The Complex Nature of Arab Nationalism and Islamism in the Arab World

While the concepts of the “nation” and the “state” have long been present, the “nation-state”, is broadly agreed upon within International Relations community to have been “codified”  by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.[1] Regardless of whether non-Western polities would have adapted the nation-state concept themselves in time, colonial powers crudely instilled the concept in the Middle East, with much of the Middle Eastern map drawn by Great Britain and France as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement after Ottoman rule of the Middle East.[2] Therefore, Arab nationalism has been a force of unity for the Arab people, from opposition to the Ottoman Empire, then to the colonial powers of Europe, and then to US hegemony. As “nationalism” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “loyalty or devotion to a nation,” [3] “Arab nationalism”, then, is not quite the same as the nationalism one might think of in the West. The nation Arab nationalists are devoting to has historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic differences than the nation of Western nationalists, and therefore, will be, according to Anderson, imagined in different ways.

The school of thought that sees Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate, mutually exclusive identities and phenomena identifies the perceived failure of Arab nationalism with the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war. In this case, the nationalist projects that were rampant in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and across the Arab world in the early 1950s, were overtaken by a surge in Islamic sentiment.[4] The collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961 that caused Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser to suffer, as the leader of the “Arab nationalist march,”[5] is seen as another turning point from a nationalist era to an Islamist era in the Arab world.

Here it is viewed that the dwindling of Arab nationalism with its strong rhetoric in anti-imperialist sentiment is believed to be due to Britain’s departure from Egypt and Iraq, the Arab states who had “espoused the ideas of Arab nationalism” suffering the humiliation of ’67, and the gradual shift in power to the more conservative states, which has resulted in an era where “Islam became a way for people to address their grievances from an authentic, respected viewpoint.”[6] The “sun set on nationalism” and “rose on Islamic militancy”, as radical Islamists challenged governments throughout the region, such as the Baathist Iraqi government in the 1970s, the Baathists in Syria in the 1980s and the secular Algerian leaderships in the 1990s.[7]

Yet the idea that Arab nationalism died and was replaced by Islamism relies on the assumption that Arab nationalism and Islamism are merely contradictory, and is a fallacy that suffers from oversimplification. It neglects the history of Islam, the Islamic movements that helped shape the political discourse and Arab society much before the 1960s, the decline of Ottoman and Persian power and how this affected the role of Islam in the Arab world, and so on. Instead, understanding Islamism as a part of the wider “Islamic phenomenon” allows one to acknowledge the deeply complex nature of it, with expressions such as al-ba’th al-islami (Islamic resurrection), al-ittijah al-islami (Islamic tendency) and al-sahwah al-islamiyyah (Islamic awakening); commonly used to refer to the Islamic phenomenon and portraying the cyclical nature of it.[8] The Islamic phenomenon is an intrinsic part of Arab society, thereby inevitably intertwined with each part of Arab society, including Arab nationalism.

Chouraqui uses Descartes’ Discourse on the Method to argue understanding Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate and opposing ideologies confuses the concept of origin with foundation.[9] In this sense, the origin of both these movements have similarities: an anti-West dynamic against the colonial European powers and then US hegemony, while the foundation of these movements, in other words, what these movements consists of, differs – as, while Arab nationalism embraces Western ideas, Islamism fundamentally rejects Western ideas and values.[10] Historically, the two have co-existed, overlapping, and been used by the other for their own aims. Islamism has been used to strengthen nationalist sentiment, such as through Al-Azhar as a unifying ideological tool.[11] Another instance of the two overlapping are the Iraqi Baathists, a nationalist force who held a deeply complex relationship with Islamic forces – in 1993 beginning to embark on a Return to Faith Campaign (which ultimately aimed to emphasis Islamic identity) and in 2003 collaborating with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would later on become Islamic State, and thus, “by 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies.”[12]

The Egyptian Arab Spring witnessed Islamists, liberals, conservatives, all united in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. Tahrir Square was not split by sectarianism nor by ideology, as “inside the field no one asked about religion, no one cared. All Egyptians…all protesting, all united.”[13] Despite this unity disintegrating after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, the unity during the revolutions and uprisings prove the two may work together in ways nationalism in the West and Islamism have not. The widespread suspicion that Nasser had approached the Muslim Brotherhood at some point in his life for a national cause further shows a larger phenomenon whereby Islamist and nationalist groups in the Arab world hold the potential to aid each other.

As Arab nationalism and Islamism are not mutually exclusive, then the argument that rising nationalism has a purely fundamentally contradictory relationship with jihadi terrorists as Islamist forces is faulty and proves oversimplified. The relationship between rising nationalism and Islamist fundamentalism is not necessarily purely fundamentally contradictory. While ideologically Arab nationalism and Islamism seem to be contradictory, with one rooted in transnational goals and the other in national, in practice this has not been the case. Therefore, the relationship between the two entities are deeply complex in the Arab world.

[1] Benno Teschke, “Theorizing the Westphalian System of States: International Relations from Absolutism to Capitalism”, European Journal of International Relations 8 No. 1 (2002), 6, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066102008001001.

[2] Tarek Osman, “Why Border Lines Drawn with a Ruler in WWI Still Rock the Middle East,” BBC, December 14, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25299553.

[3] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Nationality,” accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism.

[4] Dorothy Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism as a Unifying Factor in the Middle East,” (Dissertation, Boston College, 2007).

[5] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 167.

[6] Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism,” 88, 98.

[7] Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, 296.

[8] R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 4.

