August 2014



I had the pleasure of first meeting Dr. Tariq Ramadan during the 2011 RIS Convention when I was covering the event for MuslimMatters.org. It was an amicable meeting; I recall being struck by his down-to-earth attitude. He took the time to have a genuine conversation with people – a rarity at such large events.

It was the year of the Arab Springs and I remember his insightful talk about the role played by American institutions in kindling the protests in Egypt. The next year I met him again at the RIS Knowledge Retreat where he gave a series of classes entitled, ‘Shariah, Sufism and Ethics’. It was a powerful analysis of ethics and spirituality in the Islamic tradition. I recall asking him advice on how to combat the shariah fear-mongering that was going on at the time; he responded with words of wisdom as usual, ‘Normalize your presence without trivializing yourself’.

So, I was naturally quite shaken to hear that he had publicly boycotted the RIS and ISNA conventions; especially given his active role in the past several years. While he doesn’t use the word ‘boycott’ is his essay, his action is just that – a public censure of an organization and disengagement to achieve particular goals. I found his stance particularly troubling, and more importantly, ineffective. The reason being that he fails to adequately answer the essential questions for a successful protest: why boycott, how long to do it and what needs to be done to address the underlying concerns of the boycott.

Dr. Ramadan’s first allegation against RIS is that it remains ‘apolitical’. I find this charge particularly disingenuous given that speakers, including himself, frequently address political issues at the convention. I clearly recall the atmosphere at the 2008 convention when Israel started its bombardment of Gaza; outrage and condemnation was outspoken. A fundraising session that year, led by Imam Zaid Shakir in the main halls, raised over $100,000 within a half hour for the victims.

When the civil war in Syria started and Bashar-al-Assad began his atrocious crimes, the speakers did not shy away from expressing their disgust with him. When Ghaddafi was captured and killed, Dr. Ramadan was the one who voiced the unacceptable way in which his case was handled. These are just a few examples I can recall from my numerous years as an attendee and volunteer. Perhaps RIS isn’t political in the way Dr. Ramadan would like it to be, but to accuse convention of being silent on political issues is an unfounded assertion.

Dr. Ramadan’s second and more serious allegation relates to the speakers at RIS. He accuses these speakers of supporting dictatorships, despots and all the oppression they perpetrate. He fails to elaborate on who these speakers are and neither does he bring proof as to why he believes some of the leading Muslim preachers are supporters of tyranny and war crimes.

Those well informed on sectarian politics of the Middle East assume they know who and what he’s referring to; the rest of us are baffled and in utter confusion by this accusation. In his blog post, he refers to these people in convoluted terms such as ‘some speakers’ who follow the ‘sufi’ trend. This has implicated all the scholars at the convention and we’re left wondering: could he be referring to Shaykh Hamza, perhaps its Habib Ali, may be Imam Zaid, what about Dr. Jackson, or is it anyone associated with Mufti Ali Gomma or the late Shaykh Buti ?

Professor Ramadan’s elusive approach only opens the doors to speculation, conjecture and confusion. By disparaging the moral character of the scholars that Muslims so deeply trust and rely on for spiritual guidance, he has sown the seeds of doubt in their hearts – his boycott will do nothing to remove it. Not only will his move lead to political rifts, it also creates a spiritual crises built on doubts and division.

In the worldview of the Dr. Ramadan and his supporters, the immoral stances of their opponents are obvious – to the average American or Canadian RIS attendee they are not; most are clueless about the subject matter in the first place. If he was going to make such egregious allegations in public, especially on a matter generally debated in inner scholarly circles, he should have taken the liberty of at least supporting and clarifying his claims. Sure, we hear of the occasional tweet here and a facebook post there, but those hardly offer the degree of certainty required to establish such bold claims.

Instead of identifying, confronting and refuting the people he so vociferously opposes, Dr. Ramadan sanctimoniously declares them to be puppets for tyrannical rulers. He neither engages in a debate with them nor does he give these scholars a chance to clarify the basis of their positions. Using unsubstantiated claims masked in ambiguity he fosters the very phenomenon of partisan politics he’s trying to combat.

