December 31, 2009

Watts Best of 2009

It's that time of year again! Happy New Year!

QuranClub Posts

The month is almost up and I see that I've written a grand total of two posts; pathetic, ain't it? I'd like to say I've been fairly busy this month and that's somewhat true, but the fact of the matter is that I've written four posts in December for the group blog QuranClub. So, in case you'd like some upbeat writing about Islam, I'd recommend the following posts. I wrote the first two posts in November, while the remainder were done in December:

  • Muslim Astronomy: 'Abd ar-Rahman as-Sufi and the "Small Cloud"
  • The Fledgling
  • Lost?
  • SRO @ MDG
  • Help for the Dying
  • The Pale Blue Dot
  • December 17, 2009

    Is Life Fair?

    This is another of my comments from over at Street Prophets, where a person asked the question, "Is life fair?" This is my initial comment to the diary:

    The Qur'anic perspective is: good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people; both are tests.

    Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To God We belong, and to Him is our return." (2:155-56)

    Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs. (3:186)

    Nor strain thine eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to parties of them, the splendor of the life of this world, through which We test them: but the provision of thy Lord is better and more enduring. (20:131)

    Every soul shall have a taste of death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. to Us must ye return. (21:35)

    In the first set of verses, 2:155-56, the response, "To God We belong, and to Him is our return," is what Muslims say upon learning of the death of a person. Death, of course, is another test, not only for the person who is dying (assuming he or she knows he/she will be dying soon), but for the people around that person, whether related or not. Indeed, people might be afflicted with some test, not so much that they themselves are being tested, but the other people around them. There is another passage in the Qur'an, where the Prophet Abraham (pbuh) prays,

    "Our Lord! Make us not a (test and) trial for the Unbelievers, but forgive us, our Lord! for Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise." (60:5)

    Muslims believe that Allah (swt) has His plan, but that we are not privy to it. For example, I suspect that the German Holocaust of the Jews was quite possibly a test to both the Germans and the Jews and, likewise, right now, the Jews and the Palestinians are being tested as well. (And we observers on the outside of that conflict may also be currently being tested, to see how we react to the suffering going on.) From this perspective, I believe that thinking of events in the life of an individual or community as being tests helps to sharpen one's moral judgments; i.e., what is the morally correct thing to do or say under the various circumstances? If you are Oskar Schindler, do you help save the lives of your Jewish workers or do you ignore them while collecting your steamer trunks' full of cash? Do you weep over the thought that you could have sold your Nazi membership pin to save the life of one more person (the movie) or do you drive away quietly in the middle of the night with diamonds stashed in the panels of your car's doors? (According to the book, the diamonds were stolen a few days later; easy come, easy go.) Do we follow the example of the Prophet Ayyub (Job, pbuh) when we are tested?

    And (remember) Job, when He cried to his Lord, "Truly distress has seized me, but Thou art the Most Merciful of those that are merciful." So We listened to him: We removed the distress that was on him, and We restored his people to him, and doubled their number,- as a Grace from Ourselves, and a thing for commemoration, for all who serve Us. (21:83-84)

    December 13, 2009

    On Zakat

    The following is a comment I wrote at Street Prophets in response to a diary on voluntary vs. "forced" charity:

    In Islam there is a difference between voluntary charity and what I would call obligatory charity (as opposed to "forced"). Voluntary charity is either known as sadaqa (alms) or infaq fi sabilillah (spending in the service of Allah (swt)), whereas obligatory charity is zakat, the third of the five pillars. For most Muslims, the thought of not paying zakat is looked on with distaste because the voluntary nonpayment of zakat when one is obligated to and has the means to do so is tantamount to disbelief. Likewise, in the past, zakat was equivalent to a national tax, obligatory on all Muslim subjects of the realm, so the classical notion of zakat vs. modern income taxes is not that far off.

    The thing is, Muslims were and are encouraged to pay both the obligatory and voluntary charities. It's not a question of suggesting that voluntary charity is good, obligatory charity is bad. Both are good. Paying zakat is not only for the benefit of the poor and others who are eligible to receive the money, it's actually as much for the benefit of the payer's soul. Zakat literally means "purification and growth" because the payment of zakat leads to both the purification and growth of one's soul. The act of giving zakat helps to dampen the soul's love and lust for material wealth. A hadith from Tirmidhi's collection has the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) saying:

    The trial for my ummah is wealth.

    By paying zakat we both fulfill our obligation upon the rights of men (just as prayer fulfills our obligation upon the rights of Allah (swt)) and increase our concern for our fellow man.

    November 21, 2009

    US Unemployment Rates - October 2009

    The October US regional and state unemployment figures were released today. The figures continue to show an overall increase in the unemployment rates. A total of 30 states had their unemployment rates increase, while the numbers for 14 states decreased; eight states had no change. The number of states with double-digit unemployment rates remains at fifteen (not including Puerto Rico). Here are some of the highlights:

    • Overall, the "official" national unemployment rate (U-3) increased by 0.4%, from 9.8% to 10.2% over September's number. For the past twelve months, the national rate has increased by 3.4%.
    • For the most inclusive unemployment rate measured (U-6), the increase was 0.5%, from 17.0% to 17.5%. For the past twelve months, U-6 has increased by 4.9%. The spread between U-3 and U-6 increased from 7.2% in September to 7.3%. This is the highest level the spread between U-3 and U-6 has been since the U-6 statistics were first published in January 1994.
    • In terms of a monthly change, the states with the largest increases were Alaska and Wyoming, both with an increase of 0.6%. Arkansas, Washington D.C., Illinois, and Mississippi all tied for the second largest increase, at 0.5%, while Connecticut, Delaware, Ohio, and South Carolina all had a 0.4% increase.
    • On an annual basis, three states have increases over 5.0%: Michigan at 6.0% (down 0.4%), Nevada at 5.3% (down 0.6%), and Alabama at 5.2% (down 0.1%).
    • A total of fifteen states have double-digit unemployment rates, unchanged from September (not including Puerto Rico, which has an unemployment rate of 15.6%). The state with the highest unemployment rate continues to be Michigan at 15.1%, down 0.2%. Nevada comes in second with a rate of 13.0% (down 0.3%), and Rhode Island places third with a rate of 12.9% (down 0.1%). The remaining states (in declining order) are: California (12.5%), South Carolina (12.1%), Washington D.C. (11.9%), Oregon (11.3%), Florida and Kentucky (both at 11.2%), Illinois and North Carolina (both at 11.0%), Alabama (10.9%), Ohio and Tennessee (both at 10.5%), and Georgia (10.2%).
    • The states with the lowest unemployment rates are North Dakota (4.2%, up 0.1%), Nebraska (4.9%, unchanged), and South Dakota (5.0%, up 0.2%).
    • The states with the lowest annual increases are North Dakota at 1.0%, Nebraska at 1.3%, Colorado, Montana and Vermont at 1.6%, South Dakota at 1.8%, and Louisiana at 1.9%.
    • In some good news, six states and the District of Columbia had gains in terms of non-farm payroll employment (i.e., number of jobs). Those states are Texas (41,700), Michigan (38,600), California (25,700), Oklahoma (8,800), Washington D.C. (5,400), and Montana (3,200). Only Wyoming had a statistically significant decrease in the number of jobs (-2,600).
    • For annual changes in non-farm payroll employment, the states with the biggest decreases are California (-687,700), Florida (-339,600), Texas (-307,200), Illinois (-286,300), Michigan (-262,700), Ohio (-243,200), New York (-242,500) and Georgia (-228,000). The states with the smallest decreases are South Dakota (-7,800) and Vermont (-10,700).

