Category Archives: pedantry

Protests and Misspelled Signs and Arabic

Angry Muslims, amirite? Oops, his sign says

With all the protests over the past several years, it has become known that if the signs are misspelled, it’s a right-wing protest.

If you ever wondered if the same holds true for those signs you see written in Arabic in the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, etc., no, it doesn’t.

Arabic, like many languages more sensible than English, is spelled how it sounds and sounds how it’s spelled. They don’t have spelling tests and spelling units and spelling bees. There are some regional variations in pronunciation, admittedly, but it’s nothing like the orthographic free-for-all we have in English.

So, as my picture above indicates, you can’t reliably guess an Arab protester’s alignment by the spelling.

Yeah, get a brain!


Filed under arabic, pedantry

Library of Congress on Islam in Early America

The Library of Congress posted this article about Islam in the early United States.

Here’s a goodly chunk of it:

Readers may be surprised to learn that there may have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims in the United States in 1776—imported as slaves from areas of Africa where Islam flourished. Although there is no evidence that the Founders were aware of the religious convictions of their bondsmen, it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.

In his seminal Letter on Toleration (1689), John Locke insisted that Muslims and all others who believed in God be tolerated in England. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson followed Locke, his idol, in demanding recognition of the religious rights of the “Mahamdan,” the Jew and the “pagan.” Supporting Jefferson was his old ally, Richard Henry Lee, who had made a motion in Congress on June 7, 1776, that the American colonies declare independence. “True freedom,” Lee asserted, “embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion.”

In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted with satisfaction that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.” George Washington suggested a way for Muslims to “obtain proper relief” from a proposed Virginia bill, laying taxes to support Christian worship. On another occasion, the first president declared that he would welcome “Mohometans” to Mount Vernon if they were “good workmen” (see page 96). Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians,” a point that Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons resoundingly affirmed in 1810.


Filed under church and state, Islamic relations, pedantry

Just Once

Just once I’d like to read a news article in the western media that talks about Yemen without including the line “…is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.”

I know Yemen is exotic and mysterious to most Americans, but come on. How ’bout shaking it up a bit with a “…where the kingdom of Sheba was believed to be located,” or “…famous for its unique architecture”? After all, they manage to describe England without including the line, “…where Osama bin Laden’s son Omar lives.”

Yemen has some beautiful spots. If they’d make a point of attracting tourism, they could make a fortune. And as one of the world’s poorest countries, they could sure use it. A serious obstacle to that, though, is the local tradition of kidnapping people for ransom.

But just look at it! So pretty.


Filed under arab, arabist, pedantry

Is It My Imagination…

…or isn’t this woman a dead ringer for Emilio Estevez?

wanted to put an Emilio Estevez quote here, but couldn't find any

Emily Ruete (1844-1924) was born in Zanzibar as Sayyida Salme, Princess of Zanzibar and Oman.

Almost. Sayyida is not her name, it’s an indication that she’s supposedly a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and I don’t know that “princess” is the most appropriate designation, but she wrote her own history for a western, Christian audience, so “princess” is what they would have understood.

Wikipedia has more.

But seriously, she looks like Emilio Estevez, right?


Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, names, pedantry

We Invented it First, Several Centuries After Those Other Guys

From Wikipedia:

The geocentric model held sway into the early modern age; from the late 16th century onward it was gradually replaced by the heliocentric model of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

Whereas over in the mysterious east, which we for some reason insist on depicting as backwards and inferior:

Muhammad ibn Jābir al-Harrānī al-Battānī (Albatenius) (853-929) discovered that the direction of the Sun’s eccentric was changing, which in modern astronomy is equivalent to the Earth moving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun.[33]

In the late ninth century, Ja’far ibn Muhammad Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi (Albumasar) developed a planetary model which some have interpreted as a heliocentric model. This is due to his orbital revolutions of the planets being given as heliocentric revolutions rather than geocentric revolutions, and the only known planetary theory in which this occurs is in the heliocentric theory. His work on planetary theory has not survived, but his astronomical data was later recorded by al-Hashimi, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī and al-Sijzi.[41]

In the early eleventh century, al-Biruni had met several Indian scholars who believed in a heliocentric system. In his Indica, he discusses the theories on the Earth’s rotation supported by Brahmagupta and other Indian astronomers, while in his Canon Masudicus, al-Biruni writes that Aryabhata’s followers assigned the first movement from east to west to the Earth and a second movement from west to east to the fixed stars. Al-Biruni also wrote that al-Sijzi also believed the Earth was moving and invented an astrolabe called the “Zuraqi” based on this idea:[42]

