Mar 302015

There’s a series of passages in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic sci-fi novel, Rendezvous with Rama where he talks about humanity’s reaction to its first encounter with an extraterrestrial object – a long, smooth cylinder traveling harmlessly through space, which passes by the Earth on its way to some other destination.

rendezvous-with-ramaEssentially the world decays into chaos for the better part of a few hundred years. Economies collapse, governments fall. The psychic shock to  humanity’s psyche leaves us weakened and grasping for air.

If we could explore this world up close, what’s would be telling is the example of those who sidestep the whips and scorns of the ensuing centuries. Whose families endure and survive and thrive during the long, slow decline. The ability of certain people to thrive in the darking hours of the night when all others are falling about is fascinating to me. Some of them will have thrived by having been born from the previously wealthy. Those smart enough or lucky enough to be able to preserve generational wealth and hand it down until such time as it does finally run out or the world emerges from the doldrums.

But there are also those who rise to prominence and power amid the discord. Who make their fortunes, and fortunes indeed they can be, off the slim pickings of humanity’s lean years.

During the Gold Rush, the people who grew the richest weren’t necessarily hunched-back panhandlers working the claims. Instead, those who supplied the miners with their pick-axes and shovels and pans grew rich; as well as trousers. Ever heard of Levi Strauss?

In 1853, Strauss moved to San Francisco, opening a dry goods wholesale business as Levi Strauss & Co. and imported fine dry goods—clothing, bedding, combs, purses, handkerchiefs—from his brothers in New York. With a business partner, he eventually began producing blue jeans, a new style of riveted denim work pants which he sold to the panhandlers of the California Gold Rush. The rest is history. Continue reading »

Mar 262015
Guys and Dolls

In high school, one of the musicals we did was the Guys and Dolls. I recently sat down and watched the 1955 movie version starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine. One of the major plot points of Guys and Dolls is the fight against sin, namely gambling and drinking. One of the first songs, Follow the Fold is as follows:

Follow the fold and stray no more
Stray no more, stray no more
Put down the bottle and we’ll say no more
Follow, follow
Before you take another swallow

Follow the fold and stray no more
Stray no more, stray no more
Tear up your poker deck and play no more
Follow, follow, the fold

What a quaint notion. That private citizens would hold forth against such depravity. Even more incredible that the state would actively prosecute those seeking to gamble. Prohibition didn’t work in the United States. Outlawing gambling hasn’t worked either, as we can see by the growing legalization of casinos throughout the country.

Is there a state which, seeking to grasp ever more tax dollars, hasn’t legalized casinos? Continue reading »

Mar 232015
Religion symbols

Or… God Uppercase

Removing the Middleman Vol 1I just started reading Rashed Hasan’s new treatise, Removing the Middleman: Deciphering Faith Without Ritual. The book is intended to be an examination of accepting faith without being bound to ritual. Just in the foreword, he makes an assertion which I think is worth contemplating and with which I think many Muslims fail to engage:

It is important to note that some Muslims who lack knowledge or proper understanding of the essence of God or prophethood tend to elevate Prophet Muhammad to some level of divinity while vehemently opposing any notion of divinity to Prophet Jesus, who is showered with divine attributes by his followers.

I could not agree more. I was once told by an unkel that Prophet Muhammad could not make mistakes. When I asked him how this was not making equals with Allah, he replied that that the Prophet was an exception. A friend once told me that he saw no reason to even recognize the birth of Prophet Isa (Jesus) because, “we have our own Prophet”. This despite the fact that the Qur’an even recognizes the significance of the Virgin Birth, though our story of Prophet Isa’s life is vastly different. Continue reading »

Mar 192015

… Or I Would Choose Pitt over Penn if I Had To Do It Again

It’s the silly time of the year known as College Admissions Season. Gawker, as is their wont to do so, published a provocatively titled article, Ivy League Admissions Are a Sham: Confessions of a Harvard Gatekeeper. It’s totally TL;DR. I read through one-third of the piece before feeling I’d gotten the gist. Or got distracted by something shiny. Perhaps this is telling of why I didn’t get into Wharton in the first place.

I’m betting there are two major reactions to the piece:

  1. From some (though not all) Ivy Leaguers: Whatever. Haters gonna hate.
  2. From almost all non-Ivy Leaguers: No sh*t, Sherlock!!

Oh, I kid the Ivy Leaguers, I does. I’ve known many of their ilk in my time. I’m related to a few. And most seem to have come through their years in the Academy with some humility, some sense of humanity intact.