    The PDF version of the Bureau of Labor Statistics press release can be found here.

    November 12, 2009

    Pomplamoose - Beat It

    Here's an interesting cover of Michael Jackson's Beat It by a Bay Area indie jazz-pop band called Pomplamoose ("grapefruit" in French). Nataly Dawn does vocals and Jack Conte is the jack-of-all-trades instrumentalist. It's a rather cool video, in the line of Fabio Valdemarin's work. Check it out!

    November 11, 2009

    Elmira, New York

    This little video is of my hometown, Elmira, New York, where I was born and raised. Unfortunately, I haven't been back there since Christmas 1986. The video starts by heading north before doing a quick turn to the west toward the downtown area, roughly following the course of the Chemung River. The viewer then heads southwest, back over the river and above Southside, the neighborhood I lived in. The hill at the end of the video is called Mount Zoar.

    November 9, 2009

    Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!) 2009

    The beauty of the Internet is that it is global and allows people with talent from all over the earth to share their work. This short video, Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!), comes from the South American country of Uruguay. The video's a little reminiscent of War of the Worlds and Battlestar Galactica, but comes off really well due to its high production values. Ain't CGI wonderful? ;)

    November 1, 2009

    Mapping the Muslim Mind

    Mike thinks in Martian -- and this gives him a different 'map.' You follow me"

    "I grok it," agreed Jubal. "Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas."

    "Yes, but -- Doctor, you speak Arabic?"

    "Eh? Badly," admitted Jubal. "Put in a while as an army surgeon in North Africa. I still read it because I prefer the words of the Prophet in the original."

    "Proper. The Koran cannot be translated -- the 'map' changes no matter how one tries. You understand, then, how difficult I found English. It was not alone that my native language has simpler inflections; the 'map' changed. English is the largest human tongue; its variety, subtlety, and irrational idiomatic complexity make it possible to say things in English which cannot be said in any other language. It almost drove me crazy ... until I learned to think in it -- and that put a new 'map' of the world on top of the one I grew up with. A better one, perhaps -- certainly a more detailed one.

    "But there are things which can be said in Arabic that cannot be said in English."

    Jubal nodded. "That's why I've kept up my reading."

    (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, pp. 212-13)

    In the late 90s, as I studied the Qur'an more intently, I began to notice a change in my mind frame, a change in how I viewed and thought about the world, at least from a religious and ethical perspective. I knew this had come from studying the Qur'an, but I wasn't quite sure how this change came about. Then, the other day, as I began reading Toshihiko Izutsu's fascinating book, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an, I had some insight with respect to this question.

    This change in mind frame isn’t new or unique. As the above passage from Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, discusses, many people who learn a foreign language at an older age undergo an “overlay” of their mental “map” as they develop some fluency in the new language. This isn’t due to just the addition of new vocabulary and rules of syntax, but also from an increased understanding of the foreign culture and the very assumptions the native speakers have made about the world that they incorporated into the language. This is yet another reason for people to learn a foreign language, to develop empathy for the people and culture of the language one is learning.

    Of course, unless one is very proficient in the new language, one is likely to have a less-than-perfect understanding of all the nuances in the new language (a problem that afflicts native speakers around the world, as legions of language teachers will readily attest to). Add to this any other issues that might arise in deciphering the sender’s message. As Izutsu wrote,

    [I]f we are but reminded that even when we are actually reading a text in the original we tend almost unconsciously to read into it our own concepts fostered by our mother tongue, and thus to transmute many, if not all, of its key terms into equivalent terms obtainable in our native language. But if we do this, we are, in reality, doing nothing more than understanding the original text in a translation; we are, in other words, manipulating translated concepts without being aware of it.

    (Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an, p. 4)

    For readers of the Qur’an whose mother tongue isn’t Arabic, this paragraph describes a familiar concept: Qur’an > Translation > Interpretation. Ignoring the real bastardizations of the Qur’anic text (for example, interpreting the text according to modern political ideologies, such as Western feminism), simply reading a translation of the Qur’an may result in “mistranslations” as a result of interpreting the translation according to the meanings inherent in the reader’s mother tongue. (This is one reason why I prefer translations, such as Yusuf Ali’s, that provide various meanings for key words in the footnotes, in addition to literal translations of some phrases, when appropriate. At least with the additional definitions the reader is able to evaluate how those definitions could apply to the translated text.)

    What really provoked the most thought, though, was the following paragraph:

    Take, for instance, the English word 'weed.' One dictionary defines this word as 'wild herb springing where it is not wanted,' in short, an undesirable, unwanted herb. Now in the world of objective reality, that is, in the realm of nature, there is no such thing as an 'undesirable' herb; such a thing can exist only in the sight of man, who looks at the infinite complexity of natural objects, puts them in order, and evaluates them in accordance with his various purposes. The concept of 'weed' is the result of such a process of ordering, sorting out, evaluating, and categorizing. It embodies, in this sense, a particular point of view, a particular subjective attitude of the human mind.

    (Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an, p. 7)

    In other words, understanding is dependent upon perspective. Consider the Qur’an. The normal perspective, I would say, is that of mankind reading the Qur’an and interpreting it based upon our perspective. Mankind is the intended audience of the Qur’an, and it was written for our benefit. But the Qur’an was not written by a human intelligence. It was written by Allah (swt), whose level of intelligence and understanding are infinitely greater than our own. Likewise, the text of the Qur’an was written from His perspective, which is that of objective reality rather than that of human reality, which is both subjective and limited.

    My thought, then, is that as I continued (and continue) to study the Qur’an, my change in mind frame was akin to that of an overlay from learning a foreign language. The content of the Qur’an is powerful enough that, despite having relied upon English translations and my own interpretation of the text (at least for the first few years of study), I was able to begin thinking in the way Allah (swt) intended for me to think; i.e., as a Muslim.

    Muslims, then, think in the way that the Qur’an has trained us to think, which is a different (and, IMO, better) manner than that of most non-Muslims. We will never think as well as Allah (swt), even if we understood classical Arabic as a mother tongue in the way the Arabs of the Prophet’s (pbuh) generation did. Even so, despite our limitations, the closer one is able to mirror the message of the Qur’an in one’s mind* and apply Qur’anic instructions in one’s daily life, the closer one will be, insha’allah, to becoming the best Muslim one can possibly be.

    * And to do this, in my opinion, requires that the individual Muslim both remove one’s ego away from his or her interpretation of the Qur’an and follow the consensus orthodox interpretation of the Qur’an.

    October 29, 2009

    October 28, 2009

    JKCS041: Galaxy Cluster Smashes Distance Record

    Visible Light (Very Large Telescope (VLT)):

    XRays (Chandra):


    Photo Credits:
    X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/S.Andreon et al; Optical: DSS; ESO/VLT

    This image contains X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, optical data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and optical and infrared data from the Digitized Sky Survey. This record-breaking object, known as JKCS041, is observed as it was when the Universe was just one quarter of its current age. X-rays from Chandra are displayed here as the diffuse blue region, while the individual galaxies in the cluster are seen in white in the VLT's optical data, embedded in the X-ray emission.

