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Misbah Volume 3 Issue 1

Winter 2010
Misbah is Arabic for ‘lamp’, a symbol of illumination. Misbah Magazine
explores and engages 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.

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Exploring Islam and the Muslim World Printing of this journal is made posible by private donations. Please direct all
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tions, off-campus subscriptions and advertising to:

Editor in Chief Misbah Magazine

Nabil Abdurehman ‘11 misbah@princeton.edu
5449 Frist Campus Center Princeton, NJ 08544
Executive Editor
Zeerak Ahmed ‘13 All donations are tax-deductible. Letters to the editor may be edited for
length and clarity.
Tiffany Tong GS
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Babur Khwaja ‘09 If you are interested in contributing articles or being otherwise involved in
the publishing of Misbah Magazine, please contact us at the email address

Views expressed in Misbah Magazine do not necessarily reflect those of the editors,
sponsors, or the trustees of Princeton University.

Photographs not credited to Princeton students were used under the Creative Com-
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ment of the content they accompany.
Cover Image: Wazir Khan Mosque courtesy of Muzaffar H. Bukhari

Table of Contents

Editor’s Note 3

The Politicization of Islamophobia 4

Tasnim Shamma ‘11

The Martyrdom of Hamza and Husayn 7

Nebil Husayn GS

Navigating by Islamic Ideals 13

Derya Honca

In the Footsteps of the Sahabaat: Muslim 17

Women and Religious Knowledge
Hagar ElBishlawi GS

Editor’s Note

Greetings from a new Misbah board. We are pleased to present, as always, a

diverse selection of articles. Whereas one article presents a synopsis of a campus
debate concerning the Park 51 project in New York, another analyzes how new
technology is providing women with unprecedentedly large audiences to engage
with in religious discourse. While the cover story addresses a historical overview
of the struggles of two prominent figures in Islamic history, also included is a
book review which also discusses the importance of precision in the expression of
theological issues.

With much of the attention given to Islam and the Muslim world recently tend-
ing to focus primarily on turbulent political situations and controversial legal
rulings, what we hope through these submissions is to provide perspectives not
usually seen, stories not usually told. Just as the terms “Muslim” and “American”
are not mutually exclusive, also there is no strict binary divide between “Islamic
history” and plain “history.” There are and have been Muslim communities all
over the world, and so it is important that these perspectives be given and be
understood, whether as an aid to combatting extremism or simply as a building
block towards establishing cooperative efforts between different communities in
the future.

Nabil Abdurehman ‘11

Editor in Chief


The printed version of this magazine contained a number of typographic errors

in the piece by Nebil Husayn. Also missing was a footnote that noted the author’s
insipration from the work of Ali Shariati. These errors have been corrected in the
online version. The editors would like to express their sincerest apologies to both
the author as well as our readers for these errors.

The More than nine years after the at-

tacks of 9/11, it is surprising to learn
Times reported that there was inter-
est in building a cultural center on

Politicization of that suspicion and hostility against

people who are Muslim in the
the land that was purchased. Rauf
explained that it would send “the
United States has continued to grow. opposite statement to what hap-
Islamophobia Even groups or individuals who are pened on 9/11.” This summer, over
not Muslim but are perceived to be a year after its purchase and use as
Tasnim Shamma ‘11 Muslim, because of their ethnicity or a prayer space, opposition groups
clothing, have been victims to this and politicians mobilized to publicly
rise in hostility. protest construction – sometimes us-
ing hateful speech against Islam and
On October 11, the Council for labeling the religion as inherently
American Islamic Relations (CAIR) violent.
announced the launch of a depart-
ment devoted solely to “addressing On September 27, a panel discus-
the alarming rise of Islamophobic sion about Park51 was held in
sentiment in American society.” McCosh 10 with Woodrow Wilson
School Professor and Provost Chris-
One of the most recent and public topher Eisgruber ‘83, Near Eastern
forms of anti-Islamic sentiment has Studies Professor Mark Cohen
emerged this summer during protests and Associate Professor of Politics
over the building of Cordoba House Amaney Jamal. All three professors
or the “Ground Zero Mosque,” later concluded at the end of their talks
renamed Park51. Through formal that Park51 should be built.
and informal discussion, lectures,
debates and opinion columns in Cohen, who specializes in Jewish
The Daily Princetonian, members history in the Near East, explained
of the Princeton community have that he preferred the name “Cordo-
tried to understand why there has ba House” because it was evocative
been so much opposition not only to of the peaceful coexistence of Mus-
Park51, but also to mosques around lims, Jews and Christians in Cor-
the country. doba, Spain in the eighth century.

Park 51 Cohen said the proposed Park51/

Cordoba House could serve as a
In July 2009, a rundown Burlington symbol of “tolerance and mutual
Coat Factory was purchased and understanding between Muslims and
used as an overflow prayer space to non-Muslims today.”
another mosque in lower Manhat-
tan, Al Farah, where Feisal Abdul Jamal cited the politicization of
Rauf is the imam. Islamophobia with politicians using
the issue to gain political points and
In December 2009, The New York reports of opposition to mosque

