Egypt’s Copts Channelling Anger into Civic Engagement
by Lina Attalah, special contributor
Egyptian Christians hold a blood-stained portrait of Jesus Christ during a protest late on January 2, 2011 outside the Al-Qiddissine (The Saints) church in Alexandria.
(photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
In April 2006, hundreds of Egypt’s Alexandrian Christians gathered to mourn the death of 78-year-old Nushi Girgis, a Christian who was stabbed at St. Mark and St. Peter’s Church during one of a series of attacks on churches in the city that year. As the crowd walked down the street, chanting religious hymns, people began throwing stones from their balconies. The scene quickly turned violent, pitting Muslims against Christians.
Four years later, although largely invisible, the tension still looms. We saw a resurgence of violence last week with the bombing of the same St. Mark and St. Peter’s Church, which took 23 lives and injured many more people. Egypt’s Coptic Christian families worry about their lives in a nation that has become a contested home. The current wave of violence could mark a crossroads for this community with regard to its sense of political engagement which, for a long time now, has been dormant.
Bollywood Squares: The Manganiyar Seduction at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“They have the Muslim saints and they worship Allah. And then they also have their … Hindu goddesses. And they sing to both. Like, there would not be any difference if they were to sing a Sufi Islam mystic song or if they were to sing a Hindu mystic song. It would be with the equal amount of devotion.”
—Roysten Abel, on the Manganiyar musicians
Musicians from Rajasthan, India, led by Daevo Khan, perform at the Rose Theater in New York on November 23, 2010. (photo: Lian Chang/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Thirty-eight Sufi musicians from the deserts of Rajasthan, India. Thirty-six, open-faced, photo booths draped in red velvet, stacked four high and nine wide. One lone box lights up. One lone khamacha drones. One lone singer begins his song. Then another box alights. Then another. Pulsating, alternating. Percussive rhythms build with dhol, dholak, and karthal. Voices of men, women, and children from India’s Manganiyar community layer one on top of the other, enmeshed with harmoniums, kamancha, sarangi, bansuri, murli, and morchang. The theater’s magic. Electric. A crescendo. Quiet.
Roysten Abel, the creative force behind this production, describes the concept as a “dazzling union between the Manganiyar’s music and the visual seduction of Amsterdam’s red light district.”
And I missed it.
Visa issues delayed the performance of The Manganiyar Seduction at the Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater by two days, so I headed back home to Minnesota. At least we have this video from the White Light Festival to give us some access to this dramatic performance.
If you’re in Washington, DC, be sure to buy tickets for their March performances. And, according to Abel’s website, he is currently working on The Manganiyar War, interpreting the Mahabharata through music. That ought to be really fascinating.
Rumi’s Continuing Emergence in Our Culture
by Krista Tippett, host
A young man from Islamabad, Pakistan expresses himself through photography and the poetry of Rumi. (photo: “Spirit” by Esâm Khattak)
We’ve created a memorable hour of listening that’s fresh and lush with the sounds and the texture of the great Sufi poet, Rumi.
There is no formula for our shows, no template. Each begins with the raw material of a conversation, and we shape its pace and sound and elements around that. I think great productions emerge when the whole feel of the experience seems at one with the words being spoken, taking the listener more deeply into the passion and intent of the voice being heard. Creating this show around the life and words of Rumi has felt a little like having magic to work with.
I take away many gems of idea and image from my conversation with one of Rumi’s delightful 21st-century interpreters and successors, Fatemeh Keshavarz. Rumi saw human life and love as the closest we come to tasting and touching transcendence, and he approached all experience with his whole mind, heart, and body.
Keshavarz describes Rumi’s “whirling” around a column as he recited poetry — a habit that inspired the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi Order — as a way to “stay centered while moving.” He believed that, as searching and restlessness propel us to keep learning, plowing the ground beneath our feet, they are themselves a form of arrival. In Rumi’s way of seeing life, perplexity is a blessed state, sometimes a necessary state. This idea has special resonance, perhaps, in the 21st century when so many basic definitions and institutions of previous generations seem to be up for grabs.
