-formulation. In a word, it is human. And though philo- logical learning and philosophical care can mitigate this, in the end all our knowledge and all our endeavors stemming from this knowledge will be, as Said has put it, “incomplete, insufficient, provisional, disputable, and arguable.” There will always be something more to say; there will never be a veil beyond which we are not allowed to pass.

If you cannot convince a secularist that you are correct on the basis that “God told you so,” and if you cannot convince a Muslim on the basis that “right and wrong are independent of God,” then any measure upon which either moves to the center is, logically, false.


Juxtaposed, I do not see how we can reconcile these compet- ing worldviews. When you have God on your side, what is left to discuss? How can anyone say anything to you, when you believe you have special access to a pool of knowledge which cannot, by definition, be wrong? What sort of dialogue can there be, against this holiness? As F.J. Ghazoul wrote, “once you are one of the elect, or once you are convinced that your people are the ‘chosen people’ – and chosen by no less than God Himself – then there is no room for human inter- vention, no place for human agency.” It is not simply that there are epistemological disagreements from whence two points of view diverge. The structures of these two points of view are fundamentally opposing. If these were sterile academic differences, they would interest special- ists in Ivory towers. The reality, however, is that the rever- berations of these starting points spill over into very real and worldly issues, such as, for example, abortion or homosexual-


ity. It’s not simply that Muslims consider homosexuality a sin because God has said so, and in contrast, non-religious people may have no problem with it. If we look deeper, we find that the conclusions, no matter how carefully, considerately, fairly and compassionately they are reached on either side (for there are, of course, such things as good and bad exegesis), proceed from fundamentally opposed starting points. Muslims look to their religious texts for not simply instruc- tions on how to pray, but how to view and value everything. Islam is a holistic vision. It offers normative principles in every sphere, the moral, political, economic and philosophic. God tells Muslims that homosexuality is wrong, and Muslims, understanding His Word, then go about either agreeing or disagreeing with it. In other words, God has laid down the laws of nature, and if He says homosexuality is a transgres- sion, then so it is.

Photo by Felix
Photo by Felix

A critical, secular thinker, in contrast, might try to under- stand homosexuality and its relationship to moral right or wrong in a different way. Like any other issue, he will study it, turn it over in his mind, put forth arguments and counter- arguments, talk to others, and then make up his mind. After having decided, in accordance with his views, beliefs, emo- tions, reason and rationality, he might then look to what others believe. He may look at what Islam has to say on the subject, and if it weighs in on the opposite side of the issue, his reasoning, deployed independently, has turned out to be different from God’s, and he cannot accept God’s Word be- cause he cannot reconcile it with his reason, a faculty, to him, just as, if not more, legitimate than scripture. He does not, like the Muslim, take his cue from God in the first place, and look at everything under the sun from the fixed position that God’s Word is formative and defini- tive. The secular thinker proceeds from the point of view that nothing is fixed from the “beginning,” and that he must decide for himself what is right and what is wrong. Having decided, divergence between his views and God’s on specific, individual issues may well be the impetus for disbelief, agnos- ticism, atheism, etc. The crucial schematic difference is in the origin of the formation of belief – does it proceed, transitively,

from God, or is it created, critically, via self-determination?


This contrast may be expressed as the difference between moral deduction and induction, reasoning from a pre- ordained general truth-principle as opposed to reasoning through a series of specific truths towards a general truth- principle. In any case, the difference, I believe, is strongly indicative of a gap between Islamic and liberal or humanistic mentality that cannot be bridged. The former is humble and modest. It begins from the principle that God decides what is right and wrong, and we align ourselves accordingly. The latter is prideful and assertive, insisting that men and women construct identities of right and wrong themselves. This attitude follows from a certain hubris, and it is adopted by people of a certain mentality, if

not caliber, a secularism, a paradoxical, romantic fatalism, a belief that there is no safety net, that we have only each other to look to. The belief that we cannot look to God, that we cannot depend on a Higher Power to instruct us, teach us, and, in the end, save us, is not a reflection of the Dark side of any worldview – but it is a tendency native to some, and it is not a matter of superficial difference, language, skin color, food or culture. It is the opposite side of the spectrum, it cannot be moderated, and if this is true – if you cannot convince a secu- larist that you are correct on the basis that “God told you so,” and if you cannot convince a Muslim on the basis that “right and wrong are independent of God,” then any measure upon which either moves to the center is, logically, false.

POSTSCRIPT Two serious counterpoints come to mind in reaction to this thesis. First, that it is untrue that Muslims are dependant, un- creative, uncritical, non-dynamic and non-assertive thinkers, especially in relation to Islam, ipso facto. My defense here is that firstly, such qualities are not pejorative, in and of them- selves. Secondly, I believe an honest inquiry into the forma- tion of Muslim conviction regarding, for example, issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, church/state separation, and women’s rights will bear out my observation:

of necessity, the Muslim mind proceeds in the world from a pre-established position ordained by God. This conviction may be buttressed by common sense, science, or appeal to morality – in any case, it is established within the Muslim mind by virtue of its origin, not merit. A subsidiary objection might be that terms such as “the Muslim mind” echo the sorts of gross generalizations and over-simplifications Edward Said exposed throughout his work in the late twentieth century. This anxiety might be well-placed, but I’d point out that I’m not accusing or indicting Muslims inductively, of anything. Rather, I’m describing, deductively, necessary conditions that govern religious belief, no matter how rational they may be. The aggregate of these conditions can be contrasted to those principles that govern liberal, secular thought. In other


words, the limits of anti-essentialism lie in whatever nominal characters vocationally identify a group as a group; it is these characters I am addressing. Second, that my observations apply equally to Christian- ity, Judaism, and other traditional religious systems as well as Islam. Moreover, Christianity and Judaism comprise a signifi- cant portion of the “West,” whatever region or culture that term might denote. How, then, can bridges between Islam and the West be so shaky? I believe that the former is a fixed

term, while the latter is not. That might sound promising. It

is not. I believe the West is heading towards greater liberal,

secular, humanistic programs. Spaces open for a dissenting

religious right are filled; understanding among religions here

is at best mutual flattery, at worst, redundancy.

Ahson Azmat is a junior in the philosophy department. He can be reached at aazmat@princeton.edu.

Mitigating Subjectivity

The Primacy of Qur’anic Memorization (Hifdh) for the Future of Islam in America

by R. David Coolidge

In the Name of God, The Entirely Merciful, The Especially Merciful

And when you recite the Qur’an, seek refuge in God from the accursed Devil. Truly, he has no power over those who be- lieve and put trust in their Lord. His power is only over those who make a friend of him, and those who ascribe partners unto Him (Qur’an, 16.98-100) Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406/808), the famous Muslim histo- rian and sociologist, remarked that “instructing children in the Qur’ān is a symbol of Islam.” Qur’anic education was universally conceived as forming an indispensable basis for pedagogy, because it laid “the foundation for all habits that may be acquired later on,” and “the basis of all later (knowl- edge).” The effect on the student was tremendous, for “the first impression the heart receives is, in a way, the foundation of (all scholarly) habits.” Indeed, it is perhaps fair to say that all major scholars in the Islamic tradition, from the time of the early community until recent history, have begun their training with formal instruction in the proper recitation of the Qur’an (tajwīd), its etiquettes (adab), and the mastering of its text within their memory (hifdh). Undoubtedly, many American Muslim parents instruct their children in some form of recitation and memorization, often under the tutelage of someone properly trained in the craft. It is more common to find young American Muslims with an ability to recite properly than it is to find those who cannot properly do so. However, what is unique about the situation of American Muslims is that while they are arguably one of the most wealthy and educated Muslim communities on the planet, they do not have a corresponding mastery of the Qur’anic text on a communal level. Whereas in other times and places one did not become learned in anything until after

memorizing the entire Qur’an, now one can attain a PhD in any field (even Islamic Studies) while barely knowing how

to recite the final 30th of the Qur’an (juz’ ‘amma). From an Islamic paradigm of knowledge acquisition, this is highly problematic, despite the coherence of such an approach based on alternative paradigms. Undoubtedly, it would be unrealistic to expect that every American Muslim who graduates high school should also be

a Hāfidh. However, that theoretical goal should be one which

American Muslims attempt to realize on a communal level. Also, American Muslims should believe that being a Hāfidh (or Hāfidha, in the case of women) is an important qualifica- tion for those who are publicly engaged in interpreting the meaning and message of Islam, whether they are shaykhs, imams, professors, or something else. Mastery of the Qur’anic text is crucial for sound Islamic interpretation, for many reasons. It is the only complete text which Muslim scholars consider absolutely divine in origin, and simultaneously absolutely pristine in its transmission throughout history (tawātur). As such, from an Islamic perspective it is unlike any other text currently existing on the face of the planet. Its unique centrality as a text transcends all Islamic theological, legal, mystical, and cultural divides. It is the only text whose content can be considered absolutely objective, despite the subjectivities of its interpreters. It is the mirror of reality, the sign amidst the signs of the universe, and the firm hand hold which can never break. Much ink has been spilled in recent years about the process of interpreting the Qur’an (tafsīr), and rightly so. Given the centrality of the Qur’an, the process of Qur’anic interpreta- tion will always be at the heart of the questions, “What is a Muslim,” What should a Muslim do,” and “How should a Muslim be?” But the question that must be asked by all is,


