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The Role Of Religious Reasons in a Democracy

Misbah Spring 2009

Volume 2, Issue 2

Misbah Magazine
Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

Hamza Masood ‘10

Nabil Abdurehman ‘11

Daoud Rana ‘12

Yasmin Belo-Osagie ‘11
Urooj Raja ‘11


Mika Devonshire ‘12

Tiffany Tong GS

Babur Khwaja ‘09
Wasim Shiliwala ‘09
Joy N. Karugu ‘09


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Princeton University - Spring 2009


Editor’s Note 2

REVIEW Politics of Knowledge Production: A Critical Look at Delong-Bas’ 3

Wahhabi Islam
Celene Ayat Lizzio ‘08

ARTS Al-Mutanabbi: A Towering Figure in Classical Arabic Poetry 6

Introduction and Translation, Barbara Romaine

COMMENTARY The Role of Religious Reasons in a Democracy 8

Mairaj Syed GS

Albania: The Land of ”Spiritual Window Shoppers” 12
WORLD Shaista Ahmed *07

REFLECTION Muslim In China 17

Nabil Abdurehman ‘11

Princeton University - Spring 2009


Editor’s Note

Dear Reader,

The second issue of Misbah was very well received,

and we are well on our way to helping inform opinion
about Islamic and Muslim issues. As always, we
seek to ask questions not always asked, and raise
issues from a critical perspective. You will find in this
issue a cross-examination of a Wahhabist apologetic
and a discussion of the broader dimensions of the
debate on Wahhabism, a classical Arabic poet’s
musings on love and passion and a look at the use of
religious reasoning and language in public debates
in a democracy. Visit Albania and encounter a very
different conception of Muslim identity from the
orthodox position, and join an African-American
Muslim in finding a little bit of home among the
Muslim community in Beijing.

While we have strived to provide a wide variety of

voices, both Muslim and non-Muslim, it is important
to remember at this bridging issue between editorial
boards, that our primary aim in the endeavor of this
magazine is to encourage an internal debate on what
Islam really means for us, what it means for our
future, and what being a Muslim implies about our
culture, heritage and identity. In that respect, we will
begin to focus more specifically on questions that
examine the Islamic community with its future in mind.
In the meanwhile, we hope you enjoy this issue as
much as we enjoyed putting it together.

Hamza Masood

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World


Politics of Knowledge Production: A Critical Look at

Delong-Bas’ Wahhabi Islam
By Celene Ayat Lizzio ‘08

In her recent book Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and stance.6 This is, however, just one instance in the
Reform to Global Jihad,1 Natana J. Delong-Bas pres- book where the evidence undercuts itself; a closer
ents an account of the life and teachings of Ibn Abd al- look at the book’s source documentation reveals
Wahhab, the 18th century Muslim cleric instrumental that Ibn Al-Wahhab inextricably affirms the hierar-
in the political and religious consolidation of modern chic authority of the clerical mujtahid [institution-
day Saudi Arabia. The work churns heavy controversy ally qualified and highly specialized jurist] while
regarding the merits of Wahhabism, which is now the disavowing the legitimacy of his Shi’a clerical
forerunning religious orientation in Saudi Arabia with counterparts.7 Al-Wahhab’s position is tantamount
networks of affiliated Muslims in other regions of to denying the legitimacy of minority opinion.
the world. Thus, at stake in Delong-Bas’ work is the Certainly this is not what I would want to term
perception of the historical and ideological making of progressive.
the present-day Saudi political apparatus as well as the While the book is engaging, there is also reason to
religious orientation financed largely by Saudi Arabian argue that Delong-Bas’ analysis hinges too much
oil wealth.
Not surprisingly, the book has been hotly debated in
academic and journalistic circles,2 even being banned
by the prestigious Al-Azhar Institute in Egypt.3 Sur-
prisingly, however, is that Delong-Bas presents the
English reader with an unprecedentedly favorable
perspective on Ibn Al-Wahhab, the very same figure
that multiple other scholars writing in English and
European languages have been quick to link directly
to the ideology and practices of contemporary Muslim
Not only does Delong-Bas avoid cursory language
suggesting that Wahhabism is puritanical,5 but based
on her privileged access to original documents in royal
Saudi archives, she seeks to portray Ibn al-Wahhab as
a modernist reformer and progressive in his milieu.
Delong-Bas is clearly entrenched in the accusatory vs.
apologetic framework that characterizes much of the
critical scholarship on Wahhabism, however, either ac-
cepting her account at face value or dismissing her as
a Saudi apologist would merely ignore the whole grain
of a potentially valuable debate.
For example, in one instance the work argues that Ibn
al-Wahhab adamantly supported the “rejuvenation
of the practice of independent reasoning (ijtihad),”
which is generally considered a favorably progressive
Prophet’s Mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Shabbir Siraj.

Princeton University - Spring 2009

on what is purportedly written by Ibn al-Wahhab and to legitimate power drives, hegemonic empires, and
less on the political authority that he was instrumental deadly wars. All “believers,” whether they adhere to
in establishing. How is the image of a meticulous and revealed religious or contemporary secular regions,
bookish scholar, “a pragmatic man as well as a deter- would thus be equally constrained to envisage the
mined preacher,”8 reconciled with Ibn al-Wahhab’s question of meaning not from the angle of unchanging
complicit endorsement of a brutal Arabian conquest?9 transcendence—that is, of an ontology sheltered from
Furthermore, through what lenses on history does Ibn all historicity—but in the light of historical forces that
al-Wahhab become a villain, if not through his own transmute the most sacred values, those regarded as
political affiliations or the theological positions that he most divine by virtue of their symbolic capital and as
supported? inseparable from necessarily mythical accounts of the
founding, and from which each ethnocultural group
extracts and reorganizes what it calls identity or per-
The obvious strength in Arkoun’s perspective is that it
acknowledges how knowledge production is embed-
ded in cultural and political realities and furthermore
suggest that knowledge production can generate “sym-
bolic capital” capable of being transmitted and trans-
formed to suit a variety of arising situational needs.
With Arkoun’s paradigm as a corrective to Delong-
Bas, what is overlooked in the latter’s account of Wah-
habism is that a figurehead’s words on the pages of
any given volume are merely a fraction of what gives
genesis to a social movement. Rather, movements are
Mosque of Amr Ibn al-’As, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Sarah Mousa ‘10
constituted by an often ad hoc conglomeration of com-
munal stories that in some fashion become synergistic.
The tensions named above invite further scholar- Thus, in the case at hand it might be reasonable to
ship on Wahhabism, but I have a more immediate suggest that Wahhabi discipleship is not motivated so
question to explore here. As students, we are trained much by the rigorous intertextual study of the master’s
in the academy to perpetually examine the role that works, but rather by participation in the fullness of the
historians play in the construction of our knowledge, cultural and political milieu. It must be further consid-
and hopefully too we are gradually discovering how
to circumvent biases and pitfalls in our own writing.
However, it is no small task to affirm the existence of “...a figurehead’s words on the
multiple plausible historical readings, acknowledge
our own subjectivity, and to simultaneously cast our
pages of any given volume are
own particular reading as noteworthy, insightful and merely a fraction of what gives
plausible. How do we achieve this, as students and
emerging scholars?
genesis to a social movement.”
In attempting an answer to this question for myself,
I am struck by an assertion of Muhammad Arkoun
which suggests how one might begin to think and ered that even the closest of Ibn al-Wahhab’s disciples
write about the ebb and flow of history, including our are autonomous such that their own intellectual back-
participation in it. ground and circumstances become the lenses through
The task of historians of religions, cultures, and which the master’s works are propagated.
philosophy is to show how ethnocultural groups of Delong-Bas argues in effect for a reinstatement of
varying size and dynamism have dipped into the com- respect for Ibn al-Wahhab as a moderate or progres-
mon stock of signs and symbols to produce systems sive in his milieu, yet her work is far from becoming
of belief and non belief that, all the while assigning a definitive account of the origins and developments
ultimate meaning to human existence, have served of Wahhabism. Not only are the positions of Ibn al-

