TIME Religion

Vatican Hires British Politician to Overhaul Media Strategy

Lord Chris Patten attends a mass with newly appointed cardinals held by Pope Francis at St Peter's Basilica on February 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Lord Chris Patten attends a mass with newly appointed cardinals held by Pope Francis at St Peter's Basilica on February 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

The Vatican taps former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to revamp its PR operation

Veteran British politician Chris Patten has been tapped to bring the Vatican’s media strategy into the 21st century. Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s prefect for the secretariat of the economy, announced the appointment of Patten at a press conference on Wednesday.

Patten, 70, a former governor of Hong Kong and former chair of the BBC Trust, will chair a new media committee at the Vatican set to oversee and modernize the various media outlets produced therein, including Vatican Radio and the Vatican TV Center. Variety reports Cardinal Pell said Wednesday that the goal of the new committee is to reach more Catholics and “recognize that the world of the media has changed radically and is changing.”

Currently, Vatican media reaches about 10% of Catholics worldwide.

“We want to build on very recent positive experiences, such as ‘The Pope App’ and the Holy Father’s Twitter account.” Pell said, according to the National Catholic Register.

Patten, a devout Catholic, has a long history of public service having served as a member of the U.K. Parliament and chairman of the Conservative Party before taking the role at BBC Trust. He recently resigned from the post for health reasons, but told the Financial Times he’s looking forward to what he called “an important and challenging” assignment.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 12: Sex Slavery and Objectification of Women

We are desperately in need of a cultural shift in how we think of women.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

Recently, on my drive home I was listening to Public Radio when I came across a story that just boiled my blood and sunk my heart. It was the story of mostly young and vulnerable women who were kidnapped from Tenancingo, Mexico and forced into sex slavery right here in the United States. It is the single largest source of sex slaves in America according to this report.

The latest studies estimate that there are more than 20.9 million people – mostly girls and women – who are forced into sex slavery worldwide. And, sex trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today. These statistics can just sound like numbers until we pause and think of the individuals who suffer through this evil. We may not know them by face or name, but they do have faces and they do have names and they really do matter.

The problem of sex trafficking can seem beyond our control, but there are some wonderful organizations out there fighting the good fight everyday that we can support in whatever ways we can to help end this evil. And, as citizens we can demand that our government do more domestically and internationally to further the cause of human freedom. As a nation, abolishment of slavery was and is an important milestone in our history. We now have to go the extra mile to end slavery in all of its illegal forms starting here at home.

I would like to argue that there is something else we can do too – something that requires moral courage, introspection, and ultimately a cultural shift. We can start a movement against the sexual objectification of women. If we are really honest, the shocking evil of sex trafficking is in, some ways, only an extension and the ugliest manifestation of treating women like commodities. From selling cars and clothes to beer and chips and everything in between, we have become quite comfortable with the sexual objectification of women in society. And, somehow as long as a woman consents and is over the random age of 18 or 21, it becomes completely legal to sexually and commercially exploit her.

Sadly, many women – young girls in particular – have internalized a lot of this objectification around them on highway billboards, television and movie screens, and Internet. For it nowadays to be common and culturally acceptable for a young girl to walk around in the mall, for example, with something like “juicy” written across her backside or across her chest is an indication of the serious problem that lies before us.

Needless to say, women are not objects – they are human beings who have souls and intellects and are endowed with God-given dignity that no man or corporation should ever be able to take away from them. Starting with the way we raise our boys and our girls, we are desperately in need of a cultural shift – locally and globally – on how we think of women.

A young man once came to the Prophet Muhammad asking permission to commit fornication with women. The Prophet drew the young man closer to himself, put his hand on his shoulders, and asked, “Would you like this for your sister or your mother or your daughter?” The man immediately replied that he would hate it. The Prophet said, “then, how can I permit you to do this with someone else’s sister, mother, or daughter?”

Ramadan is the month in which we learn to discipline our sexual appetites through the spiritual discipline of fasting. The idea is not sacrifice our appetites completely at the altar of monasticism, but rather to bring our inclinations into conformity with a higher and more ethical way. If people were not slaves to their sexual appetites there would be no industry for sex slavery. And, if people learned to control their sexual glances, there would be far less objectification of women. As with everything else that is good, it all begins with the self.

