Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shi'ism in America - Liyakat Takim

I recently read Dr. Liyakat Takim’s Shi’ism in America, intending to write a review for an online Islamic magazine that I write for on a fairly regularly basis. However, the magazine editor, at the advice of a scholar, declined a review, due to the apparently contentious viewpoints that come across in the fourth chapter, Shi’i Leadership and America. I felt motivated to write something anyway, because the book represents a unique and necessary study that I find to be both interesting and informative. To be up front, I’ll say that I have met the author in person on several occasions. I find him to be an excellent lecturer with highly engaging, well-informed, and relevant topics, and I wish I had taken more advantage of the opportunity to learn from him while he lived within 100 miles of me. Dr. Takim is a religious studies scholar that has served in several universities, as well as a Shi’i community leader and scholar. What follows is largely summary but includes some personal reaction.

In the introduction, Takim provides a brief overview of Shi’i history and rationale for the study. I particularly found interesting the few paragraphs on history of the authority of Shi’i scholars. These tie-in with his fourth chapter which many conservative Shi’is judge overly critical of the current jurisprudential system and scholars. However, the introduction is entirely factual. The portion I am noting here briefly suggests the development of the authority of ‘ulama (scholars) over time. It describes the origins, “crystallization”, and some of the evolution of the concept of marji’ al-taqlid (imitation of a jurist deemed to be the most learned), including the invalidation of a believer’s actions who fails to follow a marji as a 19th/20th century development, and the use of the controversial concept of wilaya al-faqih (overarching authority of a jurist) for the establishment of a theocratic state in post-revolutionary Iran.

Chapter 1 attempts to outline a history of Shi’is in America. The earliest significant Shi’i communities were primarily working-class, Syrian and Lebanese in origin, arriving in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries and settling primarily in the Northeastern United States. Many members of these communities assimilated into the predominant culture to a greater extent than some of the later waves of immigrants. Changes in immigration law altered the make-up of the Shi’i immigrants toward the more highly-educated and religiously conservative, with some notable exceptions, by the end of the 20th century. Political and historical factors such as military drafting in the Ottoman Empire, the Iranian revolution, the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the Gulf War influenced the number and origins of Shi’i immigrants at different times. In this chapter, the author touches on the Sufi movements in America and how some of them are related to Shi’ism. He gives particular attention to accounts involving interviews of members and descendants of the earliest Shi’i American communities, as well as an interlude on the origins of the Khoja Shi’is. Dr. Takim reasonably proposes that the number and diversity of Shi’i Muslims in America may be underestimated and largely ignored in the political and scholarly spheres of influence in America. This chapter and the next provided a relevant grounding that American Shi’is could benefit from by gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of diversity and development.

The second chapter continues the examination of Shi’i communities in the United States, focusing on ethnic diversity and the pattern of ethnicity-based religious centers. The reader learns why this phenomenon is more pronounced in the Shi’i communities than the Sunni communities in America. The consequences of the ethnic structure in many of the communities, such as those related to differences in certain rituals, dress, food, weddings and language are explored. This chapter includes some brief but fascinating descriptions of marriages customs in different ethnic groups, and also a discussion of variations in and importance of Muharram observances (related to the murder of Imam Husayn (as), grandson of the Prophet (saw)). Replicas or symbols used in Muharram observances in one community or the portraits of holy personages used in another community might be seen as borderline polytheistic representations by a different ethnic group. The pattern of lectures, or majlis, during Muharram also varies, with South Asian Shi’is have certain dates dedicated to certain historical figures and other cultural groups using different styles and patterns. The complexity of Shi’i American identity is first brought to point in this chapter. A Shi’i American is a minority within a minority often several layers deep. Shi’is are minorities in the Muslim faith, and Muslims are minorities in America. Certain ethnicities are minorities within the Shi’i communities, and so on. This minority role can feature importantly in the development of individual and community identity for American Shi’is, and coincides with the minority perspective that has been inherent in Shi’ism throughout most of its history. The ethnic nature of many Shi’i centers has often been an alienating factor for youth, who identify less with their cultural homelands than the immigrant generations. Youth are more likely to prefer and pursue de-ethnicitized ways to express and practice the faith. English-language programs, summer camps, and Internet forums that are multi-ethnic are some examples of this, that if absent or inadequate can lead to erosion of Shi’i identity.

