Margari Aziza

August 27, 2011

The Critical Thinking Muslim

                                                                                                —Image from ModDB 

“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.” – Carl Sagan

The Muslim world possesses a wealth of knowledge, especially in regards devotional literature, theology, and jurisprudence, yet we have not transformed our knowledge into thoughtful and well-executed ways of addressing our most pressing needs. Muslim communities throughout the world face a plethora of problems: poverty, authoritarianism, civil war, neo-colonialism, occupation, sectarianism, sexual exploitation, corruption, social inequality, civil war, natural disasters, etc. Even American Muslims, who are largely shielded from these perils, are challenged. We face a number of issues: cronyism, crime, domestic violence, poverty, ineptly run institutions, sexism, tribalism, infighting, isolationism, Islamophobia, and an inability to address the needs of marginalized members of our community. The American Muslim community is increasingly literate, with unprecedented access to traditional scholarship and information. Islamic institutions of learning are filled to the brim. Although the American Muslim community is predominantly middle class and highly literate, we somehow still seem ill equipped and are stuck in a quagmire (Pew). We are unable to talk to each other, work together, and develop a common vision. That special something is missing and that something is Critical thinking.

As Muslims, the command to “seek knowledge” is almost like a mantra. But how often are we encouraged to think on a higher level, let alone think critically? This is especially important to think about considering how God speaks of comprehension and thinking in the Quran. Tafakkur تفكر is the reflexive form of the root فكر, which means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder, muse, speculate. Tafakkur means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder muse speculate revolve in one’s mind, think over, contemplate, and consider. It is mentioned in the Quran 17 times. In Surah A-Rum verse 8 Allah says:

Do they not contemplate within themselves? Allah has not created the heavens and the earth and what is between them except in truth and for a specified term. And indeed, many of the people, in [the matter of] the meeting with their Lord, are disbelievers. (Sahih International)

The word for “Intellect” is ‘Aql عقل, meaning sense, sentience, reason, understanding, comprehension, discernment, insight, rationality, mind, intellect, intelligence. The verb form that we will see commonly used in Qur’an is عقل to be endowed with (the faculty of) reason, be reasonable, have intelligence, to be in one’s senses, be conscious, to realize, comprehend, and understand. In the 49 references of the word in the Qur’an, God often speaks of the disbelievers who do not comprehend.
In Surah Baqarah verse 276, Allah says:

And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We have believed”; but when they are alone with one another, they say, “Do you talk to them about what Allah has revealed to you so they can argue with you about it before your Lord?” Then will you not reason? (Sahih international)

Another important Arabic word that corresponds to critical thinking is the word for logic, منطق which means the faculty of speech, manner of speech, eloquence, diction, enunciation, logic. All three terms, are important to consider when we think of critical thinking. And, I will discuss later, we will see how Muslim scholars employed critical thinking in their struggle to determine what God intended for us to do when an issue was not explicitly stated in the Quran or Hadith literature. Critical thinking implies:

  •  that there is a reason or purpose to the thinking, some problem to be solved or question to be answered.
  • analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information (CTILAC)

Without these two, we were seriously hamstrung. While having the faculty for critical thinking, our community has either ignored its tradition of critical thinking or underdeveloped due to reactionary thinking. As a result, we are a bit hamstrung by our own intellectual deficiencies. I say this with all respect, because we have many knowledgeable people, but they are not good problem solvers and their analysis and evaluation of information is lacking.
As a result, we hit a number of roadblocks. Many Muslims see Islam as a monolith and try to impose their rigid and authoritarian models on others. Our leaders are unable to come up with solutions to problems that were never imagined by classical or early modern legal and religious scholars. Individuals with little experience in non-profit development or leadership, build institutions with little understanding of how to meet social needs. And lay members of our community lock horns in heated theological and juristic debates that take away from a sense of fellowship and coherent communities. Our communities are fragmented by endless polemics where labels and plastic words substitute for real engagement with our differences and our commonalities. All of these problems come about because critical thinking in Islamic studies and devotional education is not something that is valued within our community. Despite our undervaluing of it, there is a great need for critically thinking Muslims, from your average lay member of the community, leaders, and scholars.

