The Root – What is Shariah, Exactly?

Succinct and to the point.

What Is Sharia, Exactly?

By: Afi-Odelia Scruggs
Posted: August 27, 2010 at 5:06 PM

Some critics of plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero warn that the imam behind it wants to bring Islamic Sharia law to the U.S. Before we decide to fear it, let’s at least understand what Sharia means.

For opponents of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, the word Sharia symbolizes the threat of Islam. Marchers rallying against the center depicted the word in dripping red script, as if drenched in blood. Newt Gingrich has lectured about the problem of “creeping Sharia.” Blogs such as Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs allege a conspiracy to replace the Constitution with Sharia.

What is Sharia? Simply put, it is Islamic law. Sharia governs acts of worship, such as prayer and fasting, as well as civil and criminal matters, such as marriage, inheritance or criminal transactions. But that’s only one aspect of Sharia.

“Sharia is three things: an ideal religious concept, a body of jurisprudence done by groups of scholars, and legislation in Muslim countries,” says Kecia Ali, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University.

In abstract, Sharia is God’s will for humanity. Sharia means “the path” that God wants people to travel. The proper way of life is shown primarily through two sources. The most important one is the Quran, which Muslims believe was given to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. The other one is the activities of the prophet, which are recorded in the Sunna.

Merely consulting those texts doesn’t guarantee heading in the right direction. “If you wanted to know what kinds of food you could and couldn’t eat, maybe you asked somebody who was a legal authority. You wouldn’t go trying to sort out the answer for yourself,” Ali says.

Like Judaism, Islam has specialists who can rule on religious matters. When interpreting a law, the jurists refer to the Quran, the prophetic tradition and established scholarship. They also take into consideration community and cultural practices and apply reasoning to the problem at hand.

For example, a questioner might ask whether drinking beer is allowed. Although the Quran doesn’t mention beer, drinking wine is prohibited. Jurists would deconstruct that prohibition in making their decision, says Imam Ramez Islambouli, who teaches at John Carroll University near Cleveland.

“Scholars would say, ‘Is it because of color [of the wine] … or is it because of its impact, the intoxication?’ ” he says. “Then we see, by analogy, beer has the same impact. Thus beer is prohibited in Islam.”

Though people might think that Sharia is a fixed, rigid set of rules dating back to the seventh century, it is the product of centuries of human reasoning and interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The third meaning of Sharia refers to legislation in Muslim countries. “People talk about Sharia law in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Morocco, and they mean the civil codes that national legislatures vote on,” Ali says.

The codes aren’t strictly Islamic but are byproducts of colonial regimes. Ali says that remnants of British and French law are found in India and Morocco, while a good portion of Turkish law is taken from the Swiss civil code.

“These kinds of rules call themselves ‘Sharia.’ It’s part of how they seek to claim legitimacy for what they’re doing,” Ali says. “But they go through a very different mechanism than traditional jurisprudence or from the purely religious thing.”

Sharia is also implemented under the American legal system, Islambouli says. For example, an Islamic marriage requires witnesses, recitation of vows and a dowry. But a couple also must get a license before the ceremony.

“We wouldn’t perform the ceremony unless they had a license, because American law would not recognize a religious marriage,” he says.

Review: Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart

Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart by Hamza Yusuf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borrowed this from a friend and skimmed through it. It is actually a translation of a poem made popular in west Africa which the author then comments on.
The lack of referencing is disappointing, but then again with a work like this over referencing can take away from the feel of the read.

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Review – Towards a Fiqh for Minorities

Towards a Fiqh for Minorities by Taha Jabir Al-Alwani

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short read, the author is a bit incoherent as to how a fiqh of minorities is to be achieved. With almost total disregard for traditional “appeal to authority” approach, he throws the baby out with the bath water in suggesting a solely Quranic derivation of Islam for practice amongst Muslim minorities in the west. Given the context in which this was written, it may be a reactionary stance to what the author first encountered when he came to the West, a society so much unlike Arab ones that many (even the scholarly) see no choice but compromise or reformulation of Islamic law. This author chooses the later, but obviously falls into the former by doing so. By taking the author’s suggestions to their logical ends, one will not merely compromise traditional “fiqh” (not a problem in and of itself) but will eventually compromise on several universals that are the mainstay of substantive Islamic law.

All in all this is a good read for the genre, but the genre is so lacking in works on this subject that a lot remains lacking.