    JKCS041 was originally detected in 2006 with infrared observations from the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT). The distance to the cluster was then determined from optical and infrared observations from UKIRT, the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Hawaii and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. However, scientists were not sure if it was a true galaxy cluster, rather than one that has been caught in the act of forming. The shape and extent of the X-ray emission in the Chandra data, however, provided the definitive evidence that showed that JKCS041 was, indeed, a galaxy cluster. The Chandra data also allowed scientists to rule out other possible explanations for the data, including a group of galaxies, or a filament of galaxies seen along the line of sight.

    Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally-bound objects in the Universe. Scientists have calculated when they should start assembling in the early Universe, and JKCS041, at a distance of some 10.2 billion light years, is on the early edge of that epoch. Follow-on observations of JKCS041 will provide scientists with an opportunity to find important information about how the Universe evolved at this crucial stage.

    October 17, 2009

    Rep 4 That

    Obviously, this video was made before the incredibly stupid and Islamophobic accusation by Reps. Trent Franks and John Shadegg (AZ), Sue Myrick (NC) and Paul Broun (GA) that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was "planting spies" among members of Congress through the use of Muslim interns. Otherwise I think you'd have seen the latter three Congressmen in the video. Franks, whom I'm familiar with from Arizona politics in the 80s (and was a wingnut Republican before "wingnut" came into vogue), is already in the video for other BS.

    Republicans in Congress: Everything your demagoguery democracy needs.

    Yeah, no $#|+!

    October 10, 2009

    Islamic Sects: The Sunnis

    Insha'allah, this is the first of a multi-part series I'm writing for Street Prophets on the different groups of Muslims worldwide. As time permits, current plans are to write diaries on the Shi'a and Sufis, the so-called Heretics, and various Islamic movements.

    A few days ago, Ojibwa suggested to me, in his diary, Ardipithicus Ramidus, that "It might also be interesting to see a diary outlining the different kinds of Islam."

    Now I found this suggestion a little strange, if only for its vagueness: "Different kinds of Islam?" To me there is only one Islam, but I suspect that what Ojibwa really wants to see is a diary on the different sects, if you will, among Muslims worldwide. I've never tackled this topic before; it's always seemed rather elementary a subject to me, but I can see where others might find this type of information of interest.

    Generally speaking, the Muslim world can be divided into two primary groups: Sunnis and Shi'a. Most non-Muslims are aware of a third group, Sufis, but for Muslims, Sufis fit within the other two groups; i.e., a Sufi may be either a Sunni or a Shi'a. Becoming a Sufi doesn't mean you're excluded from either the Sunni or Shi'a traditions, although not all Sunnis approve of Sufi practices.

    Sunnis are the majority group among Muslims, making up roughly 87-90% of all Muslims worldwide (according to the recently-released Pew Forum report on worldwide Muslim population figures). Sunnis believe in following the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Sunnah is the words and actions of the Prophet (pbuh) recorded by the first several generations of Muslims. Most of the Sunnah comes in the form of ahadith (sing., hadith), which are anecdotes describing some incident that either the Prophet (pbuh) or one or more of his Companions (known collectively as the Sahabah) did. These ahadith were collected into multi-volume books by a number of scholars who graded what is known as the isnad of the hadith as to the hadith's reliability. (The isnad is the chain of transmitters of the hadith; i.e., who said what to who, from the first transmitter until the last when it was recorded into one of the collections.) Each person within the isnad was evaluated as to his or her memory, truthfulness, and a number of other factors. The isnad then received a grade as to its authenticity: authentic, fair, weak, fabricated, and shaky. There are six collections of ahadith in which virtually all of the ahadith are considered sahih or authentic, of which the two most important sahih collections are by Bukhari and Muslim. It should be noted that the actual anecdote (called the matn) is not graded in any way, only the isnad. Three of the six collections, plus a fourth that is not part of the six, can be found here.)

    From an analysis of the Qur'an and Sunnah came to be developed a number of legal schools of thought. Four of these schools survive today, while a number of others have disappeared over time. The four surviving schools are all named after the respective scholars who started the school. (It should also be noted that none of these scholars actually sought to start a school of thought in their name; rather, the scholars attracted students who perpetuated their teachings.) The four schools are known as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali madhahib (schools of thought).

    Each of these schools tend to have a geographic predominance, although Sunnis are free to choose whichever madhhab (school of thought) they prefer. Hanafis are mostly located throughout Central and South Asia, the countries between Turkey and Jordan and Iraq, plus parts of Iran and the Balkans. Malikis are primarily in Western Africa, from the Atlantic to Libya. Shafi'i's are predominant along the east (Indian Ocean) coast of Africa, from Egypt on south, plus the countries of Yemen, the UAE, and all of southeast Asia (where I live). The Hanbali school is more or less only in Saudi Arabia.

    From a practical perspective, the doctrinal differences between the four schools are minor. All four schools are considered to be "rightly guided," and there is no antagonism between any of the four. Muslims of any school, for example, may pray behind an imam (prayer leader) of another school. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in his famous book, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam (which I happen to be reading right now), ignored doctrinal differences between the four schools on the various topics he discussed and, in fact, often provided examples of when one or more of the four schools would differ from each other on specific subjects. (For example, with respect to prohibited meats, the Malikis reject only those that are specifically mentioned in the Qur'an, whereas the other three schools prohibit other types of meats that are not mentioned in the Qur'an but were mentioned either directly or as part of a general classification (e.g., "birds with talons"; i.e., birds of prey) by the Prophet (pbuh).)

    October 9, 2009

    American Qur'an

    I came across this news article yesterday about an art project entitled American Qur'an by the American artist Sandow Birk. Birk has been working on illustrating all of the Surahs in the Qur'an (he's about half-finished) in an effort to show other non-Muslims (American Christians in particular) how the Qur'an relates to life in the 21st century.

    In Birk's version, each chapter of the Quran has been carefully copied in English in a calligraphy modeled on the urban graffiti of America's inner cities. The stark black text is bordered by scenes from American life both mundane and extraordinary: gangsters flashing signs, Hurricane Katrina's devastation, migrants working the fields, a crowded airport lounge and a raging California wildfire among them.

    Each painting relates to the sura, or chapter, it illustrates, either literally or metaphorically, Birk said.

    Although Birk doesn't use the actual Arabic Qur'an, he flouts one Islamic art tradition by incorporating images of people in the paintings. I understand why he has done this and, in certain ways, it has brought some of the surahs to life in a way I think many non-Muslims wouldn't otherwise get. But I also find myself preferring our way of doing art, without the humanity involved in the picture.

    Some of the reactions to the project have been predictable. On the one hand:

    Koplin Del Rio Gallery owners Sugar Elisa Brown and Eleana Del Rio braced for controversy when the show opened last month. They have been surprised and encouraged by the muted reaction: they have received only a handful of odd or threatening e-mails and some Muslims have written to express their appreciation. Surprisingly, some of the most vocal critics have been those who believe Birk's work portrays Islam in too positive a light, they said.

