Friday, May 16, 2008

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and My Year Inside Radical Islam - Part 2

At one point in My Year Inside Radical Islam, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross talks about how he became Muslim. This occurred before coming in contact with a radicalized fundamentalist group in Ashland, Oregon.

His Muslim friend from Wake Forest, al-Husein, had told the author about a Naqshbandi group in Italy. Therefore, when Mr. Gartenstein-Ross was in Venice, he contacted the group.

While visiting with this group in Italy, certain events went on which led the author to inquire about becoming Muslim. The author was told by one of the members of the group that he would have to say the shahadah, or declaration of faith, in public before two witnesses.

Actually, neither the public part nor the two witnesses issue is a necessary requirement for becoming Muslim. In the Qur'an it says:

“The one whose breast God has expanded unto Islam enjoys a light from one's Lord.” (39:22)

Everything begins with barakah. Through barakah, intention becomes inclined toward declaring one's commit to the principle that there is no god but Allah – that is, the God – which is the literal meaning of al-lah.

Public declaration does not make one a Muslim. Two witnesses do not make one a Muslim.

God's Grace opens one's heart – or, at least, that part of the heart which is referred to as the 'breast' – to the possibility of Islam. One is called to Islam, and, then, one has the choice of responding to the Divine overture or rejecting that invitation.

Some people argue that the formal ceremony conducted by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) at Hudaybiyah in which Muslims were asked to swear their allegiance to the Prophet constitutes the form on which the public declaration of faith is based. However, most, if not all, of the individuals who took part in this ceremony already were Muslim, and, furthermore, as the Qur'an indicates:

“Those who swear allegiance to thee [Muhammad] swear allegiance, in truth, to God. God's hand is above their hands. So whoever breaks one's oath breaks it only to the hurt of one's own soul.”

Becoming Muslim is not a contract between the individual and the Muslim community. Becoming Muslim is an expression of the transition which has taken place with respect to an individual's relationship with God.

The transition has taken place in the privacy of one's heart. God is the witness to that transition. Indeed, God is the One Who has made such a transition possible.

I remember the process of my becoming Muslim. Through a complex set of circumstances, I had been introduced to the person who would, eventually, become my shaykh.

Per the request of the shaykh, someone from the shaykh's circle had talked to me about the basic teachings of Islam. For two or three hours, I just sat and listened to what was being said.

At the time, what was important to me was what was being said, not who was saying it (whom I really didn't know) or how it was being said. For me, truth had entered into the chambers of my heart, and I was moved by what struck me as the truth which was flowing through whatever words were being spoken.

After the session, I was asked what I thought about things and whether I wanted to speak with the shaykh. I indicated that I had liked what I had heard, and, yes, I would like to meet the shaykh.

A meeting was arranged. As I recall, the first time I met my future shaykh was at his apartment where I was invited to eat with the family. After the meal and some discussion, a further meeting was arranged.

The next meeting took place at the local mosque. It was Christmas Eve in the Christian world and Ramadan in the Muslim world.

It was during the last ten days of the month of fasting, and some of the initiates of the shaykh were staying at the mosque during this ten-day period. I was introduced to one of them, and, then, the shaykh took me to a space in the middle of the mosque and taught me how to say a dhikr.

At the time, I wasn't fasting, or saying prayers, or doing any of the other basic pillars of Islam. I had made no public declarations in front of witnesses.

Almost immediately upon beginning to say the dhikr, I underwent an opening of sorts.

After that evening, I began to spend more and more time with the shaykh and his circle. I attended the Thursday evening sessions and was invited to all of the spiritual anniversaries of the passing away of different great shaykhs within the Chishti Order of Sufis.

From time to time, there were people who were initiated into the Order, and these often were done during one of the celebrations. I began to feel that because I had not been initiated in any public way that I was not worthy of being a member of the Sufi circle, and, if truth be known, I probably wasn't worthy, but that is another story.

Eventually, after a year or so, my shaykh told me that I was to be initiated during the anniversary of my shaykh's shaykh. I told him about my concerns and fears that, perhaps, I was never going to be initiated.

He smiled and said: “I have always considered you part of the group. What is about to take place was just a formal way of acknowledging what already is the case.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross's initial encounter with fundamentalists took place in his hometown of Ashland, Oregon. He had invited his friend, al-Hussein, to visit with him in Ashland and to meet his parents.

During this visit, the Daveed and al-Husein discovered the existence of a mosque in the city. The two of them attended the Friday noon-day prayers.

