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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

May 26, 2003

Islam is Freedom.

Matthew points to an interesting poll which suggests people in Islamic countries are more in favor of democracy than we in America and the UK. I think that this speaks more about the universal desire of human beings for freedom they don't have rather than any particular insight into Islam. Remember that in places like Bangladesh, "democracy" is synonmous with America in a semantic sense, and America is synonymous with the images of wealth and luxury and power that even the poorest slum residents see on Star TV.

But there is indeed a direct link between Islam and democracy, a positive one whose authority comes straight from the Qur'an itself. I've previously discussed this in the context of Iran and the struggle for freedom from the theocracts there - the essence is understanding that religious freedom is essential to Islam. Freedom of religion is enshrined in Ayat 2:256, which states that "there is no compulsion in religion."

In fact the Islamic argument against imposition of religious belief stems from the same philosophical root as the idea that proving the existence of God is counter to religion's self interest - both deny deny faith. If I oonly pray or wear a beard because of fear of the religious police, then what value is my religious action? Absolutely zero. You cannot be compelled to faith, it must call you to it of your own free will. And free will is the highest faculty of Man, the sole gift of God.

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit

May 25, 2003

the sum of all fears.

What is the best way to ensure an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, complete with subjugation of women? Confiscate the Shi'a guns while letting the Kurds keep theirs.

This will of course exacerbate tensions and increase the perception that the US is a Crusading conqueror. That will radicalize the Shi'a, and then of course the US will have to crack down even harder. This is a feedback loop.

UPDATE: Don't forget the fact that religious clerics are providing social services superior to what the Americans offer (and promised).

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit

May 20, 2003


I have been reading Fatimah's blog Disaffected Muslim for a few weeks now and I've been struggling with competing impulses. There has been much critique of Fatimah from other muslim blogs, on the basis that he writings are well-received by others who are outright hostile to Islam (such as the comment threads at LGF). This is the wrong kind of criticism to make, it is tantamount to guilt by association, and Fatimah deserves to have her writing evaulated on th basis of their own intrinsic content, not how it is received by other parties.

That said, Fatimah does expose herself to a reasonable critique, namely that she examines a very narrow interpretation of Islam and then proceeds to critique it as if it were representative. The entire theme of her blog is that of someone struggling within the faith against its inherent flaws, rather than someone who is trying to criticize muslims for betraying their religious principles. As such, her critiques often stray beyond the boundaries of Islam, and approacjh these topics from the perspective that the basic axioms of Islam are even false. For example, in her "glossary" for muslims, she writes:

Logic, logical reasoning, rational -- Islamic texts often talk about how important it is to be "rational" and use "logic," but this generally is taken to mean that Islam is so self-evidently true to the writer that they could not concieve how anyone could not see it as the truth--look at all the proofs in the Qur'an, it must be the truth! In any case, it derives directly from the acceptance of Islamic doctrine about how the Qur'an is the direct word of Allah (and if you used your Allah-given sense of reason, you would see how eminently reasonable this truth is!) and the sunnah (example) of Muhammad is the model for behavior. Any reasoning that does not accept these a priori assumptions isn't going to get much traction among said Muslims, especially not a "rational discussion" about whether it is reasonable to accept the Qur'an as the very word of Allah, or about the existence of God, or the historicity of the early Islamic history.

This would be a masterfully concise statement of critique if neither the author, nor the intended targets of the critique, were muslim. But part of the fundamental definition of being Muslim does indeed require the basic commitment to faith that the Qur'an is the Word of Allah. What she dismisses as circular reasoning is actually a matter of faith. It's almost abusrd that I even have to mention this. Elham, another female Muslim blogger, has a very detailed response to Fatimah's glossary post which I highly recommend.

In another post, Fatimah states authoritatively that:

Islam comes from a totally different worldview [from the West], one that states that the highest value is to submit oneself to the will of Allah, to follow His rules (the shari'ah), and to fight for the triumph of Islam, which could mean fighting to bring non-Muslim nations under the dominance of Islamic law, fighting to replace a corrupt Muslim ruler with one who more fully follows the Shari'ah, or working to spread Islam.

I mean Fatimah no disrespect, but to assert that Islam and the West are "totally different worldviews" is to be ignorant of 1500 years of history of cross-pollination between Islamic and Christian nations. And "fighting to bring non-Muslim nations under dominance of Islamic law" is straight from the Wahabi extremist handbook. Has she no interest in the vast landscapes of the Mu'tazili, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Ismaili, the Fatimi, the Ithna Ashari, etc. schools of thought that lie beyond the tiny pool of blackness that is Osama bin Laden's transcript?

