Remember Death

Jumping off my post some days ago about the Stoic “premeditation of evils“: Virtually every society since ancient times understood that we should always be aware of death.

Socrates said that good philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as “remember death”, which became the mantra of medieval Christian societies following the devastation of the bubonic plague.

Some adherents of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad himself had once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, already so well known for their obsession with death, had a custom of bringing out a skeleton during festivities and cheer, “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Mexico’s globally iconic Day of the Dead fuses both the Catholic and indigenous fascination with death, putting a more optimistic spin on our ability to remain connected to departed loved ones while appreciative of our time on Earth.

Still Life with a Skull, by Philippe de Champaigne, which depicts the three essentials of existence: life (the tulip), death (the skull), and the time (the hourglass). The original painting is part of a 17th century artistic genre called Vanitas, which encouraged reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.

Perhaps the most famous proponents of this idea were the Stoics I quoted last time, who emerged in the Roman Empire the third century B.C.E. In his private journal known as the Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Roman statesman and orator Seneca advised that we go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we:

…prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live and would probably paralyze us with fear (take it from someone with chronic anxiety). But as another famous Stoic, the slave Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terribly doing so, you’ll never have a base thought, nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers cut us off on the road or in line will die; that every time we say goodbye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again. Again, the point is not to be depressed, clingy, or nihilistic, but to help put things in perspective and value each finite second we have.

The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness. Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s every culture and society has been trying to refine this advise for as long as our species has been aware of its own mortality.

The Saint Among Princes

Emir Abdelkader was an Algerian religious and military leader who led a tenacious struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. An Islamic scholar and philosopher from the mystical Sufi tradition, he unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, after a meeting of tribesmen elected him as leader. He built up a coalition of Algerian tribes from across the region, successfully holding out for years against one of the most powerful armies in Europe (as well as the second largest colonial empire at the time).

Abdelkader was well regarded by allies and opponents alike, not only for his military and political acumen, but for his markedly good character. He sought counsel from both Jews and Christians, and respected their religious traditions, seeking to create an Algerian state for all faiths. He was honorable and merciful to combatants, ensuring that prisoners were treated well; in one instance, he released prisoners because he could no longer afford to care for them properly. France’s highest-ranking military leader declared him one of the three greatest living men (the other two were Egyptians also known for their skills on and off the battlefield).

Due to this  well-earned grudging respect, when the sheer weight of the French military finally forced him to surrender, Abdelkader was permitted to live in exile in Ottoman-ruled Damascus, with the French government paying his pension, on the condition he would never disturb Algeria again. He lived a quiet life dedicated to debating and writing Islamic theology and philosophy, until another event again catapulted him into fame and world renown.

Years into his exile, a conflict broke out in the region between Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Abdelkader warned local authorities and French diplomats that the Christians of Damascus were in danger. When violence finally broke out, he sheltered large numbers of Christians and ordered his sons to go throughout the city to offer Christians aid and protection. Reports from various survivors and religious orders attested to Abdelkader’s decisive role in saving thousands, and he became an international celebrity.

His erstwhile enemy France increased his pension and awarded him the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Greece, Turkey, and even the Vatican also bestowed him with official honors; he is one of the few non-Christians to have the Order of Pope Pius. Even Abraham Lincoln recognized his deed, giving him a pair of inlaid pistols that are now on display in Algeria’s national museum.

For these reasons, he was widely hailed across the world as the “Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints”.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) is barely a footnote in human history: it lasted only two years, from 1918 to 1920, as one of many short-lived states to emerge during the tumultuous Russian Civil War.

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Yet for its brief existence, it was a trailblazer: it was the first Muslim country to establish a democratic republic, with representation of all ethnic and religious minorities; power was vested in a universally elected parliament, and its founding document guaranteed “all its citizens within its borders full civil and political rights, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, class, profession, or sex.” The ADR was also among the first countries in the world, and the very first majority-Muslim nation, to grant women equal political rights with men—before even the U.S. and much of Western Europe.

There is no telling whether this ground-breaking effort would have lasted, as the country was invaded and annexed by the Soviets around its second anniversary of independence. (Around the same time, two other Muslim democratic republics emerged from the fallen Russian Empire: the Crimean People’s Republic and the Idel-Ural Republic, but these lasted only a few weeks.)

Source: Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of a National Identity in a Muslim Community 

Schola Medica Salernitana

Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.

