The Mercy of Prophet Muhammad

September 14th, 2012

Islam is again in the news associated with acts of violence and fanaticism. The death of Chris Stephens, American ambassador to Libya, as a result of an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has shaken not only the United States, but also members of the Muslim community worldwide. My friend Abdallah Omeish, a filmmaker who is visiting Libya, posted on Facebook that the ambassador’s death has been met with shock and grief by everyone he knows in the North African country. As a Libyan American, Abdallah was outraged at how a handful of extremists killed a man that was widely respected by the people of Benghazi. And as a devout Muslim, he was sickened by how the murderers cloaked their vile deeds in the name of Islam.

As a fellow Muslim, I share Abdallah’s revulsion. It is regrettably a feeling that never quite goes away, like a wound that keeps being reopened so that it never properly heals. Ever since I was a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the predominant image of Islam I have seen in the media has been that of a religion steeped in violence and misogyny. A religion of hate and self-destruction. It is an image that is utterly alien to the Islam of love and gentleness I have experienced and lived my whole life. Watching the news is like peering into a bizarro world, where another Islam exists that seems to be the polar opposite of the one that flows in my heart and blood.

The catalyst for the current wave of violence by a handful of extremists in Libya and Egypt has been the release of a small independent film entitled “Innocence of Muslims.” I am of the opinion that it is a film of questionable artistic merit, backed by a group of bitter bigots whose only agenda was to incite hatred and violence by smearing the character of Prophet Muhammad. And yet as an artist and filmmaker myself, I absolutely support the right of these people to say what they want to say. In fact, I encourage them to keep making more such works, as they will actually be doing Islam a great service. I say to those who hate my faith: Make as many films and write as many books as you want insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad. You will only bring more attention to Islam and make it stronger.

Islam is a powerful religion with more than 1.5 billion followers, a faith that continues to grow despite the best efforts of its opponents to crush it (and despite the stupidity of Muslim extremists who dishonor Islam with their brutality). Islam will not be harmed by any film, book or work of art. Indeed, the foolishness of those who seek to denigrate Prophet Muhammad in this fashion is that their work simply inspires more people to learn about the man who founded humanity’s second largest religion. A man whose life was so remarkable that, 1,380 years after his death, it continues to attract enthusiastic converts to his teaching of the oneness of God and the oneness of mankind.

Attacks on the character of Prophet Muhammad are nothing new. The Prophet himself endured insults, persecution and assassination attempts during his lifetime by his opponents. And yet the Prophet showed remarkable restraint against his enemies. At the end of his life, when Islam had grown from a persecuted minority movement to the dominant social and political force in Arabia, the Prophet had the power to avenge himself a thousand times over. But he showed remarkable clemency to his enemies at exactly the moment it matters the most — when he was powerful enough to act with impunity against his opponents, yet offered them forgiveness.

As a Hollywood storyteller, I can say with confidence that the life of Prophet Muhammad is a remarkable tale, more gripping and filled with better surprise twists than “The Lord of the Rings.” I wrote my novel “Mother of the Believers” to tell his story for a new generation and I refer those interested in learning more details of his life to read my book, or biographies by respected authors such as Montgomery WattKaren Armstrong and Barnaby Rogers, among others. What I will share here are two stories that reflect how Muslims remember the Prophet, who is referred to in the Quran as “a Mercy to the Worlds.”

The first story is set in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of Mecca to Muslim forces in 630 C.E. The Prophet had been born in Mecca in 570 C.E. and had received his first revelations from the Angel Gabriel at the age of 40, calling the Arabs to reject polytheism and embrace the One God of Abraham. His critique of the profitable religious cult in Mecca won him many followers from the poor and oppressed classes, and especially among women, who saw him as a champion of their rights in a word where pre-Islamic Arabs often buried infant girls alive. But his teachings earned him the enmity of the ruling class of Mecca, who showered insults and abuse on his followers for over a decade. Finally, in 622 C.E., the Prophet escaped an assassination attempt and was forced to flee to the oasis of Medina, where his followers survived years of military attacks from Mecca meant to annihilate their community.

And yet Islam continued to grow and spread, as it offered a better, more egalitarian way of life than the Meccan cult that served only the wealthy. Eight years after the Prophet fled his home, the beleaguered Meccans surrendered the city to the Muslims who were now the most powerful group in Arabia. The Prophet returned home as absolute ruler, with no fear of reprisal from any of his enemies. The Meccans feared that he would take vengeance on them for 20 years of vicious attacks. The Prophet certainly could have taken revenge; in the cruel world of desert warfare recorded in the books of Old Testament, no one would have been surprised if he killed all of his opponents. And yet he did something that left his enemies flabbergasted.

He forgave them.

The Prophet declared a general amnesty and offered the leaders of Mecca who had fought him positions of honor in the new Muslim community. And most remarkable of all was how he treated Hind, the cruel queen of Mecca who had desecrated the corpse of the Prophet’s beloved uncle Hamza (she had cannibalized Hamza’s liver, an act considered barbaric even by her own people). The Prophet forgave Hind and let her go.

A second story takes place around the same time period, after the Prophet’s victorious unification of Arabia. The Prophet had complex relations with the Jewish tribes of Arabia. When he founded the Muslim community in Medina, he had drawn up a treaty with the Jews of the city, which guaranteed their freedom of religion and sought their alliance against the military attacks from Mecca. But as the Prophet’s power had risen in Arabia, some of the Jewish tribes switched allegiance to the Meccan attackers, leading to warfare between Muslims and Jews. But with the defeat of Mecca, the Prophet sought to repair the breach of trust between the two monotheistic religions and worked for reconciliation. The Jewish chieftain of Khaybar invited the Prophet to a feast to cement better ties moving forward. But not everyone was happy with hosting a banquet in the victorious Prophet’s honor, and one woman of Khaybar poisoned the meal. Several of the Prophet’s companions died, but the Prophet spit out the poisoned food before it could take effect. The assassin was captured and the Prophet asked the woman why she had done this deadly act. She shrugged and responded that Muhammad had defeated her tribe and she was simply avenging them.

The Prophet forgave her and let her go.

Modern critics have attacked Prophet Muhammad for many things. They have attacked the Prophet for having multiple wives, one of whom some have claimed was so young as to be a “child bride.” They have also attacked the Prophet for his military actions at the height of Mecca’s efforts to destroy his community. But as renowned Christian scholar Montgomery Watt has pointed out, the issues that modern opponents use to vilify Prophet Muhammad were never raised as moral problems by his enemies in his lifetime. For example, modern critics of Prophet Muhammad have questioned his sexual propriety in vile terms, calling him a pedophile for his marriage to Aisha, the subject of my novel “Mother of the Believers.” One account claimed that Aisha was only 9 years old at the time of her wedding, but other, more probable, accounts suggest she was between 14 and 19 years of age. Whatever Aisha’s age was, the Prophet’s contemporary enemies never once noted his marriage to her in their vitriolic attacks against him. Neither Arab nor Jewish opponents ever found anything improper about his marriage to a teenage girl who had begun her cycles and could bear children. Indeed such marriages were a matter of survival in a desert world with low life expectancy.

Nor did his enemies have issue with the fact that Prophet Muhammad was polygamous, as polygamy was the norm for that society and many others. Even the Prophet’s opponents understood that his marriages were primarily meant to secure tribal alliances and to take care of widows of his followers who had been slain in battle. The Prophet’s household consisted of about a dozen mostly older women and was embarrassingly modest compared to the harems maintained not only by powerful Arab men of the time, but also by biblical kings. David had at least eight wives and 10 concubines (and probably many more), and his son Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Under such conditions, even the Prophet’s enemies considered his sparse “harem” to be rather monkish and not the trappings of licentiousness.

The Prophet’s military activities have also been subjected to visceral critique in modern day — and yet again were not the basis of criticism in his lifetime. Being forced to fight for his community’s very survival in Medina, the Prophet did indeed engage in warfare, but he showed far more restraint toward his enemies than they showed him (as witnessed by Hind’s cannibalization episode). In one incident, used by bigots to prove the Prophet’s supposed barbarity, the Muslims defeated the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, which had broken its alliance and offered support to their Meccan enemies during a deadly siege that threatened to destroy the entire Islamic community. When the Meccans were finally defeated, the Qurayza were punished for treason according to their own understanding of the Torah. Based on Deuteronomy 20:10-14, the warriors of the tribe were executed, but the women and children spared. While this punishment may seem harsh for some people today, by the moral standards not only of desert Arabia but also of the Bible, such actions were normal in the bitter struggle for survival in a hostile wilderness. Indeed, as Christian scholar Philip Jenkins has written in “Laying Down the Sword,” Prophet Muhammad’s military activities were remarkably restrained compared to the genocidal bloodbaths gleefully endorsed in the Bible, where God’s holy warriors did not spare even women, children or infants.

One can debate forever whether the desperate struggle for survival exonerates these events in the eyes of history. But what cannot be denied is that they happened in a state of extreme danger that the Muslim community was subjected to by its enemies. And the true proof of the moral essence of Islam can be found in this simple fact. When the danger was over, when Prophet Muhammad had won and had absolute power to do with his defeated opponents as he pleased, the Prophet did what no one expected him to do — he forgave his enemies and let them go. The true test of a man’s character is revealed when he has power, and the Prophet’s actions at the height of his power remain a shining example to Muslims and all human beings of taking the higher road when revenge would be easier and perhaps more satisfying.

Fourteen centuries have passed, and the Prophet’s victory continues. Islam has grown from a handful of refugees starving in the wilderness to a faith embraced by billions. The civilization that the Prophet established has transformed the planet and indeed saved it from the Dark Ages that engulfed Europe. Because of Prophet Muhammad’s call for Muslims to “seek knowledge even unto China,” Muslim scientists advanced knowledge of astronomy, medicine and many other fields while Europe was trapped in a culture of superstition and illiteracy. The works of Plato and Aristotle were preserved in Islamic Spain, even as the Church burned their books in Europe as heresy. Countless Jews survived and thrived in Muslim countries even as they were expelled and murdered by Christian pogroms over the centuries. Indeed, as Neil Asher Silberman recounts in his book “Heavenly Powers,” many Jews viewed the initial Muslim conquest of the Middle East as a blessing from God, who had used their Arab cousins to topple the fanatical Byzantine Christians that persecuted Jews and banned them from Jerusalem.

The world is a better place because Prophet Muhammad survived against his opponents and won. And even as the Prophet showed grace and clemency to his enemies, so must his heirs do so today. With the grace of God, Islam is an unstoppable force that will keep growing. That triumph is assured by history, demographics and its inherent attractiveness as a way of life for humanity. No filmmaker, artist, author, musician — or invading army — can destroy Islam. Secure in that knowledge, it is time for Muslims to relax and ignore the daily offenses and insults thrown at them by denizens of the cheap seats. It is time for Muslims to show the powerful confidence that Prophet Muhammad demonstrated when he had won and his enemies trembled at his feet. The power that comes from three simple words.

I forgive you.

 

Women Retake Islam. The Prophet Would Be Proud.

June 20th, 2011

Many fans have asked where I have been for the past few months. I have been a regular blogger for the Huffington Post since 2009, often commenting on issues relating to Islam and the media, which as a Muslim in Hollywood is perhaps appropriate. But I have not written a post since late last year. Partly, I have been focused on balancing my career as a filmmaker and novelist with the needs of my family. But partly I have been just plain exhausted.

As someone who loves Islam, I have often felt drained spiritually and emotionally by the never-ending battle to overcome the false image of my faith. An ugly picture painted by anti-Muslim bigots and Muslim extremists who both embrace an empty and shallow vision of Islam. As a child, I loved reading Greek myths and was in particular fascinated by the tale of Sisyphus, the condemned man who was punished by Zeus by being given a never-ending task. Sisyphus was forced to push a boulder up the side of a mountain and was promised freedom from the underworld once he got the boulder up to the peak. But Zeus had a dark sense of humor. After centuries of toil, Sisyphus would finally manage to inch the boulder up to the mountaintop — only to see it roll back down. And he was forced to start all over again.

