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.

Jesus and the Ethical Treatment of Animals

September 3rd, 2009

I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. But like most people of conscience, I was sickened and horrified to see the recent video taken by animal rights activists of baby chicks being ground alive at an egg hatchery. Seeing such cruel and heartless treatment of living beings has undoubtedly caused some of us carnivores to at least take a moment to consider the dark truths behind how animals are processed for food in the modern world.

Indeed, human beings throughout history have questioned the morality of animal slaughter, and religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have long been the home for those who believe that killing and consuming sentient animals is barbaric. Religious vegetarianism is commonplace in the East, but is not considered mainstream in most Western faith communities.

And yet, after lengthy research into the historical record, I have become convinced that Jesus Christ himself was in all likelihood a vegetarian, and that vegetarianism was probably a central tenet of the early Christian community founded by his disciples. In fact, there is evidence that Christ’s opposition to animal sacrifice at the Jewish Temple may have been the triggering event that led to the Crucifixion.

Yes, I know. This sounds preposterous. But stay with me, and let me present the historical evidence before you make a final judgment.

Christian and Muslim views of Jesus

Before I begin, let me state that I am a Muslim, so already my views on Jesus are not the same as those of my Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus is a pivotal figure in both Christianity and Islam, and both religions consider themselves to contain the true teachings of Christ. The primary differences between the two faiths arise over his identity and message.

For Christians, Jesus is a divine being, the Son of God, who took human form in order to experience martyrdom, death and resurrection as part of God’s plan for redemption. For Christians, Christ’s death on the cross is an act of cosmic blood sacrifice – he took upon himself the sins of mankind, and those who believe in him are cleansed of their sins through vicarious atonement. Salvation comes through faith in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.

For Muslims, Jesus was a human being, a prophet and a teacher, who was sent by God to guide humanity. Muslims believe that Jesus never wanted to be worshipped as a deity, and that his message was very simple: “Worship God, your Lord and mine, and follow my example.” There is no doctrine of vicarious atonement in Islam, as Muslims believe Jesus and all of God’s messengers taught individual moral responsibility. Muslim belief is that the central teachings of Christianity – the divinity of Christ and his death as a sacrificial atonement – are later pagan inventions that Jesus himself would have rejected. Salvation for Muslims comes through what they consider the central teachings of Jesus and all prophets – belief in One God and living an ethical life.

Discussions of the differences in Christian and Muslim approaches to Jesus can and do fill volumes, and I can only scratch the surface of this theological controversy here. But I state these points above as a disclaimer. As a Muslim, my personal views of Jesus are already different from those of my Christian neighbors. As a result, I am more likely to question the official Church stance on Christ’s life and teachings than those who accept the Christian vision. I read early Church histories with a different attitude than a believing Christian would, and I am more likely to give credence to historical accounts that are today deemed heretical by the Church.

And this skeptical approach toward the official version of Christian history has led me to a deep personal conviction – based on the historical sources – that Christ’s message was not just about loving your fellow human beings, but that he actually was deeply concerned that his followers show compassion toward animals.

I came to this conclusion while researching my next book, a novel on the birth of Christianity. My first novel, Mother of the Believers, about the birth of Islam from the perspective of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, has been a success. I wanted to follow up with a similar book about Jesus based on the early historical sources. I decided to set aside my own pre-conceived beliefs about Jesus as a Muslim and treat the sources with objectivity. I wanted to present Jesus as early Christians likely saw him, even if that understanding was different from my own faith.

And in the process of examining the New Testament and early historical sources about Jesus, I became shocked to learn that perhaps neither Christians nor Muslims today truly understand what Jesus was about. The evidence of religious vegetarianism in the early Christian community was so overwhelming that I was forced to consider why this was not one of the issues that divide Christians and Muslims in theology. Most Christians and most Muslims are not vegetarian and most people in both faiths would be startled by the suggestion that Jesus and the early Christians were staunch vegetarians.

Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity: James versus Paul

In order to get to the point that Jesus appears to have been a vegetarian according to early Christian sources, I must first give a basic explanation of the historical process by which the religious movement we now call Christianity came together. There are many sources for the following historical interpretation, but the most readable and well argued is by Prof. Barrie Wilson, a respected biblical scholar at York University in Toronto. His work How Jesus Became Christian provides a detailed examination of the evolution of Christian thought that I summarize below.

My investigation into the life of Jesus began by examining the first theological dispute that arose in the Christian community after the earthly mission of Jesus. Interestingly, there is little controversy over how Jesus lived. Most scholars, both secular and Christian, would likely accept the notion that Jesus in his lifetime was a practicing Jew, one who adhered to the Torah, the Law of Moses, even if he had some different interpretations of specific legal points than other Jewish teachers. That meant that Jesus was circumcised, prayed ritually every day according to ancient Jewish practices, worshipped at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, observed the Sabbath and major Jewish festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur, and adhered to kosher laws regarding which foods were acceptable and which weren’t (Jesus would not have eaten pork, for example).

This last point was not controversial in his lifetime, but became a major issue later when an increasing number of Gentiles (who had no such food restrictions) began to convert to Christianity. But during his lifetime, and for several years afterward, the followers of Jesus did not see themselves as creating a new religion. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was their teacher and leader, and the Acts of the Apostles discusses how the early Christians continued to worship at the Jewish Temple like other Jews, apparently unaware of the doctrine that Christ’s death and resurrection removed the need to observe these ritual Jewish practices. This early “Jewish Christian” community was led by James the Just, identified in the New Testament as the younger brother of Jesus, and supported by well-known disciples like Peter and John

According to contemporary historian Flavius Josephus, James the Just was highly respected by the Jewish community of Jerusalem for his righteousness and adherence to the Law of Moses. And yet modern Christians do not consider adherence to the Mosaic Law necessary or perhaps even virtuous. In fact most Christians today would be hard-pressed to name a handful of the 613 commandments that form the backbone of the Torah. So as I researched my novel, the question naturally arose – how did Christianity transform from a community of Torah-observant Jews into a Gentile religion that renounced the Law of Moses?

The answer to that question comes in the figure of one man whose vision of the risen Christ changed the history of the world. The Apostle Paul. The story of Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Christianity to its greatest champion is famed in Church history and doctrine. On his way to arrest Christian fugitives in Damascus, Paul claimed to have a direct personal vision of Christ (whom he had never actually met during his lifetime). The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own letters differ in the exact details of this profound spiritual event, but the end result was clear. Paul said that he had been given a direct revelation of Christ’s gospel and began to preach his understanding of Christ to Gentiles.

For Paul, Christ was more than a Jewish teacher and political leader, as the Jerusalem community around James believed. Christ was a Divine Being who had sacrificed his life to cleanse the world of sin. It is in Paul’s letters that we first find the doctrines of Christ’s divinity and vicarious atonement (the Gospels would be written later, when Paul’s ideas had become prevalent among Christians). Paul taught his followers that obedience to the ritual law of Moses was no longer necessary – indeed it was a “curse” (Galatians 3:10-13). All that was needed to be a Christian was faith in Christ and his redemptive sacrifice.

These ideas have of course become the bedrock of modern Christianity. But what is fascinating is that Paul’s letters, the earliest Christian documents (preceding even the Gospels by decades), reveal that Paul’s vision of the Christ was not the same as the Jesus known to his family and disciples.

The Jesus Movement (Jews who saw Jesus as their teacher and leader) was based in Jerusalem at the time, while Paul was preaching to Gentiles throughout Asia Minor (modern Turkey), apparently without any authority from the disciples to do so. Indeed Paul proudly claims in his letters that he did not need anyone’s authority to preach and that his Gospel came directly from Christ himself (Galatians 1:1).

Not surprisingly, his proclamation of speaking on behalf of Christ did not sit well with the Jerusalem Christians who had known Jesus personally and could not reconcile Paul’s vision of the antinomian Christ with the Torah-observant rabbi who had led them. According to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, James the Just sent envoys to check up on him and what he was preaching (Galatians 2:12). And when these envoys heard his doctrines, especially with regard to faith in Christ removing the need for Christians to follow Jewish dietary laws, all hell broke loose. As Paul himself describes the incident in Galatians, he had a shouting match with Peter and other disciples, and was very much the odd man out (Galatians 2:11-13)

Several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament were written to respond to the critiques of these Jewish Christians, who claimed Paul was misguided and perhaps even lying about his encounter with Christ (see Galatians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 11:31, 1 Timothy 2:7 where Paul repeatedly insists that he is not lying, since clearly this is a charge being regularly made against him). Indeed, the modern Christian notion that Paul was on good terms with the disciples who had known Jesus in his lifetime is simply not borne out in Paul’s own letters. While the Acts of the Apostles, written years later by Paul’s followers, often portrays the debates between James and Paul as cheerful disagreements between brothers, Paul’s own letters show that their differences were intense and volatile. It was as if the two movements were actually competing religions rather than branches of the same faith.

How Pauline Christianity Triumphed

But if Paul’s vision of Christ had little support from the people who actually knew Jesus, how did it become the basis for Christianity? The answer lies in the tragedy of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The followers of Jesus the man were centered around Jerusalem, while the followers of Christ the God were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christian community suffered a major blow when their leader James the Just was murdered a in 62 C.E., and when the Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple a few years later, the surviving Jewish Christians fled to Pella in modern Jordan.