If we understand our own legacy of critical thinking and continue to develop critical thinking at all levels of devotional and Islamic education, Muslims will be better equipped to deal with our most daunting challenges. Before going into our legacy of critical thinking, it is important to understand how the term is currently used. The term “Critical Thinking” encompasses a wide array of ways of thinking and processing information. Scriven and Paul write, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” In my experience of teaching, from a high school to college level classes, the most important tool I have tried to help my students develop has been critical thinking. One of the best ways of seeing critical thinking in action was to have students write research papers with sound arguments. That is because “in essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.)” (Adsit). But I often found that most students lacked not only discipline and curiosity, but also an interest in developing their higher order thinking abilities. Instead, they often focused on trying to get the right answer, rather than learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. When students don’t think well, they don’t write well. Writing is a higher order level of thinking, but anyone can write without thinking, just as someone can speak without thinking on a subject. But eloquent and logical speeches and well written papers reflect disciplined critical thinking. And both can be subject to critique by others who are keen to see logical fallacies, misuse of sources, or failure to include other factors.

Critical thinking is something that develops with practice. It is something we have to train for. Scriven and Paul write that critical thinking is a set of skills that help us “process and generate information and beliefs.” They also a “habit,” or inclination based on intellectual commitment, “of using those skills to guide behavior.” Critical thinking helps an individual recognize the following:

i. patterns and provides a way to use those patterns to solve a problem or answer a question
ii. errors in logic, reasoning, or the thought process
iii. what is irrelevant or extraneous information
iv. preconceptions, bias, values and the way that these affect our thinking. that these preconceptions and values mean that any inferences are within a certain context
v. ambiguity – that there may be more than one solution or more than one way to solve a problem.” (CTILAC)

Critical thinking is not limited to subjects, so religious thinking has also benefited from critical thinking and in fact, our own tradition of scholarship shines due to our classical medieval scholars’ commitment to critical thinking. One very insightful friend of mine reminded me that we go to college and pay for the skills that our classical scholars had developed. While people outside of the academy have natural inclinations towards certain aspects of critical thinking, often those skills are sharpened and refined during the process of learning a discipline. There is a stark difference between the ways someone like Suhaib Webb discusses a topic, drawing on his years of study and a lay member of the community. People recognize disciplines such as astrophysics and medicine, but often experts on subjects involving in the human experience are not as respected. And people will delve into these subjects without the requisite critical skills or mental rigor to truly engage with them. I found this out as I went into graduate school and developed my field of expertise on Islam in Africa and African History. Friends and family members would discuss a subject and if somehow my view did not agree with theirs and I explained my stance, I would experience their resentment. I learned to be quiet for the sake of peace, even if a loved one was speaking on an issue they were largely ignorant about. Our own willful ignorance in our community is especially detrimental to developing critical thinking. This is especially the case in terms of how some groups of Muslims overlook the 1400 year legacy of critical thinking and scholarship that has allowed our tradition to maintain continuity without a central body or leader to guide it.

Before I took my first course on Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudents) at Zaytuna in the late 90s, I had no idea about the rich legacy of critical thinking in Islam. I learned about the skills qualified jurists needed to draw on the Quran, Sunna (Prophetic traditions), scholarly consensus, and qiyas (analogy) to come up with rulings on new issues. That basic class whet my appetite on the study of Usul al-Fiqh (Sources of Islamic Jurisprudence), which I later studied a bit in graduate school. Usul al-Fiqh is concerned with the source of Islamic law and methodology in which legal rules are deduced. Kamali explains that the process by which scholars use to deduce sources to try to understand Shariah, Holy Law, is ijtihad. (1). The rules of fiqh use various methods of reasoning, including “analogy (qiyas), juristic preference (istihsan), presumption of continuity (istishab), and rules of interpretations and deduction.” In essence, Kamali points out that Usul al-Fiqh provides standard criteria for deriving correct rulings from the sources (2). However this standard of criteria is now overlooked by many who use ijtihad to come up with convenient rules that can lead to one of two extremes: ultra-liberal positions based on Western inclinations and not on Quran and Sunnah or ultra-conservative positions that purport to be derived strictly from Quran and Sunnah but violate the spirit of Islam.

