We Need to Learn From Our Mistakes

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown ~ 06 Nov 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

An elderly scholar in the research library of an elite European university joined me at my table in the tearoom recently. During the course of our conversation he confided in me that Islam appears rather illogical to him. His choice of words caught me a bit by surprise; a significant portion of my own theological training was in logic.

When I asked him to elaborate, he said it just doesn’t make sense, what with all the terrorism and extremism. Before that moment, I really thought we were about to have an intellectual discussion about divine causality and determinism or something.

I responded that Christianity was equally enigmatic for me, what with the Inquisition, killing people because they don’t believe the exact same way and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, inspired by God to cut off people’s lips and ears. Even Robert McNamara, who before becoming US defence secretary during the Vietnam War helped plan the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which decimated 150,000 civilians, was a church-going Christian. I added that there are evangelical congregations that support illegal invasion and wreaking havoc on foreign populations as God’s work; not to mention western missionary groups arming and supporting secessionist movements throughout the Third World and inciting religious strife in East Asian countries. My interlocutor had enough; the conversation became more reasonable, more logical.

These people, we agreed, are no more representative of the Christianity of Christ than radical extremists who would harm civilians are of the Islam of 1.57 billion Muslims in the world.

Man is frail and imperfect. The Quran says: “Man has been created weak.” Mistakes will be made. But the best men are those who acknowledge the mistakes, seek forgiveness, give forgiveness and move on. Learning from mistakes helps to ensure that they will not happen again.

But creating elaborate explanations for why things took place, for example, the decimation of 150,000 people on two separate mornings, does not empower us to learn from the mistakes of the past, or to ensure that it never happens again. Were there not children in those two cities? Were there not women? How is this justified? Not just this particular example, but any other event of mass intolerance or illegal killing.

Our collective habit of fact-avoidance prevents a more enlightened, more peaceful future. And the tension and confliction of what actually transpired remains in the hearts of the witnesses. It brews there as long as the wider world avoids the facts, and continues to prefer made-for-prime time mythologies. It makes healing impossible and healing is always what is needed.

There have been successful models of acknowledgment, learning and healing. Truth and reconciliation programmes, the Holocaust consciousness campaign, have all helped to ensure that “never again” will such things happen on our watch.

Crimes that injure whole populations are wounds to the body of humanity. But fact-avoidance is the infection. It may be, that quite often, extremist violence is the very pus produced by a wound. If we continue to neglect wounds, they are sure to fester.

It’s about leadership, which is about responsibility and accountability. It’s just got to start.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. Learning can’t happen when we continue to construct elaborate mythologies around our collective consciousness.

Domestic abuse is not condoned by Islam

Shaykh Jihad Hashim Brown ~ 30 October 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

For anyone who might ask, “Does Islam condone domestic abuse?”, the answer is a resounding, “No, of course not”.

Violence committed against women by an intimate partner is a crime. Unfortunately, it is an all too common one worldwide. In the United States alone, 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by someone they know every year. It is important not to paint a picture that is tragically all too common the world over onto a single society.

For anyone, Muslims included, who operates under the assumption that Islam gives a husband licence to beat his wife, this is a misreading of the Quran.

The Quran says about itself that it comprises verses of clear and apparent meaning, muhkamat, and verses of ambiguous, unapparent meaning, mutashabihat.

The Quran goes on to say that only those in whose hearts is an illness pursue the ambiguous verses. The rule is that we understand the ambiguous verses in terms of the clear and comprehensive ones.

The single verse in question seems to allow for something called darb. This has been translated as “hit”. The problem is, the Quran said darb, not “hit”, because the Quran wasn’t revealed in English. What darb is in this single instance is ambiguous.

The situation becomes even more complicated when we see all of the more numerous references and injunctions to treat women well. “Treat them with loving kindness,” “Take heed for the good treatment of women,” “The best of you are the best of you to your families,” the purpose of the marriage bond is that “you might find peace and tranquillity in one another”. What kind of darb involves loving kindness, I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t involve hitting.

