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Est. April 5, 2002
September 10, 2015 - Issue 620

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Islam Beyond the Quran
The Color of Water

By Kevin James

"How long can we ignore the raw hatred
of civilian populations living in constant
fear of mini-9/11s from drone strikes that
kill innocent civilians and poison their
land with depleted uranium?"

Like countless others I remember the collapse of the Twin Towers as though it happened yesterday. I was president of the FDNY Islamic Society at the time, which filed suit against the fire commissioner to add an Imam to the Department’s chaplaincy. I had swapped tours to poll-watch for a Muslim City Council candidate since it was primary day, but instead found myself standing dumbstruck amidst the ruins of lower Manhattan that morning. By evening I had chaperoned the remains of a deputy fire commissioner who was a co-defendant in the lawsuit.

About a week later a fire marshal who lost a dozen members of his old firehouse questioned me at work about the Quran’s role in the attacks. His manner was respectful but I felt defensive, and responded no, Islam was a religion of peace. Later, my oldest brother did the same. Unsatisfied with platitudes, he confronted me with Quranic quotes that promoted violence against non-believers.

This led to my own questioning of traditional Islamic sources.
The Islam that appears in today’s screaming headlines was not the Islam I found refuge in 35 years ago. Like debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, it seemed pointless for me to approach the Quran as God’s word without first examining my own anthropomorphic presupposition of God. Only then could I hope to assess the Quran as an incubator rather than an incinerator for peace.

I searched for a vantage point with which to resolve my crisis in faith. This led me to revisit the Quran’s conflicted phenomenal and political nuances that enable violence and oppression. Not seeking to play favorites among rogues, I found parallels in America’s historical consciousness. I needed a clearing where religion and nationalism could be jettisoned for a social solidarity forged from science, public reason, and human need.

Rolling Up My Boots Again

I still remember my first multiple alarm as a probationary firefighter in Ladder Company 12 in Manhattan. We wore heavy hip boots when we went out on the rig, which we kept rolled down below the knee during non-emergency travel. Part of our daily routine consisted of going out for groceries shortly before lunchtime. We were on the way to the market when one of the firefighters saw thick black smoke bellowing from an occupied tenement. When it became apparent we had a working fire in progress, the lieutenant shouted “roll’em up, we got a job!” It was the call that threw us into action, with all its intense, life and death urgency.

But after 9/11 “roll’em up” became a call to reflect, and left me struggling once again with the demons of doubt and identity I closeted when I came to Islam. Belief had become integral to my self-esteem, and I sensed that despite the best of intentions, my deep emotional stake would use confirmation bias and motivated reasoning to cherry-pick facts for a foregone conclusion. I sought an approach beyond Islamic apologetics that respected the authenticity of Muhammad’s experience yet questioned my presupposed infallibility of the divine.

I wrestled with Hegel and Heidegger as well as Mulla Sadr and Mahmoud Taha for answers, sometimes struggling through only a page or two a day. But in trying to cast the mote of projected preconceptions from my eye, I knew that I would never be able to sneak up behind my consciousness with that very same consciousness. Nor would I ever be able to circumvent the embedded and embodied experiences that invariably colored my world. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty, I realized I could only find in the Quran what I brought to it.

My efforts led to understanding the Quran as an organizing principle and source of wisdom that neither proved nor disproved anything, but coalesced around subjective lived experience. This yielded fresh insights into the holy equilibrium of Quranic verses that characterized Islam as a mediation, as a ‘middle way’ that enjoined ‘those who think’ to listen to the word and follow the best of it, and as a step-by-step revelation absolutely contingent on interpreting events that evolved in real time rather than as a repository of absolute truth.

Joseph Conrad quipped, “the man who says that he has no illusions has at least that one.” Given the Quran purports prophets as products of their environment, Muhammad was no doubt constrained by the mote of his social milieu. So rather than trade one interpretation of the Quran for another, or imagine what Muhammad experienced on the furthest horizon of his world, I sought to emulate him by steadily pushing the boundaries of my own. To see through the eyes of Muhammad meant making ablution in the waters of forgetfulness.

With What Does Islam Begin?

My father quoted Marx with passion and vigor. I daresay a spectre haunts America – the spectre of Islam. Not the political Islam that parades Quranic dogma as a winner’s narrative for tyranny, but the phenomenal Islam from which all belief, politics, and the Quran itself emerged. This is the Islam that begins and ends in the individual, where the command ‘Be! confronts an ‘it’ that is all me.

The Quran’s clearly articulated recognition of its own allegorical and foundational aspects called me to an ongoing mediation between primordial vision and cultural norms. This led me to examine Islam as the ground zero of pre-linguistic thought akin to the Tao that can’t be spoken and Dasein’s ‘Being-in-the-world.’ After concluding there was no escape velocity from the virtual gravity of solipsism’s singularity, I began to connect the dots.