The sermon or khutbah which is delivered prior to the actual ritual prayers was given by a Saudi who was living in northern California. This individual talked about the alleged duty of Muslims to immigrate to a country ruled by Muslims. More specifically, according to the speaker's perspective:

“The Holy Qur'an says: 'Verily, those who believed, and emigrated and strove hard and fought with their property and their lives in the cause of Allah, as well as those who give asylum and help – these are allies to one another. And to those who believed but did not emigrate, you owe no duty of protection to them until they emigrate.' So as Muslims we too must emigrate. We are living in the land ruled by the kufur [unbelievers]. This is not the way of Muhammad, he said.”

Prior to hijra, or emigration, the Prophet lived for 13 years among the unbelievers. He emigrated to Yathrib, later known as Medina, because a plot to assassinate him had been uncovered by the Muslims and, therefore, staying in Mecca was no longer a viable option. In other words, the Prophet did not leave Mecca because it was a land ruled by unbelievers, but, instead, the Prophet left because he had run out of options with respect to being able to live safely in that city.

Initially, there were only two who emigrated to Yathrib – namely, Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) and the Prophet. All the other Muslim residents of Mecca stayed behind.

Gradually, over time, more Muslims from Mecca emigrated to Yathrib. However, there were other Muslims that were experiencing financial or life circumstances which prevented them from being able to emigrate.

The only permission which the Prophet had received from God to engage in fighting was for purely defensive purposes. To say that the Prophet was not under any obligation to protect the believers who remained behind in Mecca until they emigrated did not establish a precedent with respect to the need of Muslims to emigrate but, rather, was a reflection of the Divine permissions concerning rules of engagement with the non-believers which had been established by God.

If the believers in Mecca emigrated, then, those individuals could be defensively protected if the Muslims happened to be attacked. However, as long as the believers remained in Mecca, then, the Prophet did not have any Divine authorization and concomitant duty or obligation to attack Mecca in order to protect the believers who were continuing to live there.

According to Mr. Gartenstein-Ross, the Saudi speaker went on to say:

“Prophet Muhammad [upon him be blessings and peace] described the risks of living among the kufur. Our beloved Prophet said: “Anybody who meets, gathers together, lives, and stays with a Mushrik -- a polytheist or disbeliever in the oneness of Allah – and agrees to his ways and opinions and enjoys living with him, then he is like the Mushrik.” So when you live among the kufur, and act like the kufur, and like to live with the kufur, then, brothers, you may become just like the kufur. If you do not take the duty of emigration seriously, your faith is in danger.”

There are many problems with how the Saudi speaker is interpreting things in the foregoing quote. First of all, there is a difference between, on the one hand, outlining the nature of certain risks of living about people who are unbelievers and, on the other hand, trying to claim that such risks imply a duty to emigrate.

The Prophet never said that people have a duty to emigrate. He said that if people lived among unbelievers, and came to agree with their opinions and their ways of living, then, obviously, one becomes like such people.

The Prophet lived with unbelievers for 13 years and, by the Grace of Allah, did not come to agree with their opinions about things or agree with their ways of living or enjoy living in their midst. Other Muslims, by God's Grace, were able to manage this as well.

Were there risks involved in such arrangements? Yes, there were, but Muslims did not become unbelievers merely by living among the unbelievers.

The Prophet was warning Muslims against opening themselves up to the opinions and ways of the unbelievers to such an extent that one not only came to agree with those ways of believing and doing things but enjoyed doing so. When one did this, then, one's faith was at risk.

Warning people about risks to their faith is one thing. Saying that one has a duty to emigrate because of such risks is quite another thing … something foreign which is being added to, or projected onto, what the Prophet actually said.

The process of twisting the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet to lend support to ideas which were never being espoused by the Qur'an or the Prophet is a trademark tactic of the very sorts of people with whom Mr. Gartenstein-Ross began to become involved when he visited the mosque in Ashland, Oregon. Such teachings sow the seeds of ignorance and arrogance which have so decimated the landscape of many Muslim and non-Muslim communities around the world – even in Saudi Arabia from which the person giving the Friday sermon came.

The irony of all this is that such would-be saviours of the Muslim community are actually among the very forces which place a sincere Muslim's faith at risk. If one emigrates toward such individuals and comes to agree with their opinions and their way of doing things and enjoys living with them, then, one stands a very good chance of losing whatever legitimate faith one might have had.

To his credit, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross didn't necessarily accept the concepts being espoused by the Saudi speaker. However, he also admitted that he had no reliable understanding of Islam through which to combat those ideas.

Initially, he was able to keep his distance from the undertow of such a theological maelstrom. However, in time, he found himself being pulled under by the currents emanating out from such a perspective.