TIME Religion

Quitting the Cancer ‘Battle’

Getty Images

Watching my wife deal with morning sickness while I was laid low by chemo­therapy, I realized that I had the easier job. All I had to do was die


This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I am not a hero. After my last post, some readers wanted to know how I arrived at my attitude toward cancer, which is to be found somewhere between a religious person’s submis­sion and the cordial host’s welcome. A better question—one my oncologist and I wrestle with at every appointment—is why most cancer patients tumble into a bottom­less slough of despond.

My intention is not to criticize other cancer patients. To be told that you have a disease which is going to kill you in the next few months or years is to be slammed by a violent and remorseless truth that nothing in experience prepares you for. At first you can’t even process what your doctor is telling you, because there is nothing to which you can com­pare the news in order to make sense of it—it is a monster from beyond your imagination. Denial, self-pity, panic, despair: these are the natural reactions.

I was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in the fall of 2007. Just before Sukkot my doctor phoned to warn that an “opacity” had shown up on my chest X-ray during a routine physical examination. To the Jews, Sukkot is zeman simhatenu, the “season of our rejoicing,” but there was little joy in our sukkah that year. Our season was one of dread.

Average survival time of men diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer is one to three years. Maybe ten percent live ten years. When you are first diagnosed, you obsess over the numbers. You vow, “I will be one of the ten percent!” Your vow, though, has no effect whatever on the outcome of your disease.

No matter how often you swear that you will fight the cancer, you are helpless against it. The journalistic convention in obituaries to praise the dead for their “coura­geous battle” against cancer is a lie designed to comfort the living and healthy. At best the cancer patient consents to treatment, although he must withdraw consent at some point and permit the disease to run its course. Or, as L. E. Sissman sang of the foreign country known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma where he lingered for a decade,

Reside on the sufferance of authorities
Until my visas wither, and I die.

Cancer patients are betrayed by our culture’s dishonesty. Those who recover from the disease are hailed as “survivors”—a term appropriated from the Holo­caust—but while they are struggling with cancer and undergoing sometimes painful treatments for it, they are barely acknowledged. They are consigned to what Ralph Elli­son calls a “hole of invisibility.”

“There’s a possibility,” Ellison goes on to say, “that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.” Not, however, as long as the servitude of cancer is described by the platitudes our culture favors—“fight,” “battle,” “survive,” or “suc­cumb.” Is it any wonder the cancer patient, who suspects the truth even if he dare not utter it to himself, ends in inconsolable resignation?

A friend of mine who has recovered from breast cancer points out that being a patient with a life-threatening illness is a release from daily, clock-managed, to-do-list responsi­bility. Cancer patients should embrace their freedom, she argues. That most fail to do so is a testament to their mortal terror of freedom.

My own view is somewhat different. Cancer permanently disfigures a person’s self-image, and neither the culture nor his curriculum vitae includes the materials for a recon­struction.

For half a century now, American culture has been a culture of self-fulfillment. Interests must be pursued, talents developed, desires expressed, needs met: the self is con­ceived as a string of imperatives. But cancer exposes these as arbitrary and extrava­gant. The staples of selfhood, it turns out, have been neglected.

A diagnosis of cancer might be the “rift or revelation” which, as the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran says, dries up illu­sion and begins the true self. And yet the exact opposite is what usually happens:

When you no longer believe in yourself, you stop producing or struggling…whereas it is the contrary which should have occurred, since it is precisely at this moment that, being free of all bonds, you are likely to grasp the truth, discern what is real and what is not.

If cancer patients are to be helped out of their despondency—if they are to face the reality of their condition, which to my mind is the only possible way to go on living with cancer—they must be helped to believe in themselves again.

But how? The literature, divided between breathless guides to “alternative” healing and triumphalist accounts of “survival,” is of small assistance. Perhaps my own history, though, might suggest a tentative first step.