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

Wahhab described on the whole as tension free, but it
1. All page number references are to the 1st ed. of this work (New York:
would seem that Ibn al-Wahhab is subtly portrayed as Oxford University Press, 2004).
falling in line with Islamic thinkers who hold gener- 2. For example, in the New York Post Steven Swartz, executive direc-
ally favorable reputations for the English speaking tor for the Center for Islamic Pluralism, gives a scathing critique:
“Delong-Bas’ work to clean up the image of Saudi extremism, as well
audience.11 as the Muslim Brotherhood, suggest she’s incompetent for any academic
Thus, I am not convinced that Delong-Bas presents posting in her field…” in “Brandeis’ Self-Hate,” January 5, 2007, http://
an utterly compelling view on Wahhabism, although www.islamicpluralism.org/articles/2007a/070105brandeis.htm. Ac-
cessed March 20th 2009. Additionally, a Fox News article archived on
she does make a commendable effort in articulating Campus Watch, the internet resource identifying “problems in Middle
a less common perspective for us to engage. Overall, Eastern Scholarship” again Stephen Schwartz writes: “Perhaps no sin-
the work of Delong-Bas and its reception suggest that gle figure better represents the lamentable situation of Middle East stud-
ies (MES) today than Professor Natana J. DeLong-Bas.” Schwartz goes
scholarship on religious ethnocultural movements on to cite Delong-Bas’ research grant support from Saudi institutions as
must grapple tenaciously to surpass polarizing narra- evidence of her biases. See “Natana DeLong-Bas: American Professor,
tives. What is also interesting is the puzzle of com- Wahhabi Apologist,” Real Clear Politics, Jan. 19, 2007. http://www.
campus-watch.org/article/id/3035. Accessed March 20th 2009.
plex political circumstances surrounding the produc- 3. See John Esposito, “Behind the Ban,” Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No.
tion and transmission of knowledge, whether in 18th 767, (Nov. 2-9, 2005), http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/767/cu2.htm .
century Arabia, or in our own contemporary academic Accessed March 20th 2009.
4. For Delong-Bas’ remarks on this topic see p. 4-5 and the correspond-
context. ing end notes, p. 292, in which she criticizes Hamid Algar’s Wahhabism:
A Critical Essay (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International,
5. The terminology “Puritan” is used by Khalid Abou El Fadel in The
Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (New York: HarperCo-
lins, 2005). See p. 257. 292 for his disparaging remarks on Delong-Bas’
work made without engaging her more developed premises.
6. Delong-Bas, 282.
7. See Delong-Bas paraphrasing Ibn al-Wahhab, 109.
8. Delong-Bas, 25.
9. In a book critique Lawrence Rosen elaborates: “Delong-Bas argues
that al-Wahhab did not demand conversion or death. On the contrary,
he said that attempts at persuading an enemy to come over to Islam—
or at least not fight against it—should be accompanied by treaties or
other means to seek peace. Jihad should be defensive, and only if there
is adamant refusal or injury to Muslims should violence be employed.
Yet as one reads the author’s account, one sees evidence that calls this
‘moderation’ into question,” (The Historian, Book Review Vol. 88, Issue
1, Spring 2006): 123. See also the review by Gamsw Cavdar in Middle
East Policy, Vol. 13 Issue 1 (Spr. 2006).
10. Mohammed Arkoun, Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncom-
mon Answers, Translated by Robert D. Lee (Boulder: Westview Press,
1994), 19.
11. Clearly, there are some critics who find strength in this analysis.
For instance, Francis Robinson gives his enthusiastic endorsement:
“With careful and skilful scholarship DeLong-Bas has demonstrated not
only what a versatile and creative scholar Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was in his
day but also how much his ideas, as opposed to those who claim to build
upon his legacy, have to offer progressive Muslim thinkers today…What
a bonus that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab of all people should speak the language
of Islamic modernism, without being tainted by any association with the
West and with the authority of a man centrally placed in the scholarly
traditions of the faith!” Book Review. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Soci-
ety, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 16, Issue 1 (Spr. 2006): 97-98.
Al-Wahhab may very well be a contemporary of championed modern-
ist figures such as Shah Wali Allah, or he may be a precursor to Sayyid
Al-Qa’ed Ibrahim Mosque. Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by Sarah Mousa ‘10. Ahmed Khan, Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida
and other celebrated progressives, however it remains unconvincing that
his theological views are of the same grain.

Celene Lizzio was a member of the Princeton Class

of 2008. She is currently studying at Harvard Divinity
School. She may be reached at clizzio@hds.harvard.

Princeton University - Spring 2009


Al-Mutanabbi: A Towering Figure in Classical Arabic

By Barbara Romaine

Arab-Islamic history is marked by the appearance Arabic poetry is indisputable: his verse had, and
of figures whose impact upon the world was so continues to have, a mesmerizing effect on its readers
extraordinary that they persevere to this day: not and listeners--the word “listeners” here, by the way,
merely as icons, nor simply as subjects of scholarly is important, for such poetry is meant to have a life
discourse, nor as artifacts in archives and museums, beyond the printed page: it is meant to be declaimed.
but as vivid presences in contemporary households. If the major themes of al-Mutanabbi’s work could be
Among those who come immediately to mind is the encapsulated in a brief summary, then perhaps the
tenth-century poet known as al-Mutanabbi. Born in lines most famously attributed to him would serve this
the year 915/303, he was originally called Abu al- purpose: “The horseman, night and the desert know
Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Ju‘fi, but in adulthood me; and the sword and the lance, paper and the pen”
he assigned himself the laqab (appellation) “al- (The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Cyril Classé, ed.,
Mutanabbi,” thereby laying claim to poetic powers Harper Collins, 1991, p. 291). The verses included
no less than those of a prophet. His assessment of here reflect these themes, but they are also, I believe,
his own gifts may strike us today as boastful, but in evocative of experiences and emotions that resonate
truth his exalted status in the tradition of Classical with audiences of every time and place. Consider, for

Racing Camels in Training, Dubai. Photo by Elvis Payne.