And it certainly does not bode well for Fatimah's faith that her sources on Islam include noted polemical sites like I wonder if she has ever been to It seems she would like it a great deal.

On the whole, Al-Muhabajah is perhaps the supreme example of a muslim who is engaged in jihad against defamation of the faith by outsiders and misuse of it from within. Comparing al-M to Fatimah's writing is like yin and yang. Al-M ably embraces much the same goals as Fatimah, to reveal the misuse of Islamic ideology, but does so firmly within the framework of Islam. I respect Fatimah's right to write as she pleases on Islam however she sees fit, but her blog is not useful to me as part of the dialouge about Islam that is now 1423 years old. I leave her to her version of the faith with best wishes.

UPDATE: I tried to leave this comment on Fatimah's blog, but was prevented by a server error. I will try again later. For now though here's the text.

I believe that Fatimah's ideas should be judged on their own merits, not by character assassination ("she's just LGF-lite") etc.

I disagree with much of Fatimah's impressions, because I feel her viewpoint of Islam is extremely narrow (perhaps, because she uses sites like LGF and as sources).

As a Shi'a I'm only too happy to agree that the Caliph Umar was a poor leader and cruel tyrant. I can suggest looking at the Fatimid Caliphate instead for a more true-to-Islam example of tolerance. And as Bill Allison has noted, many Jews fled Europe to the Ottoman Empire's protection in eth late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These are just as valid examples for a religion that is vast and has spawned many societies, cultures, nations, and empires. Fatimah's entire data set appears to be the early caliphates between Muhamad SAW and Ali AS. And after - who can honestly say that Yazid or the Ummaiyads were good muslims!

This is what I mean by a narrow view of Islam. Fatimah does her own quest or knowledge a disservice by selectively choosing which aspects of Islamic history to focus on and proclaim as representative.

I urge you to see Zack's summary of this debate

and Bill Allison's posts in particular:

Shi'a Pundit |

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit

bounded by the Qur'an and the Constitution .

Tacitus points to this absurdity. I feel that the woman has no right to make this demand.

My religion demands that I neither pay nor receive interest. But if I pay my taxes late, then you better believe that I'll be paying interest. Being compelled to pay interest under threat of jail is a consequence of not paying taxes on time - therefore paying taxes on time is a religious duty.

First of all, neither the Qur'an nor the authentic hadith of the Prophet SAW demand that the face be fully covered. If this woman was part of some other religion that had scriptural requirements that supported full facial covering, then she might actually elicit some sympathy from me. However, her invocation of Islam here is disingenious on her part, since she demonstrates her intent to violate her own stated beliefs by choice.

Let's take her at her word. Suppose that her religion (whatever it may be) truly demands that she wear a full facial covering. The requirement by the State of Florida that her photo show her face is a requirement for the privelege to drive (neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights demand that driving is a right). Then by the constraints of the belief system she chooses to adopt, not driving becomes a religious duty[1]

The bottom line is that this woman chooses to wear her full facial veil based on a personal interpretation of religion[2] . She is attempting to leverage that personal interpretation to evade a civic requirement in order to lay claim a privelege. This puts he in the position of placing her desire to drive above her belief in her religious responsibilities.

She has to decide which is more important. If she was truly as committed to her personal interpretation as she claims from her high horse, then she should consider driving haram, just as I am personally forced to consider paying taxes late haram.

Note however that this issue is fundamentally different from the restrictions on Muslim schoolgirls in France from wearing the hijab. That is a true case of discriminating victimization by the State and interference with religion.

[1] The irony of this compared to the opposite situation regarding women drivers in Saudi Arabia is not lost on me. and is grist for the comments mill.
[2] Which has essentially zero scriptural or doctrinal support. It's essentially a religious innovation (bida).

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit

May 14, 2003

pragmatic prioritizing of responsibilities.

actually, Bill and I agree completely:

Diana argues that Islam, as she understands it, is incompatible with American ideals, and where there is conflict, Islam must give way. I think Islam is more complex than her characterization of it. There are certainly aspects of the religion that trouble me, but I find that, like Christianity or Judaism, there is much good in it as well. Diana suggests that the "cognitive dissonance" cannot be rationally reconciled; I believe the dissonance is absolutely necessary, can be reconciled only through reason, and further, only through this cognitive dissonance will the Islamists, who refuse to admit a second, opposed idea into their minds, be routed.

this is what I actually meant when I said that there is no dissonance, that the only challenge is in assigning priorities. Take an example - the requirement that meat be halal. In practice I do not fully adhere to it, though I avoid pork completely I still eat beef and chicken at McDonald's, etc.