    How terrible! Islam is being shown in "too positive a light." On the other hand:

    Still, not everyone has appreciated the exhibit, including some Muslim religious leaders who believe the project degrades the Quran. Critic Mohammad Qureshi, administrator of the Islamic Center of Southern California, has refused to visit the gallery or look at pictures of the panels posted on the Internet.

    "The Quran is above these things. It doesn't need to be depicted in that way," Qureshi said. "The Quran is accessible the way it is. It's been accessible for 1,400 years, so it doesn't need anything to make it more accessible."

    I agree somewhat with this opinion; the Qur'an is above these things and is accessible the way it is. However, I feel the overall criticism is too heavy-handed. If the artwork brings the Qur'an to life in a way that brings non-Muslims to Islam, does that not make the artwork beneficial?

    The art is currently being exhibited at two galleries in California, Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. The two links have a combined 50+ images, with the first link, to the Koplin Del Rio Gallery, having larger images that are easier to view. As for the English translations being used, Birk apparently is using several different translators for his work. Below are four pictures from the project that I found of interest. The first, of course, is Surah al-Fatihah:

    This next picture is for Surah al-Adiyat (#100; The Chargers). It's an interesting juxtaposition between the first few verses of the surah with the colorful spectacle of NASCAR racecars thundering down the track:

    By the (Steeds) that run, with panting (breath), And strike sparks of fire, And push home the charge in the morning, And raise the dust in clouds the while, And penetrate forthwith into the midst (of the foe) en masse;-" (100:1-5)

    The last two are for Surah al-Qamar (#54; The Moon), showing a hurricane (Katrina?) raging over an ocean...

    ...with a space station and the moon floating peacefully overhead.

    October 6, 2009

    Here I Am

    Allah (swt) answers our prayers. He may not do so immediately; in fact, He may take several years to do so, but He will answer our prayers in His time. To expect an answer immediately or overnight is shortsighted and the height of impatience. We must be patient and ready to respond to any tests He may set for us, to determine whether we are worthy to receive what it is we pray for. But never fear that Allah (swt) will not answer our prayers. He does, and I am grateful to Him for those prayers of mine He has indeed answered so far.

    HT: QuranClub

    BBC: Muslim Demographics - The Truth

    BBC Radio has looked at the claims made in Muslim Demographics, the Islamophobic video that came out in May, and has come out with their own report. In general, the BBC confirms what I and a number of other bloggers wrote a few months ago: that the video is largely erroneous in its facts and conclusions.

    For example, one of the claims made by the video (that the Russian army will be 40% Muslim within a few years) was dismissed by one expert as "complete poppycock." In another claim (that Germany will become a Muslim-majority nation by 2050), the BBC interviewed the person who was quoted for that statistic, Mr. Walter Radermacher. Mr. Radermacher not only said that he was misquoted but that he was making the opposite argument!

    The BBC's ultimate conclusion, that the makers of Muslim Demographics neither found accurate data nor handled what data they used with care, is spot on. The only surprise is why they didn't do this research and come out with their report back in May, when the video was first released.

    HT: QuranClub

    October 4, 2009

    Colorpulse: "A Glorious Dawn" (Cosmos Remixed)

    I forget off-hand how I stumbled across this video tonight, but it's one guy's "remix," if you will, of Carl Sagan's TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Intermixed are snips of videos and "lyrics" "sung" by Stephen Hawking, taken from his Universe documentary. If you're interested in downloading the soundtrack from the video, click here.

    A = B?

    Are squares A and B the same color? In fact, they are, as the below illustration proves. This is an example of the same color illusion, created by MIT professor Edward Adelson. A description of how the illusion works can be found here. I verified that the "colors" were the same by using a Firefox add-on called ColorZilla; in hexidecimal format, the code for this particular color of gray is #787878.

    The Only Video of Anne Frank

    The Anne Frank House, the museum which was the hiding place for Anne Frank, her family, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer during World War 2, has uploaded the only known film footage of Anne onto Youtube. The film was taken on July 22, 1941, and shows a newly-wed couple walking out of the building (No. 37 Merwedeplein, Amsterdam) adjacent to the home Anne was living in at the time (No. 39 Merwedeplein). (This was about one year prior to the Frank family going into hiding.) Anne, who was 13-years-old at the time, appears at the nine-second mark of the video, and can be seen leaning out of the window to take a look at the couple.

    The Anne Frank Channel on Youtube can be subscribed to here.

    HT: Mashable

    October 3, 2009

    Fabio Valdemarin: Got a Match?

    I haven't done any of my Bedtime Music videos in a long time, so consider this a special edition post of that series. Tonight's video was a recommendation made on, of all places, the Alan Parsons e-mail list (which I've been a member of for a very long time). The musician is Fabio Valdemarin, who does a cover of The Chick Corea Elektric Band's Got a Match?, off the band's 1985 eponymous debut album. Valdemarin's video is unique in that he recorded each of the instruments (drums, piano, guitar and bass) separately, then combined the four videos into one to create an Enya-like recording.

    One wonders how many other instruments
    Valdemarin can play. Looking around his website, he has another video in which he also plays the trumpet.

    New Scientist: Cyborg Beetles

    This is an extremely short video, but disturbing in its implications. Scientists are now able to control the flight of beetles through radio remote-control. The narrator describes several potential uses for such "cyborg beetles," such as searching for disaster victims (a good use) or for spying. (The proverbial "fly on the wall" may become the real "beetle on the wall"; the spy's electronic "bug" becomes a real bug.) And how long will it take military (or civilian) scientists to control the actions of other animals or even people by remote control?

    Reality Check: The White House Responds

    The White House has started showing some cajones with respect to some of the more out-and-out lies spewed by Faux News' Glenn Beck. (It's about time!) The first of the lies debunked was particularly amusing. Apparently Beck is back from a time-travel trip to the future. Tell us, Glenn, how many gold medals did we win next year? For the rest of the lies and the White House's responses, click on either of the above links.

    RHETORIC: BECK SAID VANCOUVER LOST $1 BILLION WHEN IT "HAD THE OLYMPICS." Glenn Beck said, "Vancouver lost, how much was it? they lost a billion dollars when they had the Olympics." [Transcript, Glenn Beck Show, 9/29/09]

    REALITY: VANCOUVER'S OLYMPICS WILL NOT TAKE PLACE UNTIL 2010. Vancouver will host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games from February 12 – 28, 2010 and March 12-21, 2010, respectively. [, accessed 9/29/09]

    October 1, 2009

    The Questions

    One of the interesting things about the Qur'an is that there are a number of verses (at least 21) that I think of collectively as "The Questions." Each of the questions are framed in an "either-or" format: your answer is either one or the other. The answer to each of the questions is painfully obvious to a believer (in this case I don't think there even needs to be a distinction between Muslims, Jews or Christians). For a non-believer, I think the questions are more challenging, especially some of the more nature-oriented verses, like 56:58-9. Sperm are created within the male body, and a typical man can ejaculate over 40 million sperm at any one time; yet, how many of those sperm did we "create?" Do we have any conscious control over the creation of sperm, say, with respect to different features of a body (e.g., hair color, shape of the nose, etc.)? No, of course not. Through Allah's (swt) will, our bodies create the sperm in the way that He decides, not in how we choose.