I am certain Dr. Ramadan has convincing arguments to back up his views, but his failure to elucidate them for us only breeds suspicion and bars us from the opportunity to judge for ourselves. If the scholars speaking at our conventions have indeed committed such serious transgressions, we deserve to know with absolute clarity before we decide to boycott them.

As for his boycott of ISNA, the professor offers much more concrete reasons; his approach, however, is still divisive and ineffective. The grievances he has expressed about ISNA’s unacceptable silence over deeply troubling aspects of U.S. domestic and foreign policy are universally shared by American Muslims. These Muslims, however, have not decided to boycott ISNA over it.

Instead, the recent events have lead to serious introspection and have stirred a much needed debate on how Muslim engage with government institutions. These issues will no doubt be raised and discussed at the upcoming convention; Dr. Ramadan could have been an important voice in influencing change but he has decided to not be present at these meetings.

ISNA is at an important cross-roads; it has become manifestly clear that its current engagement model has shortcomings which need to be seriously re-examined. It has to determine an approach where it can collaborate with institutions of power without being stifled by them or compromising its integrity. Glenn Greenwald, like many others, have stressed the need for an effective outsider-insider strategy for engagement. ISNA will certainly fall under the ‘insider’ category; its mandate is not like that of CAIR – which always seems to be in conflict with institutions of authority. It needs to transform itself into a effective lobbying group which can advocate on behalf of Muslims without being paralyzed by fear. Now, more than ever, it needs friends, not boycotters.

Dr. Ramadan’s boycott no doubt succeeds in putting pressure on ISNA and kindling up much needed discussions, especially given the support he has received from fellow speakers. However, this pressure comes at a cost. He has chosen to take a highly divisive route and no doubt has burned many bridges with the Muslim leadership in North America. Given his influence, the move has also galvanized many of his supporters who too are re-considering their attendance at the convention. ISNA is the one of the few institutions American Muslims could look up to as a representative of their interests; being publicly chastised and boycotted by a leading Muslim academic is bound to create division at a time when unity desperately needed.

Furthermore, the more important shortcoming of this move is that Dr. Ramadan has offered no concrete actions that need to be taken to address the issues he raises. How long will he and his supporters disengage from two of the largest gatherings of Muslims in North America? Blanket boycotts with no clear demands and deadlines are pointless and ineffective. What steps exactly does he want RIS and ISNA to take? We’ll never know the answers to these questions.

Professor Ramadan felt it a moral obligation to dissociate from organizations he had serious political disagreements with. Instead of the method he employed, he could have easily taken a less divisive and more effective route.  This could have been achieved had he publicly published detailed criticisms of ISNA and RIS with suggestions for actions they need to take. He could have then, like many others, privately declined attending the conventions; his absence would then be more meaningful to the organizers as well as the attendees. I am thinking of something along the approach Shaykh Hamza Yusuf took to highlight his disagreements with ISNA over the moon sighting issue.

The current approach taken by Dr. Ramadan is rash and its impact is temporal. He has picked a fight with the very people he needs to be advising; its unlikely they’ll be receptive to what he has to say if he does’t resort to more diplomatic methods. No one questions the legitimacy of the criticisms he has offered or the concern for good that drives his actions. However, this highly controversial approach has lead to greater harm, in this author’s opinion, because it engenders disunity amongst Muslims, casts doubts on the integrity of our scholars and fails to provide any tangible solutions to the exceedingly complex challenges our community faces today.

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The city of Toronto has many distinctions; the CN Tower, Skydome – the crack smoking escapades of its mayor – just to name few. One distinction, unbeknownst to many, is the city’s unique position in Islamic history. Toronto is one of the few cities, if not the only, which hosts mosques that simultaneously follow all permutations of moonsighting opinions that have ever existed in Islam’s legal history; local sighting, global, Saudi-sighting, astronomical calculations – perhaps there are more. This represents a trend which has become common occurrence across much of the North America; Muslim communities split along lines of lunar dogmatism.

