The Role Of Religious Reasons in a Democracy


Spring 2009

Volume 2, Issue 2


Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

Misbah Magazine

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Hamza Masood ‘10 EXECUTIVE EDITOR Nabil Abdurehman ‘11 COPY EDITOR Daoud Rana ‘12 CO-TREASURERS Yasmin Belo-Osagie ‘11 Urooj Raja ‘11 DESIGN AND LAYOUT Mika Devonshire ‘12 WEBMASTER Tiffany Tong GS

Babur Khwaja ‘09 Wasim Shiliwala ‘09 Joy N. Karugu ‘09

MISSION Misbah is Arabic for “lamp,” a symbol of illumination. Misbah Magazine explores and engages the ideas, history and development of Muslims and Islam in the world. It is offered free of charge to all students, faculty and staff of Princeton University and the surrounding Community. Views expressed in Misbah Magazine do not necessarily reflect those of the editors, sponsors, trusees or of Princeton University. COVER IMAGE The cover photograph of Turkey’s Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul was taken by M. Kivanc, and is used under the Creative Commons License.

SPONSORS AND CONTACT Printing of this journal is made posible by private donations. Please direct all correspondence, including letters to the editor and questions about donations, off-campus subscriptions and advertising to:

Misbah Magazine 5449 Frist Campus Center Princeton, NJ 08544 All donations are tax-deductible. Letters to the editor may be edited for length and clarity.
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Editor’s Note 2 3


Politics of Knowledge Production: A Critical Look at Delong-Bas’ Wahhabi Islam
Celene Ayat Lizzio ‘08


Al-Mutanabbi: A Towering Figure in Classical Arabic Poetry
Introduction and Translation, Barbara Romaine



The Role of Religious Reasons in a Democracy
Mairaj Syed GS



Albania: The Land of ”Spiritual Window Shoppers”
Shaista Ahmed *07



Muslim In China

Nabil Abdurehman ‘11


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Editor’s Note
Dear Reader, The second issue of Misbah was very well received, and we are well on our way to helping inform opinion about Islamic and Muslim issues. As always, we seek to ask questions not always asked, and raise issues from a critical perspective. You will find in this issue a cross-examination of a Wahhabist apologetic and a discussion of the broader dimensions of the debate on Wahhabism, a classical Arabic poet’s musings on love and passion and a look at the use of religious reasoning and language in public debates in a democracy. Visit Albania and encounter a very different conception of Muslim identity from the orthodox position, and join an African-American Muslim in finding a little bit of home among the Muslim community in Beijing. While we have strived to provide a wide variety of voices, both Muslim and non-Muslim, it is important to remember at this bridging issue between editorial boards, that our primary aim in the endeavor of this magazine is to encourage an internal debate on what Islam really means for us, what it means for our future, and what being a Muslim implies about our culture, heritage and identity. In that respect, we will begin to focus more specifically on questions that examine the Islamic community with its future in mind. In the meanwhile, we hope you enjoy this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together. Yours, Hamza Masood

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Politics of Knowledge Production: A Critical Look at Delong-Bas’ Wahhabi Islam
By Celene Ayat Lizzio ‘08
In her recent book Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad,1 Natana J. Delong-Bas presents an account of the life and teachings of Ibn Abd alWahhab, the 18th century Muslim cleric instrumental in the political and religious consolidation of modern day Saudi Arabia. The work churns heavy controversy regarding the merits of Wahhabism, which is now the forerunning religious orientation in Saudi Arabia with networks of affiliated Muslims in other regions of the world. Thus, at stake in Delong-Bas’ work is the perception of the historical and ideological making of the present-day Saudi political apparatus as well as the religious orientation financed largely by Saudi Arabian oil wealth. Not surprisingly, the book has been hotly debated in academic and journalistic circles,2 even being banned by the prestigious Al-Azhar Institute in Egypt.3 Surprisingly, however, is that Delong-Bas presents the English reader with an unprecedentedly favorable perspective on Ibn Al-Wahhab, the very same figure that multiple other scholars writing in English and European languages have been quick to link directly to the ideology and practices of contemporary Muslim militants.2 Not only does Delong-Bas avoid cursory language suggesting that Wahhabism is puritanical,5 but based on her privileged access to original documents in royal Saudi archives, she seeks to portray Ibn al-Wahhab as a modernist reformer and progressive in his milieu. Delong-Bas is clearly entrenched in the accusatory vs. apologetic framework that characterizes much of the critical scholarship on Wahhabism, however, either accepting her account at face value or dismissing her as a Saudi apologist would merely ignore the whole grain of a potentially valuable debate. For example, in one instance the work argues that Ibn al-Wahhab adamantly supported the “rejuvenation of the practice of independent reasoning (ijtihad),” which is generally considered a favorably progressive stance.6 This is, however, just one instance in the book where the evidence undercuts itself; a closer look at the book’s source documentation reveals that Ibn Al-Wahhab inextricably affirms the hierarchic authority of the clerical mujtahid [institutionally qualified and highly specialized jurist] while disavowing the legitimacy of his Shi’a clerical counterparts.7 Al-Wahhab’s position is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of minority opinion. Certainly this is not what I would want to term progressive. While the book is engaging, there is also reason to argue that Delong-Bas’ analysis hinges too much

Prophet’s Mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Shabbir Siraj.

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on what is purportedly written by Ibn al-Wahhab and less on the political authority that he was instrumental in establishing. How is the image of a meticulous and bookish scholar, “a pragmatic man as well as a determined preacher,”8 reconciled with Ibn al-Wahhab’s complicit endorsement of a brutal Arabian conquest?9 Furthermore, through what lenses on history does Ibn al-Wahhab become a villain, if not through his own political affiliations or the theological positions that he supported?


