Eid al Fitr celebration

Eid al Fitr is the biggest Muslim holiday of the year and is celebrated at the close of the fast during the month of Ramadan. Since it’s based on a lunar calendar, it changes every year. This year the holiday took place on June 25. Magically, this was a Sunday, so it’s one of the few days of the year when one half of the world’s population, represented by Christians and Muslims, are all worshiping God together.

I took a small group of non-Muslims including a Jewish lady to the evening celebration at a local mosque. We had a delightful time.

  • The food was wonderful - from the appetizers table

March against Sharia or March against FGM?

Anti-Sharia March Has Good Intentions but Is Misnamed

On June 10 ACT for America will be conducting so-called “March against Sharia” events in some 20 states and 28 cities across America.  In the announcement on their webpage they state,

“We, at ACT for America, are committed to protecting women and children from Sharia Law and its impact on Muslim women and children including honor killing and Female Genital Mutilation. We must ensure that every woman and child enjoy the protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution.”

Muslim groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) are taking a hard-line stance against the march stating that it will contribute to “the creation of the environment in which violence [against Muslims] feels permissible”.  Counter protests are being organized in several locations.

[Cue screeching tires soundtrack…] The stage has been set – and powerfully energized by numerous horrific hate incidents throughout the world – for potentially ugly confrontation.  But do the opposing sides even actually understand what the opposition is protesting?  Or do we have the Golden State Warriors attempting to play a championship game against the New England Patriots – different game and different playing field?

On the one side, ACT for America has called their protest a “March against Sharia”, when they are actually protesting abusive treatment of women and girls particularly in the forms of honor killing and female genital mutilation, neither of which are a part of Sharia law. 

Honor killing, as defined in Wikipedia.com, is “the homicide of a member of a family, due to the perpetrators’ belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family, or has violated the principles of a community or a religion, usually for reasons such as refusing to enter an arranged marriage, being in a relationship that is disapproved by their family, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, dressing in ways which are deemed inappropriate, engaging in non-heterosexual relations or renouncing a faith”.

The concept of honor killing has somewhat recently emerged in American consciousness due to the proliferation of several cell phone recordings of girls being stoned to death, and the recent murder of 25-year-old Pakistani social media star, Qandeel Baloch, who was killed by her brother for “bringing dishonor to the family”.

But were these the acts of psychopathic murderers, or devout Muslims, simply carrying out the teachings of the Quran and being obedient to Sharia law?  For the average American, their perception has been wholly shaped by the universal media portrayal of Muslim men as Middle Eastern terrorists and women as submissive and oppressed.  Certainly groups such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS exist as very real and terrifying archetypes of this image.  But these groups represent only a tiny fraction of the 1.8 billion Muslims of the world.

There is another group of Muslims, a very important group, that gets almost no media exposure, is almost never portrayed in action movies or TV dramas – the over 1.5 billion mainstream Muslims, including the over 3 million who live in the United States.  I’m talking about the surgeons and attorneys who live in our neighborhoods, and take their families to the mosque on Fridays.  Whose kids play on the same sports teams as our kids, and the ladies who are so readily identifiable because they wear the hijab in public.  Before we all go out and call our protest a “March against Sharia”, it’s important that we understand what Sharia means to mainstream Muslims, not what it means to deviant and murderous radicals.

To further emphasize this point, we must realize that that since June 1, while 8 were killed in London and one in Melbourne Australia, there were over 30 attacks by terrorists naming Islam as their religion against other Muslims, with deaths totaling well over 100.  Muslims are the targets of terror attacks to a much greater degree than those of us in the West, in the first week of June alone, by a factor of 10 to 1.  We must understand that these terror victims who are Muslims are also our allies against terror, and before we protest Sharia law in blanket fashion, perhaps we should take the time to gain an understanding of how mainstream Muslims view Sharia law.

Getting back to our question of whether honor killings are the acts of deviant psychopaths, or of devout Muslims following the basic teachings of Islam, our first source is the Quran itself.  Most people are surprised to find out that, of the more than 6000 verses encompassed by the Quran, a small percentage are directive, in the form of  specific commands, and, properly omitting the passages allowing killing in a defensive struggle, which relate to war, not civil law, “physical punishment was authorized just five times in the entire Quran”, and only addressed four crimes. 