Photo by Bidwiya
Photo by Bidwiya

“To what extent have I struggled with the Qur’an, and to what extent have I allowed the Qur’an to struggle with me?” Interpretation is not simply a one way street. Rather, the text one chooses to read and study transforms oneself. No one is ever the same after reading a new book, or re-reading an old one. But more importantly, no one is ever the same once committed to learning the entire Qur’an by heart. It is a jour- ney, a great journey, and one begins to look at the world with new eyes once one sets down that sacred road. Each human being is a unique individual created by God, unlike any other, and so it must be expected that interpreta- tions of the Qur’an may be as numerous as the human beings on the earth. But does that mean that there are no standards by which communities can choose which interpretations are better or worse? Is the interpretation offered by someone who simply glances at a translation of the text as valuable as one offered by someone who has made it their primary task to memorize and understand the original text in all of its rich- ness and nuance? While everyone has the right to struggle to understand the text on their own terms, it is only natural and logical that there should be communal standards which privi- lege the efforts of those who have memorized the entire text. Clearly, the memorization of the Qur’anic text is not a panacea for all of the interpretive problems of the American Muslim community. The spiritual rewards of memorizing the text are irrefutable. There are numerous authentic sayings of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) which indicate the great value of reciting the Qur’anic

text in Arabic, even if one does not understand what they are saying. However, knowing the text is simply the begin- ning of understanding the text. While memorization can be completed usually within two years of full-time study, under- standing is the endeavor of a lifetime. Understanding involves connecting the objectivity of the text to the subjectivity of humanity, and has taken, and will take, myriad forms in his- tory. However, the subjective nature of interpretation should not lead to the abandonment of the goal of objectivity, which means attempting to see the world through the “eyes of God,” metaphorically speaking. That is the unattainable goal of the greatest interpreters (mujtahidūn), who know that despite their immense learning, “they will not encompass anything of His knowledge except what He wills.” (Qur’an, 2.255). All scholars are agreed that one must be instructed in the Qur’an by a knowledgeable and pious teacher, who was instructed by a pious and knowledgeable teacher, all the way back to the original teacher, the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him). The imbuing of oneself with the text is thus not cut off from the historical process by which Islamic civilization has spread throughout the world, namely the spread of human beings who have endeavored to live Islam to its fullest. As person meets person, so is the text transmitted, creating a continuity of change, as well as strengthening the bonds of humanity which are so vital to the Islamic ethos. The process of taking the text from a teacher also helps remind one that this text is not simply theirs, but rather belongs to the whole ummah. As one is sit-


ting in school struggling to memorize its contents, so are one’s classmates, and so are other people doing the same at all times of the year throughout the world. Indeed, people have been doing it since the very beginning of the religion. Unfortunately, some young Muslims have very negative experiences while trying to learn the Qur’an. They are beaten by their teachers, forced to accept ideas that they have no abil-

ity to counter, and exposed to cultural practices which seem at odds with their religious sensibilities. It it hard to say how prevalent these experiences are in Muslim majority countries; rather, the point is that they should never become part of Qur’anic education in the American context. Some students are even forced by their parents to learn the Qur’an, and hate every minute of their studies. Unfortunately, some parents see Qur’an school as a good form of punishing disobedient children, and often Qur’an school teachers and administrators are only expected by others to be disciplinarians. This attitude must change if Qur’anic memorization programs are to play

a beneficial role in the lives of their students, as well as in the American Muslim community at large. Teachers, administra- tors, parents, and most importantly, the students, must work together in pursuit of Allah’s pleasure and the betterment of American Islam. Hopefully, as American Muslims continue

to develop a religious ethos which is in tune with their lives as Americans, and as American Muslims realize the importance of Qur’an memorization for the future of Islam in America, the negative experiences will disappear and reveal the jewel of the Qur’an in greater clarity. There are wonderful signs that the process of infusing the Qur’an into the lives of American Muslims is progressing steadily. In many major American cities, dozens of Huffādh born and bred in America lead tarawīh every year. Muslim academics have begun to see the increasing importance of Qur’an memorization for a proper understanding of Islam. Most importantly, Qur’an programs are springing up across the country, addressing different constituencies in their struggle to live the Qur’an in America. The Quba Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Philadelphia, under the leader- ship of Imam Anwar Muhaimin, primarily serves inner-city African-Americans in their struggle to master the Qur’an. Imam Anwar is also perhaps the first African-American Hāfidh, trained in Saudi Arabia in his early teens. The In- stitute of Islamic Education in suburban Chicago, serves a diverse (ethnically and socio-economically) group of students, and includes amongst its esteemed teachers Hāfidh Ali Toft,

a native of Chicago, and a graduate of both Northwestern

University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Hāfidh Ali has developed a unique pedagogy of Qur’anic edu-

cation, adapting the traditional South Asian madrasa method to the American context by incorporating Arabic language instruction concurrently with Qur’anic memorization. In one year, a sizeable number of his students went from being un- able to read the Arabic text to reciting multiple 30ths (ajzā’) from memory with roughly 90% understanding of the text’s basic meaning. In suburban Dallas, the Islamic Association of North Texas has produced numerous memorizers while simultaneously giving them top-notch “secular” educations in social studies, math, language arts, and other important subjects. In California, the Zaytuna Institute has a 10-year track record of teaching Qur’anic memorization in a manner respectful of tradition and aware of American realities. Also, it should be pointed out that all four schools are for both men and women, thus removing any barriers to memorizing the Qur’an based on gender. All of these programs should be praised and supported, in whatever manner possible, by the American Muslim community. There are other valuable programs, to be sure, but these four are highlighted for their exemplary contributions thus far. As mentioned before, the journey to the Qur’an is never complete. For the individual, it will only end with death, and for the community, it will only be completed at the end of time. In the United States, the journey of the American Muslim community is still young, but there is much cause for hope. However, everyone must ask themselves, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and Amer- ican-born, liberal and conservative, Sunni and Shi’i, “Have I done enough to give the Qur’an its proper due in my life? Have I let the text infuse my being, such that I am no longer the same person afterward? Have I tried to let the objectivity of the Qur’an permeate my unique subjectivity? Have I lis- tened to God with attentive ears and a humble heart, ready to respond to the call?” Only after one has thrown oneself into the Qur’an, with love and hope and reverence and humility, can one begin to feel hopeful of clarity and salvation in this world and the next. Knowing the text is the beginning to understanding it, and the beginning to understanding oneself, the other, the visible world, the invisible world, and the One who has power over it all. Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me, that they may walk in the right way. (Qur’an, 2.186)

R. David Coolidge is the Muslim chaplain at Dartmouth College. He received an MA in Religion from Princeton in June 2008. He would like to thank Intisar Rabb for reading and commenting on a draft of this article.


Reflections on the Essence of Ramadan

by Sohaib N. Sultan

campuses, even observe all days of the fast with Muslims to experience something of the month’s spiritual and social vibrancy. The natural question that follows this description of Rama- dan is what makes this month particularly sacred and special? And, why is the spiritual discipline of fasting employed to mark the month of Ramadan over any other spiritual practice? And, lastly, what lasting impact does this month seek to have on an individual believer and on a community of believers?

RAMADAN TO HONOR GUIDANCE The Qur’an states, “Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for humanity, and as a clear articulation of that guidance, and as the criterion to discern

Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. It visits us with its many blessings every year in the ninth month of the lunar calendar. It is a time of spiritual birth and rebirth for individuals and communities across the globe. At its most essential outer core, Ramadan is known as a time of fasting or refraining one’s self from food, drink from dusk to dawn. For Muslims, observing this fast fulfills one of the five pillars of Islam. In ritual law fasting during the month of Ramadan is recognized as an obligation (fard) upon every healthy Muslim who has reached an age of maturity. In spiritual treatises it is recognized as a special invitation or opportunity (tawfiq) to spiritually feast with God. This intensely spiritual month is also associated with an immensely social period in which Muslims are encouraged to invite their neighbors and friends for opening (suhoor) and breaking (if- tar) the fast together. Mosques hold special night long prayers (tarawih/ tahajjud) during which worshippers commune with one another while enjoying Qur’anic recitation. New relationships are established and old ones reestablished. There is a unique spirit of community, generosity, and good-will during the whole month. Many Muslims list Rama- dan as their favorite time of the year because of this atmosphere. Today, Ramadan is also seen, culturally, as a time to celebrate and appreciate the Muslim presence in society. It is commonplace to hold interfaith conversations and din- ners throughout the month and many politicians, public figures, and businesses send Ramadan greetings to their Muslim constituents. The White House invites Muslim leaders every year to break the fast with the president and other high level government officials. Some non- Muslims, particularly on university

officials. Some non- Muslims, particularly on university Ramadan Food Fair in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Shagufta

Ramadan Food Fair in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Shagufta Ahmed GS’07.


the true from the false” (2:185). Revealed guidance is prom- ised by God to the children of Adam in the Qur’an, and followers of such guidance are referred to as the faithful ones. Interestingly, several Qur’anic commentators believe, based on various sources, that other scriptures—such as the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus—were also revealed in this holy month. Therefore, Ramadan is a celebration of divine guidance in the form of revealed scripture. Since divine revelation itself is seen as a mercy, the month in which it was revealed is also filled with divine mercy. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) conveyed that Satan, the tempter of evil, is locked away in chains and is thus unable to distract the believers during the month of Ramadan. Also, every act of devotion or good deed in this month is multiplied ten times in the sight of God. The first ten nights of the month are a period of gaining God’s grace. The second ten nights are for attaining divine forgiveness. And, the last ten nights, considered the most special nights, are a period of achieving freedom from divine displeasure in the afterlife. There is one night in the month of Ramadan—one of the last ten nights according to most scholars—that is known as the Night of Destiny (laylat ul-qadr), which the Qur’an describes as better than a thousand months (97:3). In other words, spending this one night in devotion is like spending eighty-three years worshipping God. According to Islamic tradition, the Night of Destiny is either the particular day on which the Prophet Muhammad first began receiving the Qur’anic revelation or the day the Qur’an was sent to the low- est heavens in preparation for revelation. In any case, it is a remarkably sacred night in which the angels descend in hosts to collect the supplications of all supplicants. It is filled with “peace till the break of dawn” (97:5). It is no surprise, then, that the Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever fasts during Ramadan with faith and seeking re- ward from God will have their past sins forgiven.”

