Standing Alone in Morgantown: Thoughts & Impressions of Nomani's Latest
It was originally going to be a book review, except for two problems. One is that I do not have the book on hand to refer back to (for page #s and quotes and the like), and the second was that I was unable to complete the entire book in the time that I had. Still, I had some thoughts and impressions that I came away with and wanted to share them.
Asra Nomani is a breath of fresh air in the genre of "progressive Muslim" writing. Don't get all up in arms over that. Nomani is a gifted and engaging writer, even if I don't agree with most of what she says. The One Who Created her endowed her with a talent that she has put to use. As I was reading her latest book, I got the impression of a writer who enjoys communicating her ideas and things she's witnessed with people. Her style is fresh and fast paced. I've read other "progressive Islam" books and articles over the years and have found that they generally tend to fall in one of two categories: stilted, amateur prose or pretentious, psuedo-intellectual muckity muck.
For that reason alone, her book was much easier to read than the writings of people like Asma Gull Hasan or Muqtedar Khan. I was also pleased to find the text refreshingly free of the fifty cent words and references to European philosophers that fill some other "progressive" writings and lead so many to believe that the movement is elitist and classist. Nomani is a down to earth person trying to reach other down to earth people.
My other impression based on the book is that Nomani comes off as achingly sincere in her search for the heart of Islam. The Nomani who is portrayed in the book is desperately searching for something. The problem is that Nomani also reveals herself to have about as much knowledge about Islam and the community in the US as the average journalist does. Going by what she writes of herself in the book, this is a woman who chose to put herself outside of the community and has held little interest in getting to know it until professional and other obligations forced her to. I also cringed at the constant name dropping in the book, particularly that of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl and his widow, Marianne. I've noticed it in other articles and editorials Nomani has written, and at one point in the book I found myself thinking, "OK. You knew Daniel Pearl. I get it." Nomani does the same with other individuals she's met along the way.
As a reader, I wondered if she didn't drop these names to bolster her own credibility. After all, she can't point to a resume of Islamic education, or years of community involvement. By her own admission, she didn't even really start getting involved in the Ummah until three years ago. So it seems as though Nomani uses the names of people like the Pearls and other more established Muslim activists as part of an attempt to sell herself to readers as a credible activist. I don't know why she gets the amount of attention she does from mainstream media sources, but I can guess that her connections with other journalists, coupled with a willingness to go to supply the press with sensational stories plays a large part in it. And too, her book company has a PR department and they're not afraid to use it.
But for a regular Muslim woman like myself, instances of Nomani's ignorance about mainstream organizations, about Islamic practices, and other things left me wondering why I should be expected to let Nomani speak for me? I do not agree with everything the ISCAIRNAMASPACs of the world do (nor would I ever join any of these organizations), but at least they have established track records of working for and with the Muslim American community to point to.
On a similar point, and related to some of her recent public actions, she refers to several Muslim Americans in the book as "Martins and Martinas," as in Luther. In fact, Luther is invoked several times in the book, as he has was in the "99 Precepts" stunt she pulled at Morgantown masjid just before the book came out (cough cough cough). Nomani and her friends in the "prog" movement and the mainstream media want to paint a picture of an Islamic reformation, one that deliberately ignores history and reality. If Luther were here today, of course, he'd have nothing nice to say about "Islam's Martin Luther" (nor she of he). The Reformation in Europe set into motion roughly 200 years of war, persecution, and witch burnings. The Europe that emerged from the Reformation became the cradle of Communism and Socialism and left much of Western Europe and North America with a Cafeteria Christianity that is often watered down and that spawns further sects and schisms every time Bob disagrees with Revered Joe's Scriptural interpretations. Why would Muslims want to go down that lizard hole?
Second, if there has been a "reformation" movement in Islam, and a "Muslim Martin Luther," then he came at the end of the 18th century, his name was Muhammad Abdul Wahab. The "Wahabiya" reformation has caused some of the same problems that the European reformation caused, namely persecution, extremism, and an ignorance of the diyn as traditional methods and sources of knowledge were discarded or destroyed. One wonders if today's version of "progressive Islam" isn't anything more than a natural result of Abdul Wahab's "reformation," just as liberal Anglicanism and Unitarian Universalism were a result of the European Reformation. Who on earth would want to lay claim to the legacy of Luther in light of all that?
Nomani (and others who support side-by-side mixed gender prayer) uses her experiences at the three Sharif places as evidence that separation is un-Islamic. The problem is that the awqaf authorties at Makkah and Madinah have long said that separating 2.5 million pilgrims is logistically impossible, and so there is an expiation there. In addition to that, jama'at prayers there are separated into sections, and there are always seperate areas for women to pray, outisde of jama'at. Think about it. Have you ever watched five daily prayers, or Jumu'ah, or Tarawih from Makkah and seen women praying side by side with men in any part of the Haram or Masjid an Nabi? I'm also not sure about the claim that Haram Sharif is completely mixed, as I have never seen a prayer broadcast from there where men and women were praying together. Hajjis and others can tell me if the logistic problems that the awqaf directors refer to are women praying wherever they can in the masajid during tawwaf or outside of prayer times (say, greeting the masjid).
