What Is Islam

As always I continue to scour the internet for the most thought-provoking articles I can find, specifically about Islam and Muslims. With that said, please find below four articles that I hope you find of interest. We start with Sameer Rahim writing about the concept of art in Islam, focusing on the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a subject matter still relevant due to the events that occurred in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo some 5 years ago.

The next article is from Thomas Small who expertly reviews the 600 page book What Is Islam? The Importance Of Being Islamic by the Pakistani-American academic Shahab Ahmed. The book was published posthumously after the death of the author in September of 2015. What Is Islam? is a sophisticated new look at what it means to be a Muslim, with critics calling it a brave attempt to accurately widen the theological boundaries of the 1,400 year old faith. The book is well worth reading, as is another book from Ahmed, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses In Early Islam, which details the controversial episode in the life of the Prophet Muhammad in which he allegedly mistook words suggested by Satan as divine revelation.

After such seriousness the last two articles show just how crazy the misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims can be. The third article is about a Muslim woman who complains about being discriminated against whilst trying to get into a nightclub. The bouncer told her to take off her hijab. So much to unpack here that I do not know where to even begin. Firstly, as a Muslim why try to even go to a nightclub? Secondly, if you get to see pictures of the incident, then immediately that old debate about what is and is not hijab is bound to surface again, as she only covers the back of her head and not her neck. She even has a lip piercing! Thirdly, these types of incidents make me think we Muslims are not doing ourselves any favours. Apparently after being refused entry she swore at the bouncer, telling him to “F*** off.” Anyways, details are presented in the article below, and the woman in question has gone on to write about her experience elsewhere. Who knows, maybe by refusing this truly modern Muslim entry the bouncer actually did her a favour. And Allah knows best.

The final article again shows how people can misinterpret all things Islamic. This time, though, it is not a Muslim getting things wrong but non-Muslims, Americans to be more precise, who seem to be against the teaching of “Arabic numerals” in American classrooms. If you know your numerical history, you will know why that is such a ridiculous point of view. The New York Times journalist Mustafa Akyol, in writing about this very topic, states that a better understanding of Islamic history might actually be better for us all: “The third great Abrahamic religion, Islam, also had a hand in the making of the modern world, and honoring that legacy would help establish a more constructive dialogue with Muslims.”

Please note that what is presented below are extracts. The articles are all well worth reading in full. Enjoy!

Eye Of The Beholder – How The Prophet Muhammad Has Been Depicted Through The Centuries

Sameer Rahim, 18 Dec 2019,

Islamic visualisations of the Prophet are surprisingly common, especially in the richly illustrated books made in Persian and Ottoman courts, both Sunni and Shia, between 1300 and 1800. In the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid ad-Din’s world history of 1314, there are some fascinating early examples.

It’s still a common assumption that since Islam is essentially iconoclastic, any figurative images of the Prophet – even if created by Muslims – will provoke violence. Such works therefore have either to be explained away – it’s not really him – or kept hidden from the general public. Thankfully, this kind of doublethink is now being questioned.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons did not provoke anger because they portrayed the Prophet – rather it was their deliberate offensiveness. Such mockery is deep-rooted in Western culture. In medieval Europe, the Prophet was a stock figure of ridicule. John Tolan’s new book Faces Of Muhammad (Princeton University Press) reprints a grisly illustration from a 15th-century manuscript of John Lydgate’s long poem The Fall Of Princes, in which the ‘false Machomeete’ is ‘deuoured among swyn’. In a post-9/11 world, provocative images of the Prophet were reactivated, not only to attack the religion but also to taunt Muslim minorities living in the West.

Visit a church and you will see Christ, but Muhammad never appears in a mosque. The Qur’an accuses Christians of wrongly deifying Jesus, and pointedly describes the Prophet as a ‘mere warner’. Idol-worship is also a concern. But nowhere does the Qur’an ban figurative painting; in fact, in verses quoted by later Muslim artists, Jesus moulds a clay bird with his hands before breathing life into it. Later biographical stories about the Prophet send mixed messages. After conquering Mecca, he removes pagan statues from the sacred Kaaba – but saves an icon of Mary and Jesus. He chides his wife Aisha for putting up curtains decorated with animals; other versions of the story, though, say he didn’t mind her turning the curtains into cushion covers.