FASTING TO REACH QUR’ANIC HEIGHTS Now, it is worth asking why God asks Muslims to engage in a month of fasting, above any other spiritual discipline. There are two main reasons for this:

The first reason is found in the idea that to successfully receive and understand the Qur’anic message, a person needs to purify their central organ of perception, which is the heart (qalb). Only a beautiful and sound heart is able to recognize, understand, and interpret things, especially divine revelation, in a beautiful and sound way. This is why, according to several scholars of the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad’s heart was first washed and purified as a young boy in order to prepare him for the awesome task of receiving and dispensing the Qur’an. Fasting is a method of purifying the heart from its various spiritual diseases—anger, selfishness, excessive ma- terialism, and so on. Interestingly, all of the scriptures men- tioned by name in the Qur’an are described as a light (nur). One of the alternative names of the Qur’an is an-nur, the

light. As such, the more the veils of spiritual diseases are lifted from the heart, the more the light of revealed scripture is able to penetrate the heart till the heart becomes illuminated with knowledge of reality and truth (haqq). So, fasting, when prop- erly used to purify the heart, is a spiritual practice that opens the heart to divine light and wisdom. Second, upon examining the Qur’anic prescription for positive individual change, various scholars of the spiritual sciences have said that it centers on three main qualities: God- consciousness (taqwa), patience (sabr), and gratitude (shukr). Fasting is the one spiritual practice that, when observed prop- erly, infuses all three characteristics into the human character. These qualities can be described as the soul’s bread, meat, and water during the fast. It is a most unnatural behavior to sacrifice food and water— essentials for sustenance and living—for a lengthy period of time. It is only when a person finds himself or herself in a relationship of awe and love that they would be willing to do something so extraordinary. So, fasting for the sake of attaining a closer relationship with God is in itself an act of great respect and adoration. The more a person fasts with this intention, the more they become conscious of their Beloved at all times and in all aspects of life. This consciousness moti- vates one to strive for the best of what will make their Beloved happy with them. In the same manner, God-consciousness is necessary for reaching the spiritual, ethical, and moral heights taught to us in divine revelation. The Qur’an states, “O you who have attained to faith, fasting is enjoined upon you, as it was enjoined upon those before you, so that you may become God-conscious” (2:183). Alongside consciousness, a person needs to learn patience and self-restraint in order to behave in accordance with one’s consciousness. Fasting is a practice in controlling one’s desires and suppressing one’s ego. When a person acquires this dis- cipline of self-restraint he or she is able to ward off detestable temptations and in turn align their character with the noble teachings of the Qur’an. Patience, therefore, helps align the consciousness of the heart with the actions of the limbs. The Qur’an states, “Be patient, for God is with those who show patience.” The quality that beautifies and elevates noble character is gratitude. Doing good out of a sense of thanking God for all of life’s gifts is an even greater expression of God-conscious- ness. Fasting by its very nature makes a person feel more thankful for the sustenance that God makes available each and every day. This sense of gratitude motivates a person to not only restrain from detestable actions, but to in fact engage in the good actions that revealed scripture motivates us to. The Qur’an states, “Magnify God for what God has guided you to, and become people of gratitude” (2:186). The following Prophetic saying (hadith) summarizes the relationship between fasting, good actions, and developing a relationship with God. “Fasting is like a shield (from wrong actions), and the one who fasts has two joys: a joy when they


break their fast and a joy when they meet their Lord.”

RAMADAN AS A LASTING TRANSFORMATION It is tempting to reduce fasting to that of food and drink, and to diminish the greatness of Ramadan to a single month. However, such an idea is an injustice to the whole brilliance of the month and ultimately an injustice to us. The Prophet Muhammad warned that “Many people who fast get nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst.” In reality, Ramadan is a month of intense spiritual train- ing for the rest of the year. The real work and struggle begins when Ramadan ends. At the individual level, fasting is meant to set us on a course of self-examination and self-purification. It is an opportunity to rid ourselves of bad qualities and bad habits, and in the process acquire good ones. As such, the Prophet Muhammad said that “If a person does not avoid foul speech and detestable conduct during their fast, then God has no need for them to abstain from food and drink.” As the individual is transformed, there is an inevitable transformation of society and a removal of social ailments. As the spiritual diseases are tackled one-by-one, their social manifestations decrease in strength also one-by-one. The

Qur’an makes this point entirely clear when it tackles the social injustices of economic exploitation (2:188), harmful su- perstitions (2:189), and indiscriminate violence (2:190-193) immediately following the core set of verses on Ramadan and fasting (2:183-187). Arguably, the two main sources of malevolence in our world today remain economic injustice and wanton killing. It is per- haps for this reason that the Prophet Muhammad advised us, “Toward the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the first and better of the two sons of Adam who said, ‘If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise my hand to kill you. Surely, I fear God, the Lord of the worlds.’” So, the lessons we need to absorb from Ramadan are that God-consciousness, self-purification, self-restraint, and gratitude are essential for self and social transformation as we strive to remake the world into a better and more beautiful place to live.

Sohaib Sultan is a Muslim Chaplain and the Muslim Life Coordinator for Princeton University. He can be reached at ssultan@princeton.edu.



An Indian Ocean Empire

by George Hatke

By the eighteenth century, Arabia entered the modern age as its diverse polities began gradually to take on their current form as states. Some themes of this political evolution which are familiar today, such as Wahhabism, were already making their influence felt outside Arabia, as is evident from Saudi raids on Iraq at the turn of the nineteenth century. However, influential though Saudi Arabia may be in the present-day Islamic world, the early Saudi state never succeeded in estab- lishing a lasting foothold abroad. In fact, of the states of the Arabian Peninsula only Oman created a true empire. Though it reached its zenith in the first half of the nine- teenth century, the Omani empire was the end result of a long relationship between trade and politics. For thousands of years, maritime trade had bound Oman to the outside world, and in the sixth century BCE the country was annexed by the Achaemenid Persians. Iran continued to periodically exert po- litical influence over Oman as late as 1744, when the last era of Persian occupation was brought to an end by Ahmad bin Sa’id, who went on to reign until 1783 as the first sultan of the Al Bu Sa’id Dynasty. The Al Bu Sa’id established Muscat as the country’s capital and holds sway over Oman to this day. In the long term, however, it was the Arabs who had the greatest impact on the country. Many of the Arab tribes which settled in Oman hailed from Yemen. Chief among the Yemeni groups that settled in Oman in pre-Islamic times was the Azd confederation, some factions of which would later settle in Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the western littoral of the Arabian Gulf. Their presence in southern Mesopotamia grew in the aftermath of the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, when large numbers of Azdis took up residence in the garrison town of Basra. Ties with other Azdis still living in Oman may have helped diffuse to the latter the doctrines of the Ibadi sect, which enjoyed widespread popularity in Basra. The sect had emerged in the milieu of the Khariji move- ment, which according to Islamic tradition began when some 12,000 troops deserted from the army of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib at the Battle of Siffin in Syria in 657. Displeased by ‘Ali’s agree- ment to an arbitration with his adversary, Mu’awiya—the governor of Syria and future caliph—these soldiers not only withdrew their support from ‘Ali but remained a constant threat to his authority for the rest of his reign. Ultimately it was a Khariji from Yemen named ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Mul-

jam who assassinated ‘Ali in the mosque of Kufa in 661. Ibadis today, however, reject any connection with the Kharijis, whom they reproach for their fanaticism and for their condemnation of non-Khariji Muslims as infidels. Thus, while the other Khariji sects put to the sword those Muslims with whom they disagreed on matters of doctrine, the Ibadis have traditionally maintained a more conciliatory stance vis- à-vis their coreligionists. Rather than branding non-Ibadis as unbelievers they view them instead as simply “unbelievers in God’s grace” (al-kuffar bi’l-ni’ma), who are still accepted as fellow Muslims, and with whom free association is permis- sible. Indeed it is perhaps as a result of their moderation that the Ibadis are the only Khariji sect to survive to the present. Adhering to an ideal of equality among believers, the Ibadis have long believed that political leadership should be open

Photo by Amy Rathgeb
Photo by Amy Rathgeb


to any devout male Muslim, regard- less of his race or genealogy. This egalitarian ethic was very attractive tom Omanis at a time when the Quraysh— the Meccan tribe to which the Prophet had belonged— looked down on the Arab tribes of Oman as former vassals of the Persians. In addition, the Ibadi method of select- ing a leader (imam) through consulta- tion, confirmed

through a pledge of support given by the rest of the community, roughly paral- leled the selection of a shaykh in tribal society. As a result, Ibadism had won the support of many of the tribes of cen- tral Oman by the ninth century, and today Ibadis constitute forty-five to seventy-five percent of the indigenous Omani population. Since the hold on Oman by such foreign powers as the Um- ayyads and ‘Abbasids was often only nominal, it was easy for doctrines like Ibadism to spread with little official resistance and, in practice, real political power in the country was wield- ed by the Ibadi imams rather than by the caliphs. But in the course of time, as imams grew in power through their control of agriculture and foreign trade, they came to prefer dynastic succession to election by a council as the means of transmit- ting power from one generation to the next. The consequent inequalities within society created discontent, and as a result elements within Omani society would from time to time rise up against the ruling authority and advocate a return to the Ibadi ideal. But once a new regime took steps to consolidate its authority through the old means of dynastic succession and economic control, the process was repeated once more as the inequalities between ruler and ruled resurfaced. This vicious cycle of political consolidation, prosperity, and revolt made Oman an open target for invasion and occupa- tion by first the Persians and then the Portuguese. Of the two groups the Portuguese were by far the most disruptive to Omani society and economy. After they discovered a sea route from Europe to India around the southern tip of Africa at the turn of the sixteenth century, they were able not only to cir- cumvent Muslim middlemen in the Indian Ocean trade but also to establish control over the major Indian Ocean ports from East Africa to Southeast Asia, thus enabling them to tap into the spice trade at its sources. Muscat fell to them in

Africa itself, led Arab and Swahili slave traders to penetrate much further into the African interior in search of human cargo.

