Global Currents article

Something Else A’Comin’ . . .

Dance of the Starlings, Photo Credit: Conni Nielsen

This paper was originally conceived of as a response to an important panel conversation at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado on November 17, 2018. Moderated by Professor Atalia Omer, the panel was the occasion for a conversation between leading scholars on the theme of “Moral Obligations, Prophetic Actions, and the Search for Solidarity from Historical, Transnational, and Global Perspectives.” The panelists were Professor Daniel Boyarin (in abstentia; UC, Berkeley), Professor Farid Esack (University of Johannesberg), Professor Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College), and Santiago Slabodsky (Hofstra University).

The to-and-fro and the back-and-forth of the dialogue suggests a conversation that took with the utmost seriousness the intellectual and ethical urgencies of the subject matter, particularly as it relates to the specific cases of South Africa, Palestine, and Israel. These places and cases command and demand our attention today, especially the attention of those of us who work in religious studies inasmuch as the drivers of the devastation and death, both spectacular and slow, monumental and everyday, in these places in the world are inextricably bound up with questions and the very meaning of religion and life together. And now to my response…

While I am unable to do justice to all of the nuances of the panel conversation, I would like to surface an issue that moves at the oblique edges of the discussion. This is the issue not just of colonialism, which was explicitly invoked and theoretically attended to, but of settler colonialism. Here we might think of settlerism along with enslavement as modernity’s inner logos or meaning, the pillars that stand up the modern world as an arrangement or an economy and ecology that, with Cedric Robinson, also bears the name “racial capitalism.” As such settlerism (or land theft) with enslavement (labor theft) is that through which modern consciousness, modern desire, and modern life emerges. It is that through which Western life and thought lives and moves and has being. It is the practice of a violent and limited, an appropriative and expropriative, a thieving and exclusionary “We-ness.”

Putting a fine point on this, Iyko Day observes that “settler colonial racial capitalism is [neither] a thing” nor is it adequately understood as a historically isolable event or series of events. Rather, “[settler colonialism] is a social relation.” That is to say, settler “colonial capitalism is more appropriately figured as an ecology of power relations than a linear chain of events” (112-13). This ecology manifests in relation to that Westphalian international system of states associated with what has come to be called the West and whose activity is carried out under presumption of a particular figure.

This is the figure of “the settler.” Within (post) enlightenment philosophy the settler is known as the sovereign, self-determined subject, and within political thought as the “citizen.” As normative citizen, the settler indexes or represents and even stands as a proxy for what is proper, indeed, for the properly human whose standing is over and against those imagined as Man’s nonhuman or less-than-human Others, those, that is, who fall short of the human as such. If the settler as citizen embodies propriety and proper (political) subjecthood and thus embodies proper life and thus is properly human, then the Other to the citizen gets cast as nonhuman or less-than-human or marginally-human or infra-human and ultimately a threat to the political economy of citizens or those deemed properly human, the community of the human “we.”

However, what philosopher and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter gives us to understand about this imaginary of the human is that it is an “overrepresentation.” By this she means that rather than being made to the measure of the world, this specific genre or version and historical unfolding of the human has come to stand in the place of the human as such. This is the genre whose spatiotemporal and geographical and even geological unfolding is named (Western) Man.

In “worlding” himself, Man enacts two things. On the one hand, Man seizes, settles, or acts to possess the earth for himself. John Locke gives us the philosophy of this settler colonial seizure of the earth through his theory of property. On the other hand, precisely in his geopolitical and geological rupturing or “anthropocening” of the earth, Man also registers the biopolitical production or “massification,” as Jasbir K. Puar has recently put it, of populations. The point of Man’s conversion of populations into unhuman masses is so that total value or total life might be seized or cannibalized, indeed extracted from them for the founding and sustaining of the settler state and for the general sustaining of its central, normative figure, namely, the human (homo politicus, homo economicus). In other words, Man is a figure of ontological and planetary terror, as Calvin Warren powerfully argues. The terror of Man both produces and targets the nonhuman or the less-than-human mass(es) figured as the Racial Other.

The ongoing attacks against black life and native peoples in the United States, along with the specific cases of South Africa and Palestine in the latter’s ongoing struggle against Israeli settler colonialism, I contend, showcase the problem of the human as the central problematic internal to settler colonialism. But also, I would argue, it is at this site of the unhuman, the loci of an “inhuman” darkness, that we find a strange, queer diaspora that, precisely in its unhumanity, its parahumanity, its humanimality, indeed, in its adjacency to the mushroom—which, as Anna Tsing elaborates, finds a way to survive devastation—bespeaks an alternative: Modes of life beyond or in excess of the temporality of Man. Let us, again, call this the mass(es), that dark swarm whose movements are like the murmuration of starlings, a murmuring mass. Like the wandering monks of old (I mean the “gyrovagues” who freaked out St. Benedict and against whom he wrote his “Rules” of obedience), the murmuring mass is a wandering, borderless, non-settler “we” whose very presence unsettles every property line, every boundary that the settler imposes. This is a different kind of “we,” one not centered on the human. This is a ”we” that is before, after, and beyond every state-sanctioned or exclusionary “We the People…” We need a language for this different, non-statist we-ness.

A murmuration of starlings at Gretna, Photo Credit: Walter Baxter

When Professor Boyarin calls for a “deep theorization of diaspora” that is neither the same as a “statist nationalism,” with its racism and violence, nor like a “denatured German-style Reform in which ‘Judaism’ is a faith, or a ‘religion,’ or even a prophetic turn of mind, as per the American Council of Judaism,” but rather is a diaspora devoted “not to the government” but to an otherwise we-ness, a we that is “both here and elsewhere” and that is also Palestinian inasmuch as the Palestinian “we” is a “we” “whom ‘we’ [Jews] . . . oppress”—when Professor Boyarin says these things he is pointing to something like the alternative we-ness of which I speak and that settler colonialism seeks to arrest through the imposition of state logics. The alternative isn’t elsewhere, but instead is an elsewhen marked by a kind of quantum communion that is irreducible to statist or biopolitical logics, including statist or settler colonial logics of religion and the settler gods. Professor Boyarin, in effect, calls for the decolonization of time itself. As Caribbean-Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip puts it, our moral obligation is to “snap the spine of [humanist] time” (141) inasmuch as within settler colonial or humanist time support for racist, statist, anti-Palestinian Zionism, which must be rigorously distinguished from Jewish identity, in effect operates as an extension of white supremacy into the Middle East in the name of supporting the state of Israel and in complex ways reverberates back into the U.S. in both antisemitic and antiblack ways.[1] This is the circuitry of settlerism as political theology.

This all brings me to something Professor Heschel says. I am thinking of moments in the course of her comments in which she takes us into what might be thought of as the spirituality of the issues at hand. Her comments are powerful and, in a good way, absolutely arrested me.

After talking about her sojourn through the 1960s and about how hearing Dr. King affected her so, Professor Heschel asks the question, “What does it mean to be moved?” This is a powerful question, worthy of just sitting with, brooding with, dwelling with, as we meditate on our moral obligations in this moment of settler colonial devastation of peoples and of the earth itself.

“What does it mean to be moved,” she asks?

This question is utterly bound up with social movements as historical-empirical phenomena, movements like Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But also what emerged out of May 1968, such as what traveled under the name “Black Power.” And more recently, what is called “the Movement for Black Lives” and the movement for a free Palestine. But never taking her eye off of social movements in their phenomenal appearing, Professor Heschel invites us, as it were, to look inside of such movements to ask a question, to catch sight even if only in a flash of another order.

Hers is the question of how a movement moves you. What in a movement moves you? What gives itself through a movement even as it exceeds the mo(ve)ment? What moves (within) the movement? This is a question of the sacred interior, which is not the interior of the would-be sovereign individual or the settler-as-citizen subject. This is the interior of the mass(es), an interior mass whose fundamental entanglement manifests the sacred and bespeaks a poetics of the social. Perhaps when Frantz Fanon inquired into “that within,” the gulf or abyss or the indefineable vanishing point that exceeds racialization or what epidermal blackening and browning as cultural operations aim to arrest,[2] he too was approaching the question of what moves subterraneously, underneath, and in excess of the political.

“What does it mean to be moved,” Professor Heschel asks.

It’s then that just as her listeners, an audience of scholars, might expect her to offer your classic or scholastic (read: typically academic) answer to the question she poses, she pulls back. She refuses to answer—at least in such a way that would freeze the question in answering it. What comes through is that it is not so much about the answer as it is about keeping the question alive in whatever answer one gives. It’s, in other words, about the ongoing quest(ion)ing.

And so, immediately following upon her asking her moving question, Professor Heschel says that to be moved in social movement is to undergo something. It is to be set in flight, to be set roaming and roving and wandering, to be opened out into what exceeds you, to move into the open, to have one’s limits crossed, all borders breached, the very notion of “world” broken open. In short, it’s to be “in the break.” This Heschel calls “religious experience,” about which she says, “I need that.”

Finally, Professor Heschel caps her reflections by further saying, in effect, that to undergo social movement is precisely to not give into despair, knowing (and this is very deep) that “there is something else coming.” Affectively caught in the wave, so to speak, in the sensation, carried by the feeling of what’s coming, to be touched by and to haptically surrender to that something else beyond the political as we know it—about this Professor Heschel says, “I have to hold onto that,” for “that I guess is what keeps me going with the praxis.”

There is a terrible beauty borne in what Professor Heschel, I think, is getting at. Here we glimpse social movement as an anticipatory praxis of something else coming, manifest in a kind of ante-political assembly, a mode of gathering or assembly or commune-ion that falls outside of though it surges through the violences of state time and history. Her words are a kind of “sorrow song” that celebrates the mass(es) or social movement even if that celebration is singed with some sort of sadness. This all arrested and moved me, I must say, inasmuch as I’ve been thinking a lot about what spirituality means in settler colonial times, about the “mysticism” of social movements, something I’ve recently called the “the mysticism of the riot” and the spirit(uality) of the general strike. What if spirit is of the riot? What if spirit is the general strike, ritual of an alternative cosmology?[3]

To be moved by the more-than-now, by a wholly-other, something-else-future is to be under fugitivity’s sway. Per the black radical tradition’s meditations on the historical figure of the fugitive and the arts of escape, fugitivity here bespeaks an other order of time. This other temporality bespeaks, as Melissa Louidor puts it as she thinks with Fred Moten, a certain “mobilization of black vitality.” It is a “futuristic impulse to claim the not-yet-forged possibilities of existence.” That impulse, to stay with Louidor a bit longer, might be thought about in terms of certain “biomechanic and metaphysical forces [that] activate” imagination, which is to say “effort, an effort that is integral to claiming survival.” To dwell within fugitive time or to be fugitively on the move is to resonate with, indeed to reside or tarry with, the im/possibility of other worlds. I’m talking about new ways of dwelling with and being on the earth. This is a kind of quantum communion, the veritable entanglement of all things precisely at the level of thingliness itself, at the level of base matter or raw vitality. In short, the modernity of fugitivity names the mobilization of a queer vitality, an “aliveness,” Kevin Quashie might say, beyond racial category.[4] While constantly engaging politics and maneuvering with respect to state structures, that which moves in fugitive time moves under the sociopoetic propulsion of an uncaptureable force that is irreducible to political ontology and its presumption of the human. As such, fugitivity is an insurgent practice of prophesy, though without the figure of the singular or sovereign prophet. For in fugitive time the prophet is the mass(es), the swarm of social movement as such.

I cannot help but hear Professor Heschel’s question—What does it mean to be moved?—in conversation with a tradition of black radical thought and the distinct notion of the sacred that is internal to this tradition and that drives its arts of escape, the arts of black rapture. The something-else-future that Professor Heschel’s language conjures or is reaching for is, like black radicalism’s poetics of the sacred, of an insurgent, dissident, rebellious, anti-doctrinal, and non-teleological future. Felt in the present, Professor Heschel’s question registers as a disturbance that is always already in play and that as such witnesses to an alternative present. Such a temporality, such a future, is radical. It is a future without frame, without foreclosure, marked by a peculiar kind of nonhumanist dispossession, movement outside of propertied self-possession.

To be under the claim of such a future is to be indebted to a future of something else coming, Heschel says, or that is “a’comin’,” to purloin from Judith Weisenfeld. And because it is a’comin’, it moves one into a different kind of now, a now that, again, exceeds the time of the human. This revised understanding of the future where the future is not merely what follows past and present suggests what might be called, defying grammatical convention, the tense of the future-now.

What might the future-now mean, where both “the now” and “the future” are unmoored from liberal humanist progressive narratives or temporalities (of death), unhooked from time schemes that presume the settler, or the sovereign, individuated subject? What could freedom released from settler time mean? And, what does this all mean for social movement(s), for a free Palestine, for Palestinian life in its adjacency to black life, and for a Jewishness released from Zionist-statist-settler logics and thus thought of as conspiring with, literally breathing with, blackness and Palestinianness, a Jewishness entangled in “blackpalestinian breathing”?

With Professor Heschel, I offer this answer which is not and cannot be one. At a minimum the tense of the future-now might be thought of as the opening of the imagination to the impossible. The tense of the future-now brings into view what settler time forecloses as not possible. Nevertheless the impossible surges through, fracturing time and history to announce another beginning. Genesis otherwise. The tense of the future-now is the tense, to borrow from Dawn Lundy Martin, of “unforeclosure” and the unforecloseable.

Unsettling settler time or the time of patriarchs and sovereigns, the tense of the future-now is marked, as experimental film maker and video artist Arthur Jafa has put it, by both tension and potential. Beyond time as given to us to shut down imagining the im/possible, the future-now discloses every instant as measureless, saturated by “potension.”

Could this be what moves a mo(ve)ment? Could it be that the tense of the future-now is nothing less than the tense of spirit-time, what is of the life (and) times of the unhuman wherein we are given to dwell with the earth even as we work to survive the settler world (of Man)? The riot, the rebellion then, is a threshold of the sacred where in passage we dwell in fugitivity’s future-now, rhythming “freedom time,” an alternative conception of time that presences an alternative present. Music-ing fugitive time is the creative, the ethical, the “poethical” task. . .Task of a homiletics of the unhuman, witnessing to a wounded, unspeakable joy . . . Task of something else a’comin’ . . .

(I dedicate this essay to a free Palestine)

[1]See Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Black and Palestinian Lives Matter: Black and Jewish America in the Twenty-First Century,” in On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 31–41.

[2]Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), 71.

[3]J. KameronCarter, “Black Malpractice (A Poetics of the Sacred).” Social Text 139 (forthcoming).

[4]The idea of “vitality” and “aliveness” reflects conversations with Quashie around his forthcoming book, Black Aliveness; or, The Being of Us.


*The opinions expressed in this piece do not represent the official opinions of Contending Modernities research initiative and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies or their faculty and staff.

J. Kameron Carter
J. Kameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He works in black studies, theology and philosophy of religion, and literature and poetry. His book is Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008). He’s just finished a book manuscript titled American Religion: White Supremacy as Political Theology and he is in the final stages of another book project whose topic is blackness and/as the sacred.
Global Currents article

From “Shooting and Crying” to “Shooting and Singing”: Notes on the 2019 Eurovision in Israel.

Olivia Wieczorek performing at the 2016 Polish National Final. Photo Credit: Serecki, Wikimedia Commons.

Israel is a nation that has no secrets. The democratic process of self-exposure is celebrated time and again. Its model of self-reflection, however, has changed over 70 years of military brutality, occupation, and settler colonial violence. Long ago, it used to follow a model of remorse, also known as “shooting and crying.” The tradition is traced back to S. Yizhar’s powerful novella Khirbet Khizeh (also spelled: Hirbet Hizeh or Hirbet Hizah)originally published in 1949. The novella tells the story of several young Israeli soldiers who are ordered to “clear” some Palestinian villages right after the end of the 1948 war. The text is a moving depiction of post-war atrocities, of colonial violence, of performative militarized masculinity, and of the inner turmoil of the narrator, who himself is a young soldier. The soldier wishes to belong to his fellow warriors, but his conscience hurts. Eventually he decides to join the rest in evacuating the village and leaves his remorse to be dealt with in the future.

Yizhar’s text is important because it is a very early documentation of the Nakba (Arabic for “Cataclysm” or “Catastrophe”). The significance of including the Nakba (with detailed accounts of destruction, violence, and expulsion of Palestinians) in one of the earliest Israeli novels to be published in Hebrew post 1948 cannot be overstated. That this very text became required reading for all Israeli high-school students right around the 1967 war, then a best seller, and finally a TV series a few years after the 1973 war, leaves little doubt about the significant impact this short text has had on generations of Israelis. What is this impact? Without undermining the outstanding literary qualities of the text (there are but a few Hebrew writers as talented as Yizhar, and this novella is a true masterpiece of modern Hebrew literature), one must recognize the poetic and political ethos of this text as one that soon became a model for many future Israeli novelists, songwriters, and filmmakers. In the work of acclaimed authors such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and even more contemporary writers, this trope is dominant. A few of the more familiar cinematic works that follow this model include Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Lebanon (2007), and more recently the TV series, Fauda (2018).

If the tone of remorse and hesitation is strongly captured in Yizhar’s early novella, over the years the trope of “shooting and crying” has become just as much about remorse and moral dilemmas as it has become about self-justification and the creating of a masculine, warrior subject. Such a subject is human and sensitive, but also logical and responsible. Amos Oz—a writer who has always been considered “leftist” by the right and “right” by the left—best captured this model of subjectivity in his response to a question about his feelings concerning his service as an Israeli soldier in both 1967 and 1973: “I have done many things that I am sorry I had to do, but nothing that I am ashamed of.”

Sorry for things I had to do.” This “non-apologetic apology” was the model of self-critique advanced in Israel in many politically reflective works of literature and cinema. “Shooting and crying,” as this style became known, was a way of maintaining the nation’s self-image as youthful and innocent, along with its sense of vocation against the reality of war, growing military violence, occupation, invasion, and an overall sense that things were going wrong. All in all, this long poetic tradition, which has at times produced better works than others—Waltz with Bashir is undeniably a cinematic masterpiece—followed the very same logic of Golda Meir’s somewhat less artistic, and significantly more coarse statement: “We can forgive you [the Arabs] for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”

But the days of shooting and crying are over. Shooting continues, but crying has stopped. It has been replaced with laughter: hysterical, cynical, crude, perhaps even desperate laughter. The general logic is the same: Israel hides nothing. It does not deny the violence and the shooting in which it is involved. It does not deny the occupation, the violations, the torture. Israel denies nothing. On the contrary, it openly depicts and documents its wrongs. In the past, it was the soldiers who were shooting and crying. This time around, the soldiers are shooting and the rest are dancing. And everything takes place out in the open. There is nothing for anyone to look for, to dig up, to expose; all is out in the open, because Israel has nothing to hide.

So what do we get now, when we are no longer shooting and crying, but rather shooting and singing? The more recent and more cynical (and perhaps more effective and dangerous) Israeli poetics and politics of self-reflection no longer bothers to portray Israelis as sensitive beings who shoot out of necessity, “We will never forgive them for what they made us do to them!” This change in style can be first detected in Waltz with Bashir, a film in which the old melancholic tone of the crying soldier is replaced with a dance soundtrack, neon colors, and a club scene. But it has only recently reached full maturity in the most vulgar presentation of a campy campaign that promotes something like: “We’re here, we’re occupiers, get used to it.”

Late last week, Israel released a response to the ongoing international critique against holding the 2019 Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv. Produced by a private media company, the video features two singers (one identifies as a Russian, the other as Arab) who meet two reluctant young blond tourists at the airport, most likely with the intention of convincing them that they should support Eurovision in Israel. The young tourists never appear convinced. On the contrary, they seem concerned, suspicious, and bitter, and they eventually leave their hosts. Meanwhile the Arab and Russian Israelis are jumpy, lively, and overtly “marketing” the country: “Stop! Don’t say a word! I know just what’ve you heard—that it’s a land of war and occupation.” The singing goes on, sparkles in the air, as the four leave the airport for a brief tour: “We are here to be your guide—a small country with pride!”

Truthfully, the video is confusing. If one does not know it is part of an official Israeli campaign, one is likely to think it is a parody, or perhaps even another BDS commercial (part two of the queer for Palestine dance revealed earlier this month). “This is the land of honey, honey . . . Our land is always sunny, sonny” the two hosts sing as they invite their hesitant tourists into a short “indoctrination,” telling them everything Israel has to offer in addition to the occupation: a dying Dead Sea that is shrinking due to capitalist activity; beaches full of bitches (also known as feminine gay men); lots of Jews (and only some are greedy); great shawarma everywhere; and the Al-Aqsa Mosque as symbol of “the beloved capital.”

So why would this be the formal Israeli campaign? Precisely because this “humor” and campiness have become clear and identifiable political and poetic tactics that can be easily mimicked, regenerated, and used as if following a narrative of reclaiming. Once again, Israel generates its message from the position of “strategic weakness”: the world says these horrible things about us? Well then it is either because everyone is anti-Semitic (they think all Jews are greedy!) or because they think we don’t know what they know and they think they need to teach us. But we know all there is to know, and we know better than they know. Even so, they patronize us, suggesting we don’t know what we do know: “the occupation isn’t nice.”

Shooting and crying is passé. Shooting and singing is more appropriate, especially as a promo for Eurovision in Tel Aviv. There is no point in denying the Israeli occupation (no one denies it) and no point in denying colonial violence and destruction (no one denies it). So? Lets dance! Where the mockery about nostalgia (“land of milk and honey”) comes on the same plate with the self-negating anti-Semitic jokes about greedy Jews and the matter of fact acknowledgement of the occupation (in the campaign’s first line no less!!), there is not much left for the critic to say. This is the importance and the danger of this new “campy” style. Its self-reflexivity and ironic nod is far more sophisticated, politically speaking, than crying. This is not merely replacing shooting and crying with shooting and singing. It is more like replacing shooting and crying with shooting and singing about just how vulgar it is to be shooting and singing. The bottom line message? Do you want to be shooting and crying? Crying about shooting? Or… would you rather join the singing? Don’t spoil the party. That’s not cool.

Gil Hochberg
Gil Hochberg is Ransford Professor of Hebrew, Comparative Literature, and Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersections among psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, nationalism, gender and sexuality. She has published essays on a wide range of issues including: Francophone North African literature, Palestinian literature, Hebrew literature, the modern Levant, Semitism, Israeli and Palestinian Cinema and art. Her first book, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2007), examines the complex relationship between the signifiers “Arab” and “Jew” in contemporary Jewish and Arab literatures. Her most recent book, Visual Occupations: Vision and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Duke University Press, 2015), is a study of the visual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian. She is currently writing a book on art, archives, and the production of knowledge.
Global Currents article

Beyond Aztlán: Latina/o/x Students Let Go of Their Mythic Homeland

Art Heals mural in Los Angeles, California. The image draws on the mythic imagination of Aztlán but depicts a Tongva woman and rebel leader, Toypurina, at its center. Photo Credit: Author.

On March 31, 2019, student leaders from the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA; the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán), a U.S. Latina/o/x organization present on many high school and college campuses across the country, voted to change their fifty-year old name. They decided that they had to drop two of the most mythically politicized facets: “Chicanx” and “Aztlán.” Although they haven’t decided on a final name, right now they have chosen an Espanglish acronym: Movimiento Estudiantil Progressive Action (MEPA). In an Associated Press story, some MEChA alumni criticized the students for running away from or trying to erase their history. 

Given that the names “Chicano” and “Aztlán” have been contested for fifty years, by debating these terms and voting to alter their names these students are actively participating in that history. In a statement on the decision, their national board made clear that they are not disavowing earlier generations.

Becoming MEChA: Historical Context

In the late 1960s, across the country, students mobilized to demand courses and programs of study that decentered modern European thought and reflected a greater sensitivity to the full human experience. The struggle for self-naming was part of the struggle for self-determination and greater educational opportunity that proliferated among these movements. For those engaged in decolonial struggles, there was often a hope that pre-modern stories and traditions might offer fuel in resisting contemporary colonial structures. The names “Chicano” and “Aztlán” were themselves invested with meaning by young people who were searching for names and ideas that would reflect their self-perception better than the terms outsiders had placed upon them.

At the same time, these movements were always more diverse in composition and less unified in perspective than later narratives like to depict. As a student of Christian scriptures, I am familiar with the ways on-the-ground human diversity often gets flattened in the memorialization of supposed moments of origin. I partially offer this reflection in the hope that MEPA narratives can do a better job of remembering how much of their fifty-year history has involved a multiplicity of perspectives and ongoing contestation.

Dominant Chicano movement narratives offer a clear and progressive origin story that begins with the triumphal inclusion of Chicano and Aztlán as terms of self-identification. In March of 1969, possibly 1500 activists met in Denver with a focus on Chicano nationalism. The term “Chicano” had started to circulate among activists a few years before. It felt like a reclaiming of an older term, and a variety of myths about the exact origin of the word abounded, though many thought it came from “mechicano,” a reference to the indigenous Mexica peoples. “Chicano” was also deployed with pride in contradistinction to the derogatory names that had been placed upon “ethnic Mexicans” (a term I take from historian Ernesto Chávez in order to speak to the pan-ethnic conglomeration of diverse peoples) by outsiders since the United States had seized and conquered the northern half of Mexico in 1848. From the history of 19thand 20thcentury lynchings in the borderlands amid Anglo depictions of “dirty Mexicans” to the use of “Operation Wetback” as a name for a mid-20thcentury federal government operation of mass deportations, ethnic Mexicans had confronted a variety of slurs employed to justify violence.

During the 1969 conference, the poet Alurista wrote the preamble for El Plan de Aztlán, where he renamed the southwestern United States “Aztlán,” the land the Aztecs migrated from before moving to the Valley of Mexico and the land to which they promised to return. Alurista intentionally drew upon a myth that antedated European colonialism, a myth that invoked both a pre-Columbian past and a future where colonial sufferings have ended.

MEChA Logo

In choosing the name “Chicano” for themselves and “Aztlán” for the lands on which they met, activists refused dominant depictions of ethnic Mexicans as foreigners. Instead, the United States was the foreign interloper in a grander history. Chicano/a/x activists were claiming a deep ancestral connection to the lands on which they lived. Precisely because ethnic Mexicans had faced so many forms of displacement and erasure in U.S. history, the powerful longing for place that rests behind these names persists through fifty years of engagement with Aztlán.

In April 1969, more than one hundred ethnically Mexican students, staff, and faculty from twenty-nine of California’s public colleges and universities met in Santa Barbara in order to craft a plan for higher education. But they also brought together several distinct student organizations and combined them into one new group: MEChA. The name was meant to signal a radical vision and commitment to self-determination. They were not “Mexican American” but Chicano. They were a movement in Spanish. They were not in California but Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the people we call Aztecs. Collectively, they became a mecha, a “matchstick” or a “fuse.”

