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WHO ARE THE TALIBAN?

The recent demise of Osama Bin Laden (couldn’t help but think when listening to Obama that night, “Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword”) on the Pakistan and Afghani border has renewed interest in al-Qaeda and their kin, the Taliban.

We have our men and women giving their lives in that region on a daily basis and in many instances, fighting against Taliban insurgencies.  Some may not need to know more than the fact that they are radical Islamists who systematically violate human rights.  Yet to make any lasting progress and attending peace, we must begin to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the cultural and historic constructs by which their very existence was created.

So who are the Taliban?

In brief, the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in 1979, left a vacuum of leadership in an already war-torn country.

Afghanistan, primarily a Sunni country, had previously enjoyed but a fragile unity, offset by the realities of its multiethnic tribal society (Pathans, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Persian-speaking Shiites in the West).

The mujahideen (Muslim militia) who were lauded the world over (the US providing arms and aid)  for driving the Soviets out, pasted together a mujahideen government which quickly fell prey to a bloody power struggle. Mujahideen leaders (or perhaps more accurately, warlords) vied for supremacy, resulting in more deaths and devastation than its liberation cost.

An 18 year civil war ensued between the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious rivalries.

And then, the seemingly endless state of carnage and chaos was abruptly reversed.  As if out of nowhere, a band of students (taliban) from the madrassas (schools whose primary purpose is the teaching of Islamic law and related religious subjects) appeared in 1994 and within two years swept the country.

Denouncing the warlords, they claimed the mantle of moral leadership as representatives of the Afghan majority who were victims of the internecine warfare.  Although initially portrayed as young students from the madrassas with no military background, they were in fact a force of mullahs and taliban, religious leaders and students.  The mullahs were primarily veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war, who returned to the madrassas (the religious schools) with harsh battle experience but little in the way of real religious education.

Because little was known about the Taliban and they were portrayed simply as young students from religious schools, inexperienced in warfare and poorly armed, they were initially not taken seriously.  In time they proved to be a formidable force, feared by warlords but embraced by ordinary citizens.  They were hailed as liberators who secured towns and made the streets safe.

However, soon, the Taliban’s strict form of Islam soon became an issue.

Like al-Qaeda with its puritanical notions of Islam (known as Wahhabism, springing from Saudi Arabia), the Taliban segregated the sexes outside the home, closed girls’ schools, required that women be fully covered in public, and banned women from the workplace.  Television, cinema, and music were also banned.

Most austerely, they re-instituted ancient (hudud)punishments, taking only literal translations of the Quran and hadiths, such as amputation for theft, un-tried death for murder, and stoning and/or death for adultery.

This is a convoluted interpretation of Islam.

The notion of the law in Islam is expressed by two different but semantically related terms: sharia (the “way” or method set out by God) and fiqh (the “understanding” of application of this method in specific cases). While speaking about Islamic law, informed Muslims use the term sharia to connote the sacred law as a global concept or ideal, while fiqh is used to connote the ongoing interpretation of the law through the schools (four Sunni and one Shiite) of judicial practice.

From the earliest days of Islamic history, knowledge of the law was regarded by Muslims as essential knowledge, the very epitome of “science” (ilm) itself.  But the science of the law, like any other science, does not stand still.  Ideal principles are useless unless they are put into practice, and the changing conditions of Islamic society demanded new interpretations and applications of the way.  For this reason, the interpretative science of fiqh was developed in the first Islamic century (about 1400 years ago) .

Yet in the past century, Islamic law has been weakened considerably.  With the resented substitution of Western notions for Islamic conceptions of justice under colonialism, attempts by authoritarian regimes to bypass the judicial process, and the lack of standard religious training (makeshift madrassas an enormous problem) have conspired to undermine the status of fiqh.

A common belief fostered by the Taliban and modern political Islamists in general is that only the sharia-but not fiqh- constitutes the true law of God.  They actually want the elimination of fiqh (interpretation).  They see it as a source of dissension that undermines Muslim unity.

This negative view of Islamic jurisprudence is advocated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda and denies Islamic law the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

To eventually stunt the proliferation of this kind of radical fundamentalism, the only real deterrent is economic and social justice, education and equality. In the countries where fundamentalism has the greatest hold…Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few), the work towards freedom and opportunities made available for a better life will eventually out the propensity for extremism.

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A Brief Overview of the Sunni Sects

Following my last post on the difference between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, I have decided to delve a little deeper into the wide variation of belief (and practice) within the sects of these branches of Islam, starting with the Sunnis.  

There are four major schools of thought within the Sunni population. The  most widespread of these are the HanafiThere are considered the most moderate of Islam, preferring an abstract fairness over legal rigidity.  They have been around since late 700 CE. Their practices are used in the governments of Jordan and Egypt.   

