What a pleasure it is to come across a book or a song or a movie that feels like it was made expressly with you in mind. There have been a number of works lately that felt that way, well at least that I was among the intended audience. Narcissism, I’m sure, and yet what a feeling! You don’t get that from downloading the latest George Clooney vehicle, I’ll say that much. I recommend them all to you.
The Infidel: Comedy about a Pakistani-British Muslim who discovers he’s an adopted Jew. The movie is schlocky in the extreme, with the bulk of the humor playing on extremely well-worn Jewish stereotypes. But this Jew-ish Muslim laughed and laughed.
Four Lions: A comedy about an incompetent terror cell of Pakistani-British Muslims. A comedy about bumbling suicide bombers, yes. I was nervous about it because of how awkwardly muslims are treated in movies, but this guy, a non-muslim at that, gets it so right, it is just pitch-perfect. The first half of the movie is so hysterical and convincing that I was completely blindsided when the first casualty occurred and the movie suddenly became very very dark.
Zeitoun: A book recounting the experience of Abdurrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian Muslim immigrant, and his family during the Katrina Hurricane. The book is so simply and plainly put forward that the wonder and the horror and the truth of what they went through becomes undeniable. No hype, no spin, yet such an incredible story that any American who reads it has to account for what it tells us about our country.
Wait! Story time! A shaykh at the Haul of Imam al-Haddad held in my local masjid two weeks ago related this to us:
Once upon a time, there was a sultan who was an avid hunter. One day, as he and his vizier were hunting alone in the forest, the sultan drew his sword to slash some undergrowth. In a moment of clumsiness, the sultan tripped, fell and severed the index finger on his right hand. As the sultan and his vizier hurried back to the palace, the sultan angrily demanded to know why such a thing had happened to him: he, being the sultan and a pious servant of God! The vizier simply said, “God must have a reason for this calamity to befall you.” The sultan was only enraged further. “What! That’s the stupidest answer I’ve ever heard! What reason could it possibly serve for me to lose my finger like that!” And upon reaching the palace, he had the vizier thrown into prison.
A year went by, until one day the sultan was out hunting once again. Following the trail of a mighty beast, he went further into the forest, until he stumbled upon a village of cannibals! They quickly set upon him and bound him to a carrying-pole. From their excited chatter, he learned they were preparing for a major feast as today was their high holy day. They were overjoyed to have caught such a prize on such a day! Soon, they began to remove his royal Muslim garb and the head priest approached with the sacrificial knife. Only then did the head priest of the cannibals notice his right hand – he was missing a finger! According to their sacred law, no defective human could be sacrificed, and so he was freed.
The Sultan raced back to the palace and headed straight for the prison doors. Flinging them open, he embraced his old vizier. “You were right,” he said. “God did have a reason! Had it not been for my missing finger, I would certainly have been sacrificed! Please forgive me for imprisoning you unjustly all this while!”
“God had a reason for that too, O Sultan. Had I been free and at your side, I would surely have been sacrificed in your place!”
I laughed, and I wish more lighthearted teaching stories of that sort were in our khutbas and lectures. But that joke touches on the issue of Divine Justice and the perennially difficult topic of why bad things happen to good people. For many Jews, for example, the idea of a loving God was irreconcilable with the event of the Holocaust. Prof Sherman Jackson takes up the same theological dilemma among Blackamericans in Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. His third book I’ve read, after Boundaries of Theological Tolerance and Islam and the Blackamerican, which seem to be meant as a series of sorts. One part dialogue with Black Christian thought, one part introduction to the schools of Islamic theology, one part advice for American Muslims, it is quite remarkable how Prof Jackson ties all the threads together so neatly. I’m not the one to write a review of a book of this caliber, but like with Islam and the Blackamerican, I found it filled with sharp, useful insights thrown out almost off-handedly along the way. And while it confirmed for me how thoroughly rooted I am in the Ash’ari outlook, it was the first time I felt I could really appreciate the perspective of Ibn Taymiyyah’s school and what it contributes to the house of Islam.
Finally, take a moment to check out this awesome video: Hamdulillah, by The Narcicyst ft. Shadia Mansour. Look at yourselves, you’re beautiful and your garb is beautiful!