Socio-economic forces now shaped claims to truth and justice, not the divine. Just as Citizens United exposed how Capitalism ruled under the delusion of democracy at the altar of markets and margins, Caliphates ruled under the divine right of violence from texts only they could interpret and enforce. The social evolution that helped dispel the Dark Ages now threatened its return. Like the Wizard of Oz, the political will to power spoke its dialects of fear and control behind curtains of certainty wheresoever one turned.

Whether apperception, misperception, or perlocution, I came to believe the Quran arguably reflected Muhammad’s questioning of the status quo from a primordial perspective he experienced as the presence of God. But in consecrating momentary vision into a political achievement, the Quranic architecture for requiting evil became an evil itself. The Islam inclusive of all thought from which Muhammad spoke truth to power devolved into a power that sought control over all thought and speech.    

The Islam that began as a noesis without a name became a name without noesis, while the Quran that began as a noetic artifact cannibalized its genesis. Elites used the authority of tautology to divine vicegerency that effectively crucified phenomenal Islam to the cover of the Quran.

Whereas my father spoke of workers alienated by fetishized commodities to the extent that a Capitalist would sell you the rope with which to hang him, I saw parallels to Caliphates who fetishized the Quran in a way that alienated believers from voice and perceptual faith.

Faculty of Islam

At the outset, neither East nor West comes to the banquet of unity with clean hands. From the self-gratification of power each indoctrinates citizens with the myths that hold heroes and martyrs in its thrall; both result in symmetries of violence projected into the retinal blind spot they call truth.

Yet it became apparent to me that Muhammad saw Islam as an innate operative capacity shaped by the reciprocity between inceptual thought and the world writ large. In a narrative related by Abu Harair, Muhammad asserted that all children are born with a natural disposition (fitrah) of Islam, but his parents convert him to Judaism, Christianity, or Magianism.

Muhammad comported with the Quran’s alethic faith that drew me to Islam in the first place, where our natural disposition sought truth and rejected falsehood prior to any social imprinting. I found further support for a faculty of Islam in verses that characterized Islam as a religion of truth and described accordingly the generic qualities of Muslims who prefigured Muhammad.

I discovered a marked example of cross cultural parallelism in phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s use of “natural attitude” to describe our innate capacity to question and believe. Surely Husserl would find merit in the Sufi metaphor of Islam as clear water that takes the shape and color of its container.

As I poked and prodded the Quran and prophetic traditions, I was struck by the way Muhammad insisted on Islam’s epistemic grounding in human perspective. The inspiration of I am as my faithful servant expects me to be grounds God in anthropomorphic projection. My goose bumps from the muezzin’s call to prayer no longer descended from heaven but were embedded and embodied in feelings from lived experience. Even if you can walk on water, your feet get wet.

I then came across Merold Wesphal, who noted that as human beings we can never encounter God “face to face” but only through an “earthiness” invariably informed by body, culture, and language. This gave me a perspective of a Prophet who self-consciously expressed meaning from within the milieu of the Arabic terms and culture that grounded him.

There is no God but Your God in Dualism’s House of Mirrors

It became clear to me that just as Citizens United severed the jugular of true democracy by deigning human status to corporations, endowing the Quran with divine status aborted individuated free inquiry. With God’s word encapsulated as the ultimate authority, the self’s sleight of hand concealed its ‘earthiness’ as the Quran’s true source of political power.

Since Muhammad made clear his mortal nature, a nomological Quran as God’s literal word poses the greatest threat to a regenerative, self-actualizing Islam. Rather than emulate his vision quest by seeking inspiration for our own, we defame Muhammad by outsourcing meaning to ruling elites and wannabes. In mockery of Quranic appeals to question the empty naming of inherited norms, critical thought abdicated the throne of reason to political Islam’s five pillars of fear, oppression, rigidity, coercion, and elitism.

Given that no finite mind can discern omniscience in dualism’s house of mirrors, such unrepentant self-worship dams the Quran’s agnostic-existential currents behind the hubris of narcissism and conceit. Thus begins the slippery slope that ends with God’s self-anointed ministers of truth exploiting text to unremorsefully execute apostates and dissidents. Followers of Jihadists who derive sanctimony from their power over life and death forget Abraham’s test to his tyrant interlocutor as to whether he could also make the sun rise from the west.

I saw that the corollary to the unlettered Prophet who could neither read nor write lay in the men and women who heard, recorded, and compiled the Quran. Out of intellectual honesty I could no longer ignore that all meaning, power, and effect in the Quran were amplified by diverse perspectives such as class, lineage, and gender.