Before delving further into this discussion, I must admit that I feel woefully ill equipped to engage in any Usuli debate on some religious issue. However, I find that many Muslims will become locked into debates that were never solved by our most gifted jurists. Often lay Muslims, with access to translations of the Quran and volumes of hadith, in addition to treatises and polemics, will derive their own rulings on religious matters based on their understanding of a Quranic verse or a hadith. According to Kamali, historically “the need for methodology became apparent when unqualified persons attempt to carry out ijtihad, and the risk of error and confusion in the development of Shari‘ah became a source of anxiety for the ‘ulama” (4). As a champion of inquiry and free thinking, it is difficult for me to openly admit that I understand their anxiety. But the reality is that our community is struggling with a crisis of authority, and that is mainly who has the authoritative voice in interpreting Islamic law.

The independent, thinking Muslim may feel like he/she is engaging in critical thinking when approaching the highest sources. However, a critical piece is missing. Ebrahim Moosa writes “… untrained in the various exegetical and interpretive traditions, lay people are not aware that a complex methodology is applicable to materials dealing with law, even if these are stated in the revelation” (121). Most lay Muslims are not trained in the language or historical context to know whether a verse was a commandment to a specific group of people at a specific time or to all Muslims of all times. Nor do they always know whether a verse was simply a statement of fact at a historical moment. Similarly, Muslims will use a statement of the Prophet (s.a.w.) without any context or understanding if it was a religious injunction and apply it to their lives. While ignoring aspects of that scholastic tradition, they will draw on it to reject a hadith and say it is da’if (weak). Or they might draw on the polemical writings of a classical author to dismiss the ideas of another tradition. Yet, they often draw on these traditions in sloppy ways that result in more confusion. Sadly, this is because many of the polemical books were written, not for lay people, but for other people who have the requisite skills and training in evaluating and analyzing sources and discipline in reason and logic.

This does not mean that a lay member of the community solely rely upon someone else’s critical thinking, rather that we recognize our own limitations in our knowledge and training and leave open some room for ambiguity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so willing to condemn others if we don’t have the skills to even assess the validity of their stances. This requires humility which many, me included, often lack. Humility is an important part of sincerity, which is an important component of purifying our intentions before going about any endeavor. When I first converted to Islam and read my few dozen books, I felt a lot more sound in my knowledge than I do now. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or my deficiencies in training. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The less arrogant I feel about my own knowledge and the more in awe I feel of those scholars who wrote without laptops and cut and paste. Even as we have unprecedented levels of literacy in our community, we must fight narrow mindedness and gathering up of information without being able to judge and assess or use that information for the greater good. And through developing our critical thinking, that Islam is more expansive, rather than restrictive and reactionary. Our greater comprehension through this intellectual struggle will be a truly enriching and humbling experience.

[Note: In order to keep this article digestible, I will continue to develop the themes in later posts to explore other aspects of critical thinking in our community. So, please consider this a part 1 of a longer series. ]

References
Adsit, Karen I. “Teaching Critical Thinking Skills”

http://academic.udayton.edu/legaled/ctskills/ctskills01.htm

retrieved August 13, 2011

CTILAC Faculty Critical Thinking & Information Literacy Across the Curriculum http://bellevuecollege.edu/lmc/ilac/critdef.htm11/18/98. Retrieved from Internet August 13, 2011

Foundation for Critical Thinking “Critical Thinking Professional Development for K-12” http://www.criticalthinking.org/professionalDev/k12.cfm
retrieved from the internet August 20, 2011

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK, 2003

Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam” Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. One World Publication, 2003

Pew Research. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” May 22, 2007

The Quran: Sahih International Almunatada Alislami; Abul Qasim Publishing House http://quran.com

Scriven, Michael and Paul, Richard. “A Working Definition of critical thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul” http://lonestar.texas.net/~mseifert/crit2.html
Retrieved August 10, 2010