I wonder if I would have stayed grounded.

Stereotypes of the elitist, snobby academic high-major graduate exist for a reason. Because those people simply do exist. The University of Pennsylvania was my dream school from the time that we dropped off my oldest sister in Philadelphia. I applied early-admission to Wharton. Getting wait-listed, then getting rejected in the regular admissions period was a huge blow. I can still remember the envelope. It was regular-sized, not one of the big ones you get when a school says, Yes. “We are sorry to inform you…” etc. #$%^&*

Continue reading »

Mar 162015
Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

An interesting quote from Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace:

A young Muslim man recently told Yancey, “I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in society. I have read the entire New Testament many times and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.”

I haven’t read Vanishing Grace but the statement itself might very well be true.

While both religions started out as insurgent movements, Christianity stayed on the margins of mass/state acceptance much longer. The Bible was produced in a climate of minority status. Jesus Christ (or Prophet Isa as he is called by Muslims) himself was crucified for his beliefs and three centuries passed in the shadows before the Emperor Constantine converted and gave state sanction to Christianity.


Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, while persecuted at the beginning of his ministry and forced to flee Mecca, eventually returned and conquered the city, converting its population to Islam in the process. Early parts of the Qur’an were revealed during the early stages of Islam’s rise but there is an air of defiance about the entire book; a confidence that the Righteous will overthrow the old order and spread the faith.

Perhaps the two Prophets had to adopt rhetorical and proselytizing strategies which best suited the variant characters of their respective peoples. I do not think that the Arabs of Prophet Muhammad’s time would have taken kindly to a religion which advocated turning the cheek. Whereas the sometimes polemical nature and assured quality of Prophet Muhammad’s ministry might not have swayed the Roman citizens of his day.

Mar 122015
Muslim American Flag by Christopher Batchelder, May 2012

Culture and religion, no matter how universal we may want to view the latter’s principles, are inexorably tied. Islam strives to be a religion sans culture, stressing its universality. Due to its founding in the Arabian peninsula, it makes sense that Islamic practice is fundamentally mixed up with tied to the cultures of the Arab world.

But that has not prevented the religion from being adopted in unique ways by non-Arab Muslims around the world. In fact, less than 20% of the world’s Muslims hail from the Middle East. Nigerian Islam and Bangladeshi Islam may share the same underlying principles but their expressions will be different because culture cannot be subsumed under religion.

Region Population Percent of total regional population Percent of world Muslim population
South & Southeast Asia 1,005,507,000 24.8 62.1
Middle East-North Africa 321,869,000 91.2 19.9
Sub-Saharan Africa 242,544,000 29.6 15
Europe 44,138,000 6 2.7
Americas 5,256,000 0.6 0.3
World Total 1,619,314,000 23.4 100

(Source: Wikipedia – Islam by Country/Region)

It stands to reason that American Islam should also have its own character. I’ve written before about the need to find a new way to educate Muslims, that is not so reductive. Richard Mouw, writing in First Things, touches upon a separate complaint that others have brought up:

I read recently that some young Muslims in the United States are complaining that what goes on in their mosques is not “American” enough. They say that the patterns of worship and religious education seem designed to preserve the connections to the countries from which their Muslim communities emigrated, while these young folks want their faith to guide them in their lives in America. Shouldn’t their leaders be doing more, they ask, to help them understand how their faith applies to the country of which they are now citizens?

(H/T as always to Rod Dreher for linking to Mouw’s article). Continue reading »

Mar 042015

Prajwal Kulkarni makes an interesting statement about diversity in an essay entitled, “Who Speaks for the Black Pentacostal”:

Whatever their differences, they [Christians] should remember that the Church is ultimately one body that is united by the blood and Spirit of Christ above all else. As a first step, such Christian unity is more than diversity enough. That alone would achieve a level of racial and socioeconomic diversity the secular left can’t even dream of.

At that point, after they have realized it’s possible to fellowship and form bonds with people much different than them, white Christian conservatives will hopefully find it easier to relate to people like my deeply Hindu aunt. Maybe then they will see that she considers home-schooling her daughters for the same sorts of reasons some of them do. Maybe then they can also reach some of my Muslim — yes, I did say Muslim — college friends, many of whom valued abstinence as much as the average member of Campus Crusade for Christ. Maybe then they’ll understand that they’re not the only ones uncomfortable with a hyper-sexualized culture, and that social conservatives can include more than white Christians.

Click here to read the whole essay.