My wife was pregnant with our fourth child during the initial months of my cancer. Watching her deal with morning sickness and a husband laid low by chemo­therapy, I realized that I had the easier job. All I had to do was die. She would be left alone with her grief and the emptiness where I once held her and we laughed together. As Dora Carring­ton cried to her dead husband Lytton Strachey in her diary, “Every day for the rest of my life you will be away.”

The self that lived for fulfillment may have collapsed like a pretense at the first word of cancer. This is not a loss, however, but a refinement. You are no longer defined by the interests you pursued or the desires you expressed: you are no more or less than the person whom your wife (or husband) and children love.

Your capacities may be diminished—you may not be able to dance with your wife, play catch with your sons, pick up your daughter—but they do not love your capacities; they love the person. And whether you accept the responsibility of being that person, or acquiesce as the cancer proves itself to be stronger than love, is a decision entirely within your command.

D. G. Myers is a critic and literary historian who taught for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities. He is the author of The Elephants Teach and ex-fiction critic for Commentary.

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TIME Religion

Detroit Man Admits Burning Quran Outside Islamic Center

Statements to police don't clarify the motive

A Michigan man of Iraqi heritage pleaded guilty to charges related to the burning of the Quran on June 25 after being caught in the act outside an Islamic community center in a Detroit suburb.

Ali Al-Asadi, 51, was stopped by police on June 25 outside Karabala Islamic Center as he stood over a burning a Quran. In conversations with police, Al-Asadi admitted to burning the Quran and acknowledged having done so on two earlier occasions. He explained the burnings as an attempt to find help collecting on a “legal settlement,” something that local mosques had refused to do, according to Dearborn, Mich. Police Lieutenant Doug Topoloski. Al-Asadi told the Detroit Free Press that he suffers from “severe psychological trauma anxiety.”

Ali Al-Asadi Quran Burning Dearborn Detroit Michigan
Ali Al-Asadi was arrested for burning a Quran outside the Karabala Islamic Center in Dearborn, Mich. on June 25, 2014. City of Dearborn

In Dearborn, where Arab-Americans account for more than 40% of the population and comprise a majority of the City Council, the burning of the Islam’s key religious text has been met with confusion.

“I don’t know this guy,” says Husham Alhusainy, the imam who leads the center where the incident occurred. “What is the motivation?”

Alhusainy says he is outraged at the “evil action,” though other Islamic leaders in the community shrugged at its implications.

“I don’t know the motive of why he burned the Quran, but in our country people can burn flags. He was charged with littering which was the appropriate the charge under the law,” says Dawud Walid, an Islamic preacher and the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Drawing a distinction between Al-Asadi and people like Florida preacher Terry Jones, who traveled to Michigan to inflame religious tensions, Walid says Al-Asadi’s motives seem more baffling than malicious. “Was he even motivated to make a statement regarding religion?” he says.”I’ve never even heard of a situation like this. It’s so bizarre.”

Al-Asadi was charged with littering and unlawful release of soot, and was released on $300 bond. His sentencing is scheduled for August 5.

TIME Religion

Faith Leaders to Obama: Don’t Let Us Discriminate, Either

A new effort pushes back against a smaller campaign last week

More than 100 faith leaders asked President Barack Obama on Tuesday not to include a religious exemption in his upcoming executive order to ban job discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation among federal employees.

The group—which included Christian, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith leaders—sent the White House a letter Tuesday urging the President to end such discrimination without exception. “An executive order that allows for religious discrimination against LGBT people contradicts the order’s fundamental purpose, as well as the belief shared by more and more Americans every day, which is that LGBT people should not be treated as second-class citizens,” they said in the letter. “An exception would set a terrible precedent by denying true equality for LGBT people, while simultaneously opening a Pandora’s Box inviting other forms of discrimination.”

Their effort pushes back against a smaller campaign last week by about a dozen Christian leaders who asked the President to carve out an exception in the order for religious organizations. Signers of that letter included pastors Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, as well as Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA, and Stephan Bauman of World Relief. Michael Wear, who directed faith vote outreach for Obama’s reelection campaign, helped to organize that effort.

Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary and a signatory to the new letter, said she was “devastated” to learn that a group of prominent faith leaders, “my brothers and sisters in Christ,” had asked the President for a religious exemption in the forthcoming order. “In other words, they asked that people of faith be given special permission to discriminate,” she wrote in an op-ed for TIME last week after the first group’s letter became public. “It’s simply theologically indefensible.”

Five other seminary and divinity school presidents joined Jones in signing Tuesday’s letter—Katharine Henderson of Auburn Theological Seminary, Alice Hunt of Chicago Theological Seminary, James McDonald of San Francisco Theological Seminary, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale of Episcopal Divinity School, and Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan of Claremont School of Theology. Other notable signers include Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, Brian McLaren of the Cana Initiative, and Rabbi Richard Block of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as heads of nonprofits and denominational leaders of the Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ and others.

It remains to be seen how the White House will respond. For now, the dueling positions are one more reminder that, despite increasing public support for gay rights, tensions surrounding the matter still divide religious communities across the country.

TIME politics

Evangelicals Must Take the Reins on Immigration Reform

Immigrants And Activists Protest Obama Response To Child Immigration Crisis
Young children join immigration reform protesters while marching in front of the White House July 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

The church cannot be silent as angry groups of people stoking the flames of fear yell at buses filled with helpless immigrant children and women.

Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez is dead. Immigration reform is dead. These headlines are a tragic consequence of two parts of the world still incapable of finding a way to address comprehensively the issues of gang violence, extreme poverty, corruption and other root causes of immigration. This narrative repeats itself thousands of times all over the world. We can and must do better. All of us must be part of the solution.

Gilberto was an 11-year-old Guatemalan boy who died near the Southwest border of the United States, most likely in a desperate search for water. I am a father of two young boys. I wept. Jesus weeps. The church, nation and world mourn. As an evangelical pastor, I must speak of all the grief and loss associated with death just as surely as I hold to the hope of resurrection. We must find a way forward that saves as many Gilbertos as we can.

In meetings with President Obama, members of Congress, and immigrant voices last week, one thing was abundantly clear: this is a crisis. Everyone agrees that something must be done. The question remains: How do we move from political ping-pong with children’s lives to real regional and global solutions?

I told my congregation last Sunday, “Fear cannot be our basis for action. Fear is never the humane way forward.” If we are to move forward, we must work together in hope. Hope requires sacrifice and courage. This hour in American history will tell how strongly the evangelical church in America holds to these virtues. Will evangelicals step forward and asked for increased resources for security, education and sustainable development in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua? Will we refuse to allow people to blame children for the broken immigration systems? The church cannot be silent as angry groups of people stoking the flames of fear yell at buses filled with helpless immigrant children and women. Intelligent and well-meaning people can disagree on the best way forward to this humanitarian and immigration crisis. All will agree that screaming at children caught in an inescapable web of international relations, corruption, human traffickers and stagnation on immigration reform isn’t the way forward.

There are no easy answers. Everyone has to put his or her best foot forward. Governments in Latin America must be held accountable for the security and safety of its most vulnerable citizens, particularly children. “Coyotes” and human traffickers who exploit the vulnerabilities of millions must be brought to justice. Any corruption that risks the lives of these children must be decried and eliminated. Governments, non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations and congregations must increase our efforts to serve our brothers and sisters around the globe.

We in the United States must also remember that our commitments and foreign policy in Latin American aid, security, environment and development have a direct impact on whether Gilberto and those like him remain safely at home or dies in the desert. In addition, we must, for the sake of our shared humanity, act on immigration reform. Legislative inaction has too high a cost. And when they come to our shores seeking refuge from the tempest-tossed realities of violence and poverty, we cannot allow screaming crowds to be the voice of who we are as a people. For when we as a nation query Jesus, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or needing clothes, or sick, or in prison and did not help you?” Jesus will reply, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” What we do for Gilberto, we do for Jesus.

Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero is the President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and Pastor of The Lamb’s Church in New York.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 11: Faith and Reason

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

As a chaplain, I meet quite a few people who have left Islam or are on the brink of leaving the faith. The reasons for leaving Islam, I found, are varied. But, one answer that kept coming up goes something like this: “I had a lot of questions and I was told not to question my faith, so I just decided it wasn’t for me.” It’s usually more complex than that, but that’s pretty much the gist.

