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In My Prayers

You are in my prayers

such as they are,

which is to say imperfect,

bound together with a bit of biodegradable twine

and sprouted in a shovel full of compost

yearning like the veins

on a translucent yellow leaf

earnest but

not ever quite what the scholars imagined.


Neither the ecstatic precision of

a mystic on cosmic time

counting each sujood as an essential detail in the

unfurling of some great global lotus of prayer,

nor the hafizah who corrects the

timing of my salaam

seem to motivate the kind of

principled obedience I might

expect from myself.


It seems my heart has always some

stray hair

or unintentional caress

to dole out in exactly the wrong circumstance.

It seems I am always falling backwards

out of the parable, and onto the floor

unkempt and smiling.

Dear Fellow Americans (4)…

“…rhetorically, Cruz has moved us one step closer to a fractured democracy. While his words are certainly scary for Muslims, they pose a serious threat to all Americans. The Republicans’ inflammatory rhetoric this election cycle has done something remarkable to this country in a very short period of time: It has turned this country into a tinderbox.”  Read the full letter here.

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Why Shariah Law Is Not Coming to a Courthouse Near You

cbd38ce61f4bf00e7d5715f4c060b5dcYears ago, before I went to law school, I was thinking about getting married. I wanted to know what that meant, legally. I’m a pretty good researcher and I figured if someone could just point me toward the right books, I could work it out.

So I went to the local law school and found the library. I asked the librarian to point me towards the books on marriage and divorce. And the librarian very sweetly asked what exactly I was looking for, and then explained to me that the law didn’t work the way I imagined.

It turns out that to find American law that governs the family, you would have to look in many different places. You might have to look at the relevant state statute, possibly the relevant state regulations, and most likely the relevant state case law (the cases related to your specific legal situation over the last several years, or even decades, and across various levels of courts). Which state or states’ laws applied might depend on where you got married, where you signed certain documents, which law those documents said would apply, where you lived at the time your legal problem arose, or where your child lived at the time your legal problem arose. If the issue you have is not something that’s ever been decided by your state legislature or court system, the law will depend on the reasoning of at least one and maybe several judges.  If the matter at hand involves a Constitutional issue, you’ll also need to take a look at federal case law.

Law is complicated. But it’s not just a bunch of folks making arbitrary decisions about your life. Every court decision has to justify itself based on previous decisions and not violate certain established principles of law. Every statute has to be passed through the state legislature and every set of regulations goes through a separate approval process. The process doesn’t allow a lot of great big leaps; it’s been built brick-by-brick over time, responding to our changing values and ideas about what the rules on families are and should be. It’s a whole system, from the way courts and evidence work and how lawyers are trained and licensed, to how legislators get elected and pass laws, and how judges reason through their decisions. No one piece of it, taken and applied out of context to a legal problem, would be a fair or just or sensible way to do things. But, taken all together, it is an impressive system for resolving conflict and minimizing chaos, especially when things fall apart in our personal lives.

Shariah, which people use to mean Islamic law, is equally complicated. Or it was when it actually existed as a complex system of governance in the Muslim world, hundreds of years ago. Muslims have not yet been able to establish shariah as a system of governance or even a well-developed legal system in any contemporary nation on Earth, for a variety of reasons. So, there is no actual threat of shariah becoming the basis of law in the United States of America.

What is shariah and where did it come from?

Shariah law was once a dramatic innovation in the way people governed themselves. It was a system of governance derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah (or traditions of Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him), that, in a precursor to modern democracy, limited the power of the ruler. It depended on a well-educated and committed class of scholars whose job it was to interpret divine law, so that the ruler might govern subject to its limitation. This limitation was considered essential to Islamic governance because it established the freedom of the individual to achieve his or her spiritual potential without coercion.

Before 1300 A.D., Shariah law existed to greater and lesser degrees across the Muslim world, which was made up of several empires and sultanates that stretched from Morocco to Malaysia. Shariah was not a book of laws, or even several volumes of books. Instead it was all of the knowledge and institutions that made up the system of governance: scripture, prophetic tradition, as well as the scholarly tradition, courts, schools, established methods of resolving disputes, and, over time, the accepted legal authority of several theories of law or schools of jurisprudence. In an era before the telephone, television, trains or internet, the specifics varied from place to place within the Muslim world. Still, they all referenced the central touchstones of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and they all had these central aims: to make Muslim societies more just and to limit the power of the ruler or the elite by bending it to an agreed upon moral code.