December 27, 2007

Aftershocks: Benazir Bhutto

Filed under: Islam, Muslim Women, Politics, Ulema — Margari Aziza Hill @ 9:21 pm

abhutto1.jpg

BBC’s Benazir Bhutto obituary

Many of us Muslims who are not deeply involved in politics have been following what’s going on in Pakistan. I shocked and deeply saddened to hear the news of Bhutto’s assassination. To me, this is a sign of the madness that we ae facing in the Muslim world. Bhutto had barely escaped an terrorist bomb, but she wasn’t able to dodge the bullets this time. One friend noted that Muslims have not learned how to peacefully transfer power. This is an ominous sign (as if we didn’t have enough already), that there are Muslims who deal with political opposition using murder, terrorism, and violence. We really need to go back to the drawing board, to get back to basics. This is why we need Muslim scholars and thinkers to begin to address political and social issues. Otherwise, we are headed into chaos.

October 13, 2007

Female Genital Cutting

FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING

“In the world today there are an estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women who have been subjected to the operation. Currently, about 3 million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, undergo the procedure every year.”
–World Health Organization


Waris Dirie, supermodel and UN advocate for the abolishment of female circumcision.

When I was a teenager, I believed a number of negative stereotypes associated about Islam. One was that all Muslim women were circumcized (a euphemism for Genital cutting or mutilation that ranges from removing the outer hood of the clitoris to the cutting all external female genitalia). As I learned more and more about Islam my own pressumptions melted away. I learned that women had rights. I read Islamic legal books which detailed women’s rights to sexual gratification during intercourse with her husband. Also, I learned that Islam forbid the mutilation or alteration of the body (outside of the male circumcision). As I spoke to more and more Muslims, I learned that the vast majority of Muslims I knew considered the practice abhorrent and backwards. As I investigated it further, I learned that some Sham in bilad al-Sham and Palestine were either given the sunna symbolic circumcision or had a minor procedure splittng the hood. But it wasn’t until recently that Muslim scholars have spoken openly in the West about the practice. Yet, for years there have been Muslim scholars working against cultural traditions and practices that harmed women. These were largely grass roots campaigns and they rarely garner the same public attention that people as figures like,Alice Walker (author of the Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy) and Nawal Sadawi (author of Woman at Point Zero and The Fall of the Imam).

I want to clearly state from the outset that I am not trying to impose a Western view of feminity on the African and Muslim women who have undergone the procedure (whether forcibly or with consent). I do not believe that a woman’s wholeness rests on her clitoris. Nor do I think that Muslim and African women are helpless victims. I have argued elsewhere that women take active part in this practice and promote the norms and standards that not only condone the practice, but bake it desirable. As a writer, I try to write thought provoking and well informed pieces. For over a decade I have been passionate about this issue, but am increasingly aware of the complexities that surround the controversy of Female Genital cutting. This essay is not an exhaustive exploration of the subject. Nor do I a comprehensive list of resources on the subject. But what I intend to do is to raise this issue in support of the grass roots activists who are trying to curb a practice that is harmful to the minds and bodies of underage Muslim women. As an issue piece, I will first describe FGM (without showing any pictures that may offend my readers) using selections from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. I will also include some facts about the procedure in order to bring to light how widespread it is. I will then provide a few recent cases that have gained media attention. Finally, I will explore some of the controversies surrounding Western women’s focus on FGM and the negative outcome. This may be a choppy ride. But please read the block quotes because they detail very important information.

FGM comprises a range of procedures. The World Health Organizationstates:

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. There are different types of female genital mutilation known to be practised today. They include:

Type I – excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris;
Type II – excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
Type III – excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation);
Type IV – pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue;
scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice (angurya cuts) or cutting of the vagina (gishiri cuts);
introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or for the purpose of tightening or narrowing it; and any other procedure that falls under the definition given above.
The most common type of female genital mutilation is excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, accounting for up to 80% of all cases; the most extreme form is infibulation, which constitutes about 15% of all procedures.


