On “Why I am a Muslim”

A friend of mine wanted to know what I thought of Asma Gull Hasan’s Why I Am a Muslim. I was honest and said I hadn’t read it. While I enjoyed her first book – American Muslims – as an individual and personal voice of being Muslim and American, it did have some factual inaccuracies that I thought weakened it. However, I believe her misperceptions and misunderstandings are common enough in the Muslim community that she can’t be faulted for them. In addition, her first book was her personal experience, not a description of the Muslim American community. I did not place that book on “to recommend” list, despite its strengths, because I believe we can do better, but I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it.

I told my friend that I had very negative things about her new book, and when he asked what, I tried to find reviews of the book. To my surprise I found comments that praised this book as though it were a new Qur’an, nary a critical word anywhere, or people who hated it and Asma, without apparently having read the book. (See the Amazon comments for a sample of what I’m talking about.) I did manage to find one reasonable review, and one that I also happen to have a great deal of agreement with. Because Asma is everywhere in the media, and because of the lack of critical approaches to her book, I’m taking the unusual step of writing a detailed set of thoughts, rather than my usual “good books on a topic.” In the interests of full disclosure, I do know Asma, and spoke to her extensively about her first book before it was published. I also wrote her a longish critique of the first book when it was published, to which she did respond politely, but which she did not act on for other editions. While I don’t consider us friends, I do see our relationship as being on the friendly side of the acquaintance spectrum.

There has been some criticism (again, see Amazon comments), and rightly so, that the book is littered with misspellings. Yes, Asma made them, but it’s her editor’s job to clean it up. In addition, she had several readers, whom she acknowledges, who never brought those typos to her attention. Generally speaking, those typos are not important. Those who know, recognize for what they are. Those who don’t know, for the most part, are never going to use or see these terms again. These types of mistakes have no bearing on the content, and aside from this bit, I won’t mention them.

To me, the biggest difference between her two books is that in her first, she is giving herself as an example of an American Muslim. While the framing could have been better, to me the book is a personal one, it does not speak for others. In her second book, she is attempting to speak to what Islam is; not in her mind, but as an absolute, and this absolute, in turn, is why she has chosen to be Muslim. This approach is problematic as I’ve argued elsewhere on the blog, as, by definition, Islam is a process, and therefore cannot be quantified. Previously, her ignorance of the tradition was reflective of the Muslim community; here, it’s painfully obvious, and borders on misrepresentation of the tradition. Her overall theme of the inclusivity of Islam is undercut by her exclusivist statements.

My first cut will be a linear critique of her work, and then I’ll try to tie some of the concepts together at the end of the post.

Minor-major quibble: On page 7, she mis-quotes the first revelation as Surah 101. It’s considered to be Surah 96.

On page 11 there is a discussion of the concept of fitra. While not incorrect, I found it unnecessarily confusing. There is a historical religion known as Islam (capital “I”), and the concept of submission to God, islam (lower case “i”). That means there is a historical group of people know as Muslims, those who submit to God via the organized religion of Islam, and there are muslims, those who practice islam. The Qur’an refers to the prophets and the ahl al-kitab as muslims. Everyone is born muslim, it is only as they mature that they can make decisions as to whether to, and how to, submit to God. Therefore, everyone’s fitra is to be muslim.

One of my big complaints about how people define Islam is the 5 Pillar definition. To be Muslim, and therefore to perform one’s Islam, is composed of only 5 acts, and by doing those 5, salvation is achieved and complete knowledge of God’s plan is attained. It’s a simplistic definition that harms the faith, and is ahistoric with respect to Muslim self-understanding over time. However, the book says “at any moment, somewhere in the world, a Muslim is performing one of the five, daily, Islamic prayers.” (p. 13) The five daily prayers are a particular interpretation of Qur’anic revelation (which only describes three mandatory prayers), which, while held by the majority of Muslims, is not a universal interpretation. However, by treating it as such, it excludes large numbers (at leat 10%, or a 100 million) of people from being Muslim.

Quibble: Asma is the plural of “ism,” or “name” in Arabic; for example “Bi-ism Allah” means “In the name of God.” Al-Asma Al-Husna means the “beautiful names.” Persian has a word âsmân that means sky. I suppose that could be construed as “high” or “elevated,” but it bears no resemblance to the asma of Arabic. (p. 15)

The description of the Shi’ah is problematic (p. 29). About 12% of the world’s Muslim population is Shi’ah, although that 10% number does get bandied about quite a bit, and is an open point. However, the Ithna’ashari community (12ers) is a majority in Iran and Iraq. They also have sizeable minorities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, Syria, India, and Pakistan. They do NOT follow the Ayatollah of Iran. They have a well-established hierarchy of learned religious leaders, amongst whom they have a choice of following any number (I believe the current number is three, primarily because of the cull launched by Saddam Hussein). Nizari Ismaili Muslims do consider the Aga Khan the current Imam, or descendant of the Prophet; the Must’ali Ismailis do not. The Aga Khan resides in France, the Aga Khan Development Network is based in Geneva. These are basic mistakes that misrepresent a large portion of the Muslim community, and as such can be quite damaging as to how these communities are perceived by readers of the book.