I loved that myth — and sometimes I feel I am living it today. Being a defender of Islam in the Western media often feels like a Sisyphean task. Every day there is another drama somewhere in the Muslim community, whether it be another vile act of terrorism committed by evil people in the name of my faith, or an attack by an Islamophobe on some aspect of Muslim religion and values. For years, I have been condemning the former and trying to educate the latter about the true nature of Islam as a vibrant, positive force in the world. And it often feels like my efforts are doomed to failure — the stupidity continues and the discourse about Islam in the media remains controlled by imbeciles among both Muslims and non-Muslims. The story of Islam, like history itself, often feels like just “one damned thing after another.”

So I took a break. I sat back and let the world flow by me in blissful silence. The Arab Spring. The death of the cursed Osama bin Laden. The anti-Muslim “hearings” held by Congress. The growing Islamophobia in America being fed by unscrupulous politicians. I had a lot to say about all of that. And I chose to say nothing.

Perhaps I would have stayed in this stupor of defeat forever. And then my mother came to live with me and reminded me that Islam is a verb. That faith without action is dead.

As my readers may remember, my father passed away last year. His death was peaceful, but very unexpected, and my mother was devastated. After living together for over 40 years, after weathering decades of struggle and pain as immigrants in America, after experiencing both remarkable joy and deep grief as a couple, my mother was suddenly alone. While her children were quick to remind her that she had a loving family to support her, my mother was also quick to respond that none of us children could truly know what it is like to lose a life partner who had been by her side for so many years. And to that we really had no answer, except to offer her our love and a shoulder to cry on.

My parents had a beautiful home in Phoenix, Arizona. But with my father gone, my mother chose to move to Dubai to live with my sisters, who both work there. But after a few months, it became clear that the UAE, despite all its wealth and Westernized luxury, would never truly be home. America was where her heart was. And so my mother came to stay with me in Los Angeles.

The cycle of life is fascinating, and poignant. When I was a child, I was powerless and had to rely on my mother for even the simplest decisions. And now the the roles are reversed. I find myself taking care of her and organizing my life around her needs, even as she once did for me. For a bachelor accustomed to living alone, I was afraid that the transition would be difficult for both of us. And perhaps it would have been if my mother were weak and defeated, as Muslim women are usually portrayed in the media.

But my mother is anything but weak. Like millions of Muslim women worldwide, she is a spitfire. Strong. Confident. Dignified. She is a woman who refuses to let life conquer her, or to be defined by the projections of others. Difficult as she has found her new circumstances, she has refused to be defeated by them, and is focused on rebuilding her life. And the strength she exhibits is founded on her faith.

My mother is the living essence of a Muslim woman. She surrenders to no one except God.

Having had such a strong woman as my role model, it is perhaps not surprising that I have dedicated much of my literary career to telling stories of powerful Muslim women who shatter the old stereotypes of the veil and the harem. My first novel, Mother of the Believers, focused on Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. Aisha has inspired Muslim women for centuries. She was a scholar, a poet, a jurist, a politician and a military commander who led armies. And she was the one woman whom the Prophet was closest to, the one he chose to spend his final hours with, the one who cradled the Prophet’s head as he passed away. And it was under Aisha’s house in Medina that he was buried.

But Aisha is not alone. There have been innumerable Muslim women who have changed the course of history. They include Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, who was 15 years senior to him, a wealthy businesswoman who employed young Muhammad as her caravan leader, and ultimately proposed marriage to him. Khadija, the first convert to Islam and its strongest supporter. She convinced an initially self-doubting Muhammad that his vision of Angel Gabriel was a real spiritual experience, and provided him the emotional and economic support to launch a spiritual movement that would create a global civilization.

Khadija and Aisha were just the beginning, the precursors of great Muslim women such as the Sufi mysticRabia al-Basri who challenged the corruption of the Caliphs of Baghdad in the 8th century. The Turkish slave girl Shajarat al-Durr who became Sultana of Egypt and launched the Mamluk dynasty that halted the Mongol invasion of the West in the 13th century. The iron queen Nur Jahan, Empress of Mughal India, who rivaled Queen Elizabeth I as the most powerful woman on earth.

The stories of these remarkable women are told in my novels, as well as in wonderful books such as The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam by Jennifer Heath. From queens and warriors, to poets and artists, to loving homemakers who serve as the foundation of its civilization, women have been the heart and the driving force of Islam from its beginning.

And they remain so today. Watching my mother take on the new challenges of life with such courage and dignity has reminded me of the inherent power that women bring to Islam and to the world. At a time when both Muslims and non-Muslims cling to foolish and backwards interpretations of the Quran, Muslim women have been at the forefront of the fight for justice and wisdom in the Islamic community.

The recent movement by Saudi women to confront the idiocy of those who would deny them the right to drive is a shining example of courage exhibited by those who know that Islam was revealed to help women, not to hurt or oppress them. Despite some Muslim men’s efforts to interpret the Quran and Islamic law as a vehicle of oppression, Muslim women remember that Prophet Muhammad was by all accounts a feminist. He gave Muslim women the right to own property and inherit, rights denied to their Jewish and Christian sisters by men until the late 19th century. He ended the Arab practice of female infanticide and worked tirelessly to protect widows and orphans in a barbaric desert world.

The Prophet was centuries ahead of the men of his time in his attitudes toward women, and not surprisingly, right after he died, men started rolling back the reforms he began. The Prophet may have been too advanced for the mindset of 7th-century men, but his compassion for women is exactly the model that Muslims in the 21st century need to emulate today.

Many people have called for a “reform” of Islam, but the truth is that Islam needs to be rediscovered, not changed. The deeper one goes into Islamic scholarship, the more the harsh images of Islamic law as a vehicle for stonings and amputations fades away, and is replaced by a surprisingly sophisticated and progressive approach to faith that dates back to its earliest days. Muslims don’t need to throw out their religion and create something new, they need to re-examine the original scriptures and find the original meanings as the Prophet, a man of progressive vision, would have seen them, even if his earliest followers did not always see as far as he did.

This work, of rediscovering the progressive jewel at the heart of Islam, is being led by courageous Muslim scholars today, many of them women. In fact, women have always been scholars of Islam — Aisha herself being a jurist who advised the first Caliphs on matters of Islamic law and practice. And following in her footsteps today are remarkable women such as Prof. Leila Ahmed at Harvard Divinity School who is a leading feminist scholar of Islam; Prof. Amina Wadud and Prof. Asma Barlas, who have produced important scholarship on the Quran as a feminist-friendly scripture; and Prof. Aminah McCloud at DePaul University, a living encyclopedia of Islam who can take on any conservative mullah and win the debate.

Women such as Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, a Sufi writer who was the first American woman to translate the Quran into English. Her translation, The Sublime Qur’an, is moving and captures the scripture’s beauty and ability to inspire both men and women today. Dr. Bakhtiar has often been attacked by conservative Muslim men for her willingness to examine linguistic ambiguities in the Arabic text of the Quran that have been used by men to control or oppress women for centuries. Her scholarship has shown that the text has often been interpreted by later generations in ways the Prophet himself would never have supported. For example, one verse in the Quran (Surah 4, verse 34) has been used for centuries to justify the idea that Islam permits a man to strike a disobedient wife. And yet Ms. Bakhtiar has carefully shown that the original Arabic can correctly be read to indicate “separate from” an unhappy marriage, rather than “hit.” Considering that Aisha herself said that Prophet Muhammad never struck his wives, children or servants, Ms. Bakhtiar’s interpretation is likely the authentic one based purely on the Prophet’s own example. As Aisha also said, the Prophet was the living embodiment of the Quran in practice.

Ms. Bakhtiar’s discussion of how this mistranslated and misread verse compelled her on her spiritual journey to uncover true Islam is fascinating:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=833pm2pOhgw

These Muslim women are engaging in what may appear as a truly Sisyphean task of promoting Islam as a feminist religion at a time when many Muslims and non-Muslims want it to be anything but. By watching their never-ending struggle for truth and justice, I realized that my own weariness in speaking out is unjustified and, frankly, un-Islamic.

As my mother reminds me now every day with her struggle to build a new life without my father, the purpose of existence is to face challenges, not to run away from them. That is why God created us. That is why we are here. Men and women, living in a broken world that needs constant mending. There is no end to this journey, no final moment in this world where all will be perfect and pure. Perfection is for Paradise. But it is our efforts to confront this often ugly and unjust world that make life worthwhile. That is the true meaning of “jihad” — of struggle in the path of God.

I want to thank all the Muslim women out there who continue to follow in our Prophet’s example of speaking truth to power. You are the heirs of our mothers — Khadija, Aisha, and the Prophet’s beloved daughter Fatima.

And I want to thank my own mother for showing me the truth of Prophet Muhammad’s famous words: “Paradise is at the feet of the mothers.”

 

Black Swan and the Tragedy of Perfection

December 5th, 2010

Black Swan is a perfect movie. Intellectually provocative. Emotionally engaging. Sensual. Heart breaking. It is a movie that stays with you for a very, very long time after the credits rise. And for me, it is a movie that serves as a reminder of why I chose to become a filmmaker in the first place. To make art that tears through the barriers of social propriety and speaks truths that the heart needs to hear.

From the first frame, you are swept into the dark and brooding world masterfully crafted by Darren Aronofsky, a director who is at the height of his talent. In an era of digital filmmaking and explosive special effects, Aronofsky shows us again the simple power of old-fashioned grainy film and muted lighting to pull us into another reality. One that reflects the dark shadows of our own minds, the fear that comes from looking into places within our souls that we have locked away and refused to face.

Black Swan follows the journey of Nina, a ballerina played with aching honesty by Natalie Portman. Nina longs to rise to the top of her ballet company and is given the opportunity of a lifetime when the artistic director (Vincent Cassel) casts her as the lead in his new production of Swan Lake. Nina’s role requires her to master two personas – that of the White Swan, a pristine and angelic presence, as well as her nemesis, the Black Swan, a sensual temptress who steals the heart of the White Swan’s lover. The role of the virginal White Swan is easier for the repressed and emotionally controlled Nina. It is the Black Swan that presents Nina her greatest challenge – to break free of her inner walls and embrace the intense power within her. As Nina struggles with the demands of the two roles, the darkness within her own psyche is unleashed as she becomes increasingly convinced that Lily, a new dancer in the company played by Mila Kunis, is maneuvering to take her place.

To be honest, I know nothing about ballet. Like many others who will see this film, I have never taken the time to appreciate the art form, dismissing it as the effete predilection of upper class snobs. Aronofsky is clearly aware of that prejudice, and the one moment he permits us to leave the closed and controlled world of the ballet company, he faces it head on.

The rebellious newcomer Lily convinces a hesitant Nina to go clubbing, and the two ballerinas meet handsome young men who are rather blunt when they find out about the girls’ profession. “Sounds boring,” says one of the guys harshly. His wingman, played by Sebastian Stan who starred in my recent NBC television series Kings, is a little better at his game and manages to feign interest in ballet in the hopes of getting laid. But his face still says it all. Ballet is for uninteresting people leading uninteresting lives.

As Aronofsky shows us over two hours of (literally) nail-biting tension and suspense, he is dead wrong.

Black Swan is full of so many surprises that I hesitate to give more details of the film’s plot for fear of lessening its impact. But I will say that, at its heart, the movie is about the quest for perfection. Nina’s obsession with being perfect – the perfect ballerina, the perfect daughter, the perfect Swan – lead her down an increasingly dark path in which her sanity is threatened and the drums of tragedy thunder with increasing dread.

It is a journey that many of us can understand. It is the terrible price of ambition. Anyone who has ever sought to better themselves knows that with each success comes a hunger for more. Each victory becomes less fulfilling, as it simply points out how many more battles must still be fought. The farther we climb up the mountain of our hopes and dreams, the more infuriatingly distant the peak becomes. We desperately seek to transcend our limitations, only to find that in our quixotic quest for an illusory perfection, we are actually rushing toward an abyss of self-hatred and self-destruction.