    If you know of any other "Questions" in the Qur'an that I missed, please add them in the comments.

    Is the man who follows the good pleasure of God Like the man who draws on himself the wrath of God, and whose abode is in Hell?- A woeful refuge! (3:162)

    Is it not (the case) that to God belongeth whatever is in the heavens and on earth? Is it not (the case) that God's promise is assuredly true? Yet most of them understand not. (10:55)

    Is then one who doth know that that which hath been revealed unto thee from thy Lord is the Truth, like one who is blind? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition;- (13:19)

    Is then He who standeth over every soul (and knoweth) all that it doth, (like any others)? And yet they ascribe partners to God. Say: "But name them! is it that ye will inform Him of something he knoweth not on earth, or is it (just) a show of words?" Nay! to those who believe not, their pretense seems pleasing, but they are kept back (thereby) from the path. And those whom God leaves to stray, no one can guide. (13:33)

    Is then He Who creates like one that creates not? Will ye not receive admonition? (16:17)

    Is then the man who believes no better than the man who is rebellious and wicked? Not equal are they. (32:18)

    Is he, then, to whom the evil of his conduct is made alluring, so that he looks upon it as good, (equal to one who is rightly guided)? For God leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills. So let not thy soul go out in (vainly) sighing after them: for God knows well all that they do! (35:8)

    Is it not to God that sincere devotion is due? But those who take for protectors other than God (say): "We only serve them in order that they may bring us nearer to God." Truly God will judge between them in that wherein they differ. But God guides not such as are false and ungrateful. (39:3)

    Is one who worships devoutly during the hour of the night prostrating himself or standing (in adoration), who takes heed of the Hereafter, and who places his hope in the Mercy of his Lord - (like one who does not)? Say: "Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition. (39:9)

    Is, then, one against whom the decree of Punishment is justly due (equal to one who eschews Evil)? Wouldst thou, then, deliver one (who is) in the Fire? (39:19)

    Is one whose heart God has opened to Islam, so that he has received Enlightenment from God, (no better than one hard-hearted)? Woe to those whose hearts are hardened against celebrating the praises of God! they are manifestly wandering (in error)! (39:22)

    Is, then, one who has to fear the brunt of the Penalty on the Day of Judgment (and receive it) on his face, (like one guarded therefrom)? It will be said to the wrong- doers: "Taste ye (the fruits of) what ye earned!" (39:24)

    Is not God enough for his Servant? But they try to frighten thee with other (gods) besides Him! for such as God leaves to stray, there can be no guide. (39:36)

    Is then one brought up among trinkets, and unable to give a clear account in a dispute (to be associated with God)? (43:18)

    Is then one who is on a clear (Path) from his Lord, no better than one to whom the evil of his conduct seems pleasing, and such as follow their own lusts? (47:14)

    Is it that their faculties of understanding urge them to this, or are they but a people transgressing beyond bounds? (52:32)

    Do ye then see?- The (human Seed) that ye throw out,- Is it ye who create it, or are We the Creators? (56:58-9)

    See ye the seed that ye sow in the ground? Is it ye that cause it to grow, or are We the Cause? (56:63-4)

    See ye the Fire which ye kindle? Is it ye who grow the tree which feeds the fire, or do We grow it? (56:71-2)

    Is then one who walks headlong, with his face groveling, better guided,- or one who walks evenly on a Straight Way? (67:22)

    Is not God the wisest of judges? (95:8)

    September 18, 2009

    Star Trek Enhanced: The Doomsday Machine

    One of the problems in living overseas is that some news just doesn't travel. For example, I discovered earlier today that the original Star Trek had been remastered in 2006 and rebroadcast back in 2007. (Not that any of this has appeared on Singapore television; a lot of American TV series never go into syndication here.) So, while looking through Youtube I discovered a number of clips that featured scenes from various episodes of the "enhanced" series.

    I am quite impressed, especially with this particular episode, The Doomsday Machine. This episode was somewhat influential on my young life (according to Wikipedia, I would have been either five or six years old when I first saw the episode on TV). How was it influential? Well, it scared the crap out of me! :) I had been watching Star Trek most weeks with my Dad during the original broadcast back in the 60s; however, after watching The Doomsday Machine, I was too scared to continue watching the show. By the time I had screwed up my courage to start watching again, there were only a few more episodes left to air, the series having been canceled.

    Two points of interest about this episode:
  • The planet killer and the wreck of the USS Constellation have been rendered in CGI. This included giving the planet killer a more battered, metallic appearance. Originally, because of budget restraints, the model of the planet killer was a windsock covered in concrete.
  • The Enterprise and Constellation are rendered in such a way that they are dwarfed by the planet killer, giving an enhanced sense of the machine's massive size.

    This first video is when Commodore Decker (played by William Windom) is in command of the Enterprise with Captain Kirk aboard the damaged Constellation:

    This next video is of the very end of the show:

    And this final video is a compilation of various visual effects from the enhanced episode. There are some nice touches in this compilation you should look out for; for example, at the 1:24 mark, an asteroid strikes the hull of the Constellation and shatters into several smaller fragments. I thought that was pretty cool.

  • September 17, 2009

    Hamza Yusuf - "As an Ummah We Need to Rise Up"

    This was an interesting speech by Hamza Yusuf. Although this video is old (apparently, it comes from ISNA 1995) and some of the events talked about are even older (the CIA's involvement with distributing cocaine in the US took place back in the early 80s), the overall message is just as timely today as it was fourteen years ago. We Muslims need more "fire and brimstone" imams.

    HT: Grande Strategy

    September 9, 2009

    Nerd Venn Diagram

    Although I'm sure Milady would have her own opinion as to my category, I'd probably put myself in "Geek." :)

    HT: BuzzFeed

    Ramadan Reminders

    The following came from the Surah Yasin group at Facebook. This is a very nice set of reminders for us Muslims to act upon as we enter the final days of this month of Ramadan:

    Rasullulah (pbuh) said, "The dua of a fasting person is not rejected" (Bayhaqi).

    He also stated, "The dua of a fasting person at the time of Iftaar is accepted." (Abu Dawood).

    Rasullulah (pbuh) said, "Do four things abundantly, two to please your Lord, and two you need for yourselves.

    "Things to please your lord:

    1. Say La illaha ill Allah abundantly
    2. Do Istigfar (seek repentance)

    "Things you need for yourself:

    1. Ask Allah for Jannah (heaven)
    2. Ask Allah to protect you from Janhannam (hell)"

    Many individuals see no benefit in asking for the protection from Jahannam if they already ask for Jannah. It is our aqeeda (creed) and belief that an individual may have to spend time in Jahannam in order to be purified from his sins so he may enter Jannah. Jannah is pure and only the pure are allowed to enter.

    There is a hadith narrated by Rajab al-Hambali's in Lata'if al-Ma'arif: "A person who does dhikr (the remembrance of Allah (swt)) during Ramadan is forgiven. And a person who asks Allah (swt) in Ramadan will not fail [Allah will give him what he wants]." Therefore do as much dhikr as one can.