Ground Zero View - Courtesy of Karen Blumberg

construction across the country as a and community involvement, Jamal were controlled by Islamic extrem-
troubling trend. said that “mosque projects are being ists and that “this is an enemy living
stifled” and are becoming “sites of amongst us.”
“The mosque itself is more or less political scrutiny and sites to moni-
under attack in the United States,” tor Muslims.” In 2005, Massachusetts Governor
Jamal said. Mitt Romney suggested wiretapping
Government officials revealed in mosques because he believed terror-
The role of mosques December 2005 that the Federal ist attacks in London and the United
Bureau of Investigation had been States justified such monitoring.
Jamal explained that impeding the secretly monitoring over a hundred
natural expansion of Islamic insti- sites of Muslim homes, businesses “The reality that is the Park51 de-
tutions like mosques is an attempt and mosques for radiation levels bates are almost a natural culmina-
to “de-link the Muslim population since 2002. tion of the last ten years,” Jamal said.
from one of its most important links “It’s no surprise that 61 percent of
to mainstream America” because “There’s this ongoing belief that the US public is seeing the Park51
mosques serve as the most trustwor- mosques have direct link to terrorists mosque as part of this attempt of
thy civic institution for many Mus- abroad,” Jamal said. the Muslim “other” to assert them-
lim Americans. selves in an un-American way in the
In 2004, Representative Peter King United States.”
Instead of promoting buildings that of New York said he believed that
encourage political participation 85 percent of mosques in America At least three other local mosque
projects in California, Tennessee and national security or health concern. particularly demoralizing.
Wisconsin have also seen protests or He then went on to the ethical
faced significant opposition. arguments by raising the question “There’s been very little discussion
of whether there is a “limited duty about the basically un-Americanness
In Murfreesboro, TN, on Octo- to honor a perimeter of neutrality of the current climate of Islamo-
ber 18, the Department of Justice around culturally significant sites.” phobia,” Jamal said. “Once we start
Department’s Civil Rights Division He made the distinction between relegating space and where Mus-
filed an amicus brief to support temporary marches or protests and lims should be and where Muslims
construction of a mosque that was permanent markers like Park51. should worship and where perhaps
facing a lawsuit and major commu- they should work and perhaps how
nity opposition over the past year. Eisgruber referenced the analogy they should behave, we’re on a slip-
frequently brought up this summer pery slope and we all know where
In the brief, Assistant Attorney Gen- regarding the crosses placed near the that leads.”
eral for Civil Rights Thomas Perez grounds of Auschwitz and then later
wrote, “A mosque is quite plainly moved in 1998. As Jamal explained, the rise in the
a place of worship, and the county use of Islamophobia as a political
rightly recognized that it had an Only a few blocks away from the tool to curry favor with constitu-
obligation to treat mosques the same former Nazi death camp, a Catholic ents is alarming. With the Muslim
as churches, synagogue, or any other group founded the Center for Dia- community facing opposition to
religious assemblies. This is not only logue and Prayer in Auschwitz. The mosque projects on both the local
common sense; it is required by center serves as a place for “reflec- and national level, hateful rhetoric
federal law.” tion, education, sharing and prayer” and second-class treatment will only
according to its website, much like make a community desperate for
Legal and Ethical Arguments the goals of Park51. acceptance in their own country feel
further alienated.
The brief cited the tenth anniver- Eisgruber explained that the ethi-
sary of the Religious Land Use or cal argument did not stand because Tasnim is a senior at Princeton, an
Institutionalized Persons Act, which it was not clear what would count English major on the creative writ-
Eisgruber said at the panel that he as a perimeter of neutrality in this ing track and Executive Editor for
testified against, believing the first context and reasons for opposing Multimedia Emerita at The Daily
amendment to be sufficient in pro- the center seemed to be grounded Princetonian. She can be reached at
tecting religious freedoms. in prejudice because opposition to a tasnim.shamma@gmail.com.
Christian center would probably not
Eisgruber began his talk by explain- have been opposed.
ing that he would try to present the
other side of the debate by examin- “Would opponents be opposed to a
ing the Park51 debate from a legal Christian center? I seriously doubt
and ethical point of view. that,” he said, continuing, “I don’t
think we have a duty to respect
“The legal argument is easy,” he said. other people’s sensibilities grounded
The right to build Park51 is pro- in prejudice.”
tected under the First Amendment
and additionally under the Religious Jamal said that as a Muslim, an
Land Use or Institutionalized Per- academic and member of the Princ-
sons Act unless there is a “compel- eton community, she has found the
ling government interest,” meaning a debates surrounding Park51 mosque
Sectarian strife in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq has led a number
of analysts to consider some of the historical differences between Sunni and The
Shi’i Muslims. In contrast to most Sunni Muslims, Shi’i communities annu-
ally mourn the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn Martyrdom of
b. Ali. Although Husayn is universally revered in the Islamic intellectual
tradition, his murder occurred during a volatile period in Islamic history. His Hamza &
murder raises a number of theological questions that are considered con-
troversial to most Sunni scholars. These questions include: why did Husayn Husayn
refuse to pledge allegiance to the Caliph? Was he rightful in doing so? Is the
Caliph liable for Husayn’s death? Some writers have inaccurately character- Nebil Husayn GS
ized Husayn’s rebellion as a failed military or political movement. This article
shall briefly elucidate the difference between military conflicts and move-
ments of protest as well as the terms jihad and shahada in narrating the story
of Husayn’s martyrdom.

