06/24/2004: From Juan Cole last weekend....
we get a reference to a story hailing from Irvine, California, where it appears that 11 Muslim students intended to supplement their graduation gowns with green stoles inscribed with Islamic inscriptions. Granting, I'm a perverted, treasonous liberal atheist who long ago forfeited his right to live in a "civilized" society like the U.S., but I fail to see what on earth was possibly objectionable about the inscriptions. Looks like one was simply, "Lord, increase my knowledge" (a quite suitable sentiment at an academic convocation, I'd think) and the other was the Muslim confession of faith, "There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his Messenger." Nonetheless, some Jewish student groups and other outside organizations interpreted the stoles and their inscriptions as somehow indicating support for terrorism and terrorist groups like Hamas. Cole answers these concerns quite well, and his entire post on this topic is well worth reading. Some excerpts:
I can't say how upset I am by the gross bigotry displayed by anyone in the American Jewish Congress who would attempt to associate the Muslim confession of faith with terrorism.The Orange County Register article cited by Cole has some more pertinent comments from UC-Irvine administration and faculty, including a Jewish professor of Middle Eastern history:
The shahadah or confession of faith is a universalist statement. It begins by saying "La ilaha illa Allah." "La" means "no" in Arabic. "Ilah" is god with a small "g", a deity of the sort that is worshipped in polytheistic religions like those of ancient Greece and Babylon. It is a cognate of the ancient Hebrew "eloh," which also means "god." One of the names for God in the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible is Elohim, which literally means "the Gods." Some scholars believe that the use of this plural is an echo of the process whereby a council of gods in ancient Near Eastern religion gradually become merged into a single figure, the one God.
So "La ilaha" means that there are no gods or small deities of the polytheistic sort. The ancient Arabs worshipped star-goddesses such as al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. These are the equivalents of Venus, Hera and Diana in classical mythology. The Muslim witness to faith denies that such deities exist.
"Illa Allah" means "except for God." So there is no deity except The Deity. This part of the shahadah is a pure expression of monotheism. Monotheism's basic characteristic is its universalism. It asserts that one, single divinity underlies all of Being. This point is why it is wrong to insist on using the word Allah in English rather than God. Allah is not a proper name. It is simply the Arabic word for "the God." A god is ilahun. The God is al-Ilahu. The close proximity of two "L's" in al-Ilah caused them to be elided together so that the word became Allah. But it just means "the God," i.e., "God." Christian Arabic-speakers also use Allah to refer to the God of the Bible.
And, the Koran also identifies Allah or "God" as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as of Muhammad. So, "there is no God but God." There is no difference in sentiment between this statement and the phrase, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." (Dt. 6:4).
The other part of the Muslim witness to faith is, "and Muhammad is His Messenger." (Muhammadun rasul Allah [or, transliterating by pronunciation: Muhammadu'rasulu'llah]. The word rasul or messenger is used interchangeably in the Koran with nabi or prophet. The Arabic nabi is cognate to the Hebrew word, which is the same. When Jesus said, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country," he certainly used the word nabi in his original phrasing. The Koran does not represent Muhammad as the only prophet or recipient of divine revelation. Even the bees receive a form of wahy or revelation from God. God has sent a prophet "to every city," it maintains. Not only are all the biblical figures prophets, but so are John the Baptist and Jesus, and even ancient Arabian prophets are accepted. In India, many Sufi Muslims were perfectly comfortable accepting Krishna and Ram as prophets. Of course, committed Muslims believe that Muhammad is the most recent messenger and the most appropriate one in which to believe, but they don't deny the validity of others such as Moses. And, in traditional Islamic law, it is perfectly all right for human beings to follow other prophets of the one God, whether they be Christians, Jews or members of some other monotheistic religion. This tolerance was implemented for the most part, though there were lapses, and some serious ones. It can be contrasted with medieval Christianity, which often expelled Jews and Muslims or forcibly converted them.
"This has gotten so out of control," said UCI Dean of Students Sally Peterson, who was preparing to meet with another set of students to discuss the issue. "At last count, there were 11 students planning to wear the stoles. ... Some of the students are not sure if they want to wear them now."Were I a UC-Irvine alumnus I'd be embarassed for my alma mater right now....
UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone issued a letter to the campus on the controversy, reiterating that UCI will not ban the students from wearing the stoles.
"UCI is a public university with people from diverse backgrounds who enjoy the rights and protection of the First Amendment," Cicerone wrote. "Our history includes the free and peaceful expression of political and nonpolitical ideas, no matter how controversial."
UCI professor Mark LeVine, who teaches Middle Eastern history, blamed a lack of critical thinking for the political tensions among students this year.
"There is very little self-criticism among any of the groups, who should be brutally searching for the truth," said LeVine, who is Jewish. "(College is) one of the few times when you have the luxury of thinking things through, but both sides would rather denigrate the other."
LeVine, who teaches a class on Palestine and was in Iraq in March, said he was not disturbed by stoles with the word shahada on them, as long as the people wearing them were not claiming ties to terrorist organizations.
"This is not helping anything and not doing anything to bring peace and justice anywhere," LeVine said.
Len on 06.24.04 @ 08:03 PM CST