The establishment of a plantation economy by the


in East

Photo by Allesandra del Tufo
Photo by Allesandra del Tufo

1507, and they managed to hold onto the port despite attacks by Ottoman forces in 1551 and 1581. Since infighting prevented the Omanis from responding ef- fectively to the Portuguese threat, it remained for the Ya’ariba Dynasty (1624-1724) to take the lead in ridding Oman of foreign occupation. After the Ya’arubi ruler Sultan bin Sayf recaptured Muscat in 1650, the Omanis used whatever Portu- guese vessels they captured there to attack Portuguese garri- sons in the Arabian Gulf, India, and East Africa. The conse- quent closure of Portuguese ports in India to Omani vessels forced the Ya’ariba to promote agriculture to make up for what was lost in revenue from foreign trade. But the need for slaves to work in the palm plantations of Oman also led the Ya’ariba to take a greater interest in East Africa. Moreover, the requests by the sultans of the Swahili Coast for help in ridding East Africa of Portuguese hegemony provided the Ya’ariba with a convenient pretext for invading East Africa and impos- ing a hegemony of their own there. Thus, in the guise of a program of liberation from foreign rule, the Ya’ariba not only drove out all the Portuguese garrisons north of Mozambique but established Omani garrisons at such towns as Mombasa, Kilwa, Zanzibar, and Pemba as well. The liberators, it seemed, had come to stay as occupiers. Once the Al Bu Sa’id Dynasty came to power in 1749 and annexed parts of the Swahili Coast and the Makran coast of Iran and Pakistan, it became clear that the egalitarian tribal ethic endorsed by Ibadism was hard to maintain in an increas- ingly cosmopolitan world. The fact that the Al Bu Sa’id rulers bore the title of sultan rather than imam, and that they estab- lished their capital not in the Ibadi heartland of Oman but on the coast at Muscat, were signs that the times were changing. From being a set of guiding principles for the state, Ibad- ism became an instrument of rebellion against the state by disgruntled tribal elements, and once Qabus bin Sa’id over- threw his father, the Sultan Sa’id bin Taymur, in 1970 and introduced modern education and technology into Oman, Ibadism was removed still further from the public arena, and became calcified as a legacy of Oman’s medieval past. The Al Bu Sa’id may have had an overseas empire, but the strength of their hegemony varied from region to region. In


Photo by David Clay
Photo by David Clay

the early nineteenth century large parts of what is now Oman were beyond the jurisdiction of the sultan of Muscat. Dhufar, in the far west of Oman, was one such area. A mountain- ous region with some peaks as high as 5000 ft above sea level, Dhufar is a land of forests and meadows with bubbling streams—a world away from the sand dunes of the Rub’ al- Khali just to the north. Abundant rainfall during the summer monsoon keeps Dhufar green, enabling the local pastoral tribes to graze their cattle. These tribes still speak their own South Semitic languages—Mahri, Jibbali, and Harsusi—all of them quite distinct from, though related to, Arabic. Since 1806, Dhufar had been the personal domain of a slave-owning pirate, Sayyid Muhammad bin ‘Aqil, who ruled from the coastal town of Salala and claimed to be protected by supernatural powers. Men working for Sayyid Muhammad joined the crew of the Essex, an American spice-ship from Salem, New Hampshire, as it docked at the Yemeni port of Hudayba, only to massacre all the foreigners on board—all of them, that is, except for John Hermann Poll, a Dutch cabin boy whom they made their slave. Poll’s liberation came in 1829, when men from the Qara tribe of Dhufar killed Sayyid Muhammad—his supernatural protection having apparently fallen into abeyance in his later years—and took the former cabin boy under their wing. Poll converted to Islam, married a Qara woman, and rose through the ranks to become ‘Abd Allah Lloreyd, the ruler of Dhufar. He held sway over the re- gion until his death in the 1870s. These few reports, however, are all that is known of this remarkable individual. Lloreyd does not appear to have kept a journal and, like many seamen of his day, may well have been illiterate. Though we may never learn more about the life of ‘Abd Allah Lloreyd, his experiences are part and parcel of Oman’s increasing contact with an ever-expanding world, one that now came to include Europe and America. The development of trade relations between the United States and Oman in the 1830s was but one aspect of this phenomenon. On September 21, 1833 the first trade agreement between the two countries was signed, allowing Americans to trade in Oman’s territo- ries against an export tax payment of five percent. The most favored Omani port of call for American ships was Zanzibar,

a possession of the Al Bu Sa’id Dynasty just off the Tanzanian

coast. Here American merchants sold cotton cloth, rifles, gunpowder, watches, and shoes for cloves, ivory, and spices. Sultan Sa’id bin Sultan (r. 1804-1856) carried on a friendly correspondence with Andrew Jackson, as is evident from a

letter dated October 7, 1833, in which he wrote to the Ameri- can president: “On a most fortunate day and at a happy hour,

I had the honor to receive Your Highness’ letter, every word

of which is clear and distinct as the sun at noonday and every

letter shone forth as brilliantly as the stars in the heavens”. Less clear, however, was what to make of the gifts sent by Jackson to the sultan two years later, among which were two gowns for the women of the harem—not the traditional outfits worn by Omani women, but dresses in the latest New York fashion! Sa’id discreetly gave these rather embarrassing gifts away to the wives of British visitors to Oman but, never

a man to be outdone in generosity, and in accordance with

time-honored Omani custom, he reciprocated with a gift of his own: two or three beautiful Circassian slave women for President Martin Van Buren. The women had come on Oman’s largest ship, the Sultana, as part of a trade mission to the United States in late 1839. Also on board was the Omani ambassador, Ahmad bin Nu’man al-Ka’bi, who secured a place

in history as the first Arab diplomat to pay an official visit to the United States. Cultural misunderstandings in such mat- ters as gift-giving were thus by no means an impediment to maintaining diplomatic ties. Significantly, the only known portrait of Sultan Sa’id himself hangs in the Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. In

it he sits by the window, through which one can see palm

trees and, beyond that, the ocean—a fitting backdrop for an Arabian monarch whose realm looked towards the sea. The

Salem connection is indicative of the acceleration of American commerce with Oman, for the town had by this point secured

a monopoly in trade with the Omani empire—to the extent

that Zanzibaris believed that all Europeans came from Salem, and that England was a suburb of Salem. Needless to say, the British, who thoroughly resented the influx of the Yankee par- venus into the Indian Ocean, were not flattered. Nor could they been pleased when, upon entering Sa’id’s durbar cham- ber, they would have seen two pictures—also gifts from the United States—depicting an American victory over the British navy. In deference to the British consul, Sa’id had the offend- ing pictures replaced by two paintings of the English victory over the Ottoman armada at Navarino in 1827. He also took care to establish ties with the British royalty by sending gifts to Queen Victoria on her coronation, and in 1842 the Sultana made a stop in London on its return from the United States, at which point Oman’s envoy, ‘Ali bin Nasir, paid the queen a visit on Sa’id’s behalf. In the context of Oman’s political and economic influence in the western Indian Ocean, it is easy to see why Britain and the United States were in such heavy competition to gain

Sa’id’s favors. He had taken control of the Omani economy by


minting his own coins to replace the German, Austrian, and Spanish coins previously used throughout his realm, and with his merchant ships he maintained a lively trade not only with Europe and America but with East Africa and India as well. He was beyond any doubt the most powerful ruler in the western Indian Ocean. From his father, Sayyid Sultan, Sa’id had inherited control of the southern coast of Iran, including Hormuz, Qishm, Bandar ‘Abbas, the Henjam Islands, and the Kerman coast. In Makran in today’s Pakistan he held Gwadur and the port of Chahbar. After the Persians reclaimed the coast of southern Iran, Sa’id turned his attention to Zanzibar, which he made his second capital in 1840. Part of the success of this venture was due to the introduction of cloves to East Africa. Indigenous to Southeast Asia, cloves had been brought to Mauritius by the French in 1770. Once established as a cash crop in East Africa by Sa’id, cloves became one of the main exports of the Swahili coast. The island of Pemba, off the northern coast of Tanzania, eventually produced ninety percent of the world’s crop. Omani farmers came to East Africa in large numbers to get rich off of this lucrative crop, and by the middle of the nineteenth century cloves were being cultivated on vast plantations. With the growing demand for cloves came a corresponding demand for slaves to work on the plantations. Though slaves from East Africa had been shipped across the Indian Ocean to labor in agricultural projects in the Tigris-Euphrates delta as early as the ninth century, the establishment of a plantation economy by the Omanis, not thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean but in East Africa itself, led Arab and Swahili slave traders to penetrate much further into the African inte- rior in search of human cargo. In the mid-nineteenth century they were active throughout the Great Rift Valley and the Congo River Basin and, as contemporary Portuguese reports indicate, even made it as far as present-day Angola. But at the same time as Oman was expanding into East Af- rica the British, having strengthened their hold on India, were turning their attention to regions en route, which led them to intervene in the affairs of Oman. After Sa’id bin Sultan died in 1856 a dispute ensued between his two sons, Thuwayni in Muscat and Majid in Zanzibar. In 1861 the British recognized Majid as the autonomous sultan of Zanzibar, and in doing so cut Oman off from the East African capital of its overseas em- pire. Long favored over Muscat by foreign trading companies, the island and its port had become richer than Oman itself, and now that it was lost Oman entered a period of sharp economic decline, becoming so poor that it had to rely solely on British subsidies. Cultural ties to the homeland, however, were maintained by Bargash bin Sa’id, the Omani sultan of Zanzibar (r. 1870- 1888). A broad-minded modernizer who had introduced indoor plumbing, roads, and hospitals to Zanzibar, he saw modern technology as the key to achieving his goals, and found an ideal instrument for the diffusion of Omani culture

