2015 Noel Coulson Memorial Lecture, SOAS School of Law

Mar 26

It was my distinct honor to have been invited to give the 2015 Noel Coulson Memorial Lecture at the SOAS School of Law.  Noel Coulson was one of the most prominent British scholars of Islamic law in the 20th century, and he was a canonical author for those of us who studied Islamic law in the west.  As I mentioned in the introduction to my lecture, much of my own work in Islamic law — despite my numerous differences with Coulson in specifics — is motivated by similar concerns: how to reconcile fidelity to revealed law with the legitimate needs of human society, without giving in to either utopian textualism or secular absolutism.  The topic of my talk was “Islamic Reform: Democracy or Reinterpretation?

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Majnun Layla’s (Qays b. Mulawwih) Lesson in Patriotism for Egypt

Mar 14

Qays b. Mulawwih was an early Islamic Arab poet who gained fame for his absolute, unqualified, and all-consuming love for Layla.  So complete was his obsession with her that people assumed he was mad, thus earning him the sobriquet in the poetic literature of Majnun (the madman) of Layla (Majnun Layla).

Two of Majnun’s more famous lines about his love for Layla go like this:

أمر على الديــــــار ديار ليـلى … أقبل ذا الـــــــجدار وذا الجـدارا
وما حب الديار شـــــغفن قلبي … ولكن حب من ســـــــكن الديارا

“I pass through the lands of Laila, kissing this wall and that one;
it is not the love of the land that has filled my heart, but love for the one who dwelt there.”

Many people in Egypt today speak of patriotism, but it is a false patriotism, a patriotism not devoted to the love of the people of Egypt, with all their virtues, and vices, but for an abstract idea of Egypt that is little more than a reflection of their own fantasies, nightmares, or both. The great president Sisi, for example, recently accused the Muslim Brotherhood of wanting to empty Egypt of its Pharaonic heritage by destroying the pyramids and destroying ancient temples. Aside from the sheer absurdity of the statement, this is from the spokesman of a regime that has, from a practical perspective, been a complete failure in preserving Egypt’s cultural heritage, even allowing the Great Pyramids, through years of neglect, to turn into an urban slum.

Like Qays b. Mulawwih, we Egyptians should reject the false patriotism which is based on love of an abstract place — perhaps best exemplified in the absurd plans announced yesterday for the construction of a new capital — for the complete, absolute and unconditional love of the people, embracing them completely, even with their faults. That is what democracy is about: letting the people govern themselves, knowing that in the long run, they will get things right. This kind of patriotic love for the people — not the contempt for them which is the only thing that unites Egypt’s elites — might lead us out of this dark tunnel. But, for many reasons, I doubt any one will listen to Qays b. Mulawwih. After all, he was crazy.

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Fight Bill C-51! It’s About You!

Feb 19

Fight Bill C-51! It’s about you, not terrorism!

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Establishment of the Council of Wise Muslims

Sep 26

One of the interesting fall outs of the Arab Spring has been a renaissance of traditional Sunni quietism and support of authoritarianism as the proper response to political conflict.  As reported by CNN Arabic Service, the UAE (who else?) is now patronizing a group of Sunni scholars under the not so modest name of “The Council of Wise Muslims (Majlis Hukama’ al-Muslimin).” One of its goals, according to this article, is to revive basic doctrines of Sunnism, including, “obedience to the ruler” (ta’at uli’l-amr). The article also states that the wise ones are cautioning Muslims that democracy is not a good desired for itself, but rather, justice and stability are the aims, and these can be achieved, apparently, without democracy.  Indeed, if democracy is pursued in circumstances that are not appropriate, e.g., the Arab world, it will only lead to civil war.  What the wise ones have failed to explain, however, is why oligarchical rulers would be interested in pursuing, among other things, distributive justice.  Just sayin’.

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Salaita Breaks His Silence

Sep 10

Steven Salaita has broken his silence. Here is his statement regarding what has happened to him, professionally and personally, as a result of the University of Illinois’ decision to terminate him from his tenured position.  It appears that even thought the University of Illinois is prepared to settle with him financially, Salaita will accept nothing other than reinstatement.  That is certainly the right call from the perspective of the academic community, but litigation, if pursued, will extract a high personal and financial tool on Salaita and his family, and will require substantial support from his fellow academics to succeed. This could be a landmark case on academic freedom, and the extent to which private donors will be permitted to set the agenda for speech on the university, the university’s hiring decisions and methods of teaching used by faculty.

