Marie Catherine Colvin was born in Astoria, in the New York borough of Queens. She died in Baba ‘Amr, Homs. On the 1st February 2019,Amy Berman Jackson, a District Judge for the District of Columbia, ruled that “… the Syrian Arab Republic engaged in an act of extrajudicial killing of a United States national by planning and executing an attack on the Baba ‘Amr Media Center, and is liable to plaintiffs for the resulting injuries.”[i] Marie Colvin’s family were awarded a total of $302,511,836.[ii]
I read carefully document number 59, constituting “the redacted public second amended memorandum opinion” by Judge Jackson. Thirty-six pages that cover everything from the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria to whether or not Marie had planned on retiring by age 65. Thirty-six pages that aimed at calculating the price of the most precious of all human experiences: life.
How does one go about calculating the price of life? How much would it take, for example, to compensate for the loss of Ghiath Matar? Ghiath, only twenty-six and a father-to-be, was known for giving out flowers and water to soldiers who were attacking peaceful protesters in early 2011. Do we have a figure for Mohamed Abyad, the Syrian doctor working for Doctors Without Borders who was only twenty-eight when he was abducted and killed? Or perhaps we have one for Razan Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer and civil society activist and recipient of the International Women of Courage Award, who was abducted in 2013 and has not been seen since. Do we have special figures for children? Like Rua Ismail, an eleven-year-old girl who was killed by an explosion in Salamiyyah; or Hamza Al-Khateeb, the thirteen-year old who was tortured to death. Do we have figures for mass killings? Families killed in Zara’a, Houla, Aqrab, and Darayya? All of those killed had names, though we may only be able to document the identity of some. But all, like Marie, had family, friends, and loved ones. Some died reciting a prayer, others died suddenly and unexpectedly. Some died while being tortured, others drowned as they attempted to escape a country that had become a factory of death.
The attempt to document Syria’s economic damage has become quite popular in recent months, but neither this approach nor its conclusions capture what I am after. It almost seems cold and out of touch to attempt to place a price tag on reconstructing a country which is yet to determine what exactly it has lost in terms of human life. Over 500,000 people have been killed since March 2011. How does one attempt to capture the price of these lives? How does one begin to reconstruct the lives of their families and loved ones? To follow the logic of Judge Jackson’s decision is to award $302,511,836 to each of those killed in Syria since 2011. This would amount to approximately $151 trillion, or over three hundred times as much as thehighest estimate for the cost to reconstruct Syria’s economy.[iii] But even this fails to fully capture the price we have paid; the price Syria has paid. Even $151 trillion does not seem sufficient to heal the wounds that have evolved over the last ten years into deep faults, time bombs buried deep within Syria’s earth, waiting for the right, or wrong, moment to explode all over again.
And who exactly would be found liable for the killing of over 500,000 Syrians? Perhaps the most tragic aspect of all of this is the fact that in the vast majority of cases, those killed in Syria since 2011, were killed by Syrians. Loyalist fighters, opposition fighters, secularists, jihadists — they believed in different visions, and fought for different Syrias, but in the end, they killed Syrians. We have the tendency to use abstractions when it comes to identifying those responsible. Judge Jacksonidentified the ‘Syrian government’, and at times even ‘Syria’ as liable for the killing of Marie Colvin. We often speak of the Syrian regime as liable for most of the killing. Jihadist organizations are described as having had the will, but not the capacity, to kill as many as those killed by the regime, a regime with a long history of actual and alleged acts of violence against civilians.
But all of this is far too intangible. In the final analysis, Syrians were killed by Syrians. Barrel bombs were not dropped by abstract entities. They were dropped by Syrians. Mortar shells were not fired by organizations, they were fired by Syrians.
No doubt, thousands of foreign fighters contributed to Syria’s tragedy and, needless to say, the role and actions of regional and international players were often destructive and at times even tantamount to war crimes. Yet, despite the strong tendency of my Syrian friends and family members to attribute responsibility to various conspiracy theories, it is clear, in my mind at least, that the primary authors of Syria’s tragedy were Syrians.
At the heart of the logic of Judge Jackson’s decision is the idea that significant financial penalties act as deterrents. Fine a company that sold harmful products millions of dollars, and you deter other companies from acting in a similar manner. Syria, however, seems immune to this logic. Severeeconomic sanctions, even59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, have made little, if any difference. This is not a geography that has shown itself open to the logic of deterrence.