Contestations over Aztlán

Yet Chicanos were themselves a diverse group, and they were more divided over the name and their platform than the October 1969 publication of El Plan de Santa Barbara makes it seem. Chicana feminist and Santa Barbara steering committee member Anna Nieto-Gómez has long observed that the published text flattened out the diversity of voices and the plurality of visions that had been present in Santa Barbara. Nieto-Gómez tells a different narrative about the Chicano movement’s history. For her, certain questions and practices of internal contestation were always part of ethnic Mexican student activism. 

Even in 1969, some young activists already wondered if the name “Chicano” represented too much of a break from their own past. The term “Chicano” was more commonly used within particular academic and activist contexts. What about friends and family who were not as educated in activist lingo? Many wondered whether the name worked to exclude rather than to unite. 

Aztlán, with its promise of a once and future homeland, was also quite pliable in its imagination and reception. Some participants in the Chicano movement, as filmmaker Jesús Treviño describes in his autobiography Eyewitness, may have hoped for a more literal reconquest of Mexico’s northern territories. And some activists, like Alfredo Acosta Figueroa as he describes in his book La Cuna de Aztlán, may have really believed that they had found the literal homeland of the Aztecs in a specific place in California. 

Most, however, quickly turned to a more spiritualized description, where Aztlán became more of a state of mind. They saw it as an alternate utopian space, or, as Luis Leal described it, “Aztlán symbolizes the spiritual union of the Chicanos, something that is carried within the heart, no matter where they may live or where they may find themselves.”

Current MEChA member from Seattle University, Nicolás Cruz, in his widely circulated paper criticizing Aztlán (“Reflections on Aztlán and Its Role in the Chicanx Student Movement”) makes note of the possibilities of this spiritualized approach. Cruz particularly engages with the analogy of what Israel means to different Jewish communities, highlighting their long history of contesting the meanings of homeland and diaspora. Yet, he still leaves that comparison wondering if spiritualizing Aztlán sufficiently addresses critics’ concerns. 

Cruz’s criticisms and those of other student leaders target these visions of Aztlán as themselves implicated in colonialism, racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, and transphobia. In a move familiar to students of religion, many elder activists depict these criticisms as contemporary impositions that fundamentally misunderstand an ancient myth and the historical context of the movement from which these ideas emerged. But I would suggest that, even if we discuss them on different terms now, all of these critiques have long histories. 

Chicano Park mural of Aztlán. Photo Credit: Author.

As early as the 1970s, some activists wondered if Aztlán relied too much on a romanticized, imperial vision. Aztlán, as it was imagined, partially derived its power from Spanish interpretations and manuscripts. The Mexicas, to whom “Chicano” supposedly referred, also colonized and dominated a great diversity of indigenous peoples before the Spanish arrived. Many ethnic Mexicans are indigenous but not Mexica. Additionally, in the last fifty years, the U.S. Latina/o/x population has grown and diversified dramatically. Many members of MEPA trace their ancestors to various parts of Latin America and not just Mexico.

Moreover, appealing to the Mexica people and to Aztlán grew out of a 1920s Mexican nationalist revolutionary mythos that valued racial mixture (mestizaje) rather than indigeneity. As Néstor Medina has succinctly outlined in his book Mestizajecertain Mexican nationalists appropriated indigenous imagery even as they opposed indigenous rights and erased Mexicans of Asian and African descent. 

Attempts to narrate and contest the complex racial stratification of the Americas have hundreds of years of history, even if, again, how we name those contestations now looks different. So too, in the case of the Chicano movement, do we find long-standing concerns about how indigeneity is respected in relationship to mestizaje. Indeed, indigenous ethnic Mexican objections to the concept of Aztlán may have been one of the most important factors in the decision to change the name. Even Alurista quickly rethought his positions, and his Nationchild Plumaroja (1972) sought to be more gender inclusive and more focused on indigenous traditions rather than mestizaje

Since 1970s Chicano activism was borne out of solidarity with other minoritized communities, some activists also asked about the rights of other minoritized populations, such as African Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans. Aztlán seemed to refuse other claims on a shared space. 

In the history of settler colonization of the Americas, many colonizers entered territories and mapped new names (or misappropriated indigenous names) on places that already had names recognized by the indigenous people living there. What does the idea of Aztlán mean for the place names of the many living indigenous communities throughout the United States? Do visions of Aztlán enable solidarity with their quests for sovereignty, or does Aztlán simply become another settler colonial misappropriation and misapplication, where an indigenous name from one part of the continent gets appropriated and mapped onto another, erasing the claims of indigenous peoples? This question is at the heart of the current debate and decision to move beyond Aztlán.

The criticisms around the inclusion of women and LGBT* students also have longer histories, even if they are not as directly apparent in the vision of Aztlán. Triumphal unified narratives of the 1970s Chicano movement too often focused on the leadership of cis-male heterosexual mestizos. As Maylei Blackwell researched in ¡Chicana Power!, Chicanas formed their own organizations quite early in order to create space outside of patriarchal demands. The Chicana feminist newspaper Hijas de Cuauhtémoc was already in print by 1971, and in Houston, more than 600 Chicanas gathered for the Conferencia de la Mujer. 

Nieto-Gómez, among others, laid challenges to Chicano movement leadership structures that favored men and compelled women to be subservient, enabled sexual harassment and abuse, and that proclaimed an ideology of family grounded in patriarchal hierarchy while erasing women. Feminist critics specifically coined the term “hermanidad,” a more gender inclusive sense of siblinghood, to counter the more masculine dominated language of “carnalismo” or “brotherhood.” By the late 1970s, Chicana feminist Anna Nieto-Gómez was pushed out of Chicano activism because some figures wanted to eliminate practices of internal contestation, especially feminist contestation. 

As Richard T. Rodríguez has demonstrated in Next of Kin, LGBT* Chicana/o/xs also worked inside and alongside the movement to create their own visions of Chicano/x/a familia and Aztlán. In the early 1990s in her collection The Last Generation, author Cherríe Moraga said “Aztlán gave language to a nameless anhelo [longing/yearning] inside me.” Yet this reflection is found in an essay (“Queer Aztlán”) that underscored the ways patriarchy and machismo had undermined the 1970s movement.

“Women of the Resistance” Mural in Balmy Alley, San Francisco. Photo Credit: Author.

Why Aztlán’s Time Is Up

Moraga may have found a way to queer Aztlán, but every generation wonders if they should continue to refashion the myths they have inherited or if it is time to create new ones. MEChA is not the first 1960s/70s-era Latina/o/x organization to confront such a name change. The National Council of La Raza changed its name to UnidosUS in 2017. Rodríguez has also wondered about whether familial metaphors are still usable, after the movement-era struggles around hermanidad and carnalismo (and queer belonging within and outside of both metaphors). He argues that the long-standing power of familia means that these metaphors cannot be abandoned, but he still awaits a “next of kin,” some other approach to fictive family.

To be sure, the generation that created MEChA, and the generations in between who benefitted from their struggles, have an emotional attachment to the name. Chicano scholar and activist Alvaro Huerta captures how important MEChA was to transformations in his consciousness and his life in “Reflections of a MEChista.” I wrote my 2016 book, Revelation in Aztlán, precisely because I was intrigued by the power that this mythic place name wielded for people who felt that they have been denied place in the United States. 

Today’s students, however, are still carrying forth the legacies of conscientization, rigorous intellectual debate, and critical social action that made Aztlán a potent utopian imagination for previous generations of MEChistas. Current students have seriously debated the meanings of “Chicano” and “Aztlán,” and despite recognizing their potent histories, they worry that the baggage associated with them hinders their abilities to craft the better world that earlier generations sought.

In this regard, these current students are also participating in debates that rage across the globe about how best to relate to the traditions our ancestors passed down to us, especially when those traditions seem deeply implicated in historical practices of oppression such as colonialism, racism, heteropatriarchy, and/or transphobia. Some figures, like Moraga and Rodríguez, struggle to retrieve the histories of complexity and contestation without abandoning those myths. Some like Leal repurpose the content of those myths and how we engage with them, in order to find ways to make them useful to the current moment. 

But other generations give up on those myths altogether. In 1969, student activists decided to give up on the names they inherited, and they turned to a mythic past in order to create new names for their present. Current students have likewise decided they no longer wish to carry the names they inherited forward. What students of religion around the world should take note of here, however, is the students’ decision to reject the name without creating a finalized alternative. These students were skeptical that any previous tradition might be made usable for the present. 

For students of religion in the United States, we may see a familiar lesson in this decision to change MEChA’s name. Sociological studies of religion in the United States have found a similar dramatic decline in youth participation in Christian churches. Many of our students no longer want to associate themselves with inherited traditions that have been mobilized to oppress people. Even as these students have taken much of their vision of social justice from previous generations’ articulations of Aztlán, they wish to move their organization forward without evoking ancient mythic traditions. This decision is one option familiar to those who watch how minoritized populations navigate the competing modernities they have inherited.

Still, a change of name does not necessarily mean students are running away from their history or disavowing the struggles of generations before them. In fact, MEPA students embrace the same desire to self-name that marked previous MEChA generations’ quests for self-determination. They know that names are always ambivalent, contingent, and contested, that utopias are always unfinished works-in-progress. Future generations may someday find MEPA’s new name inadequate, but el movimiento will keep moving then too.

Jacqueline Hidalgo
Jacqueline M. Hidalgo is associate professor of Latina/o Studies and Religion at Williams College. She is the author of Revelation in Aztlán: Scriptures, Utopias, and the Chicano Movement and the co-editor (with Efraín Agosto) of Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration. For 2018-2019, she is president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.
Global Currents article

Producing Motherhood? Uterus Transplantation for Infertility

Children hold hands with their mother in Dago, Indonesia. Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal, 2010.

One of the main findings of the Science and the Human Person working group (the larger project to which these essays contribute) is that the discursive traditions of Islam and Catholicism offer valuable insights, but not a full account, of the human person. One of the project’s podcasts (in which I was honored to participate) described debates among Islamic jurists on the permissibility of organ donation. Herein I will weave together these threads, albeit partially, by outlining fundamental questions raised by the science and practice of uterine transplantation. I will further suggest that to better conceptualize, and eventually furnish, ethical guidelines that attend to the bioethics of uterine transplantation a multidisciplinary model is required, one where secular and religious bioethicists partner with social and medical scientists.

Procedurally, uterine transplantation involves removing the uterus from a living individual, or from an individual who fulfills the neurological criteria for death, and grafting this organ into a willing female recipient. Uterus transplantation, like limb and face transplantation, is part of the growing area of research into vascular composite allografts where multiple tissues types are transplanted as one functional unit. Uterus transplantation is unique in that it is a temporary measure; once the transplanted uterus fulfills its function in the donor it is removed and discarded. As with all organ transplants, the viability of the organ depends on a myriad of factors including the condition of the uterus when it is removed from the donor, the medical status of the recipient, the immunological compatibility between the donor and the recipient, the surgical technique utilized, and the efficacy of the immunosuppressive drugs the recipient takes to forestall organ rejection. In order for the donor’s sacrifice, the surgeon’s labor, and the recipient’s daily ministrations to be ethically justified, the ends of the procedure must be righteous and likely to be attained, while the risks and side effects relatively minimal. Accordingly, over the past decade, uterine transplantation has become an increasingly viable procedure with acceptable risk-to-benefit ratios, and the success of carrying to term and delivering an infant via a transplanted uterus increasingly probable. This biomedical advancement births bioethics questions both old and new.

For one, uterine transplantation forces clinicians and ethicists to (re-)examine the ambiguous line between therapy and enhancement; is this purported therapy restoring bodily function, adding a new physiologic capacity, or something in between? Uterus transplantation is an experimental procedure/emerging therapy for women with absolute uterine infertility (AUFI). AUFI refers to the inability to bear children because women either (i) lack a uterus (congenitally or because of surgical removal due to disease), or (ii) have a uterine abnormality that prevents embryo implantation and/or gestation to term. For these women, uterus transplantation holds the possibility of (re-)gaining the ability to gestate and birth a child. If uterus transplantation is judged to be a clinical therapy, then AUFI is termed a disease. To consider the therapy vs. enhancement question ethicists must delve into both the medical and the social bases upon which AUFI becomes a disease and uterus transplantation its treatment, as well as the implications thereof.

As noted above, women with AUFI are not all the same. Some cannot bear children for they were born without a uterus or without one that permits gestation. For this group uterus transplantation is technically not restorative because their bodies innately did not have the capacities theoretically offered by a transplanted uterus. Rather, in these cases uterus transplant offers an opportunity to rectify the body’s perceived deficiency by allowing for childbirth. This fix is based on patient desire, as well as on social expectations of womanhood and cultural notions of the normative body being one that contains reproductive capacity. Certainly, social scientific data will attest to the fact that some women with AUFI, as well as those unable to bear children for other reasons, experience profound loss. This sense of missing out on an essential part of life motivates their seeking procedures like uterus transplant. Yet this sense of something missing does not fully support a claim of uterus transplantation as restorative. It certainly adds meaning, value, and enhances perceived flourishing, but it does not restore an innate ability for someone suffering from AUFI. In one way it is more akin to enhancement in that it provides women without a uterus the chance of having a child of their own, much like a prosthetic extremity allows congenital amputees to gain a limb. The extremity adds a capacity, enhances functioning, but does not replace something that was lost, for the extremity was either not there or not fully formed or functional in the first place. The other group with AUFI, those who have had to undergo uterus removal due to disease are, arguably, different because they lost a capacity their bodies previously contained. For them uterus transplantation may be deemed restorative.

I am certainly not suggesting that clinical therapies must be restorative in order to be ethically justified; there are many genetic therapies and surgical procedures that seek to rectify abnormalities in structure, function, and phenotype that are part and parcel of ethical medical practice. Rather, ethicists (be they secular or religious scholars) must appreciate the ways in which uterus transplant and AUFI makes visible the ways in which social expectations and ideas about the normative body interact with the ethical ends of medicine. A host of bioethical questions arise when uterus transplantation is considered as a social practice: Is the fact that some women with AUFI suffer and are desirous of a solution sufficient enough justification to categorize it as a disease that demands medical remedy? Or does the fact that gestating and birthing is perceived to enhance the flourishing of some women sufficient grounding to make it part of routine medical practice? At present uterus transplantation is a procedure undertaken by willfully consenting adults, but if we could perform it on children with less complications and better success would it be ethically justified? On a related note, would medicine deem women who are born without a uterus diseased at birth or do they become diseased only because the need for a child arises later in life? Is either group, the child or the adult, somehow physiologically deviant due to no fault of their own, therefore making it medicine’s task to graft reproductive capacity upon them?

AUFI illustrates how all diseases are socio-culturally constructed; some have physiological or functional correlates (e.g. coronary artery disease), while others are thus classified because they are deviations from social norms (e.g. idiopathic short stature). Women with AUFI fit into both categories in that they are deemed to have a physiological or functional “disability” based on a “missing” function, and accordingly uterus transplant blurs the line between treatment and enhancement. There is no doubt that women with AUFI suffer considerably because they cannot have offspring. Although uterus transplantation may offer a solution to this suffering there are other potential “therapies” to not having children, such as adoption or gestational surrogacy. The appeal of uterus transplantation may be strong, and the procedure may be ethically justified, but it is also carries greater risk than these alternatives. In this case, as in others, ethicists need to fully consider the social forces that turn atypical anatomy or physiology into malady, and difference into disorder. Scholars may find interesting parallels to draw upon in the deaf community where some opt to not have their deafness (or that of their children) “remedied” because they do not see deafness as a disease and reject such stigmatization.

As religious bioethicists weigh in on the ethics of uterus transplant they need to examine conceptions of the normative body from the lens of tradition. For example, both Islam and Christianity have versions of an imago Dei doctrine. Does this notion offer insight into distinctions between therapy and enhancement when it comes to reconfiguring the body by adding a uterus?  When building out conceptions of the normative body based on scriptural indicants, both traditions must confront the issue that in some narrations womankind was generated from the first man. What sort of normativity can be attached to the uterus, an organ only present in female bodies? Similarly, both traditions speak to the value of procreation with scriptural texts that command the faithful to “be fruitful and multiply.” Does this directive envisage women without a uterus as being removed from God’s bounty out of wisdom, or can it ground uterus transplantation as a meritorious deed because of a desire to fulfill this teaching? In addition to these new wrinkles, uterus transplantation livens up “older” debates about organ transplantation in religious traditions. Although organ transplantation is generally permitted by Muslim scholars when it is life-saving, uterus transplantation is not technically life-saving for the individual recipient. Would the fact that it allows for a future generation to exist which would not have otherwise accord it life-saving status or does it have a different merit? Islamic scholars debate organ transplantation’s ethico-legal permissibility because it can, arguably, detract from the honor, dignity, and inviolability accorded to the human being as God’s creation because it reduces the human beings into a mix of interchangeable parts. Does uterine transplantation change this stance appreciably?

Continuing on to other social constructions, uterus transplantation necessarily implicates notions of motherhood. The transplanted uterus, if all goes well, would allow a woman to gestate and give birth to a baby. By definition, it would then appear, that uterus transplantation generates a child-parent relationship. Yet it has always been the case that motherhood is constructed upon social as well as biological foundations. Biomedical advancements have made the biological linkages between offspring and potential parents all the more varied, and uterus transplantation adds to this complexity. At one level, the link between a parent and a child is based on shared DNA, the propagation of these building blocks of life from one organism to another links one generation of a species to another. The DNA provides data on one’s origin and ancestry, generates one’s phenotypic and physiological profiles, and speaks to one’s probabilities for disease and longevity. DNA science has replaced “older” methods of evaluating the linkage between offspring and parents. For example, in the Prophet Muhammad’s time, the science of physiognomy was practiced to certify links between progeny and progenitors; today DNA science has supplanted this practice. Yet, modern biomedicine can now offer multiple other biological claims to parenthood as the chain from progenitor to progeny can be further subdivided. Nowadays the ovum and the sperm cell (either with or without the nuclei that contain the cell’s DNA) can be donated from people other than those who desire a child, and the womb within which the fused zygote is gestated can either be hired from a third party or, in the case of uterine transplant, come from a donor.

Figurine of woman with two infants. Photo credit: Nadia Carol, 2008.

Thus the couple desiring a child can legally claim to be rightful parents of an infant they have no DNA or gestational link to. Perhaps there is no ethical issue with such a claim because adoption provides some precedent. Adoption, in ancient times as well as today, has always been a practice that privileged social over biological bonds where accepting a child into one’s home and rearing them created a parent-child relationship. Contemporary biomedicine seems to have innovated beyond this older method with egg, sperm, embryo, and uterus donation. However it is likely that couples who have children via the method of egg and sperm donation plus gestational surrogacy would not consider themselves to be adoptive parents. Technically, however, they are not biological parents either. Is a new category of parenthood needed to cover this situation? Returning to the matter of uterus transplantation, the same question arises: does the act of gestation ground kinship ties and accompanying ethical claims? Gestational surrogacy arrangements, where they are legal, may provide some precedent, but these are also not without their controversies. Would the uterus donor be able to claim parental rights? Or in the case that the donated uterus was deficient in some way would the gestated child be able to make claims of the “right not to be born” against both the uterus donor and the recipient since the functional issue arose only after the uterus was transplanted into the new body?

A further complication, at least for Muslim thinkers, is that the womb and gestation are particularly significant in Islamic theology. One of God’s names is derived from the Arabic root for the womb; and Muslims are warned not to sever the ties of the womb lest it sever God’s mercy from the individual. Similarly the Qur’an emphatically declares that the “true” mother is the individual who birthed (and gestated) the child. Rearing is an important function but not one that grounds parental rights in this world or the next in the Qur’anic paradigm. As such a uterus donor’s ethico-legal claims of parentage would be harder to dismiss. Moreover, another analogy may be drawn from within the tradition. According to Islamic law, milk maids have parental rights, and some thinkers argued gestational mothers should be treated similarly. Does a uterus donor mother need to be added to the mix? Even if Muslims were to not seek uterus transplantation as a remedy the question is nevertheless pertinent to Muslims and Islamic law. With opt-out policies of organ transplantation gaining momentum in multiple countries, it is possible that a deceased Muslim women’s uterus may be used for transplantation purposes in the future. What would the relationship be between the child born to the recipient of that uterus and the children of the donor? Would kinship ties ensue, and the prohibition of marriage amongst siblings be invoked?

Having marked out several important bioethical questions uterus transplantation gives rise to, and noting how these questions have religious dimensions, I would like to close by discussing, in broad strokes, how social science and religious tradition might work together jointly to address these questions. In my view the project of defining terms such as motherhood and distinguishing between enhancement and restoration is a task religion can take up. Religious texts and scriptural teachings provide theologies and ontologies that provide frameworks upon which to build out such conceptions. At the same time, it is important to note that religious interpretations are not neutral; the way a text is read, understood, and explicated is contextually-dependent. These contexts go back, as well as carry forth, into time and make a tradition lived and always evolving. Hence when the religious frameworks are brought to address contemporary questions, their historicity and weddedness to social contexts must be acknowledged, and the frameworks revised as needed. Moreover, the experiences of motherhood, how notions of motherhood play out in society, and how patients invoke conceptions of restoration and enhancement in seeking healthcare are all topics of social scientific research. Even if the individuals studied are religious actors, their decision-making is also shaped by a myriad of other cultural, political, and social forces. Consequently social science has much to offer religious bioethics; it helps to clarify human experiences, understandings, and contexts, both historical and contemporary.

Scholars on this forum have grappled with the many ways in which biomedical advancements spur the reexamination of religious doctrine and teaching and also have forecast how religious theologies can give fuller meaning to the discoveries of biomedicine. They have further commented on how this bilateral exchange is framed by larger social, political, and economic forces. Attending to the pressing bioethical questions of uterus transplantation requires scholars from all three disciplines—religion, medicine, and social science—to come together in trialogue.

Aasim Padela
Dr. Padela is an emergency medicine physician, health services researcher, and bioethicist whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of community health, religious tradition, and bioethics. He is Director of the Program on Medicine and Religion at the University of Chicago.
Global Currents article

Freedom of Speech? Palestine as an Exception

Contending Modernities Introduction:

Weeks before Civil Rights icon Angela Davis was to be honored for her unflagging commitment to human rights, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) rescinded the February 2019 award, due to concerns that Davis’ support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement had been challenged as “anti-Semitic.” In the struggle against modern day racism and oppression, solidarity for Palestinians had yet again been set aside—by a Civil Rights institute no less—as the “exception”: a site of injustice that only one identity group—Jews—might legitimately mobilize for or even discuss, and even then under great stigma. In the past few days, Davis has since been reconfirmed for the award by BCRI, and Michelle Alexander’s “Time to break the silence on Palestine” editorial has placed the issue squarely in the public eye—for the moment.

A year ago, on April 9th-11th, 2018, students from Columbia University and Barnard College held an “Academic Freedom Week” responding to the persecution of progressive academics. Below we share the lecture given on the first day by Columbia University professor and panelist Gil Hochberg on “The Palestinian Exception” (to freedom of speech). In her critique of the forms of censorship performed and enforced by pro- and anti-Zionist Jews and allies, Hochberg identifies the intrinsic narcissism of measuring “real” and “good” Jewish identity with the yardstick of the Palestinian “question.” Discourse and action defining the contours of Palestinian survival become circumscribed to Jews speaking from within Jewish resources about the politics of solidarity—by whom, for whom?—while other identity groups are relegated to a status as secondary allies or excluded from these conversations altogether. As Davis noted, how to navigate these complicated, layered questions of identity, authenticity, and solidarity is a question that strikes at the very heart of the indivisibility of justice.


April 9, 2018
Columbia University

1.  Anti Semitism/Anti Zionism

News doesn’t last long. A quick flipping through the online news sites of Fox News, CNN, ABC but also the New York Times, LA Times and lesser-known papers today reveals that the latest crazed attack on Gaza has already been forgotten. Hardly even mentioned. News moved elsewhere: to Syria, back to Trump and his kids, back to all sorts of questions and places. There is nothing surprising about this, of course. It takes a lot for Palestine to “enter” the news and it is almost impossible for it to stay there. Part of it is simply “news fatigue“ (how many times can you read or see the same thing, witness the same atrocities when nothing follows in the form of actual political change?). But part of it is of course the strong Israeli lobby and the sad bitter and perhaps inevitable “mix” of the Palestinian question with the longer and stronger (in terms of its impact) Jewish question, translating always to the ghost of anti-Semitism: new or old, real or not.

It is by now become a cliché to argue that a critique of Israel, or of Zionism, is anti-Semitism. I say a cliché because this argument is used time and time and again to silence criticism against the Israeli state, the occupation of Palestine, or Zionism as an ethnic-national principle of separatism that is undemocratic by definition (I remind you of the then Knesset member Ahmad Tibi’s brilliant phrasing: “Israel is Jewish and democratic: it is democratic for the Jews and Jewish for the Arabs”).

It is really a tiring argument that I trust many are tired of debating. Many have combated it before so I do not want to spend the whole time doing so again. Let me say a few words about this twisted logic and then move on to what I believe needs to be part of the next step of our public conversations about censorship and the Palestinian exception.

Anti-Zionism, like Zionism, like any -ISM, can take many forms. It can become or take the form of anti-Semitism, and so can Zionism. But there is absolutely nothing inherent in the critique of Zionism as a principle, or the critique of the state of Israel, that is anti-Semitic. The suggestion that any expression of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic is an indication of severe paranoia at best, and a manipulated rhetoric at worst. Unless we agree that Jews are by default hated and that anti-Semitism is a mode of collective subconscious; there is no logic to the argument that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

At times this crude logic takes a particularly vulgar turn, making the entire discourse of freedom in Palestine out to be mask for anti-Semitism. This is a perverse argument that suggests that caring for Palestinians and their wellbeing is somehow really about hating Jews and seeking their destruction.

The issue with this zero-sum game (one is either for and against Jews or Palestinians), is not just that it is so limited but that it is further used as an effective silencing machine, time and time again.

Attack on Gaza, 2018, as presented by IDF. Photo Credit: The Israel Project, from IDF image.

Indeed, the so-called ‘new anti-Semitism’ associated with the critique of Israel or Zionism is used by Israeli state officials, the IDF, and many supporters of Israel to explicitly justify state terror and protect Israel from international and domestic condemnation.

What Israel is fighting, the image at right seems to suggest, is anti-Semitism, represented by the Palestinian flag hugging the swastika. The two are the same. One hugging the other.

This tactic, which aims at silencing critique of occupation, state terror, racism, separatism, and other similar violations, is directed strategically. It aims at Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labor Party, for example, but not at Richard Spencer or Steven Bannon. And it is perhaps most effectively used in attacks against Jewish critics of Israel or Zionism, with the goal, as Judith Butler has noted, not just to silence critique but “to cause pain, to produce shame, to isolate and identify a political position with a personal pathology.”