As a personal reaction to this chapter, even though I may not technically fit the profile of a second-generation Shi’i youth, I related to their experiences as a revert (convert) of Western origin. The cultural representations and traditions in Shi’i centers are fine as such, but they do not always speak to or resonate with me and have at times accentuated my sense of being outside the community. Further, the conflicts that have at times arisen when different ethnic/cultural groups did not agree on various matters have prevented the community from achieving its full potential. No matter how much time I may spend in or with a community, it never becomes my community psychologically, and I always remain a guest at best. With some physical distance between me and the nearest center and a naturally somewhat introverted nature, the personal benefit of attendance at programs is often not compelling enough to get me to make the commute. Certainly there is merit in engaging with the community in person rather than just on-line, and many opportunities to learn and be of service, etc., that I miss out on by not making myself be more engaged with the nearest center. However, at some level, this chapter validated my personal experience, not in the sense of giving me an excuse, but in allowing me to feel that some of the ways in which I do choose to participate in the Shi’i community are acceptable and relevant and are also chosen by others.

Chapter three of Shi’ism in America addresses sectarian differences. Dr. Takim provides some evidence that until the 1970’s, Sunnis and Shi’is generally worked together in America with a Sunni lead due to majority. Then the revolution in Iran threatened the power and control of some Sunni governments, such as the House of Saud, and strengthened the presence of Shi’ism around the world. Many Muslims were inspired by the revolution and experienced a sense of rebirth. The rising of Shi’ism increased conflict between Sunnis and Shi’is in America and elsewhere, particularly through a Saudi-sponsored spread of a Salafi/Wahabi puritanical interpretation of Islam that is highly disparaging of Shi’ism. Shi’i organizations are late in forming and so far less impactful than Sunni organizations that have benefited from foreign state-sponsorship and a longer history of development in America, as well as majority status. Organizations that have pretended to represent all American Muslims such as CAIR, ISNA, ICNA, and MSA have in fact often excluded, ostracized, and misrepresented Shi’is. Shi’i Muslims in correctional facilities have faced enormous struggles obtaining rights granted to Sunni Muslims and have faced serious threats from Sunni inmates. Shi’is have faced the burden of terrorism committed by the Salafi Al-Qaeda and similar groups, while themselves being predominantly innocent of it, and also being the greatest victims of the same groups, a fact which goes largely unrecognized by an American majority that does not understand the heterogeneity of Muslims.

The next chapter apparently has rankled some people in the Shi’i community. It provides a fair explanation of the general workings of the system of marji’ al-taqlid and elucidates some of its extreme advantages over Sunni jurisprudence, including the superior ability to handle modern situations, and a general independence of religious jurisprudence from the political leadership. The controversy arises in what amounts to an expression of opinion about the responsiveness and understanding of the marji’ and the current hierarchical system of taqlid to matters of Western context. Although it is couched in the context of survey responses, the presentation is unbalanced toward what some might call a reformist position, leading to a claim that it is disrespectful of maraji’ and exaggerating the size and importance of a Western Shi’i community as well as the need for reform. Personally, I find that interpretation of this work to be overly sensitive and dramatic, as well as antithetical to productive dialogue. I think there needs to be an avenue through which possibility of reform can be entertained, and that squelching of “unorthodox” viewpoints tends to seem heavy-handed and alienating. On the other hand, if one supposes that the unorthodox opinion is incorrect and is a potential source of confusion and misguidance to a population that does not possess the base knowledge to weigh the matters properly, then one might conclude the existence of a responsibility to minimize the confusion or misguidance. I do not feel qualified to advocate a position, but it is certainly possible for me to envision a system of jurisprudence that might still meet all required religious constraints, whatever those might be, and yet would be more beneficial and accessible to me personally than what currently exists. Therefore, I did not find offense in this chapter as some others have. However, given the multifarious audience of this book that extends well beyond the Shi’i community itself, I can appreciate that the airing of intracommunity issues raised in this chapter and others can feel to some like the public airing of dirty laundry and thus potentially damaging, instead of the informative and constructive nature that is presumably intended.

The fifth and final chapter addresses Shi’i outreach in America. American Shi’i communities are often developing and insular in nature, and therefore outreach activities are mostly in their infancy or not considered high priority. Modern political and social context has, however, spurred some growth in this area. There is evidence that American Shi’is are becoming more civic-minded, taking greater roles in community service and leadership by organizing blood drives, running food banks, advocating for voter registration, and so on. Of particular note in this chapter is an examination of the African American Shi’i experience as juxtaposed with those of immigrants and African American Sunnis, and the general weakness, so far, of Shi’i communities in reaching out to and including native Muslims, Muslims of other ethnicities than their own communities, and non-Muslims.