in the form of the Arabic print- ing press. He had first intro- duced it to East Africa in 1879 following his re- turn from a visit to Egypt and Eu- rope four years earlier. Due to the lack of local expertise, “The Sultan’s Press” (al-Matba’a al-Sultaniyya) relied entirely on printers from abroad for its operation. In 1884 Barghash imported anoth- er Arabic press

from the Jesuit Fathers’ Press (Matba’a al-Aba’ al-Yasu’iyyin) in Beirut and recruited Lebanese workers to run it. Among the works published by The Sultan’s Press were books on Ibadi doctrine and jurisprudence. Long isolated from the centers of Ibadi learning in Oman, many Omanis in East Africa were in dire need of instruction. At times, however, such efforts to foster a pride in Ibadi identity led to a haughty attitude on the part of many Oman-

is in East Africa. They looked down on Sunnis as a lower

brand of Muslims who had lost their genealogical purity by mixing with the Africans. Prejudices notwithstanding, magical practices of African origin were still very popular among the Omani elite. Sayyida Salme, a daughter of Barghash, records one of these in her autobiography. The Chemchem spring on the island of Zanzibar, she writes, was believed to be inhab- ited by a spirit which would bring good luck if propitiated with animal sacrifices and gifts of incense, aromatic powder, and sweets. Her own sister, Khaduj, had once fallen gravely ill and vowed to make an offering to the Chemchem spirit if she recovered. Having regained her health, she and Salme went

with a full retinue of lavishly attired slaves to sacrifice a bull in gratitude to the spirit. Salme’s autobiography is in fact an invaluable source of information on daily life in Zanzibar under Omani rule, and the story of how it came to be written in the first place is quite remarkable in its own right. Having had an affair with

a resident German merchant in Zanzibar named Rudolph

Heinrich Ruete, Salme became pregnant and in August 1866 escaped by boat with her lover, whom she married after con- verting to Christianity. After giving birth to their first child and settling with Rudolph in Hamburg, she took the name

Only one month after the island gained independence from Great Britain in December 1963, its last sultan, Jamshid bin ‘Abd Allah, was overthrown in a bloody revolution in which the local Africans killed thousands of Indians and Arabs and seized their properties.


Emily Ruete. The couple had three other children, but after the death of her husband in 1870 the former princess was left penniless, and wrote her autobiography in the hope of bringing in some money. After Germany acquired Tanganyika in the 1880s she was once again brought into contact with her homeland when rumors began circulating that Otto Von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire, wanted to install her son Sayyid Rudolph Said-Ruete as sultan of Zanzibar. Though nothing ever came of this plan, if indeed Von Bismarck ever proposed it, Salme did manage to revisit Zanzibar in 1885 and again in 1888. It was at this time that she published her memoirs in Germany. Her book was soon after translated into English and published in England, Ire- land, and the United States, and is the earliest known auto- biography of an Arab woman. Though she made no secret of her conversion to Christianity, she took pains in her book to defend Islam and Arab culture, and to correct some Western misconceptions of both. Though few Omanis—let alone Omani women—of her day could boast of having spent so much time in the West, the circumstances of Salme’s life are an indication that Oman and the West were drawing ever closer together. In her lifetime she saw Tanganyika and her island home of Zanzibar pass from Omani to German rule and then, following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, to British rule. At the same time the British were making their presence felt in Oman itself. In 1920 they brokered a treaty between the sultan of Muscat, Taymur bin Faysal, and the Ibadi imam of the inte- rior, according to which Taymur granted to the Ibadi tribes the control of trade, administration, and law in the Omani interior, in return for which these tribes pledged not to attack the sultan. This may have allowed tribal groups a reasonable amount of autonomy, but not prosperity. Already poor, there was little trade in Oman to control, and the sultans of Muscat lacked the modernizing spirit that characterized their cous- ins across the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar. But it was not due to a lack of exposure to the outside world on the part of the sultans. Between 1922 and 1927 Taymur’s son Sa’id received a British-style education at the College of Princes at Ajmer in Rajputana (now Rajasthan) in India, where he learned both English and Hindi. After coming to the throne in 1932 he surrounded himself with British advisers, whom he liked to impress by quoting Shakespeare. However, a good education was not something that Sa’id was willing to extend to his subjects. When his British advis- ers attempted to set up a Development Department in Oman in 1958, Sa’id reproached them, saying, “This is why you lost India, because you educated the people!” There was more to this crass remark than mere rhetoric, for Oman’s literacy rate of only five percent in the mid-twentieth century testifies to Sa’id’s indifference—if not outright opposition—to educat- ing the Omani people. During his reign the country had only three primary schools, and except for a bit of religious instruc- tion higher education was out of the question. Not only that

but, eighty years after Barghash had established an Arabic printing press in Zanzibar, Oman still had no press of its own. The contrast between Oman and its former East African colony could not be sharper. The country’s health hardly fared better. With only one hospital in all of Oman, disease was rampant, and infant mortality during the reign of Sa’id was around seventy-five percent. However, British geopolitical interests continued to trump humanitarianism, and the British remained steadfast in their support of Sa’id’s regime. Though never directly ruled by Great Britain as a colony, Oman was kept subservient to Brit- ish interests by an indirect hegemony exercised through Brit- ish officials. As late as the 1960s all but one of Sa’id’s advisers were British, and treaties with the British stipulated that, in return for an annual salary of £1.5 million, the sultan of Mus- cat would not initiate contacts with any foreign power except Great Britain. By this means Oman, which only a century earlier had had a vast overseas empire and had traded with Africa, India, Europe, and North America, was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Even the discovery of oil in Oman in the 1960s did little to ameliorate the situation, for Sa’id did his utmost to ensure that there was as little contact as possible between foreign oil companies and Omani nation- als. In the process he isolated his own people from whatever economic benefits were to be gained through the oil industry. Not until Sa’id was overthrown by his son Qabus in 1970 was Oman brought into the modern era. Like his father, Qa- bus was educated abroad, not only in India but also in Eng- land. But just as Sa’id kept his countrymen in isolation from the rest of the world, so did he keep his son out of the public sphere after his return to Oman. Indeed, for six years Qabus was kept under house arrest in the royal palace of Salala in Dhufar, and it was not until Sa’id’s troops were defeated by an army faction loyal to Qabus that the prince gained his freedom, and with it a chance to reopen Oman to the outside world from which it had been for so long kept isolated. After expelling the most conservative of his father’s British advisers and removing from office those Omanis who had supported him, Qabus began building hospitals, schools, universities, and shopping malls, and made health care avail- able to all Omanis. He later signed agreements with foreign oil companies stipulating that Oman retain eighty percent of its oil revenues, which allowed him to fund his programs of development. Qabus also encouraged a far more active Omani participation in the administration of Oman’s oil industry, and by the 1990s Omanis made up over half the employees— and some forty percent of the senior staff—of Petroleum Development Oman and Dhufar, the largest oil company operating in Oman. As a result of its economic gains, Oman began attracting a large community of expatriate workers, teachers, and engi- neers from the Arab World, South Asia, Europe, and North America. It also attracted many Omanis from Zanzibar. Only one month after the island gained independence from Great


Britain in December 1963, its last sultan, Jamshid bin ‘Abd Allah, was overthrown in a bloody revolution in which the lo- cal Africans killed thousands of Indians and Arabs and seized their properties. Those Omanis who did manage to stay be- came impoverished as a result of misgovernment by the Tan-

zanian president Julius Nyerere, making emigration to Oman an attractive option. Yet even today the link between Zanzibar and Oman remains. There are still daily flights between Mus- cat and its former colony, and East African pop music remains

a favorite among Oman’s youth. As is often the case with great

powers, the cultural legacy of the Omani empire has outlived its existence as a political entity. How much longer Oman’s current standard of living will last is another question, however. The country’s oil reserves are relatively meager in comparison with those of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and those it has are dwindling fast.

Furthermore, Oman has not invested abroad on the scale that Kuwait has, and attempts to promote the caves of Dhufar as tourist destinations seem dubious, particularly as a source of income that can one day replace oil revenues. Oman has been through difficult times before, but has weathered the vicis- situdes of the past thousand years well. It has been at times an empire, an impoverished backyard of the Arabian Peninsula, and an industrialized oil producer. What it will become next is an important question for the future of the Middle East.

George Hatke is a sixth-year graduate student in the Near Eastern Stud- ies Department at Princeton University. He can be reached at ghatke@ princeton.edu.