The interpretation of any single instance of revelation must involve reading the entire tradition of scholarship as a whole, the Quran, the Sunnah, and the corpus of jurisprudential law.

We have explicit statements of the Prophet Mohammed reproaching anyone who might abuse his wife. The Quran states clearly that every “child of Adam” has been ennobled by the very fact of creation. This is inclusive of every human being.

The conclusion of jurisprudence is that it is unlawful in Islam to abuse, injure or insult the dignity of one’s wife.

At the same time, the Islamic view does advocate a male head-of-the-household model for the family. This demands of men that they be responsible leaders.

Leaders are also advised to take the opinion of those for whom they are responsible into consideration when making decisions that affect everyone. All the same, the leadership of any group is one, and the final decision about the well-being of the family lies with the leader.

Making the right match for marriages is important. Everyone, men included, can find someone in whose leadership they are inspired.

Injuring or abusing one’s spouse is a criminal act, full stop. When conflict and disagreement in marriage reaches a point where people feel they need to hit one another, that’s the point when it’s time for divorce. If we are ambiguous on this point, it will lead people to falsely believe that they have licence.

At any rate, we all know the real score here: we’re just asking our sisters, be gentle with the brothers, too.

Friday Sermon: Doubt & Certainty

Delivered by Shaykh Jihad Hashim Brown in Abu Dhabi on 12 February 2010

To Listen: 

To Download: 12-02-10_Doubt and Certainty



Stand and Deliver, Your Religion or Your Life

Jihad Hashim Brown ~ 09 Oct 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

[Note: This is the full unedited version. Updated 10-10-2010]

One of my Shaykhs once told me that the value of the path to God is indicated by the number of highwaymen along its road. Perhaps, at the time I thought I knew exactly what he was talking about. Perhaps, at each moment in our lives we perceive at the depth for which we’re prepared. It’s this constant potential for growth that provides the eternal possibility of renewal and infinite “becoming” that makes life a terribly wonderful experience.

The “terribly” side is represented by the many down sides to life; chief among them disappointment. It is an inextricable element of this world in which we live. It is inescapable. The naïve optimist (as opposed to the critical optimist) would dismiss it entirely.  But success lies solely in how you negotiate that disappointment.

Our experience with the path to God is not different from the world in this way. It too will suffer its share of disappointments. This brings us back to our highwaymen. They know the power and attraction of religion. Religion communicates with the soul and awakens the mind that feels suffocated by tactile material experience, prevented from reaching its holistic potential. It inspires and infuses existence with meaning.

The highwayman knows that these capacities may all be mounted and ridden to personal gain. He or she himself is captivated by the possibilities that lie therein; to take hearts and minds hostage and hold them for ransom.

An encounter with a highwayman can leave a person feeling violated and betrayed. But despite this, the journey must go on. The Quran speaks of the earth becoming constricted around a person, despite its vastness, to the point of his or her own self becoming constricted; until he or she realizes there is no running from Allah except to Allah.

The journey is greater than its pitfalls. We cannot allow disappointment, betrayal, or manipulation to make us disillusioned; or better yet, dis-hopeful or divested of resolve. The end or objective of the journey is greater than the perceived enjoyments or exhilarations that obtain during the process. As Mahalia Jackson said, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize.

One English public philosopher has said that, “for historical reasons religions have a grossly inflated place in the public domain out of all proportion to the numbers of their adherents or their intrinsic merits.” But regardless of those who may or may not decry this fact, religion does enjoy a profound influential place in the history of human society. This because of what it comprises of intense spiritual meaning and connection to metaphysical reality; not to mention the transformative power on individual lives that is exponentially greater than any paucity in the numbers of its adherents.

Religion must be about much more than anything that could be derailed by hangers on. But it is well known that the Latin religionem is not deemed a fitting translation for the word deen, which in Arabic means “transaction”.

Al-Sayyid al-Jurjani defines deen as, “a divine convention that motivates rationally minded people – by way of their own praiseworthy choice – toward what is good in and of itself, being beneficial to them in this life and the next.”