I. The Holy Struggle

Imam Ali b. Abi Talib once said: “God decreed The Holy Struggle to exalt
[Man’s] Submission... and The Holy Declaration to reveal a Truth hitherto

Man has never ceased in his age-old pursuit of felicity. Love offers but a
taste of this rapture, yet like all things in this World, it is ever fleeting. Faith
teaches us that Man’s only hope is to surrender his love to the Divine. “To
become detached from the impurities of the world ... requires an intense ji-
had [Holy Struggle], for our soul has its roots sunk deeply into the transient
world which [it] mistakes for reality.”2

The difficult, personal path to spiritual enlightenment describes the vast

majority of cases in which Muslims participate in a “Holy Struggle.” How-
ever, scholars of jurisprudence also agree without exception on the permis-
sibility of armed conflict in two instances, both of which are characterized as
defensive. In the first instance, a person is permitted to take up arms for the
purposes of self-defense against persecution or a general aggression towards
life, family and property. The second case is when the Islamic faith in its en-
tirety is a target of destruction, which may be manifested in a blatant attack
on all persons, symbols, places of worship, and any remnants of the religion.
Although the use of force is permitted in both cases, only the second is gen-

1. Nahj al-Balāghah, ed. Muhammad Abduh. Beirut: Dār al-Andalus, 1963, 4:55 (sermon
2. From Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s essay ““The Spiritual Significance of Jihad.” See S.H. Nasr,
Traditional Islam in the Modern World. London: KPI, 1987, p. 32.
erally characterized as a “Holy Struggle” and obligatory.3

In addition, jurists also permit one to physically defend one’s self, family,
and property from an attacking entity. Opinions may differ in calling this
case a ‘Holy Struggle,’ but jurists universally uphold the innate human right
to self-defense.4

II. Warfare

In a state of warfare, a soldier strives to achieve three primary goals: he must

fight to stay alive by defending himself from attacks, he must neutralize
enemy targets and he desires that the war concludes with his own army’s vic-
tory. Scripture certainly praises the faith and bravery of a soldier who fights
for freedom and justice.

“God has conferred on those who strive with their wealth and live a rank
above those who remain passive [sitting]...And He has distinguished those
who struggle above those who sit by a great reward.” – Qur’an 4:95

A companion once asked, “How is it that the faithful face tribulations in the
grave, but the martyrs do not?” The Prophet replied, “The glimmer of the
sword – raised above his head (before it takes his life) is enough of a tribula-

Early Islamic history is filled with stories of companions of the Prophet

fighting in many battles throughout their lives. Although many of them
lived long lives, many also died in war. One must pose the following ques-
tion: Is the death of a comrade advantageous to his own army when consid-
ering the aforementioned three goals of warfare? The answer is a flat ‘no’.

The victory of an army rests squarely on the survival of its soldiers. Once
an army’s soldiers are killed, its power is vanquished and logically loses the
war. The death of a soldier, however great his reward in the Hereafter, is an
agonizing loss to his army, community and loved ones. Furthermore, if his

3. Ibid., 29-30. The Shāfi’ī jurist Ahmad b. Naqīb al-Misri (d. 769AH/1367) and the Shi’i
Muhammad b. Hasan al-Tūsī (d. 460 AH/1060) concur that defending the faith from
annihilation is obligatory, although the latter still hesitates in referring to armed struggle
as jihād in the absence of a divinely appointed leader. See Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri,
The Reliance of the Traveller; a classic manual of Islamic sacred law. Ed. and Tr. by Noah
Ha Mim Keller. Dubai: Modern Printing Press, c1991, Book O, Edicts 7.2, 9.1 and 9.3;
Muhammad b. Hasan al-hūsī, al-Mabsūt fī fiqh al-imāmīyah, [Tehran]; al-Maktabah al-
Murtahawīyah li-Ihyā’ al-Āthār al-Ja’farīyah, 2:8.
4.Both Sunni and Shi’i jurists state that this is a consensus. See Muhyī al-Dīn Ābī
Zakarīyā Yahyá b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), al-Majmū‘. Beirut : Dār al-Fikr, n.d.,
19:251; al-‘Allāma al-Hasan ibn Yūsuf b. al-Muhahhar al-hillī (d. 726/1325), Tadhkirat
al-fuqahā’. Tehran: [n.p], 1856, 9:7, 48.
5. Ahmad b. Shu‘ayb al-Nasā’ī (d. 303/915), Sunan al-Nasā’ī. Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1930,
prowess and ability were great, then his death may even affect the outcome
of the battle.

III. Hamza

How can we even begin to understand the agony of the Prophet when his
beloved “Lion of God” Hamza fell in the battlefield? In Mecca, the noble-
man and skilled hunter was a symbol of strength among a small band of
meek men. In Medina, tales of Hamza’s feats in battle made him a hero
amongst Muslims.

Although the faithful companions of the Prophet entered the battlefield and
secretly hoped to die as martyrs, to rid themselves of the troubles of this
world and to attain eternal bliss, their primary concerns were to defend Is-
lam’s existence, the very life of the Prophet, and the right to live and worship
freely. It was in the heat of battle and in pursuit of victory that a soldier was
cut down; Hamza was in the middle of defending Islam when death found

The martyrdom exemplified by Hamza represented the loftiest of deaths in

Islamic history. He was named the ‘Leader of Martyrs’ in Muslim tradition,
an appellation that recognized his sustained struggle in defending Islam
through truthful speech to the arrogant, patience in times of hardship and
courage in the face of death. He surrendered his soul to glorifying the Di-
vine for many years before finally surrendering his body. Thus, his final sac-
rifice only exalted and accentuated his previous submission and personified
the maxim of Imam Ali, “God decreed The Holy Struggle to exalt [Man’s]

IV. The Holy Declaration

But what of al-Husayn? Why is the paradigm of Husayn’s martyrdom so dif-

ferent that he becomes the ‘Leader of Martyrs’ after the massacre at Karbala?

The Holy Declaration [shahada] refers to sworn testimonies, as in court

cases, or in the declaration of Islam, when Muslims bear witness there is no
deity but God and Muhammad is His messenger. Husayn exemplifies a dif-
ferent kind of martyr than Hamza. Husayn’s significance lies in his lofty role
as the ‘Leader of Witnesses.’6

Those who have read the history of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties
are aware of the countless examples in which leading Muslim scholars from
every school of thought were persecuted or killed.