I appreciated the full spectrum of subjective and objective thought captured by Nietzsche’s there are no facts only interpretations and comedian Bill Maher’s you are entitled to your opinions but not your facts. The word God alone signified highly subjective meanings that exposed language’s inherent ambiguity.

When I bore witness to Shahadah’s “no God but Allah” I instantiated a God particular to Muhammad’s phenomenal experience. But as the dialectic of language presupposed an absolute universal grounded in the Prophet’s particular intention, “no God but Allah” merely privileged my own personal concept of God, filling an already overcrowded idol temple rather than probe the entropy of awareness.

It became clear to me that the Quran’s many syntactical gaps required readers to interpolate meanings in a way that projected their own God into the Quran. There is no lack of irony that Jacques Lacan’s objet petite a - the projection of unconscious content into an ‘other’ of one’s self – finds perhaps its greatest expression in Allah and the Quran.

Reliquary or Heuristic – Will the Real Quran Please Stand Up?

I came to understand the Quran as a repository for multimodal perspectives that illustrated the tension between phenomenal experience and intersubjective meaning. The Quran’s epochal character lay not in my projected preconceptions but as an epoche for understanding the topology of projection. The synecdoche of G_d invariably reverberated between noun and pronoun in my own cephalic echo chamber.

I acknowledged consciousness’ contingency on content wherein the gravitational pull of dark matter invariably shaped contingent worldviews. Appropriately called the Unseen (Al-ghayb) by the Quran, if all the world’s oceans were ink we could never exhaust the words written from the black hole of our inmost content. But in contrast to the testable theories informed by Cern’s large hadron collider that continually questions dated understandings, a presupposed Quran as God’s word reduces it to a crucible that merely smashes rocks together and names the sparks truth and light in perpetuity.

Operating in the transparency of experience, heuristic bias projected a parallax view of me serving a God I created. Whatever comforts of illusion this mirror image provided me, 9/11 gave me a sobering account of its catastrophic social consequences. I urgently needed to go beyond a reliquary Quran for an approach that encouraged ecologies of critical thought.

George Pal’s sci-fi classic The Forbidden Planet captured how even Robby the Robot and space age technology fell before the Id, Dr. Morpheus’ primal fears projected by a technology that caused an advanced civilization to self-destruct. I related it to America’s Id that metastasizes geometrically with each new war on terror. Michel Foucault proved prophetic with his insight that the real enemy is the fascist in all of us that loves power and desires “the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” I found special significance in the Quran’s assertion that the condition of a people will not change until they change that which is in themselves.

Transference to the Dangerous Shapes in Trojan-Horse Translations

Martin Heidegger deemed transference to the Id “the most dangerous shape,” where one can surrender and dedicate one’s life to an “other” that is greater than itself “piece by piece and limb by limb.” Evidenced by Heidegger’s surrender to Hitler’s Nazi party, neither secular nor religious world views are immune.

I saw the epitome of dangerous shaping surface in radically different translations of the Quran published by the King Fahd printing complex’s less than a decade apart. In contrast to the temperate tone of Yusuf Ali’s 1989 version, the freely distributed 1998 Hilali-Khan translation struck me more as a handbook for misogyny and world domination than a religion of peace. In an essay aptly entitled “Corrupter’s of God’s Word,” UCLA Islamic Law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl characterized the 1998 version as a “Trojan-horse translation” laced with hate-filled rhetoric directed towards women and other faiths.

My interest in the 1998 version piqued post-9/11 after speaking with a firefighter at a Rockefeller Center fire prevention demonstration. He related that earlier in the week someone handed him an elegant looking copy of the Quran gratis, but after reading the first few pages he promptly dumped it into a nearby trash can in disgust.

After painfully reading it cover to cover, my journey in Islam would have likely reached a similar end had I not previously encountered the earlier Ali version along with translations by Muhammad Asad and Marmaduke Pickthall. Although I am against the censorship of book burning, this version of the Quran would kindle well in any fireplace alongside Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

The Social Consequences of Anthropomorphism

Carl Jung saw the narrative of Moses and Khidr as symbolic of the transformative process one undergoes in dropping social conventions in arriving at self-knowledge. I see the parable as a double entendre for the dangers of anthropomorphizing God.

Briefly, Moses and his servant resolutely sought the junction of two seas. They forgot a fish they were to eat on a rock that “took its way into the sea and disappeared from sight.” Moses retraced his steps, only to find Khidr at the juncture, a being with direct insight into God’s will. After a series of incongruous events in which he admonishes Moses to patience, Khidr finally explains the divine motives behind his acts.

Jung saw the two seas as symbolic of the intersection of unconscious and conscious, while the fish represented Moses’ latent individuated ‘other’ projected as Khidr. But I see the question of the parable’s intended meaning as highlighting the risks inherent to the gap between textual intent and social consequence.