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

example, the following: “The way of all creation is to From the Diwan of Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad
refuse a love enduring / How can life, then, restore to
me love lost?” ibn al-Husayn al-Ju‘fi al-Mutanabbi:
An enduring inspiration, al-Mutanabbi continues,
I want this time of mine to obtain for me
generation after generation, to inhabit the That which time obtains not from itself.
consciousness of the recipients of his artistic legacy.
Among the factual details, then, of Radwa Ashour’s Meet your destiny only without seeking it,
semi-autobiographical novel ’Atyaaf (Specters) is So long as body and spirit keep company,
For happiness sustains not that in which you rejoice
the scene in which the novelist’s husband and grown
Nor will grieving restore to you that which you have lost.
son--Mourid and Tamim al-Barghouti, respectively,
themselves both poets of considerable repute--embark Let then the camels of this world bear you away.
of an evening upon an impassioned recitation of lines Forsooth, all partings are alike to me,
they have memorized from al-Mutanabbi’s Diwan, No recompense within your caravans receding,
No price for my life if I should die of longing.
or collected works, passing the stanzas back and
forth antiphonally. During this recitation, they are in Those who partake of passion are undone:
something like an altered state: enraptured, completely Knowing not the world they fall, uncomprehending,
in thrall to the timeless power of al-Mutanabbi’s verse. Their eyes dissolve in tears, likewise their souls,
The translation of poetry from any language As they yearn for naught but ugliness with its fair face.
to any other language is, to my mind, a very slippery
How often have I been slain, how often perished in your
undertaking; it is one I tend, in fact, to avoid, midst
preferring the somewhat safer territory of prose-- And then risen: no more the grave and shroud.
and generally modern prose at that. I doubt I would The witness to my burial before they spoke
Was a multitude, but then they died before those they buried.

“The horseman, night and the Man achieves not all he hopes for,
Winds blow contrary to the will of ships.
desert know me; and the sword and We make ready the sword and lance,
But death slays us without a fight.
the lance, paper and the pen” We keep close the swiftest steeds,
That yet cannot outrun time’s steady gait.
And who in bygone times loved not the world?
ever have had the audacity to take on al-Mutanabbi Yet never can such love be fulfilled.
had I not been called upon to do so as part of a larger
project, namely the translation of Radwa Ashour’s The allotment of your life is one beloved,
The allotment of your dream a thing imagined.
Specters (not yet published in English translation).
Moreover, I could not have achieved a credible With grievous losses has fate assailed me until
translation of the verses by al-Mutanabbi that are So covered with its arrows is my heart,
featured here without the steadfast assistance of Dr. Each missile striking breaks upon the last
Ashour herself, who collaborated closely with me Powerless; I have become insensible to calamity
For attending to it nothing have I gained.
in producing the final version, reproduced below. I
wish also to acknowledge the help of my colleague I want from the passing days that which they will not,
Hisham Mahmoud (Lecturer in Arabic at Princeton), And I complain to them of our separation: they are its army
who generously took time from his busy schedule to The way of all creation is to refuse a love enduring;
provide me with valuable input. How can life, then, restore to me love lost?

All but incurable, he whose malady is the wide-eyed gaze,

Barbara Romaine is a former lecturer of Arabic at Of which so many lovers before me have perished.
Princeton and currently teaches Let him who wishes look upon me, for the sight of me
Arabic at Villanova University. She may be reached at Is a warning to all who think passion a simple matter.

Princeton University - Spring 2009


The Role of Religious Reasons in a Democracy

By Mairaj Syed ‘08

The late 70s and 80s saw the rise of political parties proceed. What does this deliberation look like?
and movements throughout the Muslim world com- Public reason is the term that Rawls uses to designate
mitted to using a distinctly Islamic language to express the form and substance of the type of deliberation that
their social and political aspirations, projects, and poli- should take place on political matters in a democratic
cies. For some time now, many Americans for a va- society. Generally speaking, the way that Rawls deals
riety of reasons have regarded this phenomenon with with the problem of reasons that are rooted in religious
suspicion, if not outright hostility. From looking the traditions are to argue against their citation in public
other way when a military junta set aside electoral re- deliberation. He argues that the ethics of citizenship
sults in Algeria in 1992, in an election that would have in a democratic society point to the exclusion of argu-
put an Islamic-oriented party won a majority of seats, ments that rely solely on such reasons. At face value,
to supporting corrupt and authoritarian regimes for Rawls is not just solely against reasons that are rooted
fear of the alternative, the suspicions of Western politi- in particular religious traditions, but what he more
cal elites have enormous real-world consequences. broadly calls a comprehensive doctrine. A compre-
The former action plunged Algeria into a decade long hensive doctrine can be any religious, moral, or ethical
civil war which has claimed over a hundred thousand doctrine that has a fairly substantial story to tell about
lives. The latter has contributed to the persistence of what constitutes the moral social or individual life,
autocratic regimes in the Muslim world for decades. including specific norms on a range of issues that are
Regardless, many in the Muslim world regard such normally considered outside the scope of politics.2
action as clearly belying the West’s professed commit- This poses a problem – if you should not, in the course
ment to advocating democratic principles and values, of deliberating on a political matter, offer reasons that
and argue that, at the end of the day, the rhetoric of are solely rooted in comprehensive doctrines, then
democracy is mere ideological façade used to disguise what kind of reasons can you offer? By excluding
policies actually based on real-world Machiavellian comprehensive doctrines have you effectively evis-
political calculations oriented towards sustaining cerated the exchange of reasons that constitute public
Western political, economic, and cultural hegemony. deliberation?
While this judgment is partially justified, to some Here, Rawls turns to outline the form and substance of
extent, elite suspicion of Islamic political parties and a public reason capable of sustaining democratic de-
movements, at least amongst liberals, is motivated by liberation. He believes that both the ethics of citizen-
a certain commitment towards the place of religion in ship in a constitutional democracy and the substance
public political life. One form of this commitment is and form of the types of reasons that such citizens are
given voice by the late political and moral philosopher appropriately able to invoke to justify their beliefs
John Rawls, ‘43.1 Rawls argues against the recourse and practical recommendations on a matter of politi-
to religious reasons in the course of public delibera- cal importance can be discovered in the latent politi-
tion and debate in a constitutional democracy on any cal culture of a democratic society. It is the job of the
given issue. Rawls is concerned about how an endur- theorist to make these explicit in the form of norma-
ing moral consensus on the democratic constitutional tive propositions.
structure of a society can be sustained in a religiously Rawls’ argument is not a justification for constitutional
plural society, where reasons rooted in the religious democracy. Rather it takes the existence of such a po-
traditions of one community carry no weight for mem- litical arrangement for granted. With that, it takes for
bers outside that group. Yet, deliberation on the most granted the basic norms he believes characterize the
important issues facing a democratic society must still political culture of a constitutional democracy. In such

