Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Reader

"The Odyssey is the story of motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile. What else is the history of law?"

... The Reader, Bernhard Schlink

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Wonder Years

"When you're a little kid you're a bit of everything: Scientist, Philosopher, Artist. Sometimes it seems like growing up is giving these things up one at a time."

"All of our young lives we search for someone to love. Someone that makes us complete. We choose partners and change partners. We dance to a song of heartbreak and hope. All the while wondering if somewhere, somehow, there's someone perfect who might be searching for us."

 ... Kevin Arnold, The Wonder Years

Sunday, March 8, 2009

First Day Of My Life

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

A Vision Of Students Today

Attended the Religion And Pedagogy panel at the AAR Conference yesterday and was shown this short clip. I think it is awesome.
"If walls could talk, what would they say?"
"If students learn what they do, what are they learning sitting here?"
"Of course walls and desks cannot talk, but students can."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Where Art Thou, Islam: From Interfaith Dialogues To Sufism (Part 4)

Moving Forward

The Qur’an set forth perennial principles of humane interfaith behavior. For example, in the Qur’an (5:48) ends with the following words: “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way, and if God had pleased, God would have made you a single people, but that God might try you in what God gave you, therefore strive with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; to God you will all return, so God will let you know that in which you differed.” 

The notion of being different and to thrive in that difference has been embedded in Islam. Muslims have always seen themselves as engaging in dialogues as related through its history evidenced in the paper. Whether the relationships have been productive or disastrous, Muslims have defined themselves in dialogue. They have always understood – and constructed – their “Islam” in a context of pluralism. The move to suddenly express themselves in a particular construct post-September 11 bedazzled Muslims and put them at a crossroad. Never before have they been asked to explain themselves to the world, but the productive effect within the community is that they are made to critically examine themselves and their existence in this world community.

In many ways, Muslims being in the spotlight since September 11, have a huge role to play in the promotion of this peace. Muslims living in a country where Islam is a minority religious tradition are in a better position to create discourses and influence the rest of the Muslim world. In countries where Muslims are the majority, there are often restrictions and sometimes persecutions of other religious traditions – for example the Baha’is in Iran or the Christians in Pakistan. As an illustration, Muslims in Singapore can exist safely and are free to practice as Muslims in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society, and show the world that religion is not a thing which should divide humanity. In order to make interfaith dialogues a success, one must have not only a deep understanding of one’s own faith, but an understanding and appreciation of the faith of the dialogue partner(s). In that vein, Muslims committed to pluralism can also be an example to other Muslims in dialogue amongst various Muslim groups (for example, between the Sunnis and Shiites, or between the major sects of Hanafis, Malikis, Syafies and Hambalis) – all too often, a neglected aspect of religious dialogue.

These examples illustrate what Jonathan Z. Smith meant when he said that debates of religion revolve around experience and language – that they are inseparable: there is no experience without language because language ‘creates’ the world and does not merely reflects it (Smith 2004). Such sacred experiences only exist in its articulation through language – hence any human translation is necessarily inadequate as it is reductive in nature. But as translation is a relentless social activity, it is always opened to rectification, modification and improvement – a useful tool in enriching religious pluralism.

Where Art Thou, Islam: From Interfaith Dialogues To Sufism (Part 3)

The Constitution of Love And The Community

In this world community, the existence of one community is always affected by the presence of another. If not for a constitution of oneself within one’s community (for example, how Muslims constitute themselves as a single unit despite sectarian differences), there is always a constitution of one’s existence based on another. During a roundtable discussion entitled "Love and Community" where Nancy Jean-Luc discussed the limitations of thinking about love on the community, he states that a “community does not have a common being, a common substance, but consists of being-in-common” (Jean-Luc 2001). He argued that a community is always a community of ‘being-with” – the “with” is characterized by “touch” which is further characterized by proximity and distance. He takes the notion of community away from a spiritual ideal to a physical concept and then examines how these communities exist together. Such co-habitation within a community, according to Nancy, is an embodiment, and such embodiment cannot be violent for a community to survive. To him, there is therefore the impossibility of “penetration” into a community as that means there is something outside of that community that force itself into it – establishing the violence.