Jews who criticize Israel or Zionism are thus said to be “self-hating” sell outs, in short: “bad Jews.” And as we shall see, there are bad Jews and good Jews, and real Jews, and all kinds of Jews, all aligned around in different positions vis-à-vis the question of Palestine.

2.  Good Jews, Bad Jews

Let me pause for a second and share a bad joke with you. And I warn you in advance of its poor taste. But it is nevertheless quite funny in a dark, bitter way. Or perhaps it is funny because it is in such bad taste, as is often the case with pessimistic jokes. It goes something like this: Why is the Palestinian question really a Jewish question? Because only Jews talk about it, and when they do it is mostly in order to argue among themselves about who is the better Jew.

I introduce this joke which is bitter and funny because it is at once a sad joke about the Palestinian ordeal, which supposedly no one but the Jews care about, and about the Jews who care about Palestine and Palestinians primarily because whatever they say about Palestine determines how they are viewed “as Jews.”

Caption: “Antizionism is simply a thinly veiled seemingly more ‘socially acceptable’ form of antisemitism. They are one and the same.” Photo Credit: The Israel Project, 2017.

In short the joke captures the irony of history: the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian question into the Jewish question, only that in the 21st century, this historical inseparability, about which Edward Said wrote so thoughtfully, has become somewhat of a farce. Now that the so-called “Jewish question” has no current political urgency, its dominance in framing the question of Palestine has become primarily an anachronistic, narcissistic, and essentialist question about what makes a good Jew.

And here we see how much power the question: “Is Zionism anti-Semitism?” has had at least since the early 2000s. I remind you of Lawrence Summers’ words, published while he was president of no less than Harvard University. Addressing what he saw as dangerous growing anti-Zionist sentiments among intellectuals, he wrote back in 2002:

Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.

Here of course we see the complete collapse between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One is the other. Therefore it also means that one cannot be “for the Jews” or “with the Jews” or a “good Jew” if one is anti-Zionist because if one is anti-Zionist one is (in effect or intention) an anti-Semite.

Responding forcefully to the implied accusations, Judith Butler published her defense of anti-Zionism a year later, in 2003. What is important to notice is the manner by which Butler’s response to Summers centered on undoing the tie between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, primarily by undoing the misguided identification of Zionism with Judaism. I quote from Butler:

What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticizes Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness […] precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not?

But what does it mean to criticize Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness?

For Butler this means to develop an understanding of Jewishness itself as a non-identitarian project. In her book Parting Ways she writes: “being a Jew implied taking up an ethical relation to the non Jew.” This definition allows her to elaborate a discourse of “Jewish ethics” that is based on Jewish diasporic existence and history as one that ultimately leads to co-existence with non-Jews, and hence as radically different than the Zionist formation of Israel as a “Jewish State.”

The idea of basing one’s critique of the state of Israel on “Jewish sources,” “Jewish ethics” and “Jewish history” is also a tactic and position promoted by Jewish Voice for Peace. Indeed, one of their principles as outlined on their website reads:

We are inspired by Jewish traditions to work for justice and such work is part of our own liberation. We work to build Jewish communities that reflect the understanding that being Jewish and Judaism are not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israel.

I fully appreciate these efforts and think that as responses to accusations of internalized anti-Semitism and self-hatred these are effective strategies. They are also effective in combating the monopoly Zionism claims over Judaism. But this discourse of “Jewish ethics” has its limits as well, and I want to draw attention to these limits, not as a sign of my disagreement with Butler, JVP or others, as much as an expression of my sense that we must become more carefully attuned to how discourses on the left also function as censorship. These discourses also limit what we can say, how we can say it, and who can say what—for Jews and non-Jews—when we talk about Palestine.

Now, let’s face it. I am speaking partially, not only, but partially, as a Jew. Perhaps I am even here as a kosher guard (always good to invite a Jew when discussing Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Palestine). I by no means am implying that the organizers of the event had such intentions in mind. But I also don’t want to ignore this position from which I am speaking which is a position that comes with specific expectations, privileges, and limitations when it comes to speaking about Palestine.

I cannot but speak from this position, which is already over-determined in this context, but I try, very hard, to also speak across it. Because I come to the question of Palestine, to the question of our ability or inability to speak about Palestine, not just in relation to the censorship imposed on us by the right and by academic institutions, but also by the censorship imposed, directly or less so, by the left. When it comes to the question of Palestine, to the question of speaking about Palestine, or the question of who is allowed to speak about Palestine and how, the left has generated some clear frameworks of policed discourse that I find almost as problematic as the attempts to shut down the discussion about Palestine altogether by the right. One such frame is the one I call the “good Jew, bad Jew” framework. It sets the expectation for Jews to speak as Jews and mobilize “Jewish ethics,” thus inevitably turning the question of Palestine into a Jewish question and a question which is ultimately about Jews.

Protest against US supported Israeli bombings and invasion of Lebanon. Photo Credit: Danny Hammontree, 2006.

Of course the need to distinguish Zionism from Judaism, in light of Israel’s speaking in the name of the Jews, and as a Jewish state, is very important. But that work, I believe, is now mostly done. I am also quite wary of the language of authenticity (“real,” “true,” “authentic”) because it ends up functioning as yet another wall of censorship and identity regulations, once again in the name of “what makes a real Jew”—an essentializing discourse that renders one’s political views about the state of Israel and the occupation of Palestine in exclusively Jewish terms.

The question I generate for us (for some of “us”) today is: Do we want to go on playing the “good Jew, bad Jew” game? Do we need to play the “good Jew, bad Jew” game when we simply want to voice our resistance to state terror, military occupation, and racial segregation?

I end here, leaving you with the words of Mahmoud Darwish. Not with a poem, but with words he shared in an interview held in Amman back in 1996 with the Israeli literary critic and poet, Helit Yeshurun. At the time he was waiting for his permit to return home to Palestine:

Do you know why we, the Palestinians, are famous? Because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestine problem comes by way of interest in the Jewish problem. . . If our war had been with Pakistan, no one would have heard of me. So we are unlucky that our enemy is Israel, which has so many sympathizers in the world, and we are lucky that Israel is our enemy, because Jews are the center of the world. You have given us defeat, weakness, and publicity.

These words are provocative. They are meant to be. And to take them seriously, I think, is to begin to reconsider and rethink the idea of what it means to be speaking “as a Jew” or from a “Jewish position” or about “Jewish ethics” when speaking or trying to speak about Palestine. Can a Jew speak about Palestine, about the atrocities that take place in Palestine, not as a Jew? Can she speak in the name of solidarity, not in the name of authentic Jewishness or Jewish ethics? Can the question of Palestine ever become something that isn’t already and essentially a Jewish question?

Caption: “Palestinians Collect Belongings from Gaza Ruins.” Photo Credit: United Nations Photo, 2014.

Gil Hochberg
Gil Hochberg is Ransford Professor of Hebrew, Comparative Literature, and Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersections among psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, nationalism, gender and sexuality. She has published essays on a wide range of issues including: Francophone North African literature, Palestinian literature, Hebrew literature, the modern Levant, Semitism, Israeli and Palestinian Cinema and art. Her first book, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2007), examines the complex relationship between the signifiers “Arab” and “Jew” in contemporary Jewish and Arab literatures. Her most recent book, Visual Occupations: Vision and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Duke University Press, 2015), is a study of the visual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian. She is currently writing a book on art, archives, and the production of knowledge.
Theorizing Modernities article

Border-Crossers: Interrogating Boundaries through Bodies

Ollagüe-Uyuni border between Chile and Bolivia. Photo Credit: Francisco Javier Argel, 2013.

The first panel at the Ansari Institute’s inaugural conference brought to the fore a core issue in global politics today: the issue of migration. Alicia Turner (York University), Erin Wilson (University of Groningen), William Canny (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and Atalia Omer (University of Notre Dame) provided us with perspectives into different aspects of forced migration that are located at the intersection of modern nationalisms, racisms, and the presence of global religions.

Rooted in her studies of the genocide of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, Alicia Turner prompted us to question the normative hegemony of borders and to identify the ‘silenced victims’ of the construction and enforcement of borders. Turner eloquently disclosed the intertwining relations between the hegemonic establishment of ‘modernity’ with the formal and informal presence of borders whose sole goal is to maintain control over knowledge production, and thus, over the differentiated ‘valuations’ of humanity. In the context of modern binaries, ‘humanity’ is a reward that can only be attributed to those who are within the border. Meanwhile, those who find themselves outside of the border only serve as ‘others’ to affirm the hegemonic selves of the former.

One epistemological goal of modern hegemonic binaries is to produce an illusion of neat and categorized history, in which ‘us’ and ‘them’ are easily differentiated from each other. This illusion works to sustain a façade of hegemonic stability and erases the inhumane realities of lives outside the border. In other words, those who live outside of the border not only pose a threat to their counterparts within the border, but also pose a significant threat to the order of life itself. Hence, as elaborated by Erin Wilson in her presentation, the acts of ‘border-crossing’ from outside the border into the border have always been designated a ‘crisis’ with all of its senses of danger and unpredictability. The acts of moving from one geopolitical locality to another by marginalized others—acts that are otherwise seen as ‘normal’ when they are taken by White ‘Western’ bodies—become an affront to the supposedly peaceful, normalized way of life maintained by the illusion of modern hegemonic binaries.

Furthermore, William Canny assessed the readiness and contribution of Catholic institutions and organizations in dealing with the issue of forced migration. One important point that deserves further discussion from Canny’s presentation is the problem of insularity among Catholic institutions in responding to the many forms of forced migration. The absence of a strong cooperative network among Catholic institutions has led to siloed and fragmented humanitarian work. A cohesive and systematic network is needed to effectively respond to the issue at hand. The same problem can be found in other major religious institutions around the world and has significantly weakened religious-based responses toward the protection of displaced people, immigrants, and refugees in general. In addition, the stated problem also presents a hurdle to tapping into global religious networks as a resource for the advocacy of the rights of migrants.

All of those different facets of the issue of forced migration were elaborated further in Atalia Omer’s rejoinder and response. Omer illuminated the violent underbelly of modernity by interrogating the contours of exclusivism that come with the erection of borders and boundaries. In addition, inspired by the conference of ‘Bandung of the North’ (Saint-Denis, May 4th-May 7th, 2018), Omer called for the construction of socio-political alliances of decolonized experiences in the Northern Hemisphere.

Views of the Nogales border wall from the north side.
Views of the Nogales border wall from the north side. Nogales, AZ. Photo Credit: Peg Hunter, 2018.

Another important point that was highlighted in Omer’s rejoinder concerned the ‘securitization of religion’ by the modern institution of the ‘nation-state.’ In this ongoing process of securitization, the presence of religion in public space is seen as yet another example of ‘boundary-crossing’ in which secularism is a norm and religiosity is an exception at best, and a threat at worse. Such a process can be seen clearly in the rise of Islamophobic policies in the US and many parts of Europe where Islam, and by extension Muslims, are relegated to a position of threat to the ‘cultural integrity’ of both regions, whatever that means. In addition to the violent implications against the marginalized-religious other, ‘securitization of religion’ also results in a skewed perspective where state-sponsored violence is justified due to the normativization of secular violence and the demonization of religious-based violence.

What we can infer from this panel is an interlocking presence of borders that are created out of political, racial, and religious differences and are employed to justify violence on marginalized others. These borders are then sustained and legitimated through the hegemonic presence of the ‘nation-state’ as the arbiter of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ violence. If there is one thing that ties these phenomena, it is the fact that the political, racial, and religious markers that compose those borders are also etched and negotiated on the bodies of the marginalized others as ‘border-crossers.’

A Way Forward?

What is left rather unexplored from the conversation on religions and forced migration in the panel are two key areas. First, there is the question of the ways in which external borders are projected onto the bodies of ‘border-crossers.’ Second, I question what alternative forms of plural and hybrid embodiment exist that can be used as models for thinking about the constructedness and fluidity of boundaries.

In this context, looking into how the bodies of women of color accommodate, resist, and reconstruct the various ‘borders’ that are imposed on them would be a fruitful endeavor to undertake. As a case in point, in many discourses surrounding bad/good Muslims in the US (which also automatically translate into bad/good immigrants), one’s decision to wear hijab or not wear hijab is intrinsically associated with one’s position within or outside certain borders. When a Muslim woman wears a hijab, she is both the icon of ‘oppressive Islam’ and the ‘ideal’ figure of the Muslims’ ‘faith.’ Meanwhile, when she does not wear a hijab, she is an ‘enlightened’ (good) Muslim who embraces the mythical gift of ‘agency’ from the ‘Western world,’ and also at once a traitor to her own community of Muslims. In other words, the borders are not only located out there in physical, socio-political, and conceptional forms, but also within the liminal bodies that are located at the forefront of ‘border-claims.’ On the one hand, this fact shows the pervasiveness of patriarchal paradigms that exploit women’s bodies as a benchmark of patriarchal morality. On the other hand, it represents a liminal capacity inherent in women’s bodies that could serve as a model for a microcosm of plurality in today’s world.

Another contemporary example of the fluidity of the ‘liminal self’ can be found in the lives of many Southeast Asian female migrant workers whose jobs as domestic caretakers reflects the hybrid role as ‘mothers’ (to their own kids back at home) and as ‘surrogate mothers’ (to the family that they take care of). This intersectional and violent experience is created in the ‘borderland’ between home and host countries, but is rooted in one embodied experience of motherhood. What the hybrid roles of female migrant workers show is a mode of being that takes on boundaries (with all of their violence) as a site in which to live through the shifting constitutions of selfhood. Using terminology from Muslim feminist theologian Sa’diyya Shaikh, the Southeast Asian female migrant workers are living up ‘moments of resistance’ in which deconstruction of the boundaries is not what counts, but rather their creative survival.

When it does not pose any danger towards the women themselves, the fluidity of borders within the bodies of women of color represents an appreciation of a plurality of living in which borders and boundaries have lost their exclusivist contours. Aware of the violence performed on them by hegemonic boundaries, many women of color embrace the beautiful mess of liminality in which they construct alternative spaces defined by multiple identities. In this context, ‘religion’ functions as one of the languages with which their creative survival is expressed. It serves as a locus for those ‘moments of resistance’ due to its capacity to deconstruct hierarchies and advocate for humanity in the name of the Divine. It is to such hybrid modes of belonging that we must anchor our hopes in a time where ‘humanity’ is seen as a privilege accorded only to those who live inside the border.

Lailatul Fitriyah
Lailatul Fitriyah is a Ph.D candidate and Presidential Fellow at the World Religions and World Church Program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She holds a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research is focused on the construction of feminist theologies of resistance in post-colonial Southeast Asia, feminist theologies of migration, and feminist interreligious dialogue.
Theorizing Modernities article

Sustainable Resources: Reimagining Our Relationship with the Earth

A global warming-affected farmer in Peru whose village is dependant on the Ausangate glacier. Photo Credit: Oxfam International, 2009.

With the United Nations climate change panel recently releasing a report that stated limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius “would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedentented changes in all aspects of society,” the Ansari Institute’s panel on “Sustainable Habitats: How Religions Can Repair Unsustainable Environments,” proves timely. While we are used to hearing scientists, economists, and politicians weigh in on the environment, it is less common to turn to religious traditions as potential collaborators. Nosheen Ali (Aga Khan University), Daniel Castillo (Loyola Maryland), and Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (University of Buffalo) showed the rich resources these traditions can bring to the conversation. One commonality that ran across each presentation was the importance of reimagining the relationship between humans, other animals, and the earth. Given that we are now in the age of the anthropocene—climate change brought about by human actions—such reimaginings are key for developing a sustainable relationship with the earth.

Daniel Castillo raised dual concerns from the Catholic tradition: how can the life of faith inform both the preferential option for the poor and the option for the earth? Castillo drew our attention to the reality that these two concerns are intimately interlinked: those who will suffer the most from the earth’s rising temperatures are those in the Global South who do not have the economic resources to shield themselves from the effects of climate change. Turning to the Hebrew scriptures, Castillo rejected the harmful anthropocentrism that has arisen in response to the Genesis 1 narrative of man having dominion over the earth. He instead emphasized Genesis 2:15, which calls humanity to cultivation and care. Castillo argued that the symbolic vocation in Genesis 2 is the gardener who lives out the imago dei (image of God) through love of God, neighbor, and the earth. Cultivation and care extends toward both neighbor and the rest of creation, emphasizing our embeddedness within these relationships.

Glacier ceremony celebrating Christ and spirit of the mountain, as part of the Qoyllur Rit’i. Photo Credit: Sebastien Lafont, 2008.

Nosheen Ali spoke from an Islamic perspective and the context of her fieldwork in Shimshal, Pakistan. Ali noted that policies focused on sustainability have become entrenched in the very capitalist system responsible for creating environmental degradation in the first place. We can learn from the people in Shimshal who, because of their view that nature is sacred, have developed forms of human labor that can complement the processes of nature. Yet, Ali noted, often this sacred view of nature is “denied legitimacy in mainstream notions of science.” She underscored the importance of making space for ecology as a spiritual concept. Ali then considered the history of asceticism in Islam, describing Baba Farid (1173-1266), a revered Sufi spiritual leader, who believed a practice of anti-accumulation was essential to his religious life. An ecological spirituality combined with an emphasis on anti-materialism offers a model for sustainable human practices.

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo presented her ethnographic research with impoverished Peruvians who “draw on indigenous traditions to collaborate with sacred, sentient landscapes.” Bacigalupo presented the Peruvian workers’ divinization rituals as a form of resistance against the extractive resource industry. They believe the natural world has its own moral agency and argue that we have angered the earth. This has led to a movement, amongst some Peruvians, demanding the recognition of the legal personhood of nature. Bacigalupo argued that this approach to nature as a sacred, sentient landscape has led to new models of mobilization against climate change.

These three scholars show us that ecological spirituality as an embodied practice has the potential to reorient our relationship with the earth. Practices of caring for a garden, cooperating with nature, and extending solidarity beyond human persons to the rest of the natural world foster a vision of a relationship with the earth grounded in kinship rather than extraction. This allows the human person to see herself as not only embedded in the human community but also in the broader community of the earth and all creatures.

Yet, as we recover and/or develop these ecological, spiritual practices, Ali warned us to guard against universal solutions. Each ecosystem has unique features, and so each community will need to develop their own ways of cooperating with nature. In the words of the American poet, novelist, and farmer Wendell Berry, the over-emphasis on “Think Big,” such as macro-level planning, policies, and laws, has blinded us to the power of “Think Little” and the creative possibilities that emerge when we fully engage in our own backyard and community. Religious actors, traditions, and resources can also help to further develop this point. For instance, within my own Catholic tradition, Pope Francis has emphasized that we require a “lifestyle and spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm,” because technical expertise can only provide, at best, a partial solution to climate change (Laudato Si’ #111). Pope Francis calls for an “ecological conversion” within each of our communities (Laudato Si’ #219). While public policies and laws are important, for Ali, Berry, and Pope Francis these measures alone won’t save us. We must also foster ways of thinking little within our local communities, which as a collective have the transformative power to impact climate change.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis, TN. Photo Credit: Gary Bridgman.

The Ansari Institute’s panel offers an important starting point for thinking about religious resources for combating climate change. Moving forward, it is important that panels like this attend to intersectionality at a deeper level. While the intersectionality between the environment and the poor was highlighted, other points of intersectionality, like gender, deserve more attention. During the question and answer period, Harvard Divinity School professor and Director of the Religious Literacy Project Diane Moore raised concerns to Castillo that the same Genesis 2 text being used to safeguard the environment has also been used to suppress women. For example, Genesis 2:18 states: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Historically, this has been used to justify a hierarchical relationship between men and women. The same text used to support a relationship of care with the earth has also been used, in one prevalent reading, to justify the subordination of women. In our attempts to correct a harmful tradition of anthropocentrism, can we use a text that has been used to discount women’s equity?

For the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, we must address both forms of oppression together because “the subjugation of women has formed the symbolic basis for the subjugation of the earth.” This means that work in ecotheology must also attend to gender. In the case of Genesis 2, the ecotheological reading of the human person as a gardener that images God by nurturing the earth must be in conversation with feminist theological interpretations of Genesis 2 that challenge sexist readings of the text. Otherwise, we risk realizing justice in one dimension only to undermine it in another.

The stakes of incorporating an intersectional lens are more than theoretical; there are substantive practical implications as well. For example, recent studies have shown that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly in communities where they also lack equal access to other resources such as education and economic opportunities.  Given this reality, it is necessary to think about how religious resources and ecological spiritualties interact with gender as well as other pertinent issues such as racism and decolonization. Indeed, such a process is necessary in order to build a spiritually informed, holistic vision of climate justice.


Suggested Further Readings:

Theology and Ecology across the Disciplines: On Care for Our Common Home. Edited by Celia Dean-Drummond and Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser. London, UK: T&T Clark, 2018.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Moore, Niamh. “Eco/Feminism, Non-Violenc and the Future of Feminism.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 10, no. 3 (2008): 282-98.

Marie-Claire Klassen
Marie-Claire Klassen is currently a PhD student in Moral Theology at Notre Dame. Prior to attending Notre Dame she completed an MA in Global Studies, with an emphasis on religion and human rights, through the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies program.
Theorizing Modernities article

Scientific Literacy for Madrasa Graduates: A Project for Religious Renewal at the University of Notre Dame

[Re-posted from The Maydan]


The ink of scholars is holier than the blood of martyrs.

–Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.

–Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.

–Albert Einstein


Bright boxes with eager faces lit up the computer screen, revealing a new batch of madrasa graduates from India and Pakistan. A handful of boxes were blank, cameras off to maintain the privacy of veiled female participants. One video feed was pitch dark, not for privacy, but because the power was out in the remote village outside of Delhi; it is a good thing that the laptop was charged and connected through the cell tower. Each of the twenty-six students in class that day logged in from a remote location. The camera of one of the participants, also from India, could be seen bouncing around, as if from the set of a reality show. He had logged in using his mobile device while on a train that had been delayed. One participant from Pakistan joined us from Saudi Arabia. He had not yet returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Half way through the customary first-day introductions, a box appeared with what seemed like the inside of Hesburgh library in the background. A Notre Dame student, helping with the project through the peace research lab, had just logged in to take attendance. Thus began the second year of an ambitious effort to advance theological and scientific literacy in Madrasa Discourses (MD).[1]

Professor Ebrahim Moosa, himself a madrasa graduate, initiated MD within the Contending Modernities (CM) research initiative in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies within the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Perception matters: Why is a Catholic institution interested in reforming Madrasa education? Within Notre Dame, MD aligns with the goals of the school and institutes within which it resides. The Keough School of Global Affairs advances “integral human development” through “transformative educational programs”; MD generates “greater understanding of the ways in which religious and secular forces interact in the modern world,” which is the purpose of the CM research initiative; and the activities of MD contribute towards “strengthening the capacity of all for peacebuilding,” which is the mandate of the Kroc Institute. The project is supported with external funding through the John Templeton Foundation, which encourages “civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as between such experts and the public at large.” The project’s image benefits from the reputation of Notre Dame as a ranked research university in the US that is committed to global engagement for furthering the common good.

 Authentic “Insiders” at the Helm

Mahan Mirza (l) and Ebrahim Moosa (r) in the Madrasa Discourses trailer video.

The project also has the advantage of having a strong team of authentic “insiders” at the helm.[2] As the Principal Investigator, Ebrahim Moosa is a world-renowned scholar and himself a madrasa graduate. As the lead faculty responsible for implementing the project, I have a background in the sciences, Islamic studies, and experience working with credible Islamic institutions with global recognition. Like-minded and authoritative partners in India and Pakistan serve as lead faculty to guide and mentor the madrasa participants. MD has no formal institutional partnerships overseas. Instead, MD has contractual agreements with individuals who, in turn, have strong ties to important institutions in their respective local contexts. The lead faculty in India, Waris Mazhari, is a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, one of the most prestigious madrasas in India. He serves on the faculty of the Jamia Hamdard, is the founding director of the Institute for Religious and Social Thought, and he has been editing the journal of the Deoband “Old Boys Club” for almost two decades. Dr. Mazhari holds a Ph.D. from Jamia Millia Islamia, a century-old institution of higher learning founded by prominent Indian Muslim leaders.

In Pakistan, our lead faculty Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir is the associate director of the Al-Sharia Academy where he edits an influential online monthly journal addressing topics at the intersection of Islam and modernity. Mawlana Nasir, also a graduate of the traditional madrasa system, has an MA in English literature, is completing his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Punjab University. He served for several years on the faculty of GIFT University in his hometown of Gujranwala, just outside Lahore. The Sharia Academy is founded and directed by Mawlana Ammar’s father, Mawlana Zahid ur Rashid, who also the head of a traditional Sunni Madrasa, Nusratul Uloom. Our colleagues have provided invaluable support in the recruitment of students, supported curriculum development, taught regularly in the program, established an Urdu public website, and translated curricular and supplementary texts from English into Urdu for the journal. Our partnership helps to allay any concerns that our project has colonial or surreptitious designs through an intimate intellectual kinship forged on trust and mutual respect.

Goals and Methodological Principles of Madrasa Discourses

Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses 2017 Winter Intensive tour of the Qatar National Library.

The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.[3] This failure has resulted in a marginalization of religious scholars (‘ulama’) in society coupled with a collapse of their moral authority. Whereas the ulama were once the intellectual and spiritual guides in Muslim societies, they are now relegated to relics who are largely irrelevant if not ridiculed as being out of step with the times. In order to achieve the goal of raising the level of the intellectual discourse in madrasa circles, MD has recruited a handful of madrasa graduates to participate in a three-year curriculum designed to provide conceptual tools as well as language proficiency to help them better navigate contemporary academic literature in English. Although the instruction takes place in an intimate environment out of the reach of the public largely sequestered from social media, we have launched a public website Tajdīd to allow the conversation that is taking place in the classroom to spill over into the public sphere.

The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.”

Guiding MD are two vital methodological principles. The first is that we derive our inspiration to engage critically with new knowledge by appealing to terms or frames of inquiry that are native to the Islamic scholarly tradition. MD draws on the rich textual heritage of Islam to make the case for critical inquiry, dynamism, and creativity as aspects that are native to Islamic religious thought. Although MD is primarily an educational program, it is nonetheless framed within a broader agenda of peacebuilding, affirmation of human dignity, and furthering the common good. Conflict manifests in conceptual categories as well as lived social realities; it can be viewed through the imperfect temporal concepts of “tradition” and “modernity” or perhaps even less perfect cultural/geographic designators of “Islam” and “West.”