The first crime addressed is murder (and other forms of violence), for which capital punishment is allowed (or a lesser physical punishment depending on the level of physical violence perpetrated).  In this case, if the perpetrator repents before he is apprehended, he may be forgiven.  This is found in the Quran 5:37-34.

The second crime addressed is stealing, and the punishment is for a cut to be placed on the wrist of the thief, presumably so that he would have been easily identified by merchants in the marketplace.  Naturally, extreme versions of Sharia take the most extreme interpretation, amputation of the hand. (Quran 5:38-39).

The third crime which allows physical punishment is that of adultery, and the punishment is 100 lashes for both the man and the woman who violate the marriage vows (Quran 24:2).  In present-day times, this is admittedly harsh and inappropriate, but when compared to the punishment prescribed in the Old Testament for adultery – stoning to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-25) – Mohammed’s punishment was much less severe.

The last crime in the list is falsely accusing someone of adultery, for which whipping is also prescribed as punishment.

To sum up, the Quran prescribes capital punishment for murder, as does US legal code, however the Quran allows forgiveness for repentance, while US legal code does not.  The use of physical punishment for lesser crimes, and the concept of lashes for violation of the marriage vows are problematic to be sure, but are by no means justification for honor killing.  The concept of honor killing is completely absent in the prophetic recitations of Mohammed as recorded in the Quran.  Neither the imams who teach in the mosques of mainstream Muslims, nor the rank-and-file Muslims who attend are promoting a kind of Sharia law that promotes honor killing.

So if ACT for America wants to March for human rights on behalf of women victims of honor killing, by all means do so, and I will march with you, but it is completely wrong to call the protest a “March against Sharia”.

In fact, the history books tell us that in pre-Islamic Arabia, female infanticide was commonly practiced, the child being buried alive the moment she was born.  It was Mohammed who strictly forbade this practice in the Muslim community (Quran 81:8-9, 17:31, 16:58-59), and who may be credited for its discontinuance.

Mohammed taught over and over again in opposition to any concept akin to honor killing. The vast majority of Mohammed’s directives involve pure–hearted devotion to a merciful God as reflected by a life of integrity, respecting one’s family, and over and over again, helping those in need.  The notion that Mohammed created a religion of violence is simply false.  When compared to the tribal culture of Arabia surrounding Mohammed, to the Christian Byzantine kingdom, in which torture was commonplace, and the Sassanid Persian Empire, Islam was truly revolutionary for its strict regulations against violence.

The Quran is actually full of directives related to matters of family law, mainly related to making sure that women were treated fairly in matters of property distribution in times of divorce and death.  This is why Muslim women favor Sharia law, to the incredulity of those of us in the West.

John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, in their enlightening book, Who Speaks for Islam, point out that, when it came to honor killings, of those who committed them in the country of Jordan, 69% did not perform their daily prayers and 56% did not perform the fast of Ramadan.  In fact, many had histories of violent behavior: 35% had already served sentences for previous crimes, 32% were illiterate, only 4% had attended college and 24% were brought up in broken homes.  Clearly, something other than the teaching of Mohammed had driven these men to murder their own female relatives.

So, once more, please join ACT for America and march against the victimization of women in honor killings.  But the reference to Sharia must be dropped.  It doesn’t apply for over 1.5 billion mainstream Muslims, who favor a Sharia law that is primarily about social justice.  If so, I venture to say that many will join you.

Much more could be said, but we must move on to the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM).  It is somewhat understandable, given the woefully distorted media representation that we are all exposed to, that the average American could come to the conclusion that Sharia law demands honor killings.  But the assumption that FGM is a Muslim practice is a patent falsehood.  One need only consult the well referenced Wikipedia.com article on the subject to know that FGM originated in North Africa prior to the spread of Islam there, and was most widely practiced among primitive tribal groups throughout Central Africa.  It is practiced by Christian communities in Africa, in fact, 55% of Christian women and girls in Niger have experienced FGM, compared with only 2% of their Muslim counterparts.  There is no mention of it in the Quran, and in 2007, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research in Cairo, one of the most highly respected institutions of Islamic scholarship, ruled that FGM had ”no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions”.