The Druze of Lebanon

by Nour Aoude ’10

“Druze.” “Jewish?” “No, Druze.” “A druid?” “Not quite. D-R-U-Z-E. Druze. Go look it up on Wikipe- dia; it exists. I swear.” Having been eight years old myself when I discovered I was Druze, I can hardly blame others, especially in the United States, for taking a while to digest that never-before-heard, funny-sounding word and assimilating it into their religious vocabulary. As an eight year old, uprooted from my peculiar community in Lebanon and living abroad in a predominantly Sunni Muslim environment in Kuwait, this shocking revela- tion was nonetheless a big source of comfort to me. I under- stood, finally, why I was the only kid in my class who did not attend Friday prayers, fast during Ramadan, or even own a copy of the Qur’an at home. In the absence of all forms of religious ritual, I could have lived my entire life not know- ing that my family belonged to any religious sect at all. Little did I know that I was experiencing the very essence of being Druze: living in secret, stripped of symbols and rituals of religious nature, and given instead the sole task of accepting and guarding an ancient, underground belief. Despite having

abandoned that belief a good while ago, I still believe that the Druze faith and way of life, owing to their peculiar nature, deserve to be written about. A Kuwaiti friend of mine who

I once trusted with my true religious identity and who had

enough curiosity to go off and do a little research concluded

curiosity to go off and do a little research concluded Bater, a typical Druze village in

Bater, a typical Druze village in the Chouf Mountains in Lebanon. Photo by Nour Aoude ’10.


that the Druze were a bizarre species of mountain elf. He was more or less right. Our tour of this mountain kingdom begins at the Damour crossing on the Chouf coast in Lebanon, a few kilometers south of the volatile melting pot of religions that is Beirut. At Damour, one has the option to leave behind the noise and grime of the coast and begin a sharp climb into the rural heartland of the Druze community, whose geographic loca- tion within the folds and valleys of the Chouf Mountains of the Lebanon has enabled them to safeguard their beliefs and traditions for nearly ten centuries. Shielded on all sides by peaks reaching two thousand meters in height, the Druze have often been able to keep their very existence a secret from the outside world. This isolation has produced one of the most conservative and traditional societies in the Middle East, although this is not easily observable at first glance. Unlike in all other regions of Lebanon, Druze villages are characterized by a complete lack of religious architecture and symbolism. Even in Bater, the village my father comes from and where my grandfather, along with a perplexing web of loosely defined relatives still live today, the only easily observ- able religious building is the striking white church rising from amongst the boxes of little Druze houses plastered against the side of the hill. A little white church to serve a grand total of one Christian family in a village of two thousand Druze inhabitants! You could walk into the courtyard of the Druze majlis (literally ‘sitting place’), the key to which is entrusted to my grandfather, a well respected religious man, and cross the far end without having noticed anything but three pine trees and an old, seemingly deserted stone building with a few arches. Only on a Thursday night, when the religious uqqal (wise people) of the village gather to chant verses from the Druze Kitab al-Hikmah (Book of Wisdom) is it possible to suspect any activity of a religious nature within the confines of the modest, truly unspectacular gathering hall. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about a Druze village is the sight of those uqqal, who are more commonly known as mashayekh or ajaweed. Having grown up around my paternal grandparents, who were themselves ajaweed and who attended Thursday night readings at the majlis, it did not strike me as strange that anyone should wear black their entire lives. A long, black dress was the dress code for women, with a large white headscarf known as a mandeel wrapped around the head, covering everything but the eyes and falling down to the knees at the back. For men, the dress was replaced with a black, button-down shirt and a pair of loose pants, known as a sharwal, with a white, cylindrical turban covering the head. The black, I was told, was worn today in mourning of the disappearance of the Druze lords and prophets, whose last ap- pearance was 11th century Egypt – the time and place where Druze history begins. Descended from the Arab tribes of Wadi al-Taym in Leba- non, the Druze today are the last remaining group that holds by the teachings of the 11th century Egyptian Caliph

al-Hakim. Al-Hakim’s message was propagated within the Fatimid Caliph- ate in Egypt by one of his first followers, Hamza bin Ali, who preached the divin- ity of al-Hakim. All those who accepted that al-Hakim was indeed an incarnation of God became known as Druze, a word derived from the name of Nashtakin al-Darazi, an earlier fol- lower of al Hakim. Follow- ing al-Hakim’s mysterious disappearance in 1021AD the Druze were labeled heretics and persecuted.

All the communities across the Middle East and North Africa which in a short time had embraced Hamza’s message and become Druze were eventu- ally converted out of the religion by persecution, except for the tribes of Wadi al-Taym. In his book The origins of the Druze people and religion, Lebanese historian Phillip K. Hitti (who taught at Princeton between 1926 and 1954 and founded the academic field of Arab Studies in the United States) traces every Druze alive today back to those of Wadi al-Taym, who then migrated out of the valley to create their most prominent communities in the Chouf region of Lebanon, the Hawran region of Syria – including the Golan Heights – , and the Galilee region in Northern Israel. He believes that the Arab tribes of Wadi al-Taym were influenced culturally and religiously by Persians in Mesopotamia as they migrated out of the Arabian Penin- sula into the Levant. It is this influence, he continues, which rendered them more susceptible than any neighboring people to the message brought by Hamza, who was himself Persian. Indeed, many Druze families today, and especially prominent ones such as Jumblatt and Arslan, still carry Persian and Kurd- ish last names. As is the case in my own community in the Chouf, there exists in all Druze communities a strong divide between the uqqal and the remaining population, the juhhal (ignorant ones), to whom I can be said to belong. Unlike a Muslim mosque or Christian church, the Druze majlis is not convert- ed into a public site of worship when not occupied by wor- shipping ajaweed. Seeing as there is no habitual Druze prayer, that would indeed be pointless. Moreover, the single religious ritual which the majlis does host, the reading of Kitab al- Hikmah, is strictly limited to the ajaweed. As someone who has not renounced the so called ‘material world’ for a modest, pious life in conventional black and white garb, I am not al- lowed access to the Kitab al-Hikmah. In this way, by limiting

access to the Kitab al-Hikmah. In this way, by limiting Member of Druze uqqal in typical

Member of Druze uqqal in typical religious constume. Photo by Mar- garet Clark Keatinge.


access to the religious scripture to a particular stratum even of the Druze population itself, the Druze have ensured that the most important details of the texts have remained secret even up until today. The other tradition which has protected the community for centuries against foreign influences has been the strict prohibition on intermarriage. All Druze, uqqal and juhhal alike, are prohibited from marrying anyone who is not Druze by birth, i.e. born to a Druze mother. In an event where such a marriage occurs, the tragic result for the transgressor is often being excommunicated and losing touch with parents and all family members forever. In this way, even Druze juhhal who are exempted from prohibitions placed on the lifestyle of the uqqal (such as that on alcohol) and who apparently lead secular lives are strongly bound to the cus- toms and expectations of the community. Away from the mysterious world of the uqqal, the single Druze belief whose profound implications shape the daily life of every Druze person and which distinguishes the religion from all others in the Middle East, drawing instead from Asian traditions, is the firm belief in human-only reincarna- tion. Children as young as seven or eight, I learned upon observing a rather precocious cousin of mine, may talk about what they want to be in their next life. Neither is it uncom- mon for people who remember their previous families to visit them, resulting in comical (or emotional, or ridiculous, depending on your level of faith) situations where people visit children of theirs from previous lives who are now older than they are. It is this belief in reincarnation which has enabled the Druze to write their own history of the world in the twenty two volume collection of 11th century letters known as Kitab al-Hikmah. Beginning with Adam and passing through names as unlikely as Akhenaten the Egyptian pha- raoh and Pythagoras the Greek mathematician-philosopher, the Druze story journeys between the Middle East, India and China, and ends in 11th century Egypt having bestowed upon a set of the most unexpected historical figures the grand title of prophet. The belief holds that all these individuals are not unique, but are reincarnations of older prophets. This story, which at first sight appears random and slightly over-imaginative, begins to make sense when viewed in the light of a search for divine justice. By twisting the timeline of human history into several cycles of divine revelation, the Druze principle of reincarnation grants all people in all places plenty of opportunities to embrace God’s way. Similarly, God’s judgment is only seen to be fair if one is given oppor- tunity to live many times, each as a different person under different conditions. Reincarnation is even able to justify why the Druze faith no longer accepts converts: The religion to which one is born is not random, but is the one chosen by the

same person in a previous life. Only those who accepted the Druze faith during the time of al-Hakim will continue being reborn as Druze. The same applies to everyone else, replac- ing the apparent arbitrariness of one’s religion at birth with some degree of significance. In an area where the Abrahamic religions have prevailed for centuries, it is the belief in reincar- nation as well as in a different set of prophets, coupled with Hindu and Buddhist inspired beliefs such as karma, moksha and nirvana, that have historically earned the Druze the label of heretics. Today, through an active role in the politics of the region, the Druze have earned the respect of Muslims and Christians alike in Lebanon and Syria, as well as the Jewish population in Israel. Although Druze unity and solidarity are ultimately valued above political borders, the Druze have been unique in their ability to integrate and coexist with the peoples of their respective nations, which have often been at war with one another. To ensure their survival and protect their beliefs, the Druze have historically allied themselves with the ruling majority. In the same way the Syrian revolt against the French mandate in 1925 was lead by the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, for example, so was the Cedar Revolution against the Syrian military presence in Lebanon led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in 2005. And unlike other Arab Israelis, the Druze are allowed to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, which has constantly been involved in wars against other Arabs and even other Druze. To gain a better understanding of this conflicted lifestyle without having to venture further than the Princeton Public Library, I would recommend the Israeli film The Syrian Bride. Set in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, the movie follows the story of an Israeli Druze girl as she makes her first and final trip across the border to marry a Syrian Druze man, a decision which means that she will never see her family again. Set against the wedding preparations are a protest against Israeli occupation and the return of the bride’s brother with his Russian wife and son after years of no communication with his family. With the lure of a liberal, modern Israeli life on one side and the struggling shadows of Arab nationalism and Druze traditions on the other, the movie explores the theme of changing values in a community that has resisted this change for centuries, in the belief that it is guarding something more sacred and valuable than anything that can come its way today.