My search for the price of life in Syria usually ends with reaching out toThe Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age, a book by Marina Cantacuzino, with a forward by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The book is, in essence, a compilation of stories, stories that provide a very different take on the price of life. Here ‘life’ is not something that can be numerically quantified. Life, rather, is measured by the extent to which the living are willing to protect it, to create a conducive climate for its sustainability; and, indeed, to act in a manner that is not consistent with the violence inflicted upon them. Cantacuzino draws our attention to the fact that, in the context of violence, no ingredient is more critical for the preservation of life than the capacity to forgive. Forgiveness is not an irrational act of kindness. Rather, it is a calculated act that aims at ending a cycle of violence that is immune to deterrence and only thrives when confronted with more violence.
My favourite story is that of Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp, set up by Bosnian Serb forces. Kemal eloquently summarizes the price of life when he states:
I didn’t decide not to hate because I’m a good person. I decided not to hate because hating would have finished the job they’d started so successfully.[iv]
Kemal had reached the conclusion that as long as we act in a manner consistent with the pain we suffered, we empower the narrative of those who have committed acts of violence against us. And yet, even Kemal could not have forgiven a person who stubbornly and arrogantly continues to degrade, wound and kill. Even Kemal required a genuine apology before his forgiveness could be extended.
In Syria, more than ten years after this tragedy began, no one is willing, or ready, to apologize.
On the tenth anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I shared selections of previous posts that I wrote from 2012 onwards, documenting and sharing thoughts and insights on what I believe to be one of the greatest human tragedies in recent history. Much of what I wrote went against my Syrian survivalist instincts, and often against the protests of concerned friends and family members. But I was, and so remain, a believer in the principle once articulated by Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.”
I still regard it to have been an honour of the highest degree to have grown up surrounded by Damascene reformers. Men and women who had mastered that impossible equation of trying to do something meaningful in a country where no change can be introduced without the prior approval of the security apparatus. Some of them were relatives, and others close family friends. Lawyers, western-educated doctors, Azhar-educated religious scholars, economists, engineers, and teachers. I have memory upon memory of listening to them, observing them and, above all, noticing over time the changes, subtle yet significant, that they were remarkably able to introduce. It has been a year since the Uprising began, and I often find myself wondering what it is like to be one of those reformers today. The fortunate have already departed, but what about their legacy? What about those who associated themselves with them, who built their lives on the basis of the changes introduced by them?
Long before the Syrian Uprising, the Ghuta home of Ahmad Kaftaru, the Grand Mufti of Syria and the late master of the Naqishbandi order in Damascus, was a place where numerous ecumenical stories were written. It was also where pigeons in large numbers would gather, as though attracted by the serenity of the place. Representatives of various sects and denominations, from both Syria and other countries, would meet in Kaftaru’s home and have warm and friendly conversations in the presence of the Grand Mufti. At times, I would attend some of these fascinating events, from lunch with Cardinal Martini, to a dinner with Robert Schuller, and spiritual meditation at dawn with Muhammad Ali. It was quite natural to see Alawite religious figures visit Kaftaru, often with their children, as one would visit an old friend. Attracted by the serenity of the place, pigeons, in surprising numbers, sat on the terrace and the grass outside of the house. It all seemed as though it would never change. Nine years after his death in 2004, and not too far from where his home once stood, chemical weapons were used against innocent civilians. Children died during their sleep, but the pigeons had long departed.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, it is indeed a daunting intellectual exercise to reflect on the various dynamics that were suddenly and unexpectedly suspended in March 2011. The story of this Uprising, along with its major subcategories, is largely known and documented. But underneath these main headings are fragments that are yet to be unearthed and shared. The story of how the Syrian Uprising changed, and ultimately stopped various aspects of life in Damascus is one such fragment. The first student protest at the Arab International University was held in October 2011. The response came the next day, and it was quickly repeated at other campuses whenever student protests took place. The shabihah would suddenly arrive at these protests. Shabihah is the name for the armed thugs who would carry out security duties. The word literally means ‘ghosts’. They would walk into classrooms to the disbelief of professors and would call out the names of students who had clearly been reported by other students or security officers on campus. Then, they would disappear.