I make no excuses, it is my goal to someday be fully halal, but I've simply accepted for now that this is a goal that is prioritized lower than other more immediate ones (such as making sure that I speak our native language to my baby daughter as much as possible). Part of the reason that eating halal is scheduled lower on my priorities is simply because it's really hard. We live far away from our community in Houston, we often are exhausted after the long day and need to do dinner quick or cheap or bopth, etc. (these are not excuses). Speaking our language to our child is also hard, but it costs us nothing apart from a mental effort.

Dissonance arises when you have actual conflict - society tells you to do one thing, and that thing is in direct conflict with a religous requirement. To take a concrete example, if I am late on my taxes, I have to pay interest on that balance. My religion says that interest should not be paid or received. However, my religion also requires me to abide by the laws of my nation, and if I tried to fight against paying interest on my tax bill, I would suffer penalties far out of proportion. The bottom line is that I am compelled to pay interest on a late tax bill - so I simply do NOT pay taxes late. And if I ever am late, then I pay the interest.

The point here is that even this seemingly clear cut example of a conflict demonstrates the door to avoiding conflict. Don't pay taxes late. That becomes a religious responsibility, in a sens,e because the consequences put me in a position to violate my religious responsibilities.

This is always the case - there is always a way out, if you identify the source of the conflict and take preventive steps. And sometimes if there is no way out, then you are being compelled - which means that you at least didn't choose to violate the religious responsibility deliberately (premeditated).

In a free society like America, it's much less a problem. Even my community members in Britain face serious issues at times in being compelled to violate their religious responsibilities (which I won't be explaining in further detail, sorry). This forms one of the major foundations for my assertion that America remains the most Islamic country in the world - if you define an Islamic country as one that facilitates the believer's adherence to Islam.

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit

May 13, 2003

The falsity of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

I have asserted that you cannot prove God, for to do so would deny faith. This does not mean, logically, that if you DID somehow prove God (for example, if God presented you with 10 Commandments, or a holy Qur'an) that God would vanish - that is not the point of the Douglas Adams excerpt either. The God that vanishes is the concept of God as an entity whose existence can be proved, rather than the requirement of God as an entity that must be believed in.

While technically true that God revealing Himself to man would constitute a proof of sorts, that also denies faith. Now the man to whom God has revealed Himself does not need faith. He can simply point to God. The believer however, will most likely never perceive God in that direct form, and thus their belief in God is a matter of faith and not proof.

I do believe that God exists, and that belief is independent of whether God proves his existence or not to me. Thus I do not need proof, and in fact God's direct revelation would not be proof. If I were to treat it as such, then I never truly had faith.

This is why an avowed atheist such as Steven Den Beste is my ally, against attempts to prove the existence of God, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. This supposed proof proceeds as such:

  1. The universe either had (a) a beginning or (b) no beginning.

  2. If it had a beginning, the beginning was either (a) caused or (b) uncaused.

  3. If it had a cause, the cause was either (a) personal or (b) not personal.

The supposition is that if the Universe had a beginning, which was caused, and the cause was personal, then that proves God. Actually, it doesn't, because the only God the Kalam argument proves is the Deist God who created the Universe and then ceased all interference afterwards. That version of God is incompatible with Islam (or Judaism, or Christianity, according to my understanding).

But the methods by which the Kalam argument "proves" the answer to be (a) in each case constitute a gross abuse of mathematics and science. Note that by relying entirely on Math, Science, and Philosophy to attempt to infer the existence of an entity that transcends those concepts (by definition), the proof is already in violation of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. But a more fundamental flaw is that the entire thesis rests on the postulate that "a trait of the actual infinite is that nothing can be added to it". They attempt to justify this using a thought-experiment called "Hilbert's Hotel" :

Let us imagine a hotel with a finite number of rooms, and let us assume that all the rooms are occupied. When a new guest arrives and requests a room, the proprietor apologises, 'Sorry--all the rooms are full.' Now let us imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, and let us assume that again all the rooms are occupied. But this time, when a new guest arrives and asks for a room, the proprietor exclaims, 'But of course!' and shifts the person in room 1 to room 2, the person in room 2 to room 3, the person in room 3 to room 4, and so on... The new guest then moves into room 1, which has now become vacant as a result of these transpositions. But now let us suppose an infinite number of new guests arrive, asking for rooms. 'Certainly, certainly!' says the proprietor, and he proceeds to move the person in room 1 into room 2, the person in room 2 into room 4, the person in room 3 into room 6, the person in room 4 into 8, and so on... . In this way, all the odd-numbered rooms become free, and the infinity of new guests can easily be accommodated in them.

