Longing for the Muezzin’s Call
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the things I find I most enjoyed — and, now, most miss — about my travels to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Istanbul is the periodicity of the muezzin’s call to prayer. It greets you in so many unexpected ways.
Standing on the Mount of Olives, one call drifts across the valley from the Old City only to be washed over by another one down the way. But walk within its walls and it beckons you to stop. Sometimes sternly and at others as a mother would remind her child.
Walk around a corner in Ramallah and the muezzin’s voice may greet you as a friend and wrap its arms around your shoulders; walk down another alley and it barks at you. Sit atop a rooftop patio in the oldest parts of Istanbul and several voices vie for your affections without competing with one another. The voices of small, underpowered speakers from a nearby local mosque provide background vocals for the melodic mix of the more prominent mosques like the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque, in what seems like a talent show of some of the world’s best.
And, then there’s the greeting from one’s home, as you can hear in the audio embedded audio above. It’s the maghrib athan, the fourth call that summons the faithful to prayer just after sunset, during Ramadan from what seems like an apartment window somewhere outside of Nablus.
One sees so many sites, eats so much delicious food, meets so many wonderful people. But it’s the rhythmic reminder that stays with me, a discipline I’ll cherish long after the memory of such encounters slowly erode themselves in my mind.
About the photo: The muezzin at the Madrassa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo demonstrates his vocal abilities in the liwan. (Photo by Christopher Rose/Flick, licensed under Creative Commons)
Can Turkey Inspire Egypt as a Religious Role Model?
by Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor
Last week, Egyptians went to the polls to participate in the first presidential election since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Going forward, the new president, who will be elected in the second phase of elections in June, should look to examples from other countries that have undergone successful democratic transitions.
When asked what leader outside their own country they most admired, a recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Egyptians answered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicating that Egyptians may be interested in learning from Turkey. Turkey can serve as a relevant model because it has successfully dealt with three key challenges facing Egypt — the relationship of the army to a civilian government, economic growth and fostering positive international relations.
Muslim Sportswomen on the Rise
by Marium Sattar, guest conributor
At the first ceremony of its kind, fencer and Olympic hopeful Ibtihaj Muhammad was recognized for her achievements as a Muslim sportswoman at the Ambassador Awards. The awards were hosted by the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation the first week of May to recognize Muslim women in this field. They are a reminder that Muslim sportswomen have broken new ground in the world of sports and helped change perceptions in society at large.
Although there are more Muslim women competing in sports today than there have been in the past, they have an overlooked legacy. For example, Halet Çambel was the first Muslim woman who competed in the Olympics — and did so in 1936, representing Turkey. Many athletes like her were honored at the awards where Muhammad won the International Sportswoman of the Year. However, women’s sports participation in some countries is still limited.
One challenge some Muslim sportswomen have contended with is regulations about athletic dress codes — but they have also paved the way for other players who want to dress modestly while still competing in the games they love. In 2007, for example, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) placed a ban on wearing the hijab, or headscarf, during matches due to fears that it could lead to choking. The ban even led to the Iranian women’s football team being deemed ineligible from a qualifying match to play in the Olympics; however, this year, FIFA is planning to overturn that rule in light of new hijabs designed specifically for athletes. The decision will be announced on July 2 after further testing of the new hijabs to ensure their safety.
Muhammad says that her faith, which requires women to dress modestly, directed her choice to start fencing, a sport which requires players to cover themselves from head to toe. “Often times, when I’m in competition, I’m the only African American, the only black person, definitely the only Muslim — not only representing the United States but in the competition itself. It can be really difficult…” she said.
Given their diversity, Muslim sportswomen are an inspiration to young women around the world. Yet some young women from Muslim backgrounds still face challenges overcoming cultural restrictions either because their parents believe girls should not become athletes or perhaps simply because they do not have role models. However, these restrictions did not stop Pakistani runner Naseem Hameed, who won the gold medal for her performance at the 100-metre race at the South Asian Games in 2010, making her the fastest woman in South Asia.
As more athletes like Hameed come into the limelight, young women watching them may start to have higher expectations about what they can achieve, especially in sports.
Other Muslim sportswomen have contended with much bigger hurdles. Sadaf Rahimi, a 17-year-old boxer from Afghanistan, is one Ambassador Award nominee who overcame the lack of facilities to practice in and the difficulties of living under the Taliban — which banned women from playing sports. Rahimi, who will be representing Afghanistan in the London 2012 Olympics, shatters stereotypes about Afghan women. Like her peers, she counteracts the misconception that Muslim women cannot play sports, while demonstrating that perseverance can overcome even the toughest hurdles.
