Saturday, February 16, 2008

The First Muslims


History and Memory
Asma Afsaruddin

Dr. Asma Afsaruddin's New Book "The First Muslims" is on the market, two reviews are appended below. History and Memory which talks about how competing views about the salaf shapes contemporary Muslim discourses on jihad, women's issues, interpretations of the shari'a, and political governance. It has already been reviewed by the Washington Post and the Times Higher Education supplement; the links to which are below:

The book is easily available through and I'm really hoping it will encourage a stimulating discussion particularly among American Muslims.

“A splendid piece of forensic scholarship. Afsaruddin exhumes relevant sources and addresses crucial issues. Highly readable and aptly revisionist, this book will be as welcome for novice non-Muslims as for devout believers.” Bruce B. Lawrence, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Professor of Religion, Duke University

“An outstanding, panoramic view of the development of the early Muslim
community and its leading intellectual figures.” Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran

The First Muslims reconstructs the first century of Islam to offer a fascinating exploration of the origins and development of the religion. Using a wealth of classical Arabic sources, it chronicles the lives of the Prophet Muhammad, his Companions, and the subsequent two generations of Muslims, together known as the “Pious Forbears”. Focusing on both the people and their beliefs, Afsaruddin presents a critical examination of the continuing influence of these first Muslims in contemporary times as figureheads for a variety of causes, from liberal Islam to hard-line “fundamentalism”. Essential reading for anyone interested in the earliest history of Islam and its impact on Muslims today, this important book will captivate the general reader and student alike.

Asma Afsaruddin is Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She is the author of Excellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership.

The First Muslims: History and Memory is published by Oneworld Publications in November 2007 in simultaneous hardback (£40/$60) and paperback (£12.99/$19.95. For further information please contact Lizzie Curtin at Oneworld on Tel: 01865 315915 or Email:



Jihad, Then and Now

By Geneive Abdo,

a fellow at the Century Foundation and the author most recently of "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11"
Wednesday, January 30, 2008; Page C10

The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in the Age of Terror

By Dina Temple-Raston

PublicAffairs. 288 pp. $26


History and Memory

By Asma Afsaruddin

One World/Ballantine. 254 pp. Paperback, $19.95

Policymakers, pundits and scholars have long puzzled over what inspires young Muslims to take the great leap toward radicalization. If Muslims living in dramatically different societies, in vastly different circumstances and conditions in the East and West, are similarly drawn to extremism, does this mean there is something inherently violent in the Islamic tradition? Do modern Muslims interpret the tenets of their faith depending upon the political and social context in which they live, or are they trapped in the Dark Ages?

Two new books attempt answers, both historical and contemporary, to these pressing questions. "The Jihad Next Door," by Dina Temple-Raston, is a detailed account of Yemeni Americans in Lackawanna in Upstate New York, whose only desire was to become more devout. Now, most are serving jail time for convictions on various terrorism-related crimes. The American-born Muslims admitted to having visited an al-Qaeda training camp in the spring of 2001, their confessions a dream come true for the U.S. government, according to Temple-Raston. The FBI and the Justice Department cast them as the first sleeper cell on U.S. soil. They were evidence, according to the government, that the so-called war on terror was real, and more important, that jihad had moved next door.

In this breezy, well-written detective story, Temple-Raston, the FBI reporter for National Public Radio, chronicles their journey from Lackawanna to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Once the men reach the al-Qaeda training camp, they become frightened and return to New York. Temple-Raston's main point is that the Lackawanna six were victims. The jihad, she argues, existed only in their imaginations. When faced with the harsh reality of living in the camp, and ultimately engaging in violence against the United States, they abandoned their mission.

Temple-Raston outlines how easily young men practicing their faith at a local mosque and leading mundane lives can be convinced, however briefly, that taking their faith to the next level could be achieved by becoming warriors for al-Qaeda. A Muslim mentor in Lackawanna convinced the men through his teachings and regular study sessions that they lacked an understanding of true Islam. He coached them by analyzing verses in the Koran, and then lured them into believing that the ultimate test of their piety was a commitment to fight the United States on the battlefield a world away, just as Muslims had fought their invaders centuries ago.

But Temple-Raston fails to analyze why young Muslims -- not only in Lackawanna but around the world -- are vulnerable to religious interpretations that lead them toward violence. Do the Islamic sources advocate violence in certain circumstances, and if so, how have these texts been interpreted throughout history and how are they being interpreted in the modern world?

In "The First Muslims," Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, offers an eloquent and cogent explanation of the historical roots and meanings of many key concepts relevant to today's discussion of contemporary Islam, including the role of jihad in the Islamic tradition. Through an exhaustive examination of medieval Arabic texts, Afsaruddin explains that from the time the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad during what is known as the Meccan period, Muslims were forbidden to retaliate against their pagan foes.