So, how did we get here? In 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) decided to switch to astronomical calculations, as opposed to moon sighting, as a means of tabulating the Islamic calendar. The unprecedented decision led to a considerable degree of controversy due to its unorthodoxy. However, what is not as well known is the history and the context which lead to this decision. I had the unique opportunity to sit with Shaykh Abdullah Idris Ali, former President of ISNA, who shared with me a brief history of the moonsighting methods employed and what eventually lead to the current climate.

The Early Days

In the 1960’s and 70’s when the Muslim community of the US and Canada was still in its infancy, most mosques would rely on moon sighting reports from Muslim countries. Depending on the community, congregants would either rely on their country of origin (e.g. Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan) or would go with decision announced by Saudi authorities. ISNA itself relied on following Saudi Arabia in those days.

Given the diversity of immigrant communities here, relying on moon sighting from countries abroad would naturally lead to conflicts based on the differing dates of those countries. As the Muslim community grew, the issue of establishing local moon sighting organizations was raised. Moon sighting committees such as that of Chicago and Toronto started to appear in the late 1970s’ and early 80’s. In Toronto, these early Muslims would go up to the CN Tower to search for the moon; one year they even chartered out an airplane to scan the skies for the crescent!

However, it soon became evident that sighting the crescent was going to be no simple task in North America. Mosques within the same city would follow different opinions; some relied on local sighting while others still placed their confidence on reports from Saudi Arabia or other countries. Two groups of people emerged and the trend of having two (or more) Eids thus began.

To get guidance on the subject, Shaykh Abdullah Idris wrote a letter to the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abdal Aziz Bin Baaz, seeking advice. Sh Bin Baaz responded stating that Muslims in North America should follow their local moon sighting instead of following Saudi Arabia. Based on his advice ISNA switched to local sighting in the 80’s.

Local sighting came with its own set of problems however. The lack of a centralized authority meant there were numerous local moon sighting groups; each having their own criteria and procedures. There were concerns about the criteria of accepting testimony and how to verify reports coming from distant places by inexperienced sighters. Sometimes an organization would announce Eid but the congregants would question the decision due to their lack of trust in the process.

The extent of the zone from which to accept moon sighting reports was another issue; what if reports came from outside mainland USA and Canada? Should reports from South America be accepted too? Furthermore, the timing difference from coast to coast, which can be up to four hours, was another problem. This would mean Muslim communities on the East coast would have to until midnight at times until a decision was made based on reports after sunset from California. The cumbersome process made any kind of planning for Eid and Ramadan extremely difficult for the average Muslim.

The Lunar Calendar Conference

Frustrated with the situation, a major lunar conference was organized in 1987 at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, VA. Over $100,000 were raised to invite renowned astronomers from around the globe. Experts from NASA, US and Canadian Navies, Adler Planetarium, British Almanac and others were present at this conference alongside Muslim scholars; Dr. Muhammad Ilyas was the keynote speaker.

A number of key issues were discussed and addressed at this conference. For example, it was decided that sighting reports contradicting the calculated birth of the moon were to be rejected. Further, since the earliest recorded sighting of the new moon had been 12 hours after its birth, any reports before this time were highly questionable.

The idea of relying entirely on calculations to mark the beginning Islamic months was raised as well during this conference. To make a decision on this matter a crucial question needed answering: is sighting the new moon simply a means of determining the start of the lunar month or is it in itself an act of worship which needs to be established? If it is only a means to calculate time, then the moon’s sightability can be determined to very high degrees of accuracy using modern astronomy and it removes the need for physical sighting. If, however, the sighting itself is considered a form of worship then it can’t be replaced by mere calculations.

The conference concluded with the aim of further investigating the method of using astronomical calculations. The FCNA and ISNA returned to moon sighting as a methodology and this was continued throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. During this time, they worked with astronomers and mathematicians to derive a method based entirely on astronomical calculations.

Also during this time rose the issue of whether it makes sense for North America to follow Saudi Arabia to determine the dates of Eid al-Adha. FCNA’s Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqui wrote to the late Shaykh Uthaimeen of Saudi Arabia to seek advice on the matter. To the surprise of many, he opined that even for Eid al-Adha Muslims here should rely on local sighting even if this means having a different day of Arafat from Mecca.