Almost every major event from March 2011 until today was initially regarded as pointing in one direction, only for an overwhelmingly different redefinition to take place. Scenes of peaceful protesters sharing flowers and water with army soldiers around Damascus are replaced with scenes of armed ‘moderate’ fighters, which are subsequently replaced by scenes of radical fighters, who are in turn eclipsed by the rise of ISIS with scenes out of a medieval horror story. Scenes of officials trying to speak to peaceful protesters are replaced by scenes of triumphant soldiers from the Syrian army, which are systematically replaced by scenes of members of Shi’ite militias proudly proclaiming victories over the ‘enemies of the Prophet’s family’. Again ‘indefinitely’ seems to be the key word with regards to how many times events in Syria can mutate into something else, something not initially expected, something invariably worse.
You might think that the Syrian regime’s talk of a cosmic conspiracy against it is a fascinating new product of a Machiavellian mind. Not in the least! The Syrian regime simply adopted an ancient tradition, one that I remember well from my teenage years in Damascus. A grand conspiracy of cosmic proportions is responsible for the break-up of the Ottoman empire, the borders dividing the Arabs, the regimes that rule above them, their scientific and economic backwardness and, last but not least, Israel and everything related to Israel. To be ignorant of this conspiracy is a sin that can be forgiven. Denying it, on the other hand, or daring to point out that even a fragment of it may not hold up to critical analysis, is a cardinal sin for which no atonement is possible. After all, what exactly would you be proposing? That we, Syrians and Arabs, are responsible for these tragic realities? Or that we are capable of changing them, yet choose otherwise?
Yesterday, a man armed with a hammer was arrested after attacking a police officer in Paris. As he carried out his attack, he shouted, “This is for Syria!” This scene, along with other similar scenes from London Bridge to Saint Petersburg, converge in my head like a surreal mosaic no scholar can succeed in interpreting.
How does killing an eight-year-old girl at a concert in Manchester help my wounded country heal? How does it help the young women and men of Syria who marched for freedom and dignity attain these objectives? How does it help the displaced, the refugees, those dying in the basements of security offices, or those living in fear of being stoned or amputated? I visualize myself interviewing some of these men and women. Perhaps the three women who attacked the nursery school worker in Hermon Hill have the answers. Perhaps they can help me understand how stabbing an innocent woman who works for Little Diamonds nursery will help the families of the hundreds of thousands who were killed in Syria; or how will it stop the regime’s barrel bombs or the indiscriminate shelling of those fighting the regime?
As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I am reminded of a story I once heard from my late Damascene Sufi teacher, Shaikh Bashir al-Bani (1911–2008). The story is about a man who was trying to concentrate on his tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’ba) during the Hajj pilgrimage. As is required from men during this ritual, he wore only two white towels, one around his waist, another around his shoulders, and a special leather belt with a pouch attached in which he kept his valuables. As he walked around this ancient monument of Islam, a child suddenly shoved him from his right side. Mindful that he should control his anger during Hajj, the man continued his tawaf in silence. Yet, with each time he circulated the Ka’ba this rude and abrupt act was repeated, filling him with anger and totally distracting him from his spiritual experience. His eyes were fixated on his right side in the hope that he could somehow avoid the child when he made his next sudden move. After a while, the exhausted man decided to take a rest. When his hand reached for his belt, he realized that the pouch, situated on his left side, had been cleverly cut off by another accomplice as he was being shoved from the right by the child. Al-Bani would end the story with this line:
“When you are shoved from the right, look to the left… the real story isn’t where the noise is, and dramatic events are rarely what they initially seem to be…”
The way in which the Syrian Uprising is interacted with today is far more about ISIS, the PYD, and Turkish or Iranian geopolitical concerns than it is about Syrians suffering. This ultimate distraction, the intrusive child of al-Bani’s story, has successfully distracted all the major players, and most interested observers, from the daily killing, from those still imprisoned and tortured, from the homeless and the refugees and, perhaps most importantly, from the maimed and psychologically traumatized new generation of Syrians being constantly manufactured amidst the rubble and refugee camps.
Case: Colvin et al v. Syrian Arab Republic
Civil Action №: 2016–1423
Judge: Amy Berman Jackson
Decision: February 1, 2019
Funeral expenses: $11,836
Solatium damages: $2.5 million
Punitive damages: 300,000 million
Marie Catherine Colvin was born in Astoria, Queens. She died in Baba ‘Amr, Homs.