As a Sufi mystic, I sense the sacred drive behind that madness for perfection. Sufism, the mystical heart of Islam, teaches that we were all originally one with God in a realm beyond time and space. Our souls were created and lived in a state of divine perfection, where all things were possible, where there were no limitations, just boundless potentialities. And yet our souls chose to leave that state of infinite bliss and enter into the material world, with all of its limitations, suffering and pain. Why? Because perfection was itself a lonely prison.

With everything available to us, we were satiated to the point of despair. No joy of growth, no thrill of overcoming challenges, no way to taste the pleasure of victory over daunting obstacles. It was a state that my brothers in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah call the “bread of shame.” That which is earned too easily has no value. And if one is flooded with gifts without ever experiencing the dignity of earning them through hard work, the gifts become sour and ugly. When all things are available without effort, then nothing has any value.

And so our souls made a fateful decision – to relinquish our inherent divine abilities to manifest instantaneously and to take form in a material world that was bounded by limitation. A cold world that is often hostile and presents dangers to our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives every day. It is a world where suffering and failure are the norm, and one must struggle every day to get by. It is the world of limitation we see around us and within us at every moment.

And yet the Sufis say we chose to come to this valley of tears for a reason. Not to stagnate or wallow in our miseries. But to remember who we actually are, who we always have been – divine souls that are capable of transcending all limitations and manifesting everything our hearts desire. And that longing to rediscover the majesty of our souls, that desire to re-experience oneness with God, is what causes us to lift ourselves above the muck and grime of life and master our circumstances. The quest for perfection is at its core a quest to return to God, our source.

But it is a quest that is fraught with many dangers, the greatest being delusion and obsession. Delusion in not seeing where we really are in the journey, and obsession in trying to force ourselves faster than we are ready or able to go. The quest for mastery is a journey that we each must embark on, but by definition it is the riskiest of all ventures. For in the process of seeking perfection, we are constantly reminded of how we fall short. And unless we can accept that chasm between our ideal and our reality, we can be driven into the depths of despair.

In Islam, there is a belief that all souls must cross over a bridge to Paradise, a bridge that sits right over the gaping maw of the Fire. The bridge is razor thin and one’s actions in life determine whether a soul can cross the tightrope of eternity safely, or whether the soul trips and falls into the abyss.

For Sufis, the lesson of this sober image is that, in seeking to return to Heaven, we must risk falling into Hell.

That dangerous journey into the heart of perfection is the journey of Black Swan. And it is a journey that is perfectly (if I may use that word) embodied by the remarkable Natalie Portman.

Portman brings Nina to life with heart-wrenching authenticity. Her hopes, dreams, foibles, and insecurities are our own. And her terrifying descent into her personal hell makes us face our own inner demons with brutal honesty. There is a widespread belief that Portman will win the Academy Award for best actress for this role. If so, it may be because in this film we finally get a chance to see who she really is on many levels she has hidden from us before.

As I watched the film, I was struck with a strange sensation that this movie was perfectly cast, because I suspect that Portman understands Nina’s painful quest for perfection far more than she has ever been willing to share with the world.

To the public, Natalie Portman lives a charmed life. A movie star since she debuted at the age of 13 in The Professional, Portman went on to graduate from Harvard. Unlike other child stars, she managed to maintain a dignified and private life, excelling in school even as she became part of history’s most valuable film franchise Star Wars, playing the doomed wife of Darth Vader. Portman earned her first Oscar nomination for Closer before she turned 25. And she has dedicated herself to humanitarian causes, including supporting micro-financing opportunities for women in poor countries. Publicly, Portman has the persona of a saint. The image of the perfect girl that can do no wrong.

And yet I have never believed that public persona represented her deeper truth. The challenges of being thrust into the limelight at such a tender age must have weighed deeply on Portman. The added pressure of being held up by the public as an icon of perfection, of not being allowed to be flawed and human like everyone else, is unimaginable. It is a tribute to her inner strength that she has maintained her dignity in a world that sets up idols on a pedestal and then gleefully waits for them to destroy themselves. And yet I have no doubt that there are moments when this talented young woman has wanted to break free of the expectations around her, to free herself from the myth of “Natalie Portman” and write her own destiny as a real, living human being, warts and all.

I believe that inner struggle is what we are privileged to watch in Black Swan. The struggle of a young woman facing the demons of perfection, of confronting the expectations of her family, peers and mentors. In my experience in Hollywood, I have found that many actors use their craft as a means of hiding who they really are from the world as well as from themselves. In taking on this role, Natalie Portman has done the most intimate and risky thing for an actor – revealing naked truths that may very well reflect the deepest core of her own being.

Black Swan is a tragedy because it reveals the tragedy of the human condition. The tragedy of longing to return to a home that we ran away from and that is now always just one step ahead of us, like the end of a rainbow. We are children of the Sun, and like Icarus, we long to fly back to our origins. But the melting wings of human frailty bring us always crashing back to earth.

So if perfection is not possible, attainable, or even desirable, what is the purpose of our lives?

To answer that, like any good Sufi, I will share a story.

An American woman who embraced Sufism went on a journey to the Muslim world to find a shaykh, a mystical teacher who could guide her on her spiritual path. She told the shaykh that she sought the perfection that came from unity with God. The shaykh nodded and told her that her first step on the journey would come once she mastered a simple earthly task, such as grooming a horse. He took her to the stable and gave her a brush. The woman diligently spent hours carefully brushing the mane and coat of the shaykh’s favorite horse.

At the end of the day, the shaykh returned and she showed him her work. He frowned and pointed out how many tiny hairs were still out place. Looking closer, the woman realized he was right. She vowed to do better the next day. After spending many more hours carefully and lovingly caressing the horse with the brush, she showed the shaykh her work. He shook his head, frustrated. Yet again he pointed out tiny flaws in the horse’s coat. She really needed to do better.

This went on day after day, and the woman began to despair. Every day she showed the shaykh her work, and every day he found it imperfect. After several months, when the shaykh yet again dismissed her brushing as inadequate, the woman exploded in fury.

“Dammit! It’s good enough!”

The shaykh turned to her with a smile, his eyes twinkling.

“You have finally passed the test.”

Thank you Darren Aronofsky for gifting the world with your remarkable film Black Swan. And thank you, Natalie Portman, for the courage to show us the truth in your performance. Perfection is an illusion.

As we Sufis say: “There is great beauty in the idea of the rose. There is greater beauty in the rose as it actually appears, with all of its flaws.”

Digging Up Muslim Graves

September 27th, 2010

I buried my father a few days ago in a Muslim cemetery outside of Phoenix, Arizona. He passed away unexpectedly in his sleep in the last few days of Ramadan. My mother, sisters and I were devastated. My father was a gentle man who never raised his voice much less his hand against anyone, and lived his life according to one essential truth – Islam is about loving your neighbor.

And so when I read about the townsfolk of Sidney, New York trying to force their Muslim neighbors to dig up their local cemetery, I knew I had to say something.

A local Sufi group in Sidney received permission from the town to bury Muslim dead on their private property in 2005. This tiny cemetery has stood for years without incident. But with the recent onslaught of Islamophobia gripping the country, local politicians have decided to ride the wave of bigotry. Town supervisor Bob McCarthy has led a movement to get the Muslims to dig up their “unauthorized” cemetery. When asked what law prohibited the Muslims from having a burial site on their own land, his response was: “I don’t know what the exact law is.”

In fact, there is no law in New York prohibiting grave sites on private property. So the town leaders have gotten their attorneys to parse through law books to find something they could use to unearth the Muslim graves. The closest they have come is an obscure regulation that prohibits cemeteries on mortgaged land. The Muslim group is now trying to either subdivide their property to exclude the graves, or pay off their remaining mortgage (under $200,000) to prevent their loved ones from being torn from their final resting places.

Among those calling for the removal of the Muslim cemetery are “Tea Party” supporters who have suggested that the Muslim group is a “for profit” venture and should be denied First Amendment religious protection. Property rights don’t seem to matter much to these alleged champions of liberty when Muslims are involved.

The hatred evident in this small-town drama is so clear and shocking that it truly gives me pause as to where the people of this great country are going. I have been saddened by the rising anti-Muslim mania in the past few months because this isn’t the America I grew up in, nor the one the Founders fought and died for.

It is not the country my father immigrated to in 1976 – exactly two hundred years after the American Revolution. An America that he loved because it provided him economic opportunities and freedoms that he couldn’t find in his native country of Pakistan. An America that didn’t care what his religion or ethnicity was and gave him the chance to follow his dreams. An America that allowed his son to rise from poverty to become a successful Hollywood filmmaker and novelist.

As my fellow Americans turn more and more away from their principles and embrace the passions of a xenophobic mob, I question whether that country is gone forever. Whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has failed Lincoln’s hopes and has indeed perished from the Earth.

This cemetery incident is just the latest in the “summer of hate” that reached its zenith with the shrill cries against the Park 51 Muslim community center in Manhattan. A center built by liberal Muslims to promote an Islam of peace and brotherhood became re-imagined in the delusional eyes of bigots as a “victory mosque” built by Muslim extremists in honor of Al-Qaeda.

What is fascinating and telling about both incidents is that those who have been targeted by the fear mongers are Sufi Muslims, mystics who celebrate God as the spirit of Love. The Sufis are the polar opposites of Al-Qaeda and its band of murderers, promoting a progressive Islam that embraces other religions warmly and seeks human reconciliation rather than conflict. Muslim fundamentalists have been attacking Sufis for centuries, as their brand of progressive Islam outshines the ugly corruption of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote. And now the Muslim fundamentalists’ war against Sufism has been joined by fanatics of other religions and communities.

Anyone who has read the beautiful Sufi poetry of Rumi (ironically, the best selling poet in America today) will find an Islam of humility, of compassion, of love for women and reverence for the divine feminine, of not just tolerance, but joyful embrace of other religions. It is an Islam of music, of smiling faces, of laughter and companionship, not a dour Islam of anger and cruelty. This is the true heart of Islam that allowed the religion to succeed and become a global civilization, despite the best efforts of fundamentalists to poison the faith with violence and stupidity.

This Islam of love, not the Islam of hate, is what is being rejected by people like the town leaders of Sidney and the opponents of Park 51. It is this very Islam that is the greatest threat, because it is like clear water. It reflects back the truth of those who look upon it. And the bigots only see their own ugliness mirrored back to them. In demanding that Muslims dig up their graves, the leaders of Sidney have only unearthed the graves of their own hearts and revealed all the rot and decay within their own souls.

For Muslims, respect for the graves of every community is central to our faith. Prophet Muhammad once was seated with his followers when he saw a Jewish funeral procession pass by. The Prophet immediately stood up out of respect. His followers were startled – the dead man was a Jew, and there were political tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities of Arabia at the time. But the Prophet simply turned to them and said: “Was he not a human being?” Indeed, today the ancient Jewish cemetery of Medinaremains intact and preserved, despite the harsh fundamentalism of the current Saudi government and its discriminatory practices toward non-Muslims.

But respect for graves is not just a Muslim value. It is a universal human belief that how we treat the dead reveals the character of our community. When an ancient Muslim graveyard was demolished in Jerusalem to build the ironically named “Museum of Tolerance,” Jews and Christians joined with their Muslim neighbors to protest this lack of respect for the dead.

As I have learned in recent days, death is an unveiling. Truths are revealed at the end that were hidden at the beginning. And how we choose to close the door on the past defines what awaits us in the future.

When my father passed away, I was asked to perform a central Muslim burial ritual. I bathed his body with my hands before we lowered him into the earth. It was one of the most intimate and powerful experiences of my life. As I cleaned his corpse with loving attention, I remembered all the times that he would bathe me with such love when I was a child. It was a final act of love, of farewell, that I will carry with me to my own grave.

America now has a choice as to which path will define its character. If we retain our sense of honor and common decency, we will continue to be the men and women that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have embraced.

But if we choose hatred for both the living and the dead, then I can only say this. In digging up the graves of our neighbors, we dig one for our own civilization.