Mo’ayyeduddin Urdi (d. 1266) was the first of the Maragheh astronomers to develop a non-Ptolemaic model, and he proposed a new theorem, the “Urdi lemma”.[101] Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī (1201-1274) resolved significant problems in the Ptolemaic system by developing the Tusi-couple as an alternative to the physically problematic equant introduced by Ptolemy,[102] and conceived a plausible model for elliptical orbits.[81] Tusi’s student Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (1236-1311), in his The Limit of Accomplishment concerning Knowledge of the Heavens, discussed the possibility of heliocentrism. ‘Umar al-Katibi al-Qazwini (d. 1277), who also worked at the Maragheh observatory, in his Hikmat al-‘Ain, wrote an argument for a heliocentric model, though he later abandoned the idea.[78]

For example, it was Ibn al-Shatir’s concern for observational accuracy which led him to eliminate the epicycle in the Ptolemaic solar model and all the eccentrics, epicycles and equant in the Ptolemaic lunar model. His model was thus in better agreement with empirical observations than any previous model,[91] and was also the first that permitted empirical testing.[103] His work thus marked a turning point in astronomy, which may be considered a “Scientific Revolution before the Renaissance”.[91] His rectified model was later adapted into a heliocentric model by Copernicus,[102] which was mathematically achieved by reversing the direction of the last vector connecting the Earth to the Sun.[4] In the published version of his masterwork, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Copernicus also cites the theories of al-Battani, Arzachel and Averroes as influences,[81] while the works of Ibn al-Haytham and al-Biruni were also known in Europe at the time.

During this period, Islamic-ruled regions of Europe, such as Al-Andalus, the Emirate of Sicily, and southern Italy, were slowly being reconquered by Christians. This led to the Arabic-Latin translation movement, which saw the assimilation of knowledge from the Islamic world by Western European science, including astronomy.[4] In addition, Byzantine astronomers also translated Arabic texts on astronomy into Medieval Greek during this time. In particular, Gregory Choniades translated several Zij treatises, including the Zij-i Ilkhani of the Maragheh observatory, and may have played a role in the transmission of their work (such as the Tusi-couple) to Europe, where it eventually influenced Copernican heliocentrism.[3]

And on the same page I find out that more Muslims have traveled in space than I had previously been aware of:

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there have also been a number of Muslim astronauts, the first being Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as a Payload Specialist aboard STS-51-G Space Shuttle Discovery, followed by Muhammed Faris aboard Soyuz TM-2 and Soyuz TM-3 to Mir space station; Abdul Ahad Mohmand aboard Soyuz TM-5 to Mir; Talgat Musabayev (one of the top 25 astronauts by time in space) as a flight engineer aboard Soyuz TM-19 to Mir, commander of Soyuz TM-27 to Mir, and commander of Soyuz TM-32 and Soyuz TM-31 to International Space Station (ISS); and Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to travel to ISS and the fourth space tourist.

In 2007, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor from Malaysia traveled to ISS with his Expedition 16 crew aboard Soyuz TMA-11 as part of the Angkasawan program during Ramadan, for which the National Fatwa Council wrote Guidelines for Performing Islamic Rites (Ibadah) at the International Space Station, giving advice on issues such as prayer in a low-gravity environment, the location of Mecca from ISS, determination of prayer times, and issues surrounding fasting. Shukor also celebrated Eid ul-Fitr aboard ISS. He was both an astronaut and an orthopedic surgeon, and is most notable for being the first to perform biomedical research in space, mainly related to the characteristics and growth of liver cancer and leukemia cells and the crystallization of various proteins and microbes in space.[123]

Other prominent Muslim scientists involved in research on the space sciences and space exploration include Essam Heggy who is working in the NASA Mars Exploration Program in the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, as well as Ahmed Salem, Alaa Ibrahim, Mohamed Sultan, and Ahmed Noor.[124]

Some other cool stuff:

The first mechanical astrolabes with gears were invented in the Muslim world, and were perfected by Ibn Samh (c. 1020). One such device with eight gear-wheels was also constructed by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī in 996. These can be considered as an ancestor of the mechanical clocks developed by later Muslim engineers.[144]

Navigational astrolabe
The first navigational astrolabe was invented in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages, and employed the use of a polar projection system.[145]

Orthographical astrolabe
Abu Rayhan al-Biruni invented and wrote the earliest treatise on the orthographical astrolabe in the 1000s.[64]