So in the case of FGM, even more so than for honor killings, it is at best an error of ignorance similar to targeting a turbaned Sikh thinking he is a Muslim, and at worst an overt misrepresentation.  By all means march.  March for the victims.  Stand with them and support them in every way.  This is a noble cause.  But the reference to Sharia must be removed as absolutely false.  The Act for America march on June 10 is a march for the rights of victimized women.  Understandably, the acts and practices of the extremist groups who claim to be practicing Islam are included as those being marched against.  But it must also be understood that these extremists do not represent mainstream Muslims, rather they target them as victims.  And their practices are against the teachings of the Quran – any of the Muslims you find around you will tell you this.

Once again, if the name of the march is changed to “March for Victims of Honor Killings and FGM” and the reference to Sharia is removed, Muslims will join the march.

To those Muslims who are participating in counter protests, I ask you to visit the website of the organizers to understand the true purpose of the march, and to see that they have disassociated themselves from the Arkansas march, which was hijacked by a white supremacist.  The constant reference to Sharia law, a concept of social justice that is integral to the practice of Islam, is upsetting and disturbing.  But please understand, or at least try to give the benefit of the doubt, that organizers and participants are wholly ignorant of even the existence of, let alone the teaching of mainstream Islam of nonviolence and social justice.  When the term Sharia is used, it refers to the practices of the Wahhabis, ISIS, and the Taliban.

If counter protests take place and battle lines are drawn, I fear that the result will be an escalation in tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US, leading to even greater Islamophobia, and inevitably, more violence.  America needs education.  America has been immersed in completely false yet prolific images of Islam and is almost completely unaware of the teachings and practices of Islam’s mainstream.  America is unaware that the strongest force of Islam, its mainstream believers, is our most powerful ally in the struggle against radical terrorism.  Our ignorance will be overcome with patience, with peace, and with awareness.  I call upon my Muslim brothers and sisters at full moon during the month of Ramadan, to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him) and to take the high road in the case of this wholly misnamed protest entitled “March against Sharia “.  May peace be upon us all.

 

References

  1. Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth a Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012
  2. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam, New York, Gallup Press, 2007
  3. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/25/asia/pakistan-honor-killing-bill/index.html
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_killing
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_genital_mutilation

Expo 2017 Kazakhstan Blog Kickoff

I am three weeks away from leaving for Kazakhstan to serve as a volunteer for EXPO 2017, featuring renewable energy technologies from around the world. I hope to capture my adventures in periodic blog posts. You will be able to link to the blog from Facebook and Twitter posts to my personal page and to my organization’s pages on Facebook and Twitter (@makingpeace101).

I will use category tags so you will be able to selectively read my post depending on your interests. The tags will be “personal”, for my personal adventures, “renewable energy technologies” for pictures and descriptions of the various exhibitor displays, and “MAFF” for posts related to my organization, Muslim-American Friendship Foundation.

I am doing a system check out to make sure everything is working okay. Please let me know if you have any problem accessing my blog.

In my remaining three weeks, in addition to preparing for the trip and launching my organization, I will be hosting groups of non-Muslims to attend events at local mosques around the Ramadan fast, culminated by the biggest holiday of the year for Muslims, Eid al Fitr, celebrating the end of the fast. So I hope to post some photos and stories from those visits.

One other item of news is that I submitted an article to a major interfaith organization about my experience with Ramadan this year, and they will be posting the article on their blog. I’ll share it when it is released.

Signing off… Steve

My First Ramadan – 2017

I have known about the Ramadan fast for decades.  But this year, I am catching my first glimpse, yes, even enjoying my first taste of the deeper spiritual meaning behind it.  Even though I had lived in the Muslim world, I had always held the false impression that the observance of the Ramadan fast was not truly spiritual, but merely a mechanical observance of a prescribed ritual.  

