Alhamdulillah – What one simple phrase tells us about Islam’s core conceptions of justice

I recently stumbled across a story from Jerusalem in the early days of the British Mandate of Palestine. Concerns over ethnic and religious tensions between the inhabitants of Jerusalem lead the British to restrict access to holy sites by religion. British guards were now seen in quarters of Jerusalem asking for the religious identity of the passers-by before allowing them in.

In front of the Dome of the Rock, a guard would stand and ask “Musliman?”—meaning, are you a Muslim?—and if the passer by is indeed Muslim, they would respond “Musliman, alhamdulillah.”—’I am a Muslim, thank God‘.

Alhamdulillah—‘thank God’.

I paused as I reflected upon this story, because suddenly I had saw new meaning in this simple phrase. A meaning I often glossed over. A meaning I might not necessarily believe, yet one I have come to appreciate.

The phrase Alhamdulillah is so ubiquitous in Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries. If someone asks a Muslim during the month of Ramadan if she is fasting, her response would be in the affirmative, followed by that same phrase Alhamdulillah—’thank God’.

At a very basic level, the reasoning behind thanking God for the most mundane of things is a typical religious tendency. God is the purported creator, after all, and He or She takes all the credit. But in Islam, I think, being grateful to God for the most mundane of things is not simply about giving credit to the creator, but a reflection on Islam’s understanding of Justice and Moral Desert—an understanding which I think is quite beautiful, at least in this instance.

When a Muslim thanks God for being Muslim, she is coming to terms with the very fact that she could have just as easily been born a non-Muslim (which, depending on the Muslim you ask, means her chances at going to heaven are greatly reduced). To me, it seems that this itself is an acknowledgement that humans are not owed anything at all by their creator. If you are born into the ‘correct’ religion, you should count yourself lucky—nothing about you is inherently better than others, no God, nature, or society ever owed you anything. You mere birth did not entitle you to be born in that religion. You should be grateful.

You might not see the beauty that I see in this take on the world. You might feel I am making the world sound like a harsh, unloving space, where you are entitled to nothing and are owed just that.

To this, I argue that Nature is indeed harsh and unloving, and that it shouldn’t take long to see that. Whether famine, death, or war—the simple fact that bad things happen to undeserving people should be enough to convince you that good things happens to undeserving people as well. The mere fact of being born does not entitle us to any form of dignity that we should expect from Nature—only our fellow human kind.

Islam reminds its adherents, it seems to me, that they should be grateful for being born in the right place at the right time. That the mere fact that they were born into privilege doesn’t mean that they had been entitled to it.

This, I think, holds lessons that the rest of us could find useful as well: Distinguish Nature and the harsh world we live in from the kindness of humanity around us; Accept that while Human Dignity is important, it is a contract and a set of mutual expectations that govern the realm of relationships in the Human Sphere—and not our relationship with Nature; Accept that Nature and Misfortune can strike the most unsuspecting man or woman.

Even if you are not convinced by the philosophical implications of reflecting on the state of Nature and the harshness of the world, I think these reflections could at least inform us on some of the core teachings of Islam. Many who are unfamiliar with Islam, attempting to understand it from the outside, quickly become uncomfortable with its most basic doctrine of submission to God. Some feel this submission is contrary to many humanists notions of free will and self-determination. But submission to God in Islam should not be conflated with a loss of self-agency, instead a mere resignation to—or, lack of rejection of—the realities on the ground. It is not a call to inaction, but rather a reminder that good and bad things happen to undeserving people alike, and rather than demanding compensation from nature, you should do something about it.

Of course, it goes without saying that I am projecting many of my personal and philosophical beliefs onto Islam. Something which is especially dubious when taking into account that I am not, and was never, an adherent of Islam. Instead of taking this as an explanation of Islam, take it as one person’s account of Islam—and even then, only an account of an aspect of Islam. I simply offer an interpretation which I think is consistent, and one which I think at least some Muslims adhere to.

Whether this is an account of the real Islam, or an imagined clone, I think it offers a few insights that anybody could appreciate and find helpful: expect nothing from nature, work to make sure fellow human kind can expect something from you, and hope there is someone you could expect something from.

Disruptive Innovation: Amman’s Airport, Short-term Regressions, and Bright Futures

When they started computerizing the Jordanian passport issuing process, the “computer” line had a wait twice as long as that of the “manual” line. Today, no one could argue that we were better off with a non-computerized process for passports.

Queen Alia International Airport Overview

Folks, this is the future, and its for the better—like it or not. Transitions are never smooth, but if you think the new development is for the worse, you are decidedly mistaken.

Today, many are complaining that this huge investment is going to waste after witnessing some disappointments in the launch of the airport building. Luggage is arriving late at the baggage claims, people are being help up in security, and confusion is abundant regarding parking and transportation.