6. While witnesses in court cases are referred to as “shuhadā,” this same term can also
mean “martyrs.”
Descendants of the Prophet, beginning with Husayn, led various religiously
motivated revolts during this tumultuous period.

V. The Caliphate of Yazid

Yazid I was a caliph who ruled for only three years in Islamic history. In his
first year in office, the caliph’s army massacred Husayn and the great-grand-
children of the Prophet. In the second year, the caliph’s army raided Medina
and the children of the Ansar (those in Medina who supported the Prophet
after he emigrated there) were massacred. In his final year of office, Yazid’s
army partially destroyed the Ka’ba when they attacked the Sacred Mosque in
Mecca with catapults.7

Medieval Islamic historians have overwhelmingly condemned those actions,

if not the character himself. Several historians cited contemporaries of the
caliph who admitted he knew nothing of Islamic scripture or law. The same
man had the audacity to force the Prophet’s companions and his community
to pledge him allegiance under the threat of his vast army. In the absence of
the Prophet, the Caliph was supposed to symbolize and embody the teach-
ings of the Prophet. Imagine this man saying “I am the successor to the
Prophet Muhammad. I sit in his place and stand at his pulpit as the leader of
the Islamic community.” This man was Yazid, the son of Mu’awiya the son of
Abu Sufyan.

The Prophet is reported to have said to Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn, “I’m
at peace with the one at peace with you. I am at war with the one at war
with you,”8 yet despite that, this caliph’s army decapitated Husayn and nearly
all of the Prophet’s descendants and paraded their heads across the empire’s

Let us return to Yazid’s second year of office, when he sent his army to
Medina – the city of the Hijra, the city of the Prophet, the city of the Ansar.
The Prophet once said “Love of the Ansar is a sign of faith and hatred of the
Ansar is a sign of hypocrisy,”9 and in a similar narration, “No one hates the
Ansar except a Hypocrite.”

No one loves a people by killing them or destroying their homes and fami-
lies, yet Yazid sent an army to fight the Ansar and their children. The army
of the Ansar was led by Abdullah b. Hanzala, Ghasil al-Mala’ika (the One
Washed by Angels). He became a beloved hero in Muslim tradition after it

7. These events are recorded in most books of Islamic history, including the works of
Tabari, Baladhuri, Mas’udi, Ya’qubi, Isfahani, ibn Qutayba, Abu al-Fida, ibn Athir, Suyuti,
Dhahabi and ibn Kathir. Consult the collections regarding the relevant years [61-63 AH]
or the caliphate of Yazid b. Mu’awiya.
8. On the authority of Tirmidhi, ibn Maja, and Imam Ahmed b. Hanbal.
9. On the authority of Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmed, Nasa’i
was learned that he had wed only the night before –but had left his bride the
next morning to fight in the battle without having completed the ceremonial
wash (ghusl). It was reported that the Prophet saw the angels descending
upon Hanzala and administering this wash after he was killed – so he was
called “the One washed by Angels.” The Companions chose Abdullah b.
Hanzala as their leader and they fought bravely against the larger army of
Yazid to protect the city of the Prophet from the Caliph’s transgressions. This
battle fought on the outskirts of Medina is recorded in history as the “Battle
of Harra.” The Muslim residents of the city obviously recognized the sanctity
of Medina and did not wish to fight Yazid’s army in its precincts. So they
defended the holy city by waging their last stand in the outskirts of Medina.
However, after Yazid’s army defeated the Ansar, the army attacked their
women and pillaged the city.

In his final and third year as Caliph, Yazid sent his army to Mecca to destroy
the opposition led by the Companion Abdullah b. Zubayr. Historians write
that the army attacked the Sacred Precinct with catapults and fire, which re-
sulted in the burning and destruction of the Ka’ba itself. There are some who
wish to excuse the caliph of any wrongdoing in the murder of Husayn. Some
attempt to blame a few soldiers or a governor instead of the commanding
Caliph whom they obeyed. However, a well-wisher cannot consciously de-
fend the caliph and the conduct of his army in Mecca and Medina.

Every community has that innocent and righteous man who stands as a wit-
ness against the oppression of his day. The shahid is a man who uncovers a
hidden injustice – a whistle blower – when everyone else is unaware.

At that point in time, some thought that it was heresy to disobey the Caliph
who represented the Prophet. Was anyone left with enough authority to
flatly reject the pledge of allegiance to Yazid but the noble Husayn? Did not
the Prophet bear witness to the community that Hasan and Husayn were
leaders of Heaven?10

Husayn and his companions watched in horror as thousands pledged al-

legiance to Yazid (under threat of death), without voicing any discontent. If
Husayn followed suit, he would have solidified Yazid’s power once and for
all. If Husayn stayed silent, he would have watched the religion of his grand-
father be destroyed before his eyes; few would ever stand up to Yazid, or any
other Caliph for the matter and have the courage to say “you may not pub-
licly disobey the Qur’an and Sunna and reign as successor of the Prophet.”
Caliphs after the Prophet not only enforced laws, but greatly influenced their
genesis by way of their edicts. If Husayn stayed silent, Islamic law, both in its
formation and implementation, would fall victim to the whims of Caliphs
and the silent men who feared to disobey them. The vicious cycle would

10. On the authority of Imam Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Tabarani and others.

continue indefinitely. So Husayn set the precedent. Husayn rose.