I know just how seductive and powerful those currents can be for I have encountered them on a variety of occasions within the Muslim community. Fortunately, at the time of the encounters I had a Sufi shaykh who -- because of, by the Grace of Allah, his tremendous insight and understanding of Islam -- could explain to me in considerable detail the numerous logical, doctrinal, and historical defects contained within the structure of the theological arguments of such people. I was never left unsatisfied by the explanations I was given by my shaykh concerning such matters.


On pages 51-52 of My Year Inside Radical Islam, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross describes how the Muslim activities in Ashland, Oregon were being subsidized by a Saudi Arabian charitable institution known as al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. One of the proposed programmes of the Muslim group in Ashland was called the 'Medina Project'.

According to the leader of the Ashland Muslim group, the idea at the heart of the Medina Project involved building an Islamic village in the United States. More specifically:

“The village would be run by sharia to the extent that U.S. laws allowed. While there wouldn't be any beheadings and amputations, the women would be veiled, pork would be banned, and so would alcohol.”

Almost everywhere one hears 'sharia'ah, sharia'ah, shari'ah' from the lips of Muslim fundamentalists, mullahs, imams, theologians, and would-be revolutionaries. Yet, rather ironically, the Qur'an apparently mentions the term shari'ah just once.

In Surah 45, verse 18 one finds:

“O Prophet, We have put you on the Right Way (Shari'ah) concerning the religion, so follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant people;”

All of the fundamentalists assume they know what the 'right way' is even as they engage one another in hostilities so that they may gain control and invest their own interpretations and theories concerning the precise nature of that 'right way'. Furthermore, such individuals also seem to assume they have God's permission to impose that way on just about anyone they like.

As far as the first assumption is concerned, everyone has the right to form his or her opinion – whether such opinions be correct or incorrect -- concerning what one believes the nature and purpose of one's relationship with God to be. However, as far as the second assumption is concerned – that is, the presumed right to impose their opinions on others -- I do not believe such individuals can point to any aspect of the Qur'an which indisputably demonstrates that God has arrogated to them the right to impose their opinions concerning spirituality or life upon others.

In fact, even with respect to the Prophet, the Qur'an indicates:

272 The guiding of them is not thy duty (O Muhammad), but Allah guideth whom He will.” [Qur'an 2: 272).

The actual etymology of the verb shari'ah is to take a drink. By implication this terms also refers to the 'path or way which leads to the place where one can take a drink of water' … so the questions are: What is the nature of the path/way? What is the nature of leading? What is the nature of water? What is the nature of the drinking? Do the answers to any of the foregoing questions provide evidence in support of the idea that shari'ah is meant to indicate a process that is to be imposed upon people in the sense of a code of law or conduct to which everyone must adhere and for which any wavering from that path should be met with the force of a body of social/public law that is considered to be the guardian and protector against such a 'way/path' being corrupted, undermined, compromised or not obeyed?

I find it strange that a term – namely, shari'ah --which, as far as I can determine, is used only once in the Qur'an should have been propelled into the pre-eminent status it not only currently assumes in many discussions but which it has 'enjoyed' for hundreds of years in the Muslim community – at least within circles of jurisprudence, fatwa, qazis, muftis, imams, and books of fiqh.

Moreover, if one peruses the Qur'an in search of the 'right way', one actually finds a multiplicity of Arabic words (for example, deen, tariqa, sirat-ul mustaqueem, taqwa, and so on). Unfortunately, all of these terms are taken by many, if not most, fundamentalists and reduced down to just one way of thinking and understanding – that is, in a legalistic/legislative sense -- yet none of these terms should necessarily be construed in such a narrowly conceived, reductionistic fashion.

The Qur'an does not refer to itself as a book of jurisprudence but as a book of guidance, wisdom, and discernment. Yet, there has been a centuries-long attempt by all too many individuals to force-fit the Qur'an into becoming little more than a source document to serve the interests of jurisprudential and legalistic theologies.

If one wishes to use the term 'Divine Law' in conjunction with the Qur'an, one would be, I believe, closer to the truth of the matter if one were to think about the idea of law in terms which refer to 'the natural order of creation'. That is, Divine law refers to the nature of manifested existence and the principles (both spiritual and otherwise) which are operative within that natural order of things. This is consistent with another sense of the same Arabic root from which shari'ah comes which concerns the sort of lawgiver or legislator who has established the order of things and how those things operate in a given realm – in the present case, creation.