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Review: The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad

The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad by Karl Evanzz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of what was said about Clegg’s book An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad can be said here, for more see my review of his work at the link above.

Karl Evanzz packs an explosive amount of information into this volume. Much more than a mere analysis of Elijah the Movement or Elijah the Man, Evanzz attempts to set the context in which the NOI developed, chronicling Elijah’s life, and attempting to draw connections between the movements and men that surrounded him. He covers the Moorish Science Temple connection, something that Clegg completely disregards. While there does seem to be sizable evidence that Elijah was a member, I find it hard to believe that is was as life changing or such a source of solace as Evanzz’ prose would make you think. If that was the case, and Elijah was such a devoted member, he probably would have heard of the schism in leadership after Drew Ali’s demise. If he had heard of it, then how could Fard be such a mystery man to him, given that Fard was a supposed successor (however nominal) to Drew Ali?

While both Evanzz and Clegg draw on UNIA influence and mention other messianic figures and movements that preceded the NOI, and Evanzz draws on MSTA connections, no connection whatsoever is made to the early predecessor to both the UNIA and the MSTA, that being Duse Muhammad Ali’s Universal Islamic Society established in 1926 in Detroit. Sunni currents present in the US are underscored in Clegg’s work, while Evanzz makes hardly a mention of them, much less highlighting Sunni opposition to the NOI as Clegg does. Instead, he present Elijah and the NOI as attempting to court foreign favor and funding. This last point is but contradictory, and warrants further analysis. Why would they court foreign powers, yet espouse do-for-self? Why would, if Clegg’s depiction of vehement Sunni opposition to NOI doctrine in public is true, would such foreign power’s believe Elijah Muhammad over one of their own, such as Jamil Diab? I feel that Malcolm X here factors into the equation much more than is let on, and that it was probably his insistence that lead to these meetings, not Elijah himself. Add to that that Malcolm quickly reconnected with these people after excommunication, and the picture becomes clearer. It may be, as is suggested about Ernest X McGee (Hamas Abdul Khaalis), that there was a nascent Sunni under current in the NOI, one that sought to change things from the inside out.
This point is lost on the author and he doesn’t fully hash out the ramifications of some of his suppositions, however plausible as understood from the sources, and their effects on his work. Had he handled this and other points as he did with Joseph Gravitt Jr.’s (aka Joseph X aka Yusuf Shah) usurpation of power on the NOI’s East coast, and his ability to blackmail Elijah based on what he knew of his involvement with the MSTA along with Gravitt Sr., more sense could have been made of this episode and an inner window into the reality of Elijah’s relationship with WD Fard would become clearer.

Was the relationship between the two really the hero-worship and eventual deification that became NOI canon, or was it a ruse invented by Fard and Elijah to take advantage of down and out Blacks in depression era Detroit?

Contextualization is a strong point of the book; at times when reading Clegg’s work I was unable to relate to the reasons why certain things were while in Evanzz’ work the rhyme and reason is easily discernible. Clegg’s work almost wholly whitewashes the Black power struggle post-Malcolm/Martin, while Evanzz goes into great detail, almost burdensome at times. However burdensome Evanzz’ context might seem, is adds to a holistic view of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI in historical, ideological, and theological context.

For example: Why would a such strong connection be drawn between Asian cultures, and particularly the Japanese, when discussing worldly retribution against the White race?

Obviously, one can just accept NOI theology on the issue, but the context in which these connections were drawn informs us of so much more; a Japanese agent (Takahashi) working to drum up support for the Japanese war effort and cause sedition against the Allied powers was actively influencing Black nationalist movements with rhetoric and financial support. Add to that news of flying saucers and Japanese air power, and a recipe for a highly suggestive narrative is born.
This whole dimension of Elijah’s life is left unexplored in Clegg’s work, where he characterizes Elijah’s days on the run as a result of personal power struggles between him and other Fard followers. Evanzz’ brings much more detail, showing Elijah’s hegira to be a culmination of his claims to prophecy and succession which other WD Fard followers rejected along with his revisionist theology of Fard’s nature, as well as a result of government persecution and pursuit for draft evasion and sedition (a result of his dealings with Takahashi).

This Asian connection, along with the supposition that WD Fard was actually of partial South Asian origin, shows clearly why Fard would describe himself as an “Asiatic” Black man and the effect this would have on NOI theology as a whole.