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

a society, Rawls believes the political culture “will policy, one is obliged to offer a justification rooted in
normally produce a plurality of comprehensive, moral, public reason at a later time.
and religious doctrines.” The freedom of conscience, Concretely, public reason is more than the just formal
religious belief and practice typically guaranteed in ethical requirement on citizens to offer reasons that
constitutional democracies by itself to a certain extent they prospectively see as reasonable to citizens com-
engenders a diversity of beliefs regarding the types mitted to other comprehensive doctrines. Just as the
of life considered morally or religiously worthy of formal reciprocity requirement is rooted in the politi-
approbation. In the United States, for instance, given cal culture that characterizes a deliberative democracy,
both the freedom to choose and practice whatever other substantive values, such as a guarantee and
religious or non-religious life one chooses, along with priority of basic rights, liberties and opportunities, also
the constitutional requirement proscribing the state constitute the stuff of public reason – available for all
from financially supporting and enshrining any one citizens for use in their advocacy of political policies.
religious denomination leads, perhaps in a free mar- In the American context, Rawls considers the pream-
ket-like fashion, to a proliferation of individual views, ble to the U.S. constitution to be one concrete example
religious churches, and other such organizations, on of a document exhibiting political values that consti-
what the life lived morally well looks like. tute public reason. In other words, Rawls says that the
Moreover, citizens in such a society are importantly preamble contains a whole host of values that can be
free, equal, and regard each other as such. But how deployed by citizens in the course of deliberation on
do free and equal citizens who regard each other as issues confronting the political community. Beyond
such collectively deliberate on common matters facing the formal requirement that citizens only offer reasons
them when they share widely differing views on what that they think all other citizens would find persuasive,
the morally and religiously good life is all about? For Rawls is trying to fill out the substantive ideas that
instance, how can Mormons convinced of the Divine fill out the language of deliberation in a constitutional
sanction of polygamous marriages based on a read- democracy.
ing of their particular scripture deliberate with those
Christians committed to monogamous marriage as the
only type of marital union approved by God? How
can each group reason with the other on the laws that
should regulate the institution of marriage given their
lack of shared commitment to either an adjudicat-
ing scripture or a set of theological principles? To
overcome this problem, Rawls first argues that the
facts of the plurality of comprehensive doctrines and
the mutual recognition of each other as both free and
equal generates the ethical requirements of mutual
civility and reciprocity. The principle of reciproc-
ity requires that, in the course of public deliberation,
citizens, who mutually recognize each other as free
and equal, substantiate their positions by recourse to The UN General Assembly, Taken from the perspective of Pakistan’s
representative. Photo by Anne M.
reasons that they prospectively regard as reasonable
to all. To base an argument solely on a scripture that If one is committed to the Rawlsian conception of the
only a given community accepts as authoritative in a public deliberative sphere required in any constitu-
religiously plural society, for example, would be an tional democracy, or some version similar to it, one
instance of the violation of the ethical norm of reci- can see why liberal political elites in America would
procity and respect for one’s fellow citizens. Rawls regard the rise of Islamic political parties and move-
does not argue that each citizen is morally obliged to ments, and their attendant declarations of commitment
eliminate all arguments rooted in comprehensive doc- to democratic principles with suspicion. How can one
trines. Rather, one’s argumentation cannot rely solely define one’s political aspirations in a language that, at
on religious premises. However, when one does offer least at the outset, excludes those without the neces-
a religious argument in favor of a particular political sary theological commitments? How can Islamic

Princeton University - Spring 2009

political parties and movements be simultaneously higher value the opponent herself holds. An example
committed to the freedom and equality of all citizens, can help clarify how this works. The Sunni classi-
and, from the political elites’ point of view, a fairly cal legal tradition unanimously held that a husband’s
specific and robust vision of what a life lived morally pronouncement of divorce three times in a single sit-
and religiously well is? ting constituted three separate divorces and resulted in
It goes without saying that Rawls’ conception of the a decisive divorce between the husband and the wife.
public sphere and his attempt to define, beforehand, Importantly, as opposed to non-decisive divorces,
what types of arguments are acceptable in demo- a decisive divorce stipulates that the husband and
cratic deliberation has elicited criticism. Recently, wife cannot get remarried until the wife gets mar-
Jeffrey Stout, professor of Religion at Princeton, has ried to another man and divorces him first. The ease
questioned Rawls on several key points, noting at the with which such a divorce could be accomplished,
outset that the requirement to offer only certain types along with the steep impediment to re-marriage and
of reasons seems to be in tension with the value of
free expression.3 In contrast to Rawls notion of public
reason, inspired by a view of public deliberation that “Rawls is trying to fill out the
can’t get off the ground unless the values invoked are substantive ideas that fill out the
agreed upon beforehand, Stout views deliberation as
possible without pre-existing conditions. In fact, at language of deliberation in a
the descriptive level, Stout views Rawls conception constitutional democracy...”
of democratic deliberation as an impoverished reflec-
tion of a much richer reality. The fact that many of
the most admired social and political movements in reconciliation the religious law imposes, combine to
America, from the abolitionists, to the civil rights potentially cause significant social hardship for fami-
movement, to labor movements, relied heavily on lies, especially for women, who, from a sociological
religious ideas and imagery in mobilizing people for perspective, were mostly dependent on their husband
their causes seems to belie the requirement that delib- for material support. In order to counteract the social
eration in a democracy be based solely on some sort harm that results from this law, reformers in early
of public reason. More specifically, if the application 20th century Egypt argued against the Sunni consen-
of Rawls’ idea of public reason would end up exclud- sus on the rule that a triple divorce in a single sitting
ing such exquisite performances of political speech should not count as three separate divorces, but rather
such as Lincoln’s second inaugural address, or King’s a single non-decisive divorce.4 If the reformers were
speeches, both of which are full of allusions to Bibli- principled and committed Rawlsians they could not
cal imagery if not outright theological content, this at argue by reference to reasons that are rooted in any
the very least, should give us pause. religious tradition. They are precluded from arguing
Moreover, Stout contests the claim that respect for that the existing law is not supported by examination
citizens as both free and equal requires the issuing of of the very scriptural sources their opponents regard
reasons which would reasonably be held by all. Rath- as especially authoritative. Rather they are limited to
er, respect for persons is manifested not by issuing a making arguments rooted perhaps in notions of gender
reason any person would reasonably entertain, but by equality or perhaps the unequal distribution of harm
engaging in immanent criticism (similar to reasoning and hardship that application of the law produces. If
from conjecture for Rawls) of the specific justifica- they are Stoutians, even if they themselves don’t hold
tions individual citizens offer or offering them specific the relevant scriptural sources or religious traditions as
reasons which they consider authoritative from their authoritative, they can still point out to their opponents
individual perspective. Stout’s vision of deliberation the fact that the scriptural sources do not decisively
is not exclusively an attempt at arriving at a consensus support only their construction of the relevant rule,
on what the best political policy or even constitutional or that the sources adduced by the inherited traditions
arrangement is from a starting point all parties agree don’t meet the criteria of authenticity, or that before
on. Rather, attempts at persuasion involve inhabiting the Sunni consensus on the rule, there existed dis-
the opposing point of view in order to show how the agreement on whether or not a triple divorce uttered
advocated policy is, in actuality, inconsistent with a in a single setting should be considered decisive or re-