The ideological lines of our political parties used to be blurred. When Texas was blue but still socially conservative. When a Tennessean could be liberal, advocate for farm policies and be a Republican and not accused of being a RINO. Such characters still exist in public life but their numbers are dwindling.

Religion symbols

There’s no reason why the current ideological positions of the parties should be so fast and hard. Being religious shouldn’t mean that you automatically have to sell out to free market libertarianism. Being a social liberal shouldn’t mean that you must accede to increasing government regulations on businesses. Rod Dreher describes himself as a Crunchy Con and the subtitle on his first book reads, “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature… America (or at least the Republican Party).” Continue reading »

Mar 022015

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of Craft. Of taking what we do and really working on it. Really incorporating skill into a pursuit, be it trivial in nature or not. And how, in this credentialist world, we can often give short shrift to training and deep work in areas which do not require a post-secondary or post-undergraduate degree.

First, Break All the RulesOne of the best books I’ve ever read is First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curtis Coffman. In it, they talk about how great managers minimize their employees’ weaknesses while working on and enhancing their strengths. There’s a section that details how managers of hotels, for instance, work on rewarding their best cleaning staff, the ones who pay special attention to the little details, such as folding a triangle into the ends of toilet paper or putting the little chocolates on the pillow just so, instead of flinging them anywhere on the bed.

It isn’t something we think about much, the idea that being part of the cleaning staff or working the receptions desk at a hotel can be a learned and nurtured skill, at least beyond basic courtesy. But high-end hotels and other well-run establishments pride themselves on hundreds of these details.

The issue comes down to which positions do we feel utilize what combinations of talent vs hard work. There’s no doubt that it can be difficult to be on the cleaning staff. It’s largely a thankless job and although it may be menial, it is no more worthy of thought and good planning and execution. It’s safe to say that while any one person may be capable of doing this work for a short period, doing it for years is not something that comes easy. Menial labor takes anything but a menial mindset. Continue reading »

Feb 242015

This morning, I performed wu’du (ritual cleansing before prayer) for the first time in years. I don’t like wu’du much, it’s a little too messy. I’d prefer to wash my hands and face and just pray. No my feet aren’t caked in mud either. I can’t imagine that not giving myself over to the minutiae of wu’du will cause my prayers not to be accepted by God. Still, it didn’t seem all that bad after all these years.

Prayer, salat, namaaz, comes and goes for me. I fast during Ramadan. I give to charity. And I try not to sin (too much). I regard prayer as a way to calm the mind but it’s damn near impossible to hear the Creator talking back to me. So I keep trying. From time to time.

After finishing Fajr (morning) prayer, I opened up my email to find a link to an article titled, Practicing Islam in Shorts by Thanaa El-Naggar. It’s a really great article and well describes how I grew up. My parents always said they wanted to give us the tools to accept Islam on our own terms. What we did with it as adults was our business. “La-ikraaha fid’deen” – “Let there be no compulsion in religion”.


So as children, my sisters and I went to Islamic Sunday School and boy, did I hate it. Mostly because I was picked on for the being the youngest and quietest in my class. I had long sideburns. Kids can be cruel. I really enjoyed the history portions of class but I stunk out loud at reading Arabic. But mostly, as Naggar points out, I just hated the minutiae.

My Islamic studies teachers taught me how to how to obsess about the mundane—about all the things I’m doing incorrectly and therefore my prayers will not be accepted. They taught me guilt. They taught me fear. They taught me that being a good Muslim is difficult.

Continue reading »

Feb 182015

Eight months ago, I had to put my dog to sleep. Oreo was about 12-14 years old; I had him for six of the best years of my life. Towards the end, he had kidney issues and possible heart issues as well. His legs had grown stiff and he could barely make it around the block whereas he had been able and wanting to walk for hours in his youth. He lost interest in food and dropped a lot of weight. I fear he might have suffered a stroke because he went downhill pretty fast in the last few days.

It was the right thing to do. It was also the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Despite those trying times and no longer having to pick up poop a couple times per day, I regret not one minute that I had him. I don’t regret the difficult first few months when we were adjusting to each other. I don’t regret that it took years for his personality to come out. I don’t regret the last year when I barely took a vacation outside Pittsburgh. I don’t regret the difficulties of him having more and more accidents in his last year when he hadn’t had more than one accident in the previous 3-4 years.


Dog owners (ugh I do hate using ‘owner’ but it’s the word that works) often like to joke that we prefer our dogs to people. Sometimes, that’s true. My mom used to joke that I would never find a girl as dedicated to me as Oreo. Good. I don’t want that in a human relationship. Continue reading »