The death of James and the destruction of Jerusalem crippled the Jesus Movement and placed it dangerously close to extinction. According to 4th century Christian history Eusebius, the blood relatives of Jesus (the Desposyni) were hunted down as political threats by the Roman Emperors Domitian and Trajan and the people who had known and followed Jesus in his lifetime rapidly became an endangered species.

Paul’s Christ Movement, on the other hand, was phenomenally successfully. Untouched by the destruction of Jerusalem, the Gentile based religion easily eclipsed the struggling Jewish movement that had been its predecessor (and competitor). Paul’s vision of Christ the Divine Savior had many similarities to popular religions of the Roman Empire, including the mystery schools of Egypt and the cult of Mithras. The ideas of a Divine Man incarnating, dying and being reborn, were already popular mystical doctrines in these communities, and it was not hard to replace Mithras or Osiris with Christ. And the end result was that over centuries, Paul’s idiosyncratic view of Jesus became the orthodox Christian line, simply because it survived and thrived.

Most Christian scholars would not dispute the basic outline of the history as I have laid it out here. Understandably, their view would be that the “correct” vision of Christianity survived, guided by God’s hand through history. It is not for me to dispute anyone’s faith, and the reader must decide how to interpret the meaning of these events themselves. I had already known the basics of this historical framework when researching my novel. And as a Muslim, I was interested in learning more about these Jewish Christians led by Christ’s brother James, as their vision of Jesus more closely fits my own.

And it was in the process of researching these Jewish Christians that I was startled to discover that there was a consistent theme in their teachings. Along with the belief that Jesus was God’s servant and a human teacher, they had a passionate commitment to vegetarianism.

That struck me as odd. Islam is not a vegetarian religion, and if I had been looking for historical evidence to support my Muslim religious beliefs in the teachings of the Jewish Christians, I certainly found these accounts quite jarring. But the evidence is undeniable. One of the central themes that set Jewish Christian groups apart from Pauline Christians was their belief that Jesus rejected animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat.

The Ebionites and the Survival of Jewish Christianity

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the surviving Jewish Christians continued under a variety of names according to early Church historians. The most common name for these groups was the Ebionites, from the Hebrew word Evyonim, which means “the poor.” This is an apparent reference to the many sayings of Jesus where he consistently honors and elevates the poor. (“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” – Luke 6:20). Other names for these groups include Nazarenes and Elkasites. They seem to have developed some minor theological distinctions among them – some accepted the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus (as Islam does) while denying it made him in any way divine, while others said Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary.

According to Church historians like Iraneus (2nd century CE), Origen (3rd century CE), Epiphanius and Eusebius (4th century CE), groups like the Ebionites had their own Gospel written in Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke). That in and of itself is fascinating, since none of the canonical Gospels that became part of the New Testament were written in Hebrew or Aramaic. They were written in Koine Greek, the common language of the eastern Roman Empire (with regrets to Mel Gibson, whose insistence in having the Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate speak Latin was one of the many historical inaccuracies in his Passion of the Christ).

So even for a Christian believer, there is the problem that the words of Jesus as recorded in the canonical Gospels are translations from the language he actually spoke. There is already a language barrier that separates us from the historical Jesus. We do not today possess authentic gospels in Aramaic or Hebrew, and so we can never know for sure if Christ’s words were properly translated into Greek, and the nuances and meanings of his mother tongue are lost to history. And yet it is remarkable that the Ebionites and other Jewish Christians did possess such gospels, written in the language of Christ, suggesting that their link to the teachings of the historical Jesus is closer than those of their rivals.

Based on this Gospel, the Ebionites rejected what was becoming mainstream Christianity and denounced the letters of Paul as false teachings. The Ebionites faithfully observed the Law of Moses, claiming that in doing so, they were following the example not only of James, Peter and the disciples, but of Jesus himself. And according to Epiphanius, the Ebionites were vegetarian, rejecting animal sacrifice as immoral, claiming again that they were following the teachings of Jesus himself.

In the Panarion, his epic treatise against heresy, Epiphanius gives us many details about the Ebionite lifestyle. He says that the Ebionites claimed that the Apostle Peter had been a vegetarian and had ordered his followers to abstain from eating meat. In the Ebionite Gospel, they quote Jesus as saying “I came to abolish sacrifices, and unless you cease from sacrificing, my anger will not cease from you.” The reference is to the practice of animal sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, where thousands of animals were ritually slaughtered every year as offerings to God, the meat being shared with the Priests.

The Ebionites claimed that Jesus was horrified by cruelty to animals and that one of the primary aspects of his mission was to abolish the practice of ritual slaughter. Their argument was that Temple sacrifices were an innovation and had no basis in the authentic Law of Moses, and Jesus was sent to restore the Torah as Moses had practiced it. To the extent that the Jewish scriptures appeared to endorse animal sacrifice by the Priests (cf. the Book of Leviticus), they claimed that such passages were forgeries inserted by the Priesthood itself to promote its livelihood (the falsification of parts of the Bible would be a central claim of Islam centuries later).

While we do not possess the full text of the Ebionite Gospel, which along with other “heretical” books was banned by the Church in the 4th century, we do have some Ebionite apocryphal writings such as the Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions of Clement. These documents (known to scholars as the “pseudo-Clementines”) are Ebionite stories about the early Christians. They purport to be the writings of Clement, the first bishop of Rome, ie — the first Catholic Pope appointed by Peter. (It is remarkable that the Ebionites believed Pope Clement was an opponent of Paul, the man today credited as a founding leader of Christianity in Rome!)

The Homilies and the Recognitions contain accounts of Peter’s mission and his disputes with a false teacher named “Simon Magus” who is misleading people about Jesus (Simon Magus is clearly an Ebionite code-name for Paul). And in the pseudo-Clementine literature, Peter is portrayed as a vegetarian who only eats bread and olives, and avoids eating “dead flesh.”

After having been confronted with this wealth of information about the Ebionites, who have a strong historical claim to be a continuation of the Jewish movement started by Jesus and subsequently led by James the Just, it became evident to me that vegetarianism and compassionate treatment of animals was an important part of early Christian thought.

Evidence of Ethical Vegetarianism in Mainstream Christianity

But a critic of this line of reasoning can rightly raise the fact that the Ebionites were rejected as heretics by mainstream Christianity. So what if they were vegetarians? They were wrong about everything else about Christ, they must be wrong about that too. So I decided to see if there was evidence from mainstream Christian sources that support vegetarian practices in the early Christian community.

And to my surprise, I found them.

Hegesippus, a 2nd century orthodox Christian historian, wrote of James the Just, the brother of Jesus:

“After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed…”

There it was. James the Just, according to an early orthodox Christian did not eat meat. Nor did he drink alcohol. According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites also rejected alcohol and used water for communion, further strengthening their claim to be continuing the practice of James, who was the brother of Jesus and his appointed successor. As biblical scholar Robert Eisenman points out in his monumental work James the Brother of Jesus, “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus.”

So if James really was a vegetarian, and James and Paul disagreed about the proper understanding of Christ’s teachings (especially with regard to what foods a Christian should eat), then it should not be surprising if Paul had a problem with vegetarianism. I went back to examine Paul’s writings to see if he had any opinions on vegetarians.

And remarkably, he did.

In Romans 14:1-2, Paul denigrates those Christians who “eat only vegetables” saying that their “faith is weak.” So it is clear that vegetarianism was common among Christians in Paul’s day, to the extent that he had to refute their claim that refraining from meat was an act of piety. The fact that Paul has to make this point means that ethical vegetarianism was being presented as a moral requirement to be a Christian! And, as we have seen, Paul’s vision of Christ was opposed to rules and restrictions around food, to the extent that he found himself in conflict with James and Peter on the subject.

Was The Crucifixion the Result of Christ’s Opposition to Animal Sacrifice?

The evidence that Jesus was a vegetarian, or at least early Christians who knew him were vegetarians, was compelling. But it seemed to be a minor doctrinal point, with little historical significance.

And then I came across a remarkable book called The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity by Keith Akers, which posits a shocking thesis – that the central event of the Christian faith, the Crucifixion, was predicated upon Christ’s willingness to fight for animal rights.

Akers is a committed vegetarian and he makes no apologies for the fact that he is evangelizing vegetarianism as a moral code for others. And some who read his book might find his persistence on the subject annoying. Regardless, the book truly makes compelling arguments that vegetarianism was intrinsic to Christ’s message of love and compassion for the world, and that gentleness toward animals is a prominent theme in Christ’s parables. Akers explains in greater depth the historical processes that I have detailed above, and the book is valuable for anyone who wishes to understand how the vision of Paul differed from that of other early Christians, and why Paul’s vision ultimately triumphed to become Christian orthodoxy.

But for me, the most powerful argument that Akers makes is that Christ’s rejection of animal sacrifice brought him into direct conflict with the Temple Priests, leading to Christ’s arrest and trial under Pontius Pilate. Akers has the remarkable ability to point out evidence in the biblical texts that is hiding in plain site.

