Program Particulars: A New Voice for Islam

March 06, 2008

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

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(2:00) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale

Photo: Diana Matar

SoundSeen: Audio Slideshow The Veil as Resistance: Muslim Women and Social Change in Egypt view + listen

Listen to photojournalist Diana Matar describe her exquisite series of images portraying a new generation of Muslim women in Cairo. These women are reclaiming and redefining the veil as a symbol of political dissent, piety, and fashion in contemporary Egypt.

(01:32) Hijab, an Islamic Head Covering

Veils come in many different forms and often vary by country. One of the most commonly referenced forms of head coverings is the hijab, from the Arabic word hajaba, meaning "to hide from view or conceal." The hijab, which covers the head and the nape of the neck but leaves the face exposed, comes in a variety of colors and materials.

In its most conservative form, the burqa drapes from the top of a woman's head and covers her entire body with a pleated piece of fabric. The only opening is a small, usually crocheted, screen for the woman's eyes. This style is most often seen worn by Afghani women. See illustrations of these and other types of veils — niqab, khimar, abaya (typically worn in Saudi Arabia and select parts of the Persian Gulf), al-amira, and shayla — as part of a BBC feature on Muslim head scarves.

In an unheard cut, Mattson talks about the language people use to describe Muslim women. She describes current media coverage as contributing to a "voyeuristic" and "insidious" viewing of women who wear head coverings. Listen to "The Language of the Veil" (mp3, 1:19). For another perspective on the role of Muslim women and misunderstandings, listen to Krista's conversation with Harvard theologian Leila Ahmed.

(02:42) Met Some West African Students

In the radio interview, Mattson touches on her early years in Paris. Listen to an unheard cut of her conversation with Krista. (mp3, 3:04). She talks at length about her initial encounter with students from the western part of Africa and the dignity, she says, was grounded in their Islamic roots.

(04:55) Reading the Qur'an

Rather than beginning at the chronological start of the story (i.e., "in the beginning"), the chapters (surahs) of the Qur'an explore various themes — from the most allusive descriptions of the divine to the most mundane legalistic proscriptions for community life.

The Qur'an is perhaps best understood as a conversation between Allah and a community of believers rather than as a story with distinct plot points. In this conversation, God often refers to the prophetic traditions that the people of the northwest part of the Arabian peninsula (the former kingdom of Hejaz that is home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) were familiar with: stories of Adam, Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and many others.

The original surahs of the Qur'an were memorized by companions of the Prophet Muhammad as they were revealed, and later written on whatever materials were on hand, including parchment, leather, and bone. Surahs were not revealed whole. Rather, successive revelations could deal with entirely different themes in different surahs. The correct ordering of each surah's verses was overseen by Muhammad. Following the death of Muhammad, the surahs were compiled in order of length — from longest surah to shortest surah — as per Arab custom at the time of its compilation.

While it can be appreciated solely as a text, many Muslims say the power of Qura'nic verse unfolds when it is recited aloud in its original Arabic. For those listening intently, they believe, the aural and poetic qualities of the verses supersede the necessity for a single linear narrative. Qur'anic verse can be quite complex and allusive, and, therefore, a tradition of exegesis known as tafsir has arisen over the centuries in which different commentators have sought to illumine the possible interpretations of these difficult verses.

For an in-depth exploration of the heart of Islam and Sufism, visit the Web site for "The Spirit of Islam." It features the observations of Islamic and Sufi scholar Omid Safi, the poetry of Rumi, and Qur'anic recitations by Seemi Bushra Ghazi.

(06:35) Bowing and Prostration in Muslim Prayer

Salat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the precise ritual practice of bowing and praying to Mecca by all Muslims over the age of 10. Before prayers can commence, each Muslim must wash herself in a ritual called wudhu (view images of the steps taken). Although salat can be performed individually, Muslims are encouraged to pray in a communal setting. The obligatory prayer is performed five times per day:

  • Salat al-fajr: between first light and sunrise
  • Salat al-zuhr: after the sun has passed the middle of the sky
  • Salat al-'asr: between mid-afternoon and sunset
  • Salat al-maghrib: between sunset and the last light of the day
  • Salat al-'isha: Between darkness and dawn