When a Leader of Heaven set the paradigm and clarified the necessity of
opposing allegiance to such a person, then all other Muslims became cer-
tain that such dissent was neither a sin nor did it mean apostasy. A Leader
of Heaven does not lie nor could he turn apostate as some of his enemies
claimed.11 Husayn was the first to protest and sacrifice himself to reveal the
repudiated truth. He became the first witness to testify to the injustice that
existed in his day. He became a shahid the moment he received the com-
mand to pledge allegiance to Yazid and he refused. Despite direct intimida-
tion from government officials, surrounded by the Caliph’s men, Husayn in
all his courage, said “no.” He knew the moment he refused to pledge alle-
giance to the Caliph that he would pay for such dissent with his life12. The
Umayyads did not tolerate any dissent in their kingdom. By bearing witness
against a community’s wrongdoing, Husayn assumed a role previously oc-
cupied by prophets. Scripture states that such witnesses reprise their role on
the Day of Judgment:

“And the Day We shall raise from every community a Witness from amongst
them {testifying} against them – and We shall bring you as a Witness against
them...” – Qur’an 16:89

When Husayn lived in Mecca with a warrant for his capture or death for
many months, the community fully understood the facade of Islamic piety
that the Umayyads displayed as they searched for this dissenter. Although
everyone, including Husayn, knew that a small band of men could not
defeat the Caliph’s army, Husayn clarified that his intention was not political
supremacy or warfare, but shahada “to reveal a Truth that has been rejected.”
He was a shahid long before he reached the hot deserts of Iraq. The shahid
– who knows he faces certain death for protesting – does so anyway, so the
community learns an inspiring lesson from his martyrdom. There is a funda-
mental difference between the martyrdoms of Hamza and Husayn. Hamza,
the brave soldier, fought in pursuit of a victory and inadvertently fell before
its realization, while Husayn, the protestor, consciously chose a path that
would end in death. However, when future generations remember his sacri-
fice and follow in his example, the shahid’s legacy lives on.

Yazid claimed to be the rightful successor to the Prophet and God’s deputy
on earth. Husayn sacrificed his life to reveal the truth of the matter.

Nebil is a graduate student in the Near Eastern Studies department at Princ-

eton and can be reached at nhusayn@gmail.com.

11. Abu Mikhnaf (d. 157 AH/774) and Tabari cite leading Umayyad generals and officials
taunting Husayn and his family as liars and apostates in Iraq and in Damascus.
12. Ali Shariati argues this point eloquently, in A. Shariati, Husayn Wārithu Adam, Bei-
rut: Dār al-Amīr, 2004. His enlightening comparison fully inspired this article.
A timely and compelling commen-
tary on the uneasy relationship today
needs of the individual and those
of the community, the inner beliefs Navigating by
between Muslim individuals, societ-
ies and self-proclaimed Islamic gov-
and values of societal members and
the laws, institutions, and culture Islamic Ideals
ernments, Ali Allawi’s The Crisis of that they build. Traditional Islamic
Islamic Civilization at once mourns civilization, like any religiously based
Derya Honca
the diminishing of the Islamic world endeavor, provided a continuum
of old and attempts to define what through rituals of worship, which
is needed to allow it to flourish once connected the individual to the com-
more. The book’s lamentation is pro- munity and vice versa. Yet perhaps
found, and most of its insights into unique to Islam is balance of another
the causes of the crisis are equally so. kind; the inescapable dependence of
As a Muslim reader, however, I find the individual upon God, even with
a few of its arguments to be lacking respect to personal free will. Allawi
in coherence, making use of meta- points out that the Divine Attributes
phors that obscure the core aspects are absolutely transcendent over
of Islam, to which all Muslims strive those of the human, who can never
to submit. attain them (p. 11); still, the concept
of individual autonomy is recognized
I believe it is worthwhile to re- as illusory by the Muslim believer,
view some of the many legitimate whose very life and consciousness are
threads of argument in this book granted by the Creator.
and to inquire into those that appear
questionable, particularly in the final As Allawi’s narrative develops, a
chapter, where the author seeks to second theme emerges – the contrast
delve deeper into what is beautifully between secular, individual-centered
described at the book’s outset as “the human rights language that claimed
transcendent reality which lies at the universal priority in the 20th centu-
heart of Islam.” (p. 10) Through this ry, and the broad skepticism initially
review, I would hope to refocus Al- voiced in Muslim societies toward
lawi’s ultimately accurate diagnosis, this language, as many Muslims felt
to make it speak more intelligibly to that these claims were being forced
those, like me, who were taught to upon them. The author argues that
take scrupulous care when choosing the rights articulated in the 1948
metaphorical language to distinguish Universal Declaration of Human
the Creator from His creations. Rights are a product of western
societal separation from its ethical
Perhaps the principal theme of the roots in religion; modern human
book is the need for balance in rights effectively affirm the lowest
any and all societies. Allawi deftly common denominator of humanity,
identifies the many aspects of this which is human dignity (p. 191).
necessary balance – between the In traditional Islamic civilization,
Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex, Istanbul - Courtesy of Michel Roland-Guill