The language of “love” within Islam has also shifted. As opposed to the initial sufi concept on love as discussed earlier, love as being portrayed by sufis in these recent dialogues has been criticized as being secular as notions of love are seamlessly tied to political, social and cultural agendas. It would be very tempting to say that Islam and the traditional notions of Islam, as understood in the concept of that “love”, is a secularizing movement. However, the relationship between what is secular and what is religious is not that clear. But as soon as that love becomes a “love thy neighbor” concept, it divorces itself from the notion of a Muslim’s love for Allah, as it is now predicated by a certain notion of how love is constituted on a Christian concept. Quite contrary to what Nancy stated, that to me, is the “penetration” on the Islamic community.

The effects vary to some extend in different parts of the world. In the Middle East, the discussion on the notion of love in interfaith dialogues is not as intense as the discussions that are being made in the European west – for culturally, they are not embedded in the practice of communicating love in the same manner and passion as the Europeans. The differences in treatment and the confluence of culture, race, politics and physical geography reminds one of Thomas Tweed’s theory of religion as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (Tweed 2006). His argument for increased sensitivities in such diversity and plurality makes one sees such symbols and products as meaning differently when located at different time and place. In these differential outcomes, according to Tweed, it allows for religion to make its homes (dwelling) and cross boundaries (crossing). 

Culturally, such confluence of language and culture are strongly evident. The Arabic language (especially via Spanish and French) has contributed to the vocabulary of English. Common English words such as “coffee,” “sofa,” “genie” and “alcohol,” technical words such as “algebra,” or “alkaline,” and even archaic words such as “lute” and “alchemy” all have their roots in the Arabic language. Arabic words such as hajj, jihad or hijab have become commonplace enough so as not to require translation. The pastime of smoking hookah is now a favorite pastime all the way from Singapore to America.

There is also another interesting element at play. Michel Foucault in "Power/Knowledge" puts the matter in this way: “Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain … Power is employed and exercised through a netlike organization … Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application” (Foucault 1980). There are several important points here: first, that power is conceptualized as a chain or as a net, that is a system of relations spread throughout the society, rather than simply a set of relations between the ruler and the ruled. Second, individuals should not be seen simply as the recipients of power, but as the ‘place’ where power is enacted and/or the place where it is resisted. Thus, Foucault’s theorizing of power forces us to re-conceptualize not only power itself but also the role that individuals play in power relations – whether they are simply subjected to oppression or whether they actively play a role in the form of their relations with others and with institutions. 

Interfaith dialogues do not operate in a vacuum. This is not to belittle the efforts made by individuals in sharing the beauty of their faiths. As Asad alluded to earlier mentioned in this paper, power relations are an important component that needs to be examined. In most instances, the political authority, being the holder of such power, organizes and mobilizes the organization of such dialogues. To this end, I wish to highlight an example of Singapore, where such relationships are being manifested as described by Foucault above: through the legal enactment of the Maintenance of the Religious Harmony Act (1992), the setting up of the Inter-Religious Organization and the Inter-Religious Confidence Circles (2001), the pumping of over-generous financial resources and trainings of its community leaders by the authorities, sponsored overseas visits to study multicultural societies and communities, the buying-in of religious institutions and voluntary grassroots organizations into the national interfaith program and agenda. All these developments were organized, set up and sponsored by the political government. There is that exercise of power and authority in dictating the agenda for the masses. However, as “vehicles of power”, the people were later actively engaged into the agenda and eventually, the running of such organizations and interfaith dialogues were carried over by the people. The government subsequently takes the role of an advisor. This is another interesting move in which interfaith dialogues, when it was first done, was constituted in a certain way for a particular agenda. The language, the mode and the manner of interfaith conversations in Singapore has, up to this day, remained faithful to that agenda – and this illustrates the affect of such political construction on the framework of interfaith dialogues. 

Despite Islam’s long history of interfaith dialogues, it is indeed strange that post-September 11, Muslims and other scholarships are vigorous in trying to make the same point. It is as if Muslims were never engaged in dialogues and that they are defensive about Islam. Muslims are surprised that they have to stand up and make an argument for interfaith dialogues when even in history, Islam has been rich in that tradition. 