    Shaykh Abdur Raheem ibn Dawood Limbada

    September 5, 2009


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    September 2, 2009

    Muhammad Asad: The Story of a Story

    The following is an excerpt from Muhammad Asad's book, The Road to Mecca. Despite the fact that this book was published back in 1954, I believe Asad's theory regarding the West's hatred for Islam (that it poses a significant challenge to Western concepts of spiritual and social life) rings very true, even today, 55 years later.

    Conceptually, Islam is too close for comfort for a lot of Westerners. We believe in the same God, the same prophets (pbut) and angels and message. But, compared to most (but certainly not all) Westerners, we take religion more seriously (actually, a lot more seriously) than they do, and we may be a little more disciplined in applying religious principles to our daily lives. (One of the benefits of fasting during Ramadan, in my opinion.) And that, I think, scares Westerners the most, the thought that if they became Muslim, these Westerners would lose their party world: no more booze, no more pork, a lot less ogling of naked or nearly naked women in public, and a refocusing of their lives on prayer and spirituality. Westerners (especially whites) may not feel as threatened when darker-skinned Westerners become Muslim, but many are threatened at the thought of white Muslims (such as myself) because we don't fit into their notions of racial behavior. In the Westerners' racist view, Islam isn't and can't become acceptable for white people to join. Because once they see the tide beginning to turn against them, then all is lost from their narrow perspective.

    “And this appeared very strange to most of my Western friends. They could not quite picture to themselves how a man of Western birth and upbringing could have so fully, and apparently with no mental reservations whatever, identified himself with the Muslim world; how it had been possible for him to exchange his Western cultural heritage for that of Islam; and what it was that had made him accept a religious and social ideology which – they seemed to take for granted – was vastly inferior to all European concepts.

    “Now why, I asked myself, should my Western friends take this so readily for granted? Had any of them ever really bothered to gain a direct insight into Islam – or were their opinions based merely on the handful of clichés and distorted notions that had been handed down to them from previous generations? Could it perhaps be that the old Graeco-Roman mode of thought which divided the world into Greeks and Romans on one side and ‘barbarians’ on the other was still so thoroughly ingrained in the Western mind that it was unable to concede, even theoretically, positive value to anything that lay outside its own cultural orbit?

    “Ever since Greek and Roman times, European thinkers and historians have been prone to contemplate the history of the world from the standpoint and in terms of European history and Western cultural experiences alone. Non-Western civilizations enter the picture only in so far as their existence, or particular movements within them, have or had a direct influence on the destinies of Western man; and thus, in Western eyes, the history of the world and its various cultures amounts in the last resort to little more than an expanded history of the West.

    “Naturally, such a narrowed angle of vision is bound to produce a distorted perspective. Accustomed as he is to writings which depict the culture or discuss the problems of his own civilization in great detail and in vivid colors, with little more than side glances here and there at the rest of the world, the average European or American easily succumbs to the illusion that the cultural experiences of the West are not merely superior but out of all proportion to those of the rest of the world; and thus, that the Western way of life is the only valid norm by which other ways of life could be adjudged – implying, of course, that every intellectual concept, social institution or ethical valuation that disagrees with the Western ‘norm’ belongs eo ipso to a lower grade of existence. Following in the footsteps of the Greeks and Romans, the Occidental likes to think that all those ‘other’ civilizations are or were only so many stumbling experiments on the path of progress so unerringly pursued by the West; or, at best (as in the case of the ‘ancestor’ civilizations which preceded that of the modern West in a direct line), no more than consecutive chapters in one and the same book, of which Western civilization is, of course, the final chapter.

    “When I expounded this view to an American friend of mine – a man of considerable intellectual attainments and a scholarly bent of mind – he was somewhat skeptical at first.

    “‘Granted,’ he said, ‘the ancient Greeks and Romans were limited in their approach to foreign civilizations: but was not this limitation the inevitable result of difficulties of communication between them and the rest of the world? And has not this difficulty been largely overcome in modern times? After all, we Westerners do concern ourselves nowadays with what is going on outside our cultural orbit. Aren’t you forgetting the many books about Oriental art and philosophy that have been published in Europe and America during the last quarter-century…about the political ideas that preoccupy the minds of Eastern peoples? Surely one could not with justice overlook this desire on the part of Westerners to understand what other cultures might have to offer?’

    “‘To some extent you may be right,’ I replied. ‘There is little doubt that the primitive Graeco-Roman outlook is no longer fully operative these days. Its harshness has been considerably blunted – if for no other reason, because the more mature among Western thinkers have grown disillusioned and skeptical about many aspects of their own civilization and now begin to look to other parts of the world for cultural inspiration. Upon some of them it is dawning that there may be not only one book and one story of human progress, but many: simply because mankind, in the historical sense, is not a homogeneous entity, but rather a variety of groups with widely divergent ideas as to the meaning and purpose of human life. Still, I do not feel that the West has really become less condescending toward foreign cultures than the Greeks and Romans were: it has only become more tolerant. Mind you, not toward Islam – only toward certain other Eastern cultures, which offer some sort of spiritual attraction to the spirit-hungry West and are, at the same time, too distant from the Western world-view to constitute any real challenge to its values.’

    “‘What do you mean by that?’

    “‘Well,’ I answered, ‘when a Westerner discusses, say, Hinduism or Buddhism, he is always conscious of the fundamental differences between these ideologies and his own. He may admire this or that of their ideas, but would naturally never consider the possibility of substituting them for his own. Because he a priori admits this impossibility, he is able to contemplate such really alien cultures with equanimity and often with sympathetic appreciation. But when it comes to Islam – which is by no means as alien to Western values as Hindu or Buddhist philosophy – this Western equanimity is almost invariably disturbed by an emotional bias. It is perhaps, I sometimes wonder, because the values of Islam are close enough to those of the West to constitute a potential challenge to many Western concepts of spiritual and social life?’

    “And I went on to tell him of a theory which I had conceived some years ago – a theory that might perhaps help one to understand better the deep-seated prejudice against Islam so often to be found in Western literature and contemporary thought.

    “‘To find a truly convincing explanation of this prejudice,’ I said, ‘one has to look far backward into history and try to comprehend the psychological background of the earliest relations between the Western and the Muslim worlds. What Occidentals think and feel about Islam today is rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades.’

    “‘The Crusades!’ exclaimed my friend. ‘You don’t mean to say that what happened nearly a thousand years ago could still have an effect on people of the twentieth century?’

    “‘But it does! I know it sounds incredible; but don’t you remember the incredulity which greeted the early discoveries of the psychoanalysts when they tried to show that much of the emotional life of a mature person – and most of those seemingly unaccountable leanings, tastes and prejudices comprised in the term “idiosyncrasies” – can be traced back to the experiences of his most formative age, his early childhood? Well, are nations and civilizations anything but collective individuals? Their development also is bound up with the experiences of their early childhood. As with children, those experiences may have been pleasant or unpleasant; they may have been perfectly rational or, alternatively, due to the child’s naïve misinterpretation of an event: the moulding effect of every such experience depends primarily on its original intensity. The century immediately preceding the Crusades, that is, the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, might well be described as the early childhood of Western civilization…’

    “I proceeded to remind my friend – himself an historian – that this had been the age when, for the first time since the dark centuries that followed the breakup of Imperial Rome, Europe was beginning to see its own cultural way. Independently of the almost forgotten Roman heritage, new literatures were just then coming into existence in the European vernaculars; inspired by the religious experience of Western Christianity, fine arts were slowly awakening from the lethargy caused by the warlike migrations of the Goths, Huns and Avars; out of the crude conditions of the early Middle Ages, a new cultural world was emerging. It was at that critical, extremely sensitive stage of its development that Europe received its most formidable shock – in modern parlance, a ‘trauma’ – in the shape of the Crusades.