[9] Nathanael Chouraqui, “Are Arab Nationalism & Islamism Two Sides of the Same Coin?” E-international Relations Students (2016). Received from: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/02/are-arab-nationalism-and-islamism-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “The Baathists: How Saddam’s Men Helped Islamic State Rule,” Reuters, December 11, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-iraq-islamicstate/.

[13] Nermeen Edrees, “Egypt: Inside Tahrir Square,” Global Voices February 4, 2011, Accessed July 23, 2018, https://globalvoices.org/2011/02/04/egypt-inside-tahrir-square/.

Counter-Terrorism and Terrorism: A Cycle?

In order to examine and understand the connection between terrorism and counter-terrorism today, one must first become acquainted with the theories and perspective within critical terrorism studies – that is that there is such a thing as “traditional” terrorism studies, a discipline that is problematic in its state-centered-ness, and therefore is biased and has goals and ideologies wholly from the state perspective. The current war on terror has justified many pre-emptive wars such as the Iraq invasion, and measures that are extreme – such as Guantanamo Bay, a recession of civil liberties in America regarding privacy and in torture and therefore in human rights, and so on. Terrorism is a weaponized term that gives justification to the labeler, and delegitimizes those that are being labelled as such. Therefore, when counter-terrorist entities and state deem a certain group as a terrorist organisation- this immediately holds a level of de-legitimization of their grievances and therefore exempts any need to even listen to them, no less consider their grievances. The labelling of “Terrorism” as such provides an oversimplified notion of the barbaric “them” versus the civilized “us” that are under threat.

Following anthropologist Zulaika’s writings, it becomes clear counter-terrorist actors are often not rational. He argues counter-terrorism as a self-fulfilling prophecy, that makes terrorism seem a “Taboo” and mythologises the fearful barbaric “other”, the “terrorist”- and in fact, this is counter-productive to the goals of counter-terrorism as it provides more fear and therefore perceived power of the so-called terrorists. He terms this the “myth of the culture of terror.” He uses the word “myth” because it is not factual, and in this sense, is witchcraft-like, as counter-terrorist actors – intelligence agencies, military strategists, politicians, security agency, in other words, the security-military complex- give in to this fear more than certain facts. This can be seen with the Bush administration regarding the Iraq invasion, and similarly to Paul Bremer’s decisions in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. In other words, counter-terrorist actors act as if there is an inevitable up-coming attack, that is deemed bigger and worse and scarier, than all previous, and therefore all measures of security and defense and offense are necessary, but simultaneously, and paradoxically, this will in no means be sufficient to squander the opposition. Here “belief precedes knowledge”, as Zulaika wrote. In conclusion, using the idea of witchcraft and the notions attached to it highlights the irrationality that often corresponds to counter-terrorist thinking and actions.

Heath-Kelly’s “Can we Laugh Yet? Reading Post-9/11 Counterterrorism Policy as Magical Realism” (2012) uses the methodology of policy analysts as well as literary criticism to see the War on Terror as a text, one in the genre of magical realism. Here she argues the War on Terror is considered to be funny when examined as a magical realist text. By seeing the mainstream rhetoric on the War on Terror as laughable, it therefore allows one to engage with the fantasy/humour of counter-radicalisation policies. To believe in the rationality and support counter-radicalisation as it is today is to believe in “secure boundaries of rationalism” and also the witchcraft-like ideologies of terrorists. Laughter is derived from absurdity, and the War on Terror is funny because of the juxtaposition of its ridiculousness and its seriousness. Magical Realism is a literary style that focuses on the paradox of the modern rationalism beside the supernatural/absurdism, i.e. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. It actually encourages rebellion and resistance to monolithic structures. The space of laughter here is seen as the “third space”, which Heath-Kelly then goes on to say the War on Terror is a magical realist text, where we, the readers, are in the third-space and so we are part of the joke; we exist in the space in-between the real and supernatural. The solution put forth here is to recognise the humor, or else become a part of it and become an actor in this ridiculousness. UK’s “CONTEST” Prevent Strand/strategy is an example of this magical realism within the rhetoric on counterterrorism within the larger framework of the War On Terror – the juxtaposition is between the grim everyday reality with the magical extremist ideas; fear of terrorism as a threat to human life greatly exceeds the fear of disease, hunger, or accident. As long as the War on Terror claims the enemy, the supernatural, is inevitable, any means are justified to counter it.

            In chapters 8 and the Introduction of Joseba Zulaika’s book, “Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy”, he expands upon why terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Counter-terrorism has become self-fulfilling and now promotes terrorism. Perhaps one of the most blatant examples is the war in Iraq, where Paul Bremer movements fueled the insurgency that later became AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) which later on evolved to eventually become ISIS. What are the blind spots in Counter-terrorism thinking that led to the self-fulfilling nature of the War on Terror? The crisis of knowledge and the lack of understanding and the ignorance of the terrorists themselves, their language, culture, and histories, is what Zulaika terms a “willful ignorance” of the grievances of terrorists.

CT (Counter-terrorism) thinking follows the “It is not if, but when”, and therefore, suddenly, the terrorist expert becomes the prophet. This is problematic as terrorist strategy relies on random attacks and therefore unpredictability. CT then becomes a knee-jerk like reaction, lacking logic, and consistently acting on a worst-case scenario possibility, as if it is happening already, or the only possibility is that it will happen and therefore the threshold for what is considered irrational to counter-terror the attack and terrorists drops massively. This is a catch-22, a time-loop, as the interface of both Terrorism and Counter-terrorism are both constructing a reality, an endless play on mirror images, as Zulaika writes.

