Ramadan: Breaking Your Fast with Some Punch[es]…

A few days ago, I wrote about the onset of Ramadan and the negative impact it often has on Muslim society [The Dark Spirit of Ramadan]. I cited a passage from Sir Richard F. Burton’s book describing his journey to Medina and Mecca, published in 1855, where he offered observations on life in Cairo during the month of Ramadan. Among other things, he said,

“…the chief effect of the “blessed month” [i.e., Ramadan] is to darken their [i.e., Muslim] tempers into positive gloom.”

One hundred and sixty some years later, things haven’t changed much. Screengrab of the brawl outside the Musjid-Al-Hilal mosque in Berea.

Below is a link to  clips caught on video of a “Ramadan brawl” which erupted outside the Masjid al-Hilal mosque in Overton, a suburb of Durban, South Africa, just after evening prayers had concluded. No information was posted as to the cause of the scuffle.


While it is true that violence is not limited to followers of any one religion, it is certainly rare to find worshipers exchanging blows immediately after leaving a time of community prayer, at least in religions other than Islam. The stresses and strains of Ramadan seem to bring out the worst in human nature.




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Ramadonald Trump

In this Muslim season of Ramadan, one of the social myths promulgated by former President Obama and gladly trumpeted by the mainstream media as fact is that the White House has had a long tradition of celebrating iftar (a meal that breaks the Ramadan fast at the end of each day of that lunar month) with Muslim guests.Image result for iftar How long does that tradition reach back? All the way to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson in 1805! So goes the myth. Even the New York Times has carried water for this fairytale in an attempt to show how tolerant or even approving our founding fathers and most presidents since then have been toward Islam.

In a front-page article from August 14, 2010, entitled Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site, “journalist” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported on remarks made by the then President as he hosted the Ramadan ceremony at the White House. This is how she characterized the history of iftars at the White House:

In hosting the iftar, Mr. Obama was following a White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson, who held a sunset dinner for the first Muslim ambassador to the United States. President George W. Bush hosted iftars annually.

Perhaps Stolberg is to be excused for swallowing the President’s message hook, line and sinker that evening as he spoke of Jefferson’s trailblazing dinner as “the first known iftar at the White House,”  in honor of “the first Muslim ambassador to the United States.” Yet, even if Mr. Obama was willing to play fast and loose with the truth, a journalist should have higher standards.

According to historical records, here’s a more accurate report of what happened under Jefferson’s administration. Some fifteen years prior to the onset of his presidency, the Barbary States of North Africa, all Muslim, had begun raiding and seizing American merchant ships in the Mediterranean, demanding of the fledgling U.S. government both ransom for the captured ships and personnel and then an annual tribute from the USA in exchange for freedom from further harrassment by the “Barbary pirates”, as they became known. America had no navy of her own, having formerly been protected by the British Crown until the onset of the Revolutionary War. The aggression of the Muslim pirates against U.S. merchant interests led to the formation of the U.S. Department of the Navy in 1798. In 1786, however, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had been sent overseas to negotiate with Tripoli for an end to the unprovoked hostilities from the Barbary States. They came away without success, but with a better understanding of the enemy they were facing. Jefferson reported to then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman [Muslim] who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.

Since at that time the U.S. Navy was still in its infancy, Congress bowed to the Barbary demands for tribute money in order to ensure the safety of American vessels in the Mediterranean. But Jefferson was not happy with this state of affairs. Upon becoming President in 1801, he decided it was time to end the forced tribute payments. When he rejected the tribute demands of the Pasha of Tripoli, the latter declared war on the USA on May 10, 1801. Four years and one month later, the First Barbary War would end with a treaty signed June 10, 1805. However, naval forays still occurred on both sides, and later that year, the Tunisian Pasha decided to send an envoy to Washington to negotiate favorable terms of restitution for losses and continued tribute. The envoy, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, together with his entourage, arrived on November 30, 1805.Image result for mellimelli

Jefferson promptly invited Mellimelli to join him for a dinner together with other Washington guests scheduled for 3:30 PM on December 9th, either unaware that this date was right in the middle of the Muslim month of Ramadan that year (Dec. 9th was the equivalent of the 17th of Ramadan) or that the Muslim envoy would be fasting at that time of day. Mellimelli sent back word that he would have to decline since he could not take refreshment until sundown due to his fasting obligations. As a courtesy to Mellimelli, Jefferson promptly changed the timing of the dinner from the usual 3:30 to “precisely at sunset.” (See the link to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia here.)

This is the basis upon which Mr. Obama staked his preposterous claim that “the first known iftar at the White House” was hosted by Thomas Jefferson. There is no evidence in any records of the time that Jefferson was taking any note of the religious holiday in question, nor asking his guests to celebrate it with the Muslim envoy; rather, this was merely an instance of courtesy extended to Mellimelli to enable him to accept the White House invitation.

Journalist Stolberg was apparently aware enough of Obama’s sleight of hand that she could not bring herself to call the dinner an iftar celebration directly — she refers to it as a “sunset dinner” — but nonetheless she creates a strong innuendo for the unsuspecting reader to conclude that it must have been an iftar held to honor the “first Muslim ambassador.” Another correction: in point of fact, Mellimelli was not sent as an ambassador from Tripoli but as a temporary envoy, whose stay in Washington lasted about six months.

Even more deceptive, however, is Stolberg’s glib assertion that the 2010 iftar hosted by Mr. Obama continues a long, if sporadic, White House tradition, which of course if true would support the former president’s claim that Islam has always been part of American history. We have already seen, however, that Thomas Jefferson did not host a Ramadan dinner back in 1805. So who was the first president to kick off the long tradition of honoring Muslims by helping them break their fast with a meal at America’s House? Was it James Madison in 1816? No. How about John Quincy Adams in 1828? Hardly. Perhaps James Buchanan in 1860 just prior to the Civil War? Nope. William McKinley at the turn of the 20th Century? Struck out again. Woodrow Wilson? FDR? Richard Nixon? Jimmy Carter? Ronald Reagan? Bill Clinton? No, no, no, no, no, no.

