Sunday, January 3, 2010

American Crescent: A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam and America

By Imam Hassan Qazwini, 282 pages.

Imam Hassan Qazwini's life has somehow managed to contain many of the most important elements of Islamic, Arabic, and American political and spiritual life. Though he has faced hardship at many times in his life, typical of the strong spiritual teacher, not once does he see himself as a victim.

Qazwini, a true spiritual sage, gains psychological and spiritual strength from life's injustices, including the horror of losing family members to the evils of Saddam Hussein's prison network. Unfortunately, Imam Qazwini's life personifies some of the nastier as well as nobler aspects of recent events.

The nobler parts have to do with his upbringing in the family of a great Shia Ayatollah – in fact he is a seventh-generation Islamic scholar. His early life mirrored the trials of countless Iraqis who had to run from the brutality of Saddam's security forces. Yet his father, who taught in seminaries and mosques across the Middle East and, eventually, America, was able to escape with the family to Kuwait.

Eventually, Imam Qazwini ended up with his family in Iran, as many Iraqi Shia did. His description of the life of a seminary student at Qom is fascinating, as it offers North American readers a glimpse of an unknown theological world:

“Seminary life was humble, intense, and rigidly scheduled. Classes started at six A.M. I would attend five sessions, one after another, and stop at noon for prayer.... There were no projectors or movie reels, no chalkboards or easels, and no desks or chairs.... We would follow along as he [the lecturer] read passages from texts hundreds of years old and offered his interpretation of the historical scholarship. With such a bare-bones approach, the teachers' passion and rapport with the class were essential.”

Imam Qazwini weaves his personal history into the history of Islam, as when referring to the great Islamic scholars who had studied and taught at Qom throughout the centuries. In this way, we get a good sense of the life and energy of the Islamic tradition, and of how individuals like Qazwini fit into the whole.

Qazwini emphasizes the centrality of the community for Islam, and the important place of imams in this. He brings alive the rich, varied Arab, Iranian, Shia and Islamic cultures, seeing the deeper meaning in everyday things:

“Once a student is accepted to the seminary, he is permitted, though not required, to wear the robe and turban of a religious leader. Most do so within the first two or three years of study. You can see the change a student undergoes when he begins wearing his seminary attire. He becomes more disciplined and dignified. Gone are the ribald jokes, loud laughing, fast walking, casual eating ..., and any reaction to insults or taunts.”

While offering North American readers a fascinating glance into the family life of conservative Arab Muslims, Qazwini also argues against some of the ruder bigotries of American feminists regarding the status of women in the Islamic world. He notes that “within the traditional Muslim family, women in most countries have broad license to pursue their ambitions,” adding that “Iran ... has more female members of Parliament on a percentage basis than the United States does in both houses of Congress.”

Qazwini also robustly defends Shia traditions, which come across in American Crescent as rich, varied, and mystical. He decries the destruction in Saudi Arabia of some very important Shia sites, refuting the Wahhabi accusation of polytheism. This kind of robust religious debate, whether between religions or within one religion, is sorely needed, and brings about more progress than whining or keeping silent do.

As well, Qazwini, who has lived in America for many years and has become a citizen, discusses delicate political issues such as the war in Iraq as an American. He thus shows that Muslims can be Americans, and that it is okay for Muslim Americans to speak out against American foreign policy while remaining loyal to the U.S.

Qazwini is a good teacher. Not only does the reader get a very real sense of the deeply devotional Islamic life he has led, but American Crescent also makes the reader want to learn more.

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