The War on Terror has led to the Patriot Act being passed (lack of privacy laws, military operations allowed even more, etc.), it has legitimized preventative wars, it has turned neoconservative fantasies into policy priorities, and monopolized the American Dream by saying this is in jeopardy due to terrorism. Yet both the counter-terrorist and terrorist are playing, and this can be seen in the Iraq War and 9/11. Zulaika states that the question then becomes, “to what extent does counter-terrorism actually promote the very thing it purports to fight?” As terrorism cannot exist without counter-terrorism, counter-terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Counter-terrorism thinking, “belief precedes knowledge”. For example, if you “know” Saddam Hussein is evil, a threat, then this justifies fabricating the necessary lies in order to eliminate the supposed threat for the alleged greater good. This desire not to know, and this blindness and inability to read the information at hand and to systematically manipulate the intelligence is almost like witchcraft.

The Paul Bremer vs. David Petraeus case showing this very well: as David Petraeus was against Bremer’s “de-Baathification” as a “de-Nazification” campaign and said to focus on the local leaders, local culture, which is the opposite of typical CT strategy (to “never negotiate with terrorists”). It was Petraeus’ methods that actually solved things and made things better. Meanwhile, Bremer acted against the recommendation of the military, the intelligence community and most likely from orders from Washington (we know he ignored Rumsfeld’s instructions), and this helped create the very thing it tries to abominate, acting under a “not if, but when” mentality- like waiting as CIA did for 9/11 to happen and so when it does happen it’s like a self-fulling prophecy. Azande, a witchcraft society that is an ethnic group in North Central Africa, hold norms in their society that are derived on the assumption that observations are beneath beliefs, and similarly, in CT culture, some things are unquestionably and are above and before observations. For example: notions of evil, terrorism, insurgency, war, this “oracular mentality” of “witchcraft societies”.

Richard Jackson’s “The Epistemological Crisis of Counterterrorism” (2014) examines what he calls the “bizarre” counter-terrorist practices, often from Western countries, that are costly, counter-productive, and that only make sense in the “paranoid logic” of the “new paradigm”. He lays out four characteristics of this epistemological crisis:

  1. rejection of previous knowledge about terrorism and the embrace of total uncertainty or “anti-knowledge” about any aspect of future terrorist threats
  2. extreme precautionary dogmatism in which the “unknown” is reflexively governed through preemptive action
  3. legitimization and institutionalization of imagination and fantasy as a necessary counterterrorist tool
  4. acceptance of a permanent ontological condition of “waiting for terror” in relation to the next attack (Zulaika and Douglass)

 

In other words, the epistemological crisis is constituted by three things:

  1. “The known (there will always be more terrorist attacks, and we are waiting – “it is not if but when” mentality)
  2. The unknown- we cannot know when the next inevitable attack will occur (justifies killing many for the sake of some; Guantanamo Bay detention centers, drone killing programme)
  3. The Moral Imperative: we have to do everything in our power to prevent the unknown but inevitable coming terrorist attack.

This can be seen in Rumsfeld’s speech of “war against the unknown”, given in 2002 at the National Defence University, which was also very similar to the speech given by UK Home Secretary David Blunkett in November 2002.

Rumsfeld once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This goes back to Zulaika’s argument that CT thinking is founded upon the “It is not if, but when”, acting upon the possibility of the worst-case scenario in all instances; a mere knee-jerk reaction. There is, in CT thinking, a “willful ignorance” of these actually known things:

  • foreign military intervention would lead to anti-American terrorism
  • invasion of Iraq would provoke more anti-western terrorism
  • Guantanamo Bay (torture and abuse) would provoke more terrorism
  • drone killing programme in Afghanistan and Pakistan show that this enrages local populations and inflates anti-Americanism and therefore more attacks.

Yet there is a willful ignorance of these things. Bin Laden’s speech largely not heard by the American or even the Western audience, seen as some sort of taboo to even listen to him. The “Prepare” strand of the UK’s Counter-terrorism initiative CONTEST works on the assumption that there is an impending attack, focusing on things like “pre-crime” and “Risky citizens”. The consequences of the epistemological crisis in counter-terrorist thinking is that it has become a form of a policy paradigm that justifies pre-emptive war, drone programs, control orders, torture, mass surveillance, and more, where the “security-industrial complex” is counter-intuitive politics of fear which benefits those in power, and is manipulated for electoral gain and to influence political projects and so on. The widespread idea that it is OK to kill many people for this deep rooted “Evil, and that the symptoms or signs become the root or cause of terrorism instead of understanding terrorist’s subjectivity, takes away for the chance of rational thinking in counter-terrorism and therefore is counter-intuitive to counter-terrorist thinking. Ultimately, it is harmful to human society and the progression of man.

 

China-Africa Relations: Parasitism or Mutualism?

With the rise of China as a new global power, and with relatively new phenomena like CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, and in contrast to Trump’s pullout from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) during his first day in office, China is already a contesting force to the US as a global power with the ability to shape agendas around the globe. Therefore, examining China as an important and powerful player in global politics today is essential to understanding current international relations and the current international political economy.

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https://allafrica.com/view/group/main/main/id/00052201.html

The term “client-patron relationship”, as it is used in the discipline of international relations, refers to the dependency theory to cast light on the international political economy, first perpetuated by the Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch. The exploitation of third world country by developed countries may be understood as a form of patron-cliency. A well known example may be the US and Iraq.

Today, it is no secret that China has newfound and deep interests in Africa – cementing Africa as its top trading partner and donor. Forum on China-African Corporation (FOCAC), created in 2000, witnessed current Chinese President Xi JinPing promising a loan of $60 billion in aid. The understanding of Africa as a largely severely underdeveloped continent in desperate need of infrastructure, aid and commodities, leads many to argue that it is a relationship of mutualism, where both sides benefit. So how does China benefit? Directly, cheap labor and the gratitude of many African countries. Indirectly, however, China’s expanding political influence through it’s economic expansion grants China much of Africa’s political support in organisations such as the UN.