Most Christians would agree that the immediate event that led to Christ’s arrest under the charge of sedition was his confrontation at the Temple. The famous scene where Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers is usually the focal point of Christian tellings of the story. Christ’s attack on Temple business practices such as converting foreign exchange was seen as a threat to the Sadducee Priests’ power, thus resulting in their willingness to turn him over to Pilate on the claim of fomenting rebellion against Rome.

And yet, as Akers points out, the moneychangers were a small part of the Temple scene. It is unlikely that the Priests would have felt directly threatened by an attack on unscrupulous traders overcharging pilgrims on exchange rates. But the Gospel accounts actually list moneychangers as one of several groups that Jesus drove out of the Temple – and they are not the first in line.

“Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

The primary reference is to those who were “buying and selling.” What does that mean? That means the huge business of animal sales for sacrifice! The Temple was both a site of worship and a butcher shop. Jesus was disrupting the Temple’s primary revenue stream – the trade of animals for ritual slaughter.

That Jesus was primarily concerned with animal sacrifice in the Temple is made explicitly clear in the Gospel of John:

“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)

In the Gospel of John, Jesus physically drives herds of animals out of the Temple courtyard using a whip. It is an incredibly powerful visual image. Yet in all the years of that I have listened to the story of Jesus at the Temple, I have never heard anyone focus on this compelling scene. The overturning of the currency tables seems to be what is stuck in the Christian consciousness, and yet the most dramatic and chaotic event in this incident is clearly the freeing of the animal herds.

As Akers argues, the direct attack on the Priests’ principal source of livelihood, the animal sacrifices, could not be ignored. The Priests had to respond to the threat Jesus posed to their power, and they did. And the outcome changed the course of history.

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

If we accept that Jesus of Nazareth, the divine Savior of Christianity and the human Prophet of Islam, cared so deeply for animals that he would endanger his own life to end cruelty against them, what does that mean for us today?

Neither mainstream Christianity nor mainstream Islam endorses vegetarianism as a preferred lifestyle. But Akers makes a compelling argument that spiritual vegetarians have always existed within the Christian community, and that their voice of compassion toward animals is one that will never be silenced.

And Akers suggests convincingly that the Ebionites were ultimately absorbed into Islam, which shared most of their views about Jesus. And their vegetarian beliefs continued to influence Sufis, the mystics of Islam. Many Muslims would be surprised to learn that Rabia al-Adawiyya, a beloved female Sufi saint, was a vegetarian. And many Islamic legends around Jesus portray him as an ascetic who avoided meat and was deeply concerned for the welfare of animals as well as humans.

And so these teachings of Jesus continue to live on.

I think it is important to remember in a modern mechanized world, where animals are slaughtered in horrific ways using cruel and monstrous machines, that we do have a responsibility to other creatures on this earth. We have a duty to them, to our Creator, and to our own humanity, to show animals mercy and compassion. Watching beautiful little chicks ground alive by gears and blades should make us question who we are and what being human means.

On a personal note, I do not plan to renounce the consumption of meat. But I now have a preference to eat meat that has been slaughtered in as humane a way as possible. In both Judaism and Islam, there are ancient rules of sacrifice meant to lessen an animal’s suffering and bring a quick and merciful death. Called shechita in Jewish kosher laws and zabiha in Islam’s halal rules, these slaughter practices were developed in a primitive desert world where human survival should have been the only concern. And yet these ancient nomads chose to think about the welfare of animals, to feel empathy for the taking of their lives for food, and to find ways to do so as mercifully as they could. The barbaric practices of modern slaughterhouses violate the merciful traditions of Judaism, Islam, and yes, Christianity, and the holy figures of our traditions would undoubtedly reject such contemporary cruelties.

I would venture to guess that many Jews and Muslims living in the West today are lax about eating only meat that is kosher or halal. I know that is true in my own case. But after seeing some of the horrifying images from modern secular slaughterhouses, perhaps it is time for all of us to look into our religious histories and take seriously the traditions that emphasize mercy toward animals.

Maybe it is time to look back in order to move forward.

Lifting the Veil on the Debate over Veils

July 12th, 2009

I returned recently from a week in France where a debate is raging over whether Muslim women should be permitted to wear the burqa, the traditional Middle Eastern garment that covers not only the whole body, but the face as well. President Nicholas Sarkozy unleashed a firestorm of controversy with his recent call for a ban against the veil, with supporters calling it a necessary stance to protect women’s rights, and opponents decrying the proclamation as racist and symbolic of Europe’s bigotry towards its Muslim population.

But what is really going on here? Why does a simple choice of women’s attire inspire such fierce emotion? What is it about the veil that brings out such a visceral response? The issue that is not being examined in this debate is one that is perhaps too close for comfort, too sensitive to examine in a post-modern world where assumptions about male and female identities are wrapped in decades of political ideology. The question is not about banning efforts by Muslim men to forcibly wrap women in burqas against their will. The question is over whether Muslim women who freely choose to don the veil should be legally prevented from doing so.

So the real question beneath the debate, the question that is too troubling to ask aloud, is whether there is something about the veil that is actually attractive to some women, and what that means for Western sacred cows about potential differences in masculine and feminine psychology.

I have been forced to look deeply into the issues of masculine and feminine dynamics in recent days. The publication of my novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the birth of Islam from the perspective of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, has pulled me into the heart of modern discussions regarding the role of women in Islam. On my book tour through the United States, I have found myself at the center of impassioned arguments about women’s rights in the Islamic world and the intention behind ancient traditions such as veiling.

I have often found myself standing silent as women in the audience argue the issues among themselves with great passion and intensity. My role as an observer among these debates has allowed me to come to certain perceptions that might surprise both men and women used to speaking of women’s rights in the language of modern feminism. And the most startling perception, certainly for me, is that for many women, power is not defined in masculine terms of leadership over others, but in terms of social identity. And for many women, how their bodies are perceived by others is deeply central to their sense of who they are and their power over the world. And I have learned that for some women, the veil is actually a representation of an ancient kind of power, one that is rarely acknowledged in polite circles today – the power of feminine mystique.

Before I wade further into the dangerous waters of post-feminist social critique, I would like to acknowledge a point that opponents of the burqa have made – that the veil is not an Islamic religious requirement. They are correct. The veil predates Islam and was actually invented by Byzantine Christians and subsequently adopted by Zoroastrian Persians, long before Muslims appeared on the scene. In fact, the ironic social origin of the veil is that it was once used as a mark of power, not oppression.

Wealthy Christian women wore veils as a sign of high social status and nobility, while women who were unveiled in Byzantine culture were denigrated as low class, and indeed prostitutes in Byzantium would go about unveiled as a means of advertising their wares. “Respectable” Christian women believed that showing their beauty to all and sundry was cheap and demeaning. This Christian social tradition was not widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia. Like their Semitic sisters among Jews, Arab women would often wear headscarves, but face veiling was uncommon.

As I discuss in my novel, the only women that were required to be veiled in the early days of Islam were the wives of Prophet Muhammad, known in the Qur’an as “Mothers of the Believers.” Their role was to serve as the spiritual matrons of the Muslim community, and as a result they were required to live and dress differently from other women to designate their status. According to early historical sources, the veil was introduced for the Mothers after the the Prophet’s enemies taunted them and subjected them to demeaning slurs.

The triggering incident (which I recount in my novel) occurred when Aisha, a beautiful and charismatic woman, was being too forward at a social gathering, leading men at the event to ogle her and speak in demeaning terms about a woman they were supposed to revere as a spiritual guide. Shortly thereafter, the Qur’an commanded the Mothers to speak to men “through a curtain” so that their dignity would be preserved and harassment minimized.

This unusual requirement of veiling remained limited to the Mothers of the Believers and was not extended to the entire Muslim community. After Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Muslims conquered the neighboring Byzantine and Persian empires, where they first encountered widespread veiling among the upper classes. The egalitarian Arabs were offended by the social hierarchies of their conquered subjects, and Muslim leaders began to encourage veiling across every social spectrum to neutralize the haughty pretenses of aristocracy. So the mass introduction of the veil in the Middle East was originally an effort at elevating lower classes and defusing the privileges of the wealthy. While hard to imagine today, the veil was actually tool of social progress in a world with very different values.

So the critics of burqas are only partially correct – the veil is not Islamic in origin, but was definitely used by Muslims as a means of social engineering in the early days of the religion. Flash forward to the 21st century, where the veil no longer holds the same meaning as it did for Byzantine Christians. Today the veil is perceived by many in the West in opposite terms from its social origins, as a sign of oppression rather than nobility. And thus we come to the debate raging in France and much of Europe over whether the veil should be banished from the public sphere.

But the question then arises as to why Muslim women in free and open societies choose to don the veil in the first place. Certainly for some women, it is the result of social pressure from family members, and so their choice in the matter is not truly free. But in my talks with Muslim women, I was intrigued to hear stories from converts who have chosen to don the burqa despite strong social pressure from family and friends against it.

For these women, the veil represents something that is never raised in the modern debate. It represents an embrace of mystery. A reclamation of feminine mystique. An embrace of an age-old belief that less is more, that the power of the feminine is heightened by the allure of the unseen. Throughout human history, poets have written of love sparked just by seeing a glimpse of a woman’s eyes. The veil has often been the ultimate symbol of feminine coyness that activates masculine desire, the quest for the hidden pearl that sparks the dance of Eros. For some women throughout history, the veil has been a symbol of femininity on a deeply primordial level.