Religion, in this conception, provides shape, coherence, and integrity to people’s engagement and interaction with their vertical relationships with the Divine as well as their horizontal relationships with one another.

But just as important, it is a source; a source of spiritual fulfillment, enlightenment, and the nourishment of healthy and balanced souls. The value of religion – or  deen – in your life depends ultimately on what you are getting out of it. When you sell it short, you are selling yourself short. And when you sell it, or allow another to hijack it, you are the one in control of your own suffering.

Friday Sermon: Rights & Responsibilities of Brotherhood Pt.9: Prohibition of Racism

Delivered by Shaykh Jihad Hashim Brown in Abu Dhabi on 29 January 2010.

To Listen:

To Download: 29-01-10_Brotherhood pt 9 – Prohibition of Racism [mp3]

Friday Sermon: The Rights & Responsibilities of Brotherhood Pt. 8: The Dignity of a Brother

Delivered by Shaykh Jihad Hashim Brown on 22 January 2010 in Abu Dhabi

To Listen:

To Download: 22-01-10_Brotherhood pt 8 – The Dignity of a Brother

Are Muslims Afraid of Their Own Shadow?

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown ~ 25 Sept 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

(This is the full, unedited version)

When we used to be American Muslims we hated our own freedom. In the phrase

of the time, “they hate our freedom,” American Muslims were both the “they” and

the “our”. Such a contradiction in terms is probably a good sign that there’s

something awry with the original premise. Not that that helps much in a country

that counts amongst its most popular shows, “Are you smarter than a fifth


Now that the fear mongering in American right‐wing circles has gone viral

amongst the entire public, will Muslims succumb to the same fear? Will Muslims

begin to fear Islam just as much? Will they begin to fear their own selves? The

symptoms have begun to manifest.

The reason for this escalation of what is being called “islamophobia” is all too

familiar. Historically, when societies have gone through disaster or crisis they

have turned on their minorities like the pogroms of 19th century Russia or

Japanese internment in the 1940s. It is an almost ritualistic scapegoating

exercise that hearkens back to ancient times.

Americans are going through a period of uncertainty. Economic downturn and

joblessness are causing them to feel scared and question their future. It is

unfortunately unsurprising that they would seek out a scapegoat when the

impotency of right‐wing politicians to provide the promised solution shows


But if Americans are uncertain about themselves and their future, and happen to

lash out in desperation, it shouldn’t be a cause for Muslims to be uncertain about

their own selves or spiritual culture.

Unfortunately, in an unprecedented loss of nerve, many Middle‐class and elite

Muslims have contracted more islamophobia than the islamophobes. Distancing

themselves from their own religious and cultural identity in a bid to “pass” or fit

in. Even some Muslim countries are trying to marginalize religious practice and

culture or sweep it under the rug altogether as if it were a condition to prove

their worthiness to be picked from the line outside on the pavement to cross the

velvet ropes into the club of glamorous nations.

With the rapacious bellicosity of the state of Israel, the “self‐hating Jew” is a

historical relic. You now have the self‐hating Muslim all decked out for the

minstrel show.

Muslim elites have always tried to distance themselves from their religious and

cultural identity. But never to any avail. Leaving Islamic institutions and native

cultural discourse to embarrassing “lay‐readers” or fixated radicals eventually

backfires on us all.

Instead, Muslims should embrace a robust identity and invest in a rich heritage

that promotes a dynamic, effective, and ‘switched‐on’ discourse. When tomorrow

they sit at the table when company comes, everyone will see how beautiful they


Muslims could gain from the advice of francophone American writer James

Baldwin, in a letter to his nephew in America, “Please try to be clear, dear James,

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no

basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The

really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that

very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these

innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history

which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be

released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable

reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know

better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they

know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this

case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their


New Taboos and Lost Words

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown ~ 18 September 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a global village. At least not when you’re from the wrong side of the tracks. People are constantly trying to judge you through the lenses of their own glasses. Didn’t their mothers ever tell them that it’s not good to share your prescriptions with others? It will ruin your eyesight and cause myopia.