It is arguable that the viewpoint that China’s expansion and current investment into Africa is an expansionist, post-colonialist matter is a Western view. Many within Africa view the partnership as mutually beneficial. Mehari Taddele Maru explains it succinctly in Al Jazeera (see original article here: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/africa-loves-china-190103121552367.html?fbclid=IwAR0m4dI95-VjoPxW8lSiMgzSI8w8K5wR_sEH7nj4Q4rna44X5howGZ7Ce7U) , that, quite simply, the viewpoint on the China-Africa relationship can be largely categorised into two groups:

  1. The “Sino-Phobic” View: This is the largely West-centric viewpoint, largely given that China is conducting a form of new colonialism with it’s actions in Africa with the intent of advancing Chinese values, power, economy, and therefore influence and dominance.
  2. The “Pro-China” View: China is a saviour, coming to haul Africa out of the rubble. This argues Africa not as the victim of Chinese colonisation, and that China has an “unconditional” coorporation with the African governments.

China has given numerous soft loans to African governments, as well as aiding African peace and security projects, such as UN peacekeeping missions, and confuding AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia). It is worth noting that, according to the World Bank, China has lifted around 800 million people out of poverty. However, many African politicians, spokesmen, educators, and so on, are wary of these new developments,

Mohamed Fayez, Asian Affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has stated that “this helps the development of countries with an established partnership with Beijing, but it is all in the service of BRI [Belt Road Initiative].” (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/25336.aspx)

Only time can tell. But if we look to history, examining the causal chain of events that occur when a developed country provides aid and invests in an developing country, or multiple countries as a collective (as is the case here), it becomes clear what sort of relationship China-Africa truly has.

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https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/xi-declares-new-chapter-in-china-africa-relations 

Tafsiir Continued

Jihad

A topic that is widely discussed in the Quran and that has many political implications in today’s society, is Jihad (“holy war” or “holy struggle”). The word “الجهاد” comes from the root word “جهد” which means to strive or exert oneself, and also means effort, routine, and so on. Jihad has been grossly misunderstood by many non-Muslims, as Jihad holds, perhaps first and foremost, a spiritual meaning – that of spiritual Jihad – which each person is constantly engaging in within themselves. We carry out Jihad at every stage of our lives in order to reach a societal equilibrium that Islam strives for and which is a reflection of inner jihad and stability. The 5 pillars of Islam are related to this spiritual jihad – as the daily prayers of “salat” are a form of spiritual jihad, as is faith, as is Ramadan – the detachment of temptations of the material world which requires strength and inner discipline, as does the Hajj – which requires hard work and preparation and is a tedious journey, and finally, as does Zakat (religious tax/charity), in order to fight against one’s greediness.

As for Jihad in the sense of the Jihad external to one’s own body, it is often depicted as a defense mechanism in the Quran. An aya in Surat al-Baqarah goes as such:

وَاقْتُلُوهُمْ حَيْثُ ثَقِفْتُمُوهُمْ وَأَخْرِجُوهُم مِّنْ حَيْثُ أَخْرَجُوكُمْ وَالْفِتْنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ الْقَتْلِ وَلاَ تُقَاتِلُوهُمْ عِندَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ حَتَّى يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِيهِ فَإِن قَاتَلُوكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوهُمْ كَذَلِكَ جَزَاء الْكَافِرِينَ

 

“And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them away from where they drove you away. And persecution is more grievous than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight with you therein; then, if they fight with you, slay them; such is the retribution of the infidels.” (aya 191)

 

Which is followed by the next aya:

فَإِنِ انتَهَوْاْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

 

“But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (aya 192).

 

Here it becomes clear that many aya’s urge one to put peace first. This can also be seen in in Surat Anfal (the Bounties):

وَإِنْ جَنَحُوا لِلسَّلْمِ فَاجْنَحْ لَهَا وَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

 

“And if they incline to peace, then you (too) incline to it and put your trust in Allah; verily He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (aya 61)

 

The Early Prophets:

The early Prophets consisted of the following: the Prophet Salih of the Thamud people in the North of Arabia, Prophet Shuaib of the Midian people in the Sinai, Prophet Hud of the Ad people in the South of Arabia, Prophet Lot of the people of Sodom, and the Prophet Noah. These were the early Prophets – and each of their stories have many parallels and a similar morality – do not forget Allah and stray of the path of goodness and commit sins of theft, murder, homosexuality, worshipping idols, attachment to materialism, disbelief in Allah- for he will punish you for that. Each of these Prophets attempted to tell their people’s and persuade them to stop their sins and to believe in Allah again, and were patient in their doing so, and each of their people’s did not listen to them – fating themselves to apocalyptic natural disasters caused by Allah.

Finally, Surat al-Khaf (The Cave), number 18, which is 110 aya’s long and consists of four stories. The first is the story of the people of the cave, where Allah told some men to dwell in a cave for 309 years, and when they woke up they found the people around them believed in Allah and they were in a society of faith. The second story was of a man who was given two gardens of grapes, with green crops, and he became very arrogant and forgot Allah, and so it was taken away from him. The third is the story of the Prophet Musa (Moses) who was asked by his people who held the most knowledge on the earth, and he replied he did. Then he heard of a learned man who had even more knowledge than he (Al-Khidr) and went out in search of him. Al-Khidr did three things which seemed immoral and wrong to Mosa at the time – he made a hole in a ship, killed a child, and built a wall himself for no seeming reason. It turned out that he made a hole in the ship because there was an unjust king who was taking away all the ships by force, he killed the child because he was not dutiful to his parents, who were very righteous, and he built the wall over a treasure belonging to two orphan boys which otherwise would have been found and taken from them. The fourth story is the story of the King Dhul Qarnain, who was a just king who had the means to spread justice and goodness. He traveled to the East and West and did so.