Universal astrolabe (Saphaea)
The first astrolabe instruments were used to read the rise of the time of rise of the Sun and fixed stars. The first universal astrolabes were later constructed in the Islamic world and which, unlike their predecessors, did not depend on the latitude of the observer and could be used anywhere on the Earth. The basic idea for a latitude-independent astrolabe was conceived in the 9th century by Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi in Baghdad and the topic was later discussed in the early 11th century by Al-Sijzi in Persia.[146]

The first known universal astrolabe to be constructed was by Ali ibn Khalaf al-Shakkaz, an Arabic herbalist or apothecary in 11th century Al-Andalus. His instrument could solve problems of spherical astronomy for any geographic latitude, though in a somewhat more complicated fashion than the standard astrolabe. Another, more advanced and more famous, universal astrolabe was constructed by Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī (Arzachel) soon after. His instrument became known in Europe as the “Saphaea”.[147] It was a universal lamina (plate) which “constituted a universal device representing a stereographic projection for the terrestrial equator and could be used to solve all the problems of spherical astronomy for any latitude.”[148]

The Zuraqi is a unique astrolabe invented by Al-Sijzi for a heliocentric planetary model in which the Earth is moving rather than the sky.[42]

In the early 11th century, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī invented and wrote the first treatise on the planisphere, which was an early analog computer.[64][149] The astrolabe was a predecessor of the modern planisphere.

Linear astrolabe
A famous work by Sharaf al-Dīn al-Tūsī is one in which he describes the linear astrolabe, sometimes called the “staff of al-Tusi”, which he invented.[150]

Astrolabic clock
Ibn al-Shatir invented the astrolabic clock in 14th century Syria.[151]

Various analog computer devices were invented to compute the latitudes of the Sun, Moon, and planets, the ecliptic of the Sun, the time of day at which planetary conjunctions will occur, and for performing linear interpolation.

The Equatorium was an analog computer invented by Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī (Arzachel) in al-Andalus, probably around 1015 CE. It is a mechanical device for finding the longitudes and positions of the Moon, Sun, and planets, without calculation using a geometrical model to represent the celestial body’s mean and anomalistic position.[152]

Mechanical geared calendar computer
Abu Rayhan Biruni also invented the first mechanical lunisolar calendar computer which employed a gear train and eight gear-wheels.[153] This was an early example of a fixed-wired knowledge processing machine.[154]

The volvelle, also called a wheel chart, is a type of slide chart, paper constructions with rotating parts. It is considered an early example of a paper analog computer.[155] The volvelle can be traced back to “certain Arabic treateses on humoral medicine”[156] and to Biruni (c. 1000) who made important contributions to the development of the volvelle.[157] In the 20th century, the volvelle had many diverse uses.

Jabir ibn Aflah (Geber) (c. 1100-1150) invented the torquetum, an observational instrument and mechanical analog computer device used to transform between spherical coordinate systems.[158] It was designed to take and convert measurements made in three sets of coordinates: horizon, equatorial, and ecliptic.

Castle clock with programmable analog computer
In 1206, Al-Jazari invented his largest astronomical clock, the “castle clock”, which is considered to be the first programmable analog computer.[159] It displayed the zodiac and the solar and lunar orbits. Another innovative feature of the clock was a pointer which traveled across the top of a gateway and caused automatic doors to open every hour.[160]

Mechanical astrolabe with geared calendar computer
In 1235, Abi Bakr of Isfahan invented a brass astrolabe with a geared calendar movement based on the design of Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī’s mechanical calendar computer.[161] Abi Bakr’s geared astrolabe uses a set of gear-wheels and is the oldest surviving complete mechanical geared machine in existence.[162][163]

Plate of Conjunctions
In the 15th century, al-Kashi invented the Plate of Conjunctions, a computing instrument used to determine the time of day at which planetary conjunctions will occur,[164] and for performing linear interpolation.[165]

And there’s a lot more, but my copy-and-paste fingers are getting tired.

Astronomy in Medieval Islam Wikipedia page.

This came up because I just looked at an article about the Vatican’s dusting off some old astronomical equipment they’ve kept sequestered away for years, including something I had never heard of before, an orrery.


Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, pedantry

Time/CNN Ought to Know Better By Now

There I was, reading about this Sri Lankan-American teenaged cheerleader who ran away from her parents to live with a pastor and his wife, then claimed that her parents threatened to kill her for converting to Christianity. The parents say that’s ridiculous, the police consider the parents credible, and the coverage is relatively even-handed.

But then there was this, right there in a Time/CNN story:

…they are hardly the kind of fundamentalist Muslims who would declare a medieval fatwa, or death sentence, on their daughter.