The ADL and the Cordoba House Mosque

August 1st, 2010

People often ask me what it is like being one of the first Muslims to succeed in Hollywood. There is always a hint of surprise in their tone, as if they never expected to meet a Muslim who has made strides in the entertainment industry. Because the real question they are asking is a more uncomfortable one: “How have you managed to survive in a town filled with Jews?”

My response is one that usually takes them aback. I tell them that the only people who have helped me to succeed in Hollywood are Jews. It was Jewish studio executives who gave me my first writing breaks, and Jewish writers, directors and producers have served as mentors and allies over the past decade. Without the help of Jews, this Muslim would still be writing scripts in a café somewhere, desperately hoping to find a way to break into Hollywood.

Others are surprised when I say that, but I am not. I grew up in Borough Park, a primarily Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and most of my close friends over the course of my life have been Jews. Despite our often passionate disagreements about Middle Eastern politics, my Jewish friends and I always find common ground in our shared experience of being a religious minority in a predominantly Christian country.

Both American Jews and American Muslims know what it is like to feel out of place, to long for inclusion in a mainstream society that is often filled with ignorance and hate for our faiths. We know what it is like going to elementary school and being reviled by our classmates for not believing that Jesus is the Son of God. We know what it is like being mocked for having different customs at home, for celebrating holidays that our Christian neighbors have never heard of (and often can’t pronounce). We know what it is like to be preached to every day by neighbors trying to convert us and “save our souls.” We know what it is like to be told that our religion is inferior to Christianity by people who do not understand even the most basic tenets of our faiths (as well as their own).

Despite the real political differences that exist over Middle East policy between members of our communities, we have a common bond of being outsiders, of being the misunderstood “other” in a Christian world. And that common bond has always allowed me to transcend political differences with my Jewish friends and meet them on the field of shared loneliness that is the lot of those who are different.

And that is why it breaks my heart to watch a respected Jewish organization like the Anti-Defamation League fall into the abyss of anti-Muslim bigotry over the past several years. Many Americans, including many Jews, have expressed shock at the ADL’s recent announcement that it sides with bigots and fear-mongers who oppose the building of the Cordoba House Islamic center in southern Manhattan.

Regrettably, I am not surprised. The ADL, which was founded in 1913 as a powerful voice against religious discrimination in America, has over the past decade become increasingly xenophobic toward the Muslim community, which its leaders seem to view as a threat to Jews due to its lack of support for Israel. As a Christian friend who works in the Obama Administration lamented to me recently, the ADL has in essence become the “Pro-Defamation League” when it comes to Islam and Muslims.

The recent comments by Abraham Foxman, National Director of the ADL, against the proposed Muslim community center in New York are the latest in a long line of incidents where members of the ADL have promoted bigotry and discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. In 1993, the ADL illegally spied on American citizens who had spoken out in sympathy with Palestinians, generating a list of 10,000 names of private citizens and over 600 groups in their files, and then selling the list to South African intelligence agents.

The ADL was sued for violating privacy rights and settled out of court. But the organization did not learn its lesson. Through the past decade, it has regularly organized smear campaigns around Muslim leaders and conferences, falsely imputing terrorist sympathies to some of the most moderate and respected leaders of the community.

In one of its ugliest campaigns, the ADL protested the right of Muslim college students at UC Irvine to wear graduation stoles that carried the Shahada, the basic testimony of Islamic faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger.” The ADL claimed that the Muslim students were supporting terrorist groups like Hamas by wearing a common symbol of their religion. As a Muslim, I was left absolutely stunned at the stupidity of this argument. It was the equivalent of trying to bar Christian students from wearing crosses because the cross is a symbol that has been used by Christian extremists like the Crusaders and the Ku Klux Klan! The ADL was forced to apologize and retract its statements that the Shahada was “an expression of hate.”

To be fair, the ADL has in a few instances spoken up in defense of Muslim civil rights, notably when the topic of Israel is not involved. The ADL publicly denounced the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia and criticized the Swiss government for amending the constitution in 2009 to prevent the building of mosque minarets.

But the preponderance of its actions over the past decade have made it clear that when Muslim grievances against Israel are raised, the ADL will firmly side with its co-religionists rather than adhere to its underlying mission of standing for justice and equality for all humanity. On some level, perhaps that is understandable, if not excusable. But what is particularly shocking about the recent statements against the Cordoba House is that the ADL appears to have moved from a knee-jerk defense of Israel to an aggressive stance attacking American Muslims even when there is no criticism of Israel involved.

I have written at length on the Huffington Post about the founders of the Cordoba House and how they represent progressive Islam and embrace people of all religions, including Jews. I know Daisy Khan personally and she is a gracious and gentle woman who espouses love and wisdom, not hate. The writings of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf continue to inspire me and countless mainstream Muslims to improve our communities and defeat the extremists that threaten to corrupt Islam from within.

The opponents of the Islamic Center have gone out of their way to vilify and defame these honorable people, who are leaders of the moderate Islam that the media is always claiming doesn’t exist. Muslim leaders like Daisy Khan and Imam Abdul Rauf have endured with great dignity the double-pronged attack from their enemies. First, the media spreads the lie that Muslim leaders like them do not speak out against terrorism. And when they do speak out, they are either ignored or lumped in with the very extremists they are fighting. The Cordoba House is exactly the voice of moderate Islam that needs to be highlighted at a time when Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim bigots both want Islam, a spiritual path of great beauty, to be seen as a religion of hate and death.

But what is particularly painful for me as a Muslim is to watch how a group like the ADL, born out of the horrible experience of anti-Semitism and bigotry in America, can so easily turn its back on its heritage in order to join forces with the voices of hate and division. If any community knows what it is like to be branded with false stereotypes, to have the innocent condemned as guilty, it is the long-suffering Jewish people. To have its leaders now embrace the mindless, drunken crowd in its march of hate against a fellow religious minority’s right of worship, it is beyond obscene. And it is a fundamental rejection of everything that Judaism stands for.

In my latest novel, Shadow of the Swords, I delve deeply into the character of Maimonides, the great Jewish rabbi, who was friend and advisor to the Muslim sultan Saladin during the Crusades. In examining the experience of Maimonides, a Jew living as a minority among Muslims, I sought to demonstrate the ancient sympathy and understanding that Jews and Muslims had for each other at a time when both were being targeted by Christian persecutors. And I sought to share with my readers that the tenets of Judaism have always stood for social justice, mercy and wisdom, and that this ethical commitment served as a link of common understanding between Judaism and Islam at a time when Christianity stood for ignorance, murder and barbarism.

People who have read my book have expressed wonder at how two communities that were once intimate friends have become so estranged in the past century. The reasons for these modern divisions are long and complex, and are mainly linked to the trauma of Western colonization of the Muslim world, and the horrific experience of the Palestinians as a result of the creation of Israel that was the byproduct of that colonial history. Despite efforts by some Christians and Jews (as well as extremists among Muslims) to portray the current tensions between these communities as rooted in theological and cultural foundations, the reality is that Jews and Muslims historically got along much better than either group did with European Christians. When the Spanish Inquisition expelled Jews from Spain, where they had thrived under Muslim rule for 800 years, Spanish Jews found refuge in the Muslim Ottoman Empire and rose to positions of great economic and political power.

What the current leadership of the ADL does not understand is that there is no ancient enmity between Jews and Muslims. If many Muslims have problems with Israel today, that arises from real grievances about the treatment of Palestinians, not inherent hatred for Judaism in Islamic culture. What the ADL appears to fear is that as Muslims become part of the American fabric of life, that their critiques of Israel will lead one day to United States abandoning its long-term ally. This fear is, frankly, insane.

There is a place for dialogue, debate and disagreement about Middle Eastern politics among American citizens, and that discussion will not threaten Israel’s existence. As President Obama made abundantly clear in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo last year, the bond between the United States and Israel is “unbreakable.” So Abraham Foxman should relax and take a breath. Muslim empowerment in the United States will not lead to a second Holocaust. Muslims praying at mosque in New York City will not lead to death camps and mass extermination of the Jewish community.

Muslim voices joining the public forum will not add to anti-Semitism in America. But if the Jewish community is seen as willing to join in discrimination against innocent Americans to promote its own agenda – that perception will fulfill every anti-Semite’s ugly and false perception of the Jewish community as a self-serving and hypocritical group that only cares about its own pain and not the pain of others.

That ugly vision is not the Judaism I studied in college, the Judaism of Maimonides and Martin Buber, nor does it reflect the Judaism that I have experienced in my relationships with Jews all my life. But it appears to be the cheap and unworthy vision of the ADL leadership, and as such dishonors the Jewish legacy to this world.

The Judaism that I admire, that I write about in my novel, is the true Judaism of love for mankind, of humility before God, of service and compassion. It is the Judaism that stands for the rights of the weak and the oppressed against the arrogance of those in power. It is the Judaism of Moses standing in defiance of the Pharaoh on behalf of a group of powerless slaves.

It is the Judaism of Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest religious visionaries of all time. Decades before Jesus Christ proclaimed the Golden Rule, Rabbi Hillel is famed for his response to a questioner who wanted to know the essence of Judaism, of the Torah, in the time it took him to stand on one foot. Hillel responded that the whole of the Torah could be summarized in one sentence.

“Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you.”

To Mr. Foxman and the rest of the ADL leadeship, I ask if in your hearts you would want people to accuse innocent Jews of being enemies of the state? Would you want Jews to accept vilification of their entire religion if a handful of Jews ever did something wrong? Would you want Jews to tacitly accept the lies that bigots had projected on to them? And finally, would you want Jews to be forced to shut down their synagogues because of the misguided passions of a mob?

Would you want this done to Jews?

If the answer is no, then I ask as your Muslim brother that you follow the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel and the sages of Judaism.

Do not do the same hateful thing to my people.

Anwar al-Awlaki: The Jim Jones of Islam

May 23rd, 2010

As a Muslim and as an American, let me say this loudly and clearly — Anwar al-Awlaki is a servant of evil and a traitor both to Islam and to America. He is intent on misleading the world by spreading the lie that Islam permits the killing of civilians. It does not.

Prophet Muhammad forbade the killing of non-combatants and reacted with horror when he heard of civilian deaths on the battlefield. In order to expound his own political agenda, Al-Awlaki is defaming the Prophet and the global Muslim community, which rejects terrorism. And in the process, he is revealing himself to be a modern Jim Jones – a narcissist creating a death cult.

In 1978, Jim Jones led 900 of his devoted followers to mass suicide by forcing them to drink cyanide mixed in a fruit beverage. The term “drinking the Kool-Aid” has since become synonymous with people who blindly follow their leaders to their doom. And it is clear that al-Awlaki’s followers are very much drinking his brand of Kool-Aid. Indeed, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was apparently a follower of al-Awlaki before he turned on his fellow soldiers in an orgy of murder. Like Jim Jones, al-Awlaki has remarkable charisma and uses it to lead his followers down a very dark path.

I say all of this with great grief. Al-Awlaki was once a highly regarded Muslim scholar who taught a message of peace and brotherhood. But his story is like that of the archetypal villain of the movie Star Wars – Anakin Skywalker, a defender of justice, who devolves into Darth Vader, a monster who cares only for his own twisted quest for power.

I have never met al-Awlaki, but those who have tell me that in his early days as a preacher, he espoused a moderate Islam based on scholarship and appreciation for Muslim history. Yet after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Alwaki began to change. He began to see the world in a binary “us versus them” outlook – the hallmark of fundamentalism. After being detained by the Yemeni government in 2006 (apparently under American pressure), he appears to have left his moderate past behind him and embraced a dark vision of Islam at perpetual war with America – and became its most passionate scholarly advocate.

Al-Awlaki’s story could be dismissed as the sad tale of a good man who became lost. And yet his personal moral decline has greater consequences. For he built up a widespread and devoted following among Muslims in his heyday – and is now in a position to brainwash many of his followers into following his own descent into darkness.