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

vocable. The Stoutians would argue that according to ical research has questioned the necessity of a public
their opponents own standards of what constitutes an reason type liberal project for deliberation for a func-
authoritative argument, the triple divorce rule is either tioning pluralistic democracy. John Bowen notes that
at most unsupportable, and at the least not inevitable. public discourse in Indonesia about the nature of the
This is precisely the route that Egyptian reformers of legal norms to be applied in a wide variety of issues in
the early twentieth century took.5 Indonesia proceeds in a manner described by Stout –
To say that there is nothing unethical about issuing re- an ad hoc and immanent and perhaps messy conversa-
ligious reasons in deliberation about a political policy tion rather than a systematically coherent procession
is not the same thing as saying that it is positively rec- forward from agreed upon premises.6
ommended in all circumstances. As a practical matter, Both Stout’s conceptual criticisms and Bowen’s em-
it is better to buttress your advocacy of a policy by pirical findings call into question liberal suspicion of
reasons that are as broadly supported as possible. In Islamic political parties and movements in the Mus-
fact, issuers of religious reasons who live in a reli- lim world on account of their wider general suspicion
of religion in the public sphere. In some contexts
(mostly in the Arab world), these parties are the only
viable democratic challenge to autocratic and corrupt
regimes, a fact that even liberal and secular Muslim
intellectuals in some Muslim majority societies are
beginning to recognize.

Mairaj Syed is a graduate student in the Religion

Department. He may be reached at msyed@princeton.
1. I rely solely on the following article to present his views: John Rawls,
“Public Reason Revisited”.
2. In fact, Rawls considers his own earlier work, A Theory of Justice, as
an instance of a comprehensive, albeit, liberal doctrine. See 806-7.
3. I rely mostly on Chapter 3, “Religious Reasons in Political Argu-
Ancient Islamic ruins of Palmyra, Syria, once under the control of the ment”, of Stout’s book, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton
Roman Republic. Photo by Chris Gordon. University Press, 2004).
4. I benefited from conversations with my fellow colleague, Tarek El-
gawhary, about this issue.
giously plural society must, simply at the pragmatic 5. Or consider this more recent statement by activist Mona Zulficar,
level, weigh the effectiveness of this type of advocacy regarding a more recent controversy in Egypt: “The New Marriage Con-
if they desire persuasion of the number of people tract Initiative adopted a strategy of engaging religious discourse, based
on the women’s reading of their rights under the principles of Sharia.
required for actual change in political policy. But this We reclaimed for the first time our right to redefine our cultural heritage,
concern, which Rawls’ transforms into an ethical duty, as Muslim women under the principles of Sharia. It was evident that we
Stout interprets as practical constraint facing those could not rely on modern constitutional rights of equality before the law,
as these did not apply under Family Law, which claimed to be based on
who wish to introduce justifications rooted in doc- principles of Sharia. We could not afford to shy away from the challenge
trines not shared by others. It just doesn’t make sense, and continue using solely a strategy based on constitutional and human
most of the time, to quote scripture to those who don’t rights. We had to prove the religious discourse could also be used by
women to defend their cause,” cited by Diane Singerman, “Rewriting
consider the given scripture authoritative. That’s Divorce in Egypt: Reclaiming Islam, Legal Activism, and Coalition Poli-
like trying to advocate for a policy of banning pork tics” in Remaking Muslim Politics, edited by Robert Hefner (Princeton:
products in the United States by offering the Qur’anic Princeton University Press, 2005), 161.
6. See John Bowen, Islam, Law and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthro-
prohibition as a reason. The simple and practical fact pology of Public Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
of trying to convince a plurality of citizens on a given 2003), 3-12.
public policy requires, most of the time, reference
to multiple sets of reasons whose authoritativeness
derives from different, perhaps even competing, and at
times conflicting philosophical registers.
Stout’s criticisms of Rawls’ notion of public reason
seem cogent. Moreover, recent anthropological empir-

Princeton University - Spring 2009


Albania: The Land of “Spiritual Window Shoppers”

By Shaista Ahmed *07

In the summer of 2006, I set off to Albania for a sum- whose collapse crippled the country in 1997 seem to
mer internship as part of my Woodrow Wilson School have made political stability far from reach. The na-
graduate program. I had been extended an opportunity scent democratic government has been faced with the
by the Prime Minister of Albania to come examine formidable task of decentralizing decades of commu-
the nation’s economic policies with his economic ad- nist rule while learning-as-they-go their role as
visors at the Keshilli i Ministrave (Council of democratic leaders. This combined with the public’s
Ministers). inveterate cynicism towards the state –a byproduct of
Before leaving for Albania I tried in earnest to piece the oppressive communist era- has made Albania’s
together information about a country that I, and road toward democratization a long and difficult one.
apparently many others, knew next to nothing about. In August of 2007, President Bush, the first American
With the exception of having produced one of the President to ever to do so, traveled to Albania where
world’s most prominent humanitarians, Mother Teresa, he was met with a pop-star style reception. Bush’s
any meaningful descriptions about Albania seemed enthusiastic reception should not come as a surprise.
to be drowned out by references to mafiosos and hu- What becomes immediately apparent once you arrive
man trafficking. in Albania is that the majority of Albanians are
I consulted the CIA Factbook, for a better depiction of fanatically pro-American. This is due in large part to
what the country had to offer me and was comforted the fact that the US led the charge in the NATO
to find that roughly 70% of the country was comprised bombing campaign against Serbia in response to Slo-
of Muslims, which - as a Muslim – immediately bodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians in
made this foreign nation seem much more familiar to Kosovo.
me.1 However, what I found when I arrived in the
capital city of Tirana that summer surprised me. In- “I came to find that Albania, pur-
stead of finding some form of religious refuge, I came portedly a majority Muslim nation,
to find that Albania, purportedly a majority Muslim
nation, was Muslim in a sense completely alien to me. was Muslim in a sense completely
Albania is a nation that has been eclipsed by the popu- alien to me”
larity of the neighboring Mediterranean nations of
Italy across the Adriatic and Greece to the southeast. Also, many Albanians still remember U.S. President
Albania still remains largely ignored by many in the Woodrow Wilson standing up to the European
West, save for avid travelers or international NGO powers’ desire to divvy up Albania at the end of World
workers. Interestingly, only half of all ethnic Alba- War I which helped win Albania’s independence.
nians live in Albania. The second largest group of In return, Albania has done much to show its gratitude.
Albanians resides in Kosovo with substantial popu- It was the only country to give asylum to
lations also residing in Turkey and the Republic of Guantánamo detainees and also, as a member of the
Macedonia. ‘coalition of the willing’ sent troops to Iraq and
After 46 years of communist rule, democracy emerged Afghanistan.
in Albania in 1991 with multiparty elections. Besides its love-affair with the US, what also became
However, 18 years later, Albania remains plagued by apparent after I arrived in Albania was the significant
the issues of a fledgling democracy. Rampant gulf between the image that I had conjured in my mind
corruption, high unemployment, and pyramid schemes of Albania, as a Muslim-majority nation, and the