On the 1st of February 2019, Amy Berman Jackson, a District Judge for the District of Columbia, ruled that “… the Syrian Arab Republic engaged in an act of extrajudicial killing of a United States national by planning and executing an attack on the Baba Amr Media Center, and is liable to plaintiffs for the resulting injuries.” Marie Colvin’s family were awarded a total of $302,511,836.
I read carefully document number 59, constituting “the redacted public second amended memorandum opinion” by Judge Jackson. Thirty-six pages that cover everything from the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria to whether or not Marie planned on retiring by age 65. Thirty-six pages that aimed at calculating the price of the most precious of all human experiences: Life.
How does one go about calculating the price of life? How much would it take, for example, to compensate for the loss of Ghiath Matar? Ghiath, only 26 and a father-to-be, was known for giving out flowers and water to soldiers who were attacking peaceful protesters in early 2011. Do we have a figure for Mohamed Abyad, the Syrian doctor working for Doctors Without Borders who was only 28 when he was abducted and killed? Or perhaps we have one for Razan Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer and civil society activist and recipient of the International Women of Courage Award who was abducted in 2013 and has not been seen since. Do we have special figures for children? Like Ru’a Ismail, an 11-year-old girl who was killed by an explosion in Salamiyeh; or Hamza Al-Khateeb, the 13-year old who was tortured to death. Do we have figures for mass killings? Families killed in Zara’a, Houla, Aqrab, and Darayya? All of those killed had names, though we may only be able to document the identity of some. But all, like Marie, had family, friends, and loved ones. Some died reciting a prayer, others died suddenly and unexpectedly. Some died while being tortured, others drowned as they attempted to escape a country that had become a factory of death.
A March 2020 update by WFP reminds us that 11.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance; 6.1 million people are internally displaced; 7.9 million people are food insecure; and 1.9 million people are at risk of food insecurity. A 2019 WHO report confirms outbreaks “of measles, acute bloody diarrhoea, typhoid fever and leishmaniasis … in various areas of the country throughout the year.” The report also states that 10.2 million Syrians live in areas effected by explosive hazards. Perhaps most striking is the fact that attacks on health facilities “have rendered 46 per cent of hospitals and primary health facilities in Syria as either partially functional or not functional, while in some areas humanitarian partners have been unable to secure sustained and predictable access to populations in need.”
Notwithstanding these critical indicators, all one really has to do to capture the gravity of the current situation is reflect on the contrast: If Western officials can be seriously concerned about the collapse of their healthcare systems as a result of this COVID-19 crisis, how does one expect a country like Syria, where so many hospitals were destroyed, and where medical equipment and supplies were not able to address the medical needs of its citizens long before the coronavirus was even heard of, to have even a remote chance of protecting vulnerable citizens from the effects of this pandemic? In my mind at least, the lesson here is profoundly simple: Syria’s tragedy should never have been ignored or normalised by the international community. Tragedies on this scale only get worse, and the arrival of the coronavirus in Syria provides ample proof of this reality. There is, now more than ever, a moral responsibility to protect Syria’s already vulnerable population, who are now likely to be the victims of a vicious virus unless adequate medical assistance is urgently provided. Failing to do so is to only add material to the syllabus of The Nonsense and the Absurd.
Of all accounts I have read about forgiveness, my favourite story is that of Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp, set up by Bosnian Serb forces. Kemal eloquently summarizes the essential foundation of forgiveness when he states:
I didn’t decide not to hate because I’m a good person. I decided not to hate because hating would have finished the job they’d started so successfully.
Kemal had reached the conclusion that as long as we act in a manner consistent with the pain we suffered, we empower the narrative of those who have committed acts of violence against us. And yet, even Kemal could not have forgiven a person who stubbornly and arrogantly continues to degrade, wound and kill. Even Kemal required a genuine apology before his forgiveness could be extended.
In Syria, ten years after this tragedy began, no one is willing, or ready, to apologize.
