“We invoke the name of Allah to bless a meal. We invoke His name before opening a book we are about to read. We invoke His name to anticipate an action. We invoke His name to mark a ritual slaughter. Why do all religions put such a focus on the name of this or that deity, divinity, prophet, saint, or savior? Because the name moves beyond the unbounded, unspecified space that surrounds and engulfs all life, whether human, animal, animate, inanimate, earthly or celestial. For Muslims, Allah is that name beyond all names that becomes the singular, most potent name to be invoked, remembered, and reproduced day after day, time and again, in joy and sorrow, in life and death.” – Bruce Lawrence 

by BRUCE LAWRENCE for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 25, 2015:

Bruce Lawrence
Bruce Lawrence

Who is Allah? No one really knows but many claim to know. In framing my book, I highlight twin needs: to look at Islam with fresh eyes, and to understand Allah with dispassionate insight. The alternative is to settle for journalistic sloganeering, too often sensationalist even when it is highbrow.

The very name Allah is interwoven into the everyday experience of millions of Muslims. While Allah does not belong to Muslims, Allah is supreme for Muslims. In the Islamic tradition, Allah creates, motivates, and sustains the universe as well as humankind. It is a name invoked over 2500 times in the Holy Qur’an. It is the basis of the ‘witness’ (or shahada), a creed as integral to Islam as is the Shema to Jews or baptism to Christians.

19781469620039But Allah is also contested. Believing Muslims advocate the superseding power of Allah, while disbelieving or disputatious others claim Allah as the tribal deity, or moon god, of Arabs.

Is Allah the same as God in Christianity or Yahweh in Judaism? Brahmin in the Hindu tradition, and the Buddha (or Bodhisattva) in the Buddhist tradition? Yes, but that easy identity of celestial doorstops, or ultimate spiritual authorities, does not help us understand the contemporary power of Allah.

What is most needed now is to understand both the historical nuance of Allah throughout the past 1500 years and Allah’s relevance today, in 2015.

For Muslims, as for adherents of other religions, intentions as well as practices are paramount in one’s religious life. While the practice of the heart demonstrates how Allah is remembered in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, the practice of the mind examines how theologians and philosophers have defined Allah in numerous contexts, often with conflicting aims.

It is the practice of the ear that marks the contemporary period, as we hear competing calls for jihad, or religious struggle, within the cacophony of an immensely diverse umma, the worldwide Muslim community. Continue reading

by Sümeyye Kocaman for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 7, 2015:

Sümeyye Kocaman
Sümeyye Kocaman

As we hear more and more about the Caliphate, the ummah, Islamic law and the Islamic State, I am surprised by many things: the so-called experts’ lack of information; how the facts are being politically manipulated; how people of faith are letting religion be used in this minefield; and worse, how people of faith believe that religion can be used to legitimize inhumane, political arguments.

When we hear religion as a political argument — e.g. how an ‘Islamic state’ is needed to provide freedom for Muslims who have been victimized for centuries — we must see this as merely a new wave of nationalism backed up by the power of religious discourse. Religious discourse has the highest potential to mobilize crowds. If the discourse is powerful enough some local groups or even the society at large can be mobilized into an emotional mob that cares little for reason. Their voices — pure political ideology.

In the modern world religion and politics continue to be dangerously intertwined. We can regard this crisis of religion as a chance to reverse a vicious cycle. Continue reading

Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, 1974, 1633 pp., $105
Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, 1974, 1633 pp., $105

Bruce B. Lawrence celebrates Marshall Hodgson’s moral vision

by BRUCE LAWRENCE for MARGINALIA (AT LA REVIEW OF BOOKS) on NOVEMBER 11, 2014: 

Bruce Lawrence
Bruce Lawrence

Marshall Hodgson was both a genius and a visionary. While he may have seemed to be just another university professor, at once restless, innovative, and genial, he was also an academic Übermensch with a global agenda. He wanted to change the world by changing the way we saw, understood, and engaged Islam within world history. Born in 1922, he was drafted but as a Quaker refused to fight in World War II. After serving five years in detention camp, he returned to school, graduating from the University of Chicago with a PhD in the early 1950s. He had been teaching from the notes that became The Venture of Islam for over a decade before his demise in 1968. Forty-six years after his death, and 40 years since the posthumous publication of his magnum opus, his legacy remains puzzling. Was he ahead of his time, or has he been overtaken by the Cold War and its aftermath, including the horror of 9/11, along with its own, persistent aftermath? Continue reading

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN for ISLAMiCommentary/TIRN on OCTOBER 9, 2014: 

Lives of Muhammad by Kecia Ali The life of Prophet Muhammad has inspired the development of a vast body of literature over the centuries. Kecia Ali takes a look at this diverse literature in her new book, The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard University Press, 2014). She points out that “among Muslims and among non-Muslims, various approaches to the Prophet’s life story coexist.” This is the heart of her fascinating study. “In the twenty-first century,” she argues, “it makes no sense to speak of Muslim views of Muhammad in opposition to Western or Christian views. Instead, the images of Muhammad that contemporary Muslims hold fervently and defend passionately arose in tandem and in tension with western European and North American intellectuals’ accounts of his life.”

For an excerpt from The Lives of Muhammad, focusing on The Prophet’s wife Aisha, see here.

Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University who writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. In addition to her newest book The Lives of Muhammad (2014), other books include Sexual Ethics and Islam (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). From time to time she blogs at feminismandreligion.com, cognoscenti.wbur.org, and huffingtonpost.com.

Here’s an exclusive Q & A with Ali:

What inspired your interest in how Muhammad has been portrayed over the centuries?

Kecia Ali
Kecia Ali

My first two books (linked above) focused on Islamic law, with a lot of attention to marriage. In doing that research, I came across quite divergent portraits of Muhammad as a husband in early texts compared to modern ones, which started me thinking. Then I wrote a biography of the ninth-century jurist Imam Shafi‘i, which got me interested in biography as a genre: what does it mean to tell the story of someone’s life? It was a natural progression to start looking at biographies of the Prophet. Once I started, I was fascinated with how authors rejected, recycled, and reworked earlier material. A twentieth century Indian author references—without apparent irony—a seventeenth-century English polemicist. An Egyptian author plagiarizes a French biographer, while simultaneously lambasting Orientalists. The way that Muslim and non-Muslim writings about Muhammad have become inextricably intertwined says a great deal about a shared turn to ideals of objectivity, historicity, and fact.

Continue reading

by LAURIE PATTON for PATHEOS on DECEMBER 31, 2012: 

(excerpt) Many leaders of the movement to give women more leadership roles in Islam are marked in public discourse as American or Western European; the first woman-led prayer service was held in New York City in 2006 and the press noted that it was predominantly attended by American women and men. In the Catholic Church, the feminist movements, and pro-ordination advocates, are particularly concentrated in America and Western Europe, and seen as a problem precisely because they are in these more Westernized, liberal cultures. Continue reading