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

one I encountered. After work one day an Albanian friend of mine invited
me out for ‘a coffee’ with some of her friends in one
of Tirana’s many cafés. As I chatted with the others, I
Religious Schizophrenia suddenly heard the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer,
One night I was invited to a soirée hosted by an Alba-
coming from the xhami –mosque in Tirana’s Skender-
nian expatriate I had befriended. He had invited other
berg Square. I was immediately captured upon
expatriates and Albanians friends, whose proficiency
hearing the call to prayer. Entranced by the adhan, I
in English gave away their advantaged educational
commented on the rarity of hearing the call to prayer
background. During the course of the night, his guests
as a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority nation and was
took turns to make impromptu toasts to the host
met by confused gazes. With the exception of my
almost as an excuse to sample the many alcoholic bev-
friend, I came to learn most of the others had not
erages in our host’s well-stocked bar.
known what the call was intended for.
Following suit, an Albanian woman in her late twen-
One of the Prime Minister’s advisors I had befriended
ties, hoisted her glass of Jack Daniels and said, “I
explained to me that every year at the end of
remember there was a word I once heard my grand-
Ramazan [known to most Muslims as the Ramadhan,
mother use: ‘Insha’Allah’. With that I would like to
the month in the Islamic calendar in which Muslims
toastour host – Insha’Allah!”
are required to fast] he along with his two brothers
would expect a call from their mother. Regardless of
A chorus of “Insha’Allah!” ensued from the crowd.
the fact their family has never fasted a day of Ra-
mazan, she would always invite her sons to a festive
As a Muslim, the Albanian guest’s sacrilegious invo-
lunch to celebrate Bajram (the Albanian word for Eid-
cation of Insha’Allah, meaning ‘God-willing’, startled
ul-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of the month
me enough to choke slightly on my Coca-Cola. At that
of fasting).
moment my reaction was in response to many
As each fall gave way to winter, he and the rest of the
things. The most obvious was the stark juxtaposition
family would expect a call from their mother
of a phrase like Insha’Allah and the consumption of
congregating all the members of her family for a
alcohol -which is forbidden in Islam.
Christmas lunch. Come spring the family would be
But digging deeper I realized at that moment what I
expected to assemble again to regale on raki (Albanian
found most revealing – her knowledge of Islam was so
wine) and a medley Albanian dishes and sweets in
minimal that it left her unaware of the irony of her
celebration of Easter.
The advisor’s multi-faith family celebrations, the
young woman’s sacrilegious toast, and the adhan that
fell on unaware ears exemplified the state of the reli-
gious landscape I discovered in Albania: amorphous
and schizophrenic. Struck by these incidents, I became
curious about Albanian’s true religious identity and
went on a quest to better understand Albanians rela-
tionship with religion.

Religious History
I came to learn that religious freedom was amongst the
first rules promulgated under the freshly democratic
government. However 17 years later, contrary to what
Ethem Bey Mosque, Tirana, Albania. Photo by m. Alwynt.
the CIA Factbook may have intimated, Albanians
statement. I was intrigued at how she held onto the haven’t rushed to embrace organized religion. Alba-
phrase as a cultural trinket, a family heirloom that she nians remain largely undecided, and at times, staring
had salvaged from her grandmother’s generation, with a cynical eye toward organized religion, ap-
something she had saved as a contribution to her host, proaching it with trepidation.
in exchange for his hospitality that night. This should not come entirely as a surprise. Under the

Princeton University - Spring 2009

iron curtain of communism, any religious fervor was those who refused the food.3
suppressed by the communist dogma that religion was Digging deeper in Albania’s history reveals that Enver
the ‘opium for the masses’. Under Enver Hoxha’s re- Hoxha’s campaign to cleanse Albania of religious
gime formal worship was illegal and those who sought influence was assisted by the Albanians’ amorphous
to practice their faith clandestinely were under state religious history. As a people, Albanians had
of constant paranoia that someone- a stranger, friend, (collectively) never been loyal to any one particular
parent or even a child- would report them. religion. It is claimed that Albania’s national hero
That afternoon in the café in Tirana the others didn’t Skanderbeg was taken to Constantinople as a
take notice of the sound of the adhan not simply child,where he received military training and convert-
because it was drowned out by the din of the cafes and ed to Islam. He eventually climbed the ranks serving
bars - they didn’t take notice of it because there was as a regional governor under the Ottoman Empire but
not a formidable audience for it in Albania and there later deserted the Ottoman army, renounced Islam con-
had not been one for a while. Under communism most verted back to Christianity, and joined with Albanians
mosques were converted into gymnasiums, locked up to fight against the Ottomans.4
or turned into mueums or cultural centers.2

Main Square of Tirana, Albania. Photo by Lassi Kurkijarvi.

Over the course of four decades, the communist re- Originally Illyrians settled the area known today as
gime was successful in wiping out religion in Albania Albania. Later Romans conquered the Illyrians,
and within the consciousness of its people. Fearful that bringing Christianity with them. Towards the end of
children might slip and divulge their secret to others, the fifteenth century Albanian lands fell to Ottomans,
parents were reluctant to pass on their religious tradi- which lead to a long reign that stretched into the be-
tions to their children. The regime was proactive in ginning of the 20th century. With Ottoman rule came
seeking out and removing any form of religious prac- Islam, and two communities developed-those associ-
tice. During Lent and during Ramazan, communist of- ated with Sunni Islam and those associated with the
ficials often distributed dairy products and religiously Bektashism, a branch of Shi’a Islam. While almost
prohibited food in schools and in work two-thirds of all Albanians converted to Islam, some
settings to catch Christians and Muslims in the act of claim most converted to Islam for the opportunities it
performing religious fasts and then publicly shaming provided them as members of the Ottoman Empire.5