Only after Mohammad established the first Muslim polity, Afsaruddin explains, was this Koranic verse revealed: "Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged. . . . For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques -- in all of which God's name is abundantly glorified -- would surely have been destroyed." Afsaruddin also notes that the Koran forbids Muslims to initiate hostilities but permits self-defense when necessary.

Years later, as Islam spread, Islamic jurists held differing views about applying jihad to non-Muslim states. Afsaruddin concludes that the interpretations of terms such as jihad differed depending upon the juristic thinking of the time, which was highly influenced by current events. By the 12th century, for example, jurists considered jihad to be in abeyance, to be revived only in times of crisis. Quoting the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Afsaruddin writes that he characterized the changing notions of jihad as due to "a change in the character of the [Islamic] nation from warlike to the civilized stage."

Afsaruddin's goal in taking the reader through historical interpretations of jihad is that Islam, contrary to contemporary criticism, has never been frozen in time -- and should not be. Muslims have interpreted their faith through the ages based upon the social and political context in which they lived. She reiterates this point throughout "The First Muslims" in her discussion of other concepts, such as how Muslims define infidels and how they distinguish between political and religious authority, and what constitutes an Islamic state. Her book should be required reading for any Muslim or non-Muslim who mistakenly believes the faith is immutable.

Understanding how Muslims view their lives and their faith today is now critical to the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. Educated Americans across the country are organizing salons and reading groups and compiling book lists in hope of enlightening themselves about a faith that was completely alien to them six years ago. But the greater challenge is to find sources as well-researched and measured as this book.


In the footsteps of the Prophet
31 January 2008

Youssef Choueiri considers a nuanced and erudite portrait of early Muslim lives and ideas.

This book has as its focus the formative period of Islam, with all its prominent figures and significant events. Moreover, it includes three chapters (out of seven) on modern and contemporary Islam. In this sense, it represents a major endeavour to offer a full depiction of historical Islam as well as its present embodiments.

The first Muslims stand for all those who founded the message, helped to consolidate it and spread its tenets in the newly conquered territories. They thus include the Prophet Mohammed, his companions, the companions' successors and the successors to the successors, thereby spanning a period of about 300 years. By following this system of classification, the author reproduces a familiar tradition of Islamic historiography, whereby the early historical sources are given credibility for their reliability and methodology. This is further demonstrated by Asma Afsaruddin's dismissal of some revisionist theories advanced in the 1970s by scholars such as John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook.

These scholars attempted to cast doubt on the veracity and authenticity of Muslim historical accounts and sacred texts by arguing the case for using non-Arabic accounts of the same events. These accounts offered different versions and helped to assume a conspiratorial intent of concealment or pure invention by successive generations of Muslim scholars. This book quickly and convincingly demonstrates the tenuous nature of such arguments. Furthermore, by reverting to a well-established tradition, Afsaruddin rehabilitates these same Arabic sources and uses them, albeit critically, to offer a coherent narrative of the first three centuries of Islam.

This is not a conventional history book, but rather a portrait of Muslim lives and ideas as seen through the lens of a sympathetic observer. What we have is a faithful reproduction, intelligently woven into meaningful episodes, of how Muslims themselves perceived their religion and its underlying messages. Historical events are narrated as a framework within which legal, literary, philosophical and theological issues are highlighted. Thus we have comprehensive analysis of the Sharia as delineated by various legal schools, a nuanced discussion of the multilayered meaning of jihad and the status of women.

It goes without saying that the author is fully aware of the shifting interpretations that Muslim historians and theologians put forward as they operated under novel circumstances and different contexts. One of the examples given by Afsaruddin concerns the evolving perceptions of women between the early period and the 9th century. Whereas the earliest chronicles and accounts spoke freely of the role women played in the intellectual and public life of Islam, less than two centuries later the new chroniclers exhibited a reluctant and grudging tendency to accord women such functions. They were now seen as obedient wives, daughters and sisters, always deferring to their menfolk or patriarch and hardly venturing outside their assigned domestic abodes. It is in this context that relying on purely legalistic texts is often a misleading exercise, obscuring the richer social life of Muslims, both men and women.

Another significant contribution of this study concerns the evolving meaning of jihad and its polyvalent dimensions. This is the more so in light of contemporary allusions to the militant nature of Islam by fundamentalists and Western propagandists. Afsaruddin rightly points out that the Koran does not use the word "martyr" or shahid in its present connotations, but rather denotes by the term a person who is a mere witness of an event or a particular incident. However, one or two verses in the Koran consider those who die in the path of God to have overcome death and continued to enjoy life under the beneficence of the Almighty. Hence, the term is not used, but its connotations are plainly spelt out.