The long, if sporadic White House tradition turns out to be anything but long and sporadic. The first White House iftar celebration took place during George H. W. Bush’s administration on Nov. 19th, 2001. Desperate to project the image that the USA was not at war with Islam as a whole while yet undertaking a bombing campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush sought to cozy up with Muslim dignitaries and luminaries by showing iftar solidarity with them. He continued this new practice throughout his administration, and Mr. Obama continued it throughout his eight years as well. The “tradition” was thus sixteen years old, when President Trump came into office and decided last year not to continue the practice, at least for 2017. There are some fresh murmurs among the political elite that he may give in to pressure this month and “throw an iftar celebration” at the White House just to prove that he has no animus against Islam after all.

Nevertheless, Mr. Trump has continued a presidential tradition of offering “Ramadan greetings” to the Muslim world. In the midst of many innocuous words no doubt carefully chosen by speechwriters, he noted that for Muslims Ramadan represents the month of the year when, according to tradition, the Qur’an was sent down to Muhammad through the angel Jibril. “Many observe this holy time,” he said, “by fasting, performing acts of charity, reciting prayers, and reading the Quran.”

This is all true. Muslims believe that by this month of discipline and piety they are training themselves to be more obedient slaves of Allah, and they are hoping for his favor. Their religion tells them that every act of piety earns at least double rewards from Allah when done in this “blessed month.” So by fasting every day, reading the Qur’an more faithfully, giving alms more generously, reciting extra prayers in the evening, they are racking up salvation points that will counteract the demerits of their sins. Of course, that’s not surprising — every legalistic approach to God has to come up with a system of do’s and don’ts and a scale to weigh one’s progress or recidivism.

But what Muslims don’t tell the rest of the world is that their Ramadan charity is almost exclusively limited to Muslim recipients. The zakat (mandatory giving) they fork over is in some measure applied compassionately to the poor and the needy (among Muslims, that is); but part of that almsgiving is also sent to support jihadis engaged in extending the conquest of Islam over the world, as well as the building of mosques, printing of Qur’ans and so on. Almsgiving does not always mean almsgiving; sometimes it means supporting the war effort.

Further, most Muslims never share with outsiders that within the camp of the true believers Ramadan is commonly refered to as “the month of jihad.” Why is this? Because during Ramadan, Allah is calling his slaves to excel in good deeds so as to advance his totalitarian agenda. And what is the best of all deeds, in Allah’s eyes? Well, according to Muhammad, it is jihad fi sabil-ullah — armed warfare to advance the cause of Allah. In the most authoritative collection of Hadith, we find this account:

A man came to Allah’s Messenger and said, “Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward).” He replied, “I do not find such a deed.” Then he [i.e., Muhammad] added, “Can you, while the Muslim fighter is in the battle-field, enter your mosque to perform prayers without cease and fast and never break your fast?” The man said, “But who can do that?” Abu- Huraira added, “The Mujahid (i.e. Muslim fighter) is rewarded even for the footsteps of his horse while it wanders about (for grazing) tied in a long rope.” (Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book 52, Hadith 44).

If jihad is the best of all deeds (or even if it only ranks in the top 10), then during Ramadan when its already tantalizing rewards are multiplied by 10 or 70 or 700 (depending on which scholar you read) the impulse to engage in jihad grows exponentially. It’s no surprise that more violence and killing occurs during Ramadan than during any other month of the Islamic calendar. Mr. Trump’s Ramadan greetings somehow failed to mention this.

In case you doubt this take on Ramadan, try googling “Ramadan and jihad”, and you’ll swiftly discover what traditional Sunni scholars are thrilled to share: that most of Islam’s great military victories, whether under Muhammad’s leadership or after his demise, have taken place in this “blessed month.” Ramadan is the month in which Allah sends his angels rank after rank to lend support to jihadi armies. It is the time that Muslims are most conscientious in their obedience, and most fervent in their belief concerning Islamic supremacy. Imams stir up the faithful by reminding them that during Ramadan Allah sent the first Muslim armies out for conquest in 623 AD; that he gave Muslims their first huge battle victory at Badr in 624, when they were greatly outnumbered; that in Ramadan 630 Muhammad and his armies marched victoriously into Mecca; and the next year with an army of 30,000 during the ninth month they captured the northern Arabian town of Tabuk. Image result for Muhammad and TabukAfter Muhammad’s death, the Caliph ‘Umar arrived during Ramadan to oversee the surrender of Jerusalem to the forces of Islam. Likewise, during Ramadan 641 the Muslim armies invaded Egypt under ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas, one of Muhammad’s favorite generals (and one of my putative ancestors).’ It was during the month of Ramadan (644) that Islamic forces conquered the Indus valley; that the conquest of Andalusia began (710); that Muslim forces stopped the advance of the Mongol hordes in the Battle of ‘Ain Jalout (1260); and on and on and on.

Muslims are proud of their martial history, and understand that while jihad is commanded for all times and seasons, it is particularly “blessed” during the month of Ramadan. So while our presidents and cultural leaders stumble all over themselves to acknowledge “the richness Muslims add to the religious tapestry of American life,” to use the unctuous words of Trump’s speechwriting mandarins, the rest of us need to know the bigger picture as to how the month of Ramadan fits into the overall worldview of Islam.

The obedience of Muslims during Ramadan is not limited to the relatively harmless acts of fasting, almsgiving, reading the Qur’an and praying extra prayers. It also includes striving after the greatest deed of all in Islam: to kill or be killed in the cause of Allah. The sharp upswing in violent attacks by devoted Muslims who believe they are doing Allah’s will and that unimaginable sensual rewards await them in Paradise is a sad testament to the conviction that Ramadan is the blessed month of jihad.