Evanzz capitalizes on the FBI files on Elijah, Clara, and all the surrounding cast of the NOI and rival organizations. Of course this is used as reason to reject his conclusions by some, and the fact that Evanzz doesn’t make his disdain for Elijah and his inner circle a secret certainly does not offer any support to the veracity of his claims. The FBI and police files used do however give very interesting insight into Elijah and his movement, and is almost the sole source for information on WD Fard’s connection to the movement outside of NOI canon.

Fard’s identity is explored in some detail, and interesting facts are mentioned from non-governmental sources. For instance, Elijah contends that Fard gave him an English translation of the Quran from Pakistan, but Pakistan didn’t exist until the early 50’s. While neither Clegg nor Evanzz make the connection, Elijah’s more than spurious travels to Pakistan from the 50’s then on seems to lend credence to either Fard’s presence there, or at least the connection that the NOI had early on with the Indo-Pak world (specifically Ahmadiyya movement therein). Evanzz deduces that Elijah’s statements exhibit an on-going relationship between the entire Muhammad family and Fard, to the exclusion of Malcolm X. Claims are even made that Fard remained in the US, and Hamas Abdul Khaalis’ statement that Fard was present and known to James Shabazz and others is used to give credence to this claim, along with the involvement of people using some of Fard’s aliases around the same times and places presented. If his presence was known, but Malcolm X was kept outside of this Fard-ian inner-circle, what would the reasons be? Would not Elijah want Malcolm, whom he considered to be the son he never had, to meet that man (nay god) whom had been the source for both his and Malcolm’s transformation? If not, is this evidence of greater collusion?

Evanzz’ splices his literally style with fact, narrative, and a bit of vitriol. He goes into much more detail about Elijah’s affairs, mentioning intimate details not covered by Clegg. He characterizes Clara Muhammad’s indignation of her husband’s actions, and presents her feelings in a very personable way. Family life (or lack thereof) is explored in more detail, with Elijah’s children being setup for materially by their father but being made wholly dependent on him for any means of success outside the NOI. WD Muhammad’s struggle with his father is gone into in much more detail than Clegg, as is Akbar Muhammad’s interactions and subsequent departure from the NOI.

His corrosive tone increases towards the end of the book, especially when surfaces. One point is clear, if Malcolm’s demise meant the end of righteousness and discipline in the NOI, then the rise of Louis Farrakhan nee Wilcott signals their end. He all but indicts the later of ordering for Malcolm X’s assassination and insinuates his involvement of the festering of the criminal element within the NOI. Despite this he only passingly covers Elijah’s complacency to this element, and instead focuses on how the largest Black nationalist movement in the USA was increasingly being run by whites, a clear contradiction and what some saw as blatant hypocrisy.

His tone settles when dealing with Elijah towards the end of the book, where he almost seems to present him as a man whom both time and bad health had whittled away at, characterizing him as softening on his separatist and racist beliefs. Several instances, other than Elijah’s famous Savior’s Day remarks on whites, exhibit some sort of repentant tone.

The author instead places the onus of blame on Elijah’s followers as being responsible for destroying his legacy. The only one to escape this is his son WD Muhammad, whom he credits with being the only credible person to represent Elijah’s legacy, not in theological terms, but in having stayed true to the essential do-for-self methodology first espoused by his father, while all others simply denigrated into selfish opportunists insistent on bilking their followers.

This is an essential work on the subject, but is marred at times by stylistics and emotions that peek through the facts and assumptions. Another low point is the haphazard quoting of facts and statements before introducing, or re-introducing, the person involved; this leaves the reader at an immediate loss, and sends him scurrying to reconnect with previous pages and chapters; Clegg’s work does not face this problem even once.

Both books offer a wealth of information and personalities that deserve their own works or compilations. Evanzz’ is a good addition to Clegg’s work, but if your goal is to gain a more holistic idea of who Elijah Muhammad was, it should be just that: an addition to Clegg, not a replacement.

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Review – A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb

A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell WebbA Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb by Umar F. Abd-Allah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“In this timely and engaging book, Umar Abd-Allah brings to life an important, but little-known figure in Victorian America. In an illuminating story of Alexander Webb, Abd-Allah shows how he navigated life as a prominent Muslim and an American with relative ease and without resistance from mainstream society. This work is an important lesson, not only for history buffs but for anyone interested in understanding contemporary times.” –Geneive Abdo, author of Mecca and Main (more…)

This is an extremely intriguing book, not just for its coverage of a highly unknown figure in American history, but for the sheer magnitude of research that went in to making this book a reality. The number of sources is amazing, and the level at which Webb’s life is covered is detailed. There are a few areas of the book that could have been stronger or explored in more detail, however those areas in general do not deal directly with Webb’s life.