Nevertheless, the author offers a very erudite and well-documented exposition of the various functions of jihad as one strives to serve God's purpose or obey his injunctions. Such a duty does not necessarily imply the use of violence or warfare, for the Koran deploys other terms to denote one or the other, such as qital (fighting) and harb (war).

When Afsaruddin turns her attention to the contemporary state of Muslims and the attempts of some Islamists to relive the formative period of Islam, she is able to emphasise how present-day Muslims embrace a wide range of attitudes and ideologies. While some are modernists, others are liberal, and yet some others see no contradiction between democracy and Islam. Then there are "hardline Islamists" who aspire to create a pure version of their own imagined religion, based on a strict and arbitrary interpretation of certain texts. It is all the more remarkable that the author's rebuttal of the fundamentalist message is not anchored in appeals to modern notions of human rights and citizenship but is grounded in restating the classical and medieval juridical concepts of Muslim scholars and Islamic practices.

This is a rich and much-needed text. Its range of scholarship, balanced statements and acute sense of the past and the present makes it required reading for both specialists and non-specialists.

The First Muslims: History and Memory
By Asma Afsaruddin
£40.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9781851685189 and 4977
Published 1 September 2007

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quraan burning

Planned Muslim Response to Qur'an Burning by Pastor Jones on September 11 in Mulberry, Florida

August 19, 2013| Dallas, Texas

Mike Ghouse
Text/Talk: (214) 325-1916

Mirza A Beg
(205) 454-8797


We as Muslims plan to respond to pastor Terry Jones' planned burning of 3000 copies of Quran on September 11, 2013 in positive terms.

Our response - we will reclaim the standard of behavior practiced by the Prophet concerning “scurrilous and hostile criticism of the Qur’an” (Muhammad Asad Translation Note 31, verse 41:34). It was "To overcome evil with good is good, and to resist evil by evil is evil." It is also strongly enjoined in the Qur’an in the same verse 41:34, “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.”

God willing Muslims will follow the divine guidance and pray for the restoration of Goodwill, and on that day many Muslim organizations will go on a “blood drive” to save lives and serve humanity with kindness.

We invite fellow Americans of all faiths, races, and ethnicities to join us to rededicate the pledge, “One nation under God”, and to build a cohesive America where no American has to live in apprehension, discomfort or fear of fellow Americans. This event is a substitute for our 10th Annual Unity Day Celebration ( held in Dallas, but now it will be at Mulberry, Florida.

Unwittingly Pastor Jones has done us a favor by invigorating us by his decision to burn nearly 3000 copies Quran on September 11, 2013. Obviously he is not satisfied by the notoriety he garnered by burning one Qur'an last year.

As Muslims and citizens we honor the free speech guaranteed in our constitution. We have no intentions to criticize, condemn or oppose Pastor Terry Jones' freedom of expression. Instead, we will be donating blood and praying for goodness to permeate in our society.

We plan to follow Jesus Christ (pbuh), a revered prophet in Islam as well as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – that of mitigating the conflicts and nurturing good will for the common good of the society.

We hope, this event and the message will remind Muslims elsewhere in the world as well, that violence is not the way. Muslims, who react violently to senseless provocation, should realize that, violence causes more violence, and besmirches the name of the religion that we hold so dear. We believe that Prophet Muhammad was a mercy to the mankind, and we ought to practice what we believe and preach. We must not insult Islam by the negative reactions of a few.

We can only hope it will bring about a change in the attitude of the followers of Pastor Jones, and in the behavior of those Muslims who reacted violently the last time Pastor sought notoriety – We hope this small step towards a bridge to peaceful coexistence would propel us towards building a cohesive society.

Like most Americans a majority of Muslims quietly go about their own business, but it is time to speak up and take positive action instead of negative reaction. May this message of peace and goodwill reverberate and reach many shores.

Lastly, we appreciate the Citizens of Mulberry, Florida, Honorable Mayor George Hatch, City Commissioners, police and Fire Chiefs for handing this situation very well. This will add a ‘feather of peace’ in the City’s reputation. We hope Mulberry will be a catalyst in showing the way in handling conflict with dignity and peace.

We thank the Media for giving value to the work towards peace rather than conflict.


Thank you.


The people in Dallas are making an effort to understand and clean their own hearts first, when we are free from bias, it would be easy to share that with others. Islam teaches us in so many ways to "respect the otherness of others" and it is time we find simple practical ways of doing it.