Would that our political leaders took more notice of this while sipping tea and nibbling  dates at iftar dinners….

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The Dark Spirit of Ramadan

A few days ago, a billion and a half Muslims around the world entered the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of their lunar calendar year. During this 30 day month, Muslim adults are required to fast from food, drink and all pleasurable activities from sunrise to sunset. To be more precise, fasting is to begin with the earliest of the five mandatory daily prayers, the Fajr prayer, and it ends with the call to the Maghrib prayer after sunset. In a place like Cairo, as summer approaches, that means a Muslim will have to fast close to fifteen and a half hours! Today, May 17th, the fajr prayer call began at 3:21 AM local time, and the Magrhib prayer call will commence at 6:42 PM. As summer approaches, high temperatures in Cairo are approaching 100 F, and will crest that next week. When Ramadan occurs during summer months, maintaining ones’ personal equilibrium is always challenging.

Recently, I have been reading the Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Medina and Mecca, by famed British explorer Sir Richard F. Burton, first published in 1855. Recorded on pp. 74-76 of volume 1 of my copy of the Memorial edition (published 1893), Burton shares his impressions of life in a Muslim city during Ramadan.Richard Francis Burton by Rischgitz, 1864.jpg A self-described atheist, Burton was an equal opportunity lampooner of the fasting rituals of various religions, but here focuses principally upon the effects of Ramadan fasting on the life of the community. It’s a fascinating snapshot of fallen human attempts to be sufficiently religious:

Like the Italian, the Anglo-Catholic, and the Greek fasts, the chief effect of the “blessed month” [i.e., Ramadan] is to darken their [i.e., Muslim] tempers into positive gloom. Their voices, never of the softest, acquire, especially after noon, a terribly harsh and creaking tone. The men curse one another and beat the women. The women slap and abuse the children, and these in their turn cruelly entreat, and use bad language to, the dogs and cats. Image result for 1850s CairoYou can scarcely spend ten minutes in any populous part of the city without hearing some violent dispute. The “Karakun,” or station-houses [police stations], are filled with lords who have administered an undue dose of chastisement to their ladies, and with ladies who have scratched, bitten, and otherwise injured the bodies of their lords. The Mosques are crowded with a sulky, grumbling population, making themselves offensive to one another on earth whilst working their way to heaven; and in the shade, under the outer walls, the little boys who have been expelled [from] the church [i.e., mosque] attempt to forget their miseries in spiritless play. In the bazars (sic) and streets, pale long-drawn faces, looking for the most part intolerably cross, catch your eye, and at this season a stranger will sometimes meet with positive incivility….In fine, the Ramadan, for many classes, is one-twelfth of the year wantonly thrown away.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, how the sin-stained heart, in striving to prove its allegiance to God by prodigious fleshly efforts, only succeeds in sinning more by taking its misery out on “innocent bystanders”? Even dogs and cats cannot escape! “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still” (1 Jn 2:9)

For all that is said in the Qur’an about Allah being a god of mercy and compassion, Islam in practice is anything but a religion of grace and freedom. Muslims feel compelled to strive to keep the minimum commandments of prayer, fasting and alms-giving at the very least, and if possible to outdo their neighbors, hoping Allah will notice them with blessing and reward. But, of course, they have no assurance of Allah’s favor, and cannot know until Judgment Day whether they have made the celestial cut.

How different is the message of the gospel, and Jesus’ words of welcome and acceptance: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowImage result for a dog at restly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).

Assaad is an Iraqi friend of mine, who has lived in the USA for less than two years. Now in his 40s, Assaad identified himself as a Shi’ite Muslim all his life, until about a month ago when he gave his heart to Jesus Christ. A group of us were sitting around talking with him two days ago, and someone asked him how he felt about the onset of the month of Ramadan and the fasting it required. “Good riddance,” he answered in Arabic. “My only regret is that for 1400 years Muslims have been enslaved by the chains of this ritual.” Another person asked him, “What attracted you to Christianity?” His answer was simple: “Jesus. Jesus loves me.”

In the next thirty days, as Muslims stagger under the weight of the chains of Ramadan, would you join me in praying for them, that the love of Jesus will break through the darkness that keeps them enslaved in fear and bondage, and that many more “Assaads” will be brought by Christ “…out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9)? Only the Lord can set the captive free!

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. A billion and a half Muslims desperately need to meet Jesus, “for if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!” (John 8:36). There is no greater gift we can offer a Muslim than to introduce him to Jesus, or if we don’t have that chance, then at least to pray for his redemption from captivity! Such prayers, I am convinced, are deeply pleasing to God.

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Coffee Clash — Islamophobia in California?

A troubling cell phone video clip is making the rounds on Twitter and other social media. Recorded at a California coffee shop last Friday afternoon, it was posted Saturday mid-morning, and shows an encounter between an unpleasant American man and a burqa-clad American woman. They are both standing in line waiting to order, and the clip starts after he has apparently made a snide remark about her attire, asking rhetorically if it is Halloween. She asks why he would say that, inquires if he knows she is a Muslim, and things heat up from there. There is no question that the behavior of the man in question is deplorable, and in the end he is denied service by the coffee shop manager on duty for two stated reasons:

  1. disrupting a public place
  2. being very racist.

If you wish to watch the video, here it is [brace yourself for some foul language]:

When I first watched this video, I felt disgust and dismay that a person could display such open disdain for another human being simply on the basis of negative assumptions concerning the religion of Islam. The whole encounter was marked by incivility displayed not only by the man and the Muslim woman toward each other, but also by a seated customer who roars out a profanity-laced tirade against the man in question about halfway through the clip. The interaction portrays a clearcut case of Islamophobia, marked by bigotry and loathing, and should be roundly condemned by all.