This book is an easy read, and the information therein is easily digestible.  Alexander Webb was an American diplomat, a journalist, and Muslim; none of these conflicting with the other. Having established the first documented Islamic institution at 485 W 20th in Manhattan (just a little less than 3 miles away from Ground Zero) and the “first Muslim House of Worship” at the same location may be close enough to make some say we should “refudiate” it.

But Webb was hardly apologetic for two things: his Islam and his Americanism. One thing that stands out in the life of Webb was his insistence on the moral goodness and intellect of the American people, something that he insisted would lead Americans to learn more about Islam, if not embrace it. He would go on to produce several tracts seeking to introduce Americans to Islam. He represented Muslims at the First Parliament of World Religions (a branch of the Chicago World’s Fair) running from Sept. 10-27, 1893.

The author meticulously researched this monograph and draws from a number of sources to accomplish a very detailed vision of Webb’s life. At times though I fear that an ideological slant seems to skew things in a certain way, especially when dealing with Webb’s travels in India and his visiting of saints. Had the full passage as found in Webb’s diary been provided for us to read (at least in the endnotes) we would have a clearer picture of how Webb dealt with the topic.

Not enough background is given on the other Muslims that Webb interacted with the US, especially those that converted, except at times to cast them in a negative light. Had the some of the day to day with these people and the reasons for them abandoning Webb’s mission been given, we would no doubt have a more complete picture of Webb as a not only a Muslim and his approach to Islamic call (Dawah), but where he stood on class in Victorian America. Many passages point to his having a somewhat condescending view of the poor and uneducated, to the extent that Islam is not even presented to them nor any attempt made to do so in the least. Could what can almost be called elitism be the reason for some of his followers to forsake him?

Had the author presented Webb’s life as-is instead of trying to use it to make a supporting statement for his own vision of what Muslims and America should, I think the intended effect would have been greater.

This monograph opens a window to an unknown period of Islam in American history, one that sadly ended all too quickly. It would not be until the early nineteen hundreds that we see even Pseudo-Islamic movements arise with any prominence in America.

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Review – An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad

An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah MuhammadAn Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad by Claude Andrew Clegg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clegg outlines the life of Elijah Muhammad from his humble beginnings in Sandersville, GA to his days as a factory worker in Hamtramck, MI to WD Fard’s selection of him as his messenger to the lost-found in the North America.

A very balanced assessment of his life, he seeks to neither vilify the man nor laud him with praise. Instead Clegg gives an account of Elijah’s life that is accessible, one that can easily be read in the historical context of the era of American history which he lived in; this is definitely a positive about this monograph, the author sets the stage for Unlike the autobiography of Malcolm X, in which you feel that for some reason or another key info is being left out, this work leaves you with a holistic view of Elijah’s life decisions in light of his environment, something that other biographers of Islamic and Psuedo-Islamic personalities have failed to do.

His theology and what informed it is covered to a satisfiable depth, and to my surprise much of what is popularly thought of as the later machinations of Elijah are actually the teachings and organizational structure laid out by WD Fard. How this theology was expanded upon, and how its effects were curbed by circumstance and opportunity gives great insight into Elijah Muhammad as a social leader first and foremost, and as a religious leader secondly.

His relationship with Fard is touched upon, but not in enough detail to understand how Fard groomed him to be “The Messenger”. The reader is left wondering if his succession was really a matter of divine providence or was a power struggle, or a culmination of both. Allegations of Fard and Elijah’s involvement in the Moorish Science Temple is hardly dealt with at all, and Clara Muhammad’s role in enticing her husband to follow Fard is only lightly touched upon.

Additionaly, Fard’s identity is not dealt with in enough detail, leaving the reader wanting to know more about this mysterious figure. It would have been extremely useful to read some of the personal correspondence between the two (which can be viewed on the internet) to gain a greater appreciation for the love and respect the “Messenger” showed for his “Savior”. Until the end of his days he claimed to receive revelation from Fard, hearing his voice like “thunder from the sky”. Interestingly enough, there is enough information outlining Fard that one really could suppose that he was of South Asian origin, as WD Muhammad has said, he was most probably Pakistani. WD Muhammad’s claim to have spoken to Fard (either in person or on the phone) is not dealt with at all, making the man’s identity all the more a mystery. Could Elijah’s frequent trips to Pakistan be evidence of Fard’s origins and outcome? Did the “Asiatic Black man” simply return to the sub-continent after the USA got too hot for him?