There is a strange duality to Western attitudes toward women’s liberation. Women are encouraged to pursue and master traditionally male roles in the worlds of business and politics. And yet they are also valued primarily for their physical looks and encouraged to display their charms at every opportunity. And so a strange schizophrenia has set in, where women are encouraged to be masculine in their ambitions while pressured to flaunt their feminine sexuality in public. Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, is held up as an archetype of the empowered European woman, and is widely admired in the press for her beauty and style. But her intelligence and political savvy are rarely mentioned as assets.

The Muslim argument for the value of modest dress, whether it be the burqa or the less-restrictive hijab (headscarf) has always centered on a critique of the demeaning attitudes of the West toward women’s bodies. As the covers of popular magazines from Cosmopolitan (for women) to Maxim (for men) reveal, women’s social value in the West is determined by the size of their breasts, the beauty of their curves, the commoditization of their flesh. The end result has been a society in which women struggle with their self-esteem due to their perceived attractiveness. Eating disorders among women are commonplace, and even teenage girls feel pressured to get breast implants to increase their social value. Muslim women who choose to don modest dress say they are making a feminist stance against this cheapening of their bodies by modern culture. For them, wearing modest dress is the contemporary equivalent of burning their bras.

Undoubtedly others would disagree. But then we face the crux of the problem – is it the place of the state to define for women what values they should have? How they should see themselves, their clothes and their bodies? Even if the French are able to successfully enact a ban on the burqa, the attitudes behind the veil will not go away. The argument that the veil serves as an automatic barrier to Muslim women achieving leadership positions in business and politics is false. In my novel, I demonstrate how the Prophet’s wife Aisha, was able to become a politician, a scholar, a poet and a military commander – all while donning the veil. Muslim women from the Egyptian queen Shagrat al-Dur to the Mughal empress Nur Jahan have ruled nations from behind a veil. The burqa is not an automatic barrier to success in the public sphere for women. But more importantly, those women who have no desire to embark on such professions will not be coerced into doing so by regulating how they choose to cover their bodies.

It appears that some opponents of the the veil are actually more upset about the choice many women make to continue in traditional lifestyles even though other opportunities are available to them. But many women have no desire to embrace traditionally masculine ambitions, and will not do so no matter how much others try to force them to change. And efforts to compel Muslim women will only be met by anger and resentment. If some women are required by the state to dress in a fashion they find too revealing, even demeaning, there will only be a calcification of rebellion, a hardening of resistance to social control. The unrest that Europe faces with its Muslim population will only increase in intensity. As demographics change, as Europe inevitably moves toward Muslim social prominence, the tensions between the self-proclaimed arbiters of identity and their unwilling subjects will explode.

With all that said, here are my personal opinions on the matter, for whatever they are worth. I am a believer that every society has a right to regulate conduct within its borders, including how people are dressed. France has as much right to ban the burqa as Iran has to require it. But I believe that people should be honest about their motivations in either case. In both instances, such rules are the instruments of control freaks attempting to tell women how to think and feel about themselves based on clothing. And in my experience, efforts to legislate thoughts always fail. As we have seen in recent years, Iranian women have been pushing for greater freedom of dress, despite decades of indoctrination by the country’s clerics. At the same time, Muslim women have been pushing for the right to be left alone in Europe, to dress as they wish, despite intense social pressure to conform. The European couture police will no more be successful in compelling Muslim women to think in a certain way than have been the mullahs in the Middle East.

Specifically with regard to France, my own experience in that beautiful country (I lived in Paris for several months in 2007) leads me to believe that the controversy over the burqa is not really about women’s rights. It is about preserving a certain cultural heritage from the onslaught of foreign values and perspectives. The burqa controversy is really about attempting to save a beleaguered French identity from being replaced by a new and alien social tradition that is spreading through the power of demographics. But social engineering is a poor tool to curtail the realities of reproduction. At current birth rates, Muslims will become a numerically influential community inside France within this century. The same is true for many other nations in Europe. Efforts to stem the power of Muslim culture from reshaping European identity are as pointless as trying to hold back a river with one’s hands.

Of course, fear of change is understandable. But the burqa debate is just the tip of something darker, even sinister, within European culture today. It is based on a hatred of the other that arises from Europe’s unacknowledged racism toward its immigrant population. This fear against Muslims has led to some truly horrifying incidents of violence in Europe. A few days ago, a pregnant Muslim woman in Germany was murdered while testifying in court against a man who had subjected her to slurs for wearing a headscarf. Marwa el-Sherbini was stabbed 18 times by the man she had accused of racist bullying. Her three-year-old son watched in horror as his mother was killed in broad daylight, inside a court of law. Marwa’s husband was shot by court guards when he attempted to save her life.

This truly sickening incident has received almost no media coverage in Europe, even though Marwa has become a heroine and a martyr throughout the Muslim world. The fact that Europeans have chosen to ignore the brutal murder of a woman whose only crime was that she covered her head with a piece of cloth, reveals the real issues beneath the burqa debate. It is ultimately not about women’s rights, but about power over immigrants. Marwa was no weak and submissive Muslim woman. She was highly educated, a noted athlete (she was a national handball champion in Egypt), and her husband a genetic engineer seeking his PhD. Marwa represented the future of Europe’s Muslim immigrants – empowered, educated and strong. And she was butchered like an animal for having the audacity to dress differently. The fact that her death has not been a source of European soul-searching suggests that some truths are too painful to face.

The debate over Muslim dress and women’s rights will continue. But it needs to be seen in a broader context of cultural values and history. There is much that Europe, with its ancient history and traditions, can add to the melting pot of Islamic identity. And there are important things that Muslims can remind their Western neighbors, including the value of traditional masculine and feminine dynamics. By showing respect for Muslim women’s choices in dress, the veil can paradoxically become an instrument to lift the barriers that separate human beings from each other.

Why Obama’s Speech in Cairo Matters — And Why it Doesn’t

June 8th, 2009

President Barack Obama gave a highly anticipated speech to the Islamic world on June 4th in Cairo. There was a great deal of excitement in the Muslim community to hear what a President who shares a middle name with the grandson of Prophet Muhammad has to say. There are many reasons why Obama’s speech is important. But there are also many reasons why it really isn’t.

Let me explain. My friends at Patheos.com asked me to write a Muslim perspective on Obama’s speech, and I found myself surprisingly ambivalent about the whole affair. On a positive note, since his historic election, Obama has made substantial efforts to reach out to the Islamic community and rebuild bridges after the disastrous legacy of his predecessor George W. Bush. He has signaled a willingness to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran, has made some comments in sympathy with the Palestinians, and has called for an end to Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Most importantly, in a speech he gave to the Turkish Parliament in April, Obama repeatedly used a word that Muslims have craved to hear from American leaders: “respect.” After decades of open contempt for Islam in the corridors of Washington and the news media, the word signals an acceptance that mutual respect is the cornerstone of building a new relationship between the West and the Islamic world.

All of this is important and indicates a dramatic shift away from a foreign policy based on imperial hubris that has marked the past eight years. And it is not surprising that Obama, who has Muslim relatives and spent his youth among Muslims in Indonesia, has natural empathy for the Islamic world and knows how to communicate with its people.  His epic rhetorical skills were in evidence in Cairo, and his speech may very well be remembered as historic and have a profound impact on Muslim hearts and minds.

In his speech, Obama continued his current efforts to treat Muslims with respect and encourage real discourse between America and Islamic nations.  He quoted liberally from the Holy Qur’an, which was well received by Muslim audiences.  His support for an independent and prosperous Palestinian state living in peace with Israel was welcomed by most Muslims.  Obama also encouraged Muslim countries to move toward democracy, and did not shy from saying critical things about the current political and human rights equation in the Islamic world.  And he pledged America’s support for Muslims in helping their countries to improve and evolve into freer and more economically successful societies.

All of this is important and needed to be said. The fact that such words came from the mouth of America’s first black president, one who has Muslim relatives, gave them real weight for his Muslim audience. Obama’s natural talent is the ability to inspire and effect change with the power of words, an ability that Muslims greatly respect, as our first and greatest orator was Prophet Muhammad himself. As I detail in my novel, Mother of the Believers, the power of the spoken and written word in shaping a community’s destiny is central to Islam. The first commandment received by the Prophet from the angel Gabriel was simple and unequivocal: “Read!”

President Obama is perhaps the most well-read and eloquent American leader in quite some time. But even the power of his words is limited. After the applause dies down, after the giddy cheers dissipate and are replaced by only echoes that linger like dying embers in a hearth, the Muslim world will still face very stark realities and challenges. And ultimately Barack Obama will not be the solution to the problems facing Islam today. It will be the Muslims that will have to bear the burden of making the painful reforms to revitalize our civilization, which has reached a pivotal moment in history.

It has been several decades since the Muslim world emerged from the greatest shock in its history since the Mongol destruction of Baghdad – the legacy of European colonialism. Most of our nations are new, less than a century old, and were carved out of the ruins of dead Islamic empires – the Ottomans in Turkey and the Middle East, the Qajars of Iran, and the Mughals of the Indian subcontinent. I was born in Pakistan, a Muslim country that didn’t come into being until 1947, when my parents were toddlers. The extreme shock and humiliation of occupation by European powers has left the Islamic world in deep disarray and confusion.