In this story the proprietor thinks that he can get away with his clever business move because he has forgotten that his hotel has an actually infinite number of rooms, and that all the rooms are occupied. The proprietor's action can only work if the hotel is a potential infinite, such that new rooms are created to absorb the influx of guests. For if the hotel has an actually infinite collection of determinate rooms and all the rooms are full, then there is no more room. (Craig, Kalam, 84-85)

The simplest counterexample is simply the infinite set N of real positive integers, ie { 1, 2, 3, ... }. Now all I do is add zero. We now have { 0, N} where N = { 1, 2, 3, ...}, ie {0, 1, 2, 3, ...}. There! We just added one to infinity.

To apply this counterexample against Hilbert's Hotel, simply consider the room numbers to be labeled according to N. Now the hypothetical guest arrives. Build him a new room with room number 0.

The distinction between a "potential" and "actual" infinite is arbitrary. The distinction is solely introduced to justify the claim - note the underlined sentence above in the Hilbert Hotel example, which explicitly tries to deflect my counterexample by labeling it a "potential" infinite. They are essentially trying to claim 1. The Hotel is a pure math construct, not in the Real World. 2. We cannot build a new room because the Hotel is in the Real World, not a pure math construct.

In fact, they repeat this type-confusion by asserting that because "potential infinities" cannot exist in the Real World, that this even applies to God. The implicit assumption that they (probably did not intend to) make is that God is bounded by the Real World. This may have been true for the Greek pantheon, but Allah is beyond human comprehension and the limits of his Creation.

The website invoking Kalam also argues that Cantor, of set-theory fame, also subscribed to a version of this argument and even tried to present it to the Pope:

In fact, until Gregor Cantor's work in set theory, mathematicians rejected the existence of an actual infinite as a mathematical concept. But Cantor himself denied the existential possibility of the actual infinite. In correspondence with the Pope, he even suggested that the existential impossibility of the actual infinite could be used in a mathematical-metaphysical proof for the existence of God.

This proves that Cantor was a great mathematician, but a poor theologist.

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit

May 7, 2003

proof denies faith.

Steven Den Beste has a superb essay on why atheism cannot be proved. Speaking strictly as a theist, I'd like to also step to the plate and assert that theism cannot be proved. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, wrote of the following:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It proves you exist, and so therefore, you don't. Q.E.D.."

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

"Oh, that was easy," says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

This is quite profound. The basic axiom is indeed that proof denies faith, because faith is a belief that stands upon the strength of its own convictions. It's very easy to believe in something that can be proved. In a sense, doing so isn't true belief at all.

I had the opportunity to actually ask Douglas Adams about this passage and how religion influenced his writing. His response was:

I am, as you guessed, fascinated by religion. But I am by conviction an atheist, and a fairly radical one at that. Have a look at this.

The fact that you can pose a question doesn't mean to say that it has an answer, at least, not the sort of answer that the question implies. So saying that religion has the job of asking the underlying "Why?", as you suggest, seems to me to mean as much as asking "What colour is opera?" or "Where is indecision?" or "When is osteopathy?" or "How is blue?". By the time you've done enough clarification of the question to render it meaningful you're effectively got yourself another question. Like "How come things are as they are?"

The link Douglas provided goes to an article he wrote in American Atheist. I find the subtle differences between Douglas' atheism and Steven's to be fascinating. If Douglas is fascinated by religion, then I suppose I am fascinated by its absence. His answer above reveals a worldview that while quite different from mine, still served as a source of inspiration when writing about religion in his books.

Ultimately, religion requires only a single leap of faith at its core. Is there a God? This is the starting point that I share with my Christian and Jewish brothers, all of us sons of Ibrahim (Abraham). That leap can not and must not be a matter of proof, solely of conviction. From there, however, we who believe in God apply the same processes of reason and logic that our atheist cousins do. My own series of conclusions draws me to Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin TUS, others may be drawn to Pope John Paul II, or even to Qutb.

But can any of us prove our convictions? I believe the answer is no. But I can't prove it.

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit


Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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