My journey began with my powerful conversion to the Christian faith on campus at the University of Arizona during the Jesus people movement of the 70s.  My life was never to be the same.  Two years of Bible school, a Masters degree in mechanical engineering, a wife and three children, and 20 years later, I found myself living in Kazakhstan for five years, serving as a Christian missionary and humanitarian aid worker. 

For reasons that I can’t explain, I’ve always had a fascination with the Muslim world.  Whether the oceanic peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia, the masses of colorful humanity inhabiting the Indian subcontinent, the ancient kingdom of Iran, the incredibly exotic cultures of North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, the desert sands of Arabia and the Middle East, Turkey and the newly exposed Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union, when I saw photos or television programs about these lands, I found myself brimming with excitement, and imagining myself traveling there.

My dreams came true in the summer of 1992 when I visited Kazakhstan with my family.  Highlights of the trip included a couple of weeks in an incredibly remote mountain village near the border of China, several nights in a yurt at the highest reaches of Kazakh summer pastures in the Tien Shan mountain range, and a helicopter ride to a massive cultural festival to experience traditional Kazakh food and games.  I felt like I was living in the pages of National Geographic.

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Kazakh Yurt in Summer Pastures

In the fall of that same year, I and my family would return to Kazakhstan for a five-year stint.  At that time, when asked about religion, virtually every Kazakh would identify as a Muslim.  But after several decades of government enforced atheism, Islam was but a shadow.  When I asked a Muslim village girl who Mohammed was, she was not able to tell me.

Even though I went to Kazakhstan with the intent of influencing people to become Christians, it was I myself who powerfully influenced.  For the first year I set out to learn the Kazakh language and understand the culture.  I spent hour after hour sitting on the floor drinking tea and having wonderful meals with various families and groups, as I experienced the iconic hospitality of the Muslim culture, Kazakh style.  This I will never forget.  As I absorbed Kazakh culture, and adapted to it as much as possible, it caused me to process in my mind the question, “What aspects of my Christian faith were mere cultural practices?”  I dug deep and began to strip away one thing after another that I had considered essential.  It was a good exercise.

As I was experiencing the richness of the Kazakh culture, at the same time I was experiencing a fair bit of disillusionment resulting from fairly serious interpersonal issues within the teams I was part of.  This was to be the beginning of my awakening to the revelation that we are all in this together. 

My own arrogance became crystal clear to me.  Who was I to think that, of the several billion people on the planet representing several major and countless minor religious traditions, I, and those I agreed with, had found the one true answer.  That I was right, and everyone else was wrong.  This no longer made sense to me.

After five wonderful years in Kazakhstan, I and my family returned to the US and did our best to re-assimilate into our native culture.  Four years later 9/11 happened.  Like everyone, I was thoroughly traumatized by the continuous replay of video clips showing 737s full of people smashing into the sides of the World Trade Center towers in broad daylight.  But I think it affected me even more deeply.  How could this culture that I had come to love produce men who would fly airliners into buildings?

But what followed was even more troubling to me.  Fast forwarding to today, going on 16 years of a so-called “War on Terror”, and a populace thoroughly conditioned by universal and incessant media exposure to every act of terror committed by demented psychopaths.  It’s no wonder that Islamophobia in the United States is even worse now than it was after 9/11.

It became impossible for me to sit on the sidelines.  I felt overpowered with the need to do my part to bring to light what I knew about the many Muslims I had come to love.  I began reaching out to Muslim communities in San Diego, attending interfaith activities, and doing research for a book.  It has been wonderfully refreshing!  I meet with Maaz, a young leader of a small Muslim community, every couple of weeks, and we have fabulous dialogue as we connect on a deep spiritual level and understand that we are brothers with one heart.  I have lunch regularly with Mohammed, a PhD software developer, and find myself tearing up almost every time when I experience his humble, kind, soft-spoken demeanor and highly intelligent and deeply spiritual approach to being a Muslim.  He could tell me specifically, quoting verses from the Quran, why it was wrong for Muslims to kill, except in self-defense.  The tears come when I consider the gross misrepresentation of Muslims that is alive in the hearts of so many of my fellow Americans, as I sit in the presence of this kindhearted man.