However, the manager’s decision was not very balanced. If the “bigot” was rightly tossed for disrupting a public place, then the same judgment should have applied to the male customer whose loud tirade certainly disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of the cafe. Likewise, an impartial judge would have ordered the Muslim woman to leave. Why? If you watch the conversation carefully, you will note how the woman raises her voice, escalating the argument. She becomes the aggressor, and continues to argue after the “bigot” holds up his hand twice and tells her to “back off.” She asks him if he’s a Christian and proceeds to launch a standard Muslim polemic against Jesus in the New Testament, claiming he endorsed the killing of his enemies. When the man tells her one last time he doesn’t want to talk with her because he doesn’t have conversations “with idiots,” she plays the victim card, declaring loudly, “You are committing hate speech; you are committing hate speech against me!”, at which point the aforementioned, unfilmed customer begins yelling, as if on cue, “Get out of here! Get out of here! F***ing racist!” The “bigot” and the loudmouth continue to exchange colorful epithets until the video cuts to the final scene where the “bigot” is standing before the manager as she explains why she will not serve him. In my opinion, if one of them was rightly denied service for “disrupting a public place,” the other two should have been as well. One might object that the Muslim woman was not the instigator but the victim, and yet she was the one who loudly pressed the matter after the “bigot” was seemingly ready to move on.

The second reason given by the manager was that the “bigot” was “being very racist.” This is a common charge against those labeled “anti-Muslim”, and it is one of the most pejorative labels in our culture, inviting universal condemnation of the accused. However, since Islam is not a race but a religion, one practiced by members of perhaps every racial group on the earth, the criticism of Islam and those who practice it faithfully has nothing to do with race. In the case of this video, the man and woman involved in dispute are both Caucasian, so obviously this is not about race. She is Muslim; he is not. That is the source of their dispute. You might argue that his behavior was boorish and hateful, and that hers was aggressive and opportunistic, and that they could be shown the door for those behaviors, but not for the stated reason of racism.

In any case, the incivility revealed in this encounter trumpets a warning about how we as a society have lost the capacity to treat each other with respect and to engage in conversations profitably rather than as a means to demean  the other or disparage his/her beliefs.

Unless it was staged.

I don’t say that lightly. But something troubled me about the overall feel of the video, and I am left with nagging questions.

First, who was filming this, and how did they deploy their smart phone quickly enough to capture the encounter almost from the start?

Second, how did “journalist C. J. Werleman” get ahold of this clip so quickly as to be able to post it on his Twitter account by 10:15 the next morning? If I read the watch correctly of the man in the video (you can see it in the first two seconds of the clip), this took place at 3 pm, California time. Werleman, on a self-confessed crusade to “…expose the Islamophobia industry and end anti-Muslim discrimination…,” boasted that he was “happy to have helped break this story.” I wonder how carefully he vetted the source from whom he received the clip, since it obviously fits so well the narrative he continues to push.

Third, why does the Muslim lady escalate the disagreement, raising her voice and challenging his beliefs, bringing up the Bible even after he seeks to wave her off, only at that point loudly accusing him of “hate speech” against her?

Fourth, why does an off-screen customer suddenly start bellowing a verbal attack against the “bigot” precisely at this point? Do these things typically happen in cafes? Perhaps it’s just my nature, but I would never consider yelling out in a coffee shop. I would either quietly mind my own business, or would get up and engage the parties, attempting to de-escalate the argument and restore some kind of peace.

Fifth, what happened during the period that has been cut from the clip? Maybe nothing, maybe more hurled epithets that the editor decided didn’t need to be heard by the public. But suddenly we are introduced to the conversation between the manager and the “bigot,” who then leaves quickly. Given the huge disruption of this event, one might expect that there would be cheers or clapping from the patrons, but surprisingly it’s back to business as usual.

Lastly, the Muslim woman’s question to the manager at the end seems highly contrived to me, as if she wanted to make sure to have on video record the manager’s assessment. “Why are you not serving him?” she asks, as the phone is pointed at the employee. Who would have the presence of mind to ask this “summary question,” if you’ve just been in an emotional dispute?

As you can tell, I’m skeptical. There have been far too many “fake Islamophobia” claims made by Muslims and later debunked by authorities for me to simply take things on face value. Why would Muslims fake hateful encounters, when there certainly are some real attacks against Muslims in America?Image result for fake islamophobia The answer to this is that by playing up victimhood status, Muslim groups hope to garner sympathy from the wider non-Muslim public and so win a kind of cultural “protected status” where Islam is increasingly sheltered from the appropriate study and critique to which every other worldview is subjected.

And from the popularity of this video clip, it seems to be working. So far, in just two days’ time, the original tweet has been viewed some 1.12 million times.

Once again, for those ready to tar and feather me for expressing my skepticism, let me reiterate my view that if this encounter really happened without being staged, it is indeed reprehensible on many levels, not least of which is the disdain and debasement directed toward an innocent Muslim woman, simply because she is Muslim. Such behavior must not be tolerated among Americans, who claim to believe in the “self-evident truths” that all human beings are created in the image of God and entitled to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even less is it to be tolerated among those who confess themselves to be Christians, and who claim to follow a Master who commands His followers to love their neighbors as themselves, even to the point of sacrificing themselves for the benefit of those rise up as enemies.

Image result for sandcastles erodingIn a societal context where basic civility is visibly eroding like sandcastles before relentless incoming waves, Christians especially need to stand against hatred and its offspring, whether we find it in our hearts or in the public sphere of which we find ourselves a part.

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Saving the Iran Deal, or Saving Souls…?