Depending on the severity of the operation and health precautions taken during the procedure, there can be serious health consequences. Some studies have shown that women who have been genitally cut are more vulnerable to getting HIV. This is opposite of the effect of circumcision reducing HIV transmission for men. WHO goes on to list the negative effects of FGM:

Health consequences of FGM

The immediate and long-term health consequences of female genital mutilation vary according to the type and severity of the procedure performed.

Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue. Haemorrhage and infection can cause death.

More recently, concern has arisen about possible transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to the use of one instrument in multiple operations, but this has not been the subject of detailed research.

Long-term consequences include cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and sexual dysfunction and difficulties with childbirth.

Psychosexual and psychological health: Genital mutilation may leave a lasting mark on the life and mind of the woman who has undergone it. In the longer term, women may suffer feelings of incompleteness, anxiety and depression.

Proponents of the procedure claim that it increases sexual pleasure for their partners, reduces promiscuity and is cleaner. In Africa is is a right of passage and a tradition that cannot be broken. New Study on Female Genital Mutilation Dismisses Proponents’ Justifications Two claims about circumcision were proven incorrect in this study that compared circumcised and uncircumcized women. One, it did not reduce sexual pleasure. Two, circumcized women were more likely to have urinary tract infections.

Outside of accounts in books, documentaries, and internet. I have not had a conversation about this subject with a woman who has undergone this procedure. But I have spoken with people who have known women who have struggled after undergoing the procedure. I have heard accounts of Muslim convert men who married East African women only to find them infibulated. In one case it lead to a divorce. I have also spoken with a mixed Arab/West African who has known women who have undergone the procedure. He stated that the woman had no sensation during sexual encounters. One of my friends recounted stories about an East African woman who suffers from bouts of depression, continually bleaches her skin and wears foundation shades lighter than her actually tone, and has rejected Islam because the religion as a primary source of their gender oppression..

FGM is farely widespread in Africa and in Southwest Asia. UNICEF Reports:

Estimates of the total number of women living today who have been subjected to FGM/C in Africa, range between 100 and 140 million. Given current birth rates this means that some 3 million girls are at risk of some form of female genital mutilation every year. Most of the girls and women who have undergone FGM/C live in 30 African countries, although some live in Asia. They are also increasingly found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA, primarily among immigrants from Africa and southwestern Asia.

I found these alarming statistics on the prevalence of FGM from the State Department:

Guinea 98.6 percent
Somalia 90-98 percent
Djibouti 90-98 percent
Mali 93.7 percent
Sierra Leone 80-90 percent
Eritrea 90 percent
Sudan (northern) 89 percent
Egypt 78-97 percent
Ethiopia 72.7 percent
Burkina Faso 71.6 percent
Gambia 60-90 percent
Chad 60 percent
Guinea-Bissau 50 percent
Benin 30-50 percent
Cote d’Ivoire 44.5 percent
Central African Rep 43.4 percent
Kenya 37.6 percent
Nigeria 25.1 percent
Mauritania 25 percent
Yemen 23 percent
Senegal 20 percent
Liberia 10-50 percent
Ghana 9-15 percent

The State Department goes on to say that inn Indonesia there are no national figures that reveal the extent of the practice. But I have heard of cases in Anatolia, Pakistan, and Central Asia. But I have not learned of information on Malaysia, Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine/Israel. World health reports state that there are almost no cases of women undergoing the practice Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran. But African immigrants to the gulf may or may not practice the procedure. However, with growing immigration from AFrica and the Middle East, the practice has spared to United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. With the growing number of cases in the West, legislators seek to ban the practice. For example, UK passed Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003making it illegal to perform the procedure, assist a girl perform the procedure on herself, or go abroad to perform the procedure.

As we can tell from the statistics, FGM is not some dying practice. In fact, the debates surrounding FGM have become prominent in the news. I wanted to briefly discuss two cases, one in Burkina Faso and one in the center of the Arabo-Islamic World–Egypt. Before we take a brief look at these cases. I wanted to point out that FGM is often practiced secretly in the Muslim world. The procedure done contrasts markedly from the male circumcision ceremonies in the Muslim world.