    “The Crusades were the strongest collective impression on a civilization that had just begun to be conscious of itself. Historically speaking, they represented Europe’s earliest – and entirely successful – attempt to view itself under the aspect of cultural unity. Nothing that Europe has experienced before or after could compare with the enthusiasm which the First Crusade brought into being. A wave of intoxication swept over the Continent, an elation which for the first time overstepped the barriers between states and tribes and classes. Before then, there had been Franks and Saxons and Germans, Burgundians and Sicilians, Normans and Lombards – a medley of tribes and races with scarcely anything in common but the fact that most of their feudal kingdoms and principalities were remnants of the Roman Empire and that all of them professed the Christian faith: but in the Crusades, and through them, the religious bond was elevated to a new plane, a cause common to all Europeans alike – the politico-religious concept of ‘Christendom,’ which in its turn gave birth to the cultural concept of ‘Europe.’ When, in his famous speech at Clermont, in November, 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted the Christians to make war upon the ‘wicked race’ that held the Holy Land, he enunciated – probably without knowing it himself – the charter of Western civilization.

    “The traumatic experience of the Crusades gave Europe its cultural awareness and its unity; but this same experience was destined henceforth also to provide the false color in which Islam was to appear to Western eyes. Not simply because the Crusades meant war and bloodshed. So many wars have been waged between nations and subsequently forgotten, and so many animosities which in their time seemed ineradicable have later turned into friendships. The damage caused by the Crusades was not restricted to a clash of weapons: it was, first and foremost, an intellectual damage – the poisoning of the Western mind against the Muslim world through a deliberate misrepresentation of the teachings and ideals of Islam. For, if the call for a crusade was to maintain its validity, the Prophet of the Muslims had, of necessity, to be stamped as the Anti-Christ and his religion depicted in the most lurid terms as a fount of immorality and perversion. It was at the time of the Crusades that the ludicrous notion that Islam was a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of ritual instead of a purification of the heart, entered the Western mind and remained there; and it was then that the name of the Prophet Muhammad – the same Muhammad who had insisted that his own followers respect the prophets of other religions – was contemptuously transformed by Europeans into ‘Mahound.’ The age when the spirit of independent inquiry could raise its head was as yet far distant in Europe; it was easy for the powers-that-were to sow the dark seeds of hatred for a religion and civilization that was so different from the religion and civilization of the West. Thus it was no accident that the fiery Chanson de Roland, which describes the legendary victory of Christendom over the Muslim ‘heathen’ in southern France, was composed not at the time of those battles but three centuries later – to wit, shortly before the First Crusade – immediately to become a kind of ‘national anthem’ of Europe; and it is no accident, either, that this warlike epic marks the beginning of a European literature, as distinct from the earlier, localized literatures: for hostility toward Islam stood over the cradle of European civilization.

    “It would seem an irony of history that the age-old Western resentment against Islam, which was religious in origin, should still persist subconsciously at a time when religion has lost most of its hold on the imagination of Western man. This, however, is not really surprising. We know that a person may completely lose the religious beliefs imparted to him in his childhood while, nevertheless, some particular emotion connected with those beliefs remains, irrationally, in force throughout his later life –

    “‘ – and this,’ I concluded, ‘is precisely what happened to that collective personality, Western civilization. The shadow of the Crusades hovers over the West to this day; and all its reactions toward Islam and the Muslim world bear distinct traces of that die-hard ghost…’”

    pp. 2-7

    September 1, 2009

    Selling Salvation

    One of the regional magazines I occasionally read, Marketing, has a cover story for the month of August about religious marketing, entitled "Selling Salvation." (Unfortunately, the article is not online.) The basic theme of the article is that "marketers have much to learn from religion"; more specifically, how religious institutions market themselves, especially to gain new followers. Most of the article focuses on two evangelical Christian megachurches (which is somewhat ironic, considering that Christianity is very much a minority religion here, behind both Buddhism and Islam). However, there is some interesting information about the various marketing methods the three main religions here use. More commentary follows at the bottom.

    Islamic groups inform the public about upcoming religious events by advertising in Malay-language newspapers, paid for by travel agents which [sic] arrange travel plans for the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimages [sic] to Mecca. Posters to encourage young Muslims to attend seminars, lectures and fun camps are hung outside mosques, where leaflets are distributed to promote a better understanding of Islam among non-Muslims.

    Buddhist organizations ... engage young people through cultural activities such as lion dances, charity shows and martial arts training, and through youth groups... Buddhists are active in universities, too, with religious societies set up in all the major high education institutions.

    First time attendees ... are ushered to the front of the queues that amass ... before each of four services on Sundays. After the service, new members are led to a "welcome room" where a white-shirted "server" takes down personal details and gives them a welcome pack.

    Inside the pack is a booklet on the values of the church, a directory with information on services, meetings and contact details of cell group leaders, an introductory CD of sermons..., and a church magazine...

    Outside the auditorium is a gift shop where CDs, DVDs, postcards, posters, books ... and other memorabilia are on sale. ...

    Critics also like to point out that [the pastor's] teachings have such appeal because they push the "prosperity message" of financial and material gain. ...


    A use of topical language delivered with local humor is combined with what observers say is these churches' most effective marketing platform: music.

    "The evangelical Christian churches have been brilliant at drawing the young crowd with good-looking, witty pastors with sharp suits and gelled hair... But the secret is music. [Another church] is like one big karaoke session - a sort of religious version of Singapore Idol..."

    [Both churches] have their own music publishing businesses that have propelled them into mainstream culture. Associations with celebrities have helped too.

    An offshoot [of the second church] reportedly has plans to quite literally put its brand at the heart of the mainstream by building a mall with a church in the middle, and shops, cinemas and restaurants positioned around it.

    High visibility and "mainstream appeal" has ... enabled the evangelical churches to attract affluent, upper-middle class Singaporeans who help the church expand faster (and spend more on marketing) thanks to the generosity of their donations.

    The article continues with a brief section on how all three religions are taking advantage of the Internet, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Youtube. The article also describes how both Islam and Christianity have been using similar methods:

    A strategic focus of Islam ... has been to instill moral values among youth, build self-esteem and temper the rise in delinquency and unwanted pregnancies. This is a worry for Christians too, and both religions have started to address the issue using the same marketing tool: cell groups.

    "Youth are at an impressionable phase in their lives where they are discovering and building their identities. Religion is able to fulfill many voids that they might feel at this point ... Cell groups play a support function allowing them access to a trusted group that they can turn to for advice, encouragement and comfort."

    The last column of the article has some of the best information:

    "The peer-to-peer networking structure that religion employs, empowers followers on every level to be an advocate." ...

    The value of the "feel good" factor is something else brands can learn from religion.