For example, one of Khidr’s incongruous acts consisted in killing a seemingly innocent young man, which Khidr later justified by the grief he would have caused his pious parents. While the summary execution may signify individuation to some, to those predisposed it provides a license to kill in God’s name. The ambiguity in meaning affords a gap for the fascist in us all to masquerade in the shadow of the divine. Thus the wisdom of another tradition that warns if you meet the Buddha on the road to enlightenment, slay him!

I saw how ambiguity created profound conflicts for a text revealed in real time. The Quran became increasingly more strident after Muhammad fled Mecca for dear life. Where one verse states there shall be no coercion in matters of faith, another calls for slaying non-believers wherever you may find them in the face of military threats that confronted the fledgling Muslim community. In light of the Quran’s occasions of revelation and its confession that there is a time limit for every message, it became clear to me that a religion of truth demands that reason trumps dogma bound to time, place, and circumstance.

Parts of the Muslim affectionately call Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi, his poetic insights into scripture, as the Persian Quran. I believe Rumi captured the primacy of perspectival thought when he uttered “you are your very thought - if your thought is a rose you’re a garden of roses, if it’s a thorn you’re but fuel for the stove.” I saw you are your very thought as the proverbial lampblack that illuminated heaven, earth, and even the Quranic ‘face’ before which all things perish.

Hegelian scholar Quentin Lauer noted that “what God reveals to man in thought is as much revelation as what God reveals to man in Scripture.” I found support for Lauer in Quranic verses that reveal an immanent God closer to you than your neck vein, in a God that veils itself from all human being that must reveal through inspiration, and that when you remember God, God remembers you.

I later discovered that Hegel drew on Rumi in developing the dialectics of negation and affirmation. The dynamic structure of ‘no God but Allah’ now assumed an intense, personal import for me against the political agency of theocratic Gods.

Fidelity to a religion of truth and the middle way required respecting beliefs as Islamic due to organic understandings contingent on lived experience rather than State approval. From Rumi I saw that the prerequisite for working through the infantile disorder of sectarian violence required decentering the Quran as an unreflective authority that always, already reflects on first sight.

God said,

The world is a play, a children’s game,

and you are the children.”

God speaks the truth.

If you haven’t left the child’s play,

how can you be an adult?

Without purity of spirit,

if you’re still in the middle of lust and greed

and other wanting, you’re like children

playing at sexual intercourse.

They wrestle

and rub together, but it’s not sex!

The same with the fightings of mankind.

It’s a squabble with play-swords.

No purpose, totally futile.

Like kids on hobby horses, soldiers claim to be riding

Boraq, Muhammad’s night-horse, or Duldul, his mule.

Your actions mean nothing, the sex and war that you do.

You’re holding part of your pants and prancing around,

Dun-da-dun, dun-da-dun…

  • From Rumi’s “A Children’s Game

Forbidden Truths in America’s Effective History

During the incipient stages of American involvement in Vietnam, I read about the exploits of Marines and told my father I wanted to enlist when I was old enough. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said he wouldn’t let me come home in a body bag so Texaco could drill in the Gulf of Tonkin. He prescribed Perlo’s American Imperialism, Burchett’s Vietnam: The Inside Story of a Guerilla War, and essays written by the most decorated Marine of his era, Major General Smedley D. Butler.

I learned how Declaration of Independence ideals veiled the forbidden truths behind our lust for natural resources, new markets, and cheap labor. Among predominantly Muslim populations, America’s cold war struggle for strategic oil reserves exploited the Quran’s polar tensions between tyranny and human rights. Yesterday’s Gulf of Tonkin became today’s Persian Gulf and Straits of Hormuz.

History taught me how the CIA subverted Iran’s self-determination by imposing the brutal Shah, which paved the way for the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini to seize power. In today’s contentious negotiations to constrict Iran’s uranium enrichment, it seems more fitting for America to first apologize to the Iranian people for facilitating the rise to power of an equally oppressive regime. Otherwise we assert an impoverished moral authority belied by Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Iraqi citizens sickened by the depleted uranium of American smart bombs.

Around the time I became a firefighter we armed the Taliban against the Soviet Union, who later turned those same weapons on American troops. Lured by the promise of a pipeline to access inland oil, we negotiated with the Taliban in the months leading up to 9/11 despite their oppression of women and basic human rights. I imagined the fate of America if England had armed the South during our Civil War to secure cheap cotton, despite their own ban on slavery.

And in 1985 we turned a blind eye to Sudan’s military dictator Jaafar Numeiri after he publicly hanged the 76 year old socialist religious leader Mahmoud Taha for apostasy. Taha’s sole crime: opposing Numeiri’s harsh imposition of Shariah law after Numeiri made a personal choice to stop drinking. Symbolic of the deep-seated hypocrisy that stokes mistrust and violence against the U.S. abroad, America would have condemned Numeiri had he executed a Jewish or Christian leader. But with the scent of oil in the air Reagan welcomed Numeiri at the White House scant months after Taha’s execution.