In counries like Turkey boys are circumcised between 2 and 14. They dress up and are given gifts in celebration of this major step in the transition from boy into manhood. Female cutting on the other hand in Muslim countries is secretive. It does not have the same right of passage ceremonies as in Africa.

So, with the cultural differences in mind. I wanted to reflect on two recent deaths.

Last month 15 FGM procedures were done in a village of Burkina Faso, which resulted in the death of one girl and several hospitalized for infections and hemorrhaging. Many African countries have stepped up efforts to eliminate the practice. One article explained that the rate of FGM in Burkina Faso had been reduced by half. The government is hoping to step up cammpaigns to reduce resistance to the measures.

Years ago when I was in Morocco there was a Moroccan author who was criticizing Tahar Ben Jelloun. One of the things that bothered me about the novel was that it promoted negative stereotypes about Islam, plus it seemed as if he got things wrong (having not lived in a Muslim society for years or practiced. In Sand Child he wrote that a woman living as a man prostrated during janaza prayers. But no one prostrates during janaza. The other mistake was that the main character wondered if his wife was circumcised. FGM is not known to be practised in Morocco. It is considered abhorrent by Muslims in Saudi Arabia and man reform minded Muslims. For many of us Muslims in the West, nothing is more troubling than the continual prevelance of FGM in Egypt.

(AP Photo/Al-Masry Al-Youm)
Badour Shaker, the 10 year old whose death at the hands of a doctor performing female circumcision at an illegal clinic has sparked a national outcry. Health and religious authorities banned teh practice June 28, 2007, a ban on the practice. In July Egypt’s Muslim religious authorities issued a fatwa decreeing that female circumcision was un-Islamic.
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance’s article, “Debates about FGM in Africa, the Middle East & Far East” lists the various decrees given by Egypt’s top clerics on FGM over the years:

1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female circumcision.
1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because it curbs “nature” (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.
1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.
2007-JUN-24: the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gum’s announced that: “… this custom is prohibited.”


Alhumdulillah, Egypt’s top religious scholars are taking a stand. But the outright ban on FGM has given rise to a backlash. A recent New York Times article,
“Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls From an Old Tradition”, reports:

Circumcision, as supporters call it, or female genital mutilation, as opponents refer to it, was suddenly a ferocious focus of debate in Egypt this summer. A nationwide campaign to stop the practice has become one of the most powerful social movements in Egypt in decades, uniting an unlikely alliance of government forces, official religious leaders and street-level activists.

The Times article points out that there are many who don’t see the ruling as legitimate. In addition state aligned ‘ulema are discredited (well unless they are ruling in support of commonly held beliefs and practices).

One of the things Western scholars are challenged with is the desire to respect the culture of the subjects we are studying and the desire to end practices that we see as impeding upon the freedoms and well being of weaker members of society. Before I go any further, I wanted to make a point that there are people in the West who are neither Muslim nor Africa, or even traditional in any time of way who do Female Genital Cutting. There are some women who have liposuction and labia reductions . Outside of the women who have enlarged labias that may cause pain during intercourse, there are women who want in order to make their vaginas more attractive. Part of this growing trend is due to the prevalence of pornography where regular women compare themselves negatively air brushed images and plastic surgery enhanced nude models and porn actresses. I found this one website for Clitoral Reduction and Clitoral Hood Removal at a Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery Clinic. Some proponents of FGM have argued that type I, removal of the clitoris head increases sexual pleasure. This plastic surgeon also supports that claim. If that is the case, then I would argue that only adult women who are willing to take medical risks should undergo the procedure–and not little girls.