Myopia, that’s the best way to describe the village when people start forgetting how to be good neighbours, or just become downright ignorant. People need to listen, understand and comprehend before shooting off at the mouth.

Hubris, self-indulgence, and narrow-mindedness have joined forces with irresponsible media and the scholastically impaired to give us all a new catalogue of taboos. As Muslims, we are losing meaningful words from the vocabulary of our worldview as they are being rebranded and re-shuffled by self-appointed pundits who have not thought to make an effort to understand them.

In our effort to join the cosmopolis of the new global village we are losing our words along the way. Words like “jihad”, rebranded by one-eyed “experts” in the valley of the couch potatoes as “holy war”. How do you get holy war from the linguistic root, “j-h-d”? It used to mean, “to make an effort”. Within the classical teachings of Islam it always meant, “to expend every effort to do what is right and preserve what is good”. Now one might say that “good” is a subjective construct. But come on, lying, cheating, and hurting others, other than Wall Street and a few transnational corporations … most normal people the world over are in agreement that those things are not good.

Recently we’ve witnessed anti-Muslim demonstrators holding up placards with the word “sharia” painted to appear like dripping blood. Wow, what’s “sharia”? Is it an evil set of draconion rules and regulations hell-bent on suffocating our happiness? Is it a catch-all for all things we think are mean or clash with our own “me generation” pop culture? Sharia used to mean a pathway that leads to a source of water. The Quran says, “from water We have made every living thing.” It also says: “For everything [in the cosmos] we have made for it its own sharia.” So if your Sharia is not leading you to something life-giving and wholesome, then it is not a Quranic sharia.

Look, I don’t mind if we criticise “the radicals”. Even though “radical” used to be a word held in somewhat high regard in the 1980s. It’s the bending and manipulating of our words and concepts that I have a problem with.

Because words like these are being made into new taboos, and with the help of visual media to be associated with viscerally negative connotations; there is an assumption that it is socially incorrect to use them. Muslims now feel they must adopt these assumptions by jettisoning these words, and unfortunately, the real and correct concepts behind them. In their own minds they are replacing them with the “re-definitions”.

This is very tragic. It’s not the way to rectify extremism or achieve enfranchisement, because where will it end? Even “hijab” has become a taboo concept at every metal detector, randomly, of course. What’s next, “mosque”, the Quran, your name?

The only viable solution is for Muslims to reclaim these words and re-establish the original concepts behind them. To retreat from our identity and the meanings that underpin it will secure complete loss. To move forward will require resolve, courage, intelligence, sensitivity and foresight.

If we retreat, the extremists win. Both the ones that run around with guns in the Ozarks or rant out their latent racial angst at “tea-party” rallies and the ones that run around with guns in caves in Afghanistan or bite and burn flags at pointless demonstrations.

Muslims Between Labels & Identity

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown | 04 September 2010 | The National, Abu Dhabi

A myriad of affiliations abound in the life of a Muslim. Some people identify with their country, some with their favourite sports club. Others identify with their ethnicity or tribal loyalties, still others with their career or preferred musical genre.

But all these operations of “identifying with” are only skin deep. They can only go so far to explaining who a person actually is, let alone their worth as a human being. They are more like labels, brands or tags by which a person can be categorised in the appropriate file.

The question of “identity”, however, is a much different and deeper issue. First, it is one of the primary investigations of metaphysics in philosophy. It has to do with the essence or quiddity of a thing, meaning the qualities that fundamentally make it what it “is”, and without which, it would lose its identity.

In Arabic we call this the huwiyyah, the innermost dimension of a person that indicates his reality. The term mahiyyah is also used to refer to “that by which a thing is what it is”.