A fatwa, medieval or not, is not a death sentence!!! It’s a legal opinion based on Islamic law.

And how would someone in 2009 declare a medieval fatwa? Time travel?


The teenager met the pastor on Facebook. This’ll give you an idea what he’s like:

Blake Lorenz, who insists that Rifqa will be killed if she goes home, earlier this month made clear to reporters his Crusades-era belief that this is part of Christianity’s holy struggle against Islam: “These are the last days; these are the end times,” he said, “and this conflict between Islam and Christianity is going to grow greater. This conflict between good and evil is going to grow greater.”

I trust that the authorities in pastor Lorenz’s city are investigating him for using Facebook to lure a teenaged girl across the country into his clutches.

Let’s round out this story thusly:

Florida’s moderate Republican governor and U.S. Senate candidate, Charlie Crist, who needs conservative voters to win his state’s closed GOP primary next year, issued a statement on Aug. 21 saying he’s “grateful to Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson for his decision to grant [Rifqa] the right to remain in Florida … We will continue to fight to protect Rifqa’s safety and well-being as we move forward.” Of course, Crist’s conservative primary opponent, former Florida house speaker Marco Rubio, released his own communiqué: “Florida not only has a responsibility to protect [Rifqa’s] innocent life, but also to defend her sacred right to worship freely.”

UPDATE: realisticbird asked in the comments: What would their reaction be if the case war reversed and the Christian girl went to the Muslim family?

I was going to say that few Americans would give any credence to the claims of death threats from a Christian family for changing religions, but then I found this helpful web page that highlighted these biblical directives:

13:6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
13:7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
13:8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
13:9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
13:10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

17:2 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
17:3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
17:4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:
17:5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
17:6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
17:7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.


Filed under bigoted idiots, Islamic relations, pedantry, religious conflict

CNN’s Generation Islam

For more than a week I’ve wanted to post about CNN’s Generation Islam feature, and it has been thwarting me by making it impossible to copy and paste the text or save the graphics. I had to resort to typing. It is not clear to me why CNN is interested in disseminating a mix of accurate and inaccurate information about Islam right now, but they’re doing it and so here I am.

The Generation Islam premise seems to be that Muslims are exotic people in strange clothes who live far away and that there is a giant gulf between us and them, and that those Muslims resent us for mysterious reasons and we might want to do something about it so they don’t hurt us again.

Here’s the tagline right under the banner:

9/11 taught the U.S. that it ignores rising Muslim resentment at its own peril. America can’t have another generation of Muslims who hate it. Is it possible to win the hearts and minds of Muslim youth?

and the first link, immediately underneath it:

Experts: Why some turn to violence

This will take more than one blog post to squeeze all the possibilities out of Generation Islam. Let’s start with the simple stuff and go to the Islam: Key facts page.

Islam has a monotheistic (belief in one God) message and follows some of the same principles as Christianity and Judaism. Muslims, the followers of Islam, believe in Allah and believe Mohammed was his prophet.

I used to expect better from CNN. Of course, that was before Lou Dobbs starting telling lies in prime time and getting away with it. So now I’m dying to know which principles CNN thinks Muslims follow that Christians and Jews also follow, and which ones CNN thinks they don’t. CNN also leads us to think that Muslims believe in some crazy, alternative god named “Allah,” whose pronoun doesn’t get capitalized the way good old American God’s pronoun does.

CNN has several related articles on the page. Kind of a journalistic version of “scent layering,”* which a guy in my college speech class explained as he gave us all an Amway-style sales pitch as a class assignment.

I saw part of the story about the Muppet Show for Palestinian children the other day. Maybe I’ve gotten overly sensitive, but the vibe I got from what I saw was that Palestinian children are inherently prone to violence, probably due to their Arab genes, and need extra handling and guidance to guide them on the right path.

Daoud Kuttab, executive producer of “Shara’a Simsim,” knows that the Muppets are highly effective communicators. “Anything the Muppets do, anything they say, any idea they transmit, the children accept.”

An internationally respected Palestinian journalist, Kuttab began working with the show more than a decade ago. After covering the war-torn region for years, he realized that Sesame was a great way to reach Palestinian children who desperately needed an alternative to the harsh lessons they were absorbing.

“I would say 3-, 4-, 5-year olds — if we don’t catch them at that early age, we do risk losing them to all kinds of propaganda, whether it’s conservative, religious or fundamentalist,” Kuttab said.