Nour Aoude is a junior from Lebanon majoring in Architecture. He can be reached at naoude@gmail.com.`


Journey Through Kosovo

by Shagufta Ahmed

I first arrived in Kosovo during the summer of 2006 to

do an internship as a part of my Woodrow Wilson School graduate coursework. I was drawn to Kosovo for two main reasons. Academically, Kosovo was an interesting case study regarding post-conflict economic and political development. On a personal level, I was attracted to Kosovo because over ninety percent of its population is Muslim. However, almost immediately, I found my expectations regarding Islam in Ko- sovo did not meet the reality I found on the ground. In part because of this, I was instantly intrigued by Kosovo and found myself returning to the region often. Never having celebrated Ramadan in a Muslim country, I returned to Kosovo in Oc- tober 2007 to celebrate the end of Ramadan with what had become my Kosovar extended family. In the early morning of Bajram, or Eid al-Fitr as it is more commonly known across the Muslim world, my Kosovar friend picked me up from my hotel so that I could partake in

her family’s Bajram festivities. I noticed the particularly barren streets while we made our way to the family’s apartment in Dardania. While a few older men prayed in the ancient Sultan Fatih Mehemit mosque that delineated the old downtown of Prishtina, most cars, full of male members of each house- hold, were headed to the city cemetery. According to Kosovo’s Bajram tradition, men of the family visited grave sites of deceased family members to offer silent prayers.

I watched as the men subsequently went off to do the “Ba-

jram circuit” – where young boys accompanied their fathers to visit relatives and close friends and paid their holiday respects. Upon their visit, they found every female head of the household offering her own rendition of baklava. Polite- ness often compelled the visitors to consume each dessert, even though a large afternoon meal awaited them upon their return home. When I arrived at my friend’s home, I was served her mother’s Bajram dessert specialty called nazlee fatima – which in Albanian means “spoiled Fatima”. Although the source of the name was long forgotten, as have most Muslim traditions, my friend’s parents suggested that perhaps this was in some way a loving reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) daughter. It seemed some remnants of religious influence were still apparent, although the younger generations of Kosovars were largely unaware of them. Elaborate preparations were made for the afternoon meal that marked the end of the month of fasting. This was in stark contrast to the fact that aside from one or two days, most Ko- sovars did not fast during the month of Ramadan. For many Kosovars religious traditions are not viewed as a part of their Islamic identity but rather as a part of their ethnic Albanian culture. In the absence of a congregational Eid prayer that I was

accustomed to, I prayed the Dhuhr, or mid-day, prayer in my friend’s home before joining the family meal. Forgetting that this was not a common practice for most Kosovars, I was surprised to find an audience at the end of my prayer. My Kosovar friend and her family had quietly gathered to watch my prayer. They marveled at my ability to pray, as they were largely unfamiliar with the motions, the words and the mean- ing of the prayer. Watching me pray reminded them of their grandmother. She was the religious one of the family who read the Quran and sometimes prayed. They rushed to a high shelf in the hall closet and grabbed

a book that was carefully enclosed in a Ziploc bag. It was a

book whose reverence they knew, but a book they did not know how to read. I opened the familiar book. It was their grandmother’s Quran written in classical Arabic, similar to my own copy back in the United States. Gathering around me once again, they asked me to read it aloud. In the evening, Bajram celebrations continued as the young- er generation of Kosovars met in café bars to celebrate the end of Ramadan. I accompanied my friends along the down- town Prishtina social scene and found café bars full of young Kosovar men and women, laughing, talking and dancing. Although they were marking the end of the religious month of Ramadan, the young Kosovars periodically toasted one another with alcohol, wishing one another Me Fat Bajrami, or happy Bajram. In my early days in Kosovo, I had found that Kosovars were in large part indistinguishable from their European counter- parts. Most pride themselves in this aspect. Visually, save for

a few minarets in the skyline, there is hardly any trace of their

Islamic heritage even after centuries of Ottoman rule. Kosovar Albanian women dress in the latest European fashions wheth- er that calls for short skirts, tube tops or tight-fitting clothing. Women wearing hijabs are rare, and for some Kosovars, an uncomfortable sight as they are viewed as backwards, counter to development, and ultimately, an obstacle to integration within the larger Western European community and culture. The active social scene, dominated by the substantial youth population, occurs largely in the numerous café bars in cit- ies throughout Kosovo, where it is evident that dating and

drinking practices are far more liberal than in other Muslim countries. Although alcohol consumption is relatively less than in other European countries, the consumption of alcohol

is permitted and widely accepted. Billboards in downtown

Prishtina advertise domestically produced beer. Thus, to the naked eye, Kosovo is hardly recognizable as a Muslim-major- ity state. My initial evaluation, however, of Islam in Kosovo failed to take into account some key issues. This became apparent to me as I recalled my visit to Istanbul only a few days prior to my Bajram trip to Kosovo. My non-religious Turkish friends,


21 The Blue Mosque is a recent construction in a country rediscovering religion. Photo by Litscher

The Blue Mosque is a recent construction in a country rediscovering religion. Photo by Litscher used under the Creative Commons License.

who I visited during Ramadan, accompanied me for the suhoor, or the pre-fast morning meal, out of a sense of respect for their fasting guest. While they did not fast themselves, they were familiar with the tradition of fasting and were knowledgeable of the main tenets of Islam, and could pray the Islamic prayer if they so desired. While there were those Turk- ish Muslims who heard the adhan, the call to prayer, and were compelled to pray, others ignored the call to prayer altogether. But both unobservant and observant groups had a general awareness of Islamic traditions and beliefs. The lack of religious observance by Turks and Kosovars is distinguished by a key factor – a lack of general awareness in Kosovo about Islamic traditions and beliefs. While a Turkish Muslim’s decision not to practice Islam is more deliberate and conscience, it appears a Kosovar’s lack of religiosity is in part due to his general lack of Islamic knowledge. This can largely be explained by Kosovo’s political history. I found that I was not the only one with a superficial under- standing of Kosovo’s relationship with Islam. Media reports in the immediate days after independence painted Kosovo as a region that touts its practice of “Islam-Lite”, a more diluted, more laid back, and perhaps a less threatening version of Islam. However, such a representation of Islam failed to take into account the relationship (or lack of relationship) Kosovar Albanians have had with Islam as a result of their political his- tory. Religion in Kosovo has in large part been dictated, and in ways been adaptive, to political circumstances. After centuries of Turkish rule and their eventual depar-

ture in 1913, Serbs regained control of the region. As a part of former Yugoslavia and subject to the communist rule of Josip Tito, both the practice of Christianity and Islam were relegated to the private sphere. Islam and religiosity were not only painted as counter to modernization, but those who were religious had to pay a price for their religious devotion. Some personal accounts point to religious individuals who, regardless of their qualifications, were prevented from advanc- ing in their professional careers. Turks and their religion of Islam were conveyed as counter to modernization. As a result, religious devotion was discouraged. In the many years of Milosevic’s rule over Kosovo, any public expression of Albanian nationalism, which included at times the practice of the Muslim faith (though not targeted as such), were stifled and restrained. Therefore, in part, a taper- ing off of religious expression was a product of the political situation of the times. As a result, the practice of Islam by Kosovars may have become increasingly diluted from one generation to the next. With independence, Kosovars now have more freedom in terms of their religious expression. Just as the economic marketplace has opened up, so too inevitably will the religious marketplace. With such an opportunity available to them, it may be possible that in a few generations the practice of “Islam-Lite” will be replaced by a stronger practice of the faith. This became increasingly evident during my return to newly independent Kosovo in July 2008. Although the general population is still largely unobservant, I found that Kosovars are slowly beginning to explore their Islamic identity. I attended the Jumu’ah, or Friday prayer, at the newly constructed Catalulla mosque in downtown Prishtina. While the number of mosques are few (under 30 in Prishtina), the mosque I attended was near full capacity. While one would expect the largest population of worshippers to be older than sixty years of age, there was an even larger population of worshippers under the age of 25. I was surprised to see both young men and women rushing to the mosque to make the afternoon prayer and to see young boys standing beside their fathers in the prayer line. In a way this signals that Kosovo is at critical point in its religious development. As a newly liberalized democracy, not only is Kosovo taking conscience steps to define its economic and political identity, but it is also inadvertently defining a new religious identity. Both politically and socially, this is bound to be a period of discovery and challenge, owing in large part to Kosovo’s communist past. How will a society that has for generations suppressed its religious traditions and faith now come to terms with its organic re-emergence? Perhaps I will have the opportunity to uncover the answer in my future travels to the region.

Shagufta Ahmed received her master’s degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton in 2007. She can be reached at shaguftaiahmed@gmail.com.


A Translation of Ibrahim Aslan

by Barbara Romaine

Much of the information that reaches the West about the Arab-Muslim world is sensational, focusing on divisions, conflicts, flashpoints—in other words, a great deal that reinforces, and little that opposes, our notion of that world as a volatile place of intolerance and incessant conflagration. Among many such stories that have found a place from time to time in Western news reports are those of friction between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt. An inquiry into the writings of some contemporary Egyptian writers, however, re- veals a picture very different from the one we in the West have received and, to an unfortunate extent, come to take largely for granted. In contrast to our perception of an intractable hatred between Muslims and Copts, these writers present to us a tradition of easy symbiosis, mutual respect, and even neighborly love between the two groups in communities from Cairo to Upper Egypt. The author Bahaa’ Taher, in his novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, provides a rich portrait of a Muslim village situated adjacent to a Coptic monastery in the vicinity of Luxor, where the sense of fraternity and co-opera- tion between the two communities extends to the monastery’s offering sanctuary to a young Muslim villager whose life is threatened because of a blood-feud, which both the elders of the village and the monks at the monastery wish to see aborted, rather than carried to its conclusion. Ibrahim Aslan, countryman and literary contemporary of Bahaa’ Taher, is perhaps best known for his evocative writings about his beloved city of Cairo, and in particular the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba, where he grew up. In the following piece, from the recently published collection of essays entitled, Something Like This (Dar al-Shorouk, 2007), he reminisces about Ramadan in the Imbaba of his childhood, where Christian neighbors habitually joined in the festivities of the season, and where the end of the fast day was signaled first, not by the cannon, which would sound a moment later, but by the illumination of the church that could be seen across the Nile from the point at which Imbaba’s children stationed themselves to keep watch and announce the appear- ance of the lights across the river. THE CHURCH IS LIT! Once upon a time There was a clear view across the river And once upon a time The residents of Imbaba would spend their wakeful nights during the month of Ramadan all along its far-reaching banks. They would set out from their neighborhoods carrying straw mats and thermoses. The children would play as everyone kept vigil, drinking tea all night long until the hour of suhur, when they would gather their belongings and go back home. The family of Uncle Mansour, the Christian, were our

home. The family of Uncle Mansour, the Christian, were our Exterior shot of Coptic Museum in