It has never been easy to be the son of Dr. Muhammad Imady. I discovered this early on when I would be stopped by passers-by who would want to speak to me about my father – how he had once taught them, or employed them, or helped them through various government processes that had been obstructed by others. At times, they would speak to me at great length about what my father had done for his country, how he had returned from Kuwait to work with those who were adamant at preventing him from achieving reform of any type, however minor or insignificant. I would be obliged to listen to story after story, though I was well aware of the minute details of each of them. Their words would invariably end with an ardent petition for me to emulate my father’s example. But I knew then, as I know now, that I lacked the essential characteristic that had qualified my father in the first place to be the man he was.
My father’s secret does not lie in the fact that he was highly educated, extremely talented, and a man of noble character, despite how rare each of these qualities were. His secret, rather, lay in the fact that he was able to bring all of this to a world which was almost organically at odds with everything for which he stood. This, plus his capacity to remain loyal to such a world for over half a century.
I have many memories of sitting in my father’s office, watching him interact with gentleness and wisdom with people who were neither willing nor capable of understanding the ideas he was trying to explain. I was aware of the fact that my father was carrying the banner of reform in a world that was waiting for him to commit just one mistake – intentionally or otherwise – so that it may turn against him.
Reform is both easy and impossible. Easy because you are, in essence, asked to place what would benefit people first. And impossible because you are incapable of placing what benefits people first unless you are willing to interact with anything else as nothing other than foam that will sooner or later dissipate. Yes, there were those with whom my father enjoyed working; men and women who believed, as he did, in the imperative of striving to elevate the status of their country, but they were like scattered trees in an ever-expanding desert.
My father’s secret also lies in the fact that he did not regard himself as having another option, though in actuality he had many. Those who loved him would often speak to him of the possibilities of other places or positions which he could, if he wished, depart to away from a world that was causing him constant headaches, pain, and even fear from the threat of various types of enemies. In response, he would smile and change the subject, as though to say: I was created to be here, and I will serve my country to the very end.
My dear father, you have finally departed to a world which recognizes who you are, and what you were trying every day to achieve. I have entrusted you to the Most Gentle, the Ever Aware, the One with Whom all trusts are protected.
The Annual Muslim Quest for the Ever-Elusive New Moon
The day is Friday, the 22nd of May, 2020. On every spot of this planet, from Line Islands (UTC+14) to Baker Island (UTC-12), the month of Ramadan has ended, and the month of Shawwal has begun. The world-wide Muslim community, aware of the fact that the new moon would be born at 17:39 UTC, had long determined that Friday was the first day of Shawwal of the year 1441 of the Islamic Hijri Calendar. All Muslims were in a position to plan in advance, and they would all celebrate Eid, or the end of their 29-day fast, on the same day across the globe. The age of incomplete and inaccurate astronomical knowledge has ended, and with it the need to engage in the chaotic quest for a reliable moon-sighting. A universal lunar calendar is now used by all Muslims as a manifestation of unity and civilizational advancement.
If you are still reading, you are probably by now wondering if the author is suffering from some sort of delusion brought about by weeks of solitary confinement, or perhaps through over exposure to the chemicals in the hand sanitizer he has been in the habit of overusing since the outbreak of Covid-19. Though isolation and chemicals are no doubt having their effect on my mental wellness, I am well aware of the fact that the scene I shared above sadly has no basis in actual reality. There is no such thing as a universal hijri lunar calendar, and the quest for the Ramadan and Shawwal new moons was as chaotic in 2020 as it was in 2019. What I shared above, however, is a reality that is as possible as it is improbable. Possible because we have all the knowledge that is required for it to be applied, even today; and improbable because Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims, suffer from all the civilizational ailments that would make the arrival at a universal lunar calendar even harder today than it was for them to adopt Western Time and the Gregorian Calendar in 1926 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The Nature of the Problem
One first has to capture what exactly takes place every year at the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan in order to fully appreciate the surreal nature of this annual event. On the surface, it all appears to be straightforward and simple. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and hence each lunar hijri month begins when the moon is born. Did I say ‘born’? Please scratch that grievous error and replace with sighted. Yes, the moon needs to be sighted because this is after all what the Prophet of Islam prescribed, and since there is no central global body which Muslims regard as having the authority to proclaim that the moon has indeed been sighted, each country is reliant on its own moon hunters to determine when the new moon has been sighted. Muslims living in non-Muslim countries either follow the countries from which their ancestors migrated, e.g., India, Pakistan, Morocco, or attempt to replicate the moon-hunt of other Muslim countries. When the smoke clears, we often end up with Muslims beginning Ramadan on two, and at times even three different days – and, in turn, celebrating Eid on several different days as well.