human rights are inseparable from truth. The individualist ethic that mechanisms to ensure that the rights
human duties to each other and to prevails in secular societies today and responsibilities of their members
God. There exists a right to work does not allow its adherents to admit are being simultaneously fulfilled.
so humans can improve their lot that rights may not exist separately
in life and provide for those who from responsibilities. By the same Precisely this failure to induce
depend upon them, and a right token, today’s Muslim societies may individuals and communities to live
to free expression so as to seek the be criticized for not providing any up to the responsibilities that coex-
ist with rights has led to the current historians, who appear challenged From that eloquent articulation of
crisis of Islamic civilization, accord- when they try to explain the rapid need for a virtuous community, Al-
ing to Allawi. Two vestiges of that rise and spread of Islamic civilization lawi develops his ultimate argument,
civilization remain today – private in the first centuries after the death which is that Muslims, in addition
Islamic faith and self-proclaimed of Prophet Muhammad, Muslim to practicing the rituals of Islam,
Islamic governments. Allawi argues historians would argue that Islamic must sense its truth for themselves,
that personal piety is increasing civilization of old developed on the through mystical knowledge. He
among Muslims, but the excesses of basis of correct beliefs and practices argues that Muslims must redevelop
political Islam are endangering any of the Muslims who spread it. As a spiritualized language in order to
rebirth of the broader civilization. long as the Muslims adhered to these regain the creative potential of their
(pp. 251-252) beliefs and practices, their civiliza- own society. He contrasts the mysti-
tion flourished. cal tradition in Islam with the west’s
Although I agree that political Islam love of the imaginary realm; in the
today fails to promote necessary And this is not an entirely parti- west, imagination or self-knowledge
social balance, it is here that I begin san argument; the same events are has been cut off from knowledge
to disagree with Allawi. I do not see unfolding today in the context of of God. If Islamic knowledge is to
that either Islamic government or global economic development and flourish once more, it must, accord-
personal piety in the fullest sense of its travails. Allawi concurs on this ing to Allawi, become more than
that word has strengthened in recent point; he writes: “The economic “simply a matter of method and
times. Piety, Islamically defined as growth which has accompanied technique, or the elaboration of an
adherence to the obligations (re- globalization begins to lose its luster ideology of metaphysical spirituality.
sponsibilities) and avoidance of that if the benefits are disproportionately Knowledge of God is at the heart
which is prohibited in the religion, distributed. In a 2005 report, the of the Islamic Sufi tradition, and its
depends strongly on knowledge of UN estimated that the income of ‘modernization’ must acknowledge
the correct Islamic beliefs and prac- the fifty richest people on earth is the prior existence of a visionary
tices conveyed by the three primary greater than that of the 400 million realm, where God’s reality is also
sources of knowledge in the religion poorest… The mass rejection, from manifested.” (p. 260)
– the Qur’an, the Hadith and the the modern mind-set, of the cardinal
consensus of the scholars. While virtues, not least wisdom and mod- As with the earlier argument regard-
personal practice of the religion does eration, seems to be complete. But ing piety, my understanding of the
appear to be increasing in recent the world cannot anymore sustain necessity of mystical Islamic knowl-
times, the practitioners’ knowledge the cult of the rampant individual, edge starts in parallel with Allawi’s,
of Islamic beliefs and practices, except at its peril. There are too but it soon diverges. We agree that
I would argue, has declined sig- many ‘externalities’ and costs for to achieve mystical awareness, one
nificantly, not least because of the which other individuals, communi- must have knowledge of God and
failure of Islamic government and ties and countries have to pay the know oneself. But Allawi defines the
educational institutions to provide price. … The rugged, autonomous human being itself as a contradic-
the requisite knowledge to Muslims individual, so beloved by liberal phi- tory mixture of the corporeal and the
on a broad level. losophers and by Hollywood movies, “potentially divine.” (p. 261) In con-
simply cannot exist outside the vir- trast, I understand the human being
The prospects for Islamic civiliza- tuous community. And Islam would to be no more or less than a creation,
tion today are dim, because Islamic add that neither the individual nor albeit owned entirely by its Creator,
knowledge has grown fainter on all the society can be whole if they are and God alone has the status of Di-
levels, from the individual to the not infused with the sense of the vine Creator. Muslims may not mix
societal. History tells a similar story transcendent. The wheel returns full- their inherent sense of the Transcen-
in reverse. In contrast to western circle.” (pp. 258-259) dent, Whose Existence is necessary
and Who creates all other categories becomes more powerful than the merely of rhetoric or also of
of existence, with either their empir- meaning that Allawi implies, when substance? I lean toward believing
ical knowledge of the mundane, or he speaks of personal belief. The they are rhetorical. Allawi admits
their inherent sense of the imaginary, striving in which we engage is ulti- the incompleteness of the mysti-
both of whose existence or non-exis- mately an act of obedience to God. cal knowledge he is espousing. He
tence is merely possible, contingent Those who achieve piety have done writes: “The type of knowledge
upon other factors. so by performing what God ordered embodied in intuition, inspira-
humans to perform and by avoiding tion and guidance is firmly of
As articulated in his book’s final what God ordered us to avoid, in the non-rational kind, one that
section, Allawi’s understanding of obedience to God’s orders. cannot be subject to the empirical
the human being appears incoher- tests of scientific inquiry or to the
ent or contradictory, both in and Allawi returns to a coherent sum- rationalizing logic of the intel-
of itself and regarding the human mary of the moral compass of the lect...It is a knowledge for which
relationship to the Creator. He human – the Sharia. He writes: certain people have a profound
writes: “On the one hand, a human “Nevertheless, the moral drive taste, but their commitment to it
being is no different from an animal; which generates the actions of the does not necessarily lead to their
on the other, he or she can aspire to ethical human being cannot be left denial of other forms of knowl-
the highest forms of knowledge… unregulated and entirely answerable edge. … Once again, Islamic inner
the true seeker knows that, in the to reason or whim. The Sharia – in spirituality has little to do with
end, perfecting the qualities of God the broadest sense of the word – emotion and passion, but a lot to
within oneself is the sole purpose of becomes the means to effect a true do with the systematic striving for
existence.” Yet, on the same page, and lasting guidance for the ethi- an understanding of the attributes
he admits: “The ethics of spiritual- cal individual. The word ‘Sharia’ is of God and the imperative of
ized Islam are based on a foundation derived from the Arabic root word moral conduct that such seeking
of courtesy and modesty; courtesy shar’, which means road or path; generates.” (pp. 263-264) May
towards the names and attributes so the Sharia is, etymologically, the the issues that I take with Allawi’s
of God, modesty in terms of the pathway to guidance and felicity.” writing become part of the path
individual’s affirmation that these (p. 262) But he does not explicitly toward true knowledge that he, I,
traits are God’s alone. A person can articulate what makes the Sharia and all Muslims must undertake
aspire to perfect them, but their full so powerful to a Muslim – namely with patience, humility, and good
measure will always belong to God the Will of God that this pathway humor, all in obedience to God.
alone.” (p. 261) be revealed, the inerrancy of the
prophetic Revelation, and the lack Derya can be reached at
In my understanding, human be- of contradiction between any of the derya_honka@hks.harvard.edu
ings do have the aspiration toward primary sources of its truth. Just as
perfection, as well as the yearning those verses of the Qur’an that con-
to comprehend God’s Attributes. tain more than one possible meaning
But we do not have the capability are never to be understood in ways
to fully do so. All our attributes, that contradict those verses that con-
including that of knowledge, are tain only one meaning, so Muslims
God-given creations, and we are do not diminish their knowledge of
always merely striving to perfect God by metaphorically comparing
them. The sole purpose of existence their own contingency and potential
is to strive toward perfect obedience to His Necessity and Reality.
to our Creator. This is where the
meaning of piety that I gave above Are my differences with Allawi
Photo Courtesy of Sajda Ouachtouki ‘13

