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Religious aspects of the conflict in Yemen – no easy answers

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — an attempt to make it clear how complex the various religious affiliations in the Yemeni conflict are ]
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My latest piece for LapidoMedia, briefing journalists on religious aspects of contemporary news, is now posted there under a slightly modified title:

BRIEFING: The roots of conflict in Yemen – no easy answers

by Charles Cameron – 22nd April 2015

Credit: screencap from PBS Frontline, The Fight for Yemen

Credit: screencap from PBS Frontline, The Fight for Yemen

THE prophet Muhammad is recorded as saying: ‘When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.’

He spoke those words after he and his small band of followers had been driven out of Mecca, and before it was clear that their emigration – the Hijra – to Medina would prove the success that turned the tide in favor of the new religion. Not surprisingly, then, religion means much to the Yemeni people and Yemen much to pious Muslims.

Indeed, less than a minute into the April 2015 PBS Frontline special on Yemen, reporter Safa Al Ahmad is told by a Houthi informant ‘Our borders are the Holy Quran and the Islamic and Arab world’.

In an article titled The Middle East’s Franz Ferdinand Moment: Why the Islamic State’s claimed attack in Yemen could spark an Arab World War, JM Berger of Brookings gives us context:

‘The crisis in Yemen is one of the more complicated stories to emerge from a complicated region. It involves a cyclone of explosive elements: religious extremism, proxy war, sectarian tension, tribal rivalries, terrorist rivalries and US counterterrorism policies. There is little consensus on which element matters most, although each has its fierce partisans.’

Berger offers the bombing of two Sanaa mosques on March 20 as his candidate for the spark that ignited the current situation in Yemen – just as the bombing of the Shiite al-Askari Mosque in Samarra was a turning point leading to all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.

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Since Lapido commissioned this piece, they deserve your clicks: please read the rest of the article on the Lapido site.

Those demned Sunni Shiites

Friday, April 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — for those unused to the word, and potentially troubled by it, demned is a cussword much favored by The Scarlet Pimpernel ]
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The Prophet said “War is deceit” according to Sahih al-Bukhari, the most highly respected collection of ahadith — as did Sun Tzu before him, writing “All warfare is based on deception” according to one translator. I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, by this reversal of understanding reported by journo Richard Engel, captured, then released, then very surprised himself by what he later discovered about his captors:

SPEC DQ the Sunni Shiites

Source:

  • Both quotes, which we can call “before” (upper panel) and “after” (lower panel) are drawn from Richard Engel’s New Details on 2012 Kidnapping of NBC News Team in Syria
  • On the Prophet’s banner, and the Coming One

    Sunday, January 25th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — from battle-flag to transcendent symbol ]
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    Father of the Imam Mahdi, postcard from Masshad, Iran, author's collection

    Father of the Imam Mahdi, postcard from Masshad, Iran, writer’s collection

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    I have written so much on the topic of the black banners from Khorasan [eg], which in turn arguably derive from the black raya or battle-flag of the Prophet, that I thought these ahadith from the Shia text by Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi, Bihar ul Anwar, would be of interest. They are drawn from the section titled:

    Flag of the Qaim is same as the flag of the Prophet

    Note here that the Qa’im — literally “He Who Arises” — is a Shia term for the Mahdi, as is Imam Zamana — “Imam of the Age”.

    129- Ghaibat Nomani: It is narrated from the same chains from Abdullah bin Hammad from Abdullah bin Sinan from Abi [Abdullah] Ja’far [bin Muhammad] that he said:

    “The Almighty Allah has fixed the time of the reappearance of Imam Zamana (a.s.) against the time fixed by the time-fixers. The flag of the Qaim is the same flag as that of the Prophet, which Jibraeel brought from the heavens in the Battle of Badr and he waved it during the battle.

    Jibraeel said: “O Muhammad, by Allah, this flag is not of cotton, flax or silk.” I said: “Then what is it of?” He said: “It is of the leaves of Paradise. The Prophet (s.a.w.s.) spread it on the day of Badr and then he has folded it and gave it to Imam Ali (a.s.). It was still with Imam Ali (a.s.) until he spread it on the day of the battle of Jamal against the people of Basra and gained victory. Then he folded and kept it safe. It is with us and no one is to spread it until the Qaim (a.s.) appears. When he appears, he will spread it and then everyone in the east and the west will curse it. Terror will move a month before it, a month behind it, a month on its right side and a month on its left side.”