So far, all of this seems harmless, albeit somewhat archaic. It is only when one factors in the emotions that become inflamed during these periods – that is, right before Ramadan begins and right before Ramadan ends – that the peculiar nature of this entire affair becomes clear. The very same Muslim women and men who have successfully restrained their hunger, thirst, anger and more for an entire month, will often become incensed as soon as the subject of exactly when Ramadan ends is raised. In countries where Muslims are a minority, national origins and even political affiliations will be invoked; from those advocating ending Ramadan with Pakistan, for example, and definitely not Saudi Arabia, to those who simply phone their relatives in Egypt and inquire as to what was officially announced in Cairo. Muslim councils and bodies that have arisen in the West may often be ignored by the very Muslims they are meant to serve, or simply viewed as advocating Ramadan dates that are consistent with the Muslim countries which help sponsor them. I can safely confirm that I do not recall a year, from when I lived in the US to when I lived in Syria and Jordan, and finally during my last eight years in the UK, when Ramadan began or ended without an outpouring of emotions regarding the determination of its start and conclusion.
A Universal Hijri Lunar Calendar?
The surest way, however, to unite all these disparate voices in one harmonious communal outrage is to start talking about an approach that is not based on the sighting of the moon, and to share the advantages of the adoption of calculations – widely available and extremely accurate – that specify when exactly the new moon is born. A ‘Universal Lunar Hijri Calendar’ is the end product of such an approach, and can be outlined as follows:
Since in both Judaism and Islam the new day begins at sunset, each new lunar month would start on the day when, prior to sunset, the new moon is born. To fast on Friday the 22nd of May, for example, would be to begin your fast in Ramadan but to have the fasting day interrupted by the birth of the new moon of Shawwal at 5.39 pm UTC. Friday can only be part of Ramadan if the entire day, i.e., from the previous sunset on Thursday to sunset on Friday, was not interrupted by the birth of the new moon. With this established, now all that is left is to integrate the element of universality. This can be secured by the use of Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) to establish the parameters of the day. Hence, a lunar month begins on the day when the new moon is born between sunset UTC and the following sunset UTC. There will be time zones, no doubt where the new moon would be born after sunset, but the only way to make the calendar universal is to set it in accordance with UTC, just as each new day on earth begins at midnight in Greenwich (located at the internationally recognized prime meridian – 0 degrees longitude). And finally, because the exact dates of the new moon are known to a high degree of certainty, now and for centuries into the future, the ‘Universal Lunar Hijri Calendar’ has all the components required to launch it tomorrow!
Partially because Covid-19 has increased the time I already spend alone thinking about things I shouldn’t think about, but mostly because it is in my nature to do so, I have spent many hours trying to understand why and how moonsighting and Ramadan have become such charged affairs amongst Muslims, and why there is such animosity towards any approach to determining the lunar months besides moon-sightings. I hereby share my tentative findings:
1) De-contextualise everything – Most religious Muslims today hate to be reminded of context. The truths they hold dear are variable-free constants. They exist in an abstract, ahistorical space. Ironically, it was Muslim scholars who first realized that even the verses of the Qur’an had a context, and hence numerous works were written on asbab al-nuzul or the circumstances of revelation. When it comes to moonsighting, however, Muslims will instantly point out that it was the Prophet of Islam who stated categorically how the beginning of the lunar month should be determined:
What Muslims will not share, either out of genuine ignorance or the desire to avoid a context-oriented conversation, is that the Prophet in another tradition provides a very clear context for the methodology being employed. This tradition, also found in the revered collection of Bukhari, states:
Try as you may, there really isn’t another way to read this tradition other than that the Prophet was in essence explaining to his followers at the time that, since they were predominately unlearned and hence unable to use calculation methods that were employed by advanced civilisations of the seventh century, they should rely on the methods available to them, i.e., sighting the moon and/or alternating between a 29 and 30-day lunar cycle. To argue otherwise, and to promote a more literal reading of the tradition, is to imply that the Prophet was in fact stipulating that his nation would remain illiterate, and, hence, unable to ever calculate the birth of the new moon. Needless to say, the vast majority of Muslims are no longer illiterate, and are just as able as I am to access rigorous astronomical calculations regarding the birth of the new moon, both projected and retrospective. It goes against everything we know about the Prophet of Islam to think that he would have dismissed a method that offers precision and clarity had it been available and easily applicable at the time. More importantly, to argue otherwise is to dismiss the Qur’an itself which presents lunar phases as created by God for the very purpose of making astronomical calculations possible:
2) Sever the link between method and objective – Another trademark of most Muslims today is the refusal to acknowledge that there is a logical and meaningful link between a method and the intended purpose of employing it. Try explaining to a Muslim, for example, that the use of the siwak (a small twig made from the salvadora persica tree) by the Prophet during his fast is no different than the use of a toothbrush and toothpaste. Both are intended to clean the teeth and freshen the breath, and both inevitably will result in a very small amount of fluid being swallowed. Yet, numerous sites on the net will state in categorical terms that using the siwak during Ramadan is not the same as the use of a toothbrush with toothpaste. I even recall being told by a PhD student during my studies in the US that toothpaste should not be used during a fast because, unlike the siwak, it has calories in it!