For example, the law of gravity does not say that one must obey gravity or that one has a duty or obligation to observe gravity. Rather, through experience, reflection, and the guidance of those who have some wisdom in such matters, one becomes aware of gravity's existence and properties. Moreover, one comes to understand that as one goes about one's life one may run into problems if one does not pay attention to the principle of gravity, and, in addition, one learns that there are consequences which follow upon a failure to observe such a principle – unless one can devise ways of defying (within certain limits) the presence of gravity through propellers, wings, rockets, jet engines, and the like.

Some people may like to look at what occurs when someone fails to pay close enough attention to the presence of gravity as some kind of 'punishment' for swaying from the path of reality. Nevertheless, once again, I feel it would be closer to the truth to say that actions – both spiritual and physical -- have consequences and, therefore, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). In other words, there is a rigor to life – both spiritual and physical -- about which one pays heed, or not, to one's own benefit or risk.

Shari'ah is not about beheadings, amputations, lashings, corporal punishment, legal courts, banning alcohol, the length and shape of a beard, marriage, divorce, inheritance, dietary restrictions, dress codes, and the like. Shari'ah is about realizing the purpose of life by drawing upon the whole of the Qur'an as one struggles toward acquiring the Divine guidance that will assist one to fulfil one's spiritual capacity and recognize the nature of one's essential identity so that one will come to give expression to the process of ibadat or worship as God has intended.

To be sure, there are verses in the Qur'an which touch upon issues of punishment, alcohol, inheritance, diet, dress, marriage, apostasy, fighting, and so on. Yet, there are many, many more verses in the Qur'an (at a ratio of about 13 or 14 to 1) which explore issues of equity, fairness, balance, harmony, peace, forgiveness, patience, God-consciousness, remembrance, repentance, kindness, love, restraint, compassion, tolerance, insight, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, humility, purification of the heart, and honesty.

Why is it that the former legalisms have come to assume dominance and pre-eminence over the development of spiritual character? Or, why do so many people seem to assume that punitive measures are the only road to spiritual purification? Or, why do so many people appear to automatically assume that the principles inherent in the development of spiritual character cannot or should not be applied to issues of jurisprudence?

There was a man who once came to the Prophet and confessed that he had broken the fast of Ramadan. The man wanted to know what would be necessary to set things right with respect to his mistake.

The Prophet informed the man that in such circumstances the Qur'an indicated that one should fast for two consecutive months. Upon hearing this, the man replied by saying that if he could not even fast for one month, how would he be able to fast for two months?

The Prophet then responded by saying that the Qur'an also indicated that one could also satisfy the conditions of the fast if one were to feed the poor. The man said that he had no money with which to feed the poor.

The Prophet called someone and told them to have food taken from the storehouse and brought to the Prophet. When this task had been completed, the Prophet gave the food to the man and said the man should distribute the food to the poor.

Upon receiving this instruction, the man commented that in the entire valley, there was no one poorer than he and his family. In reply, the Prophet said that the man should, then, take the food and feed his family, and that would constitute expiation for having broken the fast.

Among other things, Quranic principles of equity, compassion, generosity, and kindness were used by the Prophet in conjunction with the Quranic provisions concerning fasting to arrive at a manner of handling the situation which gives expression to shari'ah. Muslims as well as non-Muslims to whom I have recounted the foregoing hadith are moved by the obvious display of spiritual wisdom that is present in the interchange between the Prophet and the man who came to him seeking advice.

So, what is the moral, so to speak, of the story? The Qur'an is a book of spiritual principles, not a book of legal rules. Basic Quranic principles concerning fasting were taken by the Prophet and, then, were modulated in accordance with existing life contingencies and other principles of the Qur'an.

Shari'ah gives expression to an indefinitely large set of spiritual principles that can be combined together in different ways to assist individuals to realize life's purpose and their essential identity. However, one of the limiting factors in all of this, has to do with the depth of insight and understanding in the individual who is seeking to engage Quranic guidance in order to resolve any given issue or problem, and this is true both on an individual as well as a collective or social level.

As previously cited:

“O Prophet, We have put you on the Right Way (Shari'ah) concerning the religion, so follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant people;” (Qur'an 45:18)

but, unfortunately, now that the Prophet is no longer with us physically, the desires of all too many ignorant people have come to dominate many communities. When such people do this only in relation to their own lives, then, although such applied ignorance tends to lead to problematic ramifications, those problems are likely to be far, far fewer and more contained or isolated than when such ignorance seeks to legalistically and legislatively impose itself on everyone else.