Mosque of Amr Ibn al-’As, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Sarah Mousa ‘10

The tensions named above invite further scholarship on Wahhabism, but I have a more immediate question to explore here. As students, we are trained in the academy to perpetually examine the role that historians play in the construction of our knowledge, and hopefully too we are gradually discovering how to circumvent biases and pitfalls in our own writing. However, it is no small task to affirm the existence of multiple plausible historical readings, acknowledge our own subjectivity, and to simultaneously cast our own particular reading as noteworthy, insightful and plausible. How do we achieve this, as students and emerging scholars? In attempting an answer to this question for myself, I am struck by an assertion of Muhammad Arkoun which suggests how one might begin to think and write about the ebb and flow of history, including our participation in it. The task of historians of religions, cultures, and philosophy is to show how ethnocultural groups of varying size and dynamism have dipped into the common stock of signs and symbols to produce systems of belief and non belief that, all the while assigning ultimate meaning to human existence, have served
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to legitimate power drives, hegemonic empires, and deadly wars. All “believers,” whether they adhere to revealed religious or contemporary secular regions, would thus be equally constrained to envisage the question of meaning not from the angle of unchanging transcendence—that is, of an ontology sheltered from all historicity—but in the light of historical forces that transmute the most sacred values, those regarded as most divine by virtue of their symbolic capital and as inseparable from necessarily mythical accounts of the founding, and from which each ethnocultural group extracts and reorganizes what it calls identity or personality.10 The obvious strength in Arkoun’s perspective is that it acknowledges how knowledge production is embedded in cultural and political realities and furthermore suggest that knowledge production can generate “symbolic capital” capable of being transmitted and transformed to suit a variety of arising situational needs. With Arkoun’s paradigm as a corrective to DelongBas, what is overlooked in the latter’s account of Wahhabism is that a figurehead’s words on the pages of any given volume are merely a fraction of what gives genesis to a social movement. Rather, movements are constituted by an often ad hoc conglomeration of communal stories that in some fashion become synergistic. Thus, in the case at hand it might be reasonable to suggest that Wahhabi discipleship is not motivated so much by the rigorous intertextual study of the master’s works, but rather by participation in the fullness of the cultural and political milieu. It must be further consid-

“...a figurehead’s words on the pages of any given volume are merely a fraction of what gives genesis to a social movement.”
ered that even the closest of Ibn al-Wahhab’s disciples are autonomous such that their own intellectual background and circumstances become the lenses through which the master’s works are propagated. Delong-Bas argues in effect for a reinstatement of respect for Ibn al-Wahhab as a moderate or progressive in his milieu, yet her work is far from becoming a definitive account of the origins and developments of Wahhabism. Not only are the positions of Ibn al-

Wahhab described on the whole as tension free, but it would seem that Ibn al-Wahhab is subtly portrayed as falling in line with Islamic thinkers who hold generally favorable reputations for the English speaking audience.11 Thus, I am not convinced that Delong-Bas presents an utterly compelling view on Wahhabism, although she does make a commendable effort in articulating a less common perspective for us to engage. Overall, the work of Delong-Bas and its reception suggest that scholarship on religious ethnocultural movements must grapple tenaciously to surpass polarizing narratives. What is also interesting is the puzzle of complex political circumstances surrounding the production and transmission of knowledge, whether in 18th century Arabia, or in our own contemporary academic context.


1. All page number references are to the 1st ed. of this work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). 2. For example, in the New York Post Steven Swartz, executive director for the Center for Islamic Pluralism, gives a scathing critique: “Delong-Bas’ work to clean up the image of Saudi extremism, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, suggest she’s incompetent for any academic posting in her field…” in “Brandeis’ Self-Hate,” January 5, 2007, http:// Accessed March 20th 2009. Additionally, a Fox News article archived on Campus Watch, the internet resource identifying “problems in Middle Eastern Scholarship” again Stephen Schwartz writes: “Perhaps no single figure better represents the lamentable situation of Middle East studies (MES) today than Professor Natana J. DeLong-Bas.” Schwartz goes on to cite Delong-Bas’ research grant support from Saudi institutions as evidence of her biases. See “Natana DeLong-Bas: American Professor, Wahhabi Apologist,” Real Clear Politics, Jan. 19, 2007. http://www. Accessed March 20th 2009. 3. See John Esposito, “Behind the Ban,” Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 767, (Nov. 2-9, 2005), . Accessed March 20th 2009. 4. For Delong-Bas’ remarks on this topic see p. 4-5 and the corresponding end notes, p. 292, in which she criticizes Hamid Algar’s Wahhabism: A Critical Essay (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2002). 5. The terminology “Puritan” is used by Khalid Abou El Fadel in The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (New York: HarperColins, 2005). See p. 257. 292 for his disparaging remarks on Delong-Bas’ work made without engaging her more developed premises. 6. Delong-Bas, 282. 7. See Delong-Bas paraphrasing Ibn al-Wahhab, 109. 8. Delong-Bas, 25. 9. In a book critique Lawrence Rosen elaborates: “Delong-Bas argues that al-Wahhab did not demand conversion or death. On the contrary, he said that attempts at persuading an enemy to come over to Islam— or at least not fight against it—should be accompanied by treaties or other means to seek peace. Jihad should be defensive, and only if there is adamant refusal or injury to Muslims should violence be employed. Yet as one reads the author’s account, one sees evidence that calls this ‘moderation’ into question,” (The Historian, Book Review Vol. 88, Issue 1, Spring 2006): 123. See also the review by Gamsw Cavdar in Middle East Policy, Vol. 13 Issue 1 (Spr. 2006). 10. Mohammed Arkoun, Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers, Translated by Robert D. Lee (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 19. 11. Clearly, there are some critics who find strength in this analysis. For instance, Francis Robinson gives his enthusiastic endorsement: “With careful and skilful scholarship DeLong-Bas has demonstrated not only what a versatile and creative scholar Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was in his day but also how much his ideas, as opposed to those who claim to build upon his legacy, have to offer progressive Muslim thinkers today…What a bonus that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab of all people should speak the language of Islamic modernism, without being tainted by any association with the West and with the authority of a man centrally placed in the scholarly traditions of the faith!” Book Review. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 16, Issue 1 (Spr. 2006): 97-98. Al-Wahhab may very well be a contemporary of championed modernist figures such as Shah Wali Allah, or he may be a precursor to Sayyid Al-Qa’ed Ibrahim Mosque. Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by Sarah Mousa ‘10. Ahmed Khan, Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida and other celebrated progressives, however it remains unconvincing that his theological views are of the same grain.

Celene Lizzio was a member of the Princeton Class of 2008. She is currently studying at Harvard Divinity School. She may be reached at clizzio@hds.harvard. edu.
Princeton University - Spring 2009


Al-Mutanabbi: A Towering Figure in Classical Arabic Poetry
By Barbara Romaine
Arab-Islamic history is marked by the appearance of figures whose impact upon the world was so extraordinary that they persevere to this day: not merely as icons, nor simply as subjects of scholarly discourse, nor as artifacts in archives and museums, but as vivid presences in contemporary households. Among those who come immediately to mind is the tenth-century poet known as al-Mutanabbi. Born in the year 915/303, he was originally called Abu alTayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Ju‘fi, but in adulthood he assigned himself the laqab (appellation) “alMutanabbi,” thereby laying claim to poetic powers no less than those of a prophet. His assessment of his own gifts may strike us today as boastful, but in truth his exalted status in the tradition of Classical Arabic poetry is indisputable: his verse had, and continues to have, a mesmerizing effect on its readers and listeners--the word “listeners” here, by the way, is important, for such poetry is meant to have a life beyond the printed page: it is meant to be declaimed. If the major themes of al-Mutanabbi’s work could be encapsulated in a brief summary, then perhaps the lines most famously attributed to him would serve this purpose: “The horseman, night and the desert know me; and the sword and the lance, paper and the pen” (The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Cyril Classé, ed., Harper Collins, 1991, p. 291). The verses included here reflect these themes, but they are also, I believe, evocative of experiences and emotions that resonate with audiences of every time and place. Consider, for