In the Counter to what your television

may have told you, not all Muslim
Imagine a woman today approaching
the Head of State that also happen to

Footsteps of the women are subjugated second-class

citizens with intellects crushed
be the religious authority and disput-
ing an archaic marriage practice on

Sahabaat: down by oppressive male counter-

parts. Muslim civilizations hold rich
the strict basis of injustice.1 And not
only is this ordinary woman heard,

Muslim Women examples of outstanding women

who have fought for their faith and
but she is also honored for the rest
of her life by her contemporaries.

and Religious stood firm in maintaining their God-

given rights. Rather than importing
Khawlah bint Tha’labah stood firm
in defending her position because

Knowledge a sometimes incompatible western

type of feminism, modern Muslims
she had faith in her religion as just to
all, not only for men. What kind of
can seek inspiration from the ex- situation was present in Arabia over
Hagar ElBishlawi GS traordinary heroines of their tradi- 1400 years ago where a woman not
tion. only had a stage to voice her discon-

1. Abdul-Rahman, M. S. (2009). Tafsir Ibn Kathir Juz’ 28 (Part 28): Al-Mujadila 1 To At-
Tahrim 12, Part 28. London: MSA Publication Limited.

tent to authority, but more impor- would actively inquire about, imple- med Akram Nadwi provides textual
tantly held the mindset that she had ment, and spread the wisdom they evidence describing 8,000 stories
the ‘right’ to do so? attained. Women could often be of Muslim women scholars. His
found asking questions to the Proph- text published in 2007 is a startling
For the people of this time, both et in the mosque whether seeking reminder that women’s contribu-
men and women, implementing religious judgments for themselves tions to Islam are, rather than being
their faith was of utmost concern. or on behalf of others. And just as non-existent, may have simply been
When they obtained a new morsel significantly, they would seek the largely forgotten. We know that
of religious knowledge, they would company of the Prophet’s wives to Companions and Successors would
immediately try to incorporate it gain knowledge. Women had a place seek knowledge from teachers re-
into their lives, even if counter to in religious institutions and a grass- gardless of gender. Then why thou-
old social norms. For example, the roots networks to learn from each sands of years later are some asking
wife of Umar Farooq, Aliqah, at- other. The arrival of Islam presented the question, “Do women belong in
tended the mosque for prayer even women with many new freedoms, the mosque?”
though her husband did not prefer unheard of in Arabia. However, they
it.2 However, he never prevented her learned about these rights by attend- As time moved further away from
from going because they both were ing the mosque and through circles the Prophet’s era, tighter restrictions
well aware of the Prophet’s saying: of learning. Today we are just barely were placed on women limiting their
“When a wife of one of you asks catching up to this Prophetic model. role in the public sphere. As the
for permission to go to mosque, she Muslim world expanded, obtaining
should not be refused.” (Muslim Women have always held pivotal religious knowledge required travel-
and Bukhari). Once aware of their roles in the establishment of Islam. ing to the locations of scholars. With
rights, or, more specifically, their du- The first believer of the Prophet’s access to religious knowledge lim-
ties, women of this time saw it as an message was a woman: Khadija3; the ited, we find a decline in female-pro-
obligation to perform them. Their first martyr was a woman: Sumayya.4 duced scholarship. Higher education
goal was not to tear down customs, Women who lived within a genera- in the realm of religious scholarship
but to flourish within the bounds of tion of the Prophet were huffadh of and authority became the preserves
their faith. There is little doubt that the Quran (i.e., had memorized all of men. While lower literacy rates
Aliqah went to the mosque because of the Quran), narrators of hadith and hindrance on free movement
she wanted to learn and pray rather (Prophetic reports), jurists, Quranic may have once caused a decline in
than merely challenge her husband’s commentators, muftis, and scholars.5 the contribution of women to the
authority. Rather than a battle of the Since the time of the Prophet, men annals of Muslim history, this digital
sexes, the early Muslims’ goal was and women have strived to learn and age may prove to be a catalyst in re-
living the faith as exemplified by the interpret their religion as a duty. In a viving that women’s spirit of involve-
Prophet. prophetic narration we learn: “Seek- ment. Remarkably, it is this revolu-
ing [a certain amount of religious] tion in the “oral” tradition that is
And rather than as an exception, knowledge is obligatory upon every giving women a new voice. Women
Khawlah and Aliqah characterized Muslim (male and female),” (Ibn have been largely excluded from for-
the women of early Islam. They were Majah). In Al-Muhaddithat: The mal places of learning. Often barred
empowered by their religion and Women Scholars in Islam, Moham- from traditional institutions, they