Two years ago, J. Herbert Nelson was nominated to be the next Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. In a blog at that time, I questioned whether he had the skill set to fulfill the stated job description. The committee nominating him never answered that question, but instead chattered with enthusiasm that “…he will be priest and prophet to us….”Image of Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

Two years later, we see the priest and prophet at work, issuing decrees and condemnations about events on the world stage, often with little to no clear understanding of the forces at work in the affairs targeted by his papal bulls. Fortunately, the embarrassment to the membership of the PCUSA (and other Presbyterians linked only by carrying the same generic name) is small, since very few people actually pay attention to this Stated Clerk’s pontifications.

Nevertheless, his most recent “statement” bears some scrutiny. According to the denominational website, J. Herbert “…issued a statement today [May 9, 2018] condemning President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran….” Laudably, he begins by touting the goal of worldwide peacemaking and the use of international treaties to help make the world a safer place. But here he immediately shows his bias as well as ignorance of the facts.

First of all, the JCPOA is not an international treaty but only a political plan of action carrying no force of law. If it had been a treaty with the USA as a signatory, it would have required a ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. Former President Obama knew that he could not sell this to the Senate, so decided to forgo support of the legislature by committing the USA through his own executive action as President. By what is approved by presidential decree can be just as quickly eradicated by presidential decree, and this is what happened last week as President Trump removed America’s support for the JCPOA.

Nevertheless, in the space of 455 words, Stated Clerk Nelson refers to the JCPOA five times directly or indirectly as a treaty. Such a mischaracterization shows his lack of familiarity with the world of international politics and undercuts his pretensions to prophetic authority.

Secondly, he shows no awareness of the possibility that the JCPOA may not actually be a helpful step toward worldwide peace and stability. The Agreement has its faithful supporters as well as alarmed detractors, but Nelson sees only roses and unicorns in his naive, all-in endorsement of the negotiated accord. For him it is a dramatic step toward peace, so of course President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from it has “severely jeopardized” the safety of the world from nuclear holocaust.

Third, his plea to the U.S. Congress “…to use their good offices to move the administration back into this partnership…” demonstrates his lack of knowledge about how the House of Representatives and the Senate sought to deal with President Obama’s desire to enter into the JCPOA back in 2015. The Senate Democrats had enough votes to filibuster a Republican-led bill to reject American participation in the JCPOA, so it never came up for a deciding vote. In the House, HR 3461 (a motion to approve JCPOA) went to vote on 9/11/15, and was defeated by the significant margin of 162-269. Nelson’s plea for Congress to redirect President Trump’s actions shows his faint awareness of congressional opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Likewise, his knowledge of Iran’s clerical leadership is scant, if not nonexistent.

The Stated Clerk, like many other Americans, assumes that the ruling mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran are committed to the same overarching goals as post-Enlightenment Western politicians and academics. But this is not the case. Islam overall suffers from a dramatic inferiority complex when it looks at Israel and the West. Its theology teaches that it should be “top dog” in the world, and all non-Muslim authorities should bow before the Islamic “ummah” (worldwide, unified community). The Shi’ites of Iran suffer under a double inferiority complex — not only are they weak in comparison with the West, they are a small island surrounded by the threatening ocean of Sunni Islam. Hence, they have striven to build their military strength far beyond mere defensive needs, and have lusted after nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tasked with monitoring peaceful and military nuclear activity around the world, has concluded that up through 2003 Iran had a secret program to design and build nuclear weapons. Even though Iran declared that they were ending the program that year, the IAEA discovered evidence of continued weaponization efforts through 2009. Prior to the implementation of the JCPOA, Iran was required by the agreement to come clean on their nuclear weapons ambitions. At first they lied about their 2002-2003 program, but recanted when the IAEA presented them with undeniable evidence. When confronted with other troubling evidence of probable nuclear weapons research, they sought to weasel their way out of admitting the truth by showing how their research could be used in other, non-weaponization ways. Finally, in the month before the JCPOA agreement was signed, the IAEA issued a relatively weak report saying that as far as it could tell, the Iranian claims that they were no longer seeking a nuclear weapon were credible. As far as it could tell. And so the JCPOA partners, hoping for the best, went forward with Iran.

Along with this history, there are Iran’s regular declarations of hatred toward America, Israel and the Sunnis (especially as represented by the government of Saudi Arabia). Chants of “Death to America” sounded every Friday after mosque prayers, orchestrated by the Iranian government. Image result for Iran death to AmericaThe mullahs make no secret of their intention to wipe Israel off the map within twenty-five years or less. Concerning the Saudi royal family, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Imam Khamenei, wrote in a 2016 Hajj missive, “The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarize themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature.” Iran and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations with one another.

There is no question that the infusion of cash (some $150 billion) from the Obama administration after the implementation of the JCPOA agreement has increased Iran’s reach as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, and strengthened their efforts to create a “Shi’ite crescent” extending from the shores of Lebanon across Syria and Iraq back to Iran and then from Iran through Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia down to Yemen. Image result for shiite crescentWhile one may debate whether the JCPOA has led to greater stability in the world nuclear non-proliferation, there is no question that its unintended consequences have enabled Iran to become an even more powerful agitator through the Middle East, leading to increased destabilization of an already fragile region. With sanctions lifted and cash “reparations” in hand, Iran promises more chaos to come.

But most troubling and least known (among non-Muslims) are two Islamic doctrines which allow Muslim authorities to engage in deception toward their enemies. This is known as taqiyya, and allows Muslims to lie who are under personal threat for their beliefs or who fear for the welfare of Islam among enemies.They may say or do whatever it takes to secure their own safety or to deflect opposition to the presence of Islam.  This doctrine applies primarily to those in a position of weakness, and so historically it has been promoted by the Shi’ite minority often under threat by the Sunni majority, but it is applicable anytime a Muslim individual or entity feels threatened by a larger opponent. One doesn’t need much imagination to see how Iran could apply taqiyya with a straight face in its negotiations with the IAEA and its JCPOA partners.