The Elicitive Approach

Drawing on theories in conflict resolution, then, and wedding these theories to the educational aspect of MD, our approach is an “elicitive” one. Contrasting with a “prescriptive” approach that “understands the training event as built around the specialized knowledge of the trainer, which is taken to be both transferable and universal”, the elicitive approach “understands training as a process that emerges from already-existing, local knowledge.”[4] The adoption of an elicitive model, which builds on frames of inquiry that are embedded within the vast storehouses of the Islamic scholarly tradition, enables MD to extend the conversations from the past to the present, leading us out from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This not only avoids the shock value of some of our provocations, it also allows us to proceed systematically, taking the familiar ground of the Islamic tradition as the intellectual journey’s point of departure. The elicitive approach allows participants to build on their existing knowledge base and encourages them to make organic connections instead of struggling to assimilate what is foreign in a manner that would be both disorienting and unsettling.

A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity.”

A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity. We do not tell anyone what the answers are, nor do we expect right or wrong answers. Our project is about questions. But we do expect participants to reason well. MD challenges anti-intellectual modes of religious thought that prevail in contemporary madrasa discourses. We do our best to highlight complexity wherever possible so that participants are not able to hide behind formulaic responses transmitted from generation to generation. By working through the rich history of the Islamic scholarly tradition, we emphasize that intelligent people can disagree. In fact, the Islamic scholarly tradition is built on creative tensions. If history is our guide, intelligent students should expect to arrive at different answers to the theological conundrums of our time. When grounded in sound arguments that are accessible to all in a transparent and shared public space, difference is not something to decry. Difference can be something to celebrate.

The Curriculum: History, Science, Theology

The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest. History provides context for both theology and science; science is informed by history and influences theology; and theology is reconstructed in light of both history and science. Nonetheless, it has been helpful for us to isolate a dominant disciplinary lens through which to enter the conversation in any given year. Poetically, the three years mirror chronology: 1) history (past), 2) science (present), and 3) theology (future). The locus of theology in the future reflects the project’s ambition of “reconstruction” or “renewal” of theology in light of a more expansive view of the past and a receptive attitude toward new knowledge in the present: a kindling of the moral imagination.

The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest.”

The program begins with confronting the pluralism of beliefs in human cultures. Human beings have always held different views about their origins and destinies. These differences manifest themselves in varieties of myths and religions. The very first class of the program invites students to confront pluralism through creation stories. We have used short and accessible articles published online by National Geographic series on “The Story of God” hosted by Morgan Freeman.[5] The website offers articles on “Creation Myths from around the World,” “Australian Aboriginal Stories,” and “What We Know about Where We Come from.” Unlike the other myths, new knowledge today helps us construct a fresh creation story by integrating the findings of multiple disciplines in the natural sciences. Beginning with pluralism enables us to get to the core scientific and theological questions that undergird our entire program: How do we privilege our beliefs over the beliefs of others? How did the Islamic scholarly tradition address the question of pluralism? What was the role of reason, independent of revelation, in classical Islamic thought, in answering these questions? Is science today adding anything new to the conversation that could be a game-changer for theology?

When the Abrahamic creation story that the Quranic account participates in is juxtaposed to other creation myths, it becomes evident to students almost instantly that our story seems just as “mythical” as the rest: God talks to the first man and woman in a garden with temptations by Satan or a serpent. The humans are deceived and banished to life on earth. On what basis can Muslims claim that their version is truer than the others? It so happens that the founders of one of the major theological schools in Sunni Islam, Abu Mansur Maturidi (d. 944), addresses this very question in his theological Treatise on Divine Unicity or Kitāb al-Tawḥīd.[6] According to Maturidi, if every group were to rely simply on its own traditions as authorities for the truthfulness of their creeds, there would be no way to mediate between them. For that, one must appeal to reason that is universally and independently accessible to all parties. This is why treatises in classical Islamic theology begin with a position statement on theories of knowledge. The fourteenth century theologian Saʿd al-Din Taftazani (d. 1390) informs us that by his time – almost five hundred years after Maturidi –theology (kalām) had become virtually indistinguishable from philosophy (falsafa).[7] Several centuries earlier, the formidable Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had already declared theology as “the universal science among the Islamic sciences.”[8] This is because “the theologian (mutakallim) is the one who looks into the most basic of all things (aʿamm al-ashyāʾ), which is Being (al-mawjūd).”[9] Seeing that the study of nature was a theological imperative for Muslim scholars of the past, how could it possibly be that insights into nature gained through the various scientific disciplines today are no longer relevant to the foundation of Islamic theology? Should not theologians today engage new knowledge in science and philosophy just as the theological masters of the past had done in their own time?

Our instinct to begin with pluralism is well founded. The sociologist, Peter Berger, affirms: “It is my position that modernity has plunged religion into a very specific crisis, characterized by secularity, to be sure, but characterized more importantly by pluralism.”[10] More recently, a pioneering work in the budding field of Big History entitled Maps of Time offers: “Maps of Time attempts to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth.”[11] Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, begins his reflections on A Theology of Engagement with the same question.[12] Markham argues that pluralism is a historical fact, that our traditions are heterogeneous, and that the Church might consider reorienting itself to derive lessons from this reality instead of posturing to change the world in her image.

Screenshot from the Madrasa Discourses trailer video.

The connections that the theme of pluralism allows us to make with history, theology, and science are developed in the first semester of the first year through the relationship between epistemology and history. We draw on competing ideas of “reason” used by scholars from across the intellectual spectrum from the likes of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). We spend time with Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) to witness beginnings of theoretical approaches to history, but also ponder why such critical approaches were never truly absorbed into the mainstream theological tradition. We switch gears by turning to recent historians like R. G. Collingwood and philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, which stretches the discussion from the medieval to the modern period. Collingwood defines philosophy as second order reasoning, or “thought about thought.”[13] Collingwood connects history with philosophy by identifying both as concerned with “the science of absolute presuppositions.” History enables us to illuminate the dark corners of our own minds by empathizing with others as we strive to know the causes of events and motivations of actors on the historical stage. Given that historical reports emanate from the subjective vantage of observers, that observations are selective, and that interpretations of observations are theory-laden, it may never be possible for us to fully recover the past, even when we have copious reports about a particular event. This is why, argues Gadamer, every generation must re-interpret the past for itself. Successive communities of interpreters must constantly renegotiate meaning in light of fresh experiences that generate fresh questions.[14] Such notions of historical criticism are entirely new to MD participants, and they are indispensable for text interpretation and retrieval of “tradition” in contemporary academic discourses.   The second semester invites students to reflect more deeply on Islamic intellectual history and the meaning of “tradition.” Through writings by historians like Marshal Hodgson and Dimitri Gutas, we attempt to place Islam within the broader spectrum of human history, working with concepts such as Karl Jasper’s “Axial Age,” as well as the Greco-Arabic Translation movement from the ninth to eleventh centuries.[15] Foreign influences on Islamic thought in this formative period do not permit us to speak of the intellectual tradition as being “purely Islamic.” To further the historical sensibilities of students, we trace the divergent reception of Aristotelian cosmology in the works of great scholars like Biruni (d. 1048) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037). Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) demonstrate contrasting positions on the relationship between philosophy and theology. Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240) exemplify alternative modes of reasoning from their predecessors. Ibn Taymiyya levels a devastating critique on logic, while the latter decries system of thought altogether, setting sail to the winds of allegory. By the end of the first year, students come to view the Islamic tradition as one that is deeply contested.

Students engage with all this material online in an interactive classroom. In addition to the four core faculty members, we also have the privilege of involving guest instructors from various departments at ND. We have had guest appearances by Gabriel Reynolds in theology, Deborah Tor in history, Rashied Omar in peace studies, Thomas Burman in medieval studies, Hussein Abdulsater in classics, and Adnan Aslan in philosophy. The presence of guest instructors in the online classroom has been tremendously enriching for the participants.

The Second Year: Science

The second year focuses on the history and philosophy of science, contemporary theories in the philosophy of religion, “big history,” and the deep history of humanity as it unfolds through “thresholds of increasing complexity” from the earliest stages of the cognitive revolution to a globally networked technological society. Among the questions that we ask are: Does modern science liberate us from God? Is contemporary science independent of metaphysics? Does science prove things with certainty? Is the method of science universal? Is there such a thing as progress in science? How do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? What are the laws that govern scientific change? If scientific theories and worldviews change, how can we trust the scientific theories of our time? In order to engage these questions meaningfully, the course introduces students to competing theories of truth, thinking philosophically about “facts,” concepts like realism vs. instrumentalism, the underdetermination of theories, and “worldviews” as an interlocking web of theories comprising of empirical facts, philosophic ideas, and methodological approaches. We then apply these concepts to the history of science by studying the transitions from the Aristotelian-Medieval worldview to the contemporary worldview. Names like Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin come to life in our survey.

Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science.”

Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science. This article draws our attention to prophetic sayings such as Adam was sixty feet tall, a baby’s gender is selected by whichever partner’s fluid dominates, one wing of a fly has a disease while the other has a cure, and the sun will one day rise from the west. The exercise of close reading and careful analysis helps students identify strategies for interpretation that are useful as well as others that are weak if not downright fallacious.[16]

Another text authored by Anwar Shah Kashmiri (d. 1933), a renowned scholar in madrasa circles from the early twentieth century, argues that Quranic statements about nature and the heavens are not intended to be “realist,” but rather “perspectival,” describing things as experienced by humans rather than “as they truly are” according to the latest theories of science.[17] These arguments echo Galileo’s position in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which was rebutted by Cardinal Bellarmine.[18] In a fascinating twist, Cardinal Bellarmine’s response mirrors a position by another prominent Madrasa scholar of the twentieth century, Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d. 1943).[19] In this way, students are able to witness great debates on science and the interpretation of scripture in their own tradition today that replicate debates that transpired four centuries ago in Europe.

Our treatment of the contemporary worldview includes Einstein’s theory of relativity, Quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution. According to Richard DeWitt’s Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, “all of these theories require substantial changes in our worldview.”[20]  The changes required by these new perspectives to our intuitions about the nature of reality boggle the mind. According to them, space and time are no longer absolute, actions appear to have influences across distances at speeds faster than light, and we are what the universe becomes when it has a chance to evolve over billions of years.

Credit: Mahan Mirza. Indian Madrasa Discourses students grappled with the relationship between religion and science in April of 2017. Here they meet with Hakim Syed Zillur Rahman at the Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences.

In the spring semester of the second year, we read a coherent account of human history and imaginative account of human future as portrayed in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.[21] Sapiens takes us through a journey that begins with the earliest humans, tracing different theories of their origins and evolution. Drawing on a vast array of sources in innumerable disciplines in the natural and social sciences, Harari expertly weaves religion, psychology, politics, ethics, economics, and empire, even including reflections on the meaning of life and human happiness, into his historical narrative. This narrative is not contested by experts; but it is one of the most coherent ones available that serves our purpose of theological provocation very well. Harari helps us start a conversation, not end it. These first two years of the program thus prepare the foundation for the work of theological reconstruction in the third year.

The Third Year: Constructive Theology

Out of the thirty-four students who began the first year with us, ten to twelve of the most promising students will continue to the final year of the program beginning fall 2018. These students will draw on the concepts and theoretical tools from the first two years to ask research questions and engage in a program of constructive theology. The research cohort of the third year may be clustered thematically into three groups. Let us take a look at the issues that each of these three research groups might deal with, bearing in mind that what is said here is provisional.

“The best of generations is my generation, then those that follow them, then those that follow them.”[22] This saying of the Prophet Muhammad has animated Muslim sensibilities through the centuries. It evokes a sense of loss with every passing generation as our temporal gulf from the lifespan of the beloved Prophet continuously expands with the flow of historical time. In that sense, decline is in-built in the very fabric of Prophetic religion. Devotees fulfill their longing to be near the Prophet – the best of creation –through obedience, emulation, and love.  It is natural for the breathtaking changes we witness today in our knowledge of the cosmos, nature, and history, accompanied by new patterns of life dictated by mechanical clocks instead of the rhythms of nature, not to mention our new conceptions on the origin of man and his possible future as an interstellar transhuman species, to be unsettling to adherents of revealed religion. The disorientation, loss, and confusion, is unimaginable yet understandable. The nostalgic tug from a past as we hurl inexorably towards an uncertain future poses a dilemma, if not crisis. Can believers remain faithful to their tradition while at the same time engaged and optimistic in what the future holds, or are they forever condemned to view paradigm-changing shifts in human understanding, technical progress, and social development with suspicion?

According to Islamic teachings, the prophet Muhammad is God’s final messenger to humanity (Q. 33:40). He comes at the end of a succession of prophets – reportedly up to 124,000 –to all peoples in every age for their guidance.  One of the reasons that God sent messengers was so that people would have no argument against Him on the Day of Judgment (Q. 4:165). The doctrine of the finality of prophethood is so central that it led the government of Pakistan to declare anyone who does not believe in it a non-Muslim.[23]

The finality of prophethood naturally implies that the Prophet Muhammad’s message is universal; it no longer applies merely to a particular group of people at a given moment in history. Instead, it applies normatively to all people until the end of time. This doctrine fits neatly within a linear framework of history that is common to the Abrahamic traditions. As the narrative goes, God sent messengers aforetime in succession because human society and civilization was in a process of growth and development, much like an individual slowly advancing through various stages from childhood to maturity. The message needed to be renewed or updated with changing times with successive prophets. After the prophet Muhammad, there would be no need for messengers because the guidance and teachings of the final messenger would suffice for future cultural and intellectual contexts – forever. That is why God has taken it upon Himself to safeguard the final scripture (Q. 15:9), and that is why traditionalists have paid scrupulous attention to the transmission of tradition from generation to generation.

The doctrine of the finality of prophethood has made it difficult for Muslims to disentangle Islamic norms from the cultural practices of the Prophet and his Companions in seventh century Arabia. Arabness was subsumed within Islam.[24]  Because of the fusion of Arab cultural practices with transcendent divine teachings, Muslim scholars have always been well aware of the need to separate contingent social culture from universal religious norms in the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.[25]  This tension, however, has never been fully resolved, with the result that the most venerated of scholars even today gravitate towards seventh century Arab culture, at times erroneously and anachronistically identifying later practices with prophetic norms.

Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West.”

Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West. Consequently, in adopting Islam and accepting the authority of scholarship whose provenance is in Muslim lands and whose content fuses divine doctrine with foreign culture, Blackamericans become compelled to disregard their own legitimate cultural experiences.  But how does one begin to identify the line between cultural experiences and transcendent doctrines?

What happens when Professor Jackson’s critique is extended to more stable doctrinal issues that ostensibly lie beyond culture, “intra-Muslim pluralism” notwithstanding?[26]  For example, are issues like slavery, marriage, and war under the purview of “culture” or “doctrine?” Our sensibilities in these areas are very different today than they were at the time of the prophet Muhammad. If the Prophet is the best example for all time, could his personal conduct in these areas be considered universal norms of exemplary conduct today? Even sympathetic observers of the Prophet Muhammad’s life will have a very difficult time considering his behavior as universally normative in these areas. The world has changed. But prophecy has ended. How does one square today’s moral norms with virtues that are anchored in the life of a seventh century Arabian prophet? Participants in the third research year may choose to develop research questions in this area, revisiting this doctrine in light of pressing new questions raised in an age of accelerating change.

The movement of history testifies that history did not end in the seventh century. In fact, with rapid Muslim conquests across much of the inhabited world in the first few centuries of Islam, Arabs encountered vastly diverse ethnic, linguistic, and intellectual worlds that they assimilated into their conceptual universe, interpreting scripture in light of ancient philosophy – the “new knowledge” of the time. Just like Islamic thought interacted with Greek philosophy in the past to forge a scholastic intellectual tradition that has been taught in traditional madrasas for centuries, how must the academic formation of Muslims today change in light of new knowledge about the nature of human beings, their place in the cosmos, and the miracles of techno-science?

Acceleration and Islamic Theology

A contemporary historical concept that helps us convey the urgency of the need to rethink long held assumptions about human nature and the human condition is “acceleration.” The German historian Reinhart Koselleck, speaking about the changing nature of human perception of historical time, writes: “there occurs a temporalization [Verzeitlichung] of history, at the end of which there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity.”[27] The columnist Thomas Friedman, in his recent bestseller Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations, speaks of accelerations in three areas, which he identifies as technology, the market, and mother nature.[28]

Cynthia Stokes Brown, scholar in the budding field of “Big History,” places acceleration in the context of cosmic history: “Acceleration, an increase in the rate of change, is occurring both in the universe and in human culture on planet Earth… On the cosmological or geological scale, change is measured in millions or billions of years. On the biological scale, with natural selection setting the pace, change occurs in thousands to millions of years. On the scale of human culture, large-scale change used to occur over millennia or centuries, but now it is taking place in decades or even years.”[29] Friedman observes that acceleration itself is accelerating, noting with sympathy that: “This is dizzying for many people.”[30]

In Homo Deus, the sequel to Sapiens, Harari argues that things are moving so quickly, we are seeing developments today that make it not too farfetched to suggest that human beings are at the threshold of making a bid for divinity:

Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible…This will not happen in a day, or a year. Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions…humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human…Calm explanations aside, many people panic when they hear of such possibilities.”[31]

Among the people who panic are theologians who see demonic elements behind all these developments. Acceleration is also part of the end-of-time narrative in Islam. If one believes that one lives – after successive periods of decline – in the end times, one’s attitude to things that are new is grave, optimism in the future of this world is dull, and resolve to participate in science is stunted. What you end up passing down to the next generation is cynicism and closed minded conservatism. What can the outcome of an education that embodies an “end time” mentality be other than graduates who are sideshows on the stage of history—if future history remains to be made? Islamic culture needs to contend with the real possibility that there may be centuries if not millennia ahead of us that will witness the most rapid and sweeping changes to human experiences ever known to human history.

Islamic ideas of human nature are closely associated with terms such as nafs (soul), fitra (nature), ruh (immaterial spirit or divine breath). How are we to understand these terms today in light of modern science? Should science influence and reshape traditional doctrines and views, and to what extent? How much of a role does ancient philosophy play in the interpretation of these terms in the premodern scholarly tradition? Should traditional views guide scientific inquiry, and if so, how? Can religious voices lead in the path to scientific progress, or will they always follow, respond, and restrain? Phrased differently, can there be a scientist, working on the forefront of research and innovation, who is not at the same time a heretic? The cosmic decentering of humanity that began with Copernicus has not yet reached its culmination. Scientists are today contemplating the elimination of the distinction between human life and other kinds of life, whether biological or artificial. Can a religious scientist working in these areas be invested in the preservation of traditional theologies based in premodern interpretations of scripture, or must her lived theologies be as dynamic and fresh as her lived experiences?

The challenge for our research group will be to grapple deeply with new knowledge in science: Should there be limits to human enhancements and genetic engineering? What is the definition of human life, and when does it begin and end? As our knowledge of ourselves changes, along with our ability to manipulate who we are and what we can be, what social and political arrangements will be best suited to maximize human flourishing? When does manipulation of nature become unacceptable tampering with God’s creation, and when does is remain within acceptable boundaries?

Tradition, Traditionalism and the Heretical Imperative?

Questions of science and human nature intersect with ethics, governance, and public policy. This challenges students to think carefully about conflicts between classical Islamic thought and contemporary international norms in the areas of gender relations and human rights.[32] Prominent Muslim scholars from around the world recently came together through the convening power of Morocco’s monarch in a summit to address the issue of the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Called the Marrakesh Declaration, an executive summary of the resolution that has been published online declares that the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in harmony with the principles of Islamic teachings, particularly as they appear in the Charter of Medina.[33] The Charter of Medina was a contract in early Islam in which the prophet Muhammad entered into a constitutional alliance with members of other faith communities. Although noble in its intent, the Marrakesh declaration stops short of offering any explicit legal opinion, instead sticking to principles and objectives of the law to make pronouncements that are aspirational. The declaration leaves the grunt work to others, for it calls “upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.”[34] In the terms of Rumee Ahmed, it is a summons to a wholesale “hack” of the legal tradition in the area of minority citizenship in Muslim majority societies.[35] Notably, the Marrakesh declaration does not mention women and gender. It only addresses the rights of religious minorities. Nonetheless, once conversation on equality of citizenship begins in light of emerging international consensus and norms, it will be impossible to exclude the issue of gender in Islamic law from re-examination. This is all the more so because the Marrakesh declaration affirms the values embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in turn affirms the equal rights of both men and women.

As Islamic law attempts to align itself with international norms, triumphalist readings of Islamic history will need to be revised, especially as the question of equality before the law within increasingly plural societies comes center stage. All of the tools and concepts that students will have acquired over the course of Madrasa Discourses will need to be harnessed to think critically and constructively about the present and future of human beings on this planet.”

It has become increasingly difficult to gaze at history as the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy. Rather, the champions of orthodoxy as well as heresy seem to participate equally in a kind of “Great Conversation,” to borrow a term from Robert Maynard Hutchins.[36] Debates between scholars of the past are to be visited in ways that show all sides as not only intelligible but also reasonable, allowing students to faithfully choose between them, without polemics or predetermining the winners and losers in these debates. In allowing students to see the construction of knowledge through the experiences of past scholars, we empower them to take their own experiences seriously in order to add to the conversation, thereby becoming not just consumers but also producers of tradition. This is precisely what the eminent sociologist Peter Berger proposes as being the only viable path for religious traditions today: to “try to uncover and retrieve the experiences embodied in tradition,”[37] which he calls the inductive method in religion.

The shift to history will give students theological choices; having choices, in turn, will strengthen both individualism and pluralism; and including former heresies within the spectrum of acceptable religious possibilities will encourage scholars to develop new intellectual skills and adopt new professional roles that require the power of persuasion in settings that are more in harmony with liberal rather than hierarchical or authoritarian societies. Berger reminds us that “The English word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means ‘to choose.’”[38]For premodern man,” he continues, “heresy is a possibility, usually a rather remote one; for modern man, heresy typically becomes a necessity…modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.[39]

Can Islamic education embrace “the heretical imperative?” Our educational institutions have become overcome with fear, fortresses for what Ebrahim Moosa calls “Republics of Piety.”[40] Madrasas are in the business of the preservation and guardianship of orthodoxy, afraid that future generations will lose their faith in an ever-changing world. But this is not tradition, it is traditionalism, which historian of religion Jaroslav Pelikan put so eloquently as being “the dead faith of the living,” in contrast to tradition, which is the “living faith of the dead.”[41] Muslim culture and institutions of learning today have lost the dynamic spark that once animated their intellectual culture.

Dynamism in Muslim educational culture will be driven in no small part by developments in techno-science that are accompanied by seismic shifts in conceptual worldviews and social norms. Friedman offers the analogy of riding a bicycle to help us understand how we might adapt to the dizzying changes that are soon to come due to the exponential changes taking place all around us.[42] He says that on a bicycle, although one is in a state of motion, one achieves a balance akin to what may be called a kind of “dynamic stillness.” Another metaphor that I prefer, perhaps because it is closer to home is of the whirling dervish. His center is still while the rest of him twirls endlessly away. I am arguing here that our intellectual culture needs to learn how to ride a bicycle or whirl like the dervish.

The ulama today no longer minister to masses whose faith can be taken for granted. Our educational institutions need to help the ulama adapt to their new roles as research scholars in an age of acceleration, teachers in public and private schools, counselors in times of crisis, pastors and community leaders, politicians shaping public policy, and, perhaps most importantly, public intellectuals interacting with leaders across the spectrum of human activity in civil society. Madrasas must be cognizant of the changing roles of ulama in a brave new world, where believers no longer flock to the faith in conformity to old patterns, but trickle in (or trickle out) by free choice.

If the world does not end soon, it is going to be a very different place for our children and grandchildren. Whether or not we are at the end of time, our engagement with new knowledge must be thorough, and it must allow us to be open to new theological possibilities. We have to be guided by tradition, but we also have to let new knowledge take us where it takes us. Can “innovation” and “choice,” even in matters of religion, become good words in the moral vocabulary of the madrasa?

Conclusions: What Lies Ahead for Madrasa Discourses?

I hope that this survey has provided a good sense of the rich and complex intellectual project of Madrasa Discourses. Our ambition is for the intellectual conversations we generate to have transformative ripple effects across madrasa circles. Before concluding this paper with some final thoughts about the future of MD, I would like to highlight some of our activities, challenges and unexpected developments we have encountered, and future prospects beyond the initial three-year term of the present grant. One of the major challenges we have encountered is the widely differing levels of preparation of students who are participating in the program. Some know English fluently, while others are just starting to learn the language. Some have read widely online, others only narrowly within their own area of study. Some are tech-savvy, others not so much. Some have completed their madrasa education with honors, while others have had a less rigorous formation. Students are only able to commit themselves to the program part-time, while the demands of the program to read and prepare for classes, learn English, and write, can be onerous. Providing individualized support and feedback to students has also been challenging for our mentors and partners in India and Pakistan, who are, like the students, engaged in the program on a part-time basis. That being said, the overall level of engagement has met or exceeded expectations in the first eighteen months of the program. Evidence from exams and essays, classroom interactions, as well as interactions in the onsite intensives, indicates that provocations are leading to a higher level of complexity in the thought process.

On the positive side, the new generation of madrasa graduates is already predisposed to receive and experience the world in way that we did not expect. The presence of technology has preceded the arrival of MD at the doorstep. Technology has penetrated beyond the walls of the madrasa to touch the private lives of individuals. This has been a game-changer. Students have smartphones, Facebook accounts, and they seamlessly navigate the World Wide Web. We have found students to be intellectually open to the world and even curious in ways that the previous generation of Madrasa scholars could not have been, simply due to the wonders of technology. Given that online communities are typically insular, tending to operate within self-affirming bubbles, our task is nonetheless daunting. However, we have both the resources at our disposal and a receptive audience.

Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service. Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive discussion group 2018, Dhulikhel

A second unexpected development has been the involvement of ND undergraduate students in the project, first through a generous grant from Notre Dame International and then through a one-credit Peace Research Lab offered through the Kroc Institute. The lab provides undergraduate students in Peace Studies the opportunity to participate in small group dialogue sessions with the madrasa participants on a weekly basis. Students take the opportunity to discuss contents of the course, talk about cutting-edge ethical issues at the intersection of science and religion, and learn about each other’s worlds. Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values hosts a website that students draw from to engage topics like genetic engineering, artificial wombs, and drone warfare.[43] We also stay on the lookout for relevant topics in the headlines. In one case, for example, students opted to discuss the implications of Saudi Arabia’s granting of citizenship to a female robot named Sophia. To set-up the small group discussions, students typically read a short and accessible article prior to meeting, such as Smithsonian Magazine’s “Why Saudi Arabia Giving a Robot Citizenship is Firing People Up”.[44] What is going on in Saudi Arabia? How is it related to Islam? What are the implications for having a robotic female citizen in an Islamic country? Is the robot citizen free or owned? If owned, will the relationship be governed by Islamic laws of slavery? Would that include the rights and privileges that male owners have over their female concubines? If the relationship is on the basis of free association of citizens, does the robot have autonomy? Does the robot have any duties towards society? Will the robot have religion and be subject to Islamic law (as a Muslim or non-Muslim)?