    Then he said: “O Abu Muhammad, he (the Qaim) will appear depressed and angry because of the anger of Allah with the human beings. He will appear wearing the Prophet’s shirt, which the Prophet put on in the battle of Badr, turban, armor and holding the Prophet’s sword Zulfiqar. He will unsheathe the sword for eight months. He will kill excessively. [ .. ]

    Here the banner is woven of no earthly cloth but of an angelic provenance…

    130- Ghaibat Nomani: It is narrated from Abdul Wahid bin Abdullah from Muhammad bin Ja’far from Ibne Abil Khattab from Muhammad bin Sinan from Hammad bin Abi Talha from Thumali from Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s.) that he said:

    “Once Abu Ja’far Baqir (a.s.) said to me: “O Thabit, as if I can see the Qaim of my family coming near to your Najaf.” He pointed to Kufa and then added: “When he comes to your Najaf, he will spread the banner of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.) and then the angels of Badr will descend to him.”

    I asked him: “What is the banner of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.)?” He said: “Its pole is from the pole of the Throne of Allah and from His mercy. The rest of it is from the assistance of Allah. Everything that he swoops on with this banner Allah will make it perish.” I asked: “Is it kept with you until the Qaim (a.s.) appears or it is brought then?” He said: “No. It is brought then.” I asked: “Who will bring it?” He replied: “Jibraeel (a.s.).” [ … ]

    Here the banner is clearly transcendent, cosmic in scope.

    134- Ghaibat Nomani: It is narrated from Ali bin Ahmad from Ubaidullah bin Musa Alawi from Muhammad bin Husain from Muhammad bin Sinan from Qutaibah Aashi from Aban bin Taghlib that he heard Imam Ja’far Sadiq (a.s.) say:

    “Abu Abdullah Imam Sadiq (a.s.) said: “When the banner of the truth (the Mahdi) appears, the people of the east and the west will curse it. Do you know why?” I said: “No, I do not.” He said: “That is because of what harms the people receive from his (the Mahdi’s) family before his appearance.”

    And here, one reading of the English translation would suggest that “the banner of the truth” is the Mahdi himself, though I’d need the help of a linguist to know if that’s a plausible reading in the original..

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    In any case, the first two, at any rate, are clearly referring to spiritual realities rather than exclusively to a flag of cloth, and can thus serve as correctives to a more literal understanding.

    Paris, the Prophet and his veiled face

    Sunday, January 11th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — the role of iconography vs idolatry within Islam and Christianity ]
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    Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted an image of Muhammad today:

    This image, according to Wikipedia, is not merely Persian but specifically Shiite, “reflecting the new, Safavid convention of depicting Muhammad veiled”. It is also non-satirical.

    As such, it is neither offensive in the sense of insulting the person of the Prophet, nor does it in fact show the features of his face, nor is it the product of the Sunni “mainstream” branch of Islam.

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    In considering the revulsion that many Muslims feel at the images of their Prophet in Charlie Hebdo, it may be helpful to understand the respect in which the Prophet is held within their faith.

    The Qur’an says of the Prophet:

    And We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds.

    Muhammad is sent “as a mercy”, and thus whatever representation of the Prophet, his words and deeds serves to carry human thought towards the divine participates in that divine mercy, whereas whatever representation scorns that mercy or merely distracts us from it is to be avoided.

    The normative manner in which the Prophet is represented within Islam, then, is abstract and calligraphic, with the artist showing devotion and respect for the Prophet through the care with which the work itself is endowed with beauty:

    412px-Hilye-i_serif_7

    Simpler, and in its own way no less beautiful, is this calligraphic representation of the Prophet’s name in tile from Samarkand:

    Muhammad_calligraphy_tile

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    Icon or idol?

    One facet of the controversy over Charlie Hebdo has to do, then, with a deep issue in representation, which crops up elsewhere in the jihadists’ relish in destroying “idols” — the Bamiyan Buddhas, yes, but also the tombs of Muslim prophets and saints; there has even been discussion within Saudi circles of the destruction on the Prophet’s tomb and relocation of his remains to an anonymous grave.

    Within Christianity, there have been those who encouraged the painting of icons, believing that they carry the minds and hearts of believers deep into the mysteries of faith — and those who would tear them down, holding them to be “graven images” (via Judaism, Exodus 20.4) that give mind and heart a resting place far short of those same mysteries: iconodules and iconoclasts.

    Wars have been fought in Christendom too over such questions [in both East and West].

    The great Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev‘s most celebrated icon is often referred to as The Trinity — though literally (or should I say, figuratively) speaking, it portrays the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18. 1-15):

    Rublev Trinity icon

    It is significant for our context that Rublev has not in fact attempted to portray the Trinity, a mystery deemed beyond human comprehension — the Athanasian Creed, speaking of the Three Persons in one God says explicitly “there are not three incomprehensibles .. but one incomprehensible” — but these three angels, considered as “types” or foreshadowings of the Trinity, which can therefore both veil and represent it.

    DoubleTweet: equal-opportunity spoils of war

    Friday, January 9th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — as their respective flags testify, both Sunni and Shia benefit from our involuntary largesse ]
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    And yes — from here on out, DoubleTweet will be my term for DoubleQuotes formed of two tweets — particularly if, as here, they include visual elements and won’t fit my usual DoubleQuotes template.


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