Of the more conservative sects of the Sunni are the MalikiTheir beliefs are based on the literal word of the Quran, the Hadith (traditions and sayings of the Prophet), and legal precedents drawn from decisions in Medina only (the first settlement of a Muslim community), with emphasis on the decisions of the very first Companions of the Prophet.  (From the 80o’s CE). 

Somewhere between these two are the Shafi’i.  Al-Shafi’i (800’s ) was an extremely important jurist in Islam as well as a poet and a revered holy man.  His memory remains forever popular with the poor of Cairo, among whom he is buried.  People still stick supplications to his tombstone and his tomb is considered to have the power to cure sickness, although this is contrary to strict Islam.  He favored logic and only wanted the hadiths reduced to only those sayings of the Prophet with a provable origin.  Less liberal than Hanafi but less conservative than Maliki, many of the Shafi’i reside in Syria, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  This is the fastest and largest growing sect.

The last major sect originated in the 800’s, it was originally called Hanbali (from a scholar of the same name).  However, due to its extreme nature, it almost died from neglect until in the 1700’s when an Islamic scholar, Abd-al-Wahhab brought back this ultra conservative, authoritarian brand of Sunni Islam, now know as Wahhabi.  It does not resemble any of the above “denominations”.  They are extreme Puritans. It was Wahhabism that fueled the ferocious power on which ibn Saud built his kingdom.  It is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.  Ironically, they allow for complete freedom in commercial matters-something that Muhammad was utterly against.  Wahhabis are in exact juxtaposition to Hanafism, which emphasizes good works and exterior acts over interior convictions as the true manifestation of faith.  In addition, Wahhabis are opposed to all other approaches to Islam, especially Sufism.  Not surprisingly, Osama Bin Laden was raised in the Wahhabi tradition.

A few brief words about Sufism.  There are Sufis in both the Sunni and Shi’a communities.  They are the Islamic mystics and their history has been a rich tapestry of people and literature and ideas which have played a considerable role in the development of the religion of Islam.  The word Sufi comes from the name of the rough woolen clothing worn by the mystics (an ascetic practice).   Like the Christian mystics, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, or Thomas Merton, they too aspire to a complete union with God (tawhid).  As well, they belong to orders (as the Catholics have the Franciscans, Carmelites, and Jesuits).  These are called tariqa or dervishes.  Each has practices or clothing particular to their order. You may recall the whirling dervishes; they are the Mevliv tariqa.  The famous poet and mystic Rumi was a whirling dervish.    The Wahhabis have outlawed Sufism, killing many of them and desecrating their cemetaries, especially those that contain walis, the saints of the Sufis.     

The next post will deal with the Shi’a sects and the importance of this knowledge in understanding the history of the diverse Muslim nations.

Book of the Day: The Sufi Path of Life, the Works of Rumi by William Chittick

Quote of the Day by the poet Rumi:  “Load the ship and set out.  No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor.  Cautious people say ‘I’ll do nothing until I can be sure.’  Merchants know better.  If you do nothing, you lose.  Don’t be one of those merchants who won’t risk the ocean.”

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WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUNNI AND SHI’A?

Differences between the two main branches of the Muslim faith go back to the very beginnings of Islam.  The origins of Sunni and Shi’a  began as a political dispute over who the rightful successor should be to follow the Prophet Muhammad as the head of the Muslim state and community he founded.  Muhammad’s senior followers were called the Caliphate.  There are various definitions of what a Caliph is, but essentially it means a deputy or successor, and sometimes is synonomous with “commander”.  For instance, during medieval times, the Caliph was the supreme sovereign of the Islamic empire.  This pervasive kind of  power has waned significantly in most modern Muslim states.

The first Caliph after Muhammad was Abu Bakr, his closest friend and one of the very first converts to Islam.  While  Bakr was known as Abu Bakr “al-Siddiq”, meaning the “upright and truthful”, and many writings indicate this to be accurate, he was not a blood  relative of the Prophet.  For the Sunnis, (whose name comes from the word  sunna meaning the well worn path, the practices of the Prophet) his lineage was irrelevant.  They believed that the leaders of the community were to choose a successor, on the basis of worthiness. However, the Shi’a thought this method of choosing illegitimate, that the Sunnis were usurping power by making this decision.  The Shi’a believed that succession belonged by right to the Prophet’s family.  Muhammad had no son, but a daughter Fatima, who married his cousin Ali.  Shi’a literally means “Party of Ali”.

This tension led to a series of armed insurrections in the years following the Prophet’s death.  There was coups overthrowing those in power.  Of the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, three were murdered, and their reigns ended in civil war.  Ali’s sons, Hasan and Husayn were both martyred.  Then there followed a series of claimants to the caliphate, known as Imams (this word is more broadly defined today to include religious teachers) who all  claimed to be descendents of Ali and Fatima.