Small group interactions of this kind have the added benefit of advancing the English learning objectives of MD. To that end, ND students also rotate in the reading of two chapters of Sophie’s World to all of the madrasa participants once a week. Not only does this further help students in English comprehension, the fictional novel surveys the history of western philosophy, which is valuable, relevant, and interesting for all who partake in the reading. ND students are also invited to help with other aspects of the project based on their availability on an individual basis. For example, a team of three students is working with the CM program manager to make the MD curriculum accessible to the wider public on the Internet.

In addition to the online classes, there are three major activities the program undertakes: production of instructional videos, convening of summer and winter onsite intensives, and publication of a website in Urdu, Tajdīd.[45] The motto of the journal is “where religion meets new knowledge.” The site presents articles and blog posts from students, guest writers invited to address topics of relevance, translations of English language material into Urdu, updates from events and activities related to Madrasa Discourses, and a discussion forum where readers can comment on the website content. The journal was launched in October, 2017 and is managed jointly by the faculty team in India and Pakistan, with Dr. Waris Mazhari, the lead faculty from India, as the editor. The content of the journal is designed to align closely with the material being covered in the curriculum, allowing conversations from our controlled classroom environment to spill over into the wider community of madrasa scholars.


The video modules produced by MD are designed as instructional aids for the online classroom. In the first year, MD produced eight videos. The first is a project trailer that has been published on the CM website.[46] Three videos accompany the first semester on “Conceptualizing the Past,” while four videos help us to “Contextualize the Islamic Theological Tradition.” Modules three and four are each introduced by a preview trailer, and the research year is introduced by a video featuring graduate students and young scholars sharing their insights into how to form research questions from different fields of inquiry: history, political science, sociology, theology, and peace studies. These videos involve interviews, animations, conversations, and commentary from experts at Notre Dame, including Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza from the MD project, Hussein Abdulsater from the department of classics, Celia Deane-Drummond from theology, and Scott Trigg from the history and philosophy of science.

Turning to the onsite intensives, MD brings all participants together twice a year for face-to-face interaction, dialogue, and intensive engagement with a variety of intellectual topics to broaden their intellectual horizons. We have met twice in Nepal for two-week intensives in the summer, and once in Qatar in the winter at the College of Islamic Studies in the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha’s Education City. A second meeting is planned for this winter at the same location in Doha. Topics have included religion, modernity, secularism, and fundamentalism (Scott Appleby), gender equity and social inclusion (Shubham Amatya and Prakash Bhattarai), anthropology, ethics, and plural cosmologies (Leela Prasad), liberal citizenship and the challenge of human rights (Mohammad Fadel), science education and the theory of evolution (Rana Dajani), contested political theologies (Ebrahim Moosa), language, scripture, and interpretation (Ammar Khan Nasir and Waris Mazhari), theology in an age of acceleration (Mahan Mirza), Islamic law and gender (Saadia Yacoob), new horizons of moral imagination (Gerald McKenny), Mulla Sadra’s alternative cosmology (Mahmoud Youness), narrative theology and scriptural reasoning (Jason Springs), and intersectionality and faith-based action for peacebuilding (Atalia Omer). These intense sessions are accompanied by dialogue sessions between the madrasa participants and Notre Dame students where individuals from diverse backgrounds find ways to work through their differences while forging at the same time deep human connections. True to the theory of strategic peacebuilding, the deeper human bond that develops through friendly interaction in a safe space enables participants on both sides to appropriate their differences within a deeper framework of trust that is the bedrock of sustainable peace.

After the first two years of the Madrasa Discourses program, we see sufficient evidence to think the program will continue in some form into the future. The most tangible outcome of the project will be the curriculum of the first two years, the written reports of the research projects in the third year, and a vibrant online journal and discussion forum. If the research activities are even modestly successful, they will be formidable pieces of scholarship that will create a buzz in the madrasa scholarly circles within South Asia and perhaps beyond. Given the global reach of the South Asian madrasa community with Darul Ulooms (another word for Madrasas) present all over the world, including in the West, we hope to thereby initiate a long overdue conversation amongst the ulama on the vital issues of theological change, science, law, and society. Translations of the research papers from Urdu into Arabic and English would extend the conversations to the madrasa scholarly community beyond South Asia.

Credit: Mahan Mirza. Madrasa Discourses students and a Notre Dame peer discuss the day’s lecture below. Conversations on religious identity, politics, secularism, science, and gender spilled over into all activities, as students eagerly engaged in what for many was a unique experience of open exchange with new philosophies, traditions, and people.

The curriculum that we are developing is designed to transform the intellectual culture of traditional Islamic thought. The curriculum can be used by individuals, groups, and institutions, and adapted to local needs and contexts. In time, the curriculum may be translated into different Islamicate languages such as Urdu, Persian, Turkish, or Malay. Faculty from Notre Dame may support the program through instructor training (“teaching the teachers”), leading workshops or intensives of the program in different parts of the world, and convening participants periodically in conferences and symposia to develop research agendas and further the production of new theological knowledge in light of new scientific knowledge. If funding is available, a small cohort of instructors from around the world could participate in a year-long residential program at Notre Dame where they are exposed to research methods in different disciplines, participate in residential life in a leading American university, and engage in Madrasa Discourses seminars on campus. As a capstone project, Residential Madrasa Fellows could design programs with texts and methods to suit their respective local contexts. What better place to house such a transformative educational program than at the Keough School at Notre Dame?

While our future plans remain aspirational, and while the madrasa participants work on their own research projects, the core faculty of MD are also working on research papers that they hope to compile into a research volume. A symposium anticipated for spring/summer2019 will invite scholars to respond to drafts of these papers. A select array of responses will also be incorporated into the final volume, which can model the kind of conversation we hope that MD will generate into the future. Instead of merely provoking and challenging, as the curriculum does, this book will also offer some answers, with the following caveat: renewal of religious thought may not result in a single answer at all. Renewal may provide a set of contending responses in creative tension with each other. MD, then, provides a forum not for us to come to agreement, but to elevate the level of our disagreements. That is how living traditions always are: rich, diverse, and in internal dialogue around the great questions of their time.

*Re-posted from The Maydan. This paper was originally written as an internal report to update colleagues at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute about the project (Jan, 2018). Parts of the paper appeared previously in a presentation at the Notre Dame Islamic Studies Colloquium on “Religious Renewal in an Age of Quantum Weirdness” (April, 2017) and at a conference on “Islamic Education in Europe” hosted by the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo (Sep, 2017).


[1] A “madrasa” literally means “place of study.” In the South Asian context, it refers to institutions of religious education and formation.

[2] Elaborate bios of the core faculty are available online here.

[3] This thesis is spelled out clearly in Ebrahim Moosa’s What is a Madrasa? (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).



[6] Abu Mansur Maturidi, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, Eds. Bekir Topaloglu and M. Aruci, (Beirut: Dar Sader; Istanbul, Maktabat al-Irshad, 2010), 65-66.

[7] Saʿd al-Din Taftazani, Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid al-Nasafiyya, Ed. Ahmad Hijazi al-Saqqa, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kulliyyat al-Azhariyya, 1987), 12.

[8] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Musṭaṣfā, Ed. M. Sulayman al-Ashqar, Vol. 1, 1st Edition (Mu’assasat al-Risala, 2010), 36.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (NY: Anchor Books, 1979), xi.

[11] David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 2.

[12] Cf. Ian Markham, A Theology of Engagement, (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

[13] Although students receive a copy of Collingwood’s Idea of History as supplementary reading, we discuss the philosophy of history through the introductory chapter of Robert M. Burns and Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s (Eds.) Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Post-Modernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2007), 1-31.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 103-128; Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries), (NY: Routledge, 1998), 1-27.

[16] M. Akram Wirk, Mutūn-i Ḥadīth par Jadīd Dhihn kay Ishkālāt, (Gujranwala, Pakistan: Al-Sharia Academy, 2012).

[17] Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Fayḍ al-Bārī ʿalā Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Vol. 2, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2005), 511.

[18] Cf. Richard DeWitt, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 160-161.

[19] Ashraf Ali Thanvi, Al-Intibāhāt al-Mufīda fi Ḥall al-Ishtibāhāt al-Jadīda, Ed. Nur al-Bashar M. Nur al-Haqq

[20] DeWitt, Worldviews, 206.

[21] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015); and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, (HarperCollins, 2017).

[22] This is a well-known and well-authenticated prophetic report.

[23] See the wording in the second amendment to the Pakistani constitution: “A person who does not believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of The Prophethood of MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), the last of the Prophets or claims to be a Prophet, in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever, after MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), or recognizes such a claimant as a Prophet or religious reformer, is not a Muslim for the purposes of the Constitution or law.” One should note that this amendment also carries implications for the ‘unorthodox’ minorities such as the Ahmedis in Pakistan.

[24] Paraphrasing Nasser Rabat’s sentence: “Arabness was thus presumably subsumed within Islam.” On Arabs and Arabness.

[24] See Ibn Ashur’s Treatise on Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah (IIIT, 2013) where he distinguishes between the prophet’s different identities as prophet and lawgiver: “The Companions clearly distinguished between the commands of God’s Messenger that ensued from his position as legislator and those that did not. Statements or actions ensued from God’s Messenger in the following capacities: legislation, issuing edicts (fatwa), adjudication, political leadership of the state, guidance, conciliation, advice to those seeking his opinion, counseling, spiritual inspiration, teaching high and lofty truths, disciplining, and non-instructive ordinary statements,” 4.

[25] Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[26] Ibid., 8.

[27] Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical time, Reprint Ed., (MIT Press, 1990), 11.

[28] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

[29] Cynthia Stokes Brown, “A Historian’s Reflection on a Lifetime of Change.”

[30] Friedman, Accelerations, 32.

[31] Harari, Homo Deus, 49.

[32] Mohammad Fadel, a renowned scholar of Islamic law who led sessions at our summer intensive in Nepal (July, 2017), has published widely in this area. See: “Is Historicism a Viable Strategy for Islamic Law Reform? The Case of ‘Never Shall a Folk Prosper Who Have Appointed a Woman to Rule Them,’” in Islamic Law and Society, No, 18 (2011), 131-176; “The Challenge of Human Rights,” in Seasons, Spring (2008), 59-80; “Back to the Future: The Paradoxical Revival of Aspirations for an Islamic State: Review of The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State by Noah Feldman,” in Review of Constitutional Studies, Vol. 14, Issue 1 (2009), 105-123; and “Muslim Reformists, Female Citizenship, and the Public Accommodation of Islam in Liberal Democracy,” in Politics and Religion, No. 5 (2012), 2-35.


[34] Ibid.

[35] See his Shariah Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law, (Stanford University Press, 2018).

[36] Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation, 5th Edition, (University of Chicago Press, 1991); this is the first volume of the originally fifty-four volume set of the Great Books of the Western World published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952.

[37] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (NY: Anchor Books, 1979), xi.

[38] Ibid., 24.

[39] Ibid., 25. Italics in original.

[40] Moosa, Madrasa, 122.

[41] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[42] Friedman, Accelerations, 35.



[45] ]

[46]; scroll down to see the video trailer embedded in the website.

Mahan Mirza
Dr. Mahan Mirza PhD (Yale University, 2010) is Professor of the Practice in the Contending Modernities program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, housed in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Having spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice before earning an MA from Hartford Seminary in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a PhD from Yale University’s program in religious studies, Dr. Mahan Mirza comes to the practice and study of Islam from a diverse set of perspectives. Prior to joining Notre Dame in fall 2016, Dr. Mirza contributed to the establishment of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States, serving as the college’s Dean of Faculty from 2013-2016.
Field Notes article

In Pursuit of Our Aesthetic Past

Photo Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses students at the Doha Museum of Islamic Art in December 2017.

Having grown up in a society that fails to appreciate beauty and often condemns its expressions as an act of evil, I am amazed by the dazzling history of Muslim civilization. I always wonder how Muslims, such as the scholars I have encountered in New Delhi and many other parts of northern India, can claim today to be the heirs of their predecessors if they do not value beauty as transcendent and divine with the same vigor and enthusiasm.

Appreciation of beauty stimulates imagination and innovation, and historically Muslims excelled at its expressions. They produced the finest architecture, music, calligraphy, and other crafts. It all began with Muslims setting their feet on the fertile soil of the cradles of ancient civilizations: Egypt, Persia, the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, etc. They mingled old traditions with the new spirit of iḥsān, a comprehensive concept, writes Oludamini Ogunnaike, denoting the “sense of beauty and excellence—at once aesthetical, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual.” Their understanding of iḥsān drew from the verses of the Quran that give a big picture of the metaphysical beauty of God, and a scenic view of Jannah (Paradise) with its palaces sculptured from gems, surrounded by gardens, where streams of milk and honey flow. As many traditions including Islam assert, ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ Religious inspiration is evident in the designs of the elegant monuments and mosques from Spain to Indonesia. The profound beauty of these structures and decorative art still evokes ecstasy in their beholders.

Ogunnaike defines Islamic art as ‘silent theology’ that successfully holds the picture of Islam intact against contemporary virulent propagandas. He further says, “To many, the silent theology of Islamic art can speak more profoundly and clearly than the most dazzling treatise, and its beauty can be more evident and persuasive than the strongest argument.” I would add to Ogunnaike’s point that past Muslim innovations in beauty serve as a source of inspiration and pride for Muslims even today.

However, some modern Muslim puritanical movements have challenged the role of beauty in Islam. The ideologues of these movements have fomented disregard of Islamic art among the ʿulamā and hence the masses. During my days of madrasa schooling, I heard some of my teachers and peers argue that art is not worth pursuing. It distances man from the remembrance of God and requires an excessive amount of money and resources, it is said. It is no surprise that Aurangzeb, a Mughal Emperor who did not appreciate art very much, is dearer to the ʿulamā than Shāh Jahān, the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal. Sufis are also discredited by these ʿulamā members for their practice of arranging musical gatherings for seeking aesthetic experiences in the presence of the Divine. These reductionist Muslims often view Islam as a sort of strictly ritualistic system and deprive it of its aesthetic heritage.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Rasheed. Pillars at the HBKU College of Islamic Studies.

My experience of Islam has been very diverse between the madrasa and the university. Practicing conventional or ritualized Islam in my days of madrasa schooling seemed very simple. After coming to the university, however, my awareness of Islam grew in complexity with my increasing familiarity with its history and the civilization it produced. My readings about historical and religious understandings of Islam suggested that there is a gap between the way Islamic civilization thrived in the past and how Islam is practiced today. I admire the Muslim genius and fellow citizens of other faiths who contributed to this civilization. But I am also disturbed when I read about the paintings depicting humans on the walls of Qusayr in Jordan built by Walid I, the Umayyad Caliph in the first century of Islam, contrary to the centuries-old fatwa condemning representational art and prohibiting images of living beings (p. 271). This fatwa drew its validity from the hadiths (prophetic traditions) that forbade representational art, considering it a grave sin.[1] The question was whether the Umayyads disregarded the prophetic traditions altogether or if they had a different understanding of them. Debates on representational art developed a new dimension after the invention of the camera. In the Indian subcontinent, the permissibility and impermissibility of photography is still among the most debated religious issues. I faced such contradictions throughout my study of Muslim history. The question was, who should I consider wrong? The conventional view maintained by the orthodox ʿulamā is to perceive the religiosity of the rulers who encouraged and patronized arts with suspicion.

My amazement with Islam deepened as I delved more seriously into the intellectual history of Islam. I found an opportunity to do this in the Madrasa Discourses program, directed by Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza, Professors of Islamic Studies both based at the University of Notre Dame. This program teaches madrasa graduates modern science and Western philosophy in such a way that the students may develop skills to answer the modern challenges posed to Islam. This past semester we had a long discussion on ‘tradition,’ imagining it as a long rope that connects the past to the present. To keep it going, the people of the tradition have to add new threads to this rope in their respective times. If the people treat tradition otherwise, it will lose its viability. Similarly, Islamic art is one among several threads of Muslim tradition. There is a sense of continuity and progress in it from the very onset up to the modern times. Many of the expressions of this art have been lost, but many are still extant and make us recall the ingenuity and sacredness of the tradition of Islamic art. The best way to perceive it is to experience it personally in art museums, musical concerts, and by visiting renowned sites and monuments.

As a part of the program, select madrasa-educated students from India and Pakistan had a chance to visit the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar during the winter intensive in the last week of December 2017. The museum is located on an artificial island flanked by two huge lawns with a bridge in the middle that connects the old city to the museum. We were told that the architectural design of this museum was inspired by the famous 9th century Ibn Tūlūn Mosque of Cairo. An exquisite edifice, this museum is often portrayed as an example of generating new threads into the old rope of tradition. Inside the museum, it was as if we were visiting our past. A collection of metalwork, glasswork, textiles, manuscripts, and ceramics are housed there representing Islamic arts throughout the centuries. Examining them closely, I admired the inspiration they drew from the world that they lived in and from the tradition with which they were entrusted. Artifacts in the museum such as colorful rugs and silks with figurative designs, griffins crafted on tiles or a sphinx-faced lusterware ewer were evidently the mixture of creative Muslim imagination with the local cultures and civilizations of the lands Muslims came to inhabit.

Photo Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses at Doha Museum of Islamic Art.

I was surprised again, imagining the past to be so beautiful and so appreciative of arts in comparison to my present society. Questions troubled me: what was it that disconnected the vast majority of South Asian Muslims from this vibrant tradition? Why do we no longer show the same enthusiasm toward the spirit of creativity? Why do we fail to discuss and give due appreciation to aesthetics? There could be many reasons. I had a chance to discuss my concerns with Professor Ebrahim Moosa, who was with us at the time. I had already thought of an explanation for the dissonance I was experiencing: the recent dominance of a ritualistic and ahistorical understanding of Islam that was confined, in great part, to prayers only. I am not sure whether Prof Moosa agreed with my argument, as he added that Muslims no longer feel confident in performing creativity or talking about aesthetics as they did before. This may be one of the factors that killed Islam’s thriving artistic and aesthetic tradition.

Apart from the museum, we also witnessed an extensive display of magnificent architectural designs in the Education City in Doha. I think that Qatar has devoted much of its resources in reviving the aesthetic tradition of Islam and can serve as an example to Muslims of other nations. Muslims have historically seen beauty as sacred and tried to seek perfection in its expressions. Debates about aesthetics, arts, and erstwhile Muslim experiences should be introduced into madrasa education and students should be exposed to the historical meanings of their tradition. We should engage with the questions: What motivated many rulers and elites of Muslim society to patronize such arts, especially the representation of figures that were considered prohibited by orthodox scholars? Was it an act of indifference towards Islamic law or were there some historical and cultural impulses that led the practitioners and patrons of the arts to define the laws differently? There is a need to analyze the seemingly contradictory practices of past Muslims with the dominant contemporary orthodox Islamic tradition. This can help us understand the significance of art in the robust and cosmopolitan nature of Islamic civilizational tradition.

[1] Bukhārī mʿ Fathul Bārī, Vol 10, pp 314, 316, 323. The Hadiths are cited in Tasvīr ke Sharaʿī Aḥkām (The Rulings of Sharia about Making Images and Photography) by Muftī Muhammad Shafīʿ, published by Idāratul Mʿārif, Karachi, Pakistan

Mohammad Ali
Mohammad Ali is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India. He is also a student in the Madrasa Discourses program.
Global Currents article

Our Jerusalem of Unspoken Stories

Photo Credit: upyernoz. Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which some Christians believe to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, as opposed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Christmas has passed in Jerusalem, or at least two Christmases have. The 25th of December saw Catholic and Protestant Christmas, and the first week of January brought Christmas again—this time Orthodox Christmas. Armenian Christmas will arrive later in the month still. When I first moved to Jerusalem over a decade ago, it took me time to become accustomed to the celebration of Christmas day three times in a single year—remembering to wish Merry Christmas to our friends from respective communities on each different day—but for my children, who have lived their entire lives in the city, there is nothing unusual about it. Three Christmases fall in the season when they wait for sufganiyot, the jelly donuts served in Jewish cafes during Hannukah. This year it fell a few weeks after the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This lived diversity—as much if not more than the city’s shrines—is what makes Jerusalem holy.

Photo Credit: DYKT Mohigan. Sufganiyah doughnuts in Jerusalem, served during Hannukah.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jerusalem’s diversity ever since President Donald Trump announced that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While the international media has focused in large part on what the decision will mean for the viability of a negotiated peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and whether a two-state solution will still be possible, Palestinians inside of the city have been concerned about something that is far more difficult to talk about: whether the city as they have known it for generations will be wiped away as a result. Public discussions might focus on preserving the status quo over the city’s major holy sites, but private conversations are often about what will happen to the people of East Jerusalem themselves, to their street names and their cafes, their traditions and their holidays, their trees, their memories. As someone who has lived among Palestinians for years, I have had to wrestle with how much of the Palestinian landscape I have watched disappear: even more, I have had to come to terms with all that I have been silent about.


Loss and Memory

It is easy to say that the Palestinians I know are experiencing a trauma now over the potential loss of Jerusalem as their capital city. What is more difficult to acknowledge is that they have been losing Jerusalem for decades, and that this latest blow has left them not only despairing, but exhausted. In 1948, thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes in neighborhoods such as Baq’a and Talbiya, Katamon and Musrara—neighborhoods that are now in Israeli, West Jerusalem. Palestinians lost what we still call “Jerusalem villages”, those villages  such as Lifta and Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem whose economies, traditions and identities were intimately tied to the city. They lost ‘Ayn Kerim, a village that Israelis and tourists now experience effortlessly as a charming artistic village of historic old houses on the outskirts of Jerusalem—with little thought of who once lived in those houses. For Palestinians, these losses are still real and sustained, mostly spoken of privately, like a wound you would not like to expose openly. But every now and then they emerge unexpectedly. Last month, I found myself speaking Arabic with an elderly taxi driver, who ferried me across the city on Hebron Road and pointed to houses along the way, telling me the Palestinian families who once lived in each one.

Photo Credit: frauscharff. The new highway and separation wall through Beit Jala. Old olives trees grow beneath the noise and vibrations.

The building of settlements such as Gilo and Har Homa added more displacement, fragmenting the Beit Jala area known for having the finest Palestinian olive oil.  The construction of the Separation Barrier, which cut East Jerusalem off from those outlying villages whose identity has always been inextricably tied up with the city, was yet another loss. Suddenly Al-Quds University—“Jerusalem University” in English—located in the neighboring village of Abu Dis, was severed from the city after which it was named. The faculty who lived in Ras al-Amoud at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, accustomed to driving up the hill and arriving at the campus in ten minutes, now had to drive around the wall for three quarters of an hour in order to teach their classes. Residents of the villages of Beit Jala and al-Azzariya found themselves cut off by the wall from their fields, their friends, their places of worship. Christian pilgrims accustomed to following the footsteps of Jesus on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem found themselves at the separation wall after Bethany, cut off from where Jesus entered the city on his donkey in Bethphage.

To pretend that today’s borders of Jerusalem correspond to the porous and complex ways in which lives are lived is to misunderstand the ways in which Jerusalem has been experienced by Palestinians, or in fact the way in which any city—particularly one with such religious significance—is experienced by those who inhabit it and its environs. The most recent loss for my neighbors in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa came not in the changing of borders but in the building of the Begin Expressway, a process which saw many of them lose land, ancestral olive and hawthorne trees.  More importantly and even more intangibly, the roaring of cars made them lose silence—the most profound reminder of their past as a village.

The population itself was transformed by these changes. The Christian population declined dramatically after 1948, and now stands at around 2% of the city’s population. The issuing of permits means that thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank can no longer enter Jerusalem, except by official permission. Arabs from surrounding countries can rarely get visas, which changes the shape of the holidays: almost no Syrian and Lebanese Christian pilgrims on Easter, Muslims forgetting the ancient tradition of visiting Jerusalem after Mecca to bless the Hajj. These are also losses, for how much of a city’s identity is not only its streets, but in those who pass through them and greet one another?


The End of Nablus Road

Despite this, East Jerusalem today remains astoundingly diverse. On Nablus Road, where I lived with my family for seven years, we had neighbors who traced their arrival in the city to the Arab conquest. A few shops down the Abu Khalaf family, who were Kurdish in origin and traced their history to the armies who came with Salahadin, sold dry goods. The Freij grocery store was owned by an old Greek Orthodox family, and the street vendors were from Hebron and spoke with a different dialect. The White Sisters were Franciscan nuns who spoke French and Arabic; the Schmidt’s Girls College across the street taught their Palestinian students German; the nuns beneath us spoke Spanish; the Garden Tomb, where some Protestants believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, was staffed mostly by British volunteers; and the Ecole Biblique housed the French Dominicans. The Syriac Catholic Church’s community on the same street had its origins in thousands who had escaped the Seyfo massacres against Syriacs in Southeastern Turkey in 1915. Further down the road were the Balians, some of the most famous Armenian ceramicists in the city, the American Colony, and the Nusseibeh house—one of the Muslim families who held the keys to the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom. Thousands of Muslims passed down the street on the way to Friday prayers.

Photo Credit: Miriam Mezzera. Kebab and salad vendor in Musrara, East Jerusalem.

Ours was a single street in Musrara, one of the first neighborhoods that had been built outside of the Old City walls in the late 19th century. During the fighting of 1948 the neighborhood had been split in half, with the other half of Musrara—the larger half—eventually ending up in Israel after its mostly Christian Palestinian residents were displaced. Though that half is only a few blocks away from its Palestinian counterpart, nearly all of the Palestinian history has been wiped from its landscape. Today it is inhabited by Jews largely from North Africa and Iraq, a steadily increasing population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and NGO workers. This population has its own diversity—but there is little room in it for the memory of who was once there. None of the decades-old stories that are part of daily life on Nablus Road are part of their Musrara. The municipality has even gone so far as to change the street names for the neighborhood to Morasha, to create the impression that it has always been Israeli.

Are Palestinians naïve to fear that the same might happen to the rest of the city, or is that fear rooted in lived experience? Nablus Road is a single street, but in the Palestinian Quarters of the Old City there is a similar complexity—churches ancient and new, mosques and Sufi shrines, gypsy communities and African communities that speak Arabic, Greek and Armenian and Syriac speakers. The Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa mosque are entered often and freely by locals, organically part of the lived environment. I used to slip into the Holy Sepulchre on the way to buy vegetables. What will happen if those textures, those stories, those people become part of an Israeli, Jewish capital? Will they be allowed to remain in all of their diversity?

One thinks of this excerpt from Mourid Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, which began circulating on social media immediately after Trump’s declaration:

Photo Credit: Flavio. Ancient olive tree in Beit Jamal.