This worked because there were scholars and jurists who, by coming up with clear and replicable ways of solving problems, gained popular support and reputations for integrity. These scholars periodically travelled long distances, visiting other centers of legal scholarship to enrich their own knowledge, share concepts, and develop broader consistency across the Muslim world. This complex system of law and institutions were developed during a period when modern democracy had not yet been born and Europe was in what has been referred to, for its lawlessness and warfare, as the Dark Ages.

Shariah represented an historic movement towards rule of law—a world in which people were more free from the arbitrary exercise of power, and in which people could expect that many legal rulings relating to their persons and property were rationally related to an articulated moral purpose. Shariah, as rule of law, included some remarkable advances towards pluralism, egalitarianism, and liberty. For example, the prophet’s covenants and the constitution of Medina protected the rights of non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews, but also polytheists.   In all of the four major schools of thought within Sunni Islam, divorce has always been permissible and could be initiated by a woman. Further, women had an assumed right to custody and financial support in the first two years of their child’s life, female infanticide was criminalized, and women had the right to inheritance and to own property. These were freedoms not generally available in the Western world until hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, and they came at great personal cost to the women who fought for them. During an era when slavery was common, manumission (or the act of freeing slaves) was a common theme in the application of Shariah law; according to the Qur’an and Sunnah, many transgressions can only be rectified by the freeing of slaves. These are but a few examples of the ways in which application of Shariah was a movement towards an equitable society.  Shariah was not, needless to say, uniformly progressive or ahead of its time.  It was a system, after all, derived by fallible human scholars living 700 years ago.

From 1300 through 1900 A.D., the Muslim world continued to be organized into several empires, all of which were responding to the emergence of the European nation-state, war, and the encroachment of Western colonial interests. Towards the end of this period, some critical changes were made to Shariah in an effort to consolidate the weakening power of, for example, the Ottoman Empire.  There was an effort to codify law to create consistency and compete with the new, efficient bureaucracies of Europe.  Codification meant the reduction of law to written rules.  Written rules robbed scholars of the authority they derived from interpreting and applying the law, and their ability to enforce limitations on the power of the ruler.  The Shariah system was thus in a state of decline even as Europe became a colonizing power.

Colonization was, for the most part, a period of 300 years (between 1650-1950 A.D.) during which Europeans Continue reading → Why Shariah Law Is Not Coming to a Courthouse Near You

(3) Dear American Muslims and Non-Muslim Allies….

It is hard to believe that three months ago I thought Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric was a threat, but not his actual candidacy. That has changed. I want to tell you a bit about what led me to write that first letter in December. That evening, appalled by the media’s willingness to cover, and the Republican establishment’s willingness to enable Trump’s racist policy proposals, I did some research. I wanted to understand more about the unique position of Muslims in America. I learned that American Muslims make up nearly 1% of the adult population in this country. I also learned that this was the approximate proportion of Jews in Germany in 1933. I don’t now if that is sociologically significant. But I do know that it scared me.

I also learned that American Muslims are mostly concentrated in a handful of large urban areas and in ten of the fifty states. It occurred to me that at a heavily concentrated 1% of the adult American population, we are, in fact, quite vulnerable. There is no way that we could, alone, fight off an earnest attempt to persecute, marginalize, intern, or eliminate us. I realized that to fight fascism, some much larger proportion of the population has to recognize the early stages of scapegoating (identification, isolation) and resist them in order to ensure freedom from the endgame (concentration, elimination). And that is why I wrote to my non-Muslim friends. I don’t see this as a one-way street, by the way. Muslims must be (and many have been) civically engaged, both willing to ask others to stand with us and to commit ourselves to stand against injustice wherever it appears.

As an activist committed to social justice for my entire adult life, I accept that the project of democratic politics is an imperfectly negotiated system of self-governance. But Trump’s candidacy is a threat to the fabric of that process, not another position on the spectrum. He has effectively and explicitly gathered white nationalism, vigilante violence, torture, and the suppression of a free media and religious freedom into the platform of the Republican Party. And for some reason, it has taken this long for any significant voice of dissent to rise within the Republican establishment. (What the hell is wrong with you, Republican Party?)

What I mean to say here is that Trump represents a change, not in degree of conservatism, but in kind of politics.  And neither Trump’s fellow candidates nor the Republican establishment appear to have a problem with that.  It is not yet clear whether there is enough anxiety and hatred in some segments of the American public to put Trump at the top of the ruins of the Republican Party. My hope is that the Republican Party will do the honorable thing: recognize that what once was a viable conservative platform has degenerated into thin cover for greed, misogyny and racism. And then create something better.