For example, Muslim scholastics accepted the definition of the human essence as “the rational animal”. But “animal” in Arabic means anything infused with life, hayawan. So it would mean a living rational entity. Or in the case of the human being we could say “the rational soul”; as ensoulment is the key differentiator from common animal life; and the rational mind is actually a faculty of the soul.

The 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, referred to the state of being particular to the human person as da-sein, “being there”; the defining principle of da-sein is that it is the only thing conscious of its own being, and for whom its own being is an issue for it.

Any discussion of Muslim identity must begin from this level of inquiry. It must be about “being” something, beyond labels and sound bites. Allah refers to people of spiritual consciousness as ulu albab, people of core, people of substance. This is more than a fashion, or a “stylisation”. For example, the realisation of ultimate unicity is defining for the Muslim. The consciousness that everything is returning to a single point of causal-ontological unity, and that this is the source of equilibrium in the universe.

Another example is that the meaning of peace in Islam comes from the human being’s submission to the natural order of the universe. Only the human being can resist order. So when he relinquishes resistance, he comes into harmony with the rest of the cosmos.

It is from here that the meaning of human being in Arabic obtains. Insan is the one who has achieved inner harmony by becoming fully human and so everything in the cosmos finds comfort (uns) in him.

When it comes to identity, finding the right place to begin the discussion is the goal. All I can offer here is a start. Bringing it to a conclusion is for others. Regarding the essence of the Muslim, the Prophet Muhammad famously described a good companion as like a perfume vendor. Even if you don’t purchase anything you still come away smelling fragrant just from his company.

Perfumes are made from the distilled essence of the plant or flower from which they come.These thoughts echo in the words of the poet who said, “If the fragrance of His remembrance is diffused in the West, and in the East is a sick man, he willed be cured from his illness.”

The Killing Fields of Iraq in Ramadan

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown ~ 28 August 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

Disgusted. This is the immediate impression upon receiving the news of this past Wednesday’s bombing spree in Iraq. One day after official American combat operations ended in Iraq we receive news that co-ordinated bombing attacks in 10 locations throughout the country claimed the lives of more than 50 people in a matter of hours.

Really? In Ramadan? Each and every target was a Muslim, including the women and children caught in the crossfire. The wounded and maimed were twice that number; each and every one of them Muslim.

These are not foreign combat troops who have invaded a sovereign nation in violation of international law to exploit its natural resources. Each and every one of these people was fasting. Each and every one of these people had plans for iftar that evening with their families.

Where is this taking us? What type of logic is this? To anyone that may still be impressed with such actions, I say: You are an embarrassment.

The Quran is explicit that it is forbidden for one Muslim to kill another; and the punishment for such a crime is damnation.

Islamic scholars have been under pressure to excommunicate any Muslim guilty of taking an innocent life in an act of terrorism. To this point, they have resisted such efforts out of deference to scholarly integrity. You see, to take an innocent life is a heinous crime and major sin that must be atoned for in the hellfire and its perpetrator subjected to capital punishment in this life – and their family to humiliation as an unintended by-product. But you see, none of this entails that the criminal has forsaken belief in God.

However, this is different. There exists a clause in Islamic law that anyone who rejects something necessarily known of the religion becomes a kafir (disbeliever). Anyone who would suppose it permissible to kill another Muslim would, by means of such a belief, put themselves beyond the pale.

This is the reality behind the Prophet’s statement that when two Muslims face off in conflict, one of them killing the other, both of them will be in the hellfire.

When will these ignorant people realise that in Islam, it’s not about winning? It’s about living one’s life in harmony with the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. It’s about making the right choices in the circumstances that have been thrown to you.

Part of that is knowing when to stop. Part of that is knowing how to accept defeat gracefully; without every principle of my faith also becoming a casualty. Truth may be the first casualty of war for a non-Muslim, but not a Muslim. No such war is worth fighting. If I win the battle having sacrificed and desecrated every principle given to me by my Creator (for whom I claim to fight), then I have failed, and I become a victorious loser.

Really? In Ramadan? Is this not enough to demonstrate that in no uncertain terms, terrorism can never be termed “Islamic”?