But Rumi’s recent “discovery” in the West also holds no little irony. I found this best expressed in my research by a British journalist, William Dalrymple. “It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations,” he wrote, “but the best-selling poet in the U.S. in the 1990s was not Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, nor Shakespeare or Dante. … Instead, remarkably it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrasa in what is now Turkey.” Yet as Rumi has been translated and popularized in the modern West, the religious sensibility behind his beautiful, best-selling words has often been lost.
Fatemah Keshavarz is adamant on this point: Rumi was steeped in Islam. He represents and speaks to “an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam.” The generous, cross-cultural appeal of his words reflects ideas at the core of Islam that are muted by the extremists and headlines of our time. But to the extent that Rumi would deny or subvert those, he does so through his grounding in Islamic tradition, and his profound love for it.
Keshavarz, who was born in Iran — the center of the vast civilization that spawned Rumi and where he remains to this day a household name — takes special solace in Rumi’s insistence that we can create worlds and possibilities by way of language itself.
Where that part of the world is now concerned, Keshavarz says, U.S. political culture has adopted a language of fear. Rumi champions and models a language of hope. This is not tepid and naive but full-blooded view of human reality, fully aware of the double-edged sword of the passions and pulls of real human experience. In this, Rumi speaks to those of us on both sides of a real or imagined “clash of civilizations.”
As we conclude this show, I hear Rumi as a perfect voice for the spiritual longing and energy of our time. With his vigorous and challenging language of the heart, he reminds us that we need poetry as much as we need science, alongside our politics and within our diplomacy. We need passionate searching words, not just logical decisive words, to tell the whole truth about what it means to be human, and about the past, present, and future of our world.
Here is one passage of many I’ve seen quoted of Rumi, which I’ll now hear with new layers of relevance:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
There are many English translations of Rumi’s poetry available today. But, the craft of translating is a delicate art, one that calls for sensitivity and understanding of the Sufi master and his culture. The Rumi Collection, edited by Kabir Helminski, serves as a good introduction that includes translations by Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, as well as Helminski himself — a Shaikh, or master, of the Mevlevi Order — and others.
We’ve also provided a page of translations by Fatemeh Keshavarz on our website. Not only can you read the text of each poem, but you can listen to it in Persian or English too.
Yeah I’m Arab, yeah I’m very American, and yeah I’m very Islamic, but you put those things in the blender and I’m no longer just a thing. I’m a new thing.
Flag-Raising My Hijab: An American Woman’s Decision
by Amanda Gormley, guest contributor
The first time I prayed the Islamic prayer, or salat, I stood in my living room in the silvery morning just moments before dawn. I was self-conscious and unsure of what to do. I had prepared flash cards to help me through the complicated process of standing, sitting, and bowing while reciting verses in Arabic. I stood facing Mecca and folded my right hand across my chest. My left hand clutched a flash card that read:
Bismillah ah Rahman ah Raheem
In the name of God, the most gracious, most merciful
Alhamdu lil-ahi rab-bil alamin
All praise be to the Lord, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds
Ah rahman-ah rahim
The most merciful, most gracious
Master of the day of judgment
Iyyaka n’abudu wa-Iyaka nasta-in
You alone do we worship, and to you alone do we turn to for help
Ihdi-nas sira-tal Mustaqim
Show us the straight path
Sira tal-ladhina an-amta alaihim
The path of those who went before us with your grace
Ghair-il Maghdubi ‘Alaihum
Who did not deserve your anger
Wa lad dal-in
Nor went astray
The awkward syllables filled the back of my throat like a swallowed cry as I struggled to make the foreign sounds. But as my mouth worked away at the words, I felt my spirit enter a world that existed outside of the senses, a dimension beyond time and space where the body does not confine the soul. I felt a deep, unending sense of mercy and forgiveness surround me.
Because it is an overtly religious place, it’s not strange or weird to care about your religion here, to pray and make God a priority. They have the same values we do.