When I have publicly criticized al-Awlaki, I have received emails from his devotees saying that he is being “set up” by the US government. And yet when I ask them what they mean by this, there is always pin-drop silence. His followers seem to want to believe that the good, charismatic man that they adore is somehow being falsely portrayed in the media as a villain as part of some “Psy Ops” manipulation game. And yet when I ask if someone else is posting his increasingly radical and extremist sermons through his website (a CIA agent posing as al-Awlaki, let’s say), there is more silence. It is as if his followers want to keep clinging to the man he once was and selectively ignore his recent calls for the murder of civilians in the name of Islam.

Like Jim Jones, a personality cult has formed around al-Awlaki. It is a personality cult that is blinding his followers into a series of non-sequiturs and conspiracy theories that allow them to overcome the cognitive dissonance of reconciling the good scholar they once knew and the deranged and hateful man he has become.

There is a word for that kind of personality cult in Islam – idolatry. If there are any Muslims out there that believe that a man should be followed unquestioningly, even when his words violate basic Islamic teachings, then they have committed shirk, the worst sin in Islam – ascribing a partner to God. They have given their devotion to a false god, a fallible human being rather the infallible Creator, the Merciful and Compassionate, the Lord of the Worlds, whose moral commandments cannot be rationalized away by men.

I was sickened and outraged by al-Awlaki’s recent video, where he rationalized terrorist plots to blow up airplanes, saying that the deaths of civilians are just “a drop of water in the sea.” Similar rationalizations were used by pre-Islamic Arabs who practiced female infanticide, burying their newborn baby daughters alive. Such innocent lives were also simply “drops in the sea” for a pagan culture obsessed with male progeny. But when the Holy Qur’an put an end to this barbarism, it said that on the Day of Judgment, the innocent girls will rise from their graves and confront their murderers, and God will ask: “For what crime was she killed?” (Surah 81:8-9) And then the murderers’ excuses will vanish and they will be flung into Hell.

The God of the Qur’an is the God of life, of mercy, of justice. A God that says “no soul shall bear the burden of another” (53:38) when confronted with moral relativists that believe in “guilt by association” and collective punishment.

If Muslims wish to find a true example in their history of a noble warrior, they should turn away from this false teacher al-Awlaki and look at the example of Saladin, the great Muslim leader who conquered Jerusalem in 1187 C.E.

In my new novel, Shadow of the Swords, I show how, despite calls for collective punishment against the Christians of Jerusalem for the crimes of the Crusaders, Saladin showed mercy to the populace. He let the Christian population remain unmolested and gave them freedom of worship and pilgrimage to their holy sites. When Richard the Lion Heart led the Third Crusade to expel the Muslims, Saladin treated his enemy with stunning generosity. When Richard fell ill, Saladin sent his personal doctor to tend to the enemy king. When Richard’s horse was killed in battle, Saladin sent his personal horse to his adversary as a gift.

Saladin’s acts of honor and wisdom single-handedly shattered the negative image that many Christians held of Muslims. And for this, he is lauded by both Christian and Muslim historians as a true statesman and moral leader.

I ask any follower of al-Awlaki – which is the greater example you wish to be associated with? The example of your “teacher” who calls you to turn into monsters without empathy? Or Saladin, who reminded the world that Islam stood for justice and moral restraint, not barbarism and rationalization of murder? If you have any hesitation about the right answer here, then you have left your religion and become the very evil that anti-Muslim bigots have long claimed Islam represents.

The confusion al-Awlaki has created among Muslims is in many ways far more insidious than that of his fellow madman, Osama Bin Laden. For Bin Laden does not claim to be – and is not – an Islamic scholar. Bin Laden’s calls for attacking the West are not steeped in Islamic scholarship, but in a rather crude “eye for an eye” philosophy that says since Americans are killing Muslim civilians, Muslims have a right do the same in return to American civilians. Bin Laden has little understanding of, or interest in, Islamic jurisprudence, primarily because he finds its rules against murdering civilians to be inconvenient. Therefore Bin Laden’s appeal is really based on an emotional bait-and-switch. Get Muslims riled up about all the injustices they have experienced so that they follow him – and not ask too many questions about the justice of his own movement.

But al-Awlaki’s brand of evil is far more sinister. As a trained Muslim scholar, he is an expert in perverting traditional Islamic teachings with strange analogies that have no historical basis, such as his self-serving argument that Americans elected and pay taxes to a government that kills Muslims, so all Americans are complicit and are lawful targets of revenge. Aside from the fact that this is a nonsensical leap of logic, it ignores what Prophet Muhammad himself did when faced with the opportunity for collectively punishing a population for the crime of its leaders.

In my novel Mother of the Believers, I discuss how, when the Prophet defeated Mecca, he was in a position to unleash vengeance on the city that had driven him out and killed his family and friends. And yet the Prophet, to his enemies’ surprise, instituted a general amnesty and not only forgave the general populace, which under al-Awlaki’s argument was complicit in Mecca’s war against Islam, but also its leadership that organized the war. The lords of Mecca – including the villainous queen Hind, who had cannibalized the Prophet’s uncle as an act of terror – were forgiven and incorporated into the new Muslim state as leading citizens.

So I ask the followers of al-Awlaki again – what vision of Islam do you wish to follow? The false Islam of collective punishment claimed by your “teacher”? Or the magnanimous Islam of mercy and wisdom lived by Prophet Muhammad?

Al-Awlaki’s credentials as a former religious scholar are troubling and dangerous. But it should be noted clearly that al-Awlaki does not represent the face of mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, in his own country of Yemen, there is a remarkable Muslim scholar who has dedicated his life to defeating extremism – Hamoud al-Hitar, a Yemeni judge who deprograms terrorists by teaching them the truth about Islam.

Judge al-Hitar is living proof of the power of true Islam to defeat the false Islam of the extremists, of light to overpower darkness. Al-Hitar works with the Yemeni government to counsel Muslim extremists who have been brainwashed by men like al-Awlaki. He talks to them about the Holy Qur’an and traditional Islamic law, and demonstrates to them – line by line, point by point – why terrorism is a violation of Islam’s basic teachings. Remarkably, al-Hitar has deprogrammed over 300 extremists and is said to have even won over high-level Al-Qaeda agents, who have repented and turned on their leaders.

Al-Hitar served as the basis of a character I wrote for an episode of the Showtime television series Sleeper Cell. A clip from that episode has been uploaded onto You Tube and has become a global phenomenon, for it shows how a Muslim scholar like al-Hitar argues with – and proves wrong – an al-Qaeda extremist.

I ask the followers of al-Awlaki to look at the clip and let the truth of its arguments – coming straight from the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad – touch their hearts.

If you still prefer the false words of your “teacher” over the truth of Islam’s message of peace and beauty, then there is no hope for you, any more than there was for the many misguided souls who followed Jim Jones to their destruction.

With the forces of evil now cloaking themselves in the garb of righteousness, there are two paths before the Muslim community. One of light and one of darkness. And of this moment, the Holy Qur’an says:

“God is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. But of those who reject faith, their patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the Fire, to dwell therein.” (2:257)

My fellow Muslims, the choice between light and darkness is yours.

The Mosque by Ground Zero: A Lesson from the Crusades

May 16th, 2010

Nine years after September 11, 2001, we are still facing one fundamental question. Who is our enemy? There are two answers. One based in the truth. One based in a lie.

One answer is that Islam itself is the enemy of America and Western civilization. That all Muslims are terrorists, or at least sympathetic to the use of terrorism to advance their political agendas. After years of hearing news stories about Muslim terrorists from the shoe bomber to the underwear bomber to the Times Square bomber, it is completely understandable that many Americans find that answer to be a simple statement of obvious fact.

It is an understandable perspective. And it is a complete lie.

The truth is that our enemy is actually a small group of radical, sociopathic and extremely dangerous individuals who happen to call themselves Muslims. The vast, vast majority of 1.5 billion Muslims have nothing to do with this extremist death cult that makes a mockery of their faith. This global Muslim community is in fact our most effectively ally against these monsters that seek to destroy both America and mainstream Islam – it was a Muslim vendor that tipped off the police about the suspicious SUV in Times Square, a fact that remains unknown to most Americans.

Of course, the lie is easier to believe and requires one only to sit back and look at the surface of events, rather than take the time and effort to dive beneath the stormy waters of the news to learn what is really going on in this world. Truth is a treasure that is often buried in a minefield of complex facts that is just too much trouble to explore for most people. And so the lie continues that Islam itself is the enemy, that Muslims are collectively responsible for the handful of terrorist serial killers that claim to be one of them.

The conflict between the truth and the lie is now reaching its apex in the public sphere of the media, which profits from the Manichean worldview of “us versus them.” The announcement by the Cordoba Initiative, a progressive, peaceful Muslim group, that it plans to build an Islamic Center two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York has finally brought this conflict out into the open.

Predictably, politicians and media blowhards are seizing on this development to cry out that “the terrorists have won.” Congressman Peter King (R-NY) calls the plans for the mosque “offensive and wrong.” Brian Kilmeade on Fox & Friends asked whether it was “almost taunting to put a community center right by the attack perpetrated by a group of extremist Muslims.” And Steve Doocy (also on Fox) questioned whether the mosque’s presence was “a great insult.”

These are also the same individuals in the media who have perpetuated the lie that Muslims are not speaking out or fighting against terrorism. So when a progressive Muslim group like the Cordoba Initiative arises, its existence is problematic for the black-and-white worldview of the Islamophobes. When a Muslim group stands tall and says it rejects terrorism and wants to create an Islamic Center dedicated to building bridges of love and community between people of faiths, its existence provokes outrage. For the very presence of a progressive, peaceful mosque near Ground Zero invalidates the claim by both the Muslim fanatics and their mirror images among the anti-Muslim bigots that America and Islam are enemies.

I promise you, Al Qaeda and its supporters have no love for the Cordoba Initiative, which they view as a bunch of weak, liberal Muslims who are putting out the fire of their twisted vision of jihad and replacing it with calls for brotherhood with “infidels.” I know this from personal experience. After I published my first novel on the birth of Islam, Mother of the Believers, I received death threats from Muslim extremists, who see me as a traitor and apostate, using my position in the media to promote peace rather than a war of civilizations. And at the same time, I have been flooded by emails from Islamophobes who like to believe that I am some kind of sleeper agent infiltrating Hollywood to promote a false vision of a peaceful Islam while hiding my true “Islamist agenda.”

So I understand the pain of the organizers of the mosque, who are now forced to defend their integrity from all sides. Good people like Daisy Khan, whom I know and admire, and progressive Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who must endure insults from extremists in all camps that do not wish to see a mosque dedicated to supporting peace and fighting fundamentalism.

But let me make one thing clear — as an American, I really do understand why there is outrage over the building of this mosque near Ground Zero. I remember walking around in a daze that terrible day in 2001 when fire rained from the sky, trying desperately to get in touch with family and friends in New York to see if they were alive. I know that most of those who express revulsion to the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero are coming from an authentic place of sincere emotion. They naturally equate the terror of September 11th with Islam, because the murderers themselves that day did that.

But I also know that these monsters had no more to do with my faith than the Crusaders did with true Christianity.

And it is instructive to look back to the Crusades, another time Muslims and Christians were trapped in a “holy war” whose legacy would poison relations between these two religions of Abraham for centuries. When we examine the history of the Crusades, we find remarkable parallels with events in the news today. A civilization that was the global leader in art, science, education and culture was forced to repel vicious attacks from impoverished and backwards countries, led by fanatics targeting innocent civilians in the name of God. But in those days, the advanced civilization was Muslim and the terrorists were Christian.

In my upcoming novel, Shadow of the Swords, I examine the Crusades from a Muslim point of view. I begin with a terrifying memory of the First Crusade in 1099 C.E., which remains very much imprinted on Muslim cultural history. A time when Christian warriors descended on Jerusalem and slaughtered its 70,000 inhabitants – men, women and children. Muslim civilians were butchered in the name of Christ, along with Arab Christians who had the misfortune of being dark skinned and looking like “the enemy.” The Jews of Jerusalem were herded by the Crusaders into the city’s main synagogue and burned alive. According to the Crusader’s own chroniclers, the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood in rivers.