The more interesting question would be: do Muslims dialogue in the same language as the rest of us? The answer would be that there is no need to. My argument is that because Muslims do not articulate themselves in the same language as the “others” (for example, in the language of love), their dialogues were not acknowledged. A subjectivication of what a Muslim should be and how it should communicate would be a “penetration” on that community of Muslims. It would be a communication that is constructed from outside that community, forcing its perspectives on another. It would be a colonization of its culture, history and socio-historicity of Muslims by the “other”. This principle plays itself on all levels: on a societal level, a Muslim needs to speak in the same language and manner with non-Muslims to be considered “normal” and therefore accepted. At the international political level, a Muslim country needs to find extensive commonality (culture, politics, economics, military defense and its worldview in general) and extensive generosity with other non-Muslim countries to be considered “mainstream” and not belonging to the “axis of evil”. There is always a double-need to prove themselves as good Muslims, and hence, good world citizens, in order for Muslims to feel belong. This is not to advocate the rejection of the world that we live in, but the protection of a community’s identity, which is slowly eroded through its slow evolution caused by the “other”.

Where Art Thou, Islam: From Interfaith Dialogues To Sufism (Part 2)

Islam and Dialogues Now – The Language of Love

Interfaith dialogues are as prominent as they were before. Islamic history has established the importance of dialogues and that Muslims have been conversing not only with themselves but with others. This spectrum was dramatically changed since September 11. There is suddenly a colossal call for Muslims to prove themselves as peace-loving people, and the need for sharing Islam and conversing with others became the order of the day. I have asked myself these questions: What are the conversations which are required of Muslims? Who are asking these questions and making them have these conversations, and why? Importantly, who are the Muslims conversing with?

There is a marked difference in the way Islam was presented prior to September 11. What has been made prominent since then is the spiritual and mystical aspect of Islam that was hardly put to the forefront – even to some Muslims. If we browse through the list of academic scholars teaching in universities, Islamic books being published, the expansion of Islamic mysticism/sufism section at the American Academy of Religion and the speakers at any interfaith dialogues, we will find an expanding focus on sufism through its speakers. Many scholarships are also given to the study of mystical saints in Islam.

Let us turn now to the concept of Sufism. The root meaning of the word Sufi is from the Arabic suf or its meaning as wool, and they are white symbolizing purity. Many earlier sufis donned coarse wollen garments to protest the silks and satins of the sultans. Alarmed by the worldliness they saw overtaking Islam, they sought to purify and spiritualize it from within. They wanted to recover its liberty and love, and to restore Islam to its deeper, mystical tone (Smith 1991). 

There are many ways of the Sufis but the main method is through the mysticism of love – love of God primarily, but also love for everyone and everything else. Zikr, or chanting by invoking God’s name is a daily feature of the sufis way of purifying themselves and to bring them closer in love with God. They believe that God’s love was at the core of the universe and the pangs of physical separation from God deepen their love and thereby draw them close to God. Hence, the daily zikr is a physical call by sufis towards God, in reaching God. Many of us are familiar with the famed mystical poet Jalalludin Rumi whose poem “Song of the Reed” is a typical example of this philosophy - the desire to unite with God is not a bodily or materialistic longing: it is the longing of the soul. The spiritual path constantly reminds sufis of this “homeland” through the opening verses of the poem:

“Listen to the reed as it tells its tale – complaining of separation;
Eversince I was parted from the reed-bed, my lament has caused men and women to moan;
I want a bosom: torn apart by such separation, so I may unfold to such a one - the pain and longing of love desire;
Everyone who stays far away from his origin wishes to get back to the time when he was united with it.” (Banks 1997)

Limited by the focus of this paper, we will proceed to examine why the representation of Islam has been focused heavily on spiritual context. It is instructive to look at Asad’s work and his comments on translations in culture, which we can then extrapolate its application in communicating about religion. “My point, is only that the process of cultural translation is enmeshed in conditions of power – professional, national, international … Given that this is so, the interesting question of inquiry if not whether, and if so to what extent, anthropologists should be relativists or rationalists, critical or charitable, toward other cultures, but how power enters into the process of ‘cultural translation,’ seen both as a discursive and as a non-discursive practice” (Asad 1993).