When Muhammad (peace be upon him) was first called to the tasks of being God's rasul (messenger) and nabi (prophet), the society in and around Mecca was often crude, rude, lewd, and brutal. Infant girls were buried alive. Women were treated as third, fourth and fifth class citizens. Orphans were marginalized and neglected. Blood-feuds were the rule of the day. Punishment for transgressions was severe. Financial and material inequities pervaded and divided society. Slavery existed, and those who were unlucky enough to be slaves were used and abused in any way that pleased their slave masters. Tribal alliances and antipathies structured society from top to bottom. Tribes or clans were not run in accordance with principles of justice but in accordance with the authoritarian rule of a leader or small group of such leaders who were only interested in protecting their vested interests. The excessive drinking of alcohol was rampant, as were the problems which arise out of such excesses. Public nudity in and around the Kaaba was not uncommon.

While there are some similarities between the social, economic, and historical conditions which prevailed during the pre-Islamic days of Meccan society and the conditions existing today, the times, circumstances, history, problems, and needs of the people during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were, in many ways, very, very different than what is the case today – and vice versa. If the Prophet were physically with us today, can anyone claim with certainty that she or he knows that the Prophet would approach the problems of today in exactly in the same way as he did during his lifetime more than 1400 years ago?

In ecology there is a guideline known as the 'Cautionary Principle'. In essence, this indicates that when one does not have demonstrative proof that some, say, industrial process will not harm people and/or the environment, then, one should proceed with caution.

This principle also applies in the case of spiritual matters. If one cannot clearly demonstrate that, ultimately, a given application of a spiritual principle is not likely to have adverse consequences for the spiritual well-being of either individuals within that society or the group as a whole, then one should exercise considerable caution before applying such Quranic principles to the ecology of society.

Just as every medicine has a use and a value, this does not mean that using a given medicine without any consideration for the illness which needs to be remedied or the needs and condition of the patient will lead to successful results. So, too, just because every spiritual principle in the Qur'an has a use and value, this does not mean that using any given Quranic principle without consideration for the illness which needs to be remedied or the needs and conditions of the individual or society to which it is being applied will necessarily lead to successful results.

Although there are ayats or verses in the Qur'an which are stated in specific, detailed form, this does not automatically mean that such verses must take precedence over all the other principles of guidance in the Qur'an. Patience, forgiveness, tolerance, love, humility, equitability, peace, compassion, remembrance, generosity, nobility, God-consciousness, and restraint are also specified in the Qur'an, and these latter spiritual principles are mentioned many more times and given far more emphasis than are the verses which fundamental legalists like to cite as being the principles which must govern public and private life.

The process of creating a public space within which individuals may pursue shari'ah according to their capacity and inclinations has been confused with the process of shari'ah which focuses on the development of character. In a sense, many Muslims have confused or conflated the frame (i.e., the process of creating a safe and stable social space) with the picture (i.e., the process of shari'ah, which is an individual and private activity rather than a public one).

Similarly, the punishments which are mentioned in the Qur'an are not shari'ah. Rather, such punishments were the specific guidance provided by Divinity to help society during the time of the Prophet to be able to establish a safe and stable space within which to pursue shari'ah – something that is entirely separate from, and not to be confused with, the process of structuring the public space that surrounds the activities of shari'ah.

However, there are different ways of creating the kind of public space within which people will be able to pursue shari'ah. As pointed out previously, in the Qur'an God did provide some specific examples of how Muslims might go about creating the sort of safe and stable public space through which individuals could privately pursue, each in his or her own way, the development of character traits which is at the heart of the process of shari'ah. Nevertheless, God also provided many general spiritual principles in the Qur'an that also could be used to help create the kind of safe, stable public space through which individuals could privately pursue the purpose of shari'ah.

When, God willing, character traits are developed and perfected, they possess the potential for having a constructive and positive influence on helping to maintain the peace and stability of the public sphere. When such traits become widespread, then, in effect, the process of pursuing shari'ah also becomes the means through which public space is constantly renewed in a safe and stable manner entirely without legalisms or legislative mandates.

One cannot legislate or make legal rules that force people to become loving human beings. However, once a person becomes a loving person, then, the constructive impact such a person has upon the quality of public life is incalculable.

One cannot legislate or make legal rules or apply punishments which will cause people to pursue shari'ah. However, once shari'ah -- in the sense of an individual's development of character traits and purification of his or her nafs/ego takes place -- then, legislation, rules, and punishments become marginal issues.

Many fundamentalists want to return to the past in order to engage the Qur'an. The Qur'an doesn't exist in the past. It exists in the eternal now as always has been the case.

To filter the present through the times of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a fundamental, as well as a typical, fundamentalist mistake. To demand that the Qur'an be engaged and understood through the filter of the circumstances, problems, and conditions of 1400 years ago is, I believe, to introduce substantial distortion into one's attempt to understand the nature of Quranic guidance.

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