Taha lived Dr. King’s words that he would rather swing at the end of a rope than live under tyranny. An unsung pacifist on par with Gandhi, he worked for self-determination against colonialism within the contours of Sudan’s ethos. Both student and critic of Marx and Hegel, Taha epitomized Muhammad’s exhortation to seek knowledge from cradle to grave. He sought the very social reforms as those the U.S. tried to impose on Iraq after Gulf War II. Notably, Numeiri was ousted from power and Taha’s sacrifice commemorated as Arab Human Rights Day despite U.S. inaction.

As America intermeddles in Syria’s internecine warfare, we conveniently forget sticking our head in the sand when it suited our oil strategies to let Iraq gas Kurds and Iranians. We also whistled Dixie when the Irgun terrorized Palestinians to establish Israel under the banner of Zionism akin to the genocide of indigenous Americans marketed by Manifest Destiny.

Forgotten, too, is our own use of chemical weapons in Vietnam. Memories have now faded of lush rainforests despoiled by Agent Orange, and its pernicious effects on Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers alike. ‘Better dead then red’ was the slogan back then, which was somehow supposed to assuage the American conscience assaulted by televised images of children burned alive by Napalm or point-blank summary executions.

Yet correspondence from Ho Chi Minh betrays the utter absurdity of the war. A New York Times op-ed by Tuong Lai revealed that after fighting alongside U.S. troops in World War II, Minh wrote to President Truman seeking an alliance that we ignored. This, despite expressions of admiration for the same Declaration of Independence ideals that America disastrously waved the flag for in Vietnam.

Major General Smedley Butler and the Marine Corps Enforcers

America’s imperial diplomacy recalls Major General Butler’s comments prior to his death in 1940. He decried American adventurism, and gave a firsthand account of how the Marines provided military muscle for Big Oil and other corporate interests to go abroad unmolested. He called war a racket and even compared the Marine Corps to Al Capone’s Chicago rackets. Placed in the context of Blackwater’s antics in Iraq and the U.S. backed Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, Butler exposed a mercenary savagery that conspicuously operated off-camera on par with the barbaric acts of cruelty Jihadists openly air.

I saw convergence between crew-cut generals serving plutocracy and bearded ideologues exploiting religion as a rallying cry against foreign incursion. Given that America continues to partner with functionally apartheid and fascist states, chickens will come home to roost and innocent lives lost so long as the corporate lust for profit underwrite violence, oppression, and the denial of self-determination.

The abject living conditions of large Muslim populations belie the false dichotomy beneath the ‘clash of cultures’ rationale for hatred towards the West. The violence in reaction to mockery of what Muslims hold sacred drill deep into to the colonialism that drained natural resources, propped puppet regimes, and used a straightedge to draw artificial borders that exacerbated conflicts among indigenous peoples.

I feel it grossly unfair to blame the oppressed for acting out against perceived oppressors when large swaths of populations cope with depression due to the lack of basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical attention. Can we express surprise at ritual burnings of the American flag when barefoot children skim oil from puddles of water to survive along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border? How long can we ignore the raw hatred of civilian populations living in constant fear of mini-9/11s from drone strikes that kill innocent civilians and poison their land with depleted uranium?

Defining the Elephant in the Room

I began to appreciate the Quran’s mode of progressive revelation that presented truth as process akin to Hegel’s assertion that truth was a result rather than a freshly minted coin. Verses repeatedly emphasized how mortal prophets emerged from their cultural milieu to present argumentation within the language and norms of their audience. I saw an analogue with Hegel’s recipe for persuasive discourse wherein we must penetrate the opponent’s stronghold and meet him on his own ground; no advantage is gained by attacking him somewhere else and defeating him where he is not.

Abraham’s encounter with astral phenomenon illustrates how the Quran presents the temporal nature of truth. He first espied a star and deemed it God, then the moon, and finally the sun. When the sun sets below the horizon, Abraham awakened to the limits of perspective for attaining the absolute.

Since heuristic bias invariably colors one’s objectivity, mutual expression and recognition become key elements for addressing social concerns. In contrast to Jihadists who destroy sacred signposts of antiquity, the Quran articulated respect for differences in ritual expression as indigenous to nations and tribes. Hence its admonishment to revile not what others hold sacred.

While the parables of Abraham and Moses represent individuals coming to truth, I viewed the contemporary conundrum as achieving consensus among diverse parties. How do we fuse the horizons of Saudi Islamofascism and Taha’s social-Islam; America’s parasitic capitalism with inclusive participatory governance?