Muslims have lost their sense of themselves as a confident, progressive community meant to serve as models and leaders for the world. In a wonderful new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary looks at how the recent experience of Western domination has shaken the sense of Islam’s “manifest destiny” among Muslims. Only a few hundred years ago, Muslim armies ruled Eastern Europe and stood poised to conquer Vienna. Prior to that we had created rich civilizations that were the envy of the world – the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Umayyads of Spain led humanity in art and science. Muslims had mastered the use of gunpowder in the 13th century, when Europeans were living in stone huts. And the idea that one day the primitive Europeans would not only dominate Muslims but quantum leap past us in science, art and technology was laughable.

But it happened. And now we are here. Unelected dictators, clinging to outdated political and economic philosophies, rule most of the Muslim world. Muslims who used to take pride in treating women better than Christians (Islam gave women property and inheritance rights 1,300 years before Europe and America followed suit) now find ourselves having to defend the honor of our faith against claims of misogyny. Our education systems are still catching up to the West, and our commitment to the arts is shaky. Freedom of speech is curtailed in much of the Muslim world, even though the right to speak out against the ruler has long been enshrined in Islamic law.

And our greatest sorrow, the suffering of our brothers in Palestine, remains something that Muslims feel they can do nothing to alleviate. With Israel’s nuclear weapons and economic and military support from the United States, Muslims feel powerless to help the Palestinians defend their lives, their homes, their human dignity. Seeing Israeli soldiers standing guard over the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Muslims pray is heart wrenching and shameful for a community that has considered Jerusalem its home since the days of Prophet Muhammad.

These are things that President Obama can do little to change. Indeed, when it comes to American foreign policy in the Middle East, Muslims are likely to be deeply disappointed in Obama. The reality is that unconditional support for Israel in general, and its right-wing politicians in particular, is deeply embedded into the Washington political culture. That bias will not change for decades, if ever. And despite his rhetoric in support of democracy in the Muslim world, Obama is unlikely to pressure our dictators to liberalize their societies. After the disaster of attempting to impose American power in Iraq, the United States has lost its taste for transforming other societies.

While the end of American imperial fantasies may be a good thing, it means that Muslims can no longer expect America to be on the forefront of their struggles for freedom and justice. America’s economy is, frankly, bankrupt and cannot afford an aggressive foreign policy of any kind. So Muslims must accept that Obama’s words will likely be just that – words. We must take up the responsibility for transforming our own societies ourselves. America will not solve the Palestine problem. America will not bring us democracy or human rights. America will not advance our economic, educational and political stature. That is something only Muslims can and must do.

The Holy Qur’an tells us that every human being is a “khalifa” – God’s viceroy on Earth. The responsibility is on our shoulders to struggle for change, which is the true meaning of the word “jihad.” No one else is going to carry our burdens. So we can take inspiration from President Barack Hussein Obama. We can take admonition from him. But ultimately Muslims must take responsibility for ourselves in bringing Islam back to its true destiny – to be a beacon of hope, progress and leadership for the world.

Why Angels and Demons Will Shake Up Hollywood’s Attitude Toward Religion

May 17th, 2009

Ron Howard’s new adaptation of the Dan Brown book Angels and Demons represents a breakthrough in Hollywood’s approach toward religion, taking the discussions of faith away from the extremes of proselytizing and rejection to the middle ground. That is where most believers are, and that is where great storytelling takes place. And Angels and Demons is great storytelling.

As a practicing Muslim working inside Hollywood, I have often felt that there is a tangible bias in the entertainment industry, not just against my own religion, but against people of faith in general. Too often, I have seen important film and television projects that look at religious faith in a sophisticated way disappear into a black hole within the system. The excuse used by many traditional Hollywood types, that religion is just too controversial a matter to deal with in cinema, has always rung false.

Indeed, the great moguls who founded Hollywood knew that the majority of their audience consisted of devout believers, and being smart businessmen, they catered to religious ticket buyers with majestic films like The Robe and The Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is the latter film, Cecile B. DeMille’s epic on Moses, which has exerted profound personal influence on me both as a believer and as a filmmaker. The Ten Commandments was the first movie I ever saw after I emigrated from Pakistan to the United States at the age of three.

Watching that film on our newly acquired television set in our tiny apartment in Queens, I was taken away to a magical dimension. A world where God spoke to men through a burning bush and a pillar of fire, where a shepherd’s staff could transform into a snake and the Nile could turn red with blood, a world where an evil Pharaoh could be humbled by a simple prophet emerging from the desert. I remembered turning to my father as the end credits rolled, my heart pounding with wonder, and asking him a question that would begin my personal journey of faith.

“What is God?”

Over the years, I have heard many answers to that question, but none that has yet to satisfy me more than the one my father gave me that night after we watched the movie.

“God is the light of the universe. What Moses saw was just one ray of that light.”

His perspective has stayed with me over the years, and has allowed me to approach both my craft as a filmmaker and novelist, as well as my social interactions as a human being, with a sense of humility. The Ten Commandments taught me that God is everywhere, and His voice can be heard at any time, from any source. Whether it is through a bush burning in the desert, or from the mouth of someone from another culture, even another religion, God’s voice is always echoing around us, if we only choose to hear.

Yet faith, as any true believer will admit, is hard. We are imperfect people living in a broken world trying to make sense of it all, and it is often hard to reconcile what our hearts tell us about the spiritual beauty of God and what our senses tell us about the evils and suffering of creation. Faith at its best is our shelter during the storms of life, our sturdy ship to guide us through the turbulent seas of the human experience. But at its worst, it can be used as a tool to control and oppress others, to spread suffering instead of love in this world. Any believer who is sincere must confront daily the contradictions that come with belief and somehow synthesize these opposing realities in a way that makes sense to the heart, even if it cannot be grasped by reason. To trust that there is purpose and meaning in this cosmos, despite the onslaught of evidence to the contrary. Maybe that is why it is called “faith” in the first place.

Angels and Demons is the first Hollywood movie in a long time that really looks at what it means to be a believer, and the extremes that can be found among people who look to faith for guidance. Without revealing the film’s secrets, I think it is safe to say that it is a movie that examines whether science and religion are incompatible, and explores the dark actions that people take when they conclude that one of these disciplines threatens the other.

While some conservative Catholics might find the film’s portrayal of the secret dealings inside the Vatican offensive, I think most people, Christian or otherwise, will appreciate its very human picture of characters who are motivated by faith and committed to struggling with “demons,” both in others and within themselves. It is this presentation of raw, imperfect human beings struggling with faith that I appreciated most, as I face these battles within myself every day as a believer.

Indeed, when I wrote my novel, Mother of the Believers, I found myself naturally examining these conflicts in the context of the birth of Islam. My book, which follows the rise of Islam from the perspective of Aisha, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, portrays the early Muslim community as consisting of very complex, passionate and, at times, flawed individuals. People who most overcome their own inner demons to do good, and when they sometimes fail, who repent and return to the “straight path,” as sincere faith is called in the Qur’an.

What I hope my novel accomplished, and what I know Angels and Demons did, is to take the discussion of religion out of the hands of extremists with an agenda. That agenda could be the desire to proselytize others and convince them of the truth of a religion, or to go to other extreme, which is to mock believers as simpletons who couple faith in God with a conviction that the earth is flat and that babies come from storks.

To my sorrow, many of my colleagues in Hollywood share the latter agenda. People of faith have complained for years, with real justification, that Hollywood promotes an anti-religion outlook. Bill Maher’s recent documentary Religulous went out of its way to find the wackiest, craziest believers in the world and then mock them. And Hollywood studios continue to resist making movies that would appeal to believers. Long before there was any controversy over Mel Gibson’s beliefs, his idea about doing a film on the Crucifixion in Aramaic was mocked by studio executives, who could not understand why such a film might appeal to millions of Christians.

While one can certainly take Mr. Gibson to task for some of his words and actions, the movie is a powerful and compelling work of cinema that even a non-Christian like myself can appreciate. At its core, it is a film about the central Christian story of the Messiah’s tragic sacrifice for mankind. How could that not be a blockbuster? And yet many people I knew in the industry flew into an outraged frenzy when The Passion of the Christ became a huge global hit. It was as if the demonstrated power of traditional religious audiences was a personal insult to the worldview of many Hollywood players, who, in my experience, usually worship only one god – money.

This prejudice against faith inside Hollywood makes Angels and Demons an even greater accomplishment. Ron Howard’s movie is important not only because it treats religious faith with respect, but because it actually explores the central issue that is important to many believers today – how to reconcile ancient religious beliefs with the modern discoveries of science. Contrary to the prejudices of anti-religion writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, the majority of faithful people are not living in a delusional world, their eyes and ears closed to science and discovery. InAngels and Demons, one of the most important scientists involved in cutting edge physics research happens to be a Catholic priest. For that character, the quest to understand the fabric of the universe through the lens of quantum science is very much a religious quest to pierce the veil and see at last the Face of God.