As a Muslim reader, the fact that Nomani decides not to use her journalist's skills and connections to speak to the administrators of the awqaf or find out why things are differently there shows an intellectual dishonesty and a willful ignorance. I felt that she wasn't trying to get me, her Muslim reader, all of the information that was available to her, and I felt that she was trying to mislead her non-Muslim readers into thinking that the 'ulema haven't had the slightest idea what they're talking about for the last 1400 yrs (which is, naturally, a common tactic in particular "proggie" circles). When Nomani writes that she is willing to go to the NYT, WSJ, CNN, etc. to "expose" Morgantown and publicly castigate a community that has largely rejected her efforts, but she is curiously unwilling to do the same to find out information about Islam or Shari'ah that might make her uncomfortable, what one is left with is a glaring double standard.
As I went further into the book, the sincerity became an issue for me. Nomani does seem to yearn, but as she rips into conservative and mainstream Muslims like Ibrahim Hooper for not paying enough attention to her or the issues she discusses with them, she turns a blind eye to the very bad behavior of particular individuals she references in glowing terms (a young man who is known for impersonating the aforementioned Hooper chief among them). Can you really complain about conservative Muslims saying nasty things about someone if your own friends do the same? It comes across as "Do as I say, not as I do."
And then yesterday, friends pointed me to a letter that was published in the Dawn last week. Nomani has written in her first book, and said on several other occasions, that she is a direct descendant of Allama Shibley Nomani of Pakistan. Now, however, Allama Shibley's own granddaughters are saying that this is not true.
Progressive Muslims of Morgantown's Meetup lists Sohail Sultan of North Nazimabad, Karachi, Pakistan, as a member, but there's two problems with this. One is that anyone can log into Meetup and join as a member with any name they choose. You can join Knit-Wits of Terre Haute Meetup as William Shakespeare. So I wouldn't say that his name on their roster is any proof of her claim of direct descent from Allama Shibley. Anyone who knows anything about Allama Shibley's family could go online and log in and join the Meetup under that name. It's even possible that Asra Nomani herself has nothing to do with the Meetup site, although I doubt it, since I've read at least one report of the Progressive Muslims of Morgantown's meetings written by Nomani.
The second is that the very letter sent to the Dawn repudiating Ms. Nomani's claim of kinship was written by Sohail Sultan's wife -- Momna Sohail Sultan, the youngest granddaughter of Allama Shibley. Why would Mrs. Sultan write a very public letter with such strong words as extremely embarassed," and "in no way connected to the Shibli family" if her husband is a member and supporter of the group?
Reading that letter yesterday, coupled with the problem of her double standard and her being a journalist at the WSJ tarnishes her sincerity for me. The WSJ is a reputable paper, no doubt, but outside of matters of finance, it's not one that I would consider a reliable source. And Nomani was not a financial writer.
Finally, I was extremely uncomfortable with the talk of lawsuits and lawyers at the end of the book. Nomani hints that she is gearing up to file a First Amendment lawsuit against the Morgantown Islamic Center, saying that they have violated their non-profit status because they are denying her her First Amendment right to worship by insisting on a balcony for women. For Muslims, and for Americans in general, the mere idea should be extremely troubling for a few reasons.
What a lawsuit of this nature would do is call upon a jury or a judge to render a verdict on Islamic practices - in essence, get a branch of government involved in matters of religion, and decide for Muslims what is and isn't acceptable. It is ironic that Nomani seems to approve of one branch of gov't violating the First Amendment rights of Morgantown (and other) Muslims in the name of the First Amendment.
A lawsuit like this would help put a crack in the wall separating the government from religious practice, something that the Religious Right in our country has been trying to do for years (see last week's prayer rally for fundagelical Christian judges for an example). After masjid balconies, what would be next? Rules about proper dress in the masjid? And after Muslims, then what? Rules about who can and can't take communion in an Orthodox church? Would Orthodox Jews be expected to stop separating men from women in the synagogue?
And then one wonders why Muslims should be held to a tougher standard than others. After all, no one has sued the Roman Catholic church for "restricting the right" of women to lead masses. Or the Southern Baptist Church for refusing to ordain homosexuals. When one enters what is essentially a private insitution (after all, mosques and churches are not public squares), doesn't one agree to abide by a certain standard of behavior set forth by the administrators or owners of the institution? A Protestant can not enter a Catholic church on Sunday and begin to preach or witness the worshippers for his religion. Why, then, should a woman be allowed to disrupt Friday prayers -- or be condoned for attempting to force an entire community to bend to her will?
The second major problem with her hints at a forthcoming lawsuit is that they are done in light of the Rand report and several other steps taken by the gov't to change what Islam is or teaches. To my memory, Nomani says nothing about the Rand report in her book, much less that she supports enacting it, but as with other friends of hers, everything she is saying and doing follows exactly what Benard suggested.
The objective of the report, and of the "change Islam" cabal in the government is to divide and conquer Muslims. What sort of Muslim would willingly play along with that? I guess that it's the same types of Muslims that went along with the colonizers -- people who saw some power, money, or other benefit in it for them, regardless of the consquences for the Ummah or the nation. And what sort of self-professed political liberal would play along with a game promoted by the Religious Right and the neocon cabal? Their politics and goals are only odious when it comes to 'Iraq or trying to put prayer in schools, but it's okay when it's Islam? Yuck.
Despite her engaging writing, her pleasant manner, her seeming sincerity and eagerness, it was the double standard and the lawsuit business, combined with the publicity hound activities in the press, that put me off Nomani -- more than her ideas about Islam. I don't see hope in this vision that Nomani sets forth for the American community. I see a future where Muslims and others would find their religious beliefs and practices subject to government approval, and where Muslims who don't goose step are persecuted and isolated (as they have been among the so-called "Wahabiya" reformers). It's not a future I want for my children.