Nowhere, however, is this hostile approach towards linking method with purpose clearer than when it comes to determining the beginning and end of Ramadan. In theory, the sighting of the moon is the method by which one confirms that the moon was born. Can there be any other intended purpose for the attempt to sight the moon? So, if one can have certain knowledge, I repeat certain knowledge, by means other than sighting that the moon was indeed born, should not this knowledge be at least relevant to the conversation? Or is it that the attempt to sight, in and of itself, is the actual objective? What I find fascinating is that in the classical works of Muslim scholars, the question is asked regarding the person who saw the crescent but whose testimony was not accepted. What should such a person (who has certain knowledge that Ramadan had begun) do? The answer, we are told, is that this person must act upon this certain knowledge and fast, even if the entire community does not follow suit.
So adamant is the refusal by the vast majority of Muslims today to focus on anything other than sighting that one is led to the strange conclusion that Muslims believe that the moon is only born when it is first sighted. This reminds me of George Berkeley’s philosophical inquiry: if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? According to the logic of the Muslim moon-sighters, the answer is a resounding “No”. Allow me to repeat: the inescapable assumption of the modus operandi employed by Muslims is that prior to being sighted, the moon simply is in a state of occultation. How else does one explain the very serious proposition made by some to launch a satellite with the specific purpose of taking pictures of the new moon and sending them back to Earth? Never mind the fact that we know the very minute the moon is born based on unequivocally documented scientific calculations, unless we are able to take a picture of it, its birth simply cannot be ascertained.
Most baffling are the Muslim bodies that proclaim to use astronomical calculations as a basis of their rulings, only to immediately fall back on the ‘sacred’ event of sighting. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is one of the most respected international Islamic organisations and is widely known for the scholarly contributions it has and continues to make. When it comes to this issue, however, ISNA’s approach appears out of sync with its usual scholarly rigour. Please read carefully the following announcement posted on its official website:
Allow me to translate, ISNA is trying to tell us that even though it knows exactly when the moon is born (Friday, May 22, 2020; at 17:40 UTC) the lunar month can only begin when it is scientifically possible for the moon to be sighted (i.e., the elongation is 8 degrees, and the moon is 5 degrees above the sun). As such, ISNA has perfected the art of ‘high illiteracy’. I describe it as such, because this approach has kept us right where we were fifteen centuries ago – the only change it has introduced is to provide a scientific layer to what is otherwise a very rudimentary method, originally advocated in the absence of the astronomical knowledge we have today.
3) Treat dissent as disbelief – One of my favourite Prophetic traditions’ states:
If you expect, however, to encounter the letter or the spirit of this tradition when engaging with most Muslims on Ramadan and moonsighting, think again. You will be swiftly reminded that you are not qualified to profess an opinion. The reasons for this will start with your knowledge of Arabic and move on to include whether or not you have memorized the Qur’an, and the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, as well as whether you have a strong command of the legal positions of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Even if by some miracle you do qualify, you will still be regarded as an orientalist, alt-modernist, and/or progressive Muslim – morally dismissive labels I have encountered first hand – if your knowledge is used to defend the absurd idea that a lunar month should begin on the day and time the moon is actually born.