But the annihilation of the civilian population of Jerusalem was not the worst crime of the Crusaders. In the village of Ma’arra, Crusaders cannibalized the local population – eating men, women and children in an orgy of horror that has never been forgotten by the Islamic world. To this day, the Crusaders are referred to in the Middle East as “the cannibals.”

I think any Christian who reads this will be revolted by the sordid story, and will automatically denounce these monsters as having nothing to do with Christianity — even though the Crusaders would have disagreed. To these medieval terrorists, their brand of horror was true Christianity, of which they were proud. Incredible as it sounds, these barbarians sincerely believed they were doing the will of Christ.

The Crusaders were, of course, wrong. And despite the scars these terrorist acts left on the Muslim psyche, Muslims have never blamed the entire Christian community for the actions of these monsters, nor do Muslims today believe that mainstream Christians are of the same character as the Crusaders.

And the proof that Muslims always understood the difference between these vile “Christian” terrorists and true Christianity can be seen in how the Muslims chose to treat the Christians of the Holy Land after the Crusader kingdom was defeated in 1187 C.E. Saladin, the Muslim leader who retook Jerusalem after the pivotal battle of Hattin, was in a position to avenge the horror perpetrated by the Crusaders, not just a century before, but in his contemporary times. For the Crusader kingdom was still led by vicious killers, men like Reginald of Kerak, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. Reginald was a French nobleman consumed with such hatred of Muslims that he launched regular terrorist attacks on caravans passing near the kingdom, massacring civilians without remorse or pity. Reginald even organized a raid into the Muslim holy city of Mecca and was set upon invading Medina and desecrating the grave of Prophet Muhammad until Saladin’s forces routed him.

Reginald’s fanaticism was viewed with dismay by more moderate leaders in the Christian camp, who feared that these extremists tactics would create such outrage that the divided Muslim forces would find common cause and march upon Jerusalem. Their fears proved correct, and Reginald’s savagery gave Saladin the rallying cry he needed to mount a unified military response, which toppled the century-old Crusader kingdom.

When the Muslim army bore down upon the gates of Jerusalem, the Christian population prepared itself for what they expected would be terrifying retribution. And yet, at the moment of his greatest victory, Saladin remembered the rules of war established by Prophet Muhammad over five hundred years before. Instead of doing to the Christians what they had done to the Muslims, he gave the Christian population a general amnesty. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they had turned the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s holiest sites in the city, into a church, and banned Muslim entry into the city. But when Saladin took Jerusalem back, he chose not to do the same to his Christian adversaries. He guaranteed protection for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the right for Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land. Saladin further allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem after Christians had expelled them.

Saladin’s magnanimity was renowned by medieval historians, even among Christians, who were perplexed that an “infidel” would show mercy while the “true believers” had chosen barbarity. Saladin’s example single-handedly shattered many Christians’ negative perception of Islam and made them question whether the cruel and backwards version of Christianity that they was being sold by the Church of the time actually reflected the teachings of Christ.

Saladin’s willingness to overcome the emotional need for revenge and the foolish simplicity of judging an entire community by the action of an evil few marked him as one of the greatest men of history. Saladin was tested by God and history, and he was found worthy.

So now, eight hundred years later, we in America are being similarly tested. We are under attack by a small group of deadly Muslim fanatics. We can choose to use that as an excuse to brand the entire Muslim community as our enemy Or we can follow the best that is in our historical tradition and differentiate truth from falsehood. We can scapegoat a billion innocents, or we can work with those people to unite against a few extremely dangerous and destructive individuals.

How we as Americans choose to react to the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero will reveal who we are as a people. And the judgment of history will place us either in the company of villains like the Crusaders, who cared not for the difference between the innocent and the guilty, or in the company of noble heroes like Saladin, who are honored even by their adversaries.

I have lived in America long enough to know that despite the Crusader rhetoric in the media, we are a nation of Saladins at heart.

How the story of Christmas saved Islam

December 25th, 2009

As a writer, I have always appreciated how Christmas is a time for great storytelling. Some of the most moving parables ever told have been inspired by this special time of year. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens continues to touch the heart, 166 years after it was first published. The journey of Ebenezer Scrooge from cruel miser to loving community man strikes a chord in the human spirit, and has led to numerous film adaptations, including the most recent CGI bonanza by Robert Zemeckis.

Other important works that reflect the Christmas message of love and giving are O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, where a husband and wife each part with their most treasured possessions to give a gift to each other, only to discover that each has given away what was needed to enjoy the other’s present. The husband sold his beloved pocket watch to buy a jeweled comb, only to learn that his wife has cut her luxurious hair and sold it to a wigmaker in order to buy him a watch chain. That story still manages to bring tears to my eyes, which is perhaps the essence of any good Christmas tale.

While those are familiar stories to millions of people, I would like to share a Christmas story that many people today do not know. The true story of how the tale of Jesus and Mary saved the nascent religion of Islam from annihilation.

In my novel, Mother of the Believers, I recount this remarkable story. Six hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ, the once tiny and persecuted faith founded in his name had become a global power. Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire and its successor, Byzantium. But as Jesus warned, power corrupts, and his simple message of love for God and humanity had been eclipsed by the cruel politics of governing an empire.

Christianity at the time was threatened by both external enemies and internal division. The Byzantines were locked in a struggle of superpowers with the neighboring Persian Empire, and millions were dying in the never-ending state of war between these two societies. Internally, arguments about theology had split the Church into a variety of factions and sects, each claiming to properly understand the nature of Christ and his teachings. Groups like the Egyptian Copts that failed to follow the “official” theological line coming out of Rome and Byzantium were persecuted by their fellow Christians. Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem and suffered mightily under the yoke of their Christian overlords.

Yet in the midst of this turbulent time, something unusual was happening in the desert wastes of Arabia. The Arabs had for centuries lived outside the boundaries of civilization, ignored by the great empires around them as nomadic herders with no government and limited social order based on tribal affiliation. There were no courts of law, and justice was meted out through the tribal principle of retaliation. If a member of a powerful tribe killed someone from another strong clan, a blood feud would ensue between the two groups, continuing sometimes for generations. But if someone came from a poor family, from a weak tribe, there would be no one to come to their aid or avenge any injustice against them. Women were regularly subjected to rape by bandits and raiders, and infant girls were often buried alive by fathers angry that their wives had not given them sons.

Poverty and illiteracy was the norm, and survival of the fittest the only principle of life. Religion had had little to offer to alleviate the suffering of the people; indeed the religious life of Arabia added to its misery. The Arabs worshipped a pantheon of competing gods, nature spirits that they prayed to but which offered little back in terms of spiritual comfort, and no hope for any life past the grave. The profound truths that Jesus Christ had proclaimed of faith being about service and love for mankind had not penetrated into the hearts of these hardened desert survivors, and the idea of religion being the basis for charity and social justice was beyond their comprehension.

The world of 7th century Arabia would have made modern day Afghanistan look like an advanced civilization.

And yet despite its primitive state of affairs, something truly remarkable was happening in Arabia at that time. A man named Muhammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel telling him that God had sent him as a Prophet to lead the Arabs out of darkness into light. That the time had come that the children of Abraham though his son Ishmael rejoin their father’s community by worshipping the One God, the God of Moses and Jesus. A God of love and justice, who enjoined charity and mercy among mankind. A God who commanded men to treat women with honor and to protect their children, not bury them alive.

The Prophet’s message was met as a new faith always is – with derision and ridicule. The wealthy oligarchs of his city Mecca found his admonitions to give to the poor offensive, his call for an end to the blood feuds and the cruel traditions of their ancestors an insult to their culture. And more importantly, Muhammad’s proclamation of One God was a direct threat to their pocketbooks. Mecca had become the center of trade in the region, as it hosted the Kaaba, an ancient shrine once built by Abraham for his God, but now dedicated to the local tribal deities. The annual pilgrimage when Arabs from all over the peninsula came to worship their gods at the Kaaba brought in huge revenue – and the Prophet’s proclamation that these deities were illusory was a dagger at the heart of Mecca’s wealth.

The early followers of Prophet Muhammad were, not surprisingly, from the poor and the weak. Those who had no protection from the ravages of society found hope in the new movement, known as Islam, which meant simply “to surrender oneself to God” – the essential teaching of all of God’s messengers, from Abraham through Jesus Christ. And yet, as persecution worsened, and Meccans began to attack and kill the Muslims (“those who had surrendered to God”), it became clear that the movement had to escape from the clutches of the tribal lords and find safety elsewhere.

Many may be familiar with the “hijrah” or “emigration” – the famous moment in 622 C.E. when Prophet Muhammad escaped from Mecca and established a community in the oasis of Medina to the north. From there, Islam blossomed and become a global religion and civilization within only a few years. The hijrah was the turning point of Islam, and Muslims to this day mark it as Year 1 of their calendar.

Yet the hijrah to Medina was not the first emigration in Islam. It was the second.

And our Christmas story begins with that first emigration, to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, in modern day Ethiopia.

In 615 C.E., five years after the prophet’s first vision of Gabriel, persecution of the Muslims had become a life-and-death matter. A Muslim woman named Sumaya, the first martyr of Islam, had been publicly murdered by a Meccan tribal chief. The weakest members of the community, such as the African slave Bilal, were subjected to torture. And the Arab chieftains were coming together to proclaim a ban of trade with the Muslims, prohibiting citizens of Mecca from providing food and medicine to members of the new movement.

Facing the very real possibility of extinction, a small group of Muslims led by the Prophet’s daughter Ruqayya and his son-in-law Uthman, escaped Meccan patrols and managed to get to the Red Sea, where they fled to Abyssinia by boat. They sought the protection of the Negus, the Christian king who had a reputation for justice.

The Meccan chieftains were outraged when they learned of the Muslim escape to Abyssinia. Trade with Africa was important to their economic power, and the arrival of dissident Arabs in the Abyssinian court could create an embarrassing diplomatic problem. The tribal lords dispatched Amr ibn al-As, a respected merchant who had befriended the Negus, to recover the Muslim refugees before they could harm Mecca’s image with its trading partners.

Amr arrived with expensive gifts and honeyed words for the Negus. He advised the king that Muslim refugees were criminals and asked that they be repatriated to Mecca. The Negus was concerned that he could be harboring troublemakers in his kingdom and summoned the Muslim refugees to his court to answer the allegations.

It was a tense moment, as the Muslims were brought before the Negus and the Meccan delegation. If things went badly, they would be handed over to Amr to taken back against their will. In reality, they knew that once they were in Amr’s hands, they would probably never see Mecca. In all likelihood, they would be killed long before they reached their erstwhile home.

When the Muslims responded that they were not criminals but victims of religious persecution, the Negus asked: “What is this religion wherein you have become separate from your people, though you have not entered my religion nor that of any other of the folk that surround us?”

The Prophet’s cousin Ja’far, known for his eloquent speech, stepped forward and said:

“O King, we were people steeped in ignorance, worshiping idols, eating unsacrificed carrion, committing abominations, and the strong would devour the weak. Thus we were, until God sent us a Messenger from out of our midst, one whose lineage we knew, and his veracity and his worthiness of trust and his integrity. He called us unto God, that we should testify to His Oneness and worship Him and renounce what we and our fathers had worshiped in the way of stones and idols; and he commanded us to speak truly, to fulfill our promises, to respect the ties of kinship and the rights of our neighbors, and to refrain from crimes and from bloodshed. So we worship God alone, setting naught beside Him, counting as forbidden what He has forbidden and as licit what He has allowed. For these reasons have our people turned against us, and have persecuted us to make us forsake our religion and revert from the worship of God to the worship of idols. That is why we have come to your country, having chosen you above all others; and we have been happy in thy protection, and it is our hope, O King, that here with you we shall not suffer wrong.”

The Negus, a devout Christian, was intrigued by Ja’far’s words and asked him if this Prophet had brought a scripture like the messengers of old. Ja’far nodded, saying that their Scripture was the Qur’an, which means recitation in Arabic. The Negus asked them to recite from their holy book.