FCNA continued its work on the calculated lunar calendar. Abandoning moon sighting in favour of astronomical calculations is an unorthodox opinion that historically was never relied upon. To consult with other Muslim scholars on this issue, a delegation traveled across the Muslim world with this proposal. Sh Bin Baaz and other Saudi scholars didn’t demonstrate interest in the idea and told the FCNA to make their own decision based on their research. Similar responses were given by scholars in Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey; while some were receptive such as Sh. Muhammad Al-Ashqar of Kuwait, most were either opposed to the concept or felt that it was something that needed more investigation.

After much deliberation and in light of the continued disarray on the moonsighting issue, the FCNA and ISNA adopted its position to use astronomical calculations in June 2006. It deemed that moonsighting itself is not an act of worship and thus one could rely solely on calculations to start the lunar month. The European Council on Fatwa and Research (ECFR), lead by Yusuf-al Qaradawi, also adopted this position shortly afterwards. As was expected, this decision stirred a major controversy amongst Western Muslim scholars. A war of academic papers and articles soon ensued but it did little to unify the fragile cohesion that was there in first place.

On Unity

Since 2006, a number of initiatives have take place to try to unite and better organize the moonsighting organizations within the US and Canada. Examples of these are the 2007 National Moonsighting Conference in California and the 2009 National Hilal Sighting Conference in New York. Furthermore, since the late 2000’s, some organizations have changed their positions from that of a local sighting to a global one. This would allow for a greater chance for congruency with FNCA’s calculations and also greater unity with the rest of the Muslim world. While these are welcome steps, there is still need for considerable work to unite the community on this issue.

I asked Shaykh Abdullah Idris about how ISNA’s decision only further divides Muslims and whether such an approach is counterproductive. He explained that considering the divisions on this issue, their hope is that overtime people will adopt FCNA’s opinion as the best alternative to the current debacle. Further, he stated that ISNA’s position is that if there’s a city in which all the mosques agree on a single moonsighting position, ISNA will switch to that position for the sake of unity there. This was attempted in Toronto but all the mosques which rely on moosighting there were unable to arrive at a unified position.

It is evident that the ultimate reason for the divisions on the moonsighting issue arise due to the lack of an agreed upon authority amongst Western Muslims. There are hundreds of independently run mosques across the Americas; uniting them under a single banner is no simple task.

While its easy to have a dismal outlook on this debate, there are positive take a ways from this situation as well. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently pointed out, Muslims arguing over something like moonsighting, which may appear as a trivial matter, is a sign of a serious community of believers. People disagree because they hold their convictions to be true, they care about their religion, and they strive to practice it in the most correct way. In a society where religion is increasingly viewed with an eye of irrelevance, it is refreshing to see a people who care enough about it to disagree over it.

 

I would like to thank Shaykh Abdullah Idris for taking the time to share the much needed information for this article. I undertook this project to document history and I’ve pieced together this chronology based on the best resources available to me. I am interested in improving it further and invite feedback from readers on any more details (e.g. dates,places,names etc) they may have or any chronological errors they see.

 

References

The Fiqh and Scince of the New Islamic Moon

IslamicMoon.com

ISNA’s on the astronomical moonsighting

Islamic Center of Wayland, Boston

Cesarean Moon Births, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Hilal Controversy in Toronto – The three positions: local, global, Saudi

International Symposium on Moon sighting and Science


Written on July 15, 2014. Publication delayed due to conflict in Gaza

Should Muslim leaders attend the annual iftar at the White House given America’s military aggression in the Islamic world? Should Muslims engage with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation given the founder’s apocalyptic decision to wage an illegal war in Iraq? What if a Zionist organization wants to co-operate with the American Muslim community, show we reciprocate or turn our backs to protest Israel’s war crimes?

The dilemma associated with establishing such delicate and ethically ambivalent alliances recently surfaced again amongst American Muslims. This is time it is the Muslim Leaders Initiative (MLI) which is at the center of controversy. Organized and sponsored by the Israel-based Shalom Hartman Institute, the MLI is an educational initiative designed to ‘addresses a lack of understanding among Muslims about the way Jews see themselves’. It was created by Chaplain Abdullah Antepli of Duke University who describes it as ‘a unilateral, sincere Muslim attempt to learn and make sense of Judaism, Jews, Israel and Zionism through the eyes of the people and communities who self-identify this way’.