Okay, I would argue that Palestinian children aren’t absorbing any worse lessons than Israeli children are. Different, sure. Palestinian children are seeing that they are second-tier human beings, and they can expect to spend their whole lives being pushed around, made to wait in interminable lines, walled off from their own property, arrested or shot for venturing outdoors, etc., but Israeli children are learning that apartheid is natural, that some people are far beneath others, and that disproportionate violence is the only way to deal with your unfounded fears.

“We are interested in teaching tolerance, respect, pride in their own country and their own nation, and also in understanding that there are people who are different, and that’s OK,” Kuttab said.

“Boys are a problem in our society. They see their parents being humiliated. They think they are the men of the house and have to do something about it. But they can’t do anything,” Kuttab said. “We’re trying to tell them, ‘your energy is OK, but let’s channel it in a different way.’ ”

Live-action segments introduce children to Palestinians who have channeled their energy into becoming teachers, doctors or business owners — people, Knell says, “who can act as role models, people who strive to remove themselves from the hardships children see.”

Sesame Workshop hopes to expand this type of localized programming into other areas that have witnessed recent conflict, such as Pakistan. Perhaps that means Iraq will get its own show someday and won’t have to hold on to someone else’s.

The bolding is mine. As far as I can see so far, this is the only acknowledgement in this entire Generation Islam cloud of “information” that the population of Gaza is in distress, and that those scary Muslims who might wish to do violence to us might have a reason for it. More information here would have done a world of good, CNN.

As for Shara’a Simsim, it’s basically nothing more than a new market for Sesame Street. At least it’s not Disney Princesses.

*Off-topic plea: please go easy on the perfume and cologne. As in, I shouldn’t be able to smell your perfume or cologne unless I am snuggling you.

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Filed under arab, arabist, Islamic relations, movies and shows, pedantry, religious conflict

Is It Permissible to Eat a Mermaid?

Over on PZ Myers’s biology and atheism site, Pharyngula, PZ has posted a fatwa found on Islam Q&A that he thinks is pretty funny. I can’t tell when the question was originally asked and answered, but I found Arabic-language sites talking about this particular fatwa back in 2007.

Islam Q&A is new to me, but it looks like a pretty nice site. It’s posted in ten languages, and the ones I can read, English, Spanish, and Arabic, are very well done. PZ Myers’s site, like mine, is just in the one language.

Welcome to Islam Question & Answer! This site aims to provide intelligent, authoritative responses to anyones question about Islam, whether it be from a Muslim or a non-Muslim, and to help solve general and personal social problems. Responses are composed by Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid, a known Islamic lecturer and author. Questions about any topic are welcome, such as theology, worship, human and business relations, or social and personal issues.

All questions and answers on this site have been prepared, approved, revised, edited, amended or annotated by Shaykh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid, the supervisor of this site.

Many of the questions asked here are the kinds of questions you might ask Miss Manners or Dear Abby. Some people seem to prefer to ask a religious authority rather than a secular one. I don’t know why, but it’s probably for the same reason that the US military still has chaplains.

Islam has no central hierarchy. This seems to throw a lot of people for a loop, even though Protestant Christianity also has no central hierarchy. I guess we want it to be easy, where in the case of Roman Catholics we can point to the Pope and say, “You guys are supposed to believe every word this guy says, and every Pope before him, too.”

Islamic scholars juridical decrees, or fatwas, are nonbinding. If you respect an Islamic scholar and want to honor his decisions, you can, and if you don’t, you don’t have to. Islam does not have priests, seeing priests as middlemen who presume to intervene between God and humanity.

This site, Islam Q&A, is one man’s views. It’s his site, he’s the religious scholar, and he consults existing religious writings to give his answers. If you go back far enough, religious texts and scientific texts are one, just like in the western world.

The fatwas on the site are numbered. These are not the sum total of all fatwas ever issued by all Muslim scholars. They’re his fatwas.

I only wish they were dated. But since they’re not: back in question/fatwa #1919, someone asks

What types of fish and seafood are permissible?

Sheikh al-Munajjid quotes from the Qur’an:

Hence all kinds of food from the sea are permissible, whether they are plants or animals, alive or dead. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “Lawful to you is (the pursuit of) water-game and its use for food – for the benefit of yourselves and those who travel…” [al-Maa’idah 5:96].

Then he adds that some later scholars say you can’t eat frogs, crocodiles, and maybe sea snakes, otters, and turtles, and gives the reasons and citations. He doesn’t mention mer-folk.

Presumably years later, someone comes along and asks

Is there any such thing as a mermaid?

The answer is fatwa #103991. Notice he or she didn’t ask if it’s okay to eat mermaids. This question (“Do mermaids exist”) is probably asked several times a year at Yahoo! Answers, because it is