And Ja’far recited for them a verse that had been revealed to the Prophet about the birth of Jesus Christ, who was revered as one of God’s messenger’s by the Muslims.

“And make mention of Mary in the Book, when she withdrew from her people unto a place towards the east, and secluded herself from them; and We sent unto her Our Spirit, and it appeared unto her in the likeness of a perfect man. She said: I take refuge from you in the Infinitely Good, if any piety you have. He said: I am none other than a messenger from your Lord that I may bestow on you a son most pure. She said: How can there be for me a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste? He said: Even so shall it be; your Lord says: It is easy for Me. That We may make him a sign for mankind and a mercy from Us; and it is a thing ordained.” (19:16-21)

The Negus was deeply moved to hear the story of Christ’s miraculous conception in the Muslim scripture. He said to his guests:

“This has truly come from the same source as that which Jesus brought.”

The Meccans became alarmed. The shared love for Jesus and Mary had created a bond between the Christians and Muslims that threatened to disrupt the Meccan scheme. Amr, who knew that the Muslims saw Jesus as a human messenger of God rather than a divine being, quickly tried to create rift between the two communities.

“O King, they utter an enormous lie about Jesus the son of Mary. They call him a slave!”

The Abyssinian priests gasped at this apparent blasphemy. The Christian king tensed. He turned to the Muslims with a frown.

“What do you say about Jesus?”

Ja’far could only tell the truth.

“We say of him what our Prophet brought unto us, that he is the servant of God and His Messenger and His Spirit and His Word which He cast unto Mary the blessed virgin.”

A tense silence fell on the crowd. And then the Negus smiled.

For him, the differences between Christian and Muslim visions of Jesus were just semantics. He had tired of the kind of theological disputes that had torn apart his fellow Christians and had led to never-ending accusations of heresy and warfare between competing Christian groups. Arguments over complicated theologies about the nature of Christ were not what mattered to him as a Christian. What mattered was that God had sent Jesus Christ to teach humanity love. And the Muslims clearly loved Jesus Christ.

“Go your ways, for you are safe in my land. Not for mountains of gold would I harm a single man of you.”

And then he sent his attendant to the Meccan envoys.

“Return unto these two men their gifts, for I have no use for them.”

And in that moment, Islam found its first refuge. In a Christian land, under the protection of a Christian king who viewed Muslims as his brothers and sisters.

The history of Christianity’s relationship with Islam has not always been so cordial. From the Crusades to the horrors of September 11th, both communities have committed atrocities against the other.

And yet it was not so at the beginning. And perhaps it will not be so at the end.

For me as a Muslim, this story of how Christians and Muslims could get past theology and see the truth in each other’s hearts is one of the most beautiful tales to unite our communities as we struggle to define faith in the 21st century.

And like the story of Christmas itself, I believe that the tale of the Christian king and the Muslim refugees is not just a memory of a time long past. It is, I hope, a vision of a world still to come. A world that will be built by sincere people of faith, who care more about love for humanity than about the triumph of their own tribe or theology.

It is, God-willing, a prophecy.

On behalf of your Muslim brothers and sisters, I wish you all a joyous Christmas.

A Muslim Soldier’s View From Fort Hood

November 7th, 2009

Major Nidal Malik Hasan is a murderer and has brought great shame upon every American Muslim in the armed forces. 

There are currently over 10,000 Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military, men and women who are patriotic and love their country and their fellow service members. Hasan’s evil actions, the murder of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, have now brought those honorable soldiers’ loyalties into question. 

The Islamophobe community on the Internet is trumpeting how Hasan’s behavior is reflective of the threat Americans face from their Muslim neighbors, and how radical Islamists have infiltrated the ranks of our military. Calls for purging the military, and perhaps even the United States, of its Muslim members have already begun. 

Today there are dozens of families mourning the attack on their loved ones by a fellow-in-arms. And there are hundreds of Muslims at Fort Hood who knew Hasan and are stunned that he would betray their country and their community with such cold, calculated ease. Hasan’s rampage has truly shattered many more lives than we can begin to imagine.

I spoke today with a friend who is a Muslim soldier stationed at Fort Hood. He is a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a recent convert to Islam. He agreed to share his perspective with me if I granted him anonymity. So we will call him Richard.

Richard is exactly the kind of soldier we need to protect our country from those that seek to do us harm. A combat veteran who has served in Iraq, Richard became interested in studying Islam initially as a strategic means of understanding his adversary in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But as he began to study the religion’s teachings, he became struck by how different they were from what was being claimed by men like Osama Bin Laden. 

Instead of a religion of hatred and misogyny, he found an Islam of love, wisdom, and human empowerment. His strategic analysis blossomed into spiritual identification, and Richard embraced Islam just over two years ago. As a “revert” (as Muslim converts like to call themselves, since Islam believes everyone is born a Muslim), Richard was faced with the added challenge of being a soldier in a conflict in which members of his new faith were on the other side.

Richard decided that the best way he could be true to his military oath and his religious convictions was to use his position as an American Muslim soldier to build bridges of understanding. He currently works as a liaison between the U.S. military and Muslim leaders in the Middle East to garner their support against the common enemy – the Islamist radicals who oppose both the American military and the mainstream Muslim community that wants nothing to do with their extremism. Richard has very much been in the forefront of our military’s efforts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

Richard first met Major Hasan in July 2009 when the latter arrived at Fort Hood. According to Richard, there are between 300-500 Muslim families that live at Fort Hood, and everyone in the community is associated with the base either as a service member or in a civilian support capacity. The Muslim community is largely South Asian, hailing from Indian, Pakistani, and other sub-continental backgrounds. The community is prosperous, with many doctors and professionals at its core. The Muslims at Fort Hood live in harmony with their neighbors, and from Richard’s experience, most were happy to be associated with the U.S. military and viewed their work through a lens of profound patriotism.

Richard assumed that the newcomer, Nidal Malik Hasan, shared the values of the other Muslim community members. He found Hasan to be a friendly man who did not initially appear to be a radical, and they bonded as fellow Muslims on the base. Richard and Hasan would often pray together, and during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the two men secluded themselves inside the local mosque for a period of reflection and worship. 

And, fatefully, Richard and Hasan prayed side-by-side at the mosque the morning of the massacre, after they had engaged in a friendly competition to see who could recite the azan, the call to prayer, first. After prayers that morning, Hasan left while Richard and a few others remained behind to recite the Qur’an. Hasan appeared relaxed and not in any way troubled or nervous. 

A few hours later, Hasan fired two guns on his fellow soldiers and forever shattered dozens of lives, as well as the peaceful community of trust and respect that Muslims had built at Fort Hood.

Richard said that he and other members of the Muslim community are struggling to understand how this happened. Looking back, Richard said that he did find some aspects of Hasan’s worldview troubling, but he had no indication that the man was capable of mass murder.

Richard remembered one of his first conversations with Hasan. The newly-arrived army psychiatrist told Richard that he felt the “war on terror” was really a war against Islam, and that perhaps Muslims should not be part of the US military. 

Richard told Nidal that he disagreed. First, he did not believe as a Muslim that the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a grand conspiracy to destroy Islam. And second, even if a Muslim believed that a specific military action was wrong, he could not escape responsibility for it just by resigning from the military. The reality was that his or her taxes would still be used to fund the campaign, and so American Muslims were invested in the situation whether they liked it or not.

Richard’s view as a Muslim was that he had a responsibility to do good in whatever situation he found himself in. He was a Muslim in the American military at a time when the United States was in conflict with areas of the Muslim world. Richard’s role was to do his part as a Muslim by creating new friendships and partnerships between the American military and the Muslim community.

But Hasan clearly did not share Richard’s point of view, and Richard decided not to get into an argument with a fellow solider he had just met. And so the two moved on from their dispute and established a friendship as fellow Muslims in the Fort Hood community.

As Richard got to know Hasan better over the next several months, he found the major to be a pious man who was at the mosque daily. But Richard also began to garner a sense of Hasan’s political views that troubled him. A black-and-white outlook on Islam and life that had no room for nuance or debate. Hasan had apparently attended a mosque led by an imam named Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni scholar whose political views Richard disagrees with. 

Awlaki is a controversial figure among Muslims, and has been accused by the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 of serving as a “spiritual advisor” to two of the September 11 hijackers. While Richard is careful to say that he respects much of Awlaki’s historical scholarship, he rejects his political ideology, which posits a black-and-white, us versus them, view of America’s relationship with the Islamic world.

Richard’s own study of Islam has revealed that such a harsh dualistic approach to religion is very much against the history of Islamic thought and practice. Indeed, debate is central to the Islamic tradition, and mainstream Muslims have always understood that true faith requires openness to nuance and subtlety. In my novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the story of Islam from the perspective of Aisha, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, I discuss how the early Muslim community engaged in profound debate and discourse in the search for truth. An embrace of subtlety and intellectual sophistication is inherent to the Islamic tradition.

But this kind of subtlety is anathema to fundamentalists of any religion or ideology, who are incapable of seeing other points of view. And the backlash against my book by Muslim fundamentalists reveals the deep-seated fear that such people have of mainstream Muslims’ efforts to take back the discourse from those who cannot accept shades of grey in life and faith.

Richard does not know how heavily Hasan was influenced by fundamentalist thinkers like Awlaki. But the major’s views were definitely troubling. Richard described an incident where Hasan made some anti-Semitic comments about Jews as a nation being “cursed by God” in Islam. Richard responded that the Qur’an does not condemn any group of people collectively, and that no one is born “cursed” by their ancestry. 

Indeed, even though there are verses that are critical of some Jews who were political opponents to Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an states very clearly that it is speaking only in relation to those who do evil, not those who do good, and that God judges people by their actions. (3:75-76). Another verse is even more explicit:

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians — any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62)

When Richard made this point, Hasan became flustered and simply responded that as a “revert” Richard clearly did not know Islam as well as he did, someone who had been raised as a Muslim. But from Richard’s point of view, Hasan was simply regurgitating cultural attitudes and prejudices and cloaking them in the form of religion. And in the process he was blinding himself to what Islam actually taught.

A second incident that revealed the hints of radicalism inside Hasan’s worldview took place when Richard once asked a group of Muslims on the base whether they would consider the Taliban to be members of “Ahl-as-Sunna,” the Arabic term for those who follow the Prophet’s tradition and life example. It is a short-hand among many Muslims to denote those who are “mainstream” versus those who are “misguided.” Hasan became angry that Richard could even ask such a question, but the other Muslims rose to Richard’s defense, pointing out that the Taliban are a patchwork of a variety of groups, many of whom are clearly way out of the mainstream Islam as practiced by the vast majority of believers. Richard was taken aback by Hasan’s sudden anger at what had been seconds before a friendly discussion.

Perhaps most troubling are Hasan’s views on suicide bombing. The major has posted his opinions on the Internet, suggesting that he viewed at least some suicide bombers as the moral equivalent of soldiers who throw themselves on grenades to save others. Readers of my work will know that I have stated very clearly and with deep conviction that suicide bombing is a violation of Islam’s basic rules of war (and I have received death threats from radicals who disagree with me).

Richard shared my views, and when Hasan attempted to rationalize suicide bombing in a conversation, Richard told him in no uncertain terms that suicide is forbidden in the Qur’an (4:29). An argument ensued, and then an Islamic scholar who was present told Hasan that Richard was right. Suicide cannot be defended under traditional Islamic law, regardless of efforts by some modern scholars to rationalize it. Hasan was unhappy to hear this point of view, and the men decided to change the topic.

I asked Richard whether he believed that Hasan was motivated by religious radicalism in his murderous actions. Richard, with great sadness, said that he believed this was true. He also believed that psychological factors from Hasan’s job as an army psychiatrist added to his pathos. Hasan had spent months listening to horror stories from returning soldiers about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it had hardened his position on these wars. The news that he would be deployed overseas to Iraq, to a war that he rejected, may have pushed him over the edge.