The alternative, regardless of what happens in this election cycle, is frightening. What we have learned is that America is not immune to authoritarianism and that white nationalism is far from dead. Left unchecked, these factors may define the future of the Republican Party.

Because this remains a real possibility, my family and I are still having conversations about how to make sure we don’t sit still while the water boils around us. And again, I found myself wondering what this conversation must have looked like in 1933 or 1935, or even 1938, when the logical conclusion of Nazi fascism was still unimaginable. Because when Hitler came to power, 37,000 people fled, but another nearly 500,000 stayed. And more than half were still in Germany by the time all legal exits were sealed in 1941. People stayed for a great many reasons. Among the early reasons were mixed messages from the Nazi regime (including, for example, suggesting that segregation was the goal), patriotism, instances of solidarity or support from non-Jewish people, and unwillingness to leave behind property or livelihood. Later barriers to escape included increasing inability to pay to get out (as more and more property was confiscated by the Nazis and exit ‘taxes’ were dramatically increased) and inability to find a country that would allow them to enter.


When does one assess the ridiculous level of gun violence and police brutality in this country, paired with the deep racism and xenophobia espoused by almost all of the Republican Presidential candidates, and get out? Our answer is: Continue reading → (3) Dear American Muslims and Non-Muslim Allies….

Bandaging My Wounds: A Spiritual Journey Through Hijab

…….Hijab became my skin when I was skinless. As I wrapped an oblong scarf around my head each morning I felt as if I were securing it to my body, as if I were bandaging a wound. It was a constant reminder that in a world gone mad, and in the lonely process of making a new life in a strange city, I could exist in a state of grace. I belonged to my maker. I was liberated from the excesses of the world around me, both the personal excesses of individuals, and the violent excesses of nation states. It was the equivalent of finding a fixed point to focus on when your yoga teacher tells you to balance on one foot: It might seem unrelated to the goal, but it is absolutely essential….


Muslim-Jewish Solidarity

I recently got a message from someone who wrote:  “I want to be the kind of person who stands up for Muslims as you say, but, here’s the dilemma. Why is the Muslim community quiet when there is antisemitism, or terrorism by a Muslim Arab against Israel, or a Jewish community in Paris, or anti-Western hate talk? The non-extremist Muslim community is generally quiet.”

Here is my answer:

Salam, Shalom, peace to you!
I have a couple of thoughts on your question, so I’ll try to tease them out here as best I can.  I’ve actually seen quite a few instances of Muslim-Jewish solidarity. If you google Muslim Jewish solidarity, you’ll see what I mean. Here are a few examples:…/1961…/pillars-of-cochin-community
Really very inspiring and not at all rare for people involved in interfaith work. In Philadelphia, where most of my interfaith work has been, there is a long history of solidarity between Jewish and Muslim communities, including joint responses to vandalism or discrimination aimed against either community. I was part of a Muslim group that went to clean up glass from a playground that was left after a Philadelphia synagogue was vandalized several years ago.

So I’m not sure why you think that the Muslim community is quiet in the face of anti-semitism. Perhaps it is actually the silence of the media that you’re hearing? I would suggest connecting to interfaith initiatives near you to find out what people of faith are doing to stand together. As I wrote above, my interfaith community is a stark contrast to your perception.

(As an aside, it occurs to me as that Arab Muslims are semetic people, so I’m not sure anti-semitic is the word you’re looking for.)

Israel is a separate issue entirely. It its not an issue of faith or identity, it is about property and human rights. Many people have said this before me and many people will say this again. What I say is not based solely on the media, but my own experience in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories. Israel is an apartheid state committing horrific daily human rights abuses and illegal land grabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Whatever violence is committed by Palestinians is mirrored ten-fold in the violence committed by Israelis. There is no question that the military force and power of Israel dramatically outweighs that of the Palestinians. And in recent months, many have commented that the Israeli intent to eliminate the Palestinians has become very clear:…/a-refreshingly-open-call-for-eth…/…/israel-only-two-choices-eliminate-pale…

If you use the word terrorism in regard to this conflict but do not apply it to both sides, I’m afraid that hypocrisy prevents us from going much further. The solution to this ongoing conflict does not lie in erasing the Palestinian people or allowing them to be quietly run or killed off. Israel is not entitled to commit genocide, and no one, of any faith, who believes that all human lives have value should stand for it. Muslims are not, in general, quiet about Israel. We generally are quite vocal in our statements that the international community must stop Israeli military occupation and settlement of the occupied territories, stop torture and detention of Palestinians, and that Palestinians must have the rights of free movement, self-governance and return. It turns out that when a state steals a people’s land, livelihood and children, and subjects them to daily harassment, abuse and attack, those people become desperate. Continue reading → Muslim-Jewish Solidarity

Sofia Answers (2): Is the Qur’an Inherently Violent?