Racing Camels in Training, Dubai. Photo by Elvis Payne. Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

example, the following: “The way of all creation is to refuse a love enduring / How can life, then, restore to me love lost?” An enduring inspiration, al-Mutanabbi continues, generation after generation, to inhabit the consciousness of the recipients of his artistic legacy. Among the factual details, then, of Radwa Ashour’s semi-autobiographical novel ’Atyaaf (Specters) is the scene in which the novelist’s husband and grown son--Mourid and Tamim al-Barghouti, respectively, themselves both poets of considerable repute--embark of an evening upon an impassioned recitation of lines they have memorized from al-Mutanabbi’s Diwan, or collected works, passing the stanzas back and forth antiphonally. During this recitation, they are in something like an altered state: enraptured, completely in thrall to the timeless power of al-Mutanabbi’s verse. The translation of poetry from any language to any other language is, to my mind, a very slippery undertaking; it is one I tend, in fact, to avoid, preferring the somewhat safer territory of prose-and generally modern prose at that. I doubt I would

From the Diwan of Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Ju‘fi al-Mutanabbi:
I want this time of mine to obtain for me That which time obtains not from itself. Meet your destiny only without seeking it, So long as body and spirit keep company, For happiness sustains not that in which you rejoice Nor will grieving restore to you that which you have lost. Let then the camels of this world bear you away. Forsooth, all partings are alike to me, No recompense within your caravans receding, No price for my life if I should die of longing. Those who partake of passion are undone: Knowing not the world they fall, uncomprehending, Their eyes dissolve in tears, likewise their souls, As they yearn for naught but ugliness with its fair face. How often have I been slain, how often perished in your midst And then risen: no more the grave and shroud. The witness to my burial before they spoke Was a multitude, but then they died before those they buried. Man achieves not all he hopes for, Winds blow contrary to the will of ships. We make ready the sword and lance, But death slays us without a fight. We keep close the swiftest steeds, That yet cannot outrun time’s steady gait. And who in bygone times loved not the world? Yet never can such love be fulfilled. The allotment of your life is one beloved, The allotment of your dream a thing imagined. With grievous losses has fate assailed me until So covered with its arrows is my heart, Each missile striking breaks upon the last Powerless; I have become insensible to calamity For attending to it nothing have I gained. I want from the passing days that which they will not, And I complain to them of our separation: they are its army The way of all creation is to refuse a love enduring; How can life, then, restore to me love lost? All but incurable, he whose malady is the wide-eyed gaze, Of which so many lovers before me have perished. Let him who wishes look upon me, for the sight of me Is a warning to all who think passion a simple matter.


“The horseman, night and the desert know me; and the sword and the lance, paper and the pen”
ever have had the audacity to take on al-Mutanabbi had I not been called upon to do so as part of a larger project, namely the translation of Radwa Ashour’s Specters (not yet published in English translation). Moreover, I could not have achieved a credible translation of the verses by al-Mutanabbi that are featured here without the steadfast assistance of Dr. Ashour herself, who collaborated closely with me in producing the final version, reproduced below. I wish also to acknowledge the help of my colleague Hisham Mahmoud (Lecturer in Arabic at Princeton), who generously took time from his busy schedule to provide me with valuable input. Barbara Romaine is a former lecturer of Arabic at Princeton and currently teaches Arabic at Villanova University. She may be reached at

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The Role of Religious Reasons in a Democracy
By Mairaj Syed ‘08

The late 70s and 80s saw the rise of political parties and movements throughout the Muslim world committed to using a distinctly Islamic language to express their social and political aspirations, projects, and policies. For some time now, many Americans for a variety of reasons have regarded this phenomenon with suspicion, if not outright hostility. From looking the other way when a military junta set aside electoral results in Algeria in 1992, in an election that would have put an Islamic-oriented party won a majority of seats, to supporting corrupt and authoritarian regimes for fear of the alternative, the suspicions of Western political elites have enormous real-world consequences. The former action plunged Algeria into a decade long civil war which has claimed over a hundred thousand lives. The latter has contributed to the persistence of autocratic regimes in the Muslim world for decades. Regardless, many in the Muslim world regard such action as clearly belying the West’s professed commitment to advocating democratic principles and values, and argue that, at the end of the day, the rhetoric of democracy is mere ideological façade used to disguise policies actually based on real-world Machiavellian political calculations oriented towards sustaining Western political, economic, and cultural hegemony. While this judgment is partially justified, to some extent, elite suspicion of Islamic political parties and movements, at least amongst liberals, is motivated by a certain commitment towards the place of religion in public political life. One form of this commitment is given voice by the late political and moral philosopher John Rawls, ‘43.1 Rawls argues against the recourse to religious reasons in the course of public deliberation and debate in a constitutional democracy on any given issue. Rawls is concerned about how an enduring moral consensus on the democratic constitutional structure of a society can be sustained in a religiously plural society, where reasons rooted in the religious traditions of one community carry no weight for members outside that group. Yet, deliberation on the most important issues facing a democratic society must still
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proceed. What does this deliberation look like? Public reason is the term that Rawls uses to designate the form and substance of the type of deliberation that should take place on political matters in a democratic society. Generally speaking, the way that Rawls deals with the problem of reasons that are rooted in religious traditions are to argue against their citation in public deliberation. He argues that the ethics of citizenship in a democratic society point to the exclusion of arguments that rely solely on such reasons. At face value, Rawls is not just solely against reasons that are rooted in particular religious traditions, but what he more broadly calls a comprehensive doctrine. A comprehensive doctrine can be any religious, moral, or ethical doctrine that has a fairly substantial story to tell about what constitutes the moral social or individual life, including specific norms on a range of issues that are normally considered outside the scope of politics.2 This poses a problem – if you should not, in the course of deliberating on a political matter, offer reasons that are solely rooted in comprehensive doctrines, then what kind of reasons can you offer? By excluding comprehensive doctrines have you effectively eviscerated the exchange of reasons that constitute public deliberation? Here, Rawls turns to outline the form and substance of a public reason capable of sustaining democratic deliberation. He believes that both the ethics of citizenship in a constitutional democracy and the substance and form of the types of reasons that such citizens are appropriately able to invoke to justify their beliefs and practical recommendations on a matter of political importance can be discovered in the latent political culture of a democratic society. It is the job of the theorist to make these explicit in the form of normative propositions. Rawls’ argument is not a justification for constitutional democracy. Rather it takes the existence of such a political arrangement for granted. With that, it takes for granted the basic norms he believes characterize the political culture of a constitutional democracy. In such