Essentially, we need to examine who the general audience of such interfaith dialogues are and for what intend. They can be divided into two general categories, Muslims and non-Muslims, but by and large, such interfaith dialogues are meant to address the latter as a form of reassurance that Islam is not a religion of terror and that it can co-exist peacefully with the “others”. It is in this language that Sufism has flourished since. Under that condition, Islam is put on the stage against the “others” to defend its values and principles. Speaking a certain language in common is therefore important, particularly if we understand this to include sharing not just language per se, but a repertoire of commonality which includes stories, proverbs, jokes, formulaic expressions or even a textualized canon (Lincoln 2003). As we understood from the quote on Asad earlier, Islam, one against the rest, has no choice but to realize the subtle play of powers and pressures stacked against it in portraying itself as a member of the world community. This was essentially the move that has shaped Islam since September 11, 2001 in the public arena. As Jonathan Z. Smith has articulated in his theories on religion, religion can best be viewed as a network of relationships between social and other factors that can be translated over and over for one’s own purpose (Smith 2004), and in this particular case, Islam being mediated by the language of love – a language, in a specific construct, which is understood by the “others”.

Where Art Thou, Islam: From Interfaith Dialogues To Sufism (Part 1)


Over the last seven years, interfaith dialogues across nations have mushroomed with great speed, and perhaps in great haste. Conceivably the main reason for this lies not in an ideological commitment to religious diversity, tolerance or acceptance, but in an attempt to deal with practical problems raised primarily by the events of September 11, 2001. Whilst this is not a paper on the mechanics of interfaith dialogue, I will attempt to trace a brief genealogy of inter-religious relationships within a specific Islamic historical perspective before examining its selected application to our modern context.

However, a more interesting affect and articulation also developed on the side: never before have elements of Sufism been at the forefront in shaping the study of Islam – and popular public acceptance (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) attest to this. Sufism thus becomes the representative “Islam”, not only because taking position with the other spectrum (that being of terrorism) is untenable, but also because suspiciously, it communicates and is understood most effectively with grounded concepts within the language of Christianity. Inevitably, this development resulted in a certain construct of what constitutes Islam, and who Muslims are, in the public sphere. My paper will examine a fundamental problem of who and what defines Islam, and why Muslims are now at a confusing crossroad. In doing so, I will examine the position from 4 different perspectives: historical, theological, translations of language, and from the viewpoint of power relationships. The length expected of this presentation will not allow me to examine all these aspects in detail. It does, however, attempt to provide a brief framework.

The Search For Dialogues

September 11, 2001 is a major turning point in the discursive development of the social sciences. The first knee-jerk response to that fateful event was the need to “reach out” in educating the people of the appropriate form of their religious beliefs (particularly of Islam) and in bridging the gap of understanding between those various beliefs. Interfaith dialogues were organized in the hope of achieving these aims and enhancing the common cause of our existence. Theoretically, it brings people of different religious faiths together for conversations. These conversations can take an array of forms and possess a variety of goals and formats – addressing audiences at various levels – the technical aspects of which are beyond the scope of this paper.

In tracing any particular genealogy, we are looking at history from the active voice: everywhere, local people are “making their own history,” “contesting” it, “borrowing” meanings and “reconstructing” their own cultural existence. This notion of history emphasizes not only the unceasing work of human creators but also the unstable and hybrid character of their creation (Asad 1993). This is because the study of human social sciences deals with people in dynamic situations which are continuously developing. The issue is not whether a local and particular set of circumstances is pure or derivative, unitary or contested – it is about examining the mode of human agency which produced an embodied affect of the events surrounding them (Asad 1993). It is with this view that I found it important for me to sketch a brief genealogy of interfaith dialogue from the viewpoint of Islamic history.

History of Dialogues in Islam

Islam began as a minority tradition in a non-Muslim setting and would not have developed had it not been for dialogues. I will illustrate this with two distinct examples – one from an event during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad and another example where this notion was carried through by his caliph.