Quranic scholar Farid Esack points out there can be a marked difference between the way scripture functions in the lives of believers apart from clinical assessments. I take Esack and Hegel to mean that obsolete norms must be allowed to evolve from indigenous perspectives such as Taha’s The Second Message of Islam rather than imposed from without.

The Quran’s dynamic structure as a progressive revelation lends itself to leveraging such social evolution among predominantly Muslim populations. Just as Thomas Jefferson called for revisiting the U.S. Constitution by each new generation, the Quran repeatedly questioned blind obedience to past generations with facts on the ground. A religion of truth can no longer function as a religion per se but as a de facto science that recognizes its answers as tentative and testable. Only then can Quranic appeals to reason and Muhammad as the seal of the prophets be properly contextualized as points of departure rather than celestial orbs in the night sky.

The Original Position: A Messianic Opening without a Messiah

In law school I learned about John Rawls’ ‘original position’ and this seems a good place to begin dialogue. Conceived as a thought experiment to address fairness in social policy, Rawls felt that agreements reached after stakeholders already knew their social status were inherently unjust. His original position forced diverse stakeholders to use public reason to achieve consensus from behind a veil of ignorance where participants were shorn of the power relations acquired from morally irrelevant traits such as race, gender, and creed. I found comfort in a footnote where Rawls cited Taha and his student Abdullahi Ahmed An Na’im to illustrate how secular and religious aims could be reconciled.

I was later struck by the writings of Jacques Derrida, who wanted to rethink social relations from a messianic opening sans Messiah. Egalitarian discourse would operate within the finality of an event that could never be anticipated rather than an imaginary Rapture or Paradise. The Quran hinted at such discourse in Surah Ash-Shura (Consultation) by bidding Muhammad to bring about equity in mutual viewpoints in the Asad translation.

Yet it seemed to me that the major import of original positions and messianic openings lay in inculcating empathy for others rather than mere thought experiments. This comports with early Meccan verses that called on Muhammad to show care for others based on his experiences as an orphan alongside others that chastised him for ignoring the sincere inquiries of a blind man while trying unsuccessfully to persuade an influential Meccan.

The Dalai Lama exemplified such openness with his willingness to abandon Buddhist tenets when contradicted by scientific consensus. He accorded respect for a neuroscience that increasingly shows we are hard-wired for temporal causality as one among many traits that enhanced human survival. Indeed, whereas the God we project into the Quran exercises its universal power each day, the constituting self seamlessly originates and recreates reality in the event horizon of each moment.

I can never transcend the transparency of experience to peer into the cutting-room transformation of chaos into competing Bayesian odds that predict, project, and correct. In order to legitimate political action, therefore, the Islam contingent on perceptual faith needs to cabin projection for prediction and correction to reach consensus. While individual beliefs call for Constitutional protection so long as they don’t hurt anyone, social cohesion demands policies forged from debate and demonstrable proof.

Philosopher-activist Alain Badiou termed this process “truth procedures;” my father would tell us to ‘jump in the pit and match the wit’ at raucous dinner debates. Only then can we hope to overcome the cognitive dissonance expressed by the five blind men who defined the same elephant differently based on touch.

To the extent that the Quran heralded a religion of truth, its relevance needs to be tethered to the way we process information as diverse operants. Not unlike Hegel’s ladder for coming to truth, the Quran calls on believers to think for themselves based on insights accessible to reason gleaned from history and natural phenomena.

Given metaphor’s role as the building blocks for knowledge, the Quran’s dynamic, temporal character present it as a metaphor for truth rather than an immutable truth. I saw cohesive political action become contingent on every singular voice much like the birds seeking Attar’s legendary Simorgh who, unbeknownst to them, their collective shadow constituted the very creature they sought when they flew in formation.

The Infidelity of Self-Identity versus the Singular Death

After understanding Islam as a constituting consciousness, I saw the apostasy inherent in self-identity such as Sufi, Sunni, and Shia. Respecting the authenticity of Muhammad’s vision need not be mutually exclusive against collaborating to meet the contemporary social challenges posed by wealth disparity, climate change, and sectarian violence.

Taha foreshadowed the Arab Spring by advancing democratic reforms and women’s rights in the Sudan. Armed with the insight of his The Second Message of Islam, Taha saw the Quran’s dormant humanist currents as springing clauses that would overcome force and coercion at the proper time. In an age of dirty bombs and escalating sectarian violence, that time has come.

Whatever one believes, the rewards and punishments of an afterlife have proven an abysmal failure in this respect. Having spent one too many tours at the Cornell Burn Center listening to the screams of burn victims undergoing skin grafts, I cannot entertain a merciful God imposing hellfire on anyone for an eternity.