a society, Rawls believes the political culture “will normally produce a plurality of comprehensive, moral, and religious doctrines.” The freedom of conscience, religious belief and practice typically guaranteed in constitutional democracies by itself to a certain extent engenders a diversity of beliefs regarding the types of life considered morally or religiously worthy of approbation. In the United States, for instance, given both the freedom to choose and practice whatever religious or non-religious life one chooses, along with the constitutional requirement proscribing the state from financially supporting and enshrining any one religious denomination leads, perhaps in a free market-like fashion, to a proliferation of individual views, religious churches, and other such organizations, on what the life lived morally well looks like. Moreover, citizens in such a society are importantly free, equal, and regard each other as such. But how do free and equal citizens who regard each other as such collectively deliberate on common matters facing them when they share widely differing views on what the morally and religiously good life is all about? For instance, how can Mormons convinced of the Divine sanction of polygamous marriages based on a reading of their particular scripture deliberate with those Christians committed to monogamous marriage as the only type of marital union approved by God? How can each group reason with the other on the laws that should regulate the institution of marriage given their lack of shared commitment to either an adjudicating scripture or a set of theological principles? To overcome this problem, Rawls first argues that the facts of the plurality of comprehensive doctrines and the mutual recognition of each other as both free and equal generates the ethical requirements of mutual civility and reciprocity. The principle of reciprocity requires that, in the course of public deliberation, citizens, who mutually recognize each other as free and equal, substantiate their positions by recourse to reasons that they prospectively regard as reasonable to all. To base an argument solely on a scripture that only a given community accepts as authoritative in a religiously plural society, for example, would be an instance of the violation of the ethical norm of reciprocity and respect for one’s fellow citizens. Rawls does not argue that each citizen is morally obliged to eliminate all arguments rooted in comprehensive doctrines. Rather, one’s argumentation cannot rely solely on religious premises. However, when one does offer a religious argument in favor of a particular political

policy, one is obliged to offer a justification rooted in public reason at a later time. Concretely, public reason is more than the just formal ethical requirement on citizens to offer reasons that they prospectively see as reasonable to citizens committed to other comprehensive doctrines. Just as the formal reciprocity requirement is rooted in the political culture that characterizes a deliberative democracy, other substantive values, such as a guarantee and priority of basic rights, liberties and opportunities, also constitute the stuff of public reason – available for all citizens for use in their advocacy of political policies. In the American context, Rawls considers the preamble to the U.S. constitution to be one concrete example of a document exhibiting political values that constitute public reason. In other words, Rawls says that the preamble contains a whole host of values that can be deployed by citizens in the course of deliberation on issues confronting the political community. Beyond the formal requirement that citizens only offer reasons that they think all other citizens would find persuasive, Rawls is trying to fill out the substantive ideas that fill out the language of deliberation in a constitutional democracy.


The UN General Assembly, Taken from the perspective of Pakistan’s representative. Photo by Anne M.

If one is committed to the Rawlsian conception of the public deliberative sphere required in any constitutional democracy, or some version similar to it, one can see why liberal political elites in America would regard the rise of Islamic political parties and movements, and their attendant declarations of commitment to democratic principles with suspicion. How can one define one’s political aspirations in a language that, at least at the outset, excludes those without the necessary theological commitments? How can Islamic
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political parties and movements be simultaneously committed to the freedom and equality of all citizens, and, from the political elites’ point of view, a fairly specific and robust vision of what a life lived morally and religiously well is? It goes without saying that Rawls’ conception of the public sphere and his attempt to define, beforehand, what types of arguments are acceptable in democratic deliberation has elicited criticism. Recently, Jeffrey Stout, professor of Religion at Princeton, has questioned Rawls on several key points, noting at the outset that the requirement to offer only certain types of reasons seems to be in tension with the value of free expression.3 In contrast to Rawls notion of public reason, inspired by a view of public deliberation that can’t get off the ground unless the values invoked are agreed upon beforehand, Stout views deliberation as possible without pre-existing conditions. In fact, at the descriptive level, Stout views Rawls conception of democratic deliberation as an impoverished reflection of a much richer reality. The fact that many of the most admired social and political movements in America, from the abolitionists, to the civil rights movement, to labor movements, relied heavily on religious ideas and imagery in mobilizing people for their causes seems to belie the requirement that deliberation in a democracy be based solely on some sort of public reason. More specifically, if the application of Rawls’ idea of public reason would end up excluding such exquisite performances of political speech such as Lincoln’s second inaugural address, or King’s speeches, both of which are full of allusions to Biblical imagery if not outright theological content, this at the very least, should give us pause. Moreover, Stout contests the claim that respect for citizens as both free and equal requires the issuing of reasons which would reasonably be held by all. Rather, respect for persons is manifested not by issuing a reason any person would reasonably entertain, but by engaging in immanent criticism (similar to reasoning from conjecture for Rawls) of the specific justifications individual citizens offer or offering them specific reasons which they consider authoritative from their individual perspective. Stout’s vision of deliberation is not exclusively an attempt at arriving at a consensus on what the best political policy or even constitutional arrangement is from a starting point all parties agree on. Rather, attempts at persuasion involve inhabiting the opposing point of view in order to show how the advocated policy is, in actuality, inconsistent with a
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higher value the opponent herself holds. An example can help clarify how this works. The Sunni classical legal tradition unanimously held that a husband’s pronouncement of divorce three times in a single sitting constituted three separate divorces and resulted in a decisive divorce between the husband and the wife. Importantly, as opposed to non-decisive divorces, a decisive divorce stipulates that the husband and wife cannot get remarried until the wife gets married to another man and divorces him first. The ease with which such a divorce could be accomplished, along with the steep impediment to re-marriage and