In his conclusion, the author basically calls for the continued development of the American Shi’i identity in positive directions, with the results of his study as a valuable picture of where-we’ve-come-from and where-we-are-now. Interestingly, even though this book is recently published, the quickly changing human landscape of America and the world begs the question of how this snapshot is already becoming dated. As I read it, it was highly relevant and timely, yet I could already begin to see how certain current events would have potentially added to or changed some of what appears in this work. Also, I wish the footnotes had been included in context rather than in an appendix, because although most are citations, a few of them provide additional detail important enough that failure to read the note could be problematic. I personally found this book to be of great benefit as well as highly engaging, albeit slightly repetitive at times as it made similar inferences from a limited data set. It is unique and does indeed fill a true gap in the literature of its genre and thus comes highly recommended by this reader.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Light Upon Light

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His light is,
as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp;
the lamp is enclosed in glass, the glass like a radiant star;
lit from a blessed tree ---- an olive tree
that is neither of the east nor of the west -----
the oil of which would almost give light
even though fire had not touched it: light upon light!
God guides to His light the one who wills to be guided;
and God offers parables to human beings,
since God has full knowledge of all things.


اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۚ مَثَلُ نُورِهِ كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ ۖ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ ۖ الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّيٌّ يُوقَدُ مِنْ شَجَرَةٍ مُبَارَكَةٍ زَيْتُونَةٍ لَا شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلَا غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ ۚ نُورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ ۗ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ ۚ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ {35}
[Shakir 24:35] Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; a likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not-- light upon light-- Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is Cognizant of all things.
[Pickthal 24:35] Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. Allah guideth unto His light whom He will. And Allah speaketh to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things.
[Yusufali 24:35] Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.
[Pooya/Ali Commentary 24:35]

The great mystery of existence, its eternal origin and infinite permanence is described in the most comprehensive and eloquent parable of light, which contains layer upon layer of allegorical comparisons to make apparent to man the purpose of the great author of the universe. The physical light is but a reflection of the true light in the realm of reality, and that true light is Allah. The performance of light is to manifest. It is Allah who manifests the universe. The human beings can only think of the factors of the spiritual world in terms of the phenomenal experience obtainable through physical senses; and in the phenomenal world light is the purest thing known to man. Due to the limitations of human experience man cannot see the real light but perceive only the lighted objects. So the physical experience is an illusion, because physical light has drawbacks incidental to its physical nature. It is dependent upon some source external to itself; it is a passing phenomenon; if it is taken to be a form of motion or energy it is unstable, like all physical phenomena; and it is dependent on space and time. The perfect light of Allah is free from any such defects. It prevails everywhere. It envelops everything. It is independent of time and space. The niche (mishkat) is the recess in the wall, high from the ground in the house. The divine light, according to the parable, is placed high above everything, all that which has been created, the whole universe. The lamp is the core of the real illumination. It is placed inside a glass which protects it from any outside interference or disturbance (refer to Saff: 8). The illumination shines bright like a star. In this world, governed by the laws of cause and effect, it becomes natural to know what makes the lamp burn, as no lamp burns without oil. So to give man the idea of causative factor of the generation of light, it is said that the oil of the blessed tree of olive keeps the lamp alive. It is said that after the great flood, the olive tree was the first to grow on the earth. This mystic olive is not localised. It is neither of the east nor of the west. It is universal like the light of Allah.

The light of wisdom (the Quran) in the heart of the Holy Prophet is as protected as the lamp in the glass. Verses 77 to 79 of al Waqi-ah clearly state that the Quran is a protected book; and no one can touch it save the thoroughly purified, the Ahl ul Bayt, according to the verse 33 of Ahzab. Therefore the true interpretation of "light upon light" is the Holy Prophet and his Ahl ul Bayt. It is further made clear in the next verse.

For "Allah guides whom He wills to His light" see the commentary of al Baqarah: 256 and 257-he who believes in Allah, indeed, has taken hold of the firmest handhold (or rope) which will not break off. Allah brings them out of the darkness into light-It is obvious that those who are guided unto His light are the thoroughly purified ones. They alone are the manifestations of the real light. Those who follow these reflection of the divine light receive guidance from the grace of Allah to the extend or degree of their sincere attachment to them. Salman was the only companion of the Holy Prophet who achieved the distinction of becoming one of the Ahl ul Bayt.