As several characters in the film point out, religion and science are methodologies to come to understand the truth of the cosmos. They do not need to be antithetical to each other. In fact, they can and should be complementary human endeavors to understand this remarkable universe in which we find ourselves.

And this is by no means a radical new perspective among believers. As the film points out, Galileo saw himself as a devout man seeking to understand God’s creation. Isaac Newton also found no contradiction between faith and science and believed the existence of God was self-evident. It was simply his role as a scientist to better understand the work of the Creator. God was the cosmic clockmaker and scientists were merely examining the delicate inner workings of His design.

And in the modern world, with the strange and inexplicable discoveries of quantum physics, scientific treatises on the nature of reality sound remarkably like ancient mystical writings. The more we learn about the shocking contradictions and improbable mechanics of the subatomic world, the more it appears that the universe is less like Newton’s giant clock and more like one giant dream, imagined from within an implicate order that transcends human reason. Such a vision would be familiar to the Sufis of Islam, along with their counterparts among Buddhist masters, Kabbalists and Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart.

And it is not only the scientists that are beginning to realize that something truly magical serves as the foundation of reality. Believers are beginning to see in the wondrous scientific order of the universe the evidence of the Divine in action. In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis S. Collins explains why the discoveries of modern science only confirmed his personal faith as a Christian. Mr. Collins is no backwoods preacher – he is a pioneering medical geneticist who once led the Human Genome Project.

A similar effort to unite faith and science has long been under way in my own faith, Islam. In my novel, I discuss how Islam was founded on a hunger for knowledge. Prophet Muhammad said: “Seek knowledge, even if you must go to China.” And his words inspired Muslims to become the world’s greatest scientists at a time when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. In Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists, Michael Hamilton Morgan demonstrates how Muslim scientists in the Middle Ages made incredible advances in every field of study, from astronomy to medicine to mathematics.

In the modern world, there has been a popular effort among Muslim writers to present Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an, as completely compatible with the discoveries of modern science. A bestselling book in the Muslim world, The Bible, The Qur’an, and Science, by a French physician Maurice Bucaille, argues that the Qur’anic verses describing everything from the expansion of the universe to the intricate details of embryonic growth inside the womb are in absolute alignment with modern scientific theories.

Of course, non-believers will be skeptical of such claims, but the point is not whether Mr. Bucaille’s reading of the Qur’an is correct. What matters is that his theories are now commonplace among Muslims, so that believers do not find modern scientific discoveries to be in any way threatening to their faith. In fact, because of this widespread interpretation of the Qur’an, many Muslims find confirmation of their faith through the discoveries of modern science. The painful Christian debate over the primacy of faith versus science that is portrayed in Angels and Demons is simply not happening in the Muslim world, as there is already a consensus that there can never be any contradiction between the two.

But even if one is unconvinced that any ancient scripture can remain unchallenged by the discoveries of modern science, it is important to note that the purpose of scripture is not, in fact, to serve as a scientific textbook. The purpose of any holy text that has survived the centuries is to provide moral and ethical guidance to human beings. That is true of the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Sutras. These texts are meant to help us as human beings live in this world and make sense of our lives. They survive because they work.

A Christian friend of mine once asked how I reconciled the story of Adam and Eve in the Qur’an with the scientific consensus on evolution. I smiled and said to him that I didn’t bother. It’s like comparing apples and musical notes. The scientific theory and the scriptural story serve totally different purposes.

Science is about how. Religion is about why.

Scientists examine the fossil record and come to an understanding of what it means for the history of life on our planet. But the scriptural story of creation is not about history – it is about values. As a believer, the story of Adam and Eve teaches me everything I need to know about what it means to be human. We are all children of Adam, whose name simply means “dust” in Hebrew and Arabic. We are children of this earth. Human beings are brothers and sisters, all part of one family. Like our archetypal father figure, we can make mistakes, we can sin, and we can also repent and find forgiveness. That is the lesson of the story in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Whether it describes a historical event is absolutely pointless and irrelevant.

Science can tell me how I got here as a human being, but it cannot tell me what I am supposed to do now. Indeed science without a spiritual connection can be used to create great evil, as the Nazis proved with their eugenics experiments. The Nazis believed in the methodology of science, but they did not believe in the simple lesson derived from faith – that human life is sacred. The ancient stories and rituals of our religions are meant to help us learn profound spiritual truths that cannot be deduced by examining cells under a microscope. It is that power of wise storytelling that is religion’s purpose and gift to humanity.

Cecil B. DeMille understood that. He knew that the power of the Bible lay in its stories, and he turned those stories into incredibly moving, epic films. These ancient tales about good versus evil, the power of love and forgiveness, and the triumph of the weak over the proud, are timeless and have meaning for every generation. It is a kind of storytelling that Hollywood has sadly forgotten.

But perhaps with Angels and Demons, Hollywood can start moving away from the extremes of materialism and cynicism toward the spiritual center where the audience eagerly awaits. And then maybe we filmmakers might be able to play a more profound role as storytellers that help human beings make sense of this truly majestic cosmos.

Europe and its Muslims: A Gap of Trust

May 14th, 2009

Gallup recently published a remarkable report on the attitudes of Muslims and non-Muslims regarding Islam in Europe.  One of the most striking points in the report was that 80% of French Muslims believed that Muslims were loyal to France.  But only 44% of their non-Muslim countrymen believed Muslims were loyal. 


Wow.  What a disconnect.


The report, The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations, is the first annual report on the state of religious relations in nations around the world.  The report contained some remarkable findings that show a troubling gap between how European Muslims see themselves, and what others assume about them.

See http://www.muslimwestfacts.com/mwf/118249/Gallup-Coexist-Index-2009.aspx


French Muslims, for example, identify with France as much as other French do (52%/55%), although they identify much more with their religion (58%) than the general French public (23%).  So for French Muslims, their religion and their national loyalty are complementary, not mutually exclusive.  But their religious identification makes their patriotism suspect to their neighbors.


Similar results were noted in Germany, where 71% of German Muslims said Muslims were loyal to Germany, while only 39% of their neighbors trusted Muslim loyalty to the state.  What makes this finding even more ironic is that 40% of German Muslims actively identify with Germany, while only 32% of the general German population did.  So Muslims in Germany not only see themselves as more patriotic than others credit them for, they are more loyal to Germany than other Germans!


In the United Kingdom, 82% of Muslims said British Muslims were loyal.  Only 36% of their neighbors shared that view.  But what is even more fascinating is that UK Muslims showed more faith in their country’s government than other Brits.  83% of British Muslims believed that their nation’s elections were fair, while only 57% of the general populace did.  76% of British Muslims believed in the integrity of the justice system, while only 55% of their neighbors trusted the courts.


The wide gap between how Muslims see themselves and their patriotism, and how their neighbors perceive them, is dangerous and must be addressed.  Unfortunately, the problem appears to lie less with the Muslim communities, who clearly love their countries, than with deep-rooted bigotry and social exclusion practiced by many of their neighbors.  Muslims in many of these countries complain, with justification, that they are locked out of jobs and denied opportunities available to the rest of their countrymen. 


And in Britain, the economic result of this discrimination is very real.  The poll showed that 62% of British respondents were employed, but only 38% of British Muslims held jobs.  The poll’s results also suggest that radicalization among European Muslims is most likely to occur in environments where they are economically deprived or discriminated against.  Not exactly a shocker.


As an American Muslim, one of the greatest  things I treasure about the United States is that economic opportunity is largely available to everyone, regardless of race or religion.  The kind of overt class system that appears to be still be very much in place in Britain is anathema to American notions of entrepreneurialism and social mobility. 


Most Muslims I know are quite well educated and prosperous, with the usual joke being that American Muslims won’t settle for anything less than high-paying jobs as doctors, engineers and lawyers.  I myself am a former attorney with three graduate degrees and have become a Hollywood screenwriter and producer for networks such as NBC and Showtime.  Being a Muslim does not automatically create a glass ceiling in this society, and it is for that reason that most American Muslims are much better integrated than their European counterparts.


Integration into foreign societies is actually a long-standing Muslim tradition that goes back to the birth of Islam itself.  In my novel Mother of the Believers, I relate how the early Muslim community, including Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Ruqayyah, had to immigrate to the Christian country of Abyssinia to escape persecution in Arabia.  Welcomed by the ruling Negus as fellow monotheists, the Muslims became an integral part of Abyssinian society, living in peace and trading with their Christian neighbors. 


When the pagan Arabs of Mecca sent envoys to the Negus demanding he deport the Muslim exiles, the king refused, citing Muslim love for Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.  Muslims and Christians were brothers in the eyes of the Negus.  This event is quite a remarkable moment in history, as one religion (Christianity) protected and defended another (Islam) from annihilation.  And Muslims to this day look back fondly on the years of Abyssinian sanctuary, and the Christian Negus is considered a great hero by Muslim historians.


In this ancient tale there is also a lesson for today.  Integration is a two-way street.  The Muslim immigrants became loyal and active participants in Abyssinian society because the Abyssinians were secure in their own identity and welcomed the newcomers.  And Ethiopia, the modern descendant of the old Abyssinian kingdom, remains today a majority Christian nation with a large and integrated Muslim minority.  Europeans must similarly change their attitudes toward their Muslim communities and welcome them as neighbors, not treat them as pariahs.  These countries must end discrimination and provide their Muslim populations with equal opportunities that will further solidify their demonstrated loyalty and patriotism.