All that the world knows of Jerusalem is the power of the symbol. The Dome of the Rock is what the eye sees, and so it sees Jerusalem and is satisfied. The Jerusalem of religions, the Jerusalem of politics, the Jerusalem of conflict is the Jerusalem of the world. But the world does not care for our Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the people. The Jerusalem of houses and cobbled streets and spice markets, the Jerusalem of the Arab College, the Rashidiya School, and the ‘Omariya School. The Jerusalem of the porters and the tourist guides who know just enough of every language to guarantee them three reasonable meals a day. The oil market and the sellers of antiques and mother-of-pearl and sesame cakes. The library, the doctor, the lawyer, the engineer, and the dressers of brides with high dowries. The terminals of the buses that trundle in every morning from all the villages with peasants come to buy and to sell. The Jerusalem of the white cheese, of oil and olives and thyme, of baskets of figs and necklaces and leather and Salah al-Din Street. Our neighbor the nun, and her neighbor, the muezzin who was always in a hurry…The Jerusalem that we walk in without much noticing its “sacredness”, because we are in it, because it is us (142-3).


Silence and Imperfect Language

As the crisis of Jerusalem has come to a head, I have had to confront the fact that I have been watching the slow erasure of much in the city for over a decade and have said relatively little about it until now. In part it is because the term most often used to describe the process—Judaization, seems unhelpful and even problematic to me—for it is not the imposition of a specifically Jewish identity onto the city that is the issue, but the imposition of any dominant identity onto a city with such multiplicities. If I do not suggest other terms here, it is because they, too are imperfect—and I have learned that to speak of this conflict with imperfect language is to have everything else that we argue dismissed in the process because of these imperfections.  Because I have never found the language to discuss what is happening, I have largely refused to speak or write about it, for fear of offending, of misspeaking. As writers, we are called to invent new language if we must: I have not.

Photo Credit: Dvorit Ben Shaul (c) 2017. Ein Karem home with Islamic-style Seal of Solomon pattern, perhaps built during the pre-1948 Palestinian days in ‘Ayn Kerim, before it was depopulated and absorbed into Israel under a new name.

But even if I were to invent new language, my suspicion is that this language, too, would only briefly suffice. This is a conflict in which we have who have witnessed Palestinian lives have lost control even of the language in which we tell our stories. I have become accustomed to well-meaning friends sitting me down and explaining that what I call a “settlement” is in fact only a “neighborhood”, that what I call “Musrara” is in fact really “Morasha.” Among the many things we do not control in Jerusalem is even the vocabulary in which we can describe what we have witnessed with our own eyes: knowing this, I have chosen to remain silent.

By my refusal, I have helped to perpetuate the fallacy of how we talk about Jerusalem. The main difference between the way people outside of Jerusalem and Palestinians within Jerusalem are engaging in the current crisis is that outsiders discuss it within the boundaries of a hypothetical future. For them, Trump’s declaration marked the end of the possibility of a two-state solution with a shared capital, something that had not yet been accomplished.

Palestinians discuss it in terms of what has already happened and what is ongoing—as a culmination of what has been lost. Refusing to give space to this discourse is to deny the depth, history, and complexity of their attachment to the city, to erase from the conversation the texture of human relationships, of trees and flowers, of houses in neighborhoods, of feast day pilgrimages—it is to deny the legitimacy of the pain they have already felt and the loss they have already endured. It is also to deny the complexity of what is at stake in the present.

And what is at stake? The diversity of Jerusalem’s population tells the story of its history and its universality—it makes the city’s holiness about its people, not just its stones, and is a reflection that the city belongs to the entire world. It assures that Armenian pilgrims will find a piece of themselves in its people, that Greek pilgrims will stumble upon an old community of Greek speakers across from the Patriarchate, that Muslim visitors who shop at the Abu Khalaf shop will unknowingly continue a relationship with the family who once organized the Hajj to Mecca, that when they speak to a Dajani in the street they will be chatting with the old guardians of David’s Tomb. It assures that the city remembers the love of Jerusalem in the Jews of Kurdistan, who brought their delicious soup to the Mahane Yehuda Market; devotion to the city among Aleppo’s Jews, who brought their distinctive liturgy to their synagogue in Nachlaot; and of the Jews of Eastern Europe, who still speak Yiddish in the streets. It assures that liturgy will still be practiced in the language that Jesus spoke, in the city in which he died. It assures that Jerusalem will not lose its Friday prayer, its Saturday Shabbat, its Sunday church bells, its languages, its silences.

Stephanie Saldaña
Stephanie Saldaña received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. Now a resident of Jerusalem, Saldaña teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University. She has written two books, The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith and A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, and is the founder of Mosaic Stories, a project to preserve the threatened cultural heritage of the Middle East through research and storytelling. 
Field Notes article

Facing Down Intolerance: Sharing Madrasas in the USA

Photo Credit: Alaina Anderson. Seven Notre Dame undergraduates joined Madrasa Discourses students in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here they pose in a temple courtyard with a Pakistani madrasa graduate: (L-R) Sumera Rabia, Jebraune Chambers, Maggie Feighery, Alaina Anderson, Nabila Mourad, Kirsten Hanlon, Molly Burton, and Alice Treuth.

“How was Nepal? What exactly were you doing there?” Since I’ve been back in the United States, I’ve struggled to answer these questions. There’s no simple and cohesive answer to describe all of my experiences at the Madrasa Discourses Kathmandu Summer Intensive. What is even harder is trying to explain the context the madrasa graduates are coming from and the need for the Discourses project without reinforcing many people’s perspective that Islam lends itself to extremism and fundamentalism. As soon as I try to describe madrasas (Islamic seminaries), with their intense focus on the Qur’an and often outdated syllabi, I can see some people solidifying their ideas that madrasas create terrorists or all Muslim communities are ultra-conservative at best. I have to rush to explain the warm welcome I received as soon as I arrived, how I was immediately treated as a sister, how every one of the madrasa students wanted to hear the Notre Dame girls’ opinions in discussions, and explain that madrasas are not breeding grounds for terrorism. My incredible time at the Kathmandu Summer Intensive introduced me to many amazing, kind scholars as well as to the strengths and weaknesses of their education. I was able to understand the need to update the framework in which Islam is interpreted and studied around the world in a fuller context because of the people I met and the stories I heard. This juxtaposition of an education system in need of reform and incredibly intelligent scholars is hard to explain, especially when you mix in a currently (and unfortunately) politically charged subject like Islam.

Photo Credit: Alaina Anderson. Re-Entry to the United States, Los Angeles Airport.

I’d like to share all of my experiences, good and bad, but worry about how my stories will be interpreted hold me back at times, fearing I will inadvertently solidify simplistic, anti-Muslim views. The vast majority of my friends and family are very tolerant, open-minded people who choose to see the good in the world. It’s easy to tell them what happened in Nepal without trying to use a filter or without needing to overemphasize the good things. However, there are some people that I’m close to that are not as open. For example, I have a family member who, while she is a good person, has been previously misinformed and has unfortunately stuck to that misinformation. So, with her, it has been great sharing the many good things that happened. However, as soon as I start trying to explain the importance of the project, she cuts in and asks if madrasas create a lot of terrorists or if Muslim societies are typically fundamentalist. Even after I assure her that the answer to both of those questions is a definite no, she seems suspicious. As soon as I start talking about my frustrations with a lot of the gender discussions that took place in Kathmandu, I can practically see her more negative view of Muslim cultures hardening.

A few nights after my return, the topic of my trip to Nepal came up, and this family member mentioned that one of the participants from the Madrasa Discourses sent her a friend request on Facebook. Her first thought was, “ISIS.” When she told me that, I had to force myself not to walk away from her mid-conversation. I was shocked and repulsed that someone in my own family could say something like that. I hate that there are people out there whose minds immediately jump to terrorism when they see bearded and/or traditionally dressed Muslims, but it kills me that someone so close to me could think this, even after I had explained how wonderful all of the Madrasa Discourses participants were. It’s so hard for me to change my family member’s mindset. I try to balance out the negatives by pointing out the need for change but also trying to explain the good intentions behind them. For this, I always return to my conversations on gender with Hafiz Abdul Rehman (Hafiz), with whom I formed a strong friendship.

Hafiz is a fairly quiet Pakistani school teacher. He’s a devout Muslim who joined these Discourses to learn about different approaches to the Islamic faith. He’s one person I know will bring the things he learns through the Madrasa Discourses back with him to share with others. He is a kind person to the core, is eternally well-meaning, and has so much love to give to the world. I had some amazing conversations with Hafiz the first couple of days, and he really helped me understand the madrasa graduates’ perspectives on the day the lectures focused on gender equality and social inclusion. While I did not agree with his (and most of the other madrasa students’) stance on gender “equality” or how women and men should be seen, he never got annoyed at my many questions. He heard me out every time, and he really tried to understand what I was saying and where I was coming from. In return, he helped me to see that the gender roles in their society help to create strong family units and are upheld by many out of a sense of love and respect. He liked to tell me, “people think we don’t love women in our society. But I think it is that we love women more than men.” He would cite passages in the Qur’an where Mohammed talks about how a mother’s love is unmeasurable or how the mother is most worthy of “good companionship,” even three times over the father. He shared his belief that the separation of men and women and women’s modest dress was to protect women. He told me, and I really feel he believes, that his society values women so much that it wants to protect and provide for women. He explained that the reasons women need to stay home are to raise the children and run the household; he used to laugh at that part and tell me, “really, the women are the bosses of the men, Alaina.” He said that men had to go work in order to give money to their parents and then to their wives. Through all of my conversations with Hafiz, it was very hard for me to voice my disagreements, not because he didn’t let me (he welcomed the opportunity to hear another opinion) but because I knew that everything he did and believed came from a place of love and respect.

Photo Credit: Jebraune Chambers. Madrasa Discourses students Waqas Khan and Hafiz Muhammad Bilal photograph the Kathmandu skyline.

These are the things that I want to share with people. I want to show them that even the negative aspects of my experience (like my frustrations with many madrasa graduates’ beliefs about gender dynamics) had positive parts. Most of the time, I found that participants perpetuated these lifestyles out of a place of love. Other times, it seemed that lifestyles continued because of a lack of understanding of other viable options or because they didn’t know how to challenge the status quo. Back in the US, my struggle is that some people stop listening after they hear that traditional or gender-segregated lifestyles are being perpetuated in the madrasa graduates’ communities. (By the way, these lifestyles are culturally grounded and vary vastly among Muslim societies globally.) I can’t figure out how to reach people with an anti-Muslim bias in an effective manner. For some, I choose only to share the positive aspects of my experience. For others, I allude to some of my frustrations surrounding certain conversations in Kathmandu without going into detail. But really, I want to tell everyone the whole story. And, to me, the positives of my Nepal story vastly outweigh the negatives. Yes, there is a huge need for change and for updating, as I learned, but there is also so much good and so much love that I encountered. There is so much in my Nepal experience that gives me hope for the future and for a positive change and updating in Islamic scholarship/madrasa education, however quickly or slowly it may happen.

I loved my Nepal experience. I’m not going to say that I enjoyed the entire thing, the food was sometimes unrecognizable and I put my foot in my mouth far too many times to claim constant enjoyment, but overall, the feelings I take away from my two weeks in Nepal are love and enlightenment. I learned so much, and I met so many incredible, impressive people. I want to share this experience, this entire experience, with others. The fact that I will come across more intolerant or misinformed individuals is a given. Thus far, I have not found an easy way to break open that dialogue with those individuals, but I hope that the more I share my experience, the easier it will be for me to navigate those tricky conversations with a cool head. Sharing my experience has already helped my family member see a little better the world the madrasa graduates I met live in, and I’d like to think that little by little, my stories will help others become more understanding, too.

From left to right, Pakistani Madrasa Discourses students Muhammad Usman, Muhammad Tayyab Usmani, Zaid Hassan, Hafiz Muhammad Bilal, Lead Faculty Ammar Khan Nasir, and students Hafiz Muhammad Rasheed, Waqar Ahmed, and Hafiz Abdul Rehman on a cultural field trip in Lalitpur (Patan), outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Alaina Anderson
Alaina Anderson is pursuing majors in psychology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. She joined the Madrasa Discourses project for the 2017 Kathmandu Summer Intensive.
Field Notes article

Sharing Madrasa Discourses at the United Nations

Aadil Affan presents on education in Bihar, India, at the well of the UN General Assembly.

Before joining Notre Dame’s Madrasa Discourses project, Indian madrasa graduate Aadil Affan would have told you that accommodating or accepting other cultures was a heresy (bid’ah) unacceptable to his version of Islam.

Educated in a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, for most of his formative years, Affan is a young religious scholar, a member of the ulama, and his word carries weight in his community. His perspective on Islam’s approach towards different religio-ethnic groups, on scientific innovations, and many other things, may one day guide the position of the co-religionists around him.

Yet after six months in the Madrasa Discourses project, this recent MA graduate in Arabic from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, shared a remarkable about face, in no less an esteemed location than the United Nations (UN). Affan’s essay on global citizenship, language, and cultural understanding was selected among 2,000 submissions to the UN’s “Many Languages, One World” youth competition. He writes in his essay:

There are some religious values and cultural norms that we all share, which are acceptable to all. The contemporary world in its present situation needs dialogue among diverse peoples and communities. Such inter-religious dialogue can help to eradicate hatred between people of different faiths which is spread by evil elements. When people start connecting over common human values it leads to mutual cooperation and understanding.

UN headquarters, New York City.

On July 21st, 2017, he presented at the well of the United Nations General Assembly, proposing a solution to the grave paucity of education in his home state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions. No less remarkable was the fact that his essay, attached below, is written in Arabic, a second language for the young Indian. After visiting the UN, Affan joined his classmates at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu, Nepal, where his colleagues had been involved in a rigorous exploration of how concepts such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism intersect with Islamic thought today.

When asked about how the project has influenced him, Affan points to an essay he read in the course by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on Islam in the United States called, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”. “Islam is like a “crystal clear river… Its waters [] are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow” writes Abd-Allah (1). Assigned in a Madrasa Discourses module that shed light on the encounter and exchange between Muslims and other societies, such as Greek philosophy and Persian courtly culture, students explored the flexibility of Islam in welcoming new practices and modes of behavior. The openness that Muslim societies showed to the variety of human experience enabled them to organically plant roots in new places, and humankind has benefitted as a result, not least through the “epoch-making” translation of millions of important Greek texts to Arabic that preserved Aristotelian and other works for posterity (Gutas, 8).

In their second semester of Madrasa Discourses, students read about Islam’s rich intellectual history and its relation to local and international cultures in Dimitri Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; Deborah Tor’s “Islamisation of Iranian Kingly Ideals in the Persianate Fürstenspiegel”; Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam; Michael Cooperson’s essay on “Culture” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam; and Abou El Fadl’s Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam. Experts, including Rashied Omar, as well as others like Gabriel Reynolds, Deborah Tor, and Thomas Burman from Notre Dame visited the online classroom to interact with students and share their knowledge about the material.

Madrasa Discourses course in Kathmandu, July 2017. Here Pakistani student Waqas Khan poses a question to the lecturer.

Channeling what he learned in an online session from Notre Dame’s Professor Rashied Omar, Affan noted that Islam is a “culture friendly” religion, and that many other religions today appreciate diverse forms of good conduct and behavior. This does not mean “blind acceptance,” Dr. Omar notes in a 2015 sermon students also read: “The process of adopting sound customary practices from local cultures was facilitated by Islamic jurisprudence through the technical process known as al-‘urf or al-‘adah” (7).[1] Yet this friendliness and openness is important because “culture governs everything about us, molding our instinctive actions and natural inclinations,” Affan went on. “It’s human nature to love peace and hate disorder.”

Originally taught a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition, which left little if any room to question the authenticity of material, or to consider the possibility of different and equally legitimate perspectives, Affan tells us the Madrasa Discourses program “has changed my way of thinking…. I am now enjoying navigating uncovered areas of Islam that were previously hidden from me.”

In his sermon, Dr. Omar enjoins: “This new reality requires a shift in mindset from an inward-looking disposition that seeks to preserve culture such that it becomes fossilized, to a disposition that is embracing of cultural transformation and growth” (10). Affan took that message to heart and applied it to his role and place in India. Through teaching and service in their respective homelands, many other Madrasa Discourses students are also actively involved in creating and strengthening Muslim identities which are deeply rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and influential in shaping positive and relevant Muslim discourses in the modern world. Aadil Affan’s successful essay is but one prominent example.

Congratulations, Aadil!


Biography: Aadil Affan is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he recently completed a Master’s in Arabic Language and Literature. Originally from Katihar Bihar India, Affan learned the value of education early and received his primary and secondary education at Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow. He plans to continue his higher education in the hopes of one day becoming a professor. He is also an avid cricket player and enjoys reading.

[1] Omar, R. (2015). Fostering Inclusive Muslim Cultural Traditions and Practices. ‘Id al-Adha Khutbah’ on 24th September 2015/10th Dhu al-Hijja 1436. Claremont Main Road Masjid, South Africa.


Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.
Global Currents article

Turkey, White Supremacy, and the Clash of Civilizations

Civilization board game. Photo Credit: Syvanen

“Teddy, how can one obtain a fair maiden?” asks a white supremacist playfully to a toy teddy bear in a YouTube video. He then reports the teddy bear’s answer to his viewers: “in order to truly understand the nature of women, one must first retake Constantinople from the Ottoman Empire.” The connection between the sexism expressed in “obtaining” a “fair maiden” and the vanquishing of a “civilizational” enemy is a recurrent theme in contemporary white supremacy that flourishes online. This quest for civilizational/racial purity combines an interest in white women’s reproductive and sexual availability with concerns about demographic “replacement.” Consider one of Republican Rep. Steve King’s many controversial tweets: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Consider the anger the Tree of Life synagogue terrorist felt towards the Jewish congregation, not simply because they were Jews, but also because they were progressive Jews, helping refugees to safety in the United States. Consider the title of the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto: “The Great Replacement.” In the contemporary United States, such statements, openly identified as extremist, operate alongside state-sanctioned racial policies with similar demographic targets, including attacks on women’s reproductive rights, endless wars on terror, the racialized criminal justice system, and immigration policing, all of which are all taken to be politics as usual.[1]

Building on the presentations and discussions that took place during the April 16 flash panel organized by Atalia Omer, “Interrogating the Christchurch Shootings,” this blog post connects the gendered/sexualized nature of white supremacist theorizing to its mobilization of civilizational discourses. I argue that at this intersection of civilization talk and obsession with reproductive purity, one finds a toxic passion for an imagined Medieval past and an obsession with the Ottoman Empire/Turkey that echoes the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric promoted by earlier civilizational theorists such as political scientist Samuel Huntington. This conjunction raises important questions about how respectable forms of scholarship and white supremacist ideologies may bolster each other. In fact, this discursive continuum parallels the continuum operating between racist state policies and “lonewolf” racist violence considered beyond the pale of the law and requires inquiry alongside it.


The Will to Clash of Civilizations

In one of the (generally positive) reader responses to my book manuscript, an anonymous reader noted I had made rather too much of an outdated concept that had already been criticized to bits:

“I do think discussing Huntington is fine (though it is a bit well-worn), though I was surprised when I came across phrases such as ‘the current popularity of Huntington’s thesis,’ which felt a bit dated.”

The reader was referencing my conclusion, where I emphasized how Turkey’s history of transculturation and prevailing debates about “westernization” in the country defied  Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which claimed that the world consisted of “seven or eight major civilizations” whose culture-driven conflicts could be traced throughout history and would determine post-Cold War era politics. Huntington’s broad “cultural” categories mimicked prevailing ideas of race and, where they differed, were reducible to religion. In revising for publication, I changed the conclusion to acknowledge that academia had both thrown the book at, and closed the book on, Huntington. I noted that almost immediately after his thesis appeared, experts rallied to demonstrate how Huntington had underplayed “intracivilizational” conflicts as well as cultural hybridity, and had done so at a time considered the high age of globalization. Countering Huntington’s thesis with data was indeed low-hanging fruit for anyone who had studied any “civilization” in any depth. Moreover, scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani had come to question whether “culture” could ever be an explanatory factor for political conflicts. In revising, I acknowledged the strength of these critiques, but hinted that the scholarly reports of the death of “Clash of Civilizations” may have been premature:

“The sharp divide between the West and the rest distorts reality, but rhetorical attempts to locate such a divide are real enough. Culture Talk influences politics.”[2]

The afterlives of Clash of Civilizations have indeed been robust, with extremism, the security state, the military industrial complex, and knowledge-production boosting each other at a dizzying rate. Polemics around the civilizational status of Turkey vis-à-vis Europe have transitioned well into the new century, flourishing in peer-reviewed scholarship as well as in white-supremacist YouTube comments.


Istanbul, not Constantinople?

Turkey appears as a recurrent headache in Huntington’s work. In his 1993 Foreign Affairs article, Huntington called Turkey of the 1990s—a laicist, Muslim-majority NATO ally and a candidate for European Union membership—“the most obvious and prototypical torn country,” which could not decide whether it belonged within “Islamic” or “Western” civilization. Despite claims to objectivity and descriptiveness, his 1996 book turned prescriptive when it suggested that Turkish leaders might soon be ready to stop their “frustrating and humiliating” attempts to join “Western civilization.” Instead of acting like “beggars,” he predicted, the country would do well to “resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West” (178). This piece of unsolicited advice did make Huntington some strong “civilizational” enemies in Turkey, although perhaps not of the kind that he had imagined. Instead, Huntington’s words got incorporated into Kemalist and leftist conspiracy theories, which claimed that the United States was overseeing a plot to “Islamicize” Turkey through the leadership of the “moderate” Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in order to weaken the country.[3]

And voila, Turkey was Islamicized and became more antagonistic towards the West, right? Although the current AKP regime might have pleased Huntington in many ways with its “neo-Ottomanist” policies, it does not fulfill his thesis either. After all, it was under AKP’s early rule that major human rights packages were passed in order to make Turkish law comply with the Copenhagen criteria for membership in the European Union. Similarly, the regime takes as many pages out of the Western playbook—referencing the U.S. presidential system to justify the latest turn to an executive presidency, for example—as it does from age-old Ottoman legends. Moreover, the vision of the Ottoman Empire as somehow the antithesis of Western civilization itself would be contested by any serious historian who has passing familiarity with the cultural exchange and military alliances forged between European countries and the final Muslim Caliphate.

Yet, in Huntington’s suggestion that Turkey give up its “westernization” policies lies a reality more powerful than all our footnotes and primary documents can suppress: over the course of the twentieth century, “Western civilization” has become both a substitute and an alibi for “whiteness” and “Christianity” and Turkey constitutes a problem for all of these categories.

Hagia Sophia at Night. Photo Credit: Simon Q

“UNTIL THE HAGIA SOPHIA IS FREE OF THE MINARETS, THE MEN OF EUROPE ARE MEN IN NAME ONLY,” wrote the Christchurch terrorist in all caps in his manifesto, referencing a Byzantine cathedral that had been converted to a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and is now a museum. The phallus, the cross, and the sword: A mythic civilizational formula based on an an intersection of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia and, like the vision of a pure white Europe of the past, exists more in the minds of white supremacists than in historical reality.

In fact, the terrorist’s manifesto contains an entire section titled “To Turks.” Here the terrorist orders all Turks currently living in Istanbul (my city of birth and where my close relatives live) to retreat to the Asian side of the city, or face violence: “FLEE TO YOUR OWN LANDS, WHILE YOU STILL HAVE THE CHANCE.” He calls Erdoğan “the leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people, and the leader of the largest Islamic group within Europe,” in language recalling Huntington’s insult/praise for the Ottoman Empire as “the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West.” References to Turks (and to massacred Bosniaks, whom he considered Turks) also decorated his assault weapon.

Why would an Australian terrorist living in New Zealand, a world away, be so obsessed with enforcing the boundaries between “Europe” and the Republic of Turkey? Because in our contemporary era, “Western civilization” operates as a code for whiteness and Christianity articulated in geographic and world-historic terms. As Alastair Bonnett notes in The Idea of the West, the concept of Western civilization has particular purchase in white supremacist theories about racial replacement because, in pointing to great achievements, it offers a fig leaf of loftiness to the insipid category of whiteness.[4] Thus, a simplified history of Ottoman clashes with nations mythologized as European ex post facto, with symbolic focus on Vienna and Istanbul, has gained new charge. In this construction, Turkey’s ambivalent status vis-à-vis the geographic subcontinent of Europe appears as an irritant.

In contemporary white supremacist theorizing, what does not belong in “Europe” must be excised at the altar of this construction that was never pure but must somehow be made pure. What Huntington once called “the bloody borders of Islam” turn out to be non-existent borders to be drawn in Muslims’ blood.

This is not to defend the now-excised phrase about “the current popularity of Huntington’s thesis” in that earlier draft of my book. The reader was right at the time. However, the so-called “Trump era” has clarified more than ever just how popular (in all senses of the term) calls to man the barricades of Western civilization have become in the present. In the age of social media, Huntington’s argument, itself a rehashing of older civilization talk, has found its viral legs and assault weapons.

Why did the solid scholarship that closed the book on Huntington’s thesis not work for so many? Is it because globalization turned out not to be the panacea it was promised to be? Or because our white supremacist political and socioeconomic structures necessitate the continuous redesigning and dissemination of white supremacist discourse? If historical and geographic reality are not enough to crush the Clash of Civilizations thesis, what is?

New Zealand has banned the circulation of the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, and Erdoğan has rightly been criticized for showing video footage of the massacre at campaign events to whip his supporters into a nationalist fervor. Yet censorship is not a safe option either. These texts travel, and so do their proponents. The Christchurch terrorist himself traveled around Europe and visited Istanbul several times. Whereas I see a complex racial and civilizational merging that can never be reversed in my city of birth, he saw a mistake to be turned into a battle cry. How do we deal with the convergence between Huntington’s subtle advice to Turkey and this terrorist’s threat “to Turks”?


Make Istanbul White Again

Figure 1. “Wait for us Istanbul.” Viral pro-CHP meme from early April 2019, comparing the appearance of the two mayoral candidates and their wives.

I end with a couple of memes and on a note of irony, as befits our terrifying hyperreal era: the racial/civilizational language that animated the Christchurch terrorist flourishes among Turks as well. In the lead-up to the recent municipal elections that led to AKP losing its hold over Istanbul for the first time in the party’s history, supporters of the opposition party CHP began circulating memes that praised the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, and his family for the way they look.

One meme contrasted a daytime image of Imamoğlu and his slim, youthful, blonde wife with a nighttime photo of the stout, mustachioed AKP candidate and his headscarf-wearing wife. “The candidates for Istanbul mayor and their partners,” it read, “On the one side, light; on the other side, darkness” (Figure 1). The light/dark metaphors did multiple duty here much in the same way they do in Western politics, referring to the timing of the two photos, mobilizing connections to modernity and backwardness, and dogwhistling colorism.