Formal disapproval of image-making – though never universally enforced – is not recorded until two centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632. The art historian Mika Natif argues these rulings solidified in the Abbasid era as a way of rebuking its predecessor dynasty the Umayyads, whose delight in portraiture was deemed symptomatic of its decadence. The Abbasids might have had a point. The walls of the Greek-influenced Umayyad bathhouse at Qasr Amra, in what is now Jordan, are covered with enrobed kings, naked women and performing animals – my personal favourite is a bear playing a mandolin.

Warrior, king, celestial adventurer and Sufi – these are just four popular Muhammads. Nowadays you are most likely to see abstract representations such as an imprint of his sandal or a rose. These depictions, we should note, are no less meaningful for being non-figural.

Some Muslims will never want to see their Prophet pictured. That is their right. But we can’t pretend that such images never existed. Scholars and curators must play their part in allowing Muslims and others to speak to each other across time about the diverse ways the Prophet has been regarded. For this world-changing personality has always been in the eye of the beholder.

Truly Modern Muslims

Thomas Small, 09 Jun 2017,

Thomas Small considers the thorny question of what it means to be Islamic.

Shahab Ahmed begins What Is Islam? with an intriguing anecdote. At a Princeton banquet, a Cambridge logician turns to a distinguished Muslim academic seated at the same table and asks him whether he considers himself a Muslim. “Yes”, the Muslim replies. This is puzzling, so the don, operating under the customary misunderstanding that Islam is, in essence, a fiercely puritanical religion as hell-bent against wine-bibbers as it is against music-makers, homosexuals and the veneration of icons, motions to the Muslim’s glass and asks further, “Then why are you drinking wine?” The answer he receives provides the book with its starting point: “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” the Muslim says, “during which time we have always been drinking wine. You see,” he goes on, smiling at the don’s bewildered look, “we are Muslim wine-drinkers.”

The rest of the book attempts to make sense of what it means to be a Muslim wine-drinker, along with several other perplexing contradictions at the heart of the Islamic tradition: textual literalism and rational philosophy à la Avicenna; strict legalism and antinomian mysticism; dogmatic monotheism and Sufi monism; sexual puritanism and homoerotic love poetry; or the contradiction most perplexing to thinking people today, between Islam as the “religion of peace” and Islam as the self-professed religion of militant jihadists – a paradox demonstrated most recently in Manchester, where twenty-two people enjoying themselves at a pop concert were cruelly murdered by Salman Abedi, a Muslim suicide bomber; and in London Bridge, where a trio of knife-wielding jihadists killed seven more.

Ahmed addresses all these contradictions and more in what is a fascinating, often difficult, but ultimately rewarding study. Embracing and indeed celebrating what is most creative and explorative in Islam, Ahmed is sick of people reducing the religion to nothing more than a mess of prohibitions and restrictions. And it’s hard to deny that when non-Muslims think of Islam, when they’re not imagining jihadist terrorists, they picture laws and punishments imposed by a testy God extracting his pound of flesh from a brow-beaten people. Muslims, too, imagine much the same, only they give it a positive gloss: God isn’t testy, he’s merciful, so his laws are for our good; but when it comes down to it, yes, he is essentially interested in whether or not you’re eating pork, whether or not your daughter is covering her head, whether or not he’s secured your assent to a fixed set of dogmas.

Who is God exactly? How can we know him? Where does his revelation begin and end? Muslims have never agreed on how to answer those questions, and so each is forced to pitch his or her tent in a different epistemological camp – one with the Sufis, another with the clerics, still others with the artists, the poets, the philosophers, or most often with a chaotic combination of them all. Is our knowledge of God limited to what the Qur’an says about him? Literalists, legalists and most theologians have usually answered, yes. Or is the universe itself a revelation of God? Absolutely, say the artists, philosophers and Sufis. Or even more radically, in order to understand God and his ways, are scripture and sacred law entirely dispensable, at least to an elect few? That’s what Avicenna believed, that at its highest the human mind is naturally conformable to reason, a divine principle permeating everything and making the universe innately intelligible.