The other doctrine stems from the teachings of jihad and Muhammad’s example in dealing with enemies. A well-known Islamic tradition quotes Muhammad as saying, “War is deceit,” and the early biographies of his life show how he used deceit to defeat other tribes and to have personal enemies assassinated. The doctrine of jihad mandates that war must continue to be fought by Muslim armies until the world has been fully subdued and incorporated under Muslim rule. According to the prodigious Encyclopedia of Islam,

“The duty of the jihad exists as long as the universal domination of Islam has not been attained. Peace with non-Muslim nations is, therefore, a provisional state of affairs only; the chance of circumstances alone can justify it temporarily. Furthermore there can be no question of genuine peace treaties with these nations; only truces, whose duration ought not, in principle, to exceed ten years, are authorised. But even such truces are precarious, inasmuch as they can, before they expire, be repudiated unilaterally should it appear more profitable for Islam to resume the conflict.”

One way to advance Islam through peaceful jihad is by use of temporary treaties. In 628 AD, Muhammad signed a 10-year treaty (hudna), known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, with his principal enemies, the Quraish tribe of Mecca. Muhammad rightly anticipated that within this ten-year period he and his forces would grow so strong as to be invincible, and so the Quraish would surrender to his rule without bloodshed. In fact, it only took two years. Muhammad accused the Quraish of breaking the treaty in 630, and marched with his 10,000 strong army to the outskirts of Mecca. The Quraish knew they had no chance against such a force, and gave up the keys to the city with minimal bloodshed. For Muslim strategists ever since, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah has been the model for how Muslim forces are to act when in a position of weakness. They are to seek treaties of periods no longer than ten years, ensuring their survival and enabling them to grow in strength until they can wage jihad successfully against their enemies. If they are strong enough to confront the enemy before the ten years have elapsed, they are free to break the hudna, as Muhammad did. Muslim authorities cite the example of Muhammad in the breaking of oaths, quoting his words in the Hadith:

“By Allah, Allah willing, if ever I take an oath (to do something) and later on I find something else better than the first, then I do the better one and give expiation for the dissolution of my oath.” — Sahih Bukhari Vol 8, Bk 78, Hadith 671.

Under the doctrine of jihad, treaties signed by Muslim entities are seen as a shield of protection to be honored only as long as it is in the interest of the Muslim party. When the treaty no longer is needed, it may be cast off in favor of armed jihad, to the detriment of the treaty partner(s).

Taqiyya and hudna must be kept firmly in mind when dealing with the mullahs of Iran. While our tendency in the West is to dismiss these views as outdated, Islamophobic fears, as notions which no good Muslim could seriously entertain (because no good Westerner would seriously entertain them), we must not fall into the trap of believing that everyone thinks just like we do. To those steeped in the scriptures, traditions and history of Islam as the mullahs are, taqiyya and hudna are not mere academic vestiges of the past but very real and contemporary concepts by which they assess the world and their place in it.

J. Herbert Nelson, priest and prophet of the PCUSA, may be correct in his negative assessment of President Trump’s actions regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, but if so, it is not because he speaks with great knowledge on the subject. As they say, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then. Time will tell.

But the bigger question has to do with social and political proclamations being issued ex cathedra from the Louisville Vatican. Is this what 1.4 million PCUSA members want and expect from their Stated Clerk? Image result for pcusa membership declineWould it not be preferable for denominational leaders to lend their expertise to leading an ailing mainline denomination to rediscovery of the gospel and the command to make disciples for Jesus Christ, rather than to pose as amateur politicians raining down their condemnations on national leaders who pay them no attention? Is not the salvation of souls even more important than urging political action on international peace treaties?

I would think so, but I’m no longer in the PCUSA so I can’t speak as a member.

What do you think? Let me know.


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When the Church Is a Stumbling Block to the Gospel

Ali is a mature man who came to the USA in 1994 seeking a better life. He works now for a hotel chain in the D.C. area. I had the pleasure of meeting him yesterday as his only passenger on a shuttle-run from hotel to airport.shuttle.jpg

As we chatted, I learned that he was born and raised as a Muslim in Iran. Unhappy with the results of an Islamic theocracy, he left after 15 years under the rule of the mullahs. He has now resided in America for almost a quarter century.

“Do you still consider yourself a Muslim?” I asked. He shook his head. “Why not,” I probed. “Look what Islam has done to Iran,” he responded.

I mentioned to him the statistic I’d learned from Iranian exiles in London that at least 80% of the citizens of Iran today would like to overthrow the religious regime and install a secular government instead, and asked him if that sounded accurate to him. “Yes, absolutely,” he nodded vigorously.

He went on to tell me that about a decade ago he started going to church after learning some things about the Christian faith and the Bible. It had made him hopeful once again about “religion.”

“Would you call yourself a Christian now?” I asked. He shook his head negatively. “I don’t go anymore.”

“Really? Why not?

“Christians, Muslims, they’re all the same,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Nobody follows the religion,” he continued. They act like they believe while they are praying, but the rest of the week they live like they don’t believe. The only difference between Christianity and Islam is that Christians don’t believe in forcing others to be Christians, but Muslims believe in forcing others to be or stay Muslim.”

“Ah,” I said, “but of course you can’t judge the truth of a religion based on the imperfect responses of its people. You need to compare the lives and teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, don’t you?”

“That’s true,” he acknowledged. “And Jesus invited people to follow him. Muhammad forced people to become Muslims. But people today, whether Christian or Muslim, are equally bad.”

Ali went on to tell me that while attending church and seeking to find a romantic connection, he was warned by a seemingly pious pastor and lay leaders against sexual impropriety in his motivations. A few years later, he learned that the same pastor had a sexually active teenage daughter who became pregnant. In order to deal with the looming scandal, the “man of God” had quietly arranged for his daughter to have an abortion, but word had gotten out anyway. Ali was disillusioned by the hypocrisy. He noted also the lying, jealousy, gossip and quarrelsomeness among church people he got to know apart from Sunday mornings. They seemed so upright and friendly in church services, but lived like heathens during the week.