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A depiction of the medical school in one of Avicenna’s medical works, The Canon of Medicine (Wikimedia Commons)

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Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives

The Economist recently featured a new book that aims to present a more nuanced and encouraging picture of the history of Islam and its innumerable, if now often understated, intellectual and cultural achievements. Chase Robinson’s Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years encapsulates Islamic history through the perspectives and experiences of thirty figures, who represent a cross section of Muslim society.  Continue reading

How Medieval Islamic Theology Can Fight ISIS

Islam is distinct from many other faiths in having a very complex legalistic character, which among other things, provides a lot of leeway for adapting to the modern world, including the current challenges posed by globalization, pluralism, and modernity.

One of example of this tradition is the ancient yet surprisingly progressive concept of irja, which, as explained by Mustafa Aykol in an excellent New York Times piece, offers a valuable counter to the regressive and viciously intolerant dogma of Islamic State (emphasis mine).

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing”. It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate”. Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia”, the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers”. The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism.

So contrary to popular belief, Islam has the potential to be a tolerant and pluralistic belief, even if it ultimately — like Judaism and Christianity — proposes an exclusivist ideology. Mainstream Muslims can draw from a deep tradition of theological compromise and pragmatism to combat the bloodthirsty expansionism and sectarianism of extremists.

And while irja sadly did not survive the tumultuous early years of Islam, its legacy remains in practice, if not explicitly.

…There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones … who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality”. They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins”.

It is no surprise that fanatical ideologues like I.S. would be steadfastly opposed to irja. But as Aykol rightly concludes, the group and its allies will have a tougher time making their case if more and more of their fellow Muslims step up to reclaim the label and, more importantly, put it into practice.

I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.

Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.

If any good can come from Islamic State’s bloody and disruptive emergence, it is the possibility that the group’s unleashing of Islam’s darkest elements will compel more Muslims to do some soul searching and tap into the understated wellspring of tolerant and pluralistic values. Just as the wars of religion within Christianity eventually led to a softening of Christian dogma and an emergence of more progressive strains of the faith, so, too, could Islam hopefully benefit from a similar and legitimate path towards progress — hopefully at less cost along the way.

What are your thoughts?

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The Invisible Atheists of the Arab World

From The New Republic comes an interesting look at the rarely acknowledged world of nonbelievers in the Middle East, namely in Arab countries. Though still a largely religious and conservative region, the ranks of secular people, including  atheists, is growing quickly and to significant proportions — stereotypes notwithstanding.

While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists”, the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person”. (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.

…the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of non­belief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold”.

Arab societies, though far from free and liberal by Western standards, are a lot more progressive and pluralistic than many would assume. Though nonbelievers still have it tough, and face both social and political repercussions, they find themselves in environments that are increasingly more accommodating to their lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra-­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a super­market chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.

Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.

Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.

In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.

All this sounds very familiar, not unlike what has happened (and is still happening) in the developed world. But unlike in most parts of the world, secularism in the Arab world takes on a more political tone, which reflects the degree to which religion is intertwined with the ruling elites (especially in the Gulf). To be secular, especially openly atheist, is to challenge the status quo of the powers that be, who use religion as a tool of control.

I recommend reading the rest of the article to get a full picture of the political and social implications of secularism growing in one of the world’s most religious regions. Feel free to weigh in.

America’s Muslim Heritage

Although widely seen as a new — and in some circles, invasive — presence in the United States, Islam has been a part of the nation’s history since colonial days, if not earlier. The New York Times highlights just a few of the known examples:

In 1528, a Moroccan slave called Estevanico was shipwrecked along with a band of Spanish explorers near the future city of Galveston, Tex. The city of Azemmour, in which he was raised, had been a Muslim stronghold against European invasion until it fell during his youth. While given a Christian name after his enslavement, he eventually escaped his Christian captors and set off on his own through much of the Southwest.

Two hundred years later, plantation owners in Louisiana made it a point to add enslaved Muslims to their labor force, relying on their experience with the cultivation of indigo and rice. Scholars have noted Muslim names and Islamic religious titles in the colony’s slave inventories and death records.

The best known Muslim to pass through the port at New Orleans was Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a prince in his homeland whose plight drew wide attention. As one newspaper account noted, he had read the Bible and admired its precepts, but added, “His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them.”

Among the enslaved Muslims in North Carolina was a religious teacher named Omar ibn Said. Recaptured in 1810 after running away from a cruel master he called a kafir (an infidel), he became known for inscribing the walls of his jail cell with Arabic script. He wrote an account of his life in 1831, describing how in freedom he had loved to read the Quran, but in slavery his owners had converted him to Christianity.

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