“Rawls is trying to fill out the substantive ideas that fill out the language of deliberation in a constitutional democracy...”
reconciliation the religious law imposes, combine to potentially cause significant social hardship for families, especially for women, who, from a sociological perspective, were mostly dependent on their husband for material support. In order to counteract the social harm that results from this law, reformers in early 20th century Egypt argued against the Sunni consensus on the rule that a triple divorce in a single sitting should not count as three separate divorces, but rather a single non-decisive divorce.4 If the reformers were principled and committed Rawlsians they could not argue by reference to reasons that are rooted in any religious tradition. They are precluded from arguing that the existing law is not supported by examination of the very scriptural sources their opponents regard as especially authoritative. Rather they are limited to making arguments rooted perhaps in notions of gender equality or perhaps the unequal distribution of harm and hardship that application of the law produces. If they are Stoutians, even if they themselves don’t hold the relevant scriptural sources or religious traditions as authoritative, they can still point out to their opponents the fact that the scriptural sources do not decisively support only their construction of the relevant rule, or that the sources adduced by the inherited traditions don’t meet the criteria of authenticity, or that before the Sunni consensus on the rule, there existed disagreement on whether or not a triple divorce uttered in a single setting should be considered decisive or re-

vocable. The Stoutians would argue that according to their opponents own standards of what constitutes an authoritative argument, the triple divorce rule is either at most unsupportable, and at the least not inevitable. This is precisely the route that Egyptian reformers of the early twentieth century took.5 To say that there is nothing unethical about issuing religious reasons in deliberation about a political policy is not the same thing as saying that it is positively recommended in all circumstances. As a practical matter, it is better to buttress your advocacy of a policy by reasons that are as broadly supported as possible. In fact, issuers of religious reasons who live in a reli-

ical research has questioned the necessity of a public reason type liberal project for deliberation for a functioning pluralistic democracy. John Bowen notes that public discourse in Indonesia about the nature of the legal norms to be applied in a wide variety of issues in Indonesia proceeds in a manner described by Stout – an ad hoc and immanent and perhaps messy conversation rather than a systematically coherent procession forward from agreed upon premises.6 Both Stout’s conceptual criticisms and Bowen’s empirical findings call into question liberal suspicion of Islamic political parties and movements in the Muslim world on account of their wider general suspicion of religion in the public sphere. In some contexts (mostly in the Arab world), these parties are the only viable democratic challenge to autocratic and corrupt regimes, a fact that even liberal and secular Muslim intellectuals in some Muslim majority societies are beginning to recognize. Mairaj Syed is a graduate student in the Religion Department. He may be reached at msyed@princeton. edu.
1. I rely solely on the following article to present his views: John Rawls, “Public Reason Revisited”. 2. In fact, Rawls considers his own earlier work, A Theory of Justice, as an instance of a comprehensive, albeit, liberal doctrine. See 806-7. 3. I rely mostly on Chapter 3, “Religious Reasons in Political Argument”, of Stout’s book, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). 4. I benefited from conversations with my fellow colleague, Tarek Elgawhary, about this issue. 5. Or consider this more recent statement by activist Mona Zulficar, regarding a more recent controversy in Egypt: “The New Marriage Contract Initiative adopted a strategy of engaging religious discourse, based on the women’s reading of their rights under the principles of Sharia. We reclaimed for the first time our right to redefine our cultural heritage, as Muslim women under the principles of Sharia. It was evident that we could not rely on modern constitutional rights of equality before the law, as these did not apply under Family Law, which claimed to be based on principles of Sharia. We could not afford to shy away from the challenge and continue using solely a strategy based on constitutional and human rights. We had to prove the religious discourse could also be used by women to defend their cause,” cited by Diane Singerman, “Rewriting Divorce in Egypt: Reclaiming Islam, Legal Activism, and Coalition Politics” in Remaking Muslim Politics, edited by Robert Hefner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 161. 6. See John Bowen, Islam, Law and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 3-12.


Ancient Islamic ruins of Palmyra, Syria, once under the control of the Roman Republic. Photo by Chris Gordon.

giously plural society must, simply at the pragmatic level, weigh the effectiveness of this type of advocacy if they desire persuasion of the number of people required for actual change in political policy. But this concern, which Rawls’ transforms into an ethical duty, Stout interprets as practical constraint facing those who wish to introduce justifications rooted in doctrines not shared by others. It just doesn’t make sense, most of the time, to quote scripture to those who don’t consider the given scripture authoritative. That’s like trying to advocate for a policy of banning pork products in the United States by offering the Qur’anic prohibition as a reason. The simple and practical fact of trying to convince a plurality of citizens on a given public policy requires, most of the time, reference to multiple sets of reasons whose authoritativeness derives from different, perhaps even competing, and at times conflicting philosophical registers. Stout’s criticisms of Rawls’ notion of public reason seem cogent. Moreover, recent anthropological empir-

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Albania: The Land of “Spiritual Window Shoppers”
By Shaista Ahmed *07
In the summer of 2006, I set off to Albania for a summer internship as part of my Woodrow Wilson School graduate program. I had been extended an opportunity by the Prime Minister of Albania to come examine the nation’s economic policies with his economic advisors at the Keshilli i Ministrave (Council of Ministers). Before leaving for Albania I tried in earnest to piece together information about a country that I, and apparently many others, knew next to nothing about. With the exception of having produced one of the world’s most prominent humanitarians, Mother Teresa, any meaningful descriptions about Albania seemed to be drowned out by references to mafiosos and human trafficking. I consulted the CIA Factbook, for a better depiction of what the country had to offer me and was comforted to find that roughly 70% of the country was comprised of Muslims, which - as a Muslim – immediately made this foreign nation seem much more familiar to me.1 However, what I found when I arrived in the capital city of Tirana that summer surprised me. Instead of finding some form of religious refuge, I came to find that Albania, purportedly a majority Muslim nation, was Muslim in a sense completely alien to me. Albania is a nation that has been eclipsed by the popularity of the neighboring Mediterranean nations of Italy across the Adriatic and Greece to the southeast. Albania still remains largely ignored by many in the West, save for avid travelers or international NGO workers. Interestingly, only half of all ethnic Albanians live in Albania. The second largest group of Albanians resides in Kosovo with substantial populations also residing in Turkey and the Republic of Macedonia. After 46 years of communist rule, democracy emerged in Albania in 1991 with multiparty elections. However, 18 years later, Albania remains plagued by the issues of a fledgling democracy. Rampant corruption, high unemployment, and pyramid schemes
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whose collapse crippled the country in 1997 seem to have made political stability far from reach. The nascent democratic government has been faced with the formidable task of decentralizing decades of communist rule while learning-as-they-go their role as democratic leaders. This combined with the public’s inveterate cynicism towards the state –a byproduct of the oppressive communist era- has made Albania’s road toward democratization a long and difficult one. In August of 2007, President Bush, the first American President to ever to do so, traveled to Albania where he was met with a pop-star style reception. Bush’s enthusiastic reception should not come as a surprise. What becomes immediately apparent once you arrive in Albania is that the majority of Albanians are fanatically pro-American. This is due in large part to the fact that the US led the charge in the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo.