2. Husain, S. (2004). Women’s Role under Islam. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.
3. O’Connor, K. (2010). Gender and Women’s Leadership: A Reference Handbook. California: SAGE.
4. Women’s Role under Islam.
5. Nadwi, M. A. (2007). Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars of Islam. London: Interface Publications.
6. Salvatore, A., & Eickelman, D. F. (2004). Public Islam and the Common Good. Netherlands: Brill.

are utilizing new venues to explore opportunities for women as present- greater the probability their opin-
their faith and voice their opinions ers in general, Muslim women are ions will be adopted by the general
by heading online and on-air for carving out a unique niche focusing public. Television, internet, and
religious education. on religious issues. These shows are radio are sources of religious opin-
extremely popular and have an over- ions, but without the interactions,
Popular religious media is not lim- whelmingly female viewership. knowledge of personal context, and
ited to books, pamphlets, audio and qualifications that could be provided
videocassette, but radio, television, The phenomenon of female preach- by on-site religious authority. While
satellite television and the internet, ers, and television preachers in this media has its dangers, it is pro-
are increasingly being used to reach general, brings up a question of ducing a forum that women and the
larger and more diverse audiences.6 who holds and controls religious youth are obviously taking advantage
For example, the introduction of authority. In the past, scholars have of. With these new forms of commu-
satellite television in many parts of defined the legitimacy of other nication, increasingly large pools of
the Muslim world, has transformed scholars. However, in today’s era of female religious scholars, or Sheikha,
the impact of media. Freedom from the “virtual mosque,” the influence are being afforded the opportunity
on-the-ground censorship and the of a preacher is often directly cor- to have their voices heard.
development of a “virtual on-air related with his or her popularity.
community” has created a new The greater the number of listeners Hosts such as Neveen El Guindy,
forum for women. With burgeoning who hear their religious rulings, the Doa’a Amer, and an array of others
Sattelite Image of Damascus - Google Maps

are preaching on satellite television knowledge for personal transfor- producing, not just popular voices,
shows, interacting with viewers, mation and development of faith. but qualified ones as well. Mus-
and dispensing religious advice.7 Modern Muslim women attend lim women have been increasingly
The women who have entered onto conferences, study circles, and read demanding inclusion in the religious
this stage can generally be placed books to informally acquire religious arena, and their voices are neces-
into two categories. The first con- knowledge. sary in the male dominated field of
sists of former actresses and sing- religious interpretation and applica-
ers who became more religious In a study of European Muslim tion of Islamic law. In order to avoid
and female preachers who dole out women, interviewed women stated being marginalized, they need the
broad-ranging advice to listeners. that an increase in their Islamic support of established seats of formal
Their popularity is on the same level knowledge allowed for the capacity religious learning. More institu-
as other singers and actresses, but to differentiate between tradition tions which incorporate women into
because of their limited religious and religion.9 Women have increas- formal religious education programs,
education, they can only express ingly been aiming for not only as Al-Azhar does, are needed. The
superficial answers devoid of con- personal, but also public authority tradition of female religious author-
text. The second category consists of in religious education. For example, ity is a historical legacy that is being
women well-known as interpreters of during the Women’s Islamic Initia- revived. Rather than just subjects of
religious knowledge. Soad Saleh and tive in Spirituality and Equality religious jurisprudence, women need
Abla al-Kahlawy, both trained by the global conference, attendees agreed to continue the precedent of past
world-famous religious institution that, “It is important for women figures, such as Aisha, who shaped it.
of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, are to take leadership roles in religious
examples of the latter category. These interpretation and spirituality.” In Hagar is a graduate student in the
women not only host religious shows this vein, they established an Inter- Civil and Environmental
and issue fatwas, but also serve as national Shura, or advisory, council Engineering department at
deans at their universities. While of Muslim women leaders regarding Princeton and can be reached at
present on the same format, their women’s issues worldwide. They plan helbishl@princeton.edu
influence lies in both the general on establishing endowments spon-
population and religious scholarship soring scholarships for women to
circles. Their expertise in Islamic law train as muftiah, scholars certified to
allows for opportunities to make im- make fatawa or Islamic legal judg-
pactful changes. For example, Saleh’s ments.10
fatwa, or legal opinion, on limiting
a man’s unilateral right to divorce is Whereas most Muslims agree that
now the official interpretation of Al- women should acquire religious
Azhar and is preached in hundreds knowledge, training of female
of mosques in Egypt.8 religious authorities is where that
agreement seems to end. Traditional
Women have always committed institutions just need to catch up to
themselves to the study of religious the example set 1400 years ago by

7. Otterman, S. (2006). Fatwas and Feminism: Women, Religious Authority, and Islamic TV. Transnational Broadcasting Journal.
8. Fatwas and Feminism
9. Jouili, J. S., & Amir-Moazami, S. (2006). Knowledge, Empowerment and Religious Authority Among Pious Muslim Women in
France and Germany. The Muslim World , 617-642.
10. McGinty, A. M. (2007). Formation of alternative femininities through Islam: Feminist approaches among Muslim converts in Swe-
den. Women’s Studies International forum , 474-485.