There is much to learn from Gallup’s new report.  But I hope that Europeans will begin the process of soul searching as to whether their fears of their Muslims neighbors are based in their own prejudices rather than in fact.  European Muslims love their countries and want to integrate.  It is now up to their host countries to welcome them into a new partnership that will be critical to the future of Europe and the world.

Bibles and Guns: Why Soldiers who Proselytize Strengthen our Enemies

May 13th, 2009

Many Americans have expressed shock at news that some U.S. soldiers have been seeking to use their positions of power in Iraq and Afghanistan to preach Christianity.  But this does not come as news to Muslims, who have been long aware of these proselytizing efforts at the end of a gun.


The Pentagon’s General Order 1 prohibits American troops from attempting to convert people in foreign countries.  Nonetheless, this activity has been rampant since the United States military first entered Afghanistan and Iraq.  In this month’s Harper’s Magazine, Jeff Sharlet’s article “Jesus killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military” provides troubling insight into the efforts of fundamentalist Christian churches to turn our armed forces into a modern-day Knights Templar, fighting infidels on behalf of the Church.

See http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/05/0082488


As a person of faith myself, I understand the urge to share spiritual witness.  Both Christianity and Islam believe they have a message from God for all humanity, and as a result, believers in both traditions naturally seek to engage others and share their faith.  And I have no problem entering into discussions and debate with others on matters of religion.  Indeed, it is a healthy part of human discourse.  For only through openly examining ideas and beliefs can we as human beings discover what feels spiritually true to us.  And when our heart finds something it feels to be true, the urge to share that truth with others is natural and part of the human condition.


But faith proffered at the end of a gun is not the same as spirited discourse between equals.  American soldiers are in a position of power – lethal power – over the men, women and children in whose countries they are acting.  When an armed man seeks to share his beliefs with you, it is not about spreading enlightenment, but about domination and control.  To go into other countries with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, can only create fear, resentment and backlash.


Even worse, the image of the soldier-preacher fits directly into Al-Qaeda’s meme that Americans are engaged in a new Crusade to destroy Islam.  And to the extent that these fundamentalist churches are allowed to exert influence in our military, our enemies are proven right.  Both Muslim extremists and their Christian counterparts seek to ignite a war of civilizations, a zero-sum game in which their ideology will ultimately destroy their adversaries completely.


But I don’t believe most Americans share that vision of Christianity, just like most Muslims don’t seek to dominate and destroy other religions.  And it is now up to people of good will, whatever their beliefs, to work together to prevent this clash of civilizations that the militants among us desire.


The irony of these American churches’ efforts to spread Christianity in the Muslim world is that Christianity has been part of the fabric of these nations for centuries.  As I discuss in my novel, Mother of the Believers, the Muslim conquest of the Middle East was supported by Christian groups like the Egyptian Copts, who had been oppressed by the Byzantine Church for doctrinal differences.  The Muslim leaders guaranteed religious freedom for “the People of the Book,” and as a result they were able to attract the support of Middle Eastern Christians who were being terrorized by their fellow believers.  Indeed, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred its Christian population, who were seen as traitors for living in friendship with their Muslim neighbors.


In Iraq, an ancient Christian community has been in place for the past 2,000 years.  And Iraqi Christians like former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz rose to positions of power in Saddam’s secular regime.  With the destruction of Iraq’s secular dictatorship by American forces, Muslim extremists have filled the power vacuum, and now Iraq’s Christian community is undergoing terrible persecution.  About a third of Iraq’s 800,000 Christians are believed to have fled overseas since 2003.


That’s right – there were almost a million Christians already in Iraq under Saddam, part of a community that has lived in peace with its Muslim neighbors for over a thousand years.  American Christians who supported the Iraq war as an End-Times battle to spread Christianity have ironically created an environment where Christianity is now disappearing from Iraq. 


The lesson of these tragic events is that faith is best shared through dialogue built on respect for those who differ from us.  It can never be imposed through power, and if it is, it is not faith at all, but mind control.  And efforts to control the hearts and minds of others will always fail.


The Holy Qur’an says very clearly in Surah 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth stands out clear from error.”


If what you believe is true, you don’t need to use power or manipulation to convince others.  So let us lay down our guns and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.  The truth will win out in the end.  It always does.

Why Suicide Bombings Violate Islam

May 6th, 2009

The evil of suicide bombings must be defeated by Muslims, as it violates every tenet of Islam.  In the past week, at least 150 people were killed in Iraq in a wave of suicide bombings which have torn apart any illusion of security in that tragic country. 


As a Muslim, as a human begin, I am filled with horror at images of men, women and children torn to shreds by the madness of people who turn themselves into incendiary devices.  And I am filled with outrage and fury at the diabolic forces that seek to present this monstrous, murderous, terrorist activity as somehow sanctioned by my faith.


Let me put this in as simple terms as possible.  Suicide bombings, indeed all forms of terrorism, are rejected by mainstream Islam, and always have been. 


The Holy Qur’an says it in very clear, without any ambiguity:


“Do not kill yourselves, for truly God is merciful.  And if any do that in rancor and injustice, soon shall We cast them in the Fire. ” (Surah 4:29-30)


The Qur’an makes it clear that there are rules to human conflict and limits that must be followed:


“And fight in the way of God against those who fight you.  But do not transgress the limits. Truly God does not love transgressors.” (Surah 2:190)


As I discuss in my new novel Mother of the Believers, traditional Islamic law established very clear rules of war based on the practice of Prophet Muhammad and his early followers:  Do not kill civilians.  Do not kill women and children.  Do not harm priests of of other religions.  Do not destroy the environment.


Abu Bakr, the first leader of Islam after Prophet Muhammad, gave these commandments when Muslims were fighting the forces of the Byzantine Empire, which had sought to destroy the new religion and killed the Prophet’s ambassador:


“Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules to keep by heart: Do not commit treachery, nor depart from the right path. You must not mutilate, neither kill a child or aged man or woman. Do not destroy a palm tree, nor burn it with fire and do not cut any fruitful tree. You must not slay any of the flock or herds or the camels, save for your subsistence. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them to that to which they have devoted their lives. You are likely, likewise, to find people who will present to you meals of many kinds. You may eat; but do no forget to mention the name of God.”


Muslims always took great pride in the fact that they acted honorably, even in war.  They looked with contempt upon the warriors of Europe, who slaughtered civilians mercilessly during the Crusades.  When Saladin defeated the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem and took the holy city, he spared its Christian populace and pointedly said: “We will not do to you what you did to us.” 


His comment was in reference to the First Crusade, where Christian “holy warriors” massacred tens of thousands of civilians upon taking Jerusalem in 1099.  Muslims were slaughtered en masse, the Jews of Jerusalem were locked into its main synagogue and set on fire.  And Arab Christians were murdered by their co-religionists for the sin of having dark skin and looking like the enemy.  The Gesta Francorum, a Crusader chronicle of their activities, proudly notes that the “the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.”


In the town of Ma’arra in Syria, the Crusaders committed the ultimate atrocity — cannibalism.  As Crusader chronicler Radulph of Caen wrote: “In Ma’arra, our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”


To this day, the Crusaders are referred to in the Muslim world as “the cannibals of Ma’arra.”


The Muslims looked at this kind of atrocity committed in the name of God as unworthy of any great religion, and held themselves above such monstrous behavior.


So how is it possible that its modern equivalent, the mass murder of civilians through suicide bombings, should now be done in the name of Islam?


In Dying to Win, Robert Pape, a scholar at the University of Chicago, analyzes the history and motivation of suicide bombers.  Many people who read the book will be surprised to learn that suicide bombing was a tactic that was first used regularly by Hindu terrorists known as the Tamil Tigers.  One of the most prominent victims of this tactic, Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, was killed on May 21, 1999 by a female suicide bomber from the Tamil Tigers.  According to Pape, Gandhi’s murder marks the first use of the “suicide vest” which has become the tool of suicide bombers throughout the world today.


A full chronology of the history of suicide bombing among Tamil extremists can be found at:




(A warning that the link contains graphic photos of the carnage caused by suicide bombers.)


One of the greatest tragedies of modern Islam is that Muslim extremists began to adopt this horrific tactic of suicide bombing over the past two decades.  Palestinian militants, arguing that they had no other effective way to combat Israeli oppression, began to adopt these tactics, and the image of the “Muslim suicide bomber” began to take hold in the media .


I remember at the time most Muslims I spoke with expressed disgust at these horrific acts, but some added the caveat — “What else can these poor people do?  They have  no tanks or jets to take on Israeli tanks and jets.  This is their only way to fight.”


My response then and now is that Islam is a religion that has established rules of war for a reason.  Human conflict is perhaps inevitable, but unless there is a sense of morality among warriors, even among the warriors of the oppressed, human beings will descend into monstrosity.  The nobility of a cause is forever tainted when dipped in the blood of innocents.  The argument that Israeli military activities kill countless Palestinian civilians, so Muslims are free to target their civilians in response, is not an argument that is supported by the noble spirit of Islam.  As Saladin pointed out, the Muslims would not inflict on the Christians the atrocities that the Crusaders had inflicted on their victims, simple because we as Muslims were better than that.