To me, this means that too many Muslims who experience a crisis of faith are being turned away by their family members or even religious leaders who, basically, tell them that Islam is a religion of surrendering oneself to God – take it or leave it. If Islam is to survive and thrive in America and beyond, this is one attitude that will have to change wherever it may exist.

Even though, yes, Islam is based on this understanding of bringing one’s inward and outward in harmony with God’s teachings and guidance – there is much room for doubt, questions, and reason. This is simply so because knowing the reality of God and what God wants from us is not always easy to know. Blind faith is not asked of us nor is it even encouraged.

In fact, the Qur’an is full of criticism for those who simply believe or do things based on what they learned from their ancestors without independently thinking or contemplating its truth (2:170 and 5:104). Furthermore, one of the most oft-repeated lines of the Qur’an says that this message is for those who deeply think and ponder (2:163). Similarly, the Qur’an in multiple places commends those who contemplate and use their intelligence (3:190).

The Qur’an also tells of the angels who dared to question God’s decision to put human beings on earth upon realizing that they would, by virtue of their capacity to disobey God, spread mischief and bloodshed (2:130). There is also the story of Prophet Abraham – who is praised as a sincere devotee of God and given the title of “intimate friend of God” – who, nonetheless, asks God how it is that he will resurrect and bring back to life that which is dead (2:260). And, we have the story of Prophet Moses who is honored for speaking directly to God, yet asks God to show himself (7:143).

When it comes to convincing people of faith, the Qur’an is filled with passages that employ signs within the human being and in the universe to contemplate the existence, oneness, and genius of God (2:163 – 164). The Qur’an also shows in Prophet Abraham, as a model of faith, someone who is at every step using his reason to preach to his people, pointing to the signs in the heavens (2:258 and 6:74 – 79) and showing the weakness of the manmade idols (21:51 – 67).

Likewise, the prescriptions and proscriptions that are found in the Qur’an are usually given a clear rationale and not just expected to be followed without consideration. The Prophet Muhammad, too, would invite his companions to ask questions – sometimes very difficult and personal questions – and would answer them calmly and intelligently. The prophetic biography is full of such instances.

All of this is to argue that in Islam doubt, questions, and human reasoning are not at all antithetical to faith. In fact, it can very well be argued that faith is not complete without these things. All of this, of course, presupposes that we are sincere in our inquiry and that we want the truth to manifest rather than simply our egos to be satisfied. This is why the lifelong journey of faith and reason is as much a spiritual effort as it is an intellectual one.

On this point, the Qur’an will readily admit that faith cannot be achieved through the intellect alone. Faith, by its very nature, is a belief that settles and finds conviction in the heart with the aid of the mind. Spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting are the methodologies by which faith becomes rooted in the heart. In the realm of metaphysics these spiritual methodologies are essential. Just as a scientist cannot run around the lab chanting God’s names and expecting his or her experiment to succeed, a spiritual seeker cannot simply apply the scientific methodology to metaphysical questions and expect an answer.

TIME Religion

Ramadan Is Morphing Into a Meaningless Holiday Season

The Muslim holiday has taken on a completely different form in America, one that more closely resembles Christmas


This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I belong to a very particular generation of Muslims, one who formed a Muslim identity well before the turning point of 9/11. Those days were very different — it was a time when Muslims in America were still primarily under the radar. It was also a time before the Internet flooded us with information (and misinformation) about Islam and Muslims. I still had to explain to work colleagues why I wasn’t ordering anything at lunch during Ramadan, and conversations around me didn’t always revolve around my Muslim identity or global politics. It was much easier to be a normal American, and to be seen as one as well.

Under the cover of this relative isolation, my Ramadan experiences were different then they are today. It was a much more intimate affair — I would spend my evenings in quiet prayer and then break my fast either at the mosque with my community or in small home gatherings with friends and family.

These experiences forever defined within me the scope, power, and meaning of this month. It was certainly a time to be social, to reconnect with community and family, but the heart of it still lay with my relationship with God. It was relatively apolitical as well — we didn’t argue about moon sighting methodologies or getting Eid on school calendars.