“I came to find that Albania, purportedly a majority Muslim nation, was Muslim in a sense completely alien to me”
Also, many Albanians still remember U.S. President Woodrow Wilson standing up to the European powers’ desire to divvy up Albania at the end of World War I which helped win Albania’s independence. In return, Albania has done much to show its gratitude. It was the only country to give asylum to Guantánamo detainees and also, as a member of the ‘coalition of the willing’ sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides its love-affair with the US, what also became apparent after I arrived in Albania was the significant gulf between the image that I had conjured in my mind of Albania, as a Muslim-majority nation, and the

one I encountered.

Religious Schizophrenia

One night I was invited to a soirée hosted by an Albanian expatriate I had befriended. He had invited other expatriates and Albanians friends, whose proficiency in English gave away their advantaged educational background. During the course of the night, his guests took turns to make impromptu toasts to the host almost as an excuse to sample the many alcoholic beverages in our host’s well-stocked bar. Following suit, an Albanian woman in her late twenties, hoisted her glass of Jack Daniels and said, “I remember there was a word I once heard my grandmother use: ‘Insha’Allah’. With that I would like to toastour host – Insha’Allah!” A chorus of “Insha’Allah!” ensued from the crowd. As a Muslim, the Albanian guest’s sacrilegious invocation of Insha’Allah, meaning ‘God-willing’, startled me enough to choke slightly on my Coca-Cola. At that moment my reaction was in response to many things. The most obvious was the stark juxtaposition of a phrase like Insha’Allah and the consumption of alcohol -which is forbidden in Islam. But digging deeper I realized at that moment what I found most revealing – her knowledge of Islam was so minimal that it left her unaware of the irony of her

After work one day an Albanian friend of mine invited me out for ‘a coffee’ with some of her friends in one of Tirana’s many cafés. As I chatted with the others, I suddenly heard the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, coming from the xhami –mosque in Tirana’s Skenderberg Square. I was immediately captured upon hearing the call to prayer. Entranced by the adhan, I commented on the rarity of hearing the call to prayer as a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority nation and was met by confused gazes. With the exception of my friend, I came to learn most of the others had not known what the call was intended for. One of the Prime Minister’s advisors I had befriended explained to me that every year at the end of Ramazan [known to most Muslims as the Ramadhan, the month in the Islamic calendar in which Muslims are required to fast] he along with his two brothers would expect a call from their mother. Regardless of the fact their family has never fasted a day of Ramazan, she would always invite her sons to a festive lunch to celebrate Bajram (the Albanian word for Eidul-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of the month of fasting). As each fall gave way to winter, he and the rest of the family would expect a call from their mother congregating all the members of her family for a Christmas lunch. Come spring the family would be expected to assemble again to regale on raki (Albanian wine) and a medley Albanian dishes and sweets in celebration of Easter. The advisor’s multi-faith family celebrations, the young woman’s sacrilegious toast, and the adhan that fell on unaware ears exemplified the state of the religious landscape I discovered in Albania: amorphous and schizophrenic. Struck by these incidents, I became curious about Albanian’s true religious identity and went on a quest to better understand Albanians relationship with religion.


Religious History
Ethem Bey Mosque, Tirana, Albania. Photo by m. Alwynt.

statement. I was intrigued at how she held onto the phrase as a cultural trinket, a family heirloom that she had salvaged from her grandmother’s generation, something she had saved as a contribution to her host, in exchange for his hospitality that night.

I came to learn that religious freedom was amongst the first rules promulgated under the freshly democratic government. However 17 years later, contrary to what the CIA Factbook may have intimated, Albanians haven’t rushed to embrace organized religion. Albanians remain largely undecided, and at times, staring with a cynical eye toward organized religion, approaching it with trepidation. This should not come entirely as a surprise. Under the
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iron curtain of communism, any religious fervor was suppressed by the communist dogma that religion was the ‘opium for the masses’. Under Enver Hoxha’s regime formal worship was illegal and those who sought to practice their faith clandestinely were under state of constant paranoia that someone- a stranger, friend, parent or even a child- would report them. That afternoon in the café in Tirana the others didn’t take notice of the sound of the adhan not simply because it was drowned out by the din of the cafes and bars - they didn’t take notice of it because there was not a formidable audience for it in Albania and there had not been one for a while. Under communism most mosques were converted into gymnasiums, locked up or turned into mueums or cultural centers.2


those who refused the food.3 Digging deeper in Albania’s history reveals that Enver Hoxha’s campaign to cleanse Albania of religious influence was assisted by the Albanians’ amorphous religious history. As a people, Albanians had (collectively) never been loyal to any one particular religion. It is claimed that Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg was taken to Constantinople as a child,where he received military training and converted to Islam. He eventually climbed the ranks serving as a regional governor under the Ottoman Empire but later deserted the Ottoman army, renounced Islam converted back to Christianity, and joined with Albanians to fight against the Ottomans.4

Main Square of Tirana, Albania. Photo by Lassi Kurkijarvi.

Over the course of four decades, the communist regime was successful in wiping out religion in Albania and within the consciousness of its people. Fearful that children might slip and divulge their secret to others, parents were reluctant to pass on their religious traditions to their children. The regime was proactive in seeking out and removing any form of religious practice. During Lent and during Ramazan, communist officials often distributed dairy products and religiously prohibited food in schools and in work settings to catch Christians and Muslims in the act of performing religious fasts and then publicly shaming
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Originally Illyrians settled the area known today as Albania. Later Romans conquered the Illyrians, bringing Christianity with them. Towards the end of the fifteenth century Albanian lands fell to Ottomans, which lead to a long reign that stretched into the beginning of the 20th century. With Ottoman rule came Islam, and two communities developed-those associated with Sunni Islam and those associated with the Bektashism, a branch of Shi’a Islam. While almost two-thirds of all Albanians converted to Islam, some claim most converted to Islam for the opportunities it provided them as members of the Ottoman Empire.5

Throughout their history, Albanians made a number of attempts at self-determination. Albanian leaders assembled the Prizren League, which pressed for autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Later in the late nineteenth century Albanian nationalists attempted to stand up to threat of the division of Albanian populated-lands amongst Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece. However these and other attempts at Albanian nationalism and resistance were easily thwarted. One of the reasons was that Albanians lacked a geographical or political center. Many Albanians were scattered across different regions and were historically mired by religious and social division. Albanian nationalists recognized that the Albanian people lacked an overarching identity to bind them and turned to an agenda of secular nationalism to overcome these differences. Nationalists looked to the Albanian language and common ethnicity as a means of uniting them. In a famous poem by Albanian poet Vaso Pasha wrotedescribed “The religion of Albanians is Albanianism” which became the motto of the Albanian Renaissance. The motto was later re-claimed by Hoxha in his effort to purge Albania of religion under communism.

another form of communism. Others I found were largely indifferent because they consider religion to be superfluous to their daily struggles for survival. The staunch nationalism cultivated during the Albanian Renaissance and under Hoxha’s regime still resonates with most Albanians today. While Albania’s religious and spiritual identity may be ambiguous what is certain is that most Albanians I came across claimed their Albanian identity before anything else.