There are several controversies about FGM. One, the intense scrutiny Western women place on non-Western women’s sexual organs. Two, the backlash against Western efforts at eradicating FGM. And Three, the comparison of FGM to male circumcision. I am only going to focus on the first two. Caroline Scherf writes in British Medical Journal“Female genital mutilation must be seen as one of many harmful practices affecting women in traditional societies, and the planning of programmes for its abolition must involve the women concerned and their own perception of wellbeing and improvement… Women in developing countries are facing a multitude of suffering; we need a more wholesome approach in order to reach the ultimate goal of a dignified and healthy life for all women, everywhere.”
A review for Ellen Gruenbaum’s book states, ” Western outrage and Western efforts to stop genital mutilation often provoke a strong backlash from people in the countries where the practice is common…Gruenbaum finds that the criticisms of outsiders are frequently simplistic and fail to appreciate the diversity of cultural contexts, the complex meanings, and the conflicting responses to change.” I suppose this is why I differ from Alice Walker’s accounts of FGM and Nawal Sadaawi (who had undergone infibulation). If we truly want to help women eliminate the procedure we have to shed some of our western assumptions about FGM. We have to let the women who are subject to these procedures speak for themselves.

But I do not believe in a cultural relativist approach, especially when we have women who have spoken about the harm it has caused them. But instead of just supporting international NGOs, we should also find ways to support local grass roots movements. This is where us Muslims in the West can help. We are part of international networks. Many of us have roots in these countries where it is practiced. We should find ways to support local organizations that have little funding but do the real work supporting society’s most vulnerable members.

April 10, 2007

Why I write

Filed under: Academia, Ulema, Writing — Margari Aziza Hill @ 9:56 am

I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest. In so doing, the book transforms me, changes what I think. As a consequence, each new work profoundly changes the terms of thinking which I had reached with the previous work…When I write, I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before.

Michel Foucault in Remarks on Marx, 1981

I didn’t expect to discover something about myself today. I discovered something about the way that I communicate, write, and conduct my research. Foucault went on to say that in the beginning of a project, he never knows what the conclusion will be. Work is experience. This insight is something that Western academics rarely talk about. That is because there is this standard of removed and objective scholarship. But we all have something at stake in the production of knowledge.

We should have something at stake and be transformed by our work. Louis Brenner’s study of education reform in Mali, Controlling Knowledge shows us how traditional methods of Islamic education linked knowledge with practice. Knowledge was supposed to be implemented, knowledge was transformative, with every level of education from early Quranic school to higher Islamic sciences, students’ daily lives were changed. Now, people learn a subject without changing, or at least they imagine themselves to remain objective and removed from the subject. I think that Western orientations stress the mastery of knowledge and stockpiling information. It is like a hoarding of knowledge without applying it or using it effectively. Through modernizing reforms in Islamic education Western orientations have shaped Muslims and their approaches to knowledge. Knowledge is less linked to practice (praxis), and just knowing does not make one a better Muslim, let alone person.

But back to why I write. I write because I am wrestling with difficult issues. I don’t know the conclusion of my life will look like. I have so many questions and I’m not sure what to think about many things. But I know that I want to change and be better. I have often had a difficult time writing about the present, but have looked to the past–distant and recent. One of my primary interests has been the ways knowledge is passed on in the Muslim world, and how it is spread across space and through time. Often, as a historian, I am confronted with limitations of what can be known about people’s experiences. There is always the problem of evidence–skewed evidence and lack of evidence. We can barely talk to each other and understand the ways people now order their lives and make sense of their worlds. It seems like an impossible task to interpret fragments of evidence to get at the lived experiences of those who are long gone. I write because I don’t know what to think about those fragments in documentary evidence or those tales that were passed on in oral traditions. I write to make sense of those bits. It is a narrative, but is it fictional? Perhaps in a sense that it simplifies, creates analogies, comparisons, and connections that the people who lived in the past may not have seen. Yet, what was legible to them is not longer legible for me. Ultimately, I am subject to the whims of knowledge and what can be known.

With all the limitations of an impossible task, I am seeking knowledge, truth, and the reality of my lived experiences. If al-Haqq (Ultimate Reality and Truth) is infinite, then mere mortals can only grasp a finite sliver of Truth for an ephemeral moment. Postmodernists point argue that there is not a universal truth. Not one that we can fully grasp, at least.

Randomness, I know…The things an insominiac writes late at night.