And I warned those who would excuse the suicide bombers as long as they targeted “the enemy,” that in Islam all human beings are brothers and sisters and have rights before God and man.  I predicted that once some Muslims turned their back on Islam’s strict rules of war and went beneath themselves in order “to win,” the wrath of Allah would be unleashed upon us.  If we allowed suicide bombings against non-Muslims, then soon would God punish our sins by unleashing the same horror on Muslims.


Tragically, my prediction came true.  Suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan now kill thousands of Muslims a year, innocent people going to pray or shop in the marketplace.  Their only crime being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


This kind of monstrous behavior is not Islam.  It never has been Islam. And it will never be Islam, no matter what kind of self-serving justifications the terrorists use. 


For those who wish to learn more about mainstream Muslim positions about war, terrorism and suicide bombing, I refer you here:






It is time for Muslims and people of all faiths to stand together in love and justice and end this horrific scourge of terrorism and suicide bombing on humanity.


I look forward to the day that the world will no longer associate such monstrosity with my beloved faith.  And that one day, mankind will believe that Islam represents what its name stands for: “Peace.”



The Big Lie About Muslim Silence on Terrorism

April 20th, 2009

Today I had to refute yet again the Big Lie that hounds the Muslim community — that we fail to speak out and condemn terrorism.

I was being interviewed by the wonderful radio host Dr. Alvin Augustus Jones about my new novel Mother of the Believers. Dr. Jones is a deeply spiritual man whose show always features uplifting themes and speakers. And he went out of his way to make me feel welcome.

But as a good journalist, he had to ask the question he felt his audience wanted answered — “Why do mainstream Muslims fail to speak out against terrorism?

It is a question that I get almost every single day, and it leaves me flabbergasted. I often respond to that question with one of my own — “Why does the media fail to report on Muslims who condemn terrorism?”

Since before 2001, every single major Muslim group in the United States has been outspoken in their condemnation of terrorism and the murder of innocent people in the name of Islam. And yet the media ignores it. Every single time.

Don’t believe me?

Go to http://www.muhajabah.com/otherscondemn.php

That site lists links to dozens of major Muslims group and Islamic scholars who have condemned terrorism as a violation of the fundamental moral precepts of Islam.

Want more?

Here’s a compilation of Islamic fatwas against terrorism by Juan Cole, scholar of the Middle East and author of Engaging the Muslim World.


Cole’s list was compiled after Thomas Friedman wrote an outrageous column in The New York Times claiming that “no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama Bin Laden.”

Friedman knew (or should have known as an alleged Middle East expert) that what he was saying was a lie. But he chose to publish this garbage anyway, giving it the full credibility of the Times.

What was so shocking was that Friedman’s column was published on July 8, 2005. But three months before, on March 11, 2005, a group of Spanish imams issued a fatwa against Osama Bin Laden:



So what is going on here?

As one of the few Muslims who has worked inside Hollywood for the past 7 years as a writer and producer, I can only explain this shocking lie that has become a national meme as the product of an intentional media agenda.

There is a real political agenda inside the media itself to keep Islam as the enemy, and to portray mainstream Muslims as a fifth column inside America. The idea that your Muslim neighbors are silently supporting Bin Laden sells newspapers. It captures the attention of viewers of the nightly news. And it furthers the ambitions of politicians who need a rallying point to get votes.

As a Muslim and a patriot I don’t know what more to do except to keep telling the truth every time I get the opportunity.

But I ask my non-Muslim friends this question. How would you feel if your community was being falsely portrayed as being sympathetic to murderers by the media? How would you feel if every single thing you do to condemn and fight such criminals is intentionally ignored? What would you conclude about the character and motivation of people that continue to spread a lie against millions of your fellow human beings?

If you can take a moment to consider, you might get a sense of the true burden your Muslim neighbors carry. The world wants us to be the monsters. When we condemn and fight the monsters, no one notices or cares. It’s like the army telling a soldier who has just survived a hellish firefight that he was never in the war in the first place, and condemning him for his cowardice.

It would be a formula for despair for most people. And yet what is remarkable is that Muslim groups continue to patiently work against terrorism in accordance with their faith, even though they receive no credit for their deeds. They are secure that everything is in the hands of God. And, as the Holy Qur’an says, that the light of truth will never be put out by the mouths of liars.

Last year, I attended the Pilgrimage to Mecca, a powerful, life-changing event that I chronicled on my personal blog at blog.kamranpasha.com

One of the most remarkable stories that I heard when I was there was the tale of Abraham, who Muslims believe founded the first settlement at Mecca with his son Ishmael. The Angel Gabriel appeared to him and told Abraham to climb a mountain and call mankind to God.

Abraham was incredulous, and responded that there was no one in the barren desert valley except him and his family. Who would hear the call?

And Gabriel smiled and said: “Just call mankind to the truth. God will make sure it is heard.”

Obama’s Handshake Diplomacy: What Would Prophet Muhammad Do?

April 19th, 2009

There has been a great deal of outrage in right-wing circles over President Barack Obama’s very public handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his efforts to thaw relations with Cuban President Raul Castro.  The hyper-nationalist crowd is predictably calling Obama a traitor who is sucking up to foreign dictators and endangering America’s interests.


Many people in the same chorus have also expressed suspicion about Obama’s Muslim ancestry, seeing him as some kind of Manchurian Candidate installed by the Great Islamic Conspiracy into the White House.  His efforts to reach out to world leaders like Chavez is seen as proof positive of Obama’s intent to undermine American power and move our capital from Washington D.C. to Mecca.


In the spirit of such interesting speculation, let me pose the question – what would Islam’s Prophet Muhammad do under the same circumstances?


The Prophet was not only a religious leader, but also a military general and statesman who transformed Arabia from a chaotic wasteland into a unified nation that, within a century of his death, had conquered half the known world.


Many people focus on Prophet Muhammad’s military activities as the primary basis for his success.  Indeed, his prowess on the battlefield is one of the most controversial aspects of the Prophet’s life.  Critics of Islam cite Muhammad’s role as a warrior to paint him, and the religion he founded, as inherently violent.  And it is sadly true that Muslim extremists look to the battles of the Prophet’s time as a justification for their own bloody activities today.


But neither the Muslim extremists nor their critics in the West truly understand the basis for Prophet Muhammad’s success.  While the Prophet did indeed engage in warfare against his opponents (as did Moses, Joshua and David in the Bible), he himself credited the final triumph of Islam to the single most unpopular act of his career – the peace treaty of Hudaybiya in 628 A.D. 


In my novel Mother of the Believers, I portray this remarkable moment in history.  Against the advice and sentiments of most of his followers, the Prophet made a surprise truce with his enemies in Mecca, ending the state of war that had been in effect since Muhammad had first challenged the oppressive pagan rulers of Arabia.  The truce was heavily one-sided in favor of the Prophet’s adversaries, requiring Muslims to return Meccan defectors, while exempting Mecca from a reciprocal obligation.


At the signing of the treaty, some of the most prominent Muslim leaders began to question the Prophet’s motivation, even his claim to divine inspiration.  Muhammad’s diplomacy was seen as selling out his followers, who had sacrificed everything in support of the Prophet’s vision.


But the Qur’an responded to Muhammad’s critics in Surah 48:1, saying: “Truly We have given you a great victory.”  The Prophet told his followers that history would show that the peace treaty was the moment that Islam won the decade-long conflict with the pagan Arab tribes who had sought to destroy the new religion.


And he was proven right.


Over the next two years, with the cessation of hostilities and the lifting of a trade boycott between the Muslims and their enemies, Islam spread rapidly among the Arab tribes.  Not through violence, but through dialogue and commerce.  Islamic scholars estimate that the amount of converts during that two-year period exceeded the entire size of the Muslim community in the two decades prior.


In the end, when the Meccans and their allies broke the treaty, the Prophet was able to raise an army of ten thousand in response, and a humbled Mecca surrendered peacefully.  By then, the Prophet had become the unquestioned leader of Arabia and he was free to exact revenge against his enemies without fear of consequences.  But he continued with his policy of diplomacy toward his adversaries and declared a general amnesty, pardoning even the Meccan queen Hind who had killed and cannibalized his beloved uncle Hamza.


And again, the Prophet’s foresight was rewarded.  The former opponents of Islam were now incorporated into the new order, and their energies were redirected to expanding the Islamic state they had once sought to destroy.  Within 30 years, the son of Muhammad’s greatest enemy in Mecca became the Caliph of Islam and ruled over an empire that stretched from North Africa to Central Asia.


Prophet Muhammad’s victory came from his preference for diplomacy over warfare, and it is a lesson that President Obama clearly understands as he navigates international waters that have been poisoned by the brutishness of his predecessor.  Obama’s willingness to take the high road with men like Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro does not show weakness, but strength. 


Like Prophet Muhammad, whose grandson Hussein inspired the President’s middle name, Obama has demonstrated that he is confident in his position and the values he represents.  President Obama understands that the best way to effect political change in other countries is through dialogue and trade.  And his willingness to show courtesy to his opponents gives him the moral high ground when dealing with them, as well as with his critics at home.


As Prophet Muhammad demonstrated, a handshake can shake up the world far more than a sword.