Most people are familiar with the emigration of Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 CE. However, there was an earlier emigration to Abyssinia which underscored the value of interfaith dialogue to Prophet Muhammad. As people began to accept Islam in Mecca, they were met with increased opposition and some even turned to physical persecutions. Prophet Muhammad gathered a group of those most vulnerable, and instructed them to go across the Red Sea to Abyssinia, a Christian country ruled by a Christian king. The king of Abyssinia welcomed the Muslim refugees from Makkah into his kingdom. He gave them sanctuary, and they enjoyed peace, security and freedom of worship under his aegis. The ruler of Mecca sent endless convoys seeking for their extradition – with many famous theological debates recorded in history books – the contents itself do not form the core argument of this paper. Suffice to note that there were many of such dialogues occurring between the Muslims and the convoys from Mecca, with the Christian king acting as a judge denying the requests for extradition. The Muslim emigrants stayed in Abyssinia under the king’s protection until they rejoined the larger Muslim community in Medina (Guillaume 2002, Rosenthal 2006).

Prophet Muhammad’s act represented for the first time, the engagement of Muslims with Christians as a community through dialogues – who were viewed as a people that would protect members of the nascent Muslim community. This is an early example in the history of Islam of the importance of pluralism and interfaith dialogue.

The spirit of dialogue and understanding was carried through Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second successor to Prophet Muhammad, who ruled the Muslim community from 634 CE to 644 CE. In a contrasting historical and political perspective to the example provided earlier, the Muslims arrived at Jerusalem in 638 CE. Far from being a ruthless imperial conqueror, Caliph ‘Umar actually walked into Jerusalem instead of riding his camel because it was his servant’s turn to ride the camel that they shared. While in the city, Caliph ‘Umar was given a tour of the existing religious sites by the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem. As the time approached for prayer, Caliph ‘Umar asked for a place where he might offer his prayers and was offered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most important of Christian sites. He refused it, as he knew that wherever he (being the first Muslim ruler in Jerusalem) was to offer his prayers, his followers would build a mosque over it, and would not consent to that place be inside an important location to Christians. Instead, he prayed on the steps outside the church. True enough, one can find the Mosque of ‘Umar situated there today – commemorating his prayers on that day. Clearly, for ‘Umar, respect was due to Christians and their places of worship.

These two examples portray the respect that Islam has for other faiths, in this particular example, Christianity, and the realization that people need to co-exist peacefully. There have been ongoing conversations between them since Islamic traditions began. In fact, it may be safe to say that Islam existed and grew due to such conversations. When Prophet Muhammad received revelations from God, he had to engage in dialogues with those who are opposed to his ministry. It may be examined in another paper that the objective then was more missionary than is now, but the concept of dialogue was put into place then. Even when the Islamic political empire expanded and the hold of power were reversed, those very same principles were practiced by his successors, as related in the story of Caliph ‘Umar above.

Turning to a primary text and examining it from a theological perspective, the Qur’an is clear of the sole criteria which distinguish a human being from another. It states: “O humanity! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might know each other. Truly, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most God-conscious of you. Truly, God is Knowing, Aware” (Qur’an 49:13). There are four main points in this verse. First, the passage is addressed to all of humanity instead of limiting it just to Muslims. Second, the creation of humanity into distinct groups is God’s intentional design and is a positive value. Third, it encourages people to transcend their differences and learn from each other as a result of that difference. Finally, the best of people are those who are aware and are conscious of God.

From that theological perspective, it is interesting to note that the creation of this diverse world was an intended divine plan. Looking at it from this way, there is no way therefore that man could work towards making one the same as another, whether it be in matters of faith, culture or politics. In my view, the existence of such difference is for men to learn more of himself, of others, for him to build on that relationship and in the process, to discover the beauty of God’s creation through those differences.

When You Were Young

They say the devil's water, it ain't so sweet
You don't have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while


In a way, I need a change
From this burnout scene
Another time, another town
Another everything
But it's always back to you

How many times can I break till I shatter?
Over the line can't define what I'm after
I always turn the car around
Give me a break let me make my own pattern
All that it takes is some time but I'm shattered
I always turn the car around