Figure 2. Viral Turkish meme from early April 2019, celebrating the new mayor of Istanbul and his family for looking like Northern Europeans.

A post-election meme celebrating Imamoğlu’s victory depicted his fair-skinned and light-haired family wearing “modern” clothing and exclaimed, “Bro, look at the family! In one instance, we progressed 100 years. We became like Finland, Sweden and Norway!” (Figure 2).

Expressing a half-earnest yearning to be finally become “like Finland, Sweden, and Norway,” such texts of digital folklore demonstrate that Turks themselves will not be left behind when it comes pushing back against Turkey’s well-earned racial and civilizational ambiguity.[5] However, while Western white supremacists insist Turks can never belong within whiteness and must be pushed out of Europe, Turkish white-supremacists see uncontested whiteness as within grasp, pending the election of political representatives with the right/white look. In both cases, women’s bodies are made to bear the burden of racial/civilizational proof.

[1] Scholarship investigating this continuum with regards to the War on Terror includes Leti Volpp, “The Citizen and the Terrorist,UCLA Law Review 49, no. 5 (2002): 1575-600, Michael Welch, Scapegoats of September 11th : Hate Crimes and State Crimes in the War on Terror (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006), and Inderpal Grewal, Saving the Security State : Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-first-century America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017).

[2] Gürel, The Limits of Westernization188. See Chiara Bottici and Benoît Challand, The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations (Florence, Ky.: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Gürel, The Limits of Westernization136. See also Emre Kongar, ABD’nin Siyasal Islam’la Dansı (Istanbul: Remzi, 2012), 28-34.

[4] Alastair Bonnett, The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 26-8.

[5] For an excellent historical discussion of the Turkish will to whiteness, see “Is the Turk a White Man?”: Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity by Murat Ergin (Brill, 2016)

Perin Gurel
Perin E. Gürel is assistant professor of American Studies and concurrent assistant professor of Gender Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her first book, The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey (Columbia University Press, 2017), explores how Turkish debates over “westernization” have intersected with U.S.-Turkish relations in the twentieth century. Her work has appeared in American Quarterly, American Literary HistoryJournal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, the Journal of Transnational American StudiesJournal of Turkish Literature, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a second book project on the impact of U.S. political discourses on Turkey-Iran relations from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Gürel is also faculty fellow for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at Notre Dame. 
Global Currents article

De/Provincializing Europe

One of the most curious aspects of the Christchurch mosque shootings is that Brenton Tarrant, the twenty-nine-year-old accused of murdering fifty-one worshippers, was so obsessed with medieval Crusades, as well as early modern clashes between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Yet Tarrant’s infatuation with these histories, coupled with his unstinting allegiance to far-right extremism, is by no stretch unique. Indeed, Tarrant’s embrace of “ethno-nationalism” echoes the re-emergence in the 1910s of the U.S.-based Ku Klux Klan, which modeled its uniform on the confraternity robes worn by members of Christian religious orders hundreds of years earlier. White supremacists reasserted this dubious connection to the Catholic Church in the 1960s when the murderous White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan named its Mississippi chapter after religious military orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallers.

Pieter van Laer, The Flagellants (c. 1635), Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Despite Tarrant’s seeming awareness of these and other futile attempts to rationalize racial violence via Christianity, his overall comprehension of the particulars and nuances of European social history is utterly lacking. A telling excerpt suggesting as much from Tarrant’s seventy-four-page manifesto posted online prior to the Christchurch massacre stated: “The origins of my language is European, my culture is European, my political beliefs are European, my philosophical beliefs are European, my identity is European and, most importantly, my blood is European.” As these distorted ascriptions illustrate, Tarrant’s identification with the continent posits that the essence of European heritage is effectively synonymous with his own mythic “whiteness.”

This worldview, and its intersections with a global uptick in racial terrorism, underscores how deadly the resurgence of white supremacy and separatism in recent years has become. And in the case of Europe, various manifestations of these patterns suggest the risk of failing to acknowledge the continent’s history of social, cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity.

Despite marked progress since the 1960s in dismantling colonial frameworks as the predominant mode for interpreting European history—including Europe in the world—“clashes” rather than pluralism remains a standard trope across popular discourse. Referring to the “early success of multiculturalism in Britain,” and that nation’s attempt to “integrate, not separate” in a 2006 essay published by the Financial Times, Harvard University economist Amartya Sen lamented the abandonment of what he summarized as greater Europe’s “championing of every form of cultural inheritance.” Sen also warned: “The current focus on separatism is not a contribution to multicultural freedoms, but just the opposite.”

Fifteen years later, on the eve of Britain’s disorganized separation from the E.U., transmitting Europe’s complex, deeply interconnected multiracial heritage has never been more pressing. Because a small but growing cohort of scholars are already doing this work, there are several groundbreaking, positive, and multi-faceted studies from which to draw in pushing back against the spread of xenophobia. Moreover, despite a vague undercurrent of cynicism in the academy—e.g. political scientist John T. Scott’s review of historian Catherine Fletcher’s masterful study, The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici—recovering and amplifying non-white voices, experiences, and representations in European Studies remains popular both in and well beyond the ivory tower.

Although Fletcher’s study—of the first black head of state in the modern Western World—does not make this connection, Alessandro de’ Medici’s African mother, Simonetta da Collevecchio, was likely named after Simonetta Vespucci (1453–1476), the Florentine model who was famously the muse of Giuliano de’ Medici. By the end of the fifteenth century, as the flourishing of black artistic representations of St. Maurice (like the two handsome images below), and an array of other cultural ephemera indicate, “whiteness” was far from the only standard of beauty in Europe on the eve of the so-called “High Renaissance” (1500–1530).

St. Mauritius (Inside) and St. Sebastian (Outside). From the former Marienaltar from St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg (c. 1498), Vienna, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

St. Maurice. Statue from a niche in the central panel, Altarpiece of the High Altar (c. late XV – early XVI century), Halle (Saale), Church of St. Maurice

While the Renaissance was indeed more racially pluralist and sophisticated than is commonly assumed, the cosmopolitan habits and perspectives associated with this period were not new. In fact, both the medieval and early modern periods are especially powerful time periods through which to understand Europe’s heterogeneity—not least due to the continent’s burgeoning fascination with African wealth, characteristics, and civilization from the late thirteenth century onward. Centuries before the ascendance of scientifically-based racism that followed the onset of the Atlantic slave trade, blacks were welcomed, if not cherished, at royal courts throughout Europe. And as the story of Alessandro de’ Medici’s marriage to Margaret of Austria (1522–1586), the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V affirms, “blackness” was clearly compatible with divine rule and princely virtue across greater Europe.

As Ivana Čapeta Rakić, Yona Pinson, and other scholars have pointed out, the Roman Catholic Church encouraged the positive incorporation of Africans and especially those who were Muslim—arguably the best evidence researchers have of uneven commitments to this ideal is iconography from the late medieval and early modern periods. Not only did a wide range of these artifacts mythologize the epic reach of the Catholic order, their promotions of a religious imaginary often stretched across three continents (e.g. the Biblical Magi, or Three Wise Men or Kings featured in the image below). However imperfect these gestures were, they symbolized the potential power of a global, egalitarian Catholic future, and a broader European interest in commemorating people of African descent that deserves more attention.

Detail Master of the Gereon Altar [Mary’s altar with Saints from St. Gereon at Cologne] detail (ca. 1420-1430), Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
Such initiatives were not extrinsic to the European Renaissance that Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt famously rediscovered in the nineteenth century. As Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Alessandro de’ Medici’s uncle, Pope Clement VII were certainly aware, evidence of steadfast, interethnic bonds stretched back to Greco-Roman civilization. Yet even more so than the early modern period, twenty-first century misconceptions that these ancient civilizations were both “white” and “European” are even stronger. Modern societies need more scholars, educators and popular commentators challenging this outmoded paradigm. When the Roman Empire comes up in my undergraduate courses, the overwhelming majority of my students have never been taught that the post-Roman Republic stretched well into Africa. (Here too it is worth remembering that Alessandro de’ Medici was the second head of state in Italy with African heritage—Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus [145–211 AD] was the first.) I also make it a point to explain that, one thousand years later, the Ottomans saw themselves as the inheritors of the Roman emperors, and perceived the Hapsburg Empire as infringing on this claim, especially after the seizure of Constantinople in 1453. Moreover, I qualify that in border communities, cultural practices between the Ottoman and Christian empires were rarely as divergent as dramatized histories of their geopolitical skirmishes in films and other forms of popular culture suggest.

Given the tendency of scholars and commentators alike to emphasize the enslavement, oppression, and defeat of people of color by—“white”—Europeans, it is easy to see how Tarrant fell for the overwrought cliché of the totemic clash between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. We can safely assume that Tarrant remains completely unaware that the Dutch Republic—led by the highly-commercialized County of Zeeland, which New Zealand is named after—began trading directly with Asia in the seventeenth century to ensure its own religious freedom.

In addition to the internally displaced Dutch populations who escaped religious persecution by moving from the southern to northern Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, Jewish communities expelled from the Iberian Peninsula were also beneficiaries of this haven. And the sheer abundance of this nation’s striking late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century paintings of black Africans and other populations of color suggests that appreciating cultural pluralism was a standard rather than an exception in the early Dutch Republic.

Jan van Kessel the Elder, The Continent of Africa, detail (c. 1664-66), Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Recalling these progressive intentions is not an apologia for the ineffable destruction Europeans caused in the early modern period. While Portugal’s seizure of major centers of the Asian spice trade between 1507 and 1515—most notably in the Malaysian city of Malacca, the Iranian island Hormuz, and the Indian city of “Old Goa”—was devastating, Dutch rule was even more brutal. And the commercial trade in black bodies beginning in the fifteenth century is a chilling reminder of why visual culture could never challenge large-scale human degradation.

Inspiring and downright horrific legacies of the first era of globalization should not be presented in zero-sum terms—especially given how interconnected civics, economics, politics, religion, and culture were in this period. More so than any other purpose, the brief reflections above suggesting a roadmap for “deprovincializing” early modern social and cultural history are driven by my own commitments not to echo a standard trope: that the history of Europe is synonymous with a history of “whiteness.” Not only has this tenacious, yet incorrect, understanding skewed the public’s intellectual development, it continues to support exclusionary social norms that neglect the histories, presence, representations, and experiences of non-white persons altogether.


Suggested Further Reading:

F. Earle, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Reissue edition (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Catherine Fletcher, The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici (Oxford University Press, 2016).

David Northrup, Africa’s Discovery of Europe (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, Eds. Ben Vinson III, Joaneath Spicer, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Kate Lowe (Walters Art Gallery, 2012).

Korey Garibaldi
Korey Garibaldi is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently working on a book project, tentatively entitled, Before Black Power: The Rise and Fall of Interracial Literary Culture, 1908–1968. The study traces six decades of fitful yet dynamic cross-racial literary collaborations, with a particular focus on projects authored and produced by black and white Americans. Most recently, Korey has co-authored an op-ed on access to Level-1 trauma care published by  The Chicago Tribune, and an article reconnecting Henry James and Gertrude Stein in the Fall 2018 issue of The Henry James Review. His book chapter, “Sketching in an Age of Anxiety: Henry James’s Morganatic Baroness in The Europeans” in Reading Henry James in the 21st Century: Heritage and Transmission  (Cambridge, 2019) will appear in July.
Global Currents article

Islamophobia Beyond Christchurch: Muslims as Tamed Others

Ruined building converted into a modern market (Bali). Photo Credit: Siegrid Saldaña

As Islamophobic tragedies grow more and more frequent and “normalized” in our day-to-day life, it has become easy for us to set aside “smaller” Islamophobic incidents while our attention is diverted to large-scale tragedies such as Christchurch. The New Zealand attack was easy for the media to digest, for it featured a white nationalist shooter who killed many Muslims while deliberately presenting a clear Islamophobic and racial motive. However, we also know that structural violence like Islamophobia does not only come up when a white racist opens fire in two packed mosques in the midst of Friday Prayers. Rather, Islamophobia is intertwined with state-sponsored violence and securitization, narratives of nationalism, and the flows of the global market and commodification. Drawing from my reflections at an April 16 panel on the Christchurch shooting, this essay will discuss how state securitization and market commodification perpetuate Islamophobia.

Today’s Islamophobia is more than just a specific form of racism. The scholar-activist Arun Kundnani and scholar of Islamophobia Tania Saeed argue that we should expand our understanding of racialization within hegemonic Islamophobic societies. Kundnani is concerned with the “racialization of socio-political, religious, and cultural contexts” that expands the exclusionary boundaries of Islamophobia. In this case, the definitions of “Islam” and “Muslim” are being re-drawn based on what is to be protected, and no longer on what is to be excluded. This means that we can no longer attend to one generic Islamophobic exclusionary line around “Muslim minorities in a White-Christian majority country,” but rather we must attend to multiple specific exclusionary lines that are drawn based on different threat perceptions in Islamophobic societies. In addition, this also means that “Islam” and “Muslim” have multiple meanings and signifiers (skin colors, attire, languages, customs and traditions, etc.) that are perceived as objective threats against the said Islamophobic society.

Looking into those contextualized boundary-drawings, Tania Saeed uses the term “degrees of alterity” in order to show the different limits of accommodation—or should we say “tolerance”?—that an Islamophobic society would express when dealing with those who deviate from the dominant normative order. In this context, the benchmark of acceptance would be the White Male Universal Self against whom the Others must be judged based on their “likeability”/ “acceptability.”

Seeing “alterity” on a spectrum, rather than in absolute binaries, allows us to probe the grey areas where Islamophobia is not readily apparent due to its intermingling with other forms of structural violence, such as those sponsored by both modern nation-states and the global market. This is the case because the spectrum of alterity takes into account the superficiality of “tolerance” and “diversity” that rarely genuinely embraces the presence of the Others, but rather commodifies it within the context of the Global Cultural Bazaar. This bazaar is understood as the global marketplace where global images and global dreams are disseminated and consumed through films, television, music, fashion merchandise, and other products. Furthermore, the spectrum of alterity is also useful in understanding a form of Islamophobia that comes into being within the framework of state-sponsored violence and securitization, which I will elaborate on later in the essay.

The Global Cultural Bazaar also can be seen as a globalized context in which articles and expressions of “cultures” and “religions” of the marginalized Others are sold and consumed by the privileged Self (Mohanty, 2017). The Global Cultural Bazaar is a perfect, abstracted context in which we can see how the “tamed alterities” of Muslims are commodified as products to be consumed. From Rumi’s poetry to designer-labelled sarongs, “Muslimness” can be tolerated (or even embraced) in so far as it is presented in neat consumer goods that serve to remind consumers of their positions as the Subject, that is, as owners of capital who are allowed to objectify those goods. In other words, reproducing the violent binary of “good Muslims, bad Muslims”, the Global Cultural Bazaar uses Islamophobia as a filter to distinguish tolerable alterities from intolerable ones.

In my field research among Indonesian female migrant workers (FMWs) in Singapore, I found that the expansion of Islamophobic commodification into the field of unskilled labor has turned even the Muslim FMWs’ religious praxis into yet another factor that reduces their “marketability” in the global market. Women I spoke with shared how Muslim FMWs are prohibited by their agencies or employers to wear their hijabs inside the employer’s house (their workplace as caregivers) in order to exude a “friendlier” face in their non-Muslim workspace. Other workers are tricked into and/or forced to eat pork in order to accommodate employers who find their unwillingness to consume a specific kind of meat to be somehow threatening. As the process of commodification can practically turn almost everything into products to consume, these FMWs are obliged, due to their positions as laborers in the global market, to increase their “market value” by taming some of their Muslim alterities.

“Say No to Burkas” Mural in Newtown Australia. Photo Credit: Newtown Grafitti

The oxymoronic tension between the voyeuristic preservation of Others in the Global Cultural Bazaar and the taming of absolute alterities is brilliantly encapsulated in Sara Ahmed’s term “stranger fetishism.” This specific way of relating to Others (or “aliens” in Ahmed’s language) allows for the Human Self to perceive the threats posed by the presence of the “aliens,” yet it also enables him, from a comfortable position, to admire the “non-human” qualities that the Others espouse. Not unlike a museum specimen, the Others in this context are to be seen, touched, discussed, and pondered, but never to be engaged with in human conversation.

When a Muslim Other does not live up to the benchmark of “likeability” (i.e., when a Muslim is a “bad Muslim” according to white, neo-liberal societies), her/his presence would fall under the securitization narrative that identifies him/her as the embodiment of everything that is “beyond human.” This means that the very embodiment of “Muslimness” is the ultimate signifier of everything that is foreign and hostile. It is also important to note that the identification of a Muslim as the ultimate other is gendered, both in its framings and in its implications.

The recent accusations of anti-Semitism against Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar illustrate this final point well. Vanessa Taylor, in her analysis for The Intercept, argues that the singling out of Ilhan Omar in this case cannot be separated from the reproduction of imageries of an “angry black woman” with an anti-Black Islamophobia that associates Black Muslims with anti-Semitic tendencies. Furthermore, as a hijabi woman of color who was also a refugee, Rep. Omar could only be two things in an Islamophobic lens. She is either an oppressed Muslim woman of color whose “freedom” is curtailed by her innately patriarchal faith, or she is a “double-agent” whose hijab is the very reflection of her disloyalty to the cause of the modern nation-state.

Securitization of “Muslimness” (understood widely here as any sociopolitical, religious, and racial signifier that makes a person “Muslim” regardless of her/his real religious belongings or lack thereof) is a mechanism that nation-states employ in order to keep these ultimate Others in check, or worse, to completely eliminate them from within their borders. From body surveillance to ethnocide and genocide (think about the Chinese Uighur Muslims and the Myanmar Rohingya Muslims), many nation-states are committed to constructing “Muslimness” as one of the biggest “threats” to their existence, in spite of the many Muslims doing their best to showcase their national loyalties. From this perspective, the point is not whether or not Muslims are patriotic, but rather that their “Muslimness” renders them to be repositories of all that is alien. The Muslim Others will never be “Us.”

Lailatul Fitriyah
Lailatul Fitriyah is a Ph.D candidate and Presidential Fellow at the World Religions and World Church Program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She holds a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research is focused on the construction of feminist theologies of resistance in post-colonial Southeast Asia, feminist theologies of migration, and feminist interreligious dialogue.
Global Currents article

Beyond the Performance of Interfaith Solidarity

“Jews in solidarity with Muslims (and Mexicans, LGBT, womens’ rights…)”—placard on the anti-Trump Muslim ban march in London. Photo Credit: Alisdare Hickson

Religious communities, places of worship, cemeteries, wedding celebrations, and other sacred events and places have become targets for spectacular terrorist violence. It is hardly shocking news anymore. Most likely people will ask in the aftermath of a news story about killing in places of worship “how many?” rather than “why?” Such incidents are so routine that we no longer seek to understand them.  Sacred spaces, times, and rituals (such as parades) have long been sites and occasions for communal violence and for generating exclusionary nationalist narratives and a broad spectrum of political violence. Stanley Tambiah, Michael Sells, and many other students of religion and violent nationalist discourses have noted the complex intersection of selective retrieval of religious traditions and the production and reproduction of chauvinistic accounts of peoplehood. Such retrievals have provided rationales for exclusion and xenophobia, as well as the delegitimization of the citizenship rights of supposedly non-normative citizens. Hence, for example, Hindutva nationalist discourse renders Muslims not really Indians. As Olivier Roy laments in a recent volume, the same pattern can be found in case after case where appeals to exclusionary citizenship build upon racialized and/or ethnicized interpretations of religion as belonging.

While targeting religious communities in moments of vulnerability and communal engagement raises profound questions pertaining to the relation between religion and violence, it should also force us to interrogate the responses of religious actors and communities to such violence. It has become almost as routine as the terrorist acts themselves for visible religious leadership to offer condemnation of such seemingly senseless acts of violence and declare that any invocation of religiosity in authorizing murderous acts of terrorism, in effect, represents a departure and perversion of authentic religious traditions. As historian Anthony Marx noted, the language of authenticity undergirded the political projects of modernity, which included the nation-state’s instrumentalization of cultural others for the purpose of consolidating and reproducing national coherence. It precludes openness for internal pluralities and reifies traditions by employing colonial taxonomies, standardization, and complex institutional reproductions of religions as features of “culture” and “national heritage” with fixed boundaries that must be policed. The latter coalesces with biologized and racialized conceptions of national or ethnic reproduction. Authenticity and (blood) purity constitute pivotal dimensions of modernity.

The performativity of interfaith vigils to express solidarity with the victims of terrorist actions that clearly target people gathered in their religious and communal spaces offers a profound expression of interfaith solidarity only if it disrupts the deep legacy of the construction of “faith” as an instrument of empire. The fact that, in addition to the Sri Lankan churches targeted on Easter Sunday 2019, luxury hotels designed to entertain foreigners were likewise targeted is telling of the symbolic association of Christianity with colonial violence and neoliberalism. Even if the churches in the previously colonized world have become indigenous over the centuries, the discourse of authenticity that indeed afflicts those who interpret their actions as anti-colonial renders such churches symbols of the colonial past and its presences. These colonial presences also manifest in the global neoliberal exploitative order. By fixing the meaning of Christianity as “foreign” and “violent” the discourse of authenticity renders Christianity, just as much as the sites of luxury hotels in the midst of poverty and marginalization, a symbol of colonization. Indeed, the modernist discourse of authenticity that has characterized the colonial enterprise and its fluctuating foci on classifying people, defining their boundaries, and identifying their “religions” or lack thereof, facilitated the process of converting, controlling, enslaving, and eliminating them since the fifteenth century. Now, in the neoliberal stage, integrating the global South and the previously colonized into the global economy through ensuring hospitable institutions and political leaderships also engenders simplistic and vague resistance through the targeting of Christian and neoliberal symbols.

The conflation of these symbols foregrounds the requirement to interrogate the roots of the contemporary violence in the enduring legacies of coloniality, nationalism, and the role of religion therein. This concept, which originated with Aníbal Quijano, recognizes the interrelation between “modernity” as a narrative of progress and the labor of slaves and the logic of displacement and extermination of indigenous communities. It is also a concept that shares elective affinities with the earlier narratives of conversion and totalizing Christian cosmology, which eventually morphed into a totalizing secularist temporality. Without a robust account of the Christian tradition’s complicity with the persistent legacies of coloniality, efforts for religious peacebuilding and interfaith performativity of solidarity are lacking. Indeed, Christian feminist postcolonial theologians have long recognized the necessity of linking decolonial and feminist theological work with an intersectional capacity for social and political solidarity. In the same way that culturalist explanatory frames (that attributes causality to culture/religion/civilizational identity) engage in abstraction and betray an underlying orientalist perspective when they interpret Muslim violence without attending to geopolitics, Christians engage in abstraction when they disown claims to their tradition by white nationalists who commit murderous actions. Instead, it is critical that scholars and religious actors examine the interlacing of religion and race in the construction of belonging and non-belonging in the “nation” and even more broadly “humanity.”

U.S. Islamic World Forum on May 30, 2012. Plenary II: Social Change: The Power of Non-State Actors moderator. Pictured here (in middle): Yemen Rami Nashashibi, Executive Director, Inner-City Muslim Action Network, United States. Photo Credit: PM411528

Indeed, scholars have long identified the complicity of the comparative study of religion (together with anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences) with the construction of the (Christian) modern West and its political projects. Critical accounts of the construction of “religion” and “modernity” require interrogating, therefore, the complicity and entanglements of such approaches with global patterns of racialization, slavery, genocides, and capitalist exploitation. Rather than reclaiming a supposed authentic account of one’s faith (itself a modernist construct), intercommunal and interfaith solidarity that moves beyond performance focuses its critique on the modernist buttressing of communities and the employment of religion in the ghettoization and patterns of domination these communities experience. Hence, grassroots interfaith solidarity refuses the modernist logic of domestication and ghettoization of religion precisely through recognition, emerging on the ground in the inner cities as well as at the margins of religious communities themselves. As Ginna Green from Bend the Arc said in an interview for NPR: “we are not safe unless we are together.” The commonality among the acts of terrorism against communities of faith, even when Christians themselves are targeted in Sri Lanka, is their respective relation to the entanglement of Christianity with colonialism, white nationalism, orientalism, and modernist patterns of racializing and nationalizing religion. Therefore, even if, under one scenario, acts of targeted violence are intended to embolden antagonism and enhance communal divides, the response to such violence cannot settle into the existing frameworks that perpetuate such violence. Activist Rami Nashashibi, head of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on the south side of Chicago, lucidly dispelled the modernist ghettoization. “Both the physical and spiritual well-being of our communities,” he told the interviewer in the same NPR piece, “depend on how well we are connected to one another.” This means, he added, that “Our isolation, our disconnection from one another only makes us that much more vulnerable to the forces of evil.…To the forces of hatred and bigotry that either want to silence us, intimidate us or pit us against one another to carry out really insidious agendas.” This important insight informs his and other grassroots faith-based activists’ coalition and solidarity work with one another.

This work moves beyond the imperial performance of vigils designed to reassert “authenticity.” It requires a deep intersectional analysis of the interlocking matrices of power, and a recognition that overcoming the logic that such matrices are built on requires not only exposing oppression, but also imagining cohabitation and solidarity outside the logic of imperial and domesticated religion. It is the same very insight that has animated Jewish activists in the aftermath of Charlottesville in 2017. When white nationalists marched with Klan-like torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” as part of a protest against the supposed erasure of an icon of the Confederacy, (some) American Jews resolved to enhance their commitment to co-resistance against white supremacy (also tackling the construction of Jews as white) by deepening their understanding of the complex relations between anti-black racism and antisemitism. Similarly, Muslim community organizing excelled and exceeded organizers’ fundraising goals to help American Jews repair vandalized graves in Jewish cemeteries. In a different context, but one that nevertheless contained similar dynamics, in 2018 a six-day Emergency Religious Delegation to Honduras—comprised of fifty faith and civil leaders from the U.S., Canada, Colombia, and Argentina—accompanied human rights protectors, witnessed state violence, and reported about it through their local and global channels. Likewise, faith-based actors have persistently spent time at the US-Mexico border, calling out the geopolitical violence at the heart of the despair of asylum seekers and refugees. These are just a few (prophetic) examples that illuminate pathways for religious agency and expressions of interreligious solidarity that also centralize critical engagement with the violent legacies of modernity. These are forms of intercommunal solidarity that move beyond merely expressing surprise and indignation at the supposed perversion of religion manifested in such spectacular terrorist acts like those that occurred in Christchurch, Colombo, and at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Such expressions of indignation reflect little interrogation of religion’s complicity in global and local patterns of racialization, marginalization, and nationalist violence.