The trials put forth within this Surah is the trial of religion from the first story, the trial of wealth from the second story, the trial of knowledge from the third story, and the trial of power from the fourth story. The morals to be learned from these trials is as such: the trial of religion shows our need of righteous companions. The trial of wealth teaches us not to become attached to this life of materialism. The trial of knowledge teaches us humility and to trust in Allah and his plan. Finally, the trial of power teaches us sincerity.

Although the Prophet Suleiman is not considered to be a part of the early Prophets, he is an important Prophet in the Qur’an. He was mentioned in several of the Surah’s – including Surah of the Ants, where he asks for three things: to be a King, to be wise, and that if anyone goes to the Holy Temple that they be forgiven. Suleiman became one of the most powerful Kings, who could speak to the winds, birds, and to jinni. Because of this he had a really strong army. Surat An-Naml (Surah of the Ants) shows that he understood the Ants. Surat as-Saba shows what power he had, and that the jinni were afraid of him:

وَلِسُلَيْمَـانَ الرّ‌ِيحَ غُدُوُّهَا شَهْرٌ وَرَوَاحُهَا شَهْرٌ وَأَسَلْنَا لَهُ عَيْنَ الْقِطْرِ وَمِنَ الْجِنّ‌ِ مَن يَعْمَلُ بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ بِإِذْنِ رَبّـِهِ وَمَن يَزِغْ مِنْهُمْ عَنْ أَمْرِنَا نُذِقْهُ مِنْ عَذَابِ السَّعِيرِ

 

“And for Solomon (We made subservient) the wind which travelled in the morning a month’s journey and a month’s journey in the evening. And We made a fountain of molten copper to flow out for him, and of the jinn, some worked before him by the leave of his Lord; and whoever of them turned away from Our command, We made him taste of the chastisement of the blazing Fire.” (aya 12)

In Surat Sad, 30 after he had spent a day with horses whom he loved very much, he had forgotten to pray, and as a result he killed all the horses and gave the meat to the poor. Many of the Surah’s shows Suleiman’s power.

The Qur’an affects and guides millions of people around the world. Attempting to understand it therefore crucial and a necessity. As mentioned in the previous post “Tafsiir (Quran Interpretation 101” – this is just meant as a rudimentary dip into the world of Tafsiir and is by no means the only interpretation possible for any of these aya’s or Surah’s. The Arabic and English translations in this article were derived from https://www.alislam.org/, a reputable, widely used and well-known site for understanding the Quran.

Ibn Rushd, also Known as Averroes, and “The Commentator”.

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أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎ (Abu I-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd), known as Averroes in the West, was a prominent Islamic philosopher during the Islamic Golden Age. He was often called “The Commentator” due to his vast and extensive commentaries on everything Aristotle wrote, with the exception of Politics, where he instead wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic. Coming from a line of judges, he was well versed in jurisprudence and was appointed qadi (judge) in Seville several times. Under the Caliph Abu Yaqub, he met Ibn Tufail in the same court, and it was he who told Ibn Rushd the Caliph desired to understand Aristotle’s books, resulting in his vast commentary on Aristotle we are able to enjoy today. Ibn Rushd served as a judge as well as a physician in the Almohad caliphate, but later met his misfortune and injustice due to political circumstances under the Caliph Al-Mansur, the son of Caliph Abu Yaqub.

His own manuscripts, including On the Syllogism, On the Intellect, On Conjunction with the Active Intellect, often defended Aristotelianism, as he believed Aristotle had the purest intellect. Whether this is may be considered haram is Islam is worth pondering about. He, as did many of the other Muslim philosophers, understood the prophets to have a pure Intellect that almost, in a way, reflected the Active Intellect (God’s Intellect). In this sense, what would he have said, if one asked him, why did Aristotle not receive or dispel any form of revelations? Perhaps he would have argued that Aristotle’s secular work was, in its own form, a revelation.

Regardless of what his answer might have been, many of his ideas and writings led to the mindless masses to collaborate and turn against him, declaring him a heretic and cursing his books as well as those who read it – essentially marginalizing him from society. Thus he joined the list of condemned philosophers. Of course, there was politics at play as well – the Caliph Al-Mansur wanted the support of Ibn Rushd’s rivals and thus turned against him. As a result, many of Ibn Rushd’s works were lost, as his works were declared illegal or burned by the Caliph. Ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence is arguably the main criticizing work against al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. He argued that interpretation of the holy text does not make one a disbeliever, contrary to Al Ghazali’s ideas, but instead using ta’weel (تأويل , interpretation) to understand and strengthen faith is almost mandated by God, and he’d then support this with aya’s from the Quran.

One of his important and influential thoughts was that philosophy and religion (or faith) were not at odds, but rather philosophy reinforces faith. In his book Fasl al Maqaal (On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy) he argued that the Quran itself urges contemplation and therefore is a must for Muslims. This leads us to his highly held regard for analogy as the strongest tool to attempt to reach Truth. Ibn Rushd’s emphasis on the importance of contemplation deems it a necessity for a Muslim, as, he argued, it is urged and invited by Allah to do so. Therefore, it is, in this sense, a duty to use the Intellect to examine all that exists around us.