The description of the Shi’ah continues (p. 156), and in that section the Shi’ah of Iraq are mentioned. There is a discussion that the Prophet did not name his successor, but if you read Sunni traditions, you know the Prophet did ask for a scribe to leave his last will, and Umar refused him and convinced Abu Bakr to deny him as well. When Aisha, whom the book considers a reliable transmitter of history (p. 133) asked why, she was told it was because they feared he would publicly name a successor. According to Shi’ah and Sunni tradition, the Prophet had already said at his list sermon that “he whose mowla I am, Ali is his mowla.” The Shi’ah treat the word mowla to mean “master,” and the Sunni “friend.” However, oddly enough, the book treats the definition of “friend” as incorrect, and “master” as correct (p. 108). Leaving aside the differences amongst the schools of thought on the issue of succession (I refer you to Madelung’s “The Succession to Muhammad : A Study of the Early Caliphate” for a good treatment of the issues at stake), the section alone normatizes what Islam is and excludes, by it’s own account, 10% of the world’s Muslim population. It also goes on to define “rogue” movements that are not part of the “mainstream.” (p. 98)

Any first year legal student of Islamic law will tell you that a fatwa is not universally binding. However, it is binding on the petitioner – depending on the school of law – unless an alternative fatwa is solicited. (p. 30) The fatwa is a solicited legal opinion that implies an acknowledgment on the part of the petitioner that by not following the opinion, they may be sinning. It is non-binding for certain Sunni schools insofar as nothing in the religion is binding. The related discussion on the separation between church and state (p. 31) requires more space than I’m willing to go into, although I will make an alternate suggestion at the end. However, generally speaking her conclusions are correct, there is in fact a stark difference between church and state, because the book refuses to deal with the historic tradition, works backwards from the conclusion to create premises.

Sufism is more than a reaction to political currents in the early Islamic period (p. 50). However, to suggest that is that means that the movement could not be apolitical (p. 42). While Sufism is often romanticized as an open-door that means Sufis will pray anywhere with anyone, it is much more complicated than that. Ibn Arabi the great Andalusian Sufi thinker who promulgated the idea of wahdat al-wujud, “the unity of being,” often considered a type of monotheistic pantheism, was quite clear in his writings as to what was permissible and what was not in order to remain being Muslim. While there is a great deal of symbolism in Sufi poetry to make one think the Sufis were drunks and pantheists, that does not make it so. There are common literary conventions that the Sufis were using. Some orders were inclined to inter-faith discussions; others were not. Sufism, or tasawwuf, is a description of one’s personal orientation to getting to know God, and does not describe a unified philosophy. Sufi orders were instrumental in organizing anti-colonial movements in North Africa. In Dagestan, the orders were, and probably still play a large part, in organizing the community against the Russians. The State Dept., shortly after Sept. 11 (I’m looking for the link), posted a report saying the US should encourage Sufism to stave off the formation of groups like the Taliban. It is a sort of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” oversimplification that got us into trouble in Afghanistan (the mujahideen) and Iraq (Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1986) in the first place. (More on diversity in Sufism here.)

Major quibble: It is not Islamic, nor even Islamicate, to call the peers of one’s parents “uncle” and “aunt.” It is highly cultural. (p. 90)

My last major concern is that for a book that is so concerned with inter-faith issues, there is only a recognition that there are similarities between the Torah, Gospels, and the Qur’an. There is no mention of the fact that they are all revealed from the same source al-lawh al-mahfuz, “the well-preserved tablet,” and that the Qur’an is the only one not to have been tampered with over time. These are not three distinct revelations, they are the same revelation.

The book attempts to create a universal face of Islam that, while welcoming to other traditions, excludes the diversity within the Islamic tradition. This schizophrenic attitude is the result of taking personal experience and treating it as universal truth. It reads like an apologia because it has no contact with the 1400 years that preceded it. I have no objection to the use of personal knowledge or experience as long as it is presented as such. “What’s Right with Islam : A New Vision for Muslims and the West” (Feisal Abdul Rauf) is a better treatment of the same material. I still have issues with the dependancy of the five-pillar definition of Islam, but Imam Abdul Rauf weaves personal experience and scholarly learning well and in an easy to approach way. He knows the variety within the Islamic tradition, he understands the relationships with other Abrahamic traditions, and he is conversant in US history. If you are going to read something by Asma, let it be her first book.

3 thoughts on “On “Why I am a Muslim”

  1. I’ve not read it, but with no offense intended to Ms. Hasan who I am sure is a nice person deserving of every success, I did skim her book in the bookstore and felt like I’d pretty much read it (if you get my drift).
    However, I did read cover-to-cover Asra Nomani’s new book “Standing Alone in Mecca.” It’s a heartfelt memoir that reflects my own frustations with religion over the years. Perhaps it’s because the author is closer in age to me (she being the younger) than Asma Hasan, but the book also raised a number of issues that I’ve experienced myself (not the least of which is my insistence that my wife be allowed to sit with her husband, and not over in the women’s corral where she knows no one, at social events in a mosque). On occasion, Ms. Nomani in her book struck me as surprisingly naive about the Muslim puritanism that has blossomed in the US in the past 20 years. I was also surprised at her admitted unfamiliarity with some fiqh concepts and hadith criticism that seemed fundamental (to make a pun) to me. But she certainly learned quickly. The book isn’t heavy lifting, but it’s not meant to be scholarship.
    My only disappointment is that she seemed to pull her punches on acknowledged ultra-conservative influences in CAIR and ISNA, and well-known (at least to us chickens here) persons associated with those groups.
    See http://archives.cnn.com/2001/COMMUNITY/10/18/mattson.cnna/ and http://www.beliefnet.com/story/92/story_9273.html
    Perhaps she held back because of those tribal ties (she describes them as cultural upbringing) pulling at her. Understandable, unless one is a convert that doesn’t intend to simply trade one tribalism for another. Or maybe it’s simply that Asra Nomani isn’t half the crank I am. Nevertheless, I liked the overall thrust of the book so much I’ve already sent a number of copies to friends.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. I have it on my summer reading list, but maybe I’ll move it up in priority.

  3. So, if I ever do write a book, I guess I should pay attention to the critiques I get and try to do something with them before publication, huh? 🙂

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