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

Throughout their history, Albanians made a number of another form of communism. Others I found were
attempts at self-determination. Albanian leaders largely indifferent because they consider religion to be
assembled the Prizren League, which pressed for au- superfluous to their daily struggles for survival.
tonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Later in the late The staunch nationalism cultivated during the Alba-
nineteenth century Albanian nationalists attempted to nian Renaissance and under Hoxha’s regime still
stand up to threat of the division of Albanian resonates with most Albanians today. While Albania’s
populated-lands amongst Montenegro, Bulgaria, and religious and spiritual identity may be ambiguous what
Greece. However these and other attempts at Albanian is certain is that most Albanians I came across claimed
nationalism and resistance were easily thwarted. their Albanian identity before anything else.
One of the reasons was that Albanians lacked a geo-
graphical or political center. Many Albanians were
scattered across different regions and were historically
Albania’s Future Religious Land-
mired by religious and social division. Albanian scape
nationalists recognized that the Albanian people Albania’s amorphous religious identity is a byproduct
lacked an overarching identity to bind them and turned of its hyper-modernism after 40 years of standing
to an agenda of secular nationalism to overcome these still socially, economically, and religiously. While
differences. Nationalists looked to the Albanian other nations saw their shifts from one ideological
language and common ethnicity as a means of uniting trend to another phased over of an expanse of time, the
them. In a famous poem by Albanian poet Vaso Pasha sudden lifting of the iron curtain in Albania meant that
wrotedescribed “The religion of Albanians is Albani- it experienced everything all at once.
anism” which became the motto of the Albanian The decades-long denial of religious expression under
Renaissance. The motto was later re-claimed by communism has left a palpable void in the lives of
Hoxha in his effort to purge Albania of religion some Albanians. Some Albanians are slowly seeking
under communism. out a sense of spirituality. Like the advisor’s family
who never had the opportunity to practice a religion,
as each holiday arrived there was a sense amongst his
The Real Albania family that something needed to be celebrated, a reli-
Even prior to my arrival to Albania, along with count-
gious rite needed to be performed. There was a
less others, I prejudged this dynamic region. Subcon-
lingering feeling that certain days of the year needed
sciously, I had forced a Muslim paradigm onto Alba-
to be sanctified with family and food.
nia, and as a result I found myself frustrated by the
expectations it failed to meet. In my naiveté, I had
expected to find a community of Muslims that would “After years of oppression, Alba-
instantaneously embrace this Muslim foreigner. In-
stead, I was disappointed to meet an overwhelming nians are now finding themselves
majority of Albanians that wanted little to do with openly debating existential ques-
(and perhaps because knew little of) their Muslim
identity. tions- something I realized I had
While statistics may boast that Albania is a majority taken for granted as a practicing
Muslim nation, the reality is that Albanians --on the
whole are not practicing Muslims. I found that most Muslim in America.”
Albanians look upon religion as a component of their
ethnicity. For some, like the young Albanian woman at
Not surprisingly Albania has become prime religious
the party, religion is simply a relic of Albanian’s
real estate for evangelicals of every creed. Many
suppressed pre-communist identity. While some Alba-
religious organizations have come to recognize this
nians drifted back to the religious identity of their
and have been quick to fill the void, most notably the
ancestors after the collapse of communism, others
Protestants.6 However Albanians, who have spent most
remained atheistic or agnostic, shunning religion
of their youth and adult age under
altogether. After having been victim of one ideology,
communism, are finding that learning to embrace reli-
many are wary of religion and look upon religion as
gion is tantamount to learning ‘a foreign language in

Princeton University - Spring 2009

old age’ as one individual recalled to me. For many vast majority of Albanians do not actively practice a
Albanians understanding religion is a significant feat religion.7 As Albanians become more settled in their
because democracy is still a stranger to them. After new religious freedoms they may choose to explore
years of oppression, Albanians are now finding and embrace religion at a growing rate. However, it re-
themselves openly debating existential questions – mains to be seen how a nation like Albania, which for
something I realized I had taken for granted as a most of its history has been majority atheist or non-
practicing Muslim in America. practicing, will accommodate the needs of its growing
With the religious marketplace now accessible to Al- religious population and maintain its secular national
banians and the religious freedoms to freely navigate ist identity without compromising the religious free-
within it, many Albanians are treading carefully in doms of its people.
terms of what religious identity they want to be While these issues remain to be seen, at the moment
associated with. what is apparent is that Albanians are ravenous for
Albanians are sensitive to the poor and corruption- knowledge and the opportunity to experience things
laden image that precedes them. This poor image is, to that-while not new to others-are still very new to them.
some degree, pushing some Albanians to keep their Regardless of the Muslim label they may have been
Muslim, or rather, ancestral Muslim identity at bay. given, Albanians don’t feel beholden to a particular-
One official I spoke with mentioned that he would dogma.
prefer to distance his nation’s image as a Muslim After traveling around Albania that summer, I find
majority nation. He feared his nation already had poor Albanians’ true relationship with religion is best
reputation amongst the European community and as captured by the title of a Rumi poem: These Spiritual
result of September 11th, any ties to Muslim faith Window Shoppers. Many are trying out new religious
would associate Albanians with radicals and extrem- identities and as many more creeds come to the fore of
ists, further tarnishing their reputation. Some Alba- Albanian consciousness, will continue to do so.
nians are wary of the backlash that an association with
the Islamic faith could bring. Shaista Ahmed was a MPA graduate from the Wood-
Others fear, similar to communism, the pursuit of the row Wilson School’s Class of 2007. She can be
wrong religious ideology may isolate Albania from reached at shaistaiahmed@gmail.com.
the rest of the world. Ismael Kadare, notable Albanian
1. CIA Factbook 2007, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-
author has emphasized that Albania return to its world-factbook/geos/al.html
‘European family’ and embrace its ‘original religion’ 2. Raymond Zickel and Walter R. Iwaskiw, editors. Albania: A Country
– pre-Ottoman Christian identity. Kadare – along with Study. Washington: GPO for the
Library of Congress, 1994
others- believe that embracing Islam and even the con- 3.Ibid.
notation of an Islamic identity would stifle the 4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
progress of Albania, as communism once had, and 6. U.S. Department of State - International Religious Freedom Report
would only further isolate it from the European 2007
community. However, this is prompting an Eastern 7. U.S. Department of State - International Religious Freedom Report
European nation like Albania to pick between its
Christian-European and Muslim-Ottoman roots. For
Albanians this means choosing between one part of
themselves, their heritage, and rejecting the other.
Albania’s decision to proceed cautiously when it
comes to picking a religious identity may be histori-
cally justified. The de-emphasis of religious identity
and the embrace of secular nationalism was critical to
the self-preservation of the Albanian people who had
historically been balkanized by religion, geography
and occupying nations.
At the moment Albanians are still adjusting to their
newfound religious freedoms. With only 25-40 percent
actively participating in formal religious services, the The Great Mosque of Beijing. Photo by Nabil Abdurehman ‘11.

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World


Muslim In China
By Nabil Abdurehman ‘11

“What am I doing,” I thought. “I’m here in sources), Beijing had a mosque and so I had to go ask
Beijing, alone on a public bus, on my way to a mosque what time Jumu’ah, the Friday congregational prayer,
I could barely find on a map. I can just barely under- would be held. I had other motivations in going as
stand the gist of what people are saying around me. well. When one thinks of a Muslim “profile,” rarely
It’s already been over a half hour since the guy I asked would a Chinese person come to mind. True, China
for directions told me to get on this bus, but how will is the home to a substantial number of Confucian-
I know when to get off? Or how to return to cam- ists, Buddhists, Taoists, and atheists and those simply
pus? This bus is overcrowded, excessively warm, I’m disinterested in religion altogether (these last two the

The Great Mosque of Xi’an, Xi’an, China. Photo by E. Cenzato.