Even Muslims with higher degrees in astronomy will use various pseudo-scientific and fanciful explanations to defend moonsighting, including the one shared by a close friend of mine who had once worked for NASA. After I shared with him my confusion as to why Muslims act this way, he proceeded to share with me that the wisdom is in fact very clear. According to him, the Prophet wanted us all to become observers of the night sky, and hence asked us to use sighting rather than calculations!
4) Die protesting – At a deeper level, my suspicion is that the annual quest for the Ramadan moon is also a form of post-colonial, civilizational protest. Muslims are in essence saying to the West:
Yes, we now wear suits and ties, and have abandoned our turbans and fezzes. Yes, we drive your cars, and ride your planes. We import your medications and replicate your fast-food chains. We even use your time to set our prayers. But, when it comes to Ramadan, a line is drawn. This is where this story ends. Try as you may to convince us, you are simply barking at the moon [pun intended].
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of all of this is that the end result of this approach to the lunar month is to render the hijri calendar obsolete; a framework invoked only for ritualistic purposes. For how can one state, ‘I shall have a meeting on Thursday the 4th of Shawwal,’ when it is impossible beforehand to know for certain that the 4th of Shawwal will be on Thursday, and not Wednesday or even Friday? This is why all Muslims use the Gregorian calendar to organize their daily lives. How ironic that what appears to be the very act of protest against the West would lead to an even greater reliance on it.
I confess to holding no such antagonism towards the West. Even more, I have trouble seeing the world through the prism of an east-west dichotomy. My faith, like the Qur’anic olive tree archetype, is “neither of the east nor of the west“. And, since I am now sharing secrets, I should also end by confessing that I am probably one of maybe seven Muslims alive who fasted and broke their fast this year on the day the “astronomical” new moon was born.
History, as Mahmoud el-Kati, my professor at Macalester College, once taught me, is primarily concerned with the manufacturing of an identity [i]. In his mind, all the talk one hears and reads about history being useful for learning lessons from the past—for avoiding the repetition of past mistakes and identifying how and why things turned out the way they did—is essentially rubbish! History is a factory of identity; the art of using past events to legitimize a specific narrative. The Nation of Islam, for example, as el-Kati would explain, succeeded in attracting followers not because it provided them with a factual history. It succeeded, rather, because it provided African Americans with a historical narrative that empowered them with an alternate identity; an identity they could be proud of, an identity that made the experience of slavery a catalyst rather than a burden.
To grow up in the family of al-‘Imadi (henceforth Imady) was to know that it had its own version of history, and, in turn, a distinct sense of identity. Stories upon stories of who my ancestors were and all the values they allegedly upheld were shared with me throughout my childhood, often for no apparent reason. And whether it was my elderly aunt who was sharing these stories in her organic, fluid manner, or my father who had a far more sophisticated and formal way of articulating them, the impact on me was the same: because of all this, I was different, my father was different, in fact, all Imadys were different. We carried this distinct sense of identity with us everywhere.
Our Friday trips to Zabadani, a summer resort town around forty kilometres from Damascus, could not take place without pointing out pieces of land or even an entire village that the Imady family allegedly once owned; a gift from an Ottoman sultan to one of the Imady religious scholars or part of a trust that had found its way through marriages and inheritance into our family. A visit to a mosque could easily unleash stories of Imady grand muftis, all forty of them (I would later learn they were, in actuality, only seven). And a random encounter with a Damascene woman could remind my aunt of the fact that this woman’s family were once recipients of the Imady family’s charitable gift to Damascus: Waqf al-Qadi Muhibb al-Din al-‘Imadi, the charitable trust of Judge Muhibb al-Din Imady. And while some of these stories had no basis in actual history, there was, in fact, a solid historical foundation for the Imady sense of identity; a foundation which was as old as the Ottoman conquest of Damascus.
The main outline of the Imady family history is not difficult to identify. Who were the main players? When were they primarily active? When and why did they become less prominent? All these questions are fairly easy to answer. What is difficult is trying to go beyond what was obvious, and, later, trying to solve the ‘glitches’, or historical anomalies, that even now remain resistant to my extensive attempts to unravel them. But as el-Kati would remind me, what you know and what you don’t know about your past are both equally important when it comes to how your sense of identity is ultimately shaped.
[i] Mahmoud El-Kati is Professor Emeritus of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In recognition of his scholarly and community work, Macalester College has established the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies. For his biography, see the entry on his official website.
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