So, in conclusion he told me, “I am not a Muslim. I am not a Christian. I believe in God personally, and I pray at home. But I don’t go to religious gatherings.”

With sadness over his experience and with a bit of trepidation, I revealed to Ali that I had served as a pastor for over 33 years and knew how tightly the tentacles of sin entwine around and within the human heart. But, I pleaded with him, “Don’t let the hypocrisy of Christians keep your eyes from focusing on and following the Jesus of the Gospels. He is the only true standard for life.” Ali simply nodded, but didn’t say anything in response.

Later, as I mulled over this encounter, my heart sank a second time. What a travesty that when a Muslim became attracted to Jesus he was dissuaded by the very group (the Church) whose central purpose supposedly is to introduce others to Christ! caution.jpgSadly, all too often it’s the case that while people are attracted to the gospel, they are tripped up by the unattractive lives of those representing the gospel. They think, “If this is what the gospel means, it’s a waste of time. If Jesus hasn’t changed the lives of those preaching it, why would I think he could do anything for me?”

If we are serious about the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), we Christians need to get our act together in terms of spiritual and moral transformation. To walk “in the Spirit” means to no longer give any place to “life in the flesh.” Holiness, in the right sense of the word, is attractive to those seeking after God. I remember an old Indian proverb, “The scent of holiness travels even against the wind.” C. S. Lewis once wrote in Letters to an American Lady:

“How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once) it is irresistible. If even 10% of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before year’s end?…”

We, the half-hearted, half-converted Church, are often the greatest stumbling block to the appeal of the gospel, dull before the world not because of our holiness but our sin. May God grant us repentance and true revival as His people, lest we block the path to eternal life for seekers such as Ali.

I’m praying to this end for myself as a disciple, for the larger American Church, and for all who take the name “Christian” as a self-designation. I’m also praying for my new friend Ali.

The stakes are too high to remain complacent any longer.

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Domestic Violence — “That Which Allah Wants Is Good”

Most everyone who reads the Qur’an for the first time is bewildered, struck by its opaqueness. The stories of biblical and other characters are told in truncated form, as if the narrator expected that his listeners already knew the full stories and simply needed to be reminded of some important details. Likewise, many of Allah’s commands through Muhammad are difficult to understand without knowing the context in which they were delivered.  These contexts are missing from the Qur’an, and must be supplied by later Islamic traditions.

Consequently, it’s not surprising that non-Muslims find the Qur’an befuddling. What is more surprising is that most Muslims find it baffling as well, and as a result rely on specially trained Qur’anic scholars to explain to them the contexts and meanings of Qur’anic texts.  Over the centuries various interpretive “sciences” have developed around the study of the Qur’an. One of these is known as asbab al-nuzul (“the occasions of the revelation,” literally). Searching the Hadith (reports of Muhammad’s words and actions in particular, recorded situations) and the earliest biographical compositions (all done by Muslims), scholars connect specific revelations in the Qur’an with historical settings (occasions) in Muhammad’s life which elucidate the reason(s) Allah sent down that particular revelation at that particular time.

It is important that you know this in order to understand the Muslim mindset behind the 34th verse in Surat al-Nisaa (the 4th chapter of the Qur’an), which reads: “Men are in charge of women.” Why did Allah reveal this “truth” to Muhammad? wahidi.pngThe earliest and most respected scholar (who helped launch the “science” of asbab al-nuzul), Alī ibn Ahmad al-Wāhidī, in his authoritative work lists the “occasion” behind the revealing of this verse. I quote it below, but you can see read a .pdf of the whole book in translation here:

(Men are in charge of women…) [4:34]. Said Muqatil: “This verse (Men are in charge of women…) was revealed about Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘, who was one of the leaders of the Helpers (nuqaba’), and his wife Habibah bint Zayd ibn Abi Zuhayr, both of whom from the Helpers [Muslims of Medina]. It happened Sa‘d hit his wife on the face because she rebelled against him. Then her father went with her to see the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. He said to him: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her’. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘Let her have retaliation against her husband’. As she was leaving with her father to execute retaliation, the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, called them and said: ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’, and Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We wanted something while Allah wanted something else, and that which Allah wants is good’. Retaliation was then suspended.” …

[Another report cam through] Yunus ibn al-Hasan who reported that a man slapped his wife and she complained about him to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Her family who went with her said: “O Messenger of Allah! So-and-so has slapped our girl.” The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, kept saying: “Retaliation! Retaliation! And there is no other judgement to be held.” But then this verse (Men are in charge of women…) was revealed and the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “We wanted something and Allah wanted something else.”

[A third report came through] al-Hasan who said: “Around the time when the verse on retaliation was revealed amongst the Muslims, a man had slapped his wife. She went to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace and said: ‘My husband has slapped me and I want retaliation’. So he said: ‘Let there be retaliation’. As he was still dealing with her, Allah, exalted is He, revealed (Men are in charge of women,
because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other…). Upon which the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We wanted something and my Lord wanted something different. O man, take your wife by the hand.’

(Emphases above are mine.)

Many Muslim apologists, when seeking to defend this verse from the charge of male chauvinist sexism, often argue that this text actually honors women because Allah is commanding the man to be the protector of the woman — he has the responsibility to care for her because “Allah has made the one [i.e., the man] to excel the other [i.e., the woman].

However, when we turn to the occasions of the revelation of this passage found in orthodox Muslim sources, we learn something different. This revelation comes on the heels of a previous revelation where Allah teaches Muhammad and his followers the law of retaliation (known as lex talionis in the Judeo-Christian tradition).  That text is found in 5:45 — “And We ordained therein for them: Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth and wounds equal for equal. But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiation. And whosoever does not judge by that which Allah has revealed, such are the Zalimun (polytheists and wrongdoers)….”