—Reef Al-Shabnan, a 19-year-old Muslim student from Saudi Arabia on attending Catholic University in Washington, DC. She’s quoted in William Wan’s piece from The Washington Post on the increasing enrollment of Muslim students at Catholic colleges.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Oklahoma, Elections, and Shari’ah Law
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
The crescent-topped dome of Masjid An-Nasr peeks through trees of a residential neighborhood in Oklahoma City. (photo: Andrew Shockley/Flickr)
Hailing from Canada, where referendums are few and far between, I’m fascinated by some of the questions on the U.S. ballots. This year I was particularly interested in Oklahoma ballot measure 755 [bold emphasis mine]:
“This measure amends the State Constitution. It changes a section that deals with the courts of this state. It would amend Article 7, Section 1. It makes courts rely on federal and state law when deciding cases. It forbids courts from considering or using international law. It forbids courts from considering or using Sharia Law.
International law is also known as the law of nations. It deals with the conduct of international organizations and independent nations, such as countries, states and tribes. It deals with their relationship with each other. It also deals with some of their relationships with persons.
The law of nations is formed by the general assent of civilized nations. Sources of international law also include international agreements, as well as treaties.
Sharia Law is Islamic law. It is based on two principal sources, the Koran and the teaching of Mohammed.
Shall the proposal be approved?
For the proposal
Against the proposal
No: __________ “
The amendment passed, with 70 percent in favor. Haroon Moghul of Religion Dispatches wrote an amused and hopeful piece from a Muslim perspective. For starters, he addresses some of the misunderstandings about Shari’ah law by explaining what it isn’t, and what it is:
“What most Americans don’t realize is that we already have interpretations of Shari’ah law in our country; or, at least, interpretations of the personal, moral, and ethical components of the law, operating off of individual choice and will. When Muslims pray, they are following interpretations of Shari’ah. Fasting in Ramadan. Giving in charity. Even a smile, the Prophet Muhammad said, is charity. So what this means in real terms is entirely beyond me…”
At a time where civility may be harder to find, I was heartened by his surprisingly optimistic note for the future. A view, however, which is probably out of reach for Muneer Awad, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who filed a lawsuit (PDF of petition) challenging the constitutionality of the measure. A preliminary hearing before U.S. district court judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange is scheduled for today.
As Muslim parents, it seems like the choices we make raising children are more critical and have a much more lasting impact than the average American family. We can not necessarily rely on mainstream society to help us enforce values and increase self acceptance in our children. And, with families being so far apart and nuclear families being the norm, there is a lot of pressure on parents to take full responsibility in raising children by themselves. I sometimes wonder if the modern lifestyle and the mentality that we are somehow able to ‘have it all’ just sets us up for failure.
— Hanieh Razzagh, a new mother reflects on raising her daughter in this post from the Ink Paper Mosaic blog.
Parents of two young boys, my wife and I no longer live near our extended families. Although we are of European and Roman Catholic heritage, we have similar concerns about raising family in contemporary life with social expectations. It can be quite exhausting, but, we also feel fortunate that they have wonderful teachers and caretakers at a local Jewish community center. They help us fill a bit of that void of not being able to daily hug their grandparents, visit with their aunts and uncles, and play with all their cousins.
Hip-Hop Islamic Group Counters Islamophobia with Their Music
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Native Deen, a Muslim hip-hop group, that you might have heard in our show “Black & Universal” has released a new music video for the My Faith, My Voice campaign “in response to the rising tide of Islamophobia facing America, especially in the wake of the New York Islamic cultural center controversy.” I’ve written about the fear embracing some Muslims in the United States lately, and I’m digging the music and the way in which these moderate voices are making statements in their own artistic way. Sing on!
A Listener Asks for Your Suggestions
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
The news has been thick with polarized debates about proposed Qur’an burnings in Florida and the Park51 project. Tamara Lee, a listener from Hopewell, New Jersey, writes us looking for some advice:
“I’m increasingly frustrated by the inability of so many people, particularly Americans, to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the culture of some Islamic countries. I’ve long respected the religion even though some aspects of the culture are less appealing to me. Of late, I am particularly concerned that Muslims seem to be afraid of non-Muslims. I would like to become involved with a group that strives to combat this fear. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.”
If you have any recommendations to pass along to Tamara, post a comment here and we’ll be sure to relay them to her.