Ibn Rushd discussed the idea of شرع (“shar”), which is for the masses who are unable to contemplate deeply (nor do they generally want to), while only those who are able to (the philosophers), should engage in ta’weel and furthermore, these philosophers should not discuss these ta’weel to the masses. However, as his persecution showed, this is not realistic. While ideally it is a sound idea, to separate the two, however in reality this is not possible – his books and his teachings still reached the presumably mindless masses, resulting in his exile and marginalization from society. So, then, perhaps we can contemplate a different methodology – instead of letting شرع for the masses and keeping the writings and compositions of the philosophers to themselves – perhaps dispelling these shocking and fear-inducing ideas in a different way is worth contemplating upon. The methodology of the Brethren of Purity in their The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn is entirely written in story-form, and yet philosophical criticisms, thoughts, ideas and the like are well versed in it, able to exist more freely as it is read, facing less opposition than Ibn Rushd’s works. This is due primarily to two things: the story-form of the writings as well as their anonymity.

Finally, Ibn Rushd’s respect for previously proven premises and knowledge is humbling and also useful. He understood that one should not limit oneself to one’s own time and era, disregarding those before, nor should one limit oneself to one discipline, instead- medicine, astronomy, mathematics, physics, ethics, philosophy, and so on, are all helpful in questioning and examining Truths as well as in attempting to reach Truths. In this sense, he understood the experimental sciences to be built on the accumulation of knowledge throughout the generations. While this point is valid, one must make sure to also question the very essence of the prior knowledge before basing one’s own assumptions and questioning after it.

Tafsiir (Quran Interpretation 101)

“Bismallaah Al-Rahman Al-Rahiim” (In the name of God, the most Gracious and the Merciful”): The “Basmala”, this is the opening phrase in the Quran, and opens every Surah except for Surah 9, “Al-Tawba” (The Repudiation).* This article will go through some reflections and points on each of the Surah’s. Due to the complexity surrounding the issues, this is just offering some تفسير (tafsiir or Quranic interpretations) of various آية‎ (“aya”, verse ) and سورة (“surah”, chapter) and is by no means the only interpretation possible.

Surah Kafirun, the “Unbelievers” (الكافرين) in other words, the one who doesn’t know the Truth. This Surah, number 109, is only 6 آيات (“ayat”, verses) long. It ends with: “to you be your religion, and to me my religion”. This holds openminded connotations, similar to the old saying “to each his own.” This Surah can be seen as an order to the Prophet Muhammad to not force the unbelievers. Similarly, in Surah number 10, Surah يونس (“Yunus”, Jonah), aya 41:

“وَإِن كَذَّبُوكَ فَقُل لِي عَمَلِي وَلَكُمْ عَمَلُكُمْ أَنتُم بَرِيئُونَ مِمَّآ أَعْمَلُ وَأَنَاْ بَريءٌ مِمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ”

“And if they belie you, say: ‘For me is my work and for you is your work. You are quit of what I do, and I am quit of what you do’.”

It emphasised that one cannot force others to believe. In other words, force is not commendable here, but rather, the opposite, is: سلام (“salam”, peace). The word “Islam” is derived from this root word “sine (س) lam (ل) mim (م)”, here pronounced “sa la ma”, as does the word “Muslim”. Surah Yunus may be examined closely alongside Surah Kafirun, as it addresses monotheism and how to deal with those who deny the revelation.

Surah Miryam (مريم), or in Christianity and Judaism, “Mary”, the mother of Jesus, tells a beautiful story of the birth of Jesus. In Islam, unlike in Christianity, Jesus is not the son of God, but another prophet, alongside other prophets like Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Ishmael, Idris, Adam, Noah, and so on. A rationalisation of this is derived from the following logic: Allah wouldn’t need, want, or have a son because this would then imply divisibility and furthermore a need for intimacy, etc. Miryam is the only woman’s name mentioned in the Quran, and is mentioned 34 times in the Quran. The Surah tells of the prophet Abraham who left his father, who worshipped idols, and was rewarded with two sons – Isaac and Jacob. The Guardian of Mary, Zechariah, also a prophet, and the husband of Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) wanted a son, but his wife was barren and he was very old, and so he asked God who forbade him to speak for three days, and then gave him a son named يوحنا (“Yahya”, John. Generations after these prophets, people became negligent of God, and gave in to their basic desires, as the Arabs believed in life after death more as a formality and custom. The argument for life after death follows the following line: the first birth, the birth that is why we are all here, is the argument that supports re-birth.

Mary, sister of Aaron, is a miracle, and perhaps is a way to show people that although things may seem bad in the moment, they are good. Mary’s birth was very painful, so painful she said that she wished she had never been born:

فَاَجَآءَهَا الْمَـخَاضُ إِلَي جِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ قَالَتْ يَا لَيْتَنِي مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْياً مَنْسِيّاً

“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She said: ‘Would I had died ere this, and had been a thing forgotten’.” (aya 23)

and Allah told her to eat the sweet dates off the tree and drink water:

فَنَادَاهَا مِن تَحْتِهَآ اَلاَّ تَحْزَنِي قَدْ جَعَلَ رَبُّكِ تَحْتَكِ سَرِيّاً

وَهُزّ‌ِي إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ تُسَاقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَباً جَنِيّاً

“Then (a voice) called out unto her from beneath her: ‘Grieve not! Verily your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you’.” (aya 24)
“And shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards yourself. It will drop on you fresh ripe dates.” (aya 25)