In another part of the Muslim world, Qatar recently announced that it will send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. Brunei has also nominated a female hurdler and 400-metre runner, Maziah Mahusin, to join their Olympic team for the first time. Their participation in sports heralds a new era, one which is more inclusive of all women, and shows that governments are following where women are leading.
Many athletes at the Ambassador Awards said they never expected to excel as they have — a reality that shows young women that they are capable of achieving more than they may think is possible.
At the event, Muhammad reflected on how much her faith and sports have shaped her identity. “I would never have guessed in a million years that my hijab would have led me to fencing, to a sport, but also that I would have grown to love this sport so much. It’s so much a part of who I am; I can’t even imagine life without it.”
Marium Sattar is a multimedia and print journalist, and a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School in New York City.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on May 22, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Living Tassawuf with Cemalnur Sargut
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the people we’ll be interviewing while in Turkey is Cemalnur Sargut. She is one of Turkey’s deepest and most inspiring spiritual teachers, who is leading a resurgence in the study and practice of Sufism, the mystical manifestation of Islam. She’s a magnetic personality who leads the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association in Istanbul, which reaches millions of people “who would like to apply solutions to today’s problems in the Sufi view that knowledge is a state to be practiced and worship is a journey toward love.”
When we’re researching and evaluating a guest for the show, we’ll often listen to recordings of her speaking. We try to gauge not only what kind of talker she might be — the tone, fluidity, and style of her voice — but also her willingness to bring herself into the conversation and tell stories to illustrate what she’s talking about.
Cemalnur Sargut has been a bit more difficult to surmise. Her native tongue is Turkish, so there’s not much audio or video out there of her speaking in English. But, in this audio above, she gives a lecture (which feels more like a dharma talk) to a California audience at the Baraka Institute in October 2009. She speaks passable English before switching back to Turkish with the aid of a translator.
I think there’s enough here to take the risk. It’s the depth of the content that is worth exploring. She shares her experiences about her love for her teacher, her reflections on the nature of the spiritual journey, and her recommendations for how to live a spiritually balanced life. Within the context of Turkey, this should be a dynamic conversation.
Now, how we equip our host with the proper preparation materials for a one-hour interview?
An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections
by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor
A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.
Orthodox Christians and Alevi Muslims in Turkey Fear Consequences of Syria’s Assad Losing Power
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
As our radio show prepares for a production trip to Turkey this coming June, I’m watching for particular stories and voices that might foster our own sense of how to add to the news and information coming out of this country. PRI’s The World offers this smart report on one of the few Orthodox Christian communities in Turkey that has learned to survive in a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation.
Correspondent Matthew Brunwasser reveals the complexity of the social and religious issues of Tokaçlı, a village in Hatay province of Turkey, which was once part of Syria until 1938. With the Altinozu refugee camp ten miles from its back door and 20,000 Syrians expected to stream across the border, this multi-ethnic community is being confronted by the realities of a Syrian civil war:
“Minorities see the Assad regime as representing multi-ethnicity and religious tolerance. And they can’t imagine anyone in a post-Assad Syria giving them a better deal. Just ask Can Coban who owns a cafe here in Tokacli.
‘You can’t predict the future,’ Coban says. ‘But let’s say radical Muslims win the elections. The Christians’ lives will never again be normal like they are now. They could expel the Christians or their lives could get more difficult. They might be prevented from praying and practicing their religion. They live better now in Syria than we do here in Turkey.’”
Also at stake is a peaceful way of life for Alawite Muslims, known as Alevis in Turkey, because President Assad is an Alawite Muslim:
“Alawites make up about 16 percent of the population, and Sunnis resent them for monopolizing power. And so Alawites are terrified of a backlash. And in Hatay there are fears of that backlash spreading across the border.”
The Muslim Luther and Reformation
by Mun’im Sirry, guest contributor
On February 15, 2012, Abdulkarim Soroush, a visiting professor at The University of Chicago, delivered a thoughtful and enlightening talk about revival and reform in Islam. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar writes in The New York Times, “Soroush has been described as a Muslim Luther, but unlike the Protestant reformer, he is no literalist about holy books.” Robin Wright, a journalist who writes frequently about the Middle East, also describes him as “the Martin Luther of Islam,” however she acknowledges that Soroush himself prefers to avoid comparison with Luther.