Designed to teach Judaism in an Israeli context, the program runs for 13-months and includes year-round long distance learning, two 12-day seminars in Jerusalem in addition to two retreats within North America. Rabia Chaudary, a Muslim activist and writer, graduated from the program’s first class and published here experience in TIME magazine. Several other notable Muslim leaders, chaplains and activist participated in the program as well. Their participation has garnered much attention, earned the ire of many and has started an important conversation about the relevance of such collaborations.

So, what are the ramifications of participating in such a program? How do Muslims go about collaborating with Zionist*organizations, if at all? I hope to discuss some of the key factors that come into play when engaging in such collaborations; first at a general level and then specifically as they apply to the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

Opportunities, and opportunity costs

If a Zionist group is willing to engage with Muslims who are outspoken critics of Israeli occupation and are prominent activists in the Palestinian solidarity movement, why should we be the ones to shy away? Remember the Irvine 11? Imagine if Ambassador Oren invited them over for tea- why shouldn’t they go? If there’s any one I want having tea with the Israeli ambassador, it’s the Irvine 11.

My point is that these could be opportunities to gain influence with people in authority and potentially build alliances with like minded individuals on the other side; any headway with them could lead to very real impacts. It is likely that the opposing side is reaching out to us for the same reason, but do we not have faith in our activists and leaders? To think that they’ll ‘convert to the dark side’ or somehow soften up is an unsubstantiated claim made in poor faith. If American Imams are meeting with the President, it is unlikely they’ll act like servile sycophants around him.

Collaboration with a Zionist group is an opportunity to reach out to an audience which we rarely interact with. It is a chance to share with them a narrative that they never get to hear because of the silos we live in. It is also a chance to understand their narrative, challenge it and critically assess the methodologies we employ in our own activism. Perhaps we can learn more effective ways of gathering support for Palestinian human rights from American Jews? Zionists need to understand that the Middle Eastern conflict continues because of their unflinching support for Israel – I think American Muslim leaders have a role to play in that conversation.

Furthermore, if we cut ourselves off from anyone with the slightest inclination towards Zionism, we are effectively cutting ourselves from mainstream Judaism. Zionist thought is entrenched in the modern Jewish psyche to an extent that they are indistinguishable to many. While things are changing, most American Jews still have a meaningful attachment and affinity to Israel; many still proudly identify as Zionists (though not always understanding the connotations of that term).

So, are we to abandon inter-faith dialogue with Jewish organizations out of fear of whitewashing Israeli occupation? Holocaust education and awareness could also be funded by Zionist institutions, what about participating in that? The key to navigating this conundrum is to understand that not all engagements are tantamount to approval, acceptance or legitimization of the one we engage with. Interaction is not an absolute endorsement; it is possible to collaborate with groups with opposing political views on matters of mutual benefit – provided that these groups are not working to actively harm our primary interests.

Legitimate Concerns, Ground Rules

The primary concern of engaging with a Zionist institution is its degree of affiliation with the State of Israel. There are hard Zionists that are active enablers and apologizers for Israeli aggression and its war crimes (think AIPAC, StandWithUs, JNF), and then there are soft Zionists. These could include anyone from groups like the Shalom Hartman Institute or a Jewish seminary that has pro-Israel tendencies. Collaboration with the former is essentially inconceivable while there may be opportunities to work with the latter.

The important question to ask is: What is their agenda? What’s the primary objective of their work? If their primary work isn’t conflicting with our interests, then there could be room for an engagement. This criterion essentially leaves religious and educational establishments as potential candidates for collaboration. A concern often raised is: are we not normalizing occupation by working with a Zionist group? This is a possible risk and it needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If the institution is not complicit in defending and sanitizing the Israeli occupation then this risk can be mitigated.