The simple and incomplete answer is that yes, insofar as any book that describes battles or warfare from time to time is violent, the Qur’an is violent. However, the Qur’an forbids aggression and permits only defensive battle. It describes battle in the context of defending Islam in its infancy; it makes clear that pluralism is God’s design for humanity and directs us to compete in good works and come to know one another.

Remember that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period of 23 years in the early 7th Century. At the time of revelation, there were very few individuals living as monotheists in the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad and his message represented an enormous threat to the established political and economic infrastructure, which was all tied up with the dominant paganism of the region. This made Muhammad a target, in much the same way Jesus was. In the course of revelation, Muhammad was not only receiving general instruction for his followers on the nature of God, the universe and life, but also instruction from God in how best to survive and protect the new and vulnerable group of monotheists around him. Most, if not all, of the verses I’m about to discuss are set in this context, the explicit context of Muhammad’s community defending themselves against attack, harassment and assassination attempts.

There are several Qur’anic verses that are often repeated without context and incorrectly for the purpose of stirring up fear and xenophobia. I’m going to do my best to address many of these and contextualize them here. (For purposes of time and readability, I am addressing similar verses with similar contexts only once. Also, parts of quotations from the Qur’an that appear in brackets are where the translator had to add meaning that would have been obvious either by idiom or by grammar in the original Arabic.) Then, I’m going to provide a very brief introduction to the Qur’an as I know it, including the verses that govern how Muslims see and interact with those of other faith traditions. After that, I’m going to explain to you why I shouldn’t have had to justify any Qur’anic verses by showing you several horrific verses from the Old and New Testaments that could easily read as justifying the worst kinds of violence. And finally, I will wish you all a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year because none of those verses have ever made me think any less of any of you. Continue reading → Sofia Answers (2): Is the Qur’an Inherently Violent?

Dear Non-Muslim Allies (2)….

Dear Non-Muslim Allies (2),

I am writing to say thank you. A lot of amazing things have happened since I wrote to you last. You probably know by now that the first letter I wrote to a couple of hundred of you while sitting at my dining room table went viral. Many of you have started saying asalam ‘alaykum and making the hearts of the Muslims in your path soar. Some of you have written to tell me the stories that emerged from those first simple greetings of peace. Those of you who own or manage shops have begun to put signs of welcome in your windows, and many of you have participated in activism to end hate speech and discrimination.

There are a couple of stories in particular I want to share. One is the story of a woman who said asalam ‘alaykum to her cashier, who then asked where she was from. She replied, “right here!” to the great surprise and pleasure of the cashier. The other is the story of one of my dearest friends on the planet, who hesitated to share the letter until many days after it had gone viral, out of concern that it would raise the ire of her rural, Southern community. And then when she did, she found that the voices that responded were ones of support.

Words of wisdom from my mentors have come tumbling back to me in this past week, and as I learned of both of these stories, I thought of this: Suzanne Pharr, a lifelong civil rights and LGBTQ activist from the South, once told me that the most important thing a straight person could do for LGBTQ rights is to not be afraid to be mistaken for gay or lesbian. That is, no LGBTQ person could feel safe in this country until a good many of their allies were willing to be seen with them, to be ridiculed, to be, sometimes, unsafe. She suggested that by standing with a target of hatred, we might be mistaken for the target ourselves, but that if we do it in large numbers and often enough, the original target becomes hard, and then impossible to recognize and separate. By saying asalam ‘alaykum and by sharing the letter, you have made yourselves lightning rods, and are slowing the momentum of hatred in this country. Continue reading → Dear Non-Muslim Allies (2)….

Sofia Answers: Why Don’t Muslims Condemn Extremism/Terrorism/Violence?