In the first episode of our two-part series exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (second episode), Krista interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi, a former Jewish extremist who is now a journalist living in East Jerusalem. In an attempt to re-examine his own attitudes towards the Palestinian people, he undertook a journey that led to his 2001 book about knowing and praying with Palestinian Muslims and Christians. In his conversation with Krista, he talks about taking part in Muslim prayer lines:

In many ways, that was a magical journey. I was admitted into Sufi mosques in the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, and I went as a religious Jew, as an identified and a visible religious Jew, wearing a kippa, the skullcap, and I was accepted by Sufi Palestinian communities, admitted into the prayer line and into the Sufi dance, the zikr. And there was this moment where I felt I could touch Islam, where I could, in some way, embrace Islam and feel at home in a mosque. And my goal, as an Israeli on this journey, was to test the possibility of Israel becoming at home in the Middle East, in the culture of the Middle East — and there is no Middle Eastern culture without Islam. And for me to learn to overcome my fear of the mosque and to become at home in Muslim devotion was a psychological breakthrough for me and, I feel, a spiritual breakthrough. … It is, I would say, if I had to define what my real spiritual struggle is living in Jerusalem in these last five years, it's holding onto both those sensibilities and very often losing the balance, then being forced to remind myself that I also have a religious commitment not only to protect Israel and stand strong against what I see as an attack on my very being, but also to remember the dignity of Palestinians, the dignity of Islam and to remind myself of the love that I felt, not just the respect that I felt for Islam in the Mosque when I got on my knees and joined the Muslim prayer line, but really the tremendous sense of gratitude to Islam for making the experience of prayer and surrender to God so overwhelming. There's just nothing quite like Muslim prayer. And when you're part of that prayer line — and you know that choreography of prayer when you get on your knees and you stand and you bend and you stand again and you prostrate and that repeated — the effect is of a kind of a wave of prayer. And you feel yourself to be this point, this particle in this great wave of prayer and you just join this extraordinary wave that's just always there and always will be there. That's a gift that I received from Islam. And that's something that I have to remind myself even when I'm being politically realistic and hard.

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(08:44) Music Element

"Part III" from The Wind, performed by Kayhan Kalhor

(12:50) Interviewed Douglas Johnston

Douglas Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. His organization seeks strategic solutions to global conflicts by engaging religion as part of the diplomatic effort of the United States and the West. To hear Krista's 2007 conversation with Johnston, listen to the On Being program, "Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century."

(15:58) Honor Killing

Yasmeen Hassan defines "honor killings" of women as acts of murder in which "a woman is killed for her actual or perceived immoral behavior." In most cases, the accused woman is killed by her relatives because her behavior has brought dishonor to the family. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands of women being killed depending on the criteria used to define the killings. Countries that have reported or condone "honor killings" include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey (see the United Nations Population profile), and Uganda.

Rana Husseini, who has reported on violence to Jordanian women since 1993, says that law enforcement officials and judicial courts most often "value the honor of the family more than the life of the victim."

(16:18) Mukhtar Mai

In June 2002, Mukhtar Mai was gang raped by four men in front of 200 Pakistani villagers. Local customs dictate that Mai would commit suicide and not bring further shame upon her family. Instead, Mai charged and confronted her rapists in court. She was awarded a sum of money, which she used to open two schools. She established the Mukhtar Mai Women Women's Organisation that oversees shelters for women, educational efforts, and a community dairy farm.

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(17:05) Music Element

"Dream" from The Second Baghdad, performed by Rahim AlHaj

(20:04) Covering in the Presence of God

Jewish law, encapsulated by the religious modesty codes called tzeniut, requires that married Orthodox Jewish women to cover their hair. There are a variety of acceptable head coverings — wigs (sheitels), turbans, or caps — depending on the Orthodox sect. Observant Jewish men cover their heads with a kippah, the Hebrew word for "skullcap" — also known by its Yiddish name, yarmulkah. Its origins are unclear, but wearing the kippah is seen as a sign of submission and respect before God.