Another import factor to consider is the source of funding; where’s the money coming from? Again, any program funded by Israel’s government or any of its parastatal agencies should be off-limits. What about organizations funded by individual donors who have a pro-Israeli stance? This is a grey area and requires more investigation; things to look at include donor profiles, the track record and the degree of independence the organization has from its funding sources.

Lastly, the objectives of the engagement have to be made clear- what are we trying to achieve and who’s the target audience? Are we working together on holocaust awareness, an educational event or perhaps a debate? Sure, we can discuss this. Are we to take high school students on a tour to learn about the bastion of democracy that is Israel or the high ethical standards of the IDF? No, thank you. Any kind of program that tries to remotely whitewash Israel’s occupation and apartheid under the banner of ‘dialogue’, especially to a naïve audience, is not up for a discussion.

There is also the question of the BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions) movement against Israel; what if the institution opposes the BDS? While opposition to BDS is a concern it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Similar to my earlier point, the vast majority of Jews still oppose BDS, so how far are we to get if we work only with pro-BDS groups? Making BDS a strict condition would also mean having to cut ties with many in the pro-Palestinian camp who oppose it. There’s room for discussion on how to go about implementing BDS, as highlighted most recently by Noam Chomsky. BDS is arguably the best strategy to combat the occupation; however, it’s not the only one. One has to consider their situation and act accordingly; as Chaudary puts it, ‘We need some people to push, some people to pull, some to protest, some to partner, some to litigate, some to negotiate.’

On the MLI 

So, what’s the verdict on the MLI? The program is certainly a unique initiative; its creation by a trusted American Muslim chaplain well aware of the Palestinian struggle certainly makes it stand out. However, in light of the discussion above, there are a few concerns that arise and despite Hartman Institute’s pluralistic vision, it’s not obvious that it is the best host for it.

First is the funding source for the program. I was unable to find details on this, but if it turns out that the initiative is state sponsored then it should raise red flags. Secondly, as pointed out by Sana Saeed, Hartman Institute initially listed the MLI under the ‘iEngage’ project in its annual report; a program designed to garner support for Israel by ‘creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life’. While this has now been changed, it raises questions about the ultimate goals of this initiative.  Also problematic is the institute’s collaboration with the IDF as part of the Lev Aharon program which is designed to train Israeli soldiers on military ethics and morality.

Lastly, as articulated up by Abdullah al-Arian, the program “promotes an Israeli narrative that seeks to conflate Zionism with the Jewish faith and legitimize an apartheid system as the fulfillment of Jewish nationalist aspirations.”  While this was one of my first concerns, I am not convinced the program accomplishes this based on the information available so far; especially considering the accounts given by Chaplain Antepli and Rabia Chaudry. Most of the program is consists of distance education on Judaism and during the 24-days that the participants spend in Jerusalem, there’s a considerable degree of interaction with Palestinians in the West Bank. If their goal was to legitimize apartheid, I could see more effective ways of doing that. I would like to hear more feedback from participants on this point; if they did sense this was a problem, I would hope that the first batch of graduates would speak up and voice this issue.

Choosing to work with those who hold views contrary to ours is always a contentious decision. Some try to reduce the stakes to binaries and absolutes, which is almost never the case. We can’t pretend to solve conflicts in bubbles; engagement does at one point become an uncomfortable option that needs to be entertained. It also takes an incredible amount of courage to explore these options and assess the benefits; for that I respect those who chose to participate in the MLI. While I have my reservations about it, I believe we need to be open to those who choose to explore alternative ways of supporting the Palestinian struggle.

It remains to be seen whether the risks of participating in this experiment will yield any constructive benefits and if the concerns raised will be addressed in the future. I believe there is value in bridge building initiatives such as these; they should, however, not come at the price of comprising our principles.

*I wish not to get into the complex discussion of what Zionism means in this article; the term has vastly different connotations for Jews and pro-Palestinians. For the purposes of the article, I am simplifying the meaning of the term to what would be agreed upon in general colloquial  use: Those that politically take a  pro-Israeli stance, subscribe to Jewish nationalism, have a common aversion to the Palestinian narrative and overtly sympathetic to Israel’s ‘security’ concerns.