Albania’s Future Religious Landscape

The Real Albania

Even prior to my arrival to Albania, along with countless others, I prejudged this dynamic region. Subconsciously, I had forced a Muslim paradigm onto Albania, and as a result I found myself frustrated by the expectations it failed to meet. In my naiveté, I had expected to find a community of Muslims that would instantaneously embrace this Muslim foreigner. Instead, I was disappointed to meet an overwhelming majority of Albanians that wanted little to do with (and perhaps because knew little of) their Muslim identity. While statistics may boast that Albania is a majority Muslim nation, the reality is that Albanians --on the whole are not practicing Muslims. I found that most Albanians look upon religion as a component of their ethnicity. For some, like the young Albanian woman at the party, religion is simply a relic of Albanian’s suppressed pre-communist identity. While some Albanians drifted back to the religious identity of their ancestors after the collapse of communism, others remained atheistic or agnostic, shunning religion altogether. After having been victim of one ideology, many are wary of religion and look upon religion as

Albania’s amorphous religious identity is a byproduct of its hyper-modernism after 40 years of standing still socially, economically, and religiously. While other nations saw their shifts from one ideological trend to another phased over of an expanse of time, the sudden lifting of the iron curtain in Albania meant that it experienced everything all at once. The decades-long denial of religious expression under communism has left a palpable void in the lives of some Albanians. Some Albanians are slowly seeking out a sense of spirituality. Like the advisor’s family who never had the opportunity to practice a religion, as each holiday arrived there was a sense amongst his family that something needed to be celebrated, a religious rite needed to be performed. There was a lingering feeling that certain days of the year needed to be sanctified with family and food.

“After years of oppression, Albanians are now finding themselves openly debating existential questions- something I realized I had taken for granted as a practicing Muslim in America.”
Not surprisingly Albania has become prime religious real estate for evangelicals of every creed. Many religious organizations have come to recognize this and have been quick to fill the void, most notably the Protestants.6 However Albanians, who have spent most of their youth and adult age under communism, are finding that learning to embrace religion is tantamount to learning ‘a foreign language in
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old age’ as one individual recalled to me. For many Albanians understanding religion is a significant feat because democracy is still a stranger to them. After years of oppression, Albanians are now finding themselves openly debating existential questions – something I realized I had taken for granted as a practicing Muslim in America. With the religious marketplace now accessible to Albanians and the religious freedoms to freely navigate within it, many Albanians are treading carefully in terms of what religious identity they want to be associated with. Albanians are sensitive to the poor and corruptionladen image that precedes them. This poor image is, to some degree, pushing some Albanians to keep their Muslim, or rather, ancestral Muslim identity at bay. One official I spoke with mentioned that he would prefer to distance his nation’s image as a Muslim majority nation. He feared his nation already had poor reputation amongst the European community and as result of September 11th, any ties to Muslim faith would associate Albanians with radicals and extremists, further tarnishing their reputation. Some Albanians are wary of the backlash that an association with the Islamic faith could bring. Others fear, similar to communism, the pursuit of the wrong religious ideology may isolate Albania from the rest of the world. Ismael Kadare, notable Albanian author has emphasized that Albania return to its ‘European family’ and embrace its ‘original religion’ – pre-Ottoman Christian identity. Kadare – along with others- believe that embracing Islam and even the connotation of an Islamic identity would stifle the progress of Albania, as communism once had, and would only further isolate it from the European community. However, this is prompting an Eastern European nation like Albania to pick between its Christian-European and Muslim-Ottoman roots. For Albanians this means choosing between one part of themselves, their heritage, and rejecting the other. Albania’s decision to proceed cautiously when it comes to picking a religious identity may be historically justified. The de-emphasis of religious identity and the embrace of secular nationalism was critical to the self-preservation of the Albanian people who had historically been balkanized by religion, geography and occupying nations. At the moment Albanians are still adjusting to their newfound religious freedoms. With only 25-40 percent actively participating in formal religious services, the
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vast majority of Albanians do not actively practice a religion.7 As Albanians become more settled in their new religious freedoms they may choose to explore and embrace religion at a growing rate. However, it remains to be seen how a nation like Albania, which for most of its history has been majority atheist or nonpracticing, will accommodate the needs of its growing religious population and maintain its secular national ist identity without compromising the religious freedoms of its people. While these issues remain to be seen, at the moment what is apparent is that Albanians are ravenous for knowledge and the opportunity to experience things that-while not new to others-are still very new to them. Regardless of the Muslim label they may have been given, Albanians don’t feel beholden to a particulardogma. After traveling around Albania that summer, I find Albanians’ true relationship with religion is best captured by the title of a Rumi poem: These Spiritual Window Shoppers. Many are trying out new religious identities and as many more creeds come to the fore of Albanian consciousness, will continue to do so. Shaista Ahmed was a MPA graduate from the Woodrow Wilson School’s Class of 2007. She can be reached at
1. CIA Factbook 2007, 2. Raymond Zickel and Walter R. Iwaskiw, editors. Albania: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1994 3.Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. Ibid. 6. U.S. Department of State - International Religious Freedom Report 2007 7. U.S. Department of State - International Religious Freedom Report 2006

The Great Mosque of Beijing. Photo by Nabil Abdurehman ‘11.


Muslim In China
By Nabil Abdurehman ‘11

“What am I doing,” I thought. “I’m here in Beijing, alone on a public bus, on my way to a mosque I could barely find on a map. I can just barely understand the gist of what people are saying around me. It’s already been over a half hour since the guy I asked for directions told me to get on this bus, but how will I know when to get off? Or how to return to campus? This bus is overcrowded, excessively warm, I’m

sources), Beijing had a mosque and so I had to go ask what time Jumu’ah, the Friday congregational prayer, would be held. I had other motivations in going as well. When one thinks of a Muslim “profile,” rarely would a Chinese person come to mind. True, China is the home to a substantial number of Confucianists, Buddhists, Taoists, and atheists and those simply disinterested in religion altogether (these last two the

standing a head or more above most people here, and I’m being stared at. On top of all that, it looks like it can rain any time now. What am I doing?” This was my first Thursday afternoon in China since Princeton in Beijing, a Chinese language immersion program I was in last summer, had commenced. According to Wikipedia (and, of course, several other