Surah Al Zumar (الزر) “the Groups”, describes the Day of Judgement. There are many names for the Day of Judgement, such as the Day of the Rising, the Day of Regret, the Day of Recompense, and the Day of Meeting. Here those that were going to Heaven or Hell were referred to repeatedly as the “troops” or the “throngs”, who would enter the gates of Heaven or Hell as such. Paradise and Hell were, in this Surah, both described as having gates, and keepers. One would be judged by a record of their deeds, and then witnesses would provide testimonies. This Surah also states that if you recite this Surah, you won’t go to Hell. Heaven is described as having lofty rooms and rivers flowing with milk, wine, and honey, while Hell is described as “Coverings of fire”. Those that lied, “their faces will be black”:

وَيَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ تَرَی الَّذِينَ كَذَبُوا عَلَی اللَّهِ وُجُوهُهُمْ مُسْوَدَّةٌ أَلَيْسَ فِي جَهَنَّمَ مَثْویً لِلْمُتَكَبِّرِينَ

“And on the Day of Resurrection you will see those who lied against Allah – their faces will be black. Is there not in Hell an abode for the vain?” (aya 60) 

The book of deeds will be put forth, and the Prophets and witnesses will be brought forward (aya 69).

Surah al-Nisa (النساء, “the women”) is one of the most controversial Surah’s. It is the longest Surah in the Quran after second Surah, البقرة (“Baqarah”, The Cow) with 177 verses. Surah al-Nisa’s topics span from faith, justice, to supporting the orphans at the end, marriage, inheritance, immigration, Holy War/Jihad, and opponents of the Islamic community. The first 35 aya’s are about women and family affairs. Aya 34 holds extreme importance and is greatly debated about the meaning:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاء بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللّهُ وَاللاَّتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلاَ تَبْغُواْ عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلاً إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

“Men have authority over women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property (for the support of women). Therefore, the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those (women) on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and avoid them in beds and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; verily Allah is Ever-High, Ever-Great.”.

Aya 75 encourages Muslims to fight for the vulnerable in war – referring to oppressed men, women, and children:

وَمَا لَكُمْ لاَ تُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ وَالْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ وَالنِّسَاء وَالْوِلْدَانِ الَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا أَخْرِجْنَا مِنْ هَـذِهِ الْقَرْيَةِ الظَّالِمِ أَهْلُهَا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ نَصِيرً }

“And what has happened to you that you should not fight in the way of Allah and for the weak among men, women and children who say: ‘Our Lord! Take us out of this town whose people are oppressors, and appoint for us from You guardian, and appoint for us from you helper!”

For the early Muslim community, this aya outlined acceptable behavior. It is commonly utilised by fundamentalists for control, and was believed to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during جَاهِلِيَّة (“Jahiliyyah”,Time of Ignorance, referring to the time before the advent of Islam, in other words, the time before the Prophet Muhammad). During that time, polygamy was the norm (for men) and so women had no laws protecting her, and as it was all tribes, the Surah here helped lay down foundations for marriage, inheritance, and such. Surah Al-Nisa may be seen as an early attempt at social reform, as:

يُرِيدُ اللّهُ أَن يُخَفِّفَ عَنكُمْ وَخُلِقَ الإِنسَانُ ضَعِيفًا

“Allah desires that He should make light your burden, and man has been created weak.” (Aya 28)

As seen merely from examining a few select aya’s from Surah al-Nisa, it is clear the topics in this Surah span many topics.

With knowledge of the Arabic language, one would understand the concept of the root word in Arabic, of which many other words stem from that – each of their meanings having some connection with the meaning of the root word. This is extremely important to understand and recognise, because it means that every aya in the Quran may be interpreted in many different ways, hence the need and growth of Tafsiir. Furthermore, reading a text has many layers:

  1. The meaning the reader derives from the text, inevitably influenced by their schemata. This is influenced by the time and place and era one is in, as nothing is produced in a vacuum: the reader is, inevitably, to some extent, a product of your environments, and therefore as are your thoughts.
  2. Similarly, the author is also a product of his/her time and place, and therefore, there is the meaning the author wanted the reader to know.
  3. Finally, there is also the meaning the author didn’t intend the reader to know or didn’t know himself or herself at the time.

These latent and manifest layers require one to acknowledge that these interpretations are not whole and are not representations of the aya’s in their meaning entirely. This article merely acts as a very rudimentary first dip into the abyss of Tafsiir. The Arabic and English translations in this article were derived from https://www.alislam.org/, a repudiable, widely used and well-known site for understanding the Quran.

* It is debated why this is the only Surah of the 114 Surah that together comprise the Quran that does not begin with the Basmala. This link provides a clear explanation of the main theories as to why this is: https://islam.stackexchange.com/questions/36463/why-does-surah-taubah-start-without-bismillah.

 

A Reflection on Al-Ghazali- Mystic and Islamic Philosopher

أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالي (Abu Hamid Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al-Ghazali), born in the Persian town of Ghazala, also known as the “proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam), transgressed through an personal journey that very much is reflected by his intellectual journey as a philosopher, theologian and Sufi mystic. Perhaps he was one of the more honest philosophers and thinkers of his time, as he abandoned his posts in Baghdad in 1095, embarking on a solitary, spiritual journey for eleven years – where he, similarly to Al-Farabi, traveled around the Islamic world. Ghazali’s realization that he was going the “wrong way”, where this Doubt shook him to his core, as he saw the materialism and superficiality within which his life was rooted in, prompted him to embarked on a journey to find the “righteous path”. The first scholar to combine Sharia and Sufism, or, in other words, religion with Sufism, or theology with taste, he went against many of the thinkers of his time.