Tribalism and exceptionalism offer no exit either. Whether stars and stripes, crescent and star, or six pointed star - no matter how well articulated as manifest destiny, the word of God, or the chosen of God - flags epitomize land and ideology as more important than people and need. In The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy provided a sobering admonition against the myths that drive war and violence:

Generations of citizens and militants, of workers and servants of the States have imagined their death reabsorbed or sublated in a community, yet to come, that would attain immanence. But by now we have nothing more than the bitter consciousness of the increasing remoteness of such a community, be it the people, the nation, or the society of producers. However, this consciousness, like that of the “loss” of community, is superficial. In truth, death is not sublated. The communion to come does not grow distant, it is not deferred: it was never to come; it would be incapable of coming about or forming a future. What forms a future, and consequently what truly comes about, is always the singular death…

Nancy’s singular death forced me to rethink radical finitude as a touchstone for the sanctity of life. Between the denialism of magical thinking and the nihilism of radical finitude lay Nancy’s ‘being-with,’ the basic human need for community in sharing the pain and ecstasy of being singularly alive. In ‘being-with,’ the will to meaning that stands helpless before the endless span of time when we are beings unremembered can take refuge in the simpliciter of Be! and it is.

As I absorbed the impact of Nancy’s thought I toyed with a refrain from Jimi Hendrix:

If six turned out to be nine, I would not mind;

If the Kaaba were round not square, I would not care;

No one knows what I’m talkin’ about; no one knows what I mean;

You will never believe as I believe, nor will I believe as you;

I’m the one who’s gonna die when it’s time for me to die,

So let me live my life the way I want to.

Social Solidarity beyond Scripture

Implicit to an Islam contingent on perceptual faith rests the fecundity for actualizing all faiths beyond scripture. This comports with Chief Luther Standing Bear’s insight that after all the world’s religions are expounded in fine books with finer covers, each and every one of us will have to ultimately confront the great mystery on our own.

I read in the Gospel of Thomas that Jesus was not concerned as to whether the flesh was born of the spirit or more miraculously the spirit of the flesh, but with the marvel of such wealth making its home in such poverty. The Buddhist parable of the raft then came to mind. After fording the rivers of turbulence and uncertainty, the sage advised the novice seeker to cast her raft ashore rather than carry it on her head for the remainder of the journey.

Through love, the late Sufi Master Javad Nurbakhsh arrived at a place where no trace of love remained. So too with texts. Whereas scripture addresses relations between human beings and the unseen, the ongoing task lies in nurturing and refining those very relations in real time lest we tote weighty tomes on our back like the Quran’s proverbial donkey. Rather than type people as for or against, why not view their visage as a mirror instead?

Righteousness in Furtherance of Social Justice

Hans Gadamer opined that an omniscient presence must rely on the infinite reference points of individual consciousness along its circumference. This made sense to me, for how else could a God who could not feel pain and joy dispense divine justice to beings who did not ask to be born. Jewish oral tradition posited compassion in the new day that dawns when you look in the eyes of the person before you and say “this is my brother” or “this is my sister.” Given the closeness of DNA between Israelis and Palestinians, this may literally be true.

Thus, the truly just will recognize the sobriquet of ‘Chosen’ as a weighty responsibility to be earned through acts rather than conferred by DNA and ontopology. Only then can a lasting example be set for the rest of the world by applying ‘Never Again’ to all people and refusing to steal the land and dignity of Palestinians due to an accident of birth.

Those seeking fidelity to Muhammad’s way will swallow the draught of anger as prescribed by the Prophet rather use the tyranny of violence against every imagined slight. They will do no harm nor return harm for harm, and follow the Quranic prescriptions of speaking to others in the most kindly manner, repelling evil with that which is better, or simply walking away from the hurtful conduct of others.

Aspiring martyrs will realize there is no short cut to paradise and renounce taking the life deemed sacred by the Quran. They will sear into their hearts that the murder of one person is the same as killing all humanity and fear taking on the sins of the murdered like Cain in the Quran. True martyrdom will eschew headlines for altruism in the ultimate self-sacrifice of living to serve God by improving the material conditions of all people.

And just as former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali refused to step foot in Vietnam, the truly righteous will forsake ritual for human rights. Whereas I continue to find meaning in prayer and fasting, I will refuse to make Hajj in Mecca so long as Saudi Arabia executes apostates, criminalizes dissent, and allows uncovered school girls to burn to death out of a misogynistic modesty.

But there is no easy formula for social solidarity other than toiling shoulder to shoulder and toe to toe towards a society that builds the capacity for equality, pacifism, and human rights. This invokes ‘being-with,’ in using finitude and self-reference as touchstones to empathize and walk in the shoes of others just as the Quran commanded Muhammad. Failure to do so will cede any hope for community to a wasteland of depersonalized political identities that consume us all.