standing a head or more above most people here, and result of China’s communism and years of religious
I’m being stared at. On top of all that, it looks like it suppression). However, some estimates indicate that
can rain any time now. What am I doing?” China’s Muslim population could be as high as 20-30
This was my first Thursday afternoon in China since million, with most sources agreeing on a range of 15
Princeton in Beijing, a Chinese language immersion to 20 million, almost as high as the entire population
program I was in last summer, had commenced. Ac- of Saudi Arabia. Also, there are a number of other fa-
cording to Wikipedia (and, of course, several other mous mosques all around China. I wanted to visit this

Princeton University - Spring 2009

one in Beijing, the Niujie Mosque, to see this historic given in Chinese. But regardless of the differences in
relic, a monument that had endured through a millen- our nationalities and native languages, or if they were
nium of change. wearing suits or traditional clothes, after the speech we
I arrived, but couldn’t believe it. I walked slowly, all got up and prayed, together, shoulder-to-shoulder.
trying to absorb what I could, as if this ornate archi- Following that first visit, I returned to the mosque
tecture, which seemed borne of two wildly different every Friday afternoon. My religious obligation to at-
worlds and had survived over a thousand years, would tending every Friday congregational prayer forced me
not last another day. Next to the prayer room I saw to become part of the Beijing Muslim community dur-
several elderly men. I spoke to one of them in Manda-
rin, asking where the washroom was. After struggling
to understand his accent, I was relieved when he used
an Arabic term to indicate where I could make ablu-
tion. I found it, washed up, prayed, and then went back
to the group of men. They asked me where I was from
(I would get this a lot), what I was doing in China,
and so on. They said the Friday prayer would start at
1:30pm the following day. By this point, I was really
looking forward to it.
The next day came, and although I had just been
to the mosque the day before, the idea of attending
Detail of a Mosque Wall, Beijing, China. Photo by Margaret Mendel.
Jumu’ah left me both curious and excited; this was
the prayer all the Muslim men in the city were sup- ing my two-month stay there. Within a few weeks of
posed to attend. How many would come? How regular attendance, I began to feel like a regular: one
would the service be held? I crossed the street to go day a security guard, while I was leaving the mosque
to the mosque, and I could already see men, young and called me by my Chinese name and told me “Xia ge
old, wearing white kufis, walking slowly towards the xing qi wu jian”, which means “See you next Friday.”
Jumu’ah turned out to be a great opportunity for prac-
ticing Chinese with the local residents.
One of the teachers at Princeton in Beijing told me
that what she loved about me going to this weekly
prayer is that it enabled me to interact with the locals
and see what their daily life was like. I had conversa-
tions with people of countless different backgrounds at
Niujie, and their diversity seemed to me reflective of
the abundant ethnic diversity in Islam: a diversity that
is so often manifested in mosques around the world.
Once, a man in a suit sat next to me in the prayer
room. He didn’t seem to be a Beijing resident; I as-
sumed that perhaps he was visiting from a neighbor-
ing region. Later, he asked me a question about the
At the Great Mosque of Xi’an, Xi’an, China. Photo by E.Cenzato. service, in unbroken English. I replied in Chinese. An
expression of both surprise and confusion appeared on
mosque . When I arrived it was still a little early. As his face, and he took a brief pause before the hopeful
time passed, more and more people came, in all about response, “Can you speak English?”
two thousand people I think were present. Among Afterwards, I was walking around Niujie trying to
the native Chinese, there were a few Africans wear- familiarize myself with the area. On the sidewalk,
ing their traditional clothing, a few others who looked there was one man I thought I had seen in the mosque
like Arabs, and some Pakistanis and Indians. Like a little while before, but now he was looking at a map
me, I assumed they could only understand snippets, if apparently searching for bearings. I approached him
that much, of the khutbah, or Friday sermon, that was to help, and we started talking. It turns out that he

Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

was originally from Mozambique, but lived in Portu- misunderstanding still existed. As an example, while
gal. He came to Beijing, like me, to study Chinese. the teachers for my level knew I was Muslim early on,
However, whereas I have yet to reach 20, he was in his I did not think they were that familiar with my beliefs
mid-thirties. In addition, he said he had lived in Spain and practices. Now, in the course of my speaking with
and Saudi Arabia in addition to several other countries, one of the teachers, I was asked what my interests
and spoke eight languages. were, I mentioned that I juggled, and tried to explain
Among the people I met around Niujie, the local Mus- to her what it was. She understood, but then her
lims were the most interesting to talk to because they
were able to provide me with the historical and cul-
tural background of Muslim life in Beijing. There was
one Muslim who came up to me while I was standing
on a street corner in Niujie, perhaps drawn by my
apparent unfamiliarity with the area. He told me that
the green building with domes we were standing next
to was actually an Islamic school that started at fifth
grade. Once I met a young man, just a few years older
than me, who said he was a student at the Islamic col-
lege (which turned out to be the same one as before).
Also, for the Olympics, he was volunteering as an
Arabic translator. At the mosque, he introduced me to
one of his friends, a fellow volunteer (whom I’ve since
seen again this past Friday), and then afterwards gave
me a brief tour of the grounds.
What my interactions amongst the Muslims in Beijing
most elucidated for me is the importance of Arabic as
a cross-cultural means of communication among Mus-
lims, as much for non-Arabs as for Arabs, in wide-
ranging regions of the world. These last two people
I mentioned, the translator and the one who told me Prayers outside a Mosque in China. Photo by Michelle Brea.
about the school, would speak with me in Chinese, if following question she asked with a look of sincere
something was not clear for me, they would clarify curiosity: “…And do all Muslims juggle?”
with Arabic, and if it were still a problem, only then I honestly enjoyed my time in Beijing was sad to
with English. When I went to Niujie for my first have left without being able to explore the city more.
Jumu’ah, a man came up to me, shaking my hand I made friends among some locals, adjusted to the
and giving the salaam, and asked what country I was food, and acclimated to the weather. All in all, going
from in Arabic, then in English. In Niujie, although to the Jumu’ah, following the same religious code as
the mosque is itself Chinese in architecture, inside the the indigenous Muslims here, I felt like I was living
arches and ceilings are adorned with Arabic calligra- like a Chinese Muslim there. However, now I’m back
phy. All over Beijing, all the halal Muslim restaurants to America, and there is still ignorance of Islam here
I saw (I never expected to see so many in the first just as there was there, ignorance that causes hatred,
place) had written in Arabic above the entrances “Is- violence, and misunderstanding. The solution to the
lamic restaurant.” In Beijing, Arabic is very literally a problem is not through acceptance to merely coexist,
symbol of the Muslim presence here. but through dialogue and understanding. Just like the
On campus at Beijing Normal University, where PiB Niujie Mosque is part of Beijing, Islam is a vital part
was being held, there was one restaurant that served of everyone’s history, in one way or another.
qingzhen food (the Chinese term for halal, the code of
dietary restrictions Muslims follow) in addition to five Nabil Abdurehman is a Sophomore in the Undergradu-
regular cafeterias. I saw women wearing headscarves ate Program. He can be reached at Nabdureh@princ-
and men wearing kufis not only on the street, but on eton.edu.
campus as well. Still, with Muslim life this prevalent,

Princeton University - Spring 2009


Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

Spring 2009