March 4, 2007

Too Much Information

Filed under: Convert, Fiqh, Islam, Sufism, Ulema, Ummah — Margari Aziza Hill @ 9:39 am

So, I was cruising through the worlds of the digital ummah and became drawn into this whole takfir (declaring someone an apostate) debate. It didn’t take too long before I came across this forum posting about Sheikh Nuh Keller’s intervention in a debate between Deobandis and Barelwis(Here’s a site with his info ). You can also check out the forum where I found this here.

On the Shadhili website, someone asked the questions:

“Is someone who has an idea that is kufr or “unbelief” thereby an “unbeliever”?”

You can find Sheikh Keller’s answer here.

I don’t have a problem with the answer per say. I just think that us poor Muslims are overloaded with information. I am not going to question the intellectual abilities of the commentators on the forum, but this subject matter should really be left to scholars of Kalam. I am all for the freedom of information. I struggle with the elitism in Western academia. I also have strong critiques of the way knowledge became specialized in some Muslim societies and often monopolized by certain lineages. In this way, knowledge became used for power. But at the same time, I would have to agree with Ibn Rushd, some matters should be left up to the learned. I wonder how many engineers and rocket scientists would appreciate my input on their projects. Would a geneticist appreciate my input about gene sequencing, based upon what I could remember from my sophmore bio-chemistry? While I can appreciate science and love reading about discoveries, theories, and scientific methods, I just don’t have enough training to begin testing new compounds on my neighbors, let alone their cats.

So, back to my point. The internet has opened up so much discourse. And as I read the text on a late Saturday night (a total testament to my lack of a social life), I found my head feeling like it was about to explode. There was a serious debate that seemed to be underlying the question about takfir. But that debate also seemed narrow in scope, because there was a large emphasis on the debate between the Deobandis and their adversaries, the Barelwis (For those of you who don’t know who the Deobandis and Barelwis are, it doesn’t really matter. Following all the groups gets confusing anyways). The focus on their debate was unfortunate because of the wider implications about the debates on deviancy, innovation, and difference that Many Muslim communities face. For example, how do Sunnis deal with reformist minded Muslims (i.e.Progressive Muslims), individuals who have their own unique interpretations, or sects of Islam that are often accused of being non-Muslims (Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyyas, etc.)?

Perhaps that is the reason why I was interested in the takfir question. What do traditional sunni Muslims do when confronted with versions of Islam that are different from theirs? I realize that my head didn’t hurt because the material was difficult. But, my head hurt with the thought that for some Muslims, an obscure ‘aqidah issues could get a whole community ousted from the ummah. And it kind of bothered me that one of the most erudite American Muslim convert scholars, who wrote a response that was nuanced but thoroughly grounded in traditional scholasticism, was rejected so quickly by a lay person. My head also hurt for the poor converts or young Muslims who are re-engaging their faith. I just hope they don’t run into all this madness. It is really disheartening sometimes.

What makes it sad is that I’m a scholar and I love studying religious change and debates. So I should be interested in how this plays out in the modern world. Right? But, I can barely tell some people what I specialize in without someone giving me a lecture about the misguidance of Sufis. Sometimes it seems as if someone half read a quote from Ibn Taymiyya that was posted in some internet forum without understanding the context. Some have argued that ignorance is bliss. But Western Muslims are often more intellectual and aware of their faith than their counterparts in predominantly Muslim areas. We like to read these polemical works between scholars and make generalizations about them. We have so much access to information that it is ridiculous. Ignorance is bliss? Maybe, and let’s leave the quibbling over these issues with the ‘Ulema. Few of us are trained in Usul al-Fiqh, Kalam, Tafsir, or even Hadith sciences. But yet, it is common to find debates going on in some musallah about this hadith is weak and this and that brother is an innovator (bidaa). I’m sort of tired of the bad translations of some text that was printed in Pakistan finding its way into the hands of some crazed Muslim who goes around declaring this group and that group wrongdoers, misguided, or not really Muslim. Knowledge and information is good. But with all the stuff floating around, we have a bunch of insane people feeling really authoritative as they try to impose their views on the rest of the universe. Sigh…

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