So, for the first time, I find myself positioned to experience and understand the fast of Ramadan as never before.  The first thing I noticed was the excitement of anticipation.  Weeks before the beginning of the month of Ramadan, imams were speaking about it in their Friday talks, and rank and file Muslims were preparing their hearts for it.  There was the expectation that something good was going to happen;  that we would emerge from the month closer to God and a better person.  There was the understanding that it would be difficult.

I loved hearing about the “night of power”.  This takes place during the last 10 days of the fast, when it was thought that Mohammed received his first revelation.  If one has a successful fast, one can expect a special visitation from God, and special forgiveness.

It was enlightening to hear about abstaining from things other than food and drink, such as sex, and especially the emotion of anger.  And I learned that it is also proper to be especially charitable towards those in need during this special month.

I developed an incredible level of respect for those who practice the fast in America and other non-Muslim cultures that don’t observe the fast.  I had every intention of keeping the fast myself, but then there was Memorial Day weekend, which occurred on the exact weekend of the beginning of the fast.  I had a prearranged social gathering around the barbecue, and was not able to fast.  Then there was my Monday lunch meeting with another interfaith leader.  Again, the fast not happening.  Oh yeah, then surfing.  You can’t really surf on an empty stomach.  One day after another during the first week, something came up.  It would take a great deal of planning and commitment to successfully keep the fast during the entire month of Ramadan.

That said, I’m looking forward to participating in iftar events around the city, in which the fast is broken after sunset, although, my conscience will be troubling me, I’m sure.  Many of the Muslim communities around San Diego are reaching out and inviting the public to their iftar gatherings.

And finally, I have learned that the most important holiday of the year for Muslims is Eid al Fitr, which formally occurs after sundown on the last day of the fast.  I am looking forward to experiencing this holiday and learning more about it.

So call this a baby step.  I believe I have at least a partial understanding of the spiritual meaning behind the fast of Ramadan.  Perhaps by the time the fast is over I will have gotten organized enough to be able to keep it for at least a week or two.  Ramadan is a rich spiritual tradition, and I hope that one day it will be acknowledged and accommodated in the United States.

Ramadan Awareness

(The month of Ramadan is a perfect opportunity to visit a mosque for an iftar, the evening meal after sunset to break the fast for the day. The iftar events are usually held on a Saturday. Check out @MCCSanDiego, @IslamicCenterSD, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of San Diego on FB. You can find their pages on my FB page. I’m organizing small groups, so email me if interested.) email Steve

The fast for the month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Arabic) has begun!  It began in the wee hours this morning (Sat., May 27), and lasts for the entire lunar month, ending on June 24.  The month of Ramadan is when Mohammed (peace be upon him) received his first prophetic recitations from the angel Gabriel.

As the fourth pillar of Islam, during the entire month Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (even water) from sunrise to sunset, and focus on God by reading the Quran, extra prayers, keeping a good attitude and especially abstaining from anger, and helping those in need.

During the month they are to maintain a mostly normal schedule and continue working.  Generally the mosques host evening meals with special prayers.

Sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the Night of Power occurs – this is when Mohammed (peace be upon him) received his first revelation.  On this night, Muslims who properly observe the fast will receive special blessing from God, and special forgiveness.

At the completion of Ramadan, after sunset on the last day (June 24), Muslims celebrate their most important holiday of the year, Eid al Fitr.  This holiday is equivalent in its importance to the celebration of Christmas in America.  It includes special rituals, especially generous gifts to charity, and community feasting, which usually takes place at the mosque.

Ramadan  mubarak, or blessed Ramadan to all my Muslim brothers and sisters!

Kazakhstan, Here I Come!!!

I applied for and was accepted as a volunteer for Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan.  All expenses are paid!  I speak both the Kazakh and Russian languages, having lived in Kazakhstan for five years (1992 – 1997).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaslWE_gvTs

The theme of the Expo is renewable energy technologies.  Governments and private companies from all over the world will have incredible displays.  I also hope to interview Muslims from all over the Muslim world, and will post pictures and stories.