Fast forward to modern American Muslim life. Ramadan has taken on a completely different form, and I’m as guilty as any in indulging and reinforcing it. Within our communities, invitations to iftars/social events get sent out weeks in advance, often overlapping so much that the truly determined “iftar-hop” in order to get them all in.

In a month devoted to the abstinence of food, we paradoxically spend our days preparing it, and our evenings feasting on it, making sure to Instagram culinary creations that took the better part of a day to finish. We have turned our attention from celebrating the month inwardly to making sure others know about it. We spend an increasing amount of time blogging, lobbying and spending on Ramadan.

The greatest shift, however, is in how Ramadan is perceived by society at large. I regularly get unsolicited “Ramadan Mubarak!” messages from friends, colleagues, even strangers — both in person and on social media. Where I live in Washington, D.C., the iftar has become a public celebration, where all sorts of institutions outside the Muslim community — non-profit organizations, think tanks, embassies, city halls and federal government institutions — jockey to claim one of the days of the month for iftar dinners that are open to the public (I know this because I spent the last three years organizing the State Department iftar, a much sought-after ticket among the upwardly mobile, Muslim or not).

What is happening to the Ramadan I used to know? I feel we are inadvertently following the model of Christmas and turning the month into a “season” that is a time for socializing, indulgence and consumerism above all else. Corporate America is sensing this and is responding accordingly with Ramadan promotions and special events (latest example: the DKNY Ramadan launch this week), using a barely-modified Christmas playbook.

Our need for belonging makes us applaud any public acknowledgement of our holiday, whether it is a Best Buy ad, a politician’s Ramadan greeting or a department store Ramadan display. I regularly attend public iftars where nearly half the attendees are not Muslim, and any religious aspect is relegated to a small side room so as to not get in the way of networking and socializing. When you start seeing people like Wolf Blitzer at iftars, you just have to wonder what is happening to our most precious religious holiday.

None of what I’m seeing is inherently bad, of course. It certainly is a mark of recognition and cross-community understanding that we’ve been able to cement Ramadan into the public landscape while keeping it relatively free of the geopolitics that so infects our identity these days.

Our economic power has convinced corporate America to respect us as a demographic group, and our increasing political clout has enabled elected officials to calculate that they would gain more votes than they would lose if they cater to us. When you consider the beating we take in certain elements of the public sphere, these are certainly things to be proud of.

But in pursuing the advancement of our communities, it would be a shame to lose what Ramadan is really about and what it was meant to be. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?

Shahed Amanullah is the founder and original editor-in-chief of Altmuslim, CEO and co-founder of LaunchPosse, CEO and founder of Halalfire (parent company to zabiha.com) and a former senior advisor at the U.S. Department of State.

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TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 10: Reconciliation

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

In yesterday’s piece, I offered some reflections on the tradition of forgiveness in Islam. But, forgiveness is, preferably, just a step – if not the first step – toward an even greater objective: reconciliation.

If forgiveness requires an epic struggle with the ego, then reconciliation – actually opening yourself up to a harmonious relationship with a past foe – requires something quite heroic. And, beyond the individual there is also the matter of reconciliation between entire communities. Today’s world is in much need of healing and reconciling between religions, ethnicities, races, and other factions.

As a Muslim, one of the most troubling divisions I am witnessing right now is between Sunnis and Shia’ in certain parts of the Muslim World. There has been terrible violence and bloodshed in places like Pakistan and Iraq. And, the sectarianism on the streets and around the dinner tables is quite ugly too. We need a few good men and women to work toward peace and reconciliation during these dark times.

One of the most positive moves in recent memory was when hundreds of senior Muslim scholars representing different schools of thought in Islam came together to sign the historic Amman Message in Jordan, which called on Muslims to co-exist peacefully and respectfully wherever they may live. But, the implementation of the historic document is still lagging far behind.

The Qur’an itself emphatically states, “The believers are brothers [and sisters], so make peace between your brothers and be mindful of God so that you may receive mercy” (49:10). There are several other passages that encourage peacemaking between people, in general, as well (4:114 for example). The Prophet Muhammad said, “Shall I tell you of something that is better than fasting, prayer, and charity? [It is] reconciling between two people.”