The book deals with many facets of Elijah’s life, some of which were eye-opening. We learn about Elijah the man, Elijah the Messenger, Elijah the entrepreneur, and Elijah the father-figure. The pit-falls mentioned of the Nation’s management structure and business acumen are enough to wake any idealist of the movement up to reality; that the NOI was and is no more different than most religious organizations.

Elijah as father-figure is especially important, as it explains not only the man’s great ability to motivate his followers and nurture their innate abilities, but explains the nepotism that became inherent to the organization in its later years, as well as the changes WD Muhammad tried to make after his succession to leadership upon his father’s death.

Sadly however, Elijah the thinker is never touched upon. We never get a clear enough reading of Elijah’s psyche and thoughts, we are never able to see his thought process of read his mind. Although mental health problems are alluded to when discussing his imprisonment, no analysis of his personality is given in-depth.

Elijah the movement is the most outstanding part of this book. He successfully protected his “brand” until his death, and was hands down the most successful Black leader of his time, perhaps in the history of the US.

I haven’t read Karl Evanzz work on him as of yet, but afterward I am sure there will be much to compare and contrast. This work is recommended to anyone that thinks they have Elijah Muhammad figured out, and is definitely a credit to the legacy of this man, about whom I am sure a much longer work could be written.

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The Great Books – Audio Book links (Part 1)

These are the Great Books, a list created by Mortimer Alder.

I’ve linked to the audio book version whenever possible.

  1. The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas
    Angel to Love
  2. The Syntopicon (continued)
    Man to World
  3. Homer
  4. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes
    Aeschylus. Plays
    Sophocles. Plays (in progress)
    Euripides. Plays (in progress)
    Aristophanes. Plays
  5. Herodotus, Thucydides
    Herodotus. History
    Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War
  6. Plato
    Seventh Letter
  7. Aristotle (I)
  8. Aristotle (II)
    Works (continued)
  9. Hippocrates, Galen
    Hippocrates. Hippocratic Writings
    Galen. On the Natural Faculties
  10. Euclid, Archimedes, Nicomachus
    Euclid. Elements
    Archimedes. Works (including The Method)
    Nicomachus. Introduction to Arithmetic
  11. Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus
    Lucretius The Way Things Are
    Epictetus. Discourses
    Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations
    Plotinus. The Six Enneads
  12. Virgil
  13. Plutarch
    Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
  14. Tacitus
  15. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler
    Ptolemy. Almagest
    Copernicus. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
    Kepler. Epitome of Copernican Astronomy
    Kepler. The Harmonies of the World
  16. Augustine
    The Confessions
    The City of God
    On Christian Doctrine
  17. Thomas Aquinas (I)
    Summa Theologica
  18. Thomas Aquinas (II)
    Summa Theologica (continued)
  19. Dante, Chaucer
    Dante. Divine Comedy
    Chaucer. Troilus and Criseyde
    Chaucer. Canterbury Tales
  20. Calvin
    Institutes of the Christian Religion

    (1) (2)

  21. Machiavelli, Hobbes
    Machiavelli. The Prince
    Hobbes. Leviathan (I & II) (III & IV)
  22. Rabelais
    Gargantua and Pantagruel
  23. Erasmus, Montaigne
    Erasmus. Praise of Folly
    Montaigne. Essays
  24. Shakespeare (I)
    The Plays and Sonnets
  25. Shakespeare (II)
    The Plays and Sonnets (see above)
  26. Gilbert, Galileo, Harvey
    Gilbert. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
    Galileo. Concerning the Two New Sciences
    Harvey. On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals
    Harvey. On the Circulation of the Blood
    Harvey. On the Generation of Animals
  27. Cervantes
    The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha (I) & (II)
  28. Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza
    Bacon. Advancement of Learning
    Bacon. Novum Organum
    Bacon. New Atlantis
    Descartes. Rules for the Direction of the Mind
    Descartes. Discourse on the Method
    Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy
    Descartes. Objections Against the Meditations and Replies
    Descartes. The Geometry
    Spinoza. Ethics
  29. Milton
    English minor poems
    Paradise Lost
    Samson Agonistes
  30. Pascal
    The Provincial Letters
    Scientific Treatises