The old Airport

Truth is, huge transitions are always tumultuous. But the Airport International Group (AIG) has made a huge innovation, and they have shown (and are showing) great courage in their innovation.

There is something known as the innovator’s dilemma, and that can be explained as follows [1]:

  • A disruptive innovation initially offers lower performance than what the mainstream market historically demanded.
  • At the same time, it provides some new performance attributes, which in turn makes it prosper in a different market.
  • As it improves along the traditional parameters it eventually displaces traditional technology.

Examples of disruptive innovations are abundant. And I want to go over a few to make my point, then I’ll come back to the airport: Continue reading “Disruptive Innovation: Amman’s Airport, Short-term Regressions, and Bright Futures”

The Angry Arab Male: Where Democracy Fails

Today’s session of parliament in Jordan was an embarrassment—we saw typical examples of yelling over dialogue, insults over evidence, and anger over communication.

Whenever we witness the embarrassing behavior of our parliament, it is easy to think (or want to think) that such parliament could only be produced by corrupt elections, falsified votes, and manipulation from a group which wants a crippled parliament. We perhaps think that because it is too scary for us to even entertain the idea that we, the people, are capable of introducing—through popular will—an elected college of representatives that is as embarrassingly small-minded as these folks can be.

I do not believe this, and I think by ignoring the problem and waiting for a “proper election law” to come around, we would be overlooking the root problem of this small-minded violence.

To me, it seems very likely that the current parliament reflects the will of the people. After all, the embarrassing incidents in parliament mirror very closely other incidents of public violence that we witness–in particular, they mirror the unfortunate phenomenon of university violence which has been prevalent in many Jordanian institutions of higher learning in the last decades.

University violence and parliament’s small mindedness are both manifestations of the same problem of public societal violence. At the center of this problem is the “Angry Arab Male”.

The Angry Arab Male is an archetype prevalent in the Arab World of a man who thinks he has inherent superiority due to his genitalia. The Angry Arab Male believes power is more noble than intellect, a fist is more effective than a pen, and impulse is more important than thought. The Angry Arab Male likes to flex his muscles. He is always angry at others for insulting his imaginary ego and dignity, and retaliates by returning the favor. He is a believer that an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth is the way the world ought to run.

The Angry Arab Male is more of a mythical figure than a common type of individual within society. But it is an archetype that romanticized and prevalent in the minds of many, as we look back to impressive figures in stories from older times, and the television of today.

The Angry Arab Male is Democracy’s biggest enemy, for his voice is always magnified, and his actions always poison the well for others. The Angry Arab Male is a poison that hinders our democratic development.

What is the antidote for this Problem? Truth be told, the Intellectual Arab Male can do very little. The only one who could really silence the Angry Arab Male is the Wise Arab Woman.

Over the past few years, we have seen an increasing number of female role models and public figures who have introduced a fresh maturity to politics and the public sphere. Ultimately, I believe it will be these women who will change the tone discourse in this country, and lead the boys to wake up from their cringe-worthy hissy fits.

 

[This post received a round of spell-checks after publication]

Some thoughts on the Anonymous/Hacktivist response to the Aaron Swartz tragedy

On Twitter, @AnonymousIRC claims to have been responsible for bringing the *.mit.edu network down for a few hours last night in protest of MIT’s legal “back-and-forth” with Aaron Swartz. Later on they went on to ‘hack’ two sub-domains in the MIT network (the “Cogeneration Project” and an RLE site, seemingly they just picked two random ones easy to break) posting a message about Aaron. Here are some of my thoughts about attacking the MIT network following this tragedy:

MIT has more than 10,000 students, researchers, and professors working on areas ranging from cancer research, renewable energy, and urban planning to free software (FSF), open internet (W3C), and the future of computing in general (CSAIL). In many ways, what MIT, as a community, stands for is more representative of the Swartz and Anon cause than the Anonymous themselves.

To think that bringing e-mail or a network down sent shivers down the spines of the MIT Corporation, General Counsel, or Administration is nonsense– all it did is harassed the student body and researchers. Those who are working on the same causes other groups are supposed to be working on.

Second, Hal Abelson is a fine man, co-founder of Creative Commons, close ally of Swartz, and an activist and champion for an open internet. Those who are cynical about his investigation know nothing about the man or the dynamics of this institution. Larry Lesisg himself, a great man (and co-founder of Creative Commons with Abelson, friend and mentor of Swartz), who yesterday called MIT’s interactions with Swartz “shameful” recognizes the fact that MIT’s response right now is a positive development, not a negative.

Third, no– bringing sites down is not a form of protest. Especially not when the collateral is the cause you are arguing for itself.

When will the hacker community mature to realize that they can harness their skills to achieve much better activism that does not hurt the people who are working on their same causes? The immaturity we initially saw in the likes of LulzSec has plagued anonymous for years now. Get it together.

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