This is what “being Islamic” is, constantly struggling to define and understand revelation, endlessly wrestling with all its possible meanings, some by writing legal treatises, others by painting exquisite miniatures, still others by drinking wine and reciting love poetry. So “being Islamic” is not so much a matter of doing or not doing certain things, thinking or not thinking certain things. It is, rather, a way of doing and thinking whatever it is you’re doing or thinking, a way of not doing and not thinking them. Muslims, when they don’t drink, are “not drinking” in an Islamic way; equally, when they do drink, they do so as Muslims, in the same Islamic way, accom­modating each thought, activity, or desire to their own interpretation of revelation in all its forms. Certainly, the resulting spectrum of doctrines and practices includes contradictions, but these contradictions aren’t incoherent; their coherence lies in the fact that they result from a single activity, “being Islamic”, which Ahmed also calls “meaning-making for the self”, a rather elliptical expression indi­cating something like “communal self-exploration”. He’s insistent on this point, that at heart, Islam is primarily focused on providing Muslims with tools for plumbing the depths and scaling the heights of inner experience, and even more than that, that Islam actually is “the reality of inner experience itself”.

Muslim Woman Denied Entry To Nightclub After Refusing To Remove Hijab

Basit Mahmood, 29 Oct 2019,

A Muslim woman says she felt ‘humiliated’ and ‘violated’ after being refused entry into a nightclub for wearing a hijab. Soaliha Iqbal was in the queue with friends outside a Sydney venue, when a member of door staff asked her to take her hijab off. She wrote on blog post website 5Why: ‘Chatting and laughing with my mates in the line, I broke off mid-conversation to hand my ID to Paragon’s bouncer-but he didn’t ask for it or take it. Instead, he pointed to my hijab and said “take it off”.’

The 21-year-old says she was in such shock at the request that she couldn’t muster the words to respond and felt discriminated against. Police who were in the area had to intervene as the argument between Ms Iqbal and the door staff became more heated, after the doorman was called racist. Ms Iqbal was told to move 50 metres away from the venue, after staff cited a law requiring those who had been refused entry to a venue, to do so.

She said her treatment had amounted to blatant discrimination and that she had ‘never been treated so badly in her whole life’ and also felt that the police had blamed and gaslighted her. Ms Iqbal also said that she has not had a problem with bouncers in the past letting her in with her hijab because ‘they know she doesn’t drink and wouldn’t be causing any problems’.

She added that she was angered by management staff’s refusal to apologise to her, who at the time ‘refused to acknowledge that it was wrong to ask me to take my hijab off’. In a later statement posted on Facebook, Craig Wesker, group operations manager for Ryan’s Hotel Group who own Paragon, issued an ‘unreserved apology’ to Ms Iqbal.

He added: ‘As this was [the bouncer’s] first shift on the venue, he no doubt wanted to impress the venue management with his professionalism and attention to detail in carrying out his duties and responsibilities diligently. Due to this diligence when checking you (sic) ID and trying to ensure he had facial recognition, he asked you to remove you (sic) hijab interpreting it as only a head scarf. Understandably, you were taken aback by the request and then by virtue of the fact that there was quite a number of people trying to enter the venue, he asked you to step to one side so he could talk to you further about it. This action appears to have been interpreted you (incorrectly) as the Security Personal denying you entry for you refusing to remove your hijab.’


Over Half Of Americans Don’t Think We Should Be Using Arabic Numerals In School

Amanda Tarlton, 16 May 2019,

Little did they know…

A shocking study recently revealed that more than half of Americans believe Arabic numerals shouldn’t be taught in schools. But here’s the catch—Arabic numerals, unbeknownst to many, are the numbers that we use every day (1, 2, 3, etc.).

“Ladies and gentlemen: The saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen in our data,” John Dick, CEO of CivicScience, the market research firm that conducted the survey, tweeted on May 11 along with a screenshot of the results.

CivicScience polled 3,624 Americans on their opinions about mathematics instruction in U.S. schools. When asked, “Should schools in America teach Arabic Numerals as part of their curriculum?” 56 percent said no. Only 29 percent said yes while 15 percent had no opinion.

Dick explained on Twitter that “our goal in this experiment was to tease out prejudice among those who didn’t understand the question,” adding that “most people don’t know the origins of our numerical system and yet picked a tribal answer anyway. You can argue that one is worse than the other but both prove a similar point.”

Dick’s original tweet has Twitter abuzz, receiving over 61,700 likes so far, as people react to the obvious prejudice that the results prove still exists in America. “We’re doomed,” one person commented, while another joked, “Wait until we have ‘freedom numerals.’”

Other people pointed out the question’s similarity to a recent episode of satirical comedy Veep, during which Presidential candidate and proud anti-vaxxer Jonah proclaims, “Math was created by Muslims. And we teach this Islamic math to children. Math teachers are terrorists! Algebra? More like Al Jazeera…I will ban this Sharia math from being taught to American children. There will be no more math.”