(23:34) Eid Prayer

Eid refers to Muslim festivals. Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, is the most important feast of the Muslim calendar and commences upon the tenth day of the Hajj at the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid al-Adha lasts for three days, commemorating Ibrahim's (Abraham) obedience to God through the willing sacrifice of his son Ishmael (not Isaac, as is believed by Jews and Christians) when the voice of God stopped him and required Ibrahim to sacrifice a ram instead. The feast reenacts this scene by sacrificing a cow or a ram. The family eats a portion of the animal and donates the rest to the poor. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It is a day of forgiveness, peace, fellowship, and unity.

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(24:20) Music Element

"Tsintsadze: Chonguri" from Chonguri, performed by Thomas Demenga

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(29:32) Music Element

"Waving Sands" from Blue Flame, performed by Simon Shaheen

(32:35) Partnerships between mosques and synagogues

The Islamic Society of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism (a North American organization representing a progressive branch of Judaism) co-launched an education initiative in the fall of 2007: Children of Abraham: Muslims and Jews in Conversation.

This initiative sees mosques and synagogues across the US partnering together to share experiences and develop ties between their adherents. In August, 2007, President of the Union for Reform Judaism Eric Yoffie addressed members of the Islamic Society of North America at its annual conference:

There are many tough issues that we need to address—terrorism, Israel, the plight of the Palestinians, and human rights, among others—and this will not be an easy task. But neither is that a reason to desist. Instead, the challenge should serve as a catalyst, an impetus to do more and to more fully commit ourselves to this dialogue. Let us agree, on the one hand, to approach these issues with humility; on the other hand, let us also agree that we will assert our convictions with passion, even as we remain respectful of our disagreements.

The heart of this interfaith discussion is a program developed by the URJ and ISNA to help congregations broach these sensitive topics. Ingrid Mattson introduced the discussion materials by saying:

The American Muslim community is limited in its institutional resources – we do not yet have enough American born and educated religious leaders, education specialists and administrators, much less seminaries and research institutions, to meet other, more established religious communities on equal terms. What we do not lack, however, are Muslims all over America with a sincere desire to contribute positively to a vibrant, pluralistic and just American society. I hope that this guide will help Jewish and Muslim communities begin or continue to engage in the important work of mutual understanding and, hopefully, productive engagement.

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(32:56) Music Element

"Legal Highs: Menthology" from Combo Platter, performed by Marimolin

(32:12) The "Double Bind" of North American Muslims

For further exploration of Mattson's thoughts on the Catch-22 North American Muslims face, see her article titled "American Muslims have a Special Obligation."

(36:03) Time in Pakistan

The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 marked the end of nine years of Soviet occupation. The move was viewed by the United States as an ideological victory — the U.S. having backed the Mujahideen guerilla forces through three presidential administrations. The absence of Soviet forces brought about the downfall of the pro-Communist government — as it slowly lost ground, civil unrest and chaos followed. Those who could, left the country. Various factions struggled and the Taliban — a militant, fundamentalist Islamic group — rose to power eventually seizing control of the country in 2001. The Taliban adhered to an extreme interpretation of Islam, banning women from work and introducing Islamic punishments, which included death by stoning and amputations. Millions of Afghans fled their homeland after the invasion by Soviet troops, mainly for Pakistan and Iran. Refugee numbers continued to grow during years of civil war and rule by the Taliban.

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(39:41) Music Element

"Impro III" from Piano Solo, performed by Stefano Bollani

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(42:38) Music Element

"Off the Top" from Ten from Little Worlds, performed by Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

(44:24) Story of Mattson's Husband

Krista references the story of Mattson's husband and the impact of this meeting in her essay, Finding the Prophet in His People":

"Soon after I met my husband, he told me about a woman he greatly admired. He spoke of her intelligence, her eloquence and her generosity. This woman, he told me, tutored her many children in traditional and modern learning. With warm approval, he spoke of her frequent arduous trips to refugee camps and orphanages to help relief efforts. With profound respect, he told me of her religious knowledge, which she imparted to other women in regular lectures. And he told me of the meals she had sent to him, when she knew he was too engaged in his work with the refugees to see to his own needs. When I finally met this woman I found that she was covered, head to toe, in traditional Islamic dress. I realized with some amazement that my husband had never seen her. He had never seen her face. Yet he knew her. He knew her by her actions, by the effects she left on other people. Western civilization has a long tradition of visual representation. No longer needing more from such art than a moment of shared vision with an artist alive or dead, I can appreciate it once more. But popular culture has made representation simultaneously omnipresent and anonymous. We seem to make the mistake of thinking that seeing means knowing, and that the more exposed a person is, the more important they are."