When this physically accosted wife goes with her parents to seek justice from Muhammad, he quickly responds with the judgment, “Let her have retaliation against her husband,” or even more vehemently, “Retaliation, retaliation!” Muhammad is fully prepared to see equal justice meted out, whether the guilty party is a man or a woman. Retaliation is the overarching law of Islam.

Allah, on the other hand, even though he commanded the law of retaliation, is about to reveal to Muhammad that the ground is not level between males and females when it comes to retaliation. In this case, when rebelled against her husband (we’re not told exactly what this entailed, except by implication that she refused the will of her husband), he responded by slapping her face. Muhammad wishes to apply the law of retaliation when asked, in accordance with the prior revelation Allah had given. Now, however, after he gives his verdict, Allah overrides his decision with a new revelation. When it comes to male-female relations (husband-wife, father-daughter, brother-sister), the law of retaliation does not apply because Allah has made the male superior to the female. He is in charge of her; i.e., she must submit to him, and if he punishes her for “rebellion,” she must bear that punishment quietly. So Muhammad is forced to correct his initial ruling, and to tell the woman and her parents that the husband is blameless in this act of domestic violence. In fact, he speaks to the husband and says, “O man, take your wife by the hand.” In other words, “Take your property and go; Allah has absolved you of any guilt.”

The correctness of this interpretation is bolstered by what follows in the text of 4:34 —

So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded [i.e., their private parts, which of course belong to their husbands]. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge [beat] them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.

Men are in charge of women, so good/virtuous women will obey their husbands in all things. Allah makes clear that if husbands fear rebellion or insolence from their wives (whether or not that fear is justified), they are to first warn the wives of impending punishment, next to banish them from the bedroom (our equivalent to being sent to the doghouse), and if that doesn’t bring them around, then to scourge or beat them, until they submit. If at some point in this escalating punishment, the wives submit and obey, then the husband is to relent and allow things to return to normalcy.

It is not surprising then to see in the Western media increasing accounts of attacks perpetrated on Muslim women by Muslim men when those women seek to exercise personal freedoms accorded to them by Western culture and law. For example:

  • In March of this year a Swedish court, applying Islamic law, acquitted an Iraqi Muslim man of spousal abuse involving pushing his wife against furniture, pulling her hair and beating her face with a shoe. Part of the rationale was that the man was from a respectable family while the woman was not, so that her testimony was not believable.
  • Also this March in Germany, abu marwana 41 year old Syrian refugee named Abu Marwan fatally stabbed his 37-year-old wife multiple times in the neck. Soon after the murder, he livestreamed a message on his Facebook page as a warning to all women who irritate their husbands, declaring, “This is how you’ll end.”
  • On April 2nd of this year, Abdul Rahman Sweidan, a 47-year-old Syrian refugee now living in Kennewick, WA, appeared in court for the attempted murder of his wife last August. SweidanHe stabbed his wife 23 times for threatening to leave or divorce him, exclaiming as her body still moved, “Aren’t you dead yet?” Fortunately, she survived. Prosecutors plan to highlight “…pattern of power and control that [the husband] exercises over the victim.”
  • Mohamad Rafia was convicted in Canadian court last June of beating his wife for half an hour with a hockey stick, pulling her hair, hitting her in the face and threatening to kill her. In his defense, he said that he didn’t know it was illegal in Canada to do such things. rafia.jpgThe official police statement read,  “Being assaulted by her spouse is culturally accepted (in) the country they are from.” How revealing! So apparently it was the fault of Canadian immigration officials for not explaining basic human rights to a Muslim man schooled in the male supremacism of the Qur’an.

As bad as these mounting spousal crimes are among Muslims immigrating to the West (and I could list dozens more incidents from the recent past), such domestic violence is not limited to husbands against wives. The same attitude appears in Muslim men who feel they have the right to the attention of their intended affections. So, for example:

  • Last week in Gujrat, Pakistan, three female university students were injured in a drive-by acid attack, ordered by the uncle of one of the girls — she had refused his “offer” of marriage. The other two victims were just collateral damage.
  • In Calgary, 22 year old Nadia el-Dib was murdered on March 25th by her ex-boyfriend, Abderrahmane Bettahar. nadia-el-dibThey were out together at a shisha bar where he was apparently trying unsuccessfully to restore their romance, and left at 3 AM. After arguing over Bettahar’s refusal to drive her back to her own car, Bettahar drove behind a house in a residential district and then proceeded to stab Nadia over 40 times, slit her throat and then shoot her twice when she escaped from the car. According to Nadia’s sister, Racha, “[he] believed he had the right to murder her because she exercised her right of taking ownership of her life, body and soul, by saying no to a man who was persistent on being with her….My sister Nadia made it clear she would not give herself to him in any way….We know that because she fought until her last breath to get away.”

Now, of course, such violence and male privilege do not characterize all Muslim men by any means. But the doctrine of male superiority over women and of the approved use of violence when women refuse to obey their “protectors” is undeniably anchored in the Qur’an, Allah’s inimitable revelation, which must not be disobeyed by true followers.

So while we non-Muslims in the West decry all domestic violence against women, we increasingly recognize the need to fight against an encroaching god who orders and enshrines it among his people, according to Sura 4:34. Oddly, we may find ourselves quoting Muhammad’s words, “We wanted something while Allah wanted something else.

However, Muhammad went on to say, “And that which Allah wants is good.” May we not make that same mistake in judgment.

As calls for the implementation of Shari’a law increase in Western countries, let us remember that to allow Shari’a is to allow domestic violence against women, based upon Allah’s claim that “men are in charge of women.” May the true God protect us from such immorality justified in the name of religion.

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