Atalia Omer
Atalia Omer, Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame is also the Co-Director of Contending Modernities. She earned her Ph.D. from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research has focused primarily on a systematic study of religion, violence, and the practices of peace, the dynamics of ethno-national conflicts, political and social theory, the theoretical study of religion and society, and the theoretical study of the interrelation between religion, nationalism, and questions of justice, peace, and conflict.
Her recent book Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians  (University of Chicago Press, 2019) examines American Jewish ethical and political transformations as part of their Palestine solidarity activism. The book examines Jews politically inspired by social justice campaigns and how these experiences are generative of innovations within Jewish tradition, including its re-conceptualization as prophetic, multiracial, and intersectional. Her first book, When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice  (University of Chicago Press, 2013) highlights how hybrid identities may provide creative resources for peacebuilding, especially in ethno-religious national conflicts where political agendas are informed by particularistic and often purist conceptions of identity. She is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (2015). Omer also received in 2017 an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to pursue research for a book tentatively titled  Global Religion, Peacebuilding and the Perils of Development: Beyond Neoliberalism and Orientalism
Global Currents article

The Unsettled Morality of Kidney Sales

Kidney advertisement for an A+ blood-type donor hand-written on a mural in Tehran: “A+ [mobile phone number] For sale. Immediately.” Author photo, circa Summer 2009. © All Rights Reserved.
Only in Iran is receiving payment to donate a kidney permissible, bureaucratically routinized, and religiously sanctioned. There are no parliamentary laws regulating the transaction, but a body of protocols has been implemented to centrally administer the matching of donors and recipients and regulate the amount exchanged between them. Though only parliamentary laws in the Islamic Republic must be formally vetted by a council of experts in Islamic law and the constitution, in practice contentious non-parliamentary policies also require the authorization of at least some Muslim jurists in order to be implemented without contestation. These policy-oriented fatwas (Islamic legal opinions on policy-related topics) are usually determined through a dialogical process between jurists, policy actors, and scientific experts. When it comes to paid kidney donation, policy actors were able to secure permissive fatwas from jurists before the policy was formalized. According to most contemporary Shi‘i Muslim jurists, removing a non-vital organ such as a kidney from a consenting adult is permissible so as long as it does not cause undue harm to the donor and the organ is transplanted into the body of a patient whose life depends on it. These same jurists agree for the most part that compensating living donors is allowed, although it is best that payments be dispensed for the right to remove the organs and not for the organs themselves. Even so, the fatwas that set out these legal opinions are regularly listed in Persian-language fatwa compendia under the phraseology of “selling organs.” Despite the religious sanctions afforded by Islamic jurists, selling kidneys remains socially stigmatized and morally obscure. In contrast, brain-death organ donation has not only been legalized but normalized as a heroic sacrifice, even though, from an Islamic legal perspective, the matter remains far more controversial than kidney sales.


In the summer of 2012, in the central office of the Iranian Kidney Patient Foundation (IKF) in Tehran, I sat next to a woman eager to fulfill her deceased father’s will by endowing a portion of his wealth to charity. With the help of the NGO, she planned to distribute the funds among patients unable to afford organ transplants. Since transplantation surgeries are nearly free in public hospitals in Iran, the endowment was to cover the expenses of “acquiring a kidney” from a living donor. “Why not donate the funds to the sellers instead?” asked the social worker in the room who, despite years of employment at the NGO, felt uneasy about facilitating the “sale” of kidneys. Perplexed by the question, the woman explained her wish to alleviate the suffering of those in greatest need—patients who would be bound to dialysis machines for the remainder of their lives unless they received a kidney transplant, an existence that in the Iranian imagination is tantamount to “living death.”

Since the 1980s, when the first successful kidney transplant from a living non-biologically related donor was performed in Tehran, Iranian patients with end-stage renal disease have looked to the bodies of healthy strangers as potential lifelines. When related donors have been scarce, compensating unrelated donors has been customary. As demand for kidney transplantation has grown—spurred by soaring rates of hypertension and diabetes on the one hand and rapid improvements in high-tech surgical interventions on the other—those organizations involved with kidney disease have sought to regulate and routinize the monetary exchanges between donors and recipients. By 1997, the IKF had secured permissive fatwas from a significant number of leading jurists and formalized a set of protocols to be administered across the country. Since then, healthy men and women between the ages of 20 and 40 have been able, under specific conditions, to undergo a nephrectomy to improve the life of a kidney patient in exchange for a small monetary payment from the state and a larger compensation from the recipient. The NGO manages the matching of donors and recipients and announces a standard “reward” amount every year. In practice, most donor-recipient pairs negotiate a different amount based on their unique needs and abilities.

While these monetary exchanges are approved by state policy, authorized by fatwas, and regulated by bureaucratic procedure, they are fraught with moral anxiety and social stigma. Bureaucratic routinization has normalized the transactions to the extent that people understand the “buying and selling” of kidneys to be a social reality and  philanthropists can imagine spending their wealth on facilitating such exchanges, but the moral status of the phenomenon remains unsettled. The kidney-seller is seen as an unfortunate victim of poverty and unemployment, and the kidney-buyer the suffering patient whose only hope for continued health and vitality is a new kidney. Their exchange is mostly seen to be regrettable yet unavoidable, but no sustained public discussion has processed the phenomenon from an ethical standpoint or subjected the policy to scrutiny and debate. As a result, there are no consistent moral rubrics for how such transactions should be conducted or how they should be processed by society. In the absence of such rubrics, individuals are left to their own devices to navigate the sticky and tenuous process of reaching an agreement. Even years after transplantation, both kidney givers and patients continue to struggle as they attempt to cope (often in silence and obscurity) with fragile bonds and unresolved apprehensions.

Contrary to what one might expect, the Islamic jurists’ permissive fatwas have neither filled the moral vacuum nor helped resolve the conundrums faced by ordinary people. This is largely because these fatwas were solicited as part of a policy making and implementation process that deliberately excluded the public promotion of organ-selling. After all, there were sufficient people willing to donate for payment, so there was no need to campaign and draw attention to a program that was deemed necessary but morally tenuous and less than ideal. Since the 1980s, members of the IKF, medical doctors, patient activists, and even religious experts have been actively engaging high-ranking jurists in discussions on the science of transplantation and its life-saving potentials. These discussions have persuaded many (though not all) jurists of the expediency of organ transplantation. In turn, policy actors have been able to push forward a national transplantation program without facing overt delegitimization by critics who may otherwise think that selling body parts defies Islamic doctrine. But while these fatwas serve an instrumental purpose for policy actors wishing to lubricate the bureaucratization of transplantation, they do not necessarily serve as guidelines by which donors and patients can navigate the complicated and socially stigmatized process of their exchange. Instead, these individuals’ decisions are largely determined by the fears, desires, and moral valuations that materialize in the space of their intimate encounters.

In 2012, I spoke with Seema, an extremely frail but affluent accountant and young mother who suffered from multiple ailments that had permanently damaged her kidneys. Doctors and relatives had failed to persuade her to obtain a healthy organ from a living donor. She wouldn’t allow herself to pay someone “selling a kidney out of desperation,” when only she knew what it was worth—“more than anything anyone could pay for.”  Even receiving an organ from a brain-dead person was hard to accept. “How can I wait in anticipation of someone’s death so that I can live?” she said. But about a year later, Seema finally agreed to put her name on the IKF’s recipient list. Despair over her declining health and fear of leaving her toddler without a mother had overpowered her previous reservations. She chose to optimize her chances of recovery by receiving a kidney from a living stranger.

Around the same time, I met a disgruntled young donor who had received payment in return for his kidney a year earlier. While he had negotiated the terms of his surgery and exchange himself, the donor complained that the recipient had been “ungrateful” because he had failed to reciprocate his kindness and sacrifice beyond paying the formally agreed-upon amount.

These stories not only demonstrate the range of anxious moral considerations that both animate and challenge paid kidney giving in Iran, but also reflect the normalization of a process in the absence of a consensus on its moral legitimacy, religiously-guided or not. What is particularly interesting is that the majority of those I encountered in Iran, even those who had opted to pay for an organ donation, were unaware of the existence of fatwas explicitly approving the monetized exchange. Some assumed that if any fatwas existed on the matter, they would be prohibitive. Others claimed that they had never asked about such fatwas, but assumed that since the policy was implemented in part by state organizations in an Islamic Republic, it must not have contradicted Islamic doctrine. This shows that the fatwas, despite being deployed for policy purposes, have done so silently and without participating in the formation of public opinion.

There are two major consequences when fatwas are directed toward policy making in this way. One, the legal interpretations of jurists are likely to favor the premises and concerns of the policy actors who have elicited them, rather than the everyday dilemmas of ordinary people like the organ donors and recipients most affected by the policy for compensated kidney transplants. Two, while such fatwas do enable policy making and implementation, they hardly play a role in shaping the public moral understandings necessary for their proper enactment.

Snapshot of the first page of an article in the IKF’s Shafa Journal listing fatwa responses from 1994 on the permissibility of brain death organ donation, given by Ayatullahs Khomeini, Khamenei, and Rafsanjani. Author photo, circa 2008.

Matters are different when successful policy making requires that such policy-oriented fatwas become publicized through incorporation into campaigns (such as those directed toward public health) or otherwise debated in academic settings, journalistic accounts, and most important of all, radio and television programming. It is in these contexts that such fatwas often inform and shape the public’s moral sensibilities and help achieve consensus.

While such public discussion never took place for compensated kidney transplants, it did occur when brain-death organ donation became a viable possibility. Though less than 30% of kidneys transplanted every year come from brain-dead donors, the number is on the rise not only because the infrastructure and logistics accommodating such time-sensitive procedures are improving, but also because more and more Iranians have been embracing the possibility of donating their body parts in the event of brain death as an opportunity for a final grand act of altruism.

The transformation of public attitudes towards brain-death as “real death” has been made possible by a concerted effort to create a “culture of brain-death organ donation.” The Ministry of Health, along with the IKF and other organizations have been working closely with national radio, television, and other media to orchestrate various public campaigns to raise awareness about brain death (among other things through serialized dramas broadcast during peak family viewing times). Nephrologists and neurologists sometimes appear alongside clerics to marshal the cause of brain-death organ donation as a clinically sound, religiously sanctioned, but most of all heroic and spiritually rewarding act. This is all despite the fact that there is more disagreement among jurists on the equivalence of brain death and real death than there is on the legal permissibility of paid kidney giving.

While Western bioethicists often look to the fatwas of Muslim jurists to understand Islamic ethical positions on modern biomedical interventions, we have seen that these fatwas do not always reflect the attitudes of believers on matters of ethical import. When it comes to “kidney selling,” these moral concerns are varied and unstable, dependent as they are on an individual’s relationship and proximity to the context of exchange—as an ailing patient, struggling donor, generous benefactor, passive observer, social critic, and so on. Moreover, fatwas are never automatically efficacious. They must be elicited, mobilized, elaborated, and deployed by the right people, with the right instruments. To understand the ethics of any critical social practice in an Islamic milieu, then, it is paramount both to differentiate between those Islamic legal opinions that are elicited in policy contexts and those that are not, and to examine how policy-oriented fatwas circulate: as contributions to debates over matters of public interest, or as instruments of policy that languish in compendia but rarely see the light of public scrutiny.

Elham Mireshghi
Elham Mireshghi is an anthropologist of medicine and public policy and a lecturer in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Her ethnographic research on Iran’s unique paid kidney donation program examines the development of transplant policy and legal opinions by Shi‘i Muslim jurists, as well as the emergent moral valuations of the exchange that challenge widespread bioethical conceptualizations of bodily commodification. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the Charlotte Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship on Religion and Ethics.
Global Currents article

Reading Frankenstein in a Time of Germline Editing

Family at Scribe Winery, California. Photo Credit: Justin Schuck, 2014.

On the morning of November 26th, 2018, I met with sixteen Saint Anselm College first year students to discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The timing could not have been better to read a two-hundred year old text. That morning the news had broken that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, announced two live births from germline edited embryos. Dr. Jiankui used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool that Natalie Kofler discusses in her essay in this Contending Modernities series. On that cold wintery morning, the book seemed less like early 19th century science fiction and more like a cautionary tale for our time.

During the seminar we discussed how Victor Frankenstein’s unnamed creature destroyed Victor’s life, whether Victor or the creature (or no one) was the sympathetic figure in the story, and whether or not Victor should have acceded to the creature’s demands to create a female companion. We also took up questions related to having children and the obligations of creators to creatures. Given the news that had broken that morning, these questions took on new urgency as we debated the prospects of designing our own children.

The students noted that Victor immediately rejected the creature after bringing him to life. Some defended this response. These students argued that the creature failed to meet Victor’s expectations; he was too gruesome and ugly to be lovable.

He Jiankui at Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. Photo Credit: VOA – Iris Tong, 2018, Wikimedia Commons.

These students applied what I call the logic of creation to the case. The logic goes like this. Persons create things for a certain end. Chairs, for example, are created for sitting. All acceptance and rejection of the creation is predicated upon whether or not it fulfills its intended end. When the creation meets its goal, it is accepted. When it does not, it can be rejected and destroyed. And so, we keep functional chairs and trash the three-legged kind. Such rejection and destruction are permissible because the creation is owned by the creator. John Locke famously argued that goods become private property when a person combines his labor with what he is creating. The fruits of one’s labor are privately owned by the laborer. Because the monster was Victor’s creation, it was not unjust for Victor to drive him away. The monster was a “broken” creation, a three-legged chair if you will, worthy to share in such a chair’s fate.

Others sympathized with the creature. They argued that only non-personal creations, such as chairs, should be created. While the word “begetting” never made its way into the conversation, their argument suggested that personal creatures should be begotten, never made.

As a theological ethicist, I heard what I call the “logic of begetting” in their arguments. Christianity’s central dogmatic creed, for instance, suggests that the logic of begetting is different than that of creating. There we find that the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, “was begotten, not made.” Human parents image God insofar as they beget, but do not create or design, their children. The process of begetting is mysterious, and retains a spirit of openness to whomever the child is because the child is not a manufactured product. Children emerge as gifts to parents. Gifts, Pope Benedict argued in Caritas in veritate, are gratuitously given, and are freely accepted. Because gifts are gratuitously given by the giver, they should never be requested by the recipient. Christians throughout the world have managed to misunderstand this aspect of gifts through the creation of gift “wish lists” regarding Christmas and weddings. How many times have we requested a gift, only to be disappointed to not receive exactly what we wanted? In those moments we evaluate the gift before fully accepting it. At times, we ask the gift giver to exchange the gift for something “better.” In these instances the experience of gifting has been lost. Compare those experiences with the times in which one has been surprised to receive a gift at all. In these moments, moments in which there is no expectation of or request for a gift, we are genuinely moved by the gift, and grow closer to the gift giver as a result. Here we experience the gratuitousness of a true gift and respond with appropriate gratitude for the gift, no matter how small it may be. In these instances we immediately accept the gift without first evaluating the gift’s merits or flaws.

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm, Photo Credit: Theodor von Holst, Wikimedia Commons.

Children should be received in the latter manner, not the former. Parents should freely accept and love their children unconditionally. However, if we design our children, if we “ask” for certain kinds of children, we move away from understanding and accepting our children as gifts. Our acceptance of them becomes conditioned on whether or not they fulfilled the end we intended in creating them.

Although we may be able to edit out the genes at the germline level that code for diseases such as Tay Sachs or Huntington’s, it would be immoral to do so. Germline editing (whether therapeutic or for purposes of enhancement) is morally wrong because it changes the relationship of parents and children from one of begetter-begotten to creator-creature. Frankenstein vividly depicts the dangers of such a relationship. Such a change harms the relationship of parents and children, rendering it more difficult for parents to unconditionally accept and love their children.

The scholars on the “Out of the Lab” podcast repeatedly queried the existence of universal moral norms to guide a cross-cultural ethical analysis of germline editing. I believe that the logic of begetting/gifting is the best candidate for a universal moral norm to guide this analysis. While I have produced this argument from within the Christian tradition, one does not have to be Christian to believe that children should be begotten and should be accepted for who they are, and not who the parents would like the child to be.

Recall that the students who objected to Victor’s actions did not argue that he usurped the role of God, as many Christians have argued regarding gene editing. Nor did they channel Maura Ryan’s important approach in the “Out of the Lab” podcast, where she suggested that the debate ought to consider possible harms to the common good. Their argument did not emerge from religious principles. Instead, these students drew upon a normative account of the relation of parents and children. This account emerged inductively, from the experience of being a child and from the experience of other children. Personal and collective experience shows us that children rightly desire to be received and accepted by their parents as gifts, regardless of their abilities or genetic makeup.


Suggested Further Reading:

Michael Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).

Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions”

Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate

Daniel Daly
Daniel Daly is Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire where he has been on the faculty since 2006. He will join the faculty of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry in the fall of 2019. He received his Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Boston College under the direction of James Keenan, SJ. He serves as the ethicist on the ethics board of the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, NH, and is a member of the Catholic Health Association’s Theologian/Ethicist Committee.
Global Currents article

Muslim Jurists’ Contribution to Islamic Bioethics

San Francisco sculpture of human genome. Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith.

Technological progress represents one of the key characteristics, and concurrently one of the fruits, of modernity. Biomedical sciences and their technological applications in particular have witnessed revolutionary progress from the twentieth century onwards. This progress managed to achieve near-miracles by eradicating some lethal diseases, enabling humans to live longer and also to have a better quality of life in general. However, as rightly put by Thomas Misa, “Technologies interact deeply with society and culture, but the interactions involve mutual influence, substantial uncertainty, and historical ambiguity, eliciting resistance, accommodation, acceptance, and even enthusiasm” (Misa 2003, 3). In their interaction with modern biomedical technologies, Muslim individuals, societies, and countries have had to grapple with questions related to which of these technologies should be resisted, accommodated after modifications, or unconditionally welcomed. Specialists in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), or jurists (fuqahāʾ), were at the forefront of those who tackled these questions from an Islamic perspective. The contribution of Muslim jurists to the emerging field of Islamic Bioethics is so seminal that some critical voices find it unfortunate that there is almost no substantial contribution from other disciplines, including Islamic theology, philosophy, and Sufism.

In this essay, I give a concise analytical review of Muslim jurists’ contributions to Islamic bioethics based on works written in Arabic by Sunni jurists today. I address three main questions: What are the identities of the contributing jurists? How do they address the ethical questions posed by modern biomedical technologies? What are the key challenges that need to be addressed in the future?

Who Are the Main Contributing Jurists?

So far, we have no Muslim jurists who specialize in addressing exclusively bioethical issues. Almost all of them are graduates of Sharia faculties who received training in addressing a wide range of topics that cut across almost all aspects of life including social, political, financial, and bioethical questions through the lens of Islamic jurisprudence. So, unlike the situation in many Western countries where theologians and philosophers will specialize in bioethics and dedicate their whole career to this field, we still have no bioethical jurists or juridical bioethicists in the Islamic tradition. One of the main consequences of this situation is that we do not see any specific interpretive techniques or modes of reasoning which are unique to Islamic bioethics. In their attempts to address bioethical questions, Muslim jurists do not feel compelled to develop any new techniques that go beyond the traditional system of Islamic jurisprudence, as will be explained further in the section below. They are usually confident that the system which helps them answer questions related to modern domains like economics and finance will also do the job with the field of bioethics.

Some of the contributing jurists have engaged with bioethical questions early on in their careers by writing their M.A. theses or Ph.D. dissertations on specific bioethical issues. Because of the relatively new character of these bioethical issues, many postgraduate students are inclined to choose such topics so that they will not run the risk of rehashing what their predecessors have already said on exhausted topics. Some of these works have found their way into wide circulation and have become important references in the field. Just as examples, I refer to the works of Muḥammad al-Shinqītī on medical surgery,[1] Saʿd al-Shuwayrikh on genetic engineering,[2] and Ismāʿīl Marḥaba on biobanks.[3]

Besides these junior jurists, many senior and prominent jurists also write on bioethical issues to show how their long-established expertise will help them address such complex questions in a robust and rigorous way. Just as examples, I refer to the works of Mukhtār al-Sallāmī[4] and Muḥammad Naʿīm Yāsīn[5] on miscellaneous bioethical issues and Muḥammad Raʾfat ʿUthmān[6] on genetics.

How Do Muslim Jurists Address Bioethical Questions?

As mentioned above, the jurists who write on bioethics are generalists who address all types of questions through the lens of Islamic jurisprudence without developing any specific methodology tailored for the field of bioethics in particular. Like the approach to any other issue in Islamic jurisprudence, the jurist usually starts with consulting the main sources, namely the Qur’an and Sunna, looking for relevant scriptural references and then follows with consulting the so-called secondary sources of legislation including those related to induction, deduction, inference, and so forth. Weighing between possible benefits and expected harms, which comes close to the well-known risk-benefit assessment in mainstream bioethics, is one of the most frequently used tools to assess various biomedical technologies from a juristic perspective. In this specific regard, contemporary jurists try to benefit from the relatively new concept of fiqh al-muwāzanāt (lit. “jurisprudence of balancing”) which has roots in classical fiqh.[7]

Because of the novel character of most of the bioethical issues, jurists heavily depend on the mechanism of independent reasoning (ijtihād) where they would independently examine available sources without necessarily adhering to any of the established schools of law in the Islamic tradition. One of the relatively unique aspects of practicing ijtihād in the field of bioethics is that it usually assumes an interdisciplinary character. Because of their educational background, which consists of training exclusively in the Arabic language and in disciplines related to Islam as a religious tradition (the so-called al-ʿulūm al-sharʿiyya), contemporary jurists have hardly had access to biomedical sources. In order to grasp the crux of the bioethical questions at hand, they get external help from biomedical scientists who simplify the biomedical information they need so that they can give informed answers. This mechanism is known in Islamic studies as collective ijtihād, and it was institutionalized by the beginning of the 1980s. Three main transnational institutions took the lead in this regard, namely the Organization of Islamic Sciences (IOMS) based in Kuwait, the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA) based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The three institutions work closely together but they do not necessarily adopt identical positions on the bioethical issues they discuss (Ghaly 2019, 47-51).

What Are the Key Challenges Ahead?

The field of Islamic bioethics has witnessed considerable progress during its five-decade history, thanks to the contribution of Muslim jurists, among others. However, this nascent field still has various challenges ahead that need to be addressed.

Genome Engineering Lab 7. Photo Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, 2018.

First of all, the aforementioned mechanism of collective ijtihād entails serious difficulties. The collaboration between Muslim jurists and biomedical scientists was premised on the idea that the role of scientists would be restricted to providing biomedical and technical information about the issues at hand, whereas developing the Islamic perspective would remain the exclusive right of those who are experts in Islamic normative knowledge, namely the jurists. However, this division of tasks proved to be impractical and often unimplementable during the actual collective deliberations. It is true that some scientists are themselves willing to engage in the process of ijtihād and cross over the boundaries of their discipline by jumping to normative conclusions about how a specific issue should be judged from an Islamic perspective (Ghaly 2015). The real problem, however, seems to lie in the very nature of biomedical sciences. Unlike what Muslim jurists and some scientists think, biomedical information does not only convey value-neutral facts, but often also implies value-laden and normative positions. Additionally, it is true that both jurists and scientists can share common religious beliefs as Muslims, but they belong to different disciplines, each of which has its own terminologies, fact-finding methodologies, ways of reasoning, and also its own biases.

Just to give a concrete example showing how such challenges can affect the communication and collaboration between these two groups, I refer to discussions on the beginning of human life. Within Islamic jurisprudence, determining the beginning of human life is closely tied to the metaphysical concept of the soul, where life would start by the ensoulment of the embryo at a specific moment during pregnancy, a process determined in the Prophetic traditions. On the other hand, determining the beginning of human life in biomedical sciences cannot be based on a metaphysical concept but rather must be based on measurable and verifiable criteria that can be observed and tested through the scientific tools of the physician. Such discrepancies in the epistemology of each discipline created two main divergent approaches. The advocates of one approach were in favor of medicalizing the tool of determining the beginning of human life, and they argued that the recent advances in modern embryology makes dependence on metaphysics in such issues an archaic idea that cannot be part of our modern world. However, the proponents of the other approach could not envisage the possibility of betraying the long-established methodologies of fiqh, where scriptural references including a specified number of days after which ensoulment takes place, cannot be overruled in the name of complying with scientific progress (Ghaly 2012).

Another challenge relates to the scope of interdisciplinarity in contemporary Islamic bioethical discussions. As mentioned above, many critics argue that the Islamic tradition cannot be reduced to the discipline of fiqh only and thus these discussions should be broadened by engaging other Islamic disciplines like theology, philosophy, and Sufism. Additionally, the complexity of questions raised by modern biomedical technology cannot be properly and comprehensively understood by consulting experts in biomedical sciences only. Contributions from other disciplines like medical anthropology, sociobiology, and philosophy of medicine should also take part in these collective discussions. However, the abovementioned issue, resulting from involving biomedical scientists in the process of ijtihād, should forewarn us that broadening the scope of interdisciplinarity may also come with its own challenges.


[1]Muḥammad al-Shinqītī, Aḥkām al-jirāḥa al-ṭibiiya. 2nd ed., (Jeddah: Maktabat al-Ṣaḥābā, 1994).

[2]Saʿd al-Shuwayrikh, Aḥkām al-handasa al-wirāthiyya, (Riyadh; Dār Kunūz Ishbīlya, 2007).

[3]Ismāʿīl Marḥaba, Al-bunūk al-ṭibiyya al-bashariyya wa aḥkāmuhā al-fiqhiyya, (Jeddah/Cairo: Dār Ibn al-Jawzī, 2008).

[4]Mukhtār al-Sallāmī, Al-ṭibb fī ḍawʾ al-īmān, (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 2000).

[5]Muḥammad Naʿīm Yāsīn, Abḥāth fiqhiyya fī qaḍāyā ṭibbiyya muʿāṣira, (Amman; Dār al-Nafaʾis, 2008).

[6]Muḥammad Raʾfat ʿUthmān, Al-Mādda al-wirāthiyya: al-jīnūm, (Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 2009).

[7]See for instance Nājī Ibrāhīm al-Suwayd, Fiqh al-muwazanāt bayana al-naẓariyya wa al-taṭbīq,  (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2002).

Mohammed Ghaly
Mohammed Ghaly is professor of Islam and Biomedical Ethics at the research Center for Islamic Legislation & Ethics (CILE), College of Islamic Studies at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University. During the academic year 2014-2015, he was Visiting Researcher at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, USA. Besides his book Islam and Disability: Perspectives in Theology and Jurisprudence (Routledge, 2010) and the edited volume Islamic Perspectives on the Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Imperial College & World Scientific, 2016), Ghaly is the single author of over thirty peer-reviewed publications.