(45:24) Krista's First Interview with Mattson

Krista's first conversation with Ingrid Mattson is included in the September 2002 program, "The Spiritual Fallout of 9/11."

» Enlarge the image Muslim pilgrims attend Friday prayer on in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia during the Hajj pilgrimage. (Photo: Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

Muslim pilgrims attend Friday prayer on in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia during the Hajj pilgrimage. (Photo: Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

(47:05) Image of Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca

Mattson's description of the "beautiful image of three million Muslims in absolute peace and harmony making the pilgrimage together to Mecca every year" refers to the Hajj. One of two major Islamic celebrations, the Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca that lasts a week and takes place during the Islamic month of DhulHijjah. The Hajj consists of several ceremonies, meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of the prophet Abraham and his family, which included Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his elder son, Ishmael, in response to God's command.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam; it is considered essential to make the pilgrimage once in each Muslim's lifetime. Ishmael is considered to be the ancestor of all Muslims. And according to the Qur'an's account of Abraham's life, he once made a trip to visit Ishmael'il in what is now Saudi Arabia, and there he laid the foundation of the holy mosque of Mecca. Abraham is said to have offered this prayer at the mosque in Mecca:

Oh, my Lord, make this a city of peace and feed its people, give sustenance to its people.

National Geographic also produced a documentary about the pilgrimage titled "Inside Mecca." Images from that documentary are available online. Also, the PBS program Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet features a step-by-step virtual journey through the five phases of the Hajj.

(48:06) Reference to Muhammad Yunus

Dr. Muhammad Yunus and the bank he founded, the Grameen Bank, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006 "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below." Yunus was born in Bangladesh and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Vanderbilt University. He first got involved in fighting poverty during the 1974 famine in Bangladesh and today is often referred to as "the world's banker to the poor." Yunus founded Grameen Bank (which means "of rural area") in 1976 in an effort to make loans available to poor Bangladeshi. The bank is said to have extended credit to more than seven million of the world's poor, most of them women living in Bangladesh. His model of micro financing has been adopted by dozens of countries.

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(48:34) Music Element

"Part X" from The Wind, performed by Kayhan Kalhor

(49:00) Reading from "Finding the Prophet in His People"

Mattson ends her essay, "Finding the Prophet in His People," with the following passages:

The Prophet Muhammad said, "When you see one who has more, look to one who has less." When I was married in Pakistan, my husband and I, as refugee workers, did not have much money. Returning to the refugee camp a few days after our wedding, the Afghan women eagerly asked to see the many dresses and gold bracelets, rings, and necklaces my husband must have presented to me, as is customary throughout the Muslim world. I showed them my simple gold ring and told them we had borrowed a dress for the wedding. The women's faces fell and they looked at me with profound sadness and sympathy. The next week, sitting in a tent in that dusty hot camp, the same women — women who had been driven out of their homes and country, women who had lost their husbands and children, women who had sold their own personal belongings to buy food for their families — presented me with a wedding outfit. Bright blue satin pants stitched with gold embroidery, a red velveteen dress decorated with colorful pom-poms and a matching blue scarf trimmed with what I could only think of as a lampshade fringe. It was the most extraordinary gift I have ever received — not just the outfit, but the lesson in pure empathy that is one of the sweetest fruits of real faith. An accurate representation of the Prophet is to be found, first and foremost, on the faces and bodies of his sincere followers: in the smile that he called "an act of charity," in the slim build of one who fasts regularly, in the solitary prostrations of the one who prays when all others are asleep. The Prophet's most profound legacy is found in the best behavior of his followers. Look to his people, and you will find the Prophet.

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(50:35) Music Element

"Chi Passa Per'sta Strada" from Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet, performed by Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble

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is professor of Islamic Studies and the president of the Islamic Society of North America.