Ghazali’s intellectual journey may be divided into three stages. The first may be classified as “doubt”, during which he began to doubt the premise of defending or justifying religion as something that requires dogmatic defense. It was during this stage where he wrote the infamous “Incoherence of the Philosophers”, a rigorous rant on the issues and constraints of the الفلاسفة (“falasifa”, translates to “the Philosophers”). Doubt was the means to reach the Ultimate Truth, the second stage. Ghazali believed the Intellect was not enough to reach the Ultimate Truth, and, as such, trust is needed. Just as the Intellect aids our constrained senses, something was behind the Intellect, governing the Intellect. In this sense, the Intellect is similarly able to deceive, just as our senses are. This brings us to his third stage, the Final Truth. Here he emphasised the importance of trust in prophecy, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. It is a natural perception, he believed, beyond the Intellect, faith, or religion, and instead, should be understood as a spiritual experience of heart and ذاق (“douqh”, meaning taste).

Ghazali’s belief and argument that the Intellect has the ability to be impotent and deceiving, and therefore cannot be wholly trusted leads to the conclusion that trust in prophecy, instead, may aid intellect. Ghazali placed a heavy emphasis on prophecy. According to his writings, after the Prophet Muhammed died, there is now a need for trust in the prophecies, and from this will sprout inspiration, which is the extension of the revelation- almost as if the prophecy had been revived, in a way. The Final Truth is attained by believing in Prophecy first, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. This has a similar echo to Ibn Sina’s writings on prophecy, where he argued prophesizing is rational, and uses syllogisms. However, prophets merely state the conclusion without the premises, although this does not lead to the conclusion that it isn’t based on the premises. Ibn Sina believed that the prophet’s intellect was such that it didn’t need the premises. Here the revelation’s are seen to be above rationality and intellect, in a similar vein to Ghazali’s beliefs.

Ghazali’s influence is widespread and variant. He has had an effect on Islamic Fundamentalists, as they have exploited and used his writings to their own gains. This has, in turn, caused a widespread misconception of Ghazali as having closed the doors to philosophy in the Islamic World, and opened the doors to Islamic Fundamentalism, as some blame him for the decline of science in the Islamic world. However, this Western theory is privy to being reductionist to Ghazali himself and his writings. Furthermore, the belief that the phenomena of the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism may be attributed to one person, thing, or entity, is an oversimplification and therefore faulty.

His writings also largely effected Western philosophers, including the well-known René Descartes. Descartes’ “basket of apples” philosophy argues that one must inspect each apple in the basket, carefully, and only putting back the sound ones. This is a metaphor for one’s mind, to inspect each thought within his or her mind, and in this sense, not taking anything for granted. To turn over each belief and determine which are true. This is strongly reminiscent of Ghazali on Doubt. This doubt echoes throughout various philosophers. One cannot help but think of Plato’s cave allegory in comparison to Ghazali’s work. Both men were plagued by doubt (as was Plato’s mentor, Socrates), however they diverged in where this skeptical journey led them. While Plato believed one could achieve truth and infallible knowledge by emerging out of the dark cave and into the world, Ghazali believed that only by looking within, into the soul and by trusting in God and the revelations, would one be able to truly attain Ultimate Truth. The two great philosophers have interesting overlaps, with Ghazali being almost confused as to how there can be so many different sects that men tended to believe merely because he was brought up in this way, while Plato depicting the falsehood of data that men tend to be bound by – symbolized by the shadows of the Cave.

In  المنقذ من الضلال (“al-Munqidh min al-dalal”, translates to “Deliverance from Error”), an autobiographical account of Ghazali, one can understand his approach and thoughts towards skepticism and doubt, which was what led him to initially leave his teaching position, and is essential to search for the Unshakable Truth (حقيقة). His quest for certainty led him to question uncritically accepted religious beliefs, and instead search for a kind of عِلم الْيَقين (“‘ilm al-yaqin”). This diverges from Socrates’ “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Ghazali experienced two personal crises, with the second leading him to look within in, and resulting in his conclusion that only through a life of trust or تَوَكُّل (“tawakkul”) would the seeker be able find the Unshakable Truth, which he called the Ultimate Truth. In this way, one could remove the veil- a common Sufi concept in which knowledge of the heart surpasses that of the intellect, and by going through personal, spiritual, struggles, will one reach the truth, and the veil covering the spiritual realms will be unveiled.

In تهافت الفلاسفة (Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ghazali denounced Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. He refuted Aristotelian logic and the Falasifa’s certainty of rational logic being superior to knowledge derived from the revelation was incorrect. In particular, he saw theology as a dead body of rituals, with men blindly believing certain things without really understanding why. Perhaps one of the biggest contributions Ghazali perpetuated was the idea that Intellect, and rationalism, have constraints on understanding many of the main philosophical questions within Islamic Philosophy, such as Creation and God’s attributes.

Ghazali’s honesty, and lack of fear for political or social retaliation of consequence is admirable, and is reminiscent of less fortunate philosophers and thinkers like Socrates and the Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj. If we are to understand Islamic Philosophy within four groups- المعتزلة  (“Mu’tazila”), الأشعرية (Ash’arites), الْتَّصَوُّف (the Sufis) and those of أصول الفقه (Islamic Jurisprudence), Ghazali is not able to be easily classified into any one of these, as he explored them all throughout the course of his life. Many would classify him as a philosopher, a mystic, a theologian and a Muslim jurist. Various ideas of his fall under the Ash’rites predisposition of placing revelation over rationalization. Meanwhile, his spiritual journey led him to wholly follow the beliefs and ways of a Sufi, such as his emphasis on trust to attain absolute Truth, or, in other words, to be one with God. Ghazali began his journey as an al Kalaam, before going to the Philosophers, and then the Sufis.