    "One almost always feels good after going to the church/temple/mosque and making a donation because they believe they're earning good karma... This is a particularly important lesson for brands in light of the current economic situation where many are losing their jobs and have to tighten their belts. Those who have may feel guilty when they spend."

    Brands can alleviate this sense of guilt by adopting CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives linked to the consumer experience. ...

    One of religion's most successful strategies has been its immersion in local communities. Religions support local activities, raise funds for charities and set up schools. ...

    Probably religion's biggest allure is that it gives consumers values they can live by. Brands should follow suit. ...

    "The values that religions preach are open to interpretation, allowing followers to make it their own. In this way, they don't feel like they are buying blindly into something, but rather adopting a belief system that they genuinely aspire to and abide by in their daily lives." ...

    "Religion helps people in their quest for a deeper level of fulfillment. This is their secret."

    What the article doesn't mention regarding Islam in Singapore is that Muslims also employ a number of the other marketing tools that the Christian megachurches use. While almost every masajid in Singapore doesn't have anyone to greet non-Muslims who might want to look around the masjid (the most notable exception is Masjid Sultan), there is Darul Arqam - The Muslim Converts Association to Singapore, which provides numerous classes about Islam to those who are fairly serious about learning more about the religion. At Darul Arqam is a bookstore very similar to what is described in the article. New Muslim converts also receive a "welcome pack" as well; mine included a Yusuf Ali translation of the Qur'an, a prayer rug, a sarong, and a prayer compass, all packed into an attractive cloth briefcase. I also received (at the MUIS headquarters) S$40 as part of the zakat that's supposed to be given to converts, as mentioned in the Qur'an.

    Should Muslims adopt other marketing techniques? I would say, it depends. As described in the article, music and the shopping mall experience? No way. (That passage reminds me all too much of certain passages in Robert Heinlein's novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, involving the so-called Fosterite Church.) On the other hand, I think Muslims worldwide could do a better job promoting ourselves through print media. Books we have aplenty; four-color offset-printed magazines can be found. (Do they add value to the marketing proposition, though, other than to say, "Look, we can be slick too with high production values.") What I would like to see more of is lower-cost, monthly-produced magazines. Despite the fact that both of the Jehovah Witnesses' two tracts, Awake! and The Watchtower and the infamous Chick Tracts are banned here in Singapore, I think, if done properly (and without the hate as in the latter publication), both formats could be successful as a means to educate non-Muslims about Islam and Muslim society.

    On the digital front, the problem isn't that Muslims don't use the Internet to good advantage; on the contrary, I think we use Facebook, blogging and Youtube quite well. The big problem is that our message has become diluted through clutter, specifically, the hate messages spread by Islamophobes. Using a simple search term like "Islam" generally brings about 75% hate on blog search engines like Google and Technorati. Youtube isn't much better. How to rectify this problem? I'm not sure.

    August 31, 2009

    A'ishah Walking

    Two new videos of A'ishah and three new photos. This first video is of A'ishah walking unassisted last night (August 30th). (Obviously I held the hand phone wrong.) Still, it shows how much she's progressed in her motor skills. Remember, this kid is only 13 months old!

    This second video is of A'ishah and Daddy playing around with the camera while relaxing on the bed. A few extreme close-ups (thank goodness her nose was clean ;) ).

    These first two photos were taken about a week ago, when we had to go to KK Hospital to visit the gyne for a regularly scheduled appointment. The hospital is still taking precautions regarding the H1N1 virus, so the hospital staff checked our temperatures at the door and asked us to wear face masks while inside, even A'ishah. Of course that was next to impossible, and she wore it for maybe a total of five seconds. At least she was willing to pose with the face mask on her long enough for me to take her picture.

    This last photo was taken last night; it was actually a mistake as I had thought I had put the hand phone camera on video mode. Still, despite the blurriness and red eye, who can resist a smile like this? :)

    August 29, 2009

    August 27, 2009

    Visual Effects: 100 Years of Inspiration

    A short, entertaining video about special effects in movies and television over the past century. A few of the clips show how some of the effects were made (for example, actor Bill Nighy as Davy Jones (The Flying Dutchman) in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). I thought at first I'd mention that this would be a good video for guessing the names of the various movies shown, but there's a listing at the end that gives the titles and years for all of the clips shown.

    If there's one significant movie in terms of its groundbreaking work for visual effects that I think is missing from this video, it's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    My Tafsir on Surah Fussilat (41):9-12

    "The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Cardinal Cesar Baronio (1598), as cited by Galileo Galilei

    A couple days ago, I received a comment from a certain someone who asked about verses 41:10-12 in the Qur'an. This person is apparently under the impression that the Qur'an is suggesting that the Earth was created first in all the universe before anything else (including the stars). I told him that the verses were analogical, but I wanted to expand on the point further. Below are the relevant verses (41:9-12):

    Say: Is it that ye deny Him Who created the earth in two Days? And do ye join equals with Him? He is the Lord of (all) the Worlds.

    He set on the (earth), mountains standing firm, high above it, and bestowed blessings on the earth, and measure therein all things to give them nourishment in due proportion, in four Days, in accordance with (the needs of) those who seek (Sustenance).

    Moreover He comprehended in His design the sky, and it had been (as) smoke: He said to it and to the earth: "Come ye together, willingly or unwillingly." They said: "We do come (together), in willing obedience."

    So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command. And We adorned the lower heaven with lights, and (provided it) with guard. Such is the Decree of (Him) the Exalted in Might, Full of Knowledge.

    First, I'm amused that verse 41:9 was skipped in the certain someone's original comment, if only because we both that he's become a self-proclaimed apostate. So, unless he's changed his mind and come back to a state of Islam (insha'allah), I'd say that his answer to the first question is "no." (Astaghfirullah!) Regardless...

    The thing about the remaining verses, 41:10-12, is that they follow a specific sequence. This sequence was done with the original recipients of the Qur'an in mind, that being the early Muslim community and the Jahiliyyah-era Arabs (this surah, Fussilat, being revealed in the later Makkan period). As any good writer knows, you write to the level of your audience. Verse 41:9, for example, talks about the creation of the Earth, but Allah (swt) uses concepts that the audience at the time of the revelation would have understood; i.e., it took two of His days to complete. He, Allah (swt), didn't talk about things like the nebular hypothesis of solar system formation or protoplanetary disks. That sort of thing would have been far above the heads of the original recipients of the Qur'an.

    So He followed a specific sequence that could be understood. Verse 41:10 first discusses the earth, the mountains, and the necessary chemicals - including water - that were needed to support life (once again, written in a way that could be understood by the original recipients). This verse came first, IMO, because everyone knows what the Earth is and would have asked a question like "How was the Earth made?" at some point in their life. The following verse, then, would be the next logical question: "How was the sky made?" And, finally, verse 41:12, completes the sequence by discussing the heavens and the stars. These verses were written in an order that is completely natural from the perspective of a human: we look down at the ground and then progressively higher, into the sky and then up to the heavens.

    The mistake is to assume that these verses show the actual sequence of creation. Like the quotation at the top of this post, the Qur'an was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. These four verses were revealed not to provide a scientific proof, but to discuss how the Earth, sky and heavens were created in a manner that a people with a lack of scientific knowledge could understand.

    Wa allahu alim. (And God knows best.)