Finish Planting the Tree…

A 1973 NYC Board of Ed photo grabbed my attention this spring when I finally sorted through items salvaged from my mother’s home in Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy. Despite not having a coat, she glowed in the December air at a tree dedication for Martin Luther King in front of an elementary school where she taught in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Marian Anderson and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, were in attendance, and the hope reflected in their faces reminded me of Muhammad saying that if you are planting a tree when the end of the world comes, finish planting the tree.

The photo sent a shiver of pride up my spine and I began to truly appreciate what a remarkable person my mother was. Her activism did not emerge from some academic or ideological vacuum, but through a lifetime of sacrifice and struggle. At a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states, she married my black father against the wishes of her Jewish parents. Her family doctor went so far as to warn her that she would develop a brown stripe across her abdomen if she had children. Yet here I am.

Her father had a wry sense of humor. He sent her to Sunday school so she would learn why Jews were discriminated against. She sold trees for Israel as a youth, but regretted it when she learned of their treatment of Palestinians. Then she planted more trees to commemorate black heroes such as King and Malcolm X during the turbulent 70’s.

Mom nursed my father through the trauma of World War II at the hands of redneck shipmates as well as German U-boats. She stood by him through four children, Jim Crow, the betrayal by so-called comrades during the McCarthy era, and ultimately Alzheimer’s to which he succumbed. And whether my brother wore a yarmulke, my sister went to Sunday school, or I embraced Islam, she loved us all the same and in her wisdom let us each find our own way.

I recalled her simple, heartfelt lines written on the fly outside a Brooklyn detention center housing South Asian detainees post 9/11. After marching more than a mile in the blustery cold with a bum knee, billboard, and too many stents in her arteries to worry anymore, she read:


Does unity mean going back to the Joseph McCarthy period when fighting for desegregation in a Brooklyn school ––– where the fast classes were "lily white" and the slow classes mainly minority students ––– meant a visit from the FBI and a lost job,

When helping tenants fight their landlord meant a visit from the FBI and a lost job,

When speaking out for Peace at a rally during the Cuban Missile crisis meant a visit from the FBI and a lost job,

When being a shop steward during a strike that was lost meant

Visits from the FBI to a series of jobs, and being fired over and over with 15 minutes notice,

When one's friends and relatives were afraid to visit if one were a community activist for fear they would lose their government jobs,

When Civil Rights, the Human rights were violated over and over.

Unity to me means:

Working for Peace

Working for Understanding and Friendship among all people

Working to see that people in our country and around the world are free from want ––– that they have adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care

Working to see that the Civil Rights, the Human Rights of all people are protected regardless of race, religion or country of origin.

That is why we are here today. That is why we will continue to rally and be active until these goals are met.

  • Jeanne S. James

Jump in the Pit and Match the Wit

The Christian community betrays its own rich spiritual existence when it clings to pictures, or defines itself by the ideas of an imperfect original community, or fixates on the sayings “of the actual man himself.”

  • Gary Dorrien, quoting Hegel in Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit.

I took Dorrien’s take on Hegel as equally valid for a historical Islam that kneels before the Quran and Prophetic speech rather than discern relevancy and truth in real time. Although Hegel wrote from an undernourished Christian ethnocentrism, another Dorrien quote of Hegel captures the essence of any religion of truth as the dynamic self-determination of reason: Religion is for everyone… Religion is the manner or mode by which all human beings become conscious of truth for themselves.

American agnostic Robert Ingersoll went further to address the power relations that inhibit reason: When a fact can be demonstrated, force is unnecessary; when it cannot be demonstrated, an appeal to force is infamous. In the presence of the unknown all have an equal right to think.

It seems to me that the ongoing moves in so-called democracies and religions of truth require dissolving winner’s narratives in the waters of public reason. Natural and man-made catastrophes kill innocent and sinner alike, where sinners are invariably defined by winners. As the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe noted in a 1994 interview, “There is a great proverb – that until the lions have their historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Tao, Dasein, and Islam are birthrights for all regardless of borders. The promise of Quran and Constitution lies in their human capital with all their flaws, warts, and restless dispositions. Prioritizing living relations over accumulating things dead, overcoming the myths of markets and martyrdom all demand an open market of ideas free of coercion. And when conflicted interests barter for social goods, promote the good and mitigate harm in a level arena where stakeholders must jump in the pit and match the wit on merit. Guest Commentator, Kevin James, is an attorney and former FDNY fire fighter and arson investigator. He lobbied for passage of New York State’s historic fire-safe cigarette act, and was a Revson Fellow at ColumbiaUniversity from 2002-2003. In 2005 he assisted the Center for Constitutional Rights with the Vulcan Society lawsuit against the New York City Fire Department as an Ella Baker law intern. Click here to contact Mr. James.

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is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble