Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sura 1 - Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation - "In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds: Most Gracious, Most Merciful: Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, The way of those on whom Thous has bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath. And who go not astray."
Sura 1 - Muhammad Asad's translation - "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace: All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds, the most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace, Lord of the Day of Judgment! Thee alone do we worship; and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid. Guide us the straight way - the way of those upon whom Thous hast bestowed Thy blessings, not those who have been condemned [by Thee], nor of those who go astray.
This first Sura in the Quran is a prayer. Ali states that it teaches Muslims the perfect prayer, and that it is "rightly called the Essence of the Book." It is of supreme importance. It is a part of most prayers, and is included in almost all wedding ceremonies. So it is important; that much is beyond debate. Also beyond debate are the words of this, and every other Sura, in classical Arabic. The same is not true of English. This is illustrated by these two translations, and they only scratch the surface. Translators and interpreters of the Quran square off against each other in much the same way as interpreters of the bible, and are equally unlikely to see themselves as using the text for their own purposes. The importance of differences in translation will be better illustrated in later Suras. For this Sura, I will take a less scholarly approach.
I like the description of Allah as gracious an merciful. If I do believe in God, my God is certainly gracious and merciful. Not merciful like a slave owner, however, but merciful like a an official with a mortgage company dealing with a late payment. One translation uses only grace, presenting it as a term that encompasses mercy, compassion, and loving tenderness. Next God is described as a Sustainer or as a Sustainer and Cherisher of Worlds. This has a nice ring too, if a bit possessive for my ears. After hearing again that Allah is Gracious and Merciful, we are told that he is "Master" or "Lord" of the Day of Judgment. Apparently there is a translator's debate over whether this should be Master or King. I am not sure I care for either description. I really don't like the slave analogies. I am not sure I am down with monarchy either. I know God is supposed to be the original king, but I don't like the title any better than when it was used by his representatives on earth. I probably am missing the point, since this title is wedded to day of judgment, a notion I find to be scientifically improbable. But, if you believe in such a day, I suppose there could be worse options than having a Gracious and Merciful Master for it. Also, seeking a "straight way" (the translation I prefer is straight path), is not so bad.
The First Sura is a simple but powerful prayer for guidance, and also for a beneficent and merciful God to provide it. It is powerful and it is beautiful. It presents quite strongly the simple attractions of belief.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


It occurred to me yesterday that what my blog needs, besides someone to read it, is a regular feature. I considered a sports theme, but that didn't seem deep enough. No one political issue is likely to keep my interest for very long. I don't do fashion or entertainment. I'm not into reality TV, or reality blogging. So all I am left with is the Quran.

So, I will read the entire Quran, sura by sura and verse by verse, and comment on what strikes me as interesting. I have already read many excerpts, and have embarked on a complete reading on three occasions. I have made it as far as Sura 11. This time will be a complete success, and I will turn to the Old Testament.

I am not an Islamic scholar, but that is surely not a requirement for reading the Quran. I am not pretending to have any sort of authority. I will not be issuing fatwas. I will simply be voicing my opinions.

I will not be reading it in Arabic either, but that shouldn't matter at all. Allah spoke to the inhabitants of Arabia in Arabic because he speaks to each people in their own language. He wouldn't expect me to have to learn Arabic to receive his word. Too often Muslims and non Muslims alike confuse Arab with Muslim. The two are not the same.

No two translations of the Quran into English are the same. I will be utilizing translations into English by Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad. The rest of this post will pertain to how I received the Muhammad Asad translation, with my musings on the Sura Al-Fatiha following tomorrow.

I received a beautiful and very big copy of the Quran in the mail from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). They were distributing the Quran free of charge. All I had to do is go to CAIR's website, click a box indicating an interest in receiving the Quran, and enter my address. With the Quran I received a letter. It began with a quote from the Quran. Of course it did. I mean a quote from Daniel Pipes would hardly have been appropriate. The quote was from Sura 14: "This is a book that We have revealed to you (Prophet Muhammad) so that you may lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into the light." (14:1) What a quote. I mean, who wouldn't want to be led out of the darkness. Maybe some goth-types, but certainly most of us would love to be brought into the light ... unless that means into THE LIGHT, in which case most of us would like to delay that. I took it to mean enlightenment, though, so I was intrigued. They next sentence referred to the Quran as a "revealed text," which is important. Christians may speak of the bible as a "revealed text," but most of us accept that it was written by ordinary men and, in most cases, was written many years after the events described in the text. This is the way Muslims see the bible. It is God's word, distorted by early Christians. The Quran is the Word of God. "As you know, Muslims regard the Quran as the inerrant Word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century CE. Conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, the word 'Quran' itself means 'recitation.'" Nihad Awad, the signatory of the letter, assures me that although translations of the Quran are an approximation of the Arabic revelation, "the larger themes of monotheism, justice, and brotherhood transcend the limitations of language." Whew, am I relieved. Although I am troubled that all I will be able to be sure of is the biases of the translator. The letter identifies mutual understanding and tolerance of religious diversity as the goals of CAIR's distribution of the Quran. I can't argue with those goals. I also can't argue with their request that I not keep the Quran in dirty or wet areas, near their feet, on the floor, or near the sink. It is a little sad that there would be a need to make such a request, but I don't doubt that at all. Some good Christian whose heart is filled with love and compassion probably has ordered a Quran just so that he or she can deface it. I do believe that reading the Quran would be an important eye opener for a lot of Americans, and I also believe that very few Christian Americans will ever pick up a Quran. Maybe an effort like this one will make a difference. Maybe not. At any rate, kudos to CAIR and Thank You.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Who is Zulhaidi Omar?
This is a very good question. One way of answering this question would be to say that Zulhaidi Omar is 29. Another would be to say that he is a sales executive. Another would be to say he is a man. Yet another would be to say that he is a citizen of Malaysia. All are true and uncontroversial statements, but all also fail to fully answer the question. Many of us are 29, and many more of us have been 29, and 29 will not be, and was not, the same experience for any of us. As for being a sales executive, what does that really mean. I can conjure a picture of what a sales executive would do, but it is necessarily vague. Even if I knew the exact particulars of each and every one of his work days, would I really know very much about him? I suppose you could draw conclusions, but those conclusions would be inevitably based on so much more than the job. The gender issue I will leave alone right now, and not because I think it is inconsequential, but because there are a lot of men in the world and Zulhaidi's status as one just makes him one of many. As far as being a Malaysian, I am an American. There are over 300 million Americans. It is tempting to say that this commonality is especially meaningful. I don't think that being an American isn't actually that meaningful. The last two elections, the debate about the war, the reaction to movies like An Inconvenient Truth, the Arguably, coverage and debate on issues like abortion and assisted suicide all make me think that I have very little in common with the majority of other Americans. Being an American probably is, however, more meaningful than being a Malaysian. By saying this I am not making an assertion about the quality of life in America or about the quality of people in America (actually I believe that neither are especially extraordinary). Just as in America there are competing identities (Black, Christian, Southern), the same is true in Malaysia. It is even more true, or at least these identity cleavages are more severe and conflict ridden. The majority of the citizens of Malaysia are ethnic Malays, but a large and disproportionately prosperous minority is ethnic Chinese. So, to a citizen of Malaysia, telling them that someone is also a citizen of Malaysia is not really telling them very much. Of course, telling them that this person's given name would tell them quite a bit more. Zulhaidi Omar is a Muslim name. Most ethic Malays are Muslims and most Muslims in Malaysia are ethnic Malays. Zulhaidi is indeed a Muslim, at least for now. This, by itself, is about as informative as the designation of Malaysian. Americans think that all Muslims are identical, but the truth is about as far from that as one can imagine. Some Muslims do assert that there is one correct way to be a Muslim, but they are almost unquestionably wrong. It doesn't take too much research into Islam and Islamic law to reach that conclusion. Even they would agree that the practices of those claiming to be Muslims are far from uniform. Together these designations do begin to mean something, but one must correctly assemble them, taking into account the fact that these factors overlap and interact, thus altering each other and the whole. In the case of Zulhaidi Omar the whole is certainly much more than the sum of the parts.
Zulhaidi, who now prefers to be called Eddie, was apparently switched with another baby at birth. He was raised in Malaysia as a Muslim an an ethnic Malay. His biological parents raised as an ethnic Chinese Malaysian the biological child of the two people who raised him who raised him. Now he wishes to renounce Islam. In Malaysia, renouncing Islam is a crime. In Islam it is a sin of the highest order. It is one thing not to be a Muslim, but to have known the one true God and his religion and then to have forsaken it is a crime for which there can be no forgiveness, in this world of the next. Why is Eddie committing this crime. Why is Tian Fa (Eddie's double) not renouncing Buddhism and his Chinese Malaysian identity? I don't know, but I have to believe that the political and economic power, and social position, possesed by the Ethnic Chinese of Malaysia has something to do with it. These are additional aspects of identity that it is foolish to ignore.
Using only the article at CNN's website http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/02/05/malaysia.babyswap.ap/index.html it is impossible to conclude who Zulhaidi Omar is. It is impossible to even hazard a guess. What I can do is conclude that our identities are constructed, and that our parents, our work colleagues, the books and websites we read, and the culture of our community and our state (I will save exploring this mess for another time) all play a role. We ourselves also play a role. There is a place for genetics too, but only a small one. And now even a penis doesn't mean too much.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Coonass. Nick Saban, the new Alabama head football coach [and former head football coach at Miami (the Dolphins), LSU, and Michigan State] said, in a taped conversation relating a story told to him by a friend on the LSU Board of Trustees: "He was walking down the street yesterday before the Sugar Bowl. He calls me. There was a guy working in the ditch, one of those coonass guys that talk funny. I can't talk like them, but he can. Most people in Louisiana can." Nick said coonass, said it on tape, someone put that tape on the Internet, and all day yesterday the saints of sports talk radio and television lined up to take shots at him.
I have two problems with the uproar. One relates to the way in which Americans treat certain words. My other concern was prompted by the comments of a particular shock jock. First, I want to establish the facts. Nick said coonass. He shouldn't have used the word coonass. There is some debate over the offensiveness of coonass. Coonass is a word which refers to Cajuns. It may have origins in French (dirty prostitute) or in the reference to black people as 'coons.' Some Cajuns regard it as degrading, others have no problem wearing it on t-shirts or putting bumper stickers on their car which declare that they are a "registered coonass." The former Governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, referred to himself as a coonass. For more on coonass, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coonass.
So, on to my first point. Coonass is a word. This has a few important implications. First, words do not have static meanings. The word 'gay' is a great example. The sentence "I am gay," has a very different meaning now then it would have a hundred years ago. These meanings don't just vary over time, but from place to place and speaker to speaker. If I, as a white man, call a black man a nigger, that has a much different meaning then when a black man calls another black man a nigger. For some black people, nigger is an awful word with a very clear meaning and history regardless of who uses it. Many, myself included, believe that casual use of such words may well serve a cathartic purpose and be an assertion of power, but in the end serves to diminish the negative connotations and the important historical lessons that the term can be used to convey. This leads into my second point, which is that language is a complex issue. It is never, regardless of how quickly people are fired over words these days, an easy matter to discern a man or woman's character from the use of a word or a sentence or even a whole paragraph. Thirds, the English language in its entirety is available for all of us to use, interpret, and bend to our own purposes. This is why Ebonics is such a ridiculous concept. People who assert that ghetto slang is a legitimate dialect simply cede the English language to others. Words shouldn't allow for ownership, without exception. Fourth comes a point that really should not need to even be made. There is no simple answer to what was meant by a sentence, a word, or a facial expression. Only in context should any sort of judgement be made. It is one thing to say that Nick Saban's comment, in light of the way in which he took the Alabama job or the way in which he left any of his other jobs or the way he has been seen to act towards Cajuns in the past, points to a man with a real problem. It is another to say that anyone who says coonass is a bigot, even though it is clear that is not the case, at least in everyone's eyes. This brings me to my last point. Every human being has, on many many occasions, made a statement that they wish, in hindsight, they could take back. I certainly have. Sometimes I know, almost before my mouth has closed and without the need for any independent confirmation, that I have put my foot in my mouth. Other times I have determined that I shouldn't have said a particular word, phrase, or statement based purely on the reaction it receives. I don't always think I was wrong, and sometimes I avoid the statement in the future and even apologize simply in order to placate someone. Before my life is over I hope to have done quite a lot of talking. To pick out anyone word or statement in isolation and use it to define me as a person would be an injustice greater than the one perpetrated when a white person refers to a black person as a nigger. It is our obsession with the absence of such missteps that has given us our current President. Great men make as many if not more mistakes than the rest of us. Lesser men avoid the appearance of impropriety and focus on that appearance in others.
It was listening to sports talk show host Colin Cowherd cut off caller after caller who dared to say anything other than that coonass is an awful thing to say that originally caused me to want to write about this topic. He, typical of one sort of sports talk show host, lives in a black and white world. I am sure that this makes for great ratings and radio, but it also perpetuates a potentially very dangerous form of ignorance. Colin was making a potentially very complex and nuanced matter into a simple one, and distorting it in the process. This isn't the first time he, or others like him, have done this. In fact, it is a problem that is rampant in this country. We want to see the world as black and white, good and evil. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work that way. It is the same problem scholars who worship quantitative methods have when they try to study and understand humans. On the one hand the reaction is juvenile. I am right, I have a talk show, you disagree with me, so you must be a moron. This is why he 'borrowed' a fake wonderlic test from the M Zone (http://michiganzone.blogspot.com/ ), without giving any credit, and when this borrowing was pointed out by the people at M Zone called them whiners and said they would get no satisfaction from him. He eventually apologized, but it seems a safe assumption that this was one of those occasions where we admit the errors of our ways because we are trying to please someone and not because we believe we have done anything wrong. Now, I often agree with Colin, but that doesn't make his approach right. The key isn't in the end product. The key is the process. Colin's process allows for pettiness. Out of a sports talk show host these acts seldom rise above juvenile, petty, or annoying. It isn't hard to see, however, where this logic can be much more dangerous when employed in other walks of life. When our government labels all Muslims as terrorists, or even all Muslims who oppose Israeli actions in Palestine as terrorists, they are employing this same approach.
Nick Saban may be an ass. This may be evidenced by his use of the word "coonass." It is hardly an obvious or settled fact, however. People of intelligence could easily disagree, but not in any public way, as a person of intelligence is keenly aware of the witch hunt they may be subjected to if they don't. What I decry here is the dearth of real dialogue, and the driving underground of principled inquiry and measured and deliberate living. Telling me I am wrong and or that you are right does not make it so. You still have to prove it.