Exterior shot of Coptic Museum in Cairo. Photo by Carron White ’08.

neighbors both at home and at our customary place on the riverbank. They used to contribute their own share to the modest collection taken up by the children for the sake of decorating the quarter, and they would not break fast un- til the call to prayer. We would exchange baking sheets on which were dense arrangements of holiday treats, sweet bis- cuits, and ghurayyiba cookies. We would take turns carrying them to the communal oven located nearby, where we would stay until morning when all of us would return carrying our baking sheets, and pay visits to one another on Eid, the feast- day. Among the images most fixed in my mind from those days is the cannon on the riverbank that would signal the breaking of the fast. We would gather, dozens of us children, at the water’s edge. The expanse of shoreline ended with a bend in the river at the great Imbaba Bridge. Within the river-bend the Ramadan cannon lay concealed, no part of it visible to the eye. For this reason we didn’t look in that direction. Instead our eyes were directed in anticipation across the river, at a building half- hidden behind the trees, over in the district of Zamalek. And the river would be replete, the water heavy with bub- bling silt. And the world would have turned to summer, the red dates ripening. And our eyes would stay fixed upon that half-hidden build- ing. All at once the church’s windows, narrow and widely spaced, would light up through the branches of the trees. At that moment we would exult, “The church is lit, the church is lit!” And, together with that reddish light in the windows and our chanting, the cannon would sound a powerful, reverberat- ing clap from its place of concealment in the bend of the river.


Then we would lean out, craning our necks in that direction, and see the thick white smoke issuing from its hiding-place. It spread itself densely across the surface of the water. Every year without fail we kept our appointment--and every year without fail the lighting of the church kept its appoint- ment. But the river receded, held prisoner behind walls and more walls. The communion between one shore and the other was oc- cluded. My friend Edwar al-Kharrat called to say, “Best wishes for

Foreskin and All

by Aman Kumar

‘We have a male secondary here!’ he said, smiling stiffly at me. He was looking with some alarm at the four large red S’s scrawled across my boarding pass. I was at Newark airport. ‘I’ll get the gloves!’ his colleague responded. It was my turn to look alarmed. But I’m not Muslim! I wanted to cry out. Which, I later consoled myself, wasn’t really a hypocritical thought. (The gloves, it transpired, were only needed to swab my laptop for traces of explosives.) By most measures, I’m no more Muslim than John McCain. I’m a grudging agnostic, with a Hindu father and a Muslim mother, neither of whom has willingly entered a house of worship once in the nineteen years I’ve had my eye on them. My mother traces her ances- try back to some chap who often hung around the Prophet Mohammad, but the line of descent is muddied by a proud tradition of godless Communists far closer to her end. My father, as I mentioned, is a heretic. Despite all this, I do feel Muslim occasionally. At home in India, it’s mostly the defensive twinge I get while reading the papers: another communal riot, another ‘Islamic terrorist’, one more bearded man hauled up by the police, electrocuted, and made to confess to nothing and everything. A friend at Princeton—himself a Muslim and an inebriate—assured me I felt sympathy for these poor souls not because they’re Muslims, but because they’re victims. And everyone knows leftists sympathise with the underdog, he confidently added. (It seems he had me down as a leftist the day we met. He still doesn’t know about my mother’s father, a card-carrying Marx- ist.) Now, this friend of mine doesn’t often get things right, but his thesis made me happy. Far better to empathise with the wounded in general, I thought, than throw in my lot with Muslims in particular, even—shudder—identify as one of them. But it turns out that I do identify with them. I am a Mus-

the Feast!” I asked him the name of the church that could be seen from Imbaba, once upon a time. He replied that Zama- lek, where he lives, had only one church, the Church of the Holy Virgin, in Muhammad al-Murashli Street. “I can’t see it anymore,” I told him. “Perhaps other build- ings have obscured it,” he said.

Barbara Romaine is a translator and instructor of Arabic, who was a lecturer in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton for two years (2006-08), and is currently teaching at Villanova University.

lim, no point denying it. I am, however, equally Hindu and agnostic. Muslim friends tend to remember this. ‘You’re not Muslim!’ they laugh, all of them admittedly more Islamic than I. Shrugging aside the absurdity of Muslims laughing in post-9/11 America—we are only allowed to do so, I am reliably told, if simultaneously waving the stars and stripes—I coldly beg to differ. Invari- ably, then, they bring up my mongrel stock and blasphemous

ably, then, they bring up my mongrel stock and blasphemous The Jama Masjid, a historic mosque

The Jama Masjid, a historic mosque in Delhi, India. Photo by Waqas Jawaid ’10.


beliefs. I am silenced.

I was a bit harsh on the United States in that last parenthe-

sis. Freshman fall, I arrived at Newark on high alert, expecting

a cavity search at best and extraordinary rendition at worst.

I was let through immigration with barely a second glance.

Even the time I forgot my I-20 at home, I was not water- boarded. Cynics would tell you this was because (a) I’m not from a ‘Muslim’ country, (b) I don’t have a ‘Muslim’ name, and (c) I’m clean-shaven. Perhaps. But all in all, most of my fears about post-9/11 America have come to naught, with little or no bigotry on display. Of course, I am an Indian liv- ing in New Jersey, so this is perhaps not all that surprising. In Egypt, too, where I spent spring semester last year, the Muslims who surrounded me didn’t quite consider me one of

them, at least on the religious front. Sitting in a cab once with

a Palestinian friend, I was subjected to cheerful interrogation by the driver:

‘Welcome in Egypt. Where you from?’ ‘India.’ ‘India! Amitabh Bachchan! Are you Muslim?’

I was about to say yes, but my friend cheerily interceded, ex-

plaining my precarious situation. His mother is, but his father isn’t, she said. This, it was deemed, made me an infidel. ‘It does not matter. God is merciful,’ the cab driver consoled me. I replied that I hoped so. ‘God is one,’ he added with some gravitas, perhaps trying to inspire me to convert to the faith. Once again, I said that I hoped this was true.

Another evening, trying desperately to build some Moham- medan cred, I revealed to a few friends that my mother’s family claimed descent from the Prophet’s main man. They smiled and nodded. I thought they looked impressed. After a polite silence, one of them said: ‘My family is descended from the Prophet’s.’ ‘Mine too,’ said another. ‘So is mine,’ another chimed in. I was punching above my weight. My mother’s family was Blessed, my roommate told me, but not quite Blessed enough. Mohammed from down the hall disagreed. His understanding was that I wasn’t Blessed at all. In fact, what with my Hindu father and agnostic beliefs, I was not even Muslim. I smiled and told them it didn’t really matter, but afterwards I spat in Mohammed’s drink. Later in the evening, as I watched Mohammed gulp down his Coke, I realised my Muslimness, however ersatz, is occa- sionally important to me. It surfaces when I hear about other Muslims being targeted. I assert it when it’s questioned by someone else. This, it seemed to me, was a wonderfully mundane and self-pitying conclusion, and I thought I really must write an article to lead to it some day.

Aman Kumar is a junior and a comparative literature major from Delhi, India. He can be reached at amank@princeton.edu.


Mahmoud Darwish

by Nancy Coffin

Photo by POOL/AFP
Photo by POOL/AFP


by Mahmoud Darwish Translated by Carolyn Forché and Munir Akash

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.

I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell

with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.

I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,

a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.

I have lived on the land long before swords turned man into prey.

I belong there. When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to her mother. And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears.

To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.

I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home.

With great sorrow, the Arab world – and, indeed, lovers of poetry from all over the globe – mourned the passing of the pre- eminent Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish on August 9 this past summer. Darwish died, at the age of 67, in a hospital in Texas, from complications of open-heart surgery. Born in 1941 in the Galilee in what was then British-Mandate Palestine, Darwish’s family sought refuge in Lebanon from the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. When they managed to return, a year later, to the Galilee, the family found that their village had been destroyed and replaced by two new settlements; thereafter, they lived in semi-clandestine fashion as “present absentees”, an odd-sounding term used to designate Palestinian refugees within the newly-formed state of Israel. It was clear to Darwish as he grew up that he was a second-class citizen, and his outspoken poetry became part of the Palestinian literature of resistance, for which he was jailed and placed under house arrest while still in Israel. After leaving Israel in 1971, Darwish began an itinerant existence, moving from Moscow to Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Paris. Over the years, he worked for the Palestine Research Center, served as editor-in-chief of the literary review al-Karmel, and joined the Executive Committee of the PLO: it was he who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988. But always it was poetry that was his first love, and it was for his poetry that he was known and loved throughout the Arab world. His poetry readings in the Arab world would attract thousands of listeners, from all walks of life. He has published some twenty volumes of poetry, beginning in 1960 and his works have been translated into more than 22 languages. His words have given shape and meaning to the Palestinian experience, and he lives on, wherever his works are sung or recited, or engraved in the hearts of his admirers.

Nancy Coffin is a lecturer of Arabic in the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton. The poem is taken from “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated and Edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. Copyright © 2003 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press. All rights reserved.