The Great Mosque of Xi’an, Xi’an, China. Photo by E. Cenzato.

result of China’s communism and years of religious suppression). However, some estimates indicate that China’s Muslim population could be as high as 20-30 million, with most sources agreeing on a range of 15 to 20 million, almost as high as the entire population of Saudi Arabia. Also, there are a number of other famous mosques all around China. I wanted to visit this
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one in Beijing, the Niujie Mosque, to see this historic relic, a monument that had endured through a millennium of change. I arrived, but couldn’t believe it. I walked slowly, trying to absorb what I could, as if this ornate architecture, which seemed borne of two wildly different worlds and had survived over a thousand years, would not last another day. Next to the prayer room I saw several elderly men. I spoke to one of them in Mandarin, asking where the washroom was. After struggling to understand his accent, I was relieved when he used an Arabic term to indicate where I could make ablution. I found it, washed up, prayed, and then went back to the group of men. They asked me where I was from (I would get this a lot), what I was doing in China, and so on. They said the Friday prayer would start at 1:30pm the following day. By this point, I was really looking forward to it. The next day came, and although I had just been to the mosque the day before, the idea of attending Jumu’ah left me both curious and excited; this was the prayer all the Muslim men in the city were supposed to attend. How many would come? How would the service be held? I crossed the street to go to the mosque, and I could already see men, young and old, wearing white kufis, walking slowly towards the


given in Chinese. But regardless of the differences in our nationalities and native languages, or if they were wearing suits or traditional clothes, after the speech we all got up and prayed, together, shoulder-to-shoulder. Following that first visit, I returned to the mosque every Friday afternoon. My religious obligation to attending every Friday congregational prayer forced me to become part of the Beijing Muslim community dur-

Detail of a Mosque Wall, Beijing, China. Photo by Margaret Mendel.

At the Great Mosque of Xi’an, Xi’an, China. Photo by E.Cenzato.

mosque . When I arrived it was still a little early. As time passed, more and more people came, in all about two thousand people I think were present. Among the native Chinese, there were a few Africans wearing their traditional clothing, a few others who looked like Arabs, and some Pakistanis and Indians. Like me, I assumed they could only understand snippets, if that much, of the khutbah, or Friday sermon, that was
Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

ing my two-month stay there. Within a few weeks of regular attendance, I began to feel like a regular: one day a security guard, while I was leaving the mosque called me by my Chinese name and told me “Xia ge xing qi wu jian”, which means “See you next Friday.” Jumu’ah turned out to be a great opportunity for practicing Chinese with the local residents. One of the teachers at Princeton in Beijing told me that what she loved about me going to this weekly prayer is that it enabled me to interact with the locals and see what their daily life was like. I had conversations with people of countless different backgrounds at Niujie, and their diversity seemed to me reflective of the abundant ethnic diversity in Islam: a diversity that is so often manifested in mosques around the world. Once, a man in a suit sat next to me in the prayer room. He didn’t seem to be a Beijing resident; I assumed that perhaps he was visiting from a neighboring region. Later, he asked me a question about the service, in unbroken English. I replied in Chinese. An expression of both surprise and confusion appeared on his face, and he took a brief pause before the hopeful response, “Can you speak English?” Afterwards, I was walking around Niujie trying to familiarize myself with the area. On the sidewalk, there was one man I thought I had seen in the mosque a little while before, but now he was looking at a map apparently searching for bearings. I approached him to help, and we started talking. It turns out that he

was originally from Mozambique, but lived in Portugal. He came to Beijing, like me, to study Chinese. However, whereas I have yet to reach 20, he was in his mid-thirties. In addition, he said he had lived in Spain and Saudi Arabia in addition to several other countries, and spoke eight languages. Among the people I met around Niujie, the local Muslims were the most interesting to talk to because they were able to provide me with the historical and cultural background of Muslim life in Beijing. There was one Muslim who came up to me while I was standing on a street corner in Niujie, perhaps drawn by my apparent unfamiliarity with the area. He told me that the green building with domes we were standing next to was actually an Islamic school that started at fifth grade. Once I met a young man, just a few years older than me, who said he was a student at the Islamic college (which turned out to be the same one as before). Also, for the Olympics, he was volunteering as an Arabic translator. At the mosque, he introduced me to one of his friends, a fellow volunteer (whom I’ve since seen again this past Friday), and then afterwards gave me a brief tour of the grounds. What my interactions amongst the Muslims in Beijing most elucidated for me is the importance of Arabic as a cross-cultural means of communication among Muslims, as much for non-Arabs as for Arabs, in wideranging regions of the world. These last two people I mentioned, the translator and the one who told me about the school, would speak with me in Chinese, if something was not clear for me, they would clarify with Arabic, and if it were still a problem, only then with English. When I went to Niujie for my first Jumu’ah, a man came up to me, shaking my hand and giving the salaam, and asked what country I was from in Arabic, then in English. In Niujie, although the mosque is itself Chinese in architecture, inside the arches and ceilings are adorned with Arabic calligraphy. All over Beijing, all the halal Muslim restaurants I saw (I never expected to see so many in the first place) had written in Arabic above the entrances “Islamic restaurant.” In Beijing, Arabic is very literally a symbol of the Muslim presence here. On campus at Beijing Normal University, where PiB was being held, there was one restaurant that served qingzhen food (the Chinese term for halal, the code of dietary restrictions Muslims follow) in addition to five regular cafeterias. I saw women wearing headscarves and men wearing kufis not only on the street, but on campus as well. Still, with Muslim life this prevalent,

misunderstanding still existed. As an example, while the teachers for my level knew I was Muslim early on, I did not think they were that familiar with my beliefs and practices. Now, in the course of my speaking with one of the teachers, I was asked what my interests were, I mentioned that I juggled, and tried to explain to her what it was. She understood, but then her


Prayers outside a Mosque in China. Photo by Michelle Brea.

following question she asked with a look of sincere curiosity: “…And do all Muslims juggle?” I honestly enjoyed my time in Beijing was sad to have left without being able to explore the city more. I made friends among some locals, adjusted to the food, and acclimated to the weather. All in all, going to the Jumu’ah, following the same religious code as the indigenous Muslims here, I felt like I was living like a Chinese Muslim there. However, now I’m back to America, and there is still ignorance of Islam here just as there was there, ignorance that causes hatred, violence, and misunderstanding. The solution to the problem is not through acceptance to merely coexist, but through dialogue and understanding. Just like the Niujie Mosque is part of Beijing, Islam is a vital part of everyone’s history, in one way or another.

Nabil Abdurehman is a Sophomore in the Undergraduate Program. He can be reached at
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Misbah - Exploring Islam and the Muslim World

Spring 2009

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