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Write a Letter to the Trustees of the University of Illinois in Support of Steven Salaita

Sep 04

Despite the vast amounts of negative publicity the University of Illinois has received, and continues to receive as a result of its decision to terminate Professor Steven Salaita, it has yet to reverse its decision.  Its Board of  Trustees will be meeting on September 11, and they should be made aware directly of the consequences their decision will have on the University, both in terms of the law and its academic reputation.  Please take some time and write an e-mail to the trustees expressing your opposition to the decision to terminate Professor Salaita and demand his reinstatement.  The names and the e-mails of the trustees are set out below:

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University of Illinois Rescinds Offer to Professor for his Anti-Israeli Tweets

Aug 06

This morning, I read this disturbing report that the University of Illinois rescinded an offer it made to a professor to join its faculty on account of his anti-Israel tweets. It is important that we write to the University of Illinois protesting this decision.  Please consider sending an e-mail the University Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, explaining why this decision is not consistent with the values central to a university in a democracy.  Her e-mail address is chancellor@illinois.edu (or in the alternative, pmischo@illinois.edu).  Here is the note that I sent her:

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Ilana Feldman, Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University, on Israel’s Long-Standing Policy of Isolating Gaza

Jul 29

Ilana Feldman, an anthropologist at George Washington University, has written this informative post on Israel’s evolving policy of isolation of Gaza, which is now reaching its crescendo in “Operation Protective Wedge.” She concludes with the following bleak assessment of life in Gaza:

“So Gazans are immobilized in every sense: cut off from other members of their community, isolated from the “international community,” deprived of economic opportunity, basic goods, and access to advanced medical care. Imposed immobility is itself a form of violence against people, and it cruelly magnifies the violence of military assault. The current catastrophe in Gaza is a product of years of preparation. Restriction of Palestinian movement goes back to their displacement in 1948. And mobility management has been a central tactic of Israeli occupation since 1967. The phone call ahead of the bomb, the “roof knock” (a small bomb) ahead of the lethal strike, are twists in this long trajectory. That sometimes the phone call is not followed by a strike underscores its potency in psychological warfare. These tactics are yet another weapon in the massive arsenal deployed against Palestinians.”

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Hamas “Defense” Spending Compared to Israel According to Israel’s Shin Bet

Jul 28

When Israeli propagandists talk about Hamas diverting resources from needy Palestinians to fight Israel, keep this factoid in mind, courtesy of Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence services (from WikiLeaks):

“According to the leaked cable, Gaza’s de-facto Hamas government spends an estimated budget of US$290 million annually, on a population of approximately 1.5 million residents. The PA’s budget is four times bigger, at approximately US$1.24 billion in 2010. The PA provides services to about 2.4 million residents in the West Bank, as well as covering some of the costs of certain services for Gaza’s residents. The Shin Bet estimates that Hamas uses US$40 million (13.8% of its budget) for military and security needs, and invests the remainder in administration and civilian projects. Israel, by comparison, ran a budget of US$96 billion in 2010 (for a population of 7.6 million), and spent 18.6% of it on military and security purposes – so that, ironically, even according to Shin Bet estimates, Israel spends proportionately more on its military than Hamas spends.”

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Crescent Chronicles: The Travails of North American Ramadan

Jul 28

Muslim Matters has published a very interesting history of moon sighting in North America, and the context behind the 2006 decision of ISNA and the fiqh committee to adopt astronomical calculation as the basis for determining the beginning and end  of Ramadan.  It also has a special shout out to Toronto, although I’m not sure it is one we should be proud of:

“Toronto is one of the few cities, if not the only, which hosts mosques that simultaneously follow all permutations of moonsighting opinions that have ever existed in Islam’s legal history; local sighting, global, Saudi-sighting, astronomical calculations – perhaps there are more. This represents a trend which has become common occurrence across much of the North America; Muslim communities split along lines of lunar dogmatism.”

Meanwhile, if you need evidence that Muslims are great at making lemonade when life gives them lemons, check out what the article attributes to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on this situation:

“While its easy to have a dismal outlook on this debate, there are positive take a ways from this situation as well. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently pointed out, Muslims arguing over something like moonsighting, which may appear as a trivial matter, is a sign of a serious community of believers. People disagree because they hold their convictions to be true, they care about their religion, and they strive to practice it in the most correct way. In a society where religion is increasingly viewed with an eye of irrelevance, it is refreshing to see a people who care enough about it to disagree over it.”

Well, one might think there are more useful things for us to engage deeply in to evidence the strength of our convictions, but that perhaps that discussion is best left for another day.

‘Id Mubarak to all, but especially for the Gazans.

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