In the beginning of his talk, Dr. Soroush argued that Islam has not undergone a reformation similar to that of Protestantism. This contention is certainly debatable since a number of Muslim reformers cited the need to reform Islam as Christianity was reformed. Even Muhammad Iqbal, one of the Muslim reformers whose projects were discussed by Dr. Soroush, identified Protestant elements in Islamic reform: “We are today passing through a period similar to that of the Protestant revolution in Europe, and the lesson which the rise and outcome of Luther’s movement teaches should not be lost on us.”
Many scholars discuss how the idea of “Muslim Luther” or “Islamic Protestantism” emerges in the discourses of Muslim reformers, especially the Shi’i circle. Charles Kurzman and Michaelle Browers explore the historical usage of the Islamic-Protestant reformation analogy. Sukidi specifically traces the traveling idea of Islamic Protestantism to what he calls “Iranian Luthers,” namely, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Ali Shari’ati and Hashem Aghajari. This characterization is, of course, not without problems. Muslim reformers might follow patterns of religious reform similar to those of Christian reformers, yet they certainly found their own ways of dealing with their tradition. However, the analogy is not invalid, given that these Muslim reformers themselves expressed their admiration for Luther and other Christian reformers. Afghani, for instance, strongly believed that Islam needs a Luther and he might have seen himself as that Luther.
The Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh’s admiration for Protestant reformation is often overlooked by scholars. Undoubtedly, ‘Abduh is the most influential Sunni scholar whose ideas of Islamic reform reached far beyond the theological divide and the Arab world. In his magnum opus, Risalat al-tawhid, ‘Abduh argues that Christian reformation included “elements by no means unlike Islam.” It would surprise no one that ‘Abduh was so impressed by the way Christian reformers strove to break the entail of obscurantism, curb the authority of religious leaders, and keep them from exceeding the precept of religion. “They discovered,” ‘Abduh writes, “that liberty of thought and breadth of knowledge were means to faith and not its foe.”
It is worthwhile that, unlike other Muslim reformers, ‘Abduh brings the discussion deeper into theological issues. “The reforming groups in the West,” he says, “brought their doctrines to a point closely in line with the dogma of Islam, with the exception of belief in the prophetic mission of Muhammad. Their religion was in all but name the religion of Muhammad; it differed only in the form of worship, not in the meaning or anything else.”
Perhaps, it was his disciple, Rashid Rida, who pushed this idea further to argue that belief in the prophethood of Muhammad is not a sine qua non for salvation. Commenting on Qur’an 2:62, he rejects the idea that this verse implicitly stipulates belief in Muhammad. In his own words: “… there is no problem for not stipulating belief in the Prophet because the verse deals with God’s treatment of each people and community who believe in a Prophet and a revelation particular to them. Their salvation (fawzuha) is certain whether they were Muslims, Jews, Christians, or Sabeans. God declares that salvation lies not in religious allegiance (al-jinsiyya al-diniyya) but in true belief which has control over self and in good deed.”
Elsewhere, Rida emphasizes the need to combine “religious renewal and earthly renewal, the same way Europe has done with religious reformation and modernization.” Rida’s attitude toward other religions is more complex than is sometimes supposed and is beyond the scope of this article.
It is interesting that Muslim reformers like ‘Abduh and Rida have no qualms dealing with the theological aspects of the nature of Christian reformation. While some Muslims might truly believe that Islam faces challenges similar to those faced by Christianity in Europe, ‘Abduh simply asserts that “Many scholars in Western countries confess that Islam has been the greatest of their mentors in attaining their present position.” Christian reformation is not alien to Muslim reformers, but one may still wonder why Muslim reformers envision their projects in light of Protestant reformation.
Mun’im Sirry is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow and a Harper Dissertation Fellow. His dissertation is entitled Reformist Muslim Approaches to the Polemics of the Qur’an against Other Religions.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Desecrated Bodies, Dashed Hopes
by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Turkey is most definitely on our brains. As it turns out, we’ll be making a production trip in June (yay!) and so the extensive planning begins. What to do, what to do! No sooner did we find out than our old friend and former guest Omid Safi posted this magnificent photograph on his Facebook page along with this waxing caption:
“Inside sacred sites like this, I know it’s true that ‘God is beautiful, and loves beauty.’ The imaginative Muslim architects who designed it emulated Christian Byzantine masters, and strived to create a space that would stand free from columns. The “opening” that was created inside, the Christians and the Muslims agreed together, was to be filled by the very presence of God. By God, they succeeded.”
If you have suggestions on stories we might cover that fit our mission or voices that you think we ought to expose to a North American audience, please offer your suggestions in the comments section. Enjoy the view!