Here are three principles from the Qur’an that offer insights on how to actually make reconciliation happen:

1) “God may still bring about affection between you and your [present foes] – God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful” (60:7). In other words, no matter how bad things get, never close the door on the possibility of reconciliation.

2) “…Repel wrong with goodness and your foe will become as close [to you] as an old and valued friend, but only those who are steadfast in patience, only those who are blessed with great righteousness, will attain to such goodness…” (Qur’an 41: 34 – 35). The offering of kind words, gifts, and so on in the midst of enmity can soften the hearts toward a more peaceful future.

3) “O you who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives…refrain from following your own desire, so that you act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do” (4:135). Usually when there is a falling out and enmity between two people or between communities, there is a need to rectify a past wrong. By the end of a conflict there are probably wrongs on both sides that need to be rectified. While calling for absolute justice ends up in cycles of unending conflict, some measure of justice and fairness is needed for people to be able to move on.

I pray, despite all odds, that Ramadan is the month in which hearts are brought closer together, relationships are repaired, and loving friendships are formed. I pray, for prayer is our best hope for beating the odds. As Muslim country musician, Kareem Salama puts it in his song Prayers at Night: “But we can bend iron with our prayers at night. Yes, we can bend iron with our prayers at night.”

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 8: Finding Inner Freedom

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

During this July 4th weekend I have been thinking much about the concept of freedom as we celebrate Independence Day in the United States. I know that I am eternally grateful for the freedom of religion and conscience, and of speech, work, movement and so much more. And, I recognize that this freedom is a blessing that many are deprived of in the world.

When I was much younger I lived for a few years in Saudi Arabia. There, even though life was comfortable, the absence of freedom, in many ways, was strongly felt. It seemed to completely stifle any sense of civic life and society.

Nowadays, there is a lot of clamor in parts of the Muslim World for greater freedom. The Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in Egypt, for example, became symbols of this yearning to live freely. People took to the streets to topple their governments, believing that they could finally experience freedom if they were freed from the yoke of oppressive dictatorships. This desire to be free is not just an awareness of the freedoms enjoyed in parts of the West as many have suggested, but it is a much more innate and natural desire that stirs deep within the human soul. It may have something to do with the very way we come into the world…

The early Muslim sage and second caliph of Islam, Umar bin al-Khattab, reportedly warned one of his governors – in a quickly expanding Muslim empire – against taking slaves, saying, “O ‘Amr! When did you begin to enslave and subjugate people after their mothers have given birth to them as free people?”

Freedom in the modern world is almost exclusively spoken of in terms of outward rights. But, there is another aspect of freedom that deserves just as much, if not more, attention: inner freedom. In reality, without a philosophical discourse and sincere realization of inner freedom, people may experience all the outward freedom in the world and still feel totally imprisoned.

The Prophet Muhammad is an exemplar of what inward freedom looks like. When he was oppressed and mocked for his teachings during the first 13 years of his prophetic mission, he never replied rudeness with rudeness or harshness with harshness. When the Prophet became the leader of a people for the next 10 years and was forced to fight in battles to protect his community, even then he never allowed hatred to get the best of him and continued to pray for his enemies. When the Prophet was given a chance to engage in perpetual war with his rivals or sign a peace-treaty filled with concessions, he had the insight to choose peace. And, when the Prophet returned victorious to Mecca toward the end of his life, he chose amnesty and forgiveness over revenge. All of this the Prophet did because he was remarkably and truly free.

Nelson Mandela, may God rest his soul, said, upon leaving the prison where he had been held for 27 years, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

These are sagacious words for our times. In the midst of riots and revolutions for the sake of freedom, this inner freedom we cannot afford to forget. For once the outward dictator is overthrown we achieve nothing if the inner dictator is well and alive. Without inner freedom the cycles of oppression continue on and on.

Each one of us has a life long struggle to unshackle ourselves from the inner desires, passions, and ego that seek to be masters over us. Fasting during this month of Ramadan has been an intense and serious lesson in what it means to gain master over lower inner qualities and to attain to a higher state – a state that finds its freedom in God and godliness.

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