As an aside, by all accounts, Abu Bakr was a thoughtful and strong leader. It was Abu Bakr who ordered the scattered portions of the Quran to be collected shortly after Muhammad’s death, thereby allowing for an authorized version to be completed within 25 years of the Prophet’s death.  (The immediate occasion of this command was the death in battle of a large number of men who knew much or all of it by heart and the concern that parts of it could be lost forever).  Many of the surahs (chapters) of the Quran are said to have been written down on palm leaves, white stones, the breastbones of humans, animal leather, bits of papyrus (essentially any material until paper was known around the 8th century), but much of the Quran was communicated through oral transmission.  

In addition, Abu Bakr’s daughter Aisha was and is (aside from Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife) the most beloved by Muslims, a gifted leader of the faith in her own right and an example of virtuous living. These early founders continue to be beacons for both Sunni and Shi’a as they practice Islam in their own ways.

The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni.  The majority of the world’s Muslims, including the Shi’a, practice a moderate and life affirming faith.  Tomorrow I will look at the different sects within these two “denominations” and provide an overview of some of the extremist offshoots as well.

Book of the Day, Muhammad, A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong, “Those who kept the faith were not simply “believers”.  Their faith must be expressed in practical actions: they must pray, share their wealth, and in matters that concerned the community, “consult among themselves” to preserve the unity of the ummah.  If attacked, they could defend themselves, but instead of lashing out in an uncontrolled way, they must always be prepared to forgive an injury…”Hence, whoever pardons his foe and makes peace, his reward rests with God”, the Quran insists tirelessly.”

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Putting the Joy Back in Jihad

What’s so joyful about a jihad? It’s one of those experiences that afterwards we call a blessing in disguise.

The concept of jihad or holy war is embedded in the Quran, but it has, from its earliest beginnings, been fraught with multiple meanings.  Muslims often speak of jihad as both a struggle to submit to God’s will (considered the greatest of  jihads) and a battle against unbelievers (the lesser of the jihads).  Our focus today will be on the greater, the individual’s journey toward purity of the soul.

However, it is important to note that the jihad that points to a battle against unbelievers has more to do with Muslims being commanded to do something that they believe to be contrary to the law of God (which includes the sin of polytheism), or to those that dishonor or defeat the community of the faithful, at which point jihad becomes a duty.

It has never been historically true that Muslims are somehow obligated to wage war against those who do not surrender to Allah.  In fact, during what many call the Golden Age of Islam (from about the 9th to 12th centuries), “Muslims were ruling peacefully over large populations of non-Muslims without expending the slightest bit of effort to convert them or to challenge their beliefs.” (From Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell). 

In addition, there is no Islamic jurist (classical or modern) that offers approval or legitimacy to what we now call terrorism.  The armed struggles of jihads of the past were elaborately regulated by Shari’a law (which simply means holy law, covering everything from fasting and pilgrimage to constitutional and criminal law). For instance, no women, children, or the aged are allowed to be killed (in principle).  You have to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities.  These jihads are considered wars in the traditional sense or political reforms or changes in economic policies, but do not in any way resemble the terrorist acts of the last several decades.  

“The greater jihad is something all devout individuals must wage… against their own desires. The mystics of Islam often spoke of jihad as a “dark night of the soul”, where the striver is faced with his/her demons and must confront them in order to stay on the path toward God.” (Karabell, pg. 126). It is a sense of purging and purifying oneself.  It may involve works such as fasting or penance, but primarily it is cleansing the heart from obstructive thoughts, such as envy, greed, revenge, and selfishness, that move us further away from our truest nature.

Christians recognize this metaphor from the work, Dark Night of the Soul (Our Book of the Day) by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish poet, mystic, and Carmelite priest.  It is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation.  There has been much scholarly discussion as to whether the Christian was influenced by the Sufi or vice versa, but there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

Interestingly, the inner turmoil of the soul is referenced by most spiritual traditions throughout the world as a necessary step toward a union with God or for a sense of wholeness.  

The Buddhists have a parallel in their practices called “the Knowledges of Suffering.”  In fact, the Buddhist writer Daniel Ingram speculates that the Dark Night is a common mystical state which is independent of any specific belief system.  He uses the term “maps” for the sequence of mental states:

“The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals.  These maps are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. ”

Jihad is a spiritually powerful word that describes a part of the necessary and well worn path toward a union with the divine; it is the process by which personal roadblocks that threaten our spiritual growth are removed.  By continually and willingly entering into jihad, the gifts of the spirit are manifold, including joy, peace, faith, and clarity.  The soul awakens.

 ” The reason for this has been clearly expounded; for ordinarily the soul never strays save through its desires or its tastes or its reflections or its understanding or its affections; for as a rule it has too much or too little of these, or they vary or go astray, and hence the soul becomes inclined to that which behooves it not.  Wherefore, when all these operations and motions are hindered, it is clear that the soul is secure against being led astray by them; for it is free.  For when the affections and operations of the soul are quenched, nothing can make war upon it.”  (Quote from the Book of the Day)

Tomorrow’s post: Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

 

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