The Holy Prophet said:

"My Ahl ul Bayt are like the ark of Nuh. Whosoever sails on it is safe, and whosoever holds back shall perish."

Nubuwwah and imamah, jointly or separately, are the most perfect guidance unto the light of Allah. Allah Himself chooses and appoints the guide, but His choice is not arbitrary. There are conditions which have to be fulfilled. Refer to the commentary of al Baqarah: 124. When Allah appointed Ibrahim as an Imam after testing his faith and awareness, for the whole mankind, he requested Allah to continue this august office in his progeny. Allah agreed to do so, but "it is a covenant which shall not reach the unjust (zalim)" was added. According to verse 13 of Luqman polytheism is the greatest injustice (zulm), therefore as explained in detail in the commentary of al Baqarah: 124 the Ahl ul Bayt of the Holy Prophet was the only group which never worshipped any ghayrallah. Those who had worshipped idols at any time in their lives could not be chosen as Imams at all, but after becoming Muslims if they had accepted the Imams of the Ahl ul Bayt as their guides, and followed them, then, according to the degree of their sincerity and awareness, they are entitled to occupy suitable position in the journey towards the enlightenment available from the light of Allah. Mere verbal profession of faith in Allah without attachment to the Ahl ul Bayt is as bad as hypocrisy.

The existence of the supreme being has been compared to light in order to make human intellect understand a great attribute of Allah, otherwise He is the inconceivable absolute who has created the light. Light is His manifestation. It is not His being.

Aqa Mahdi Puya says:

To know the proper application of ayah al Nur the following points should be kept in view:

(i) It is a parable.

(ii) A parable implies several applications corresponding to various aspects.

(iii) The light should be understood in its widest sense, as a self-evident being which is evident by itself, and through which other beings become evident.

(iv) The light emanating from a source may pass through transparent or opaque mediums. Generally it is not serviceable when it passes through an opaque medium but is profitable when it goes through a transparent medium.

Transparent mediums have different degrees of transparency. Better conductivity depends on the degree of refinement and purification of the medium.

There may be a source or cause which produces the light. It may also be self-illuminating .

(vii) Usually light proceeding from a source illuminates a particular area, leaving other areas unlighted.

(viii) The source of the light, in this verse, is not localised. It is neither of the east nor the west-not any particular area or direction. See my note in Maryam: 16 to 40.

(ix) The parable is applicable to the process of creation as well as to guidance and also to legislation in order to regulate human behaviour both as an individual and as a member of society.

(x) Light as a symbol of guidance is one of the attributes of Allah. It is manifested in both the realms of creation and legislation.

Allah is the light through which every created being comes into evidence, and every being is guided toward the destination where it should reach. To reach to the destination of salvation, bliss and satisfaction it has to do that which guidance points out.

In every realm and sphere there is a point in which the light of creation or guidance manifests itself originally, and then illuminates the surroundings. Niche {mishtat) refers to this "point" as the exalted holy place chosen for the manifestation of Allah's name and attributes. There should be an entity whose cognitive self becomes the focus of light. Such entities have been pointed out clearly in Ahzab: 33 and Ali Imran: 61 as the first and the foremost in receiving the light of existence in the arc of descent and the-last in the arc of ascent. In the realm of creation they are the best entities or "points" in which the light of creation manifested itself originally. In the realm of legislation and guidance too they are the best models.

If applied to any individual the niche is the power of expression and the "house" (in which the niche is situated) is the body.

If applied to the group of the Ahl ul Bayt and the prophets, the niche in the house is the Holy Prophet.

The divine light passed through the purest transparent chain of prophets, without any detour, and manifested itself in its full glory in the Holy Prophet, to illuminate the human society for ever.

All the mediums-lamp, glass etcetera-which are the various stages between the original source and the final spreading of the light should be of the highest transparency so as not to affect the purity of light passing through them. It implies that the minds, hearts, loins and wombs of the ancestors of the Holy Prophet were free from the dirt of polytheism.

The house in which the niche always remained is described in verse 36. There always exists a group of persons whose hearts and minds are fully occupied with the remembrance of Allah.

The niche is the source of light, and the oil of the blessed tree is a pure "light above light". There is not a slightest trace of darkness. Darkness or evil exists outside the sphere of the houses in which the niche is located and cannot enter into it.