Islam Now Panel

For some time now, I’ve had the feeling that, as a faith, Islam was in the midst of interesting internal changes, and so when Mark offered me his pass to go to to the Islam Now panel, I jumped on the chance. The panel was moderated by Zachary Karabell, with Adam Shatz (literary editor at The Nation) and Reza Aslan (author No god but God) discussing.

I appreciated Shatz taking issue with the title of the panel (Islam Now), which confirmed the notion that there is one islam, a monolithic faith, different from the other monotheistic religions. He talked about how it was considered a pathology that, if cured, will relieve the West of terror. In reality, he said, there are many islams, represented and lived within the Muslim world as well as in the West. (This is a view, you’ll recall, that the late Edward Said had written about extensively in a Harper’s article a while back.) And I was also in agreement with Aslan when he made the point that Islam is often set apart from other monotheistic religions when in fact there is nothing in its inception, its history, and its development over a period of time that sets it apart from other faiths like Judaism or Christianity. “Islam is not different” he said, “though that doesn’t mean it’s not unique.” The discussion touched on many topics, though I do wish the panel had included a dissenting voice so that there could be more of a dialogue between different views of Islam/islams.

The Q&A period was fairly characteristic for these sorts of events. Yes, someone asked about ‘moderate’ Muslims. Immediately, all eyes were on the four or five veiled women in the audience (i.e. the ‘visible’ Muslims) waiting for them to say something. I imagined that if that person had simply asked for all Muslims in the audience to please stand up, she’d have gotten an idea of the great diversity within the faith (encompassing both the outwardly expressions of the faith and the ones you don’t see because they don’t fit the prototypical image of the Muslim) as well as an answer to her question.

And yes, someone asked about the veil. Aslan responded that it was a women’s issue, best commented on by women themselves, though he did provide a quick background into the history of its use and how it had come to be seen as a symbol of male domination. Shatz made the point that hijab is also a political and cultural symbol, embraced by a great many women who are avowed feminists.

Later, at Aslan’s book signing, I eavesdropped shamelessly on a conversation he was having with two hijab-ed women who insisted on the veracity of a particular hadith. Aslan argued that the orthodox notion that hadith are immaculately preserved information was, well, rather nonsensical and the two women disagreed. These types of internal discussions (along with many other recent developments, like Asra Nomani‘s fight to establish women-led prayers) confirmed my feeling that this was an exciting time in the history of the faith.