But Richard does not excuse Hasan. As a Muslim, he finds Hasan’s religious perspectives to be fundamentally misguided. And as a soldier, he finds Hasan’s actions cowardly and evil. Hasan was not being sent into combat – he would have been working in a secure office in the Green Zone far away from the life and death dangers that Richard and his fellow combat veterans face every day. For Richard, a Muslim convert and patriotic soldier, Hasan’s actions were those of a sinner and a villain, one who will be held accountable by the U.S. justice system in this world, and by Allah in the Hereafter.

Listening to Richard’s perspective, I felt many emotions. Sorrow that good men and women like him will now have to defend their patriotism from those who want to use one madman’s actions to target an entire community. Pride that Muslim soldiers like Richard continue to do their duties with honor, despite the two worlds they are forced to straddle.

And hope. That despite the clouds of evil that seek to hide the truth, the message of Islam, a faith of love, wisdom and community, will always shine through.

Thank you Richard for your service. May Allah bless you and all your fellow soldiers who risk their lives daily so that people of all faiths can be free in the United States of America.

Yale and the Danish Cartoons

September 8th, 2009

It is the controversy that refuses to die – the now infamous Danish cartoons about Prophet Muhammad that caused much furor in the Muslim world a few years ago have appeared in the media spotlight again after Yale University Press decided not to print the caricatures in an upcoming book about the very same controversy.

Yale removed the images from The Cartoons that Shook the World by Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen, scheduled to be released next week, after deciding that they could incite violence from Muslim extremists.

As a practicing Muslim and as an artist and author, let me state unequivocally that Yale is wrong to practice this kind of self-censorship. The cartoons should be available for readers to make their own judgment.

Now that I have said that, let me share with you my own judgment about what the Danish cartoon controversy is really about.

The caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, including one depicting Islam’s founder as wearing a bomb-shaped turban, first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Over the next several months, Muslims throughout the world protested the cartoons as an insult to Islamic civilization. Islam traditionally prohibits any depiction of the Prophet (even favorable ones) to prevent idolatry. Images of the Prophet are nonetheless common in Islamic art, although he is nearly always shown as veiled.

Once Muslim protests began, other newspapers in the West reprinted the cartoons as an embrace of freedom of expression, which only exacerbated the controversy. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were attacked by extremists, and a boycott of Danish goods was put in effect in many Muslim countries. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark’s worst international crisis since World War II.

To many people in the West, Muslim reaction to the cartoons reflected a fundamental intolerance toward art and debate in the modern Islamic world. And to many Muslims, the West’s embrace of these caricatures of their most revered holy figure reflected bigotry and profound hatred for Islam as a religion and a civilization.

And to a very tragic degree, both groups are right about their perception of the other.

As a Muslim, I can admit (with deep regret) that freedom of speech is curtailed in most of the Islamic world. And art, once central to Muslim culture, has been neglected and disrespected in many Islamic societies today. Muslims were once the world’s most respected and creative artisans. From the Mughal architects of India who built the Taj Mahal, to Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez whose words brought wonder to the human heart, to the musicians of Moorish Spain who gave birth to the troubadours of Europe, Muslim art thrived for centuries. Art was embraced by the Muslim community as an act of spirituality, a way of honoring God through reverence for the beauty of His creation. As long as art played a central role in Islamic civilization, it thrived. And when fundamentalists began devaluing art, Muslim civilization began to decline.

So, yes, there is some truth in the Western critique that Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons reflects a cultural mindset against artistic expression, although I would suggest that this resistance is a modern development and not inherent to Islamic civilization or history.

And I have experienced that resistance personally. My novel, Mother of the Believers, has ruffled a great many feathers in the Muslim community. The book tells the story of Islam’s birth from the perspective of Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. Some of my fellow Muslims have expressed outrage that I would tell the Prophet’s story through the lens of historical fiction.

And yet my response to them is that what I have done is nothing new. Muslims have always used art, including fiction, to spread the message of Islam. We have just forgotten our own heritage. The Modern Library recently published The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a wonderful collection of legends and stories from the Islamic world about the Prophet’s uncle Hamza. These were fictional tales used as wisdom stories throughout the Muslim world, more popular and influential in Islamic culture than The Arabian Nights – and yet they are largely forgotten by Muslims today.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, Islam was spread through Sufi mystics, merchants and artists, not by any invading army. Indeed, one of the most colorful means of Islamic proselytizing in these once predominantly Hindu islands was the use of puppet shows to depict the victory of Allah over the local gods. These forms of popular art were tailored to the indigenous culture by Muslim teachers and were phenomenally successful in spreading the message of the faith.

In modern times, cinema has begun to play a role in spreading the message of Islam, despite the resistance of fundamentalists to this artistic medium. Moustapha Akkad’s epic movie The Messageabout Prophet Muhammad caused riots in parts of the Islamic world when it was released in 1976 (similar to Muslim reactions to the Danish cartoons almost thirty years later).

And yet when Muslims actually saw Akkad’s film, they were deeply moved by its reverence for the Prophet, and it is now a staple DVD in Muslim homes throughout the world. In 2004, an animated movie called Muhammad: The Last Prophet was released and has become a beloved children’s film throughout the Islamic world.

My novel was written in the same vein as these cinematic works, and is frankly more honest and true to the historical sources, as these movies tend to present an idealized vision of Islamic history and shy away from issues of controversy today, such as polygamy in the Prophet’s household and the Muslim conflict with the Jewish tribes of Arabia. But I chose to explore these issues that other Muslim storytellers avoided because they are part of Islam’s history and heritage. Even if some Muslims wish to ignore things that appear troubling in the historical record, non-Muslim critics and Islamophobes raise these matters incessantly to attack Islam, and my novel presents a rebuttal to those critiques.

Mother of the Believers utilizes the artistic medium of fiction to strengthen and spread the message of my faith, which I love and take very seriously. And Muslims who have bothered to read the book have almost unanimously said that they found it deeply moving and that it strengthened their own faith. I have received emails from readers all over the world who said that my novel made them fall in love with Prophet Muhammad in a way that no dry history textbook has ever accomplished. And I have even been contacted by non-Muslims who are considering embracing Islam after reading my book and being inspired to learn more about the faith.

And yet despite all these positive reactions from the general community, there remains a vocal Muslim minority that has condemned my book as sinful, usually without having read it. This kind of anti-intellectualism is a real problem in the modern Muslim world, and reflects a deep insecurity and lack of faith among some people. Islam has survived countless attacks over the centuries, both by the sword and by the pen, and continues to grow and thrive. Neither my book nor the Danish cartoons will be able to injure the eternal message of Islam – that there is One God and life’s purpose is to surrender to Him.

Now, with all that said, let us take an honest look at what the Danish cartoons are really about in the West. The truth is that the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons, Jyllands-Posten, holds a right-wing agenda that is fundamentally inimical to Islam and Europe’s Muslim immigrants – and to the very values held by many who embraced the paper’s publication of the cartoons.

Let’s take a closer look at the newspaper that is being heralded as the champion of Western values. Jyllands-Posten endorsed Mussolini as ‘exactly what the misruled Italian people need.” It was sympathetic to Hitler’s suspension of democracy in Germany, saying in an editorial in 1933 that “…democratic rule by the people, as we know it, is a luxury which can be afforded in good times when the economy is favorable. But restoring the economy after many years of lavish spending requires a firm hand.

And on the Nazi anti-Semitic pogrom known as Kristallnacht, this is what the newspaper had to say: “When one has studied the Jewish question in Europe for decades, the animosity towards the Jews is to a certain extent understandable, even if we look past the racial theories, that mean so much in the national socialist world view […] We know, that tens of thousands of Jews condemn the Jewish business sharks, the Jewish pornography speculators and the Jewish terrorists. But still, it cannot be denied, that the experiences which the Germans – as many other continental peoples – have had with regards to the Jews, form a certain basis for their persecution. One must give Germany, that they have a right to dispose of their Jews.

Is this newspaper really the voice of Western values that people want to endorse?

And if we look at some of the loudest voices speaking out in favor of the publication of the Danish cartoons today, they are people with deeply troubling agendas. Most prominent among them in the United States is former United Nations ambassador – and raving neoconservative pit bull – John Bolton. An alumnus of Yale who has signed a letter to the university condemning its failure to publish the cartoons, Mr. Bolton has said that “the whole episode was an example of intellectual cowardice.

Coming from a man who supported the neoconservative cabal that lied us into war in Iraq, the statement “intellectual cowardice” carries a great deal of irony. Had he and his neoconservative comrades been more intellectually cowardly (rather than just cowardly in the draft-dodging sense), thousands of American soldiers and millions of Iraqis would still be alive today. (Mr. Bolton’s one moment of intellectual honesty perhaps came in his Yale 25th reunion book, where he remarks on why he chose to join the Maryland Army National Guard during the Vietnam War: “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.“)

The fact that a cowardly warmonger like Mr. Bolton is one of the most prominent voices in support of the cartoons reveals a painful truth in the Muslim critique of the whole issue – that deep down, the cartoons are not about free speech and never have been. That those who embrace them really do so out of a general hatred for Islam and a desire to humiliate Muslims.

Indeed, a quick search of the blogosphere will find that the websites that are most loudly trumpeting the news of Yale’s decision are Islamophobic in nature. The anti-Muslim vitriol and racism on some of these sites is deeply sickening. Let there be no doubt — these are the champions of the cartoons and these are their loudest proponents.

So I ask the reader to consider – would you so fervently support cartoons mocking the lynching of African Americans published and championed by racists? I have no doubt that the American Civil Liberties union would support Ku Klux Klan members’ right of free speech. But would the general populace also rush to their defense, calling the KKK courageous and heroic for standing up to the blacks (and whites) who would voice outrage at such cartoons?

In Iran, the crass “International Holocaust Cartoon Competition” was enacted to show the double-standards of Westerners championing the Danish cartoons. Cartoons meant to question the historical scholarship on the Holocaust were published by the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which challenged Western newspapers to publish them with the same fervor as they did caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. Most media outlets refused to do so.

For the record, I reject this stupid and destructive effort to compete for the lowest common denominator. But ugly and offensive as many of the Iranian cartoons were, the refusal of most respectable Western news outlets to face the truth – that every culture has its sacred cows and emotional trigger points – is one that should force us all to reflect. It is easy to say that someone else has no right to be offended by free speech – until that free speech is directed at us and those issues that matter to us on a deep, foundational level.

Although this may be hard for non-believers to truly grasp, Prophet Muhammad is an archetypal figure that transcends any specific issue or controversy around Islam today. He represents the entirety of a civilization, of 1.5 billion people’s sense of their own personal ideal. He is the Prophet for both Muslim extremists we condemn, and the Prophet of Rumi, the Muslim poet beloved in the West. And Prophet Muhammad is the role-model for courageous Muslim reformers, including Muslim feminists, who are challenging the anti-intellectualism, misogyny and violence that is rampant in parts of the Islamic world today.

Prophet Muhammad is more than a historical figure – he is a symbol. And when we choose to mock a symbol, we must accept that we are mocking everything that symbol represents. And that we are hurting people we love and admire as well as those we hate. If we choose to do so, let us at least be honest about our motivations – which are to smear an entire civilization – and not gild them in the pretenses of nobility.

To conclude, I remind my fellow Muslims what the Holy Qur’an says: “Good and evil are not equal. So repel evil with what is better, and your enemy will become an intimate friend.” (41:34)

So let these cartoons be published by Yale and anyone else who wishes to do so. And let Muslims respond as God has commanded us, with acts of graciousness and dialogue. Let us use this incident to have a discussion about why Prophet Muhammad matters and why we love him so much. Perhaps that dialogue will change a few hearts along the way.

And I am not alone in this belief. One of the most beautiful moments in the storm of controversy around the cartoons came at the behest of a quadriplegic Muslim artist who chose to respond to the caricatures of the Prophet with good rather than evil.

Houssein Nouri, a man who had lost both arms and legs in the Iran-Iraq war, sat in his wheelchair outside the Danish Embassy in Tehran, using his mouth to paint a stunningly beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary, who is beloved in both Islam and Christianity as the mother of Jesus.

In that one moment, Mr. Nouri showed the true beauty – the art – of being a Muslim.