1) We do! Look at the websites of every major American Muslim organization. The Council on American Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Islamic Society of North America and Islamic Circle of North America are several of the big ones. Every one of them has several items, usually on the front page, condemning specific violent acts committed by folks who purport to be Muslim, and violence in general. And that’s a tiny fraction of possible examples of us going around condemning violence. Think about it, we make up 1% of the adult population in this country. Would you even hear it if each of us were shouting from our rooftops? No, you wouldn’t; you would have no idea. Which leads me to my next point.

2) Even though we’ve been condemning our hearts out, the fact is, _our condemnation won’t do a darn thing to stop violent extremists._ Violent extremists, whatever their religious affiliation, are not actual people of faith. They clearly don’t display any concern that a just God will judge their actions, and they have no interest in what actual people of faith think of them. They are not interested in faith, they are interested in power. Which is why we need to stand united and not give them more power by repeatedly insisting that they represent all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims!

If we insist on diverting the resources of well-intentioned Muslim organizations to condemning every single violent act perpetrated by a ‘Muslim’, those organizations can’t do the important work of building strong social and political Muslim networks that could help identify and prevent future threats.

3) Let’s talk about empathy and practicality. Say you’re Christian and some guy who purports to be Christian shoots up a Planned Parenthood killing 3 people. Or wait, say a guy who purports to be a devout Lutheran goes into a black church and kills 9 people after reading the Bible with them. Or wait, say a guy who is a member of a “Christian identity hate group” starts shooting up downtown Austin and ends up terrorizing lots of folks and killing himself. How about if you’re Christian and people who say they’re Christians in the Central African Republic are killing thousands of Muslims causing “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.” (as reported by Amnesty International) Or a purportedly Christian army in Uganda, which reads Bible passages before battle, is using child soldiers, committing massacres, abductions, mutilations, torture, and forcing children into sexual and other forms of slavery? Continue reading → Sofia Answers: Why Don’t Muslims Condemn Extremism/Terrorism/Violence?

Dear Non-Muslim Allies


Dear Non-Muslim Allies,
I am writing to you because it has gotten just that bad. I have found myself telling too many people about the advice given to me years ago by the late composer Herbert Brun, a German Jew who fled Germany at the age of 15: “be sure that your passport is in order.” It’s not enough to laugh at Donald Trump anymore. The rhetoric about Muslims has gotten so nasty, and is everywhere, on every channel, every newsfeed. It is clearly fueling daily events of targeted violence, vandalism, vigilante harassment, discrimination. I want you to know that it has gotten bad enough that my family and I talk about what to keep on hand if we need to leave quickly, and where we should go, maybe if the election goes the wrong way, or if folks get stirred up enough to be dangerous before the election. When things seem less scary, we talk about a five or a ten year plan to go somewhere where cops don’t carry guns and hate speech isn’t allowed on network television. And if you don’t already know this about me, I want you to know that I was born in this country. I have lived my whole life in this country. I have spent my entire adult life working to help the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed access the legal system in this country. And I want you to know that I am devoutly and proudly Muslim.

I am writing this in response to a non Muslim friend’s question about what she can do. Because there is much that can be done in solidarity:

-If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, call for help.

-If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Don’t worry about mispronouncing it; she won’t care. Just say “peace” if you like. She’ll smile; smile back. If you feel like it, start a conversation. If you don’t, sit there and make sure no one harasses her.

-If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.

-If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.

-Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.

-Call out hate speech when you hear it—if it incites hatred or violence against a specified group, call it out: in your living room, at work, with friends, in public. It is most important that you do this among folks who may not know a Muslim.

-Set up a “learn about Islam” forum at your book club, school, congregation, dinner club. Call your state CAIR organization, interfaith group or local mosque and see if there is someone who has speaking experience and could come and answer questions about Islam and American Muslims for your group. They won’t be offended. They will want the opportunity to do something to dispel the nastiness.

-Write Op Eds and articles saying how deplorable the anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten and voice your support for Muslim Americans in whatever way you can.

-Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media, that it is unacceptable and you want them to call it out whenever they hear it, on your behalf.

-Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia, or will stand with Muslims—there is an awful lot of hate filling the airways, and there are an awful lot of people with access to the media and/or authority stirring the pot about Muslims. Please help fill that space with support instead. Post, write, use your profile picture or blog to voice your support.

Ask me anything. Really. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

I can tell you that in addition to the very real threat to their civil and human rights that Muslims are facing, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety. While we, many of us, rely on our faith to stay strong, we are human. This is not an easy time. What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you.

Thank you for reading and bless you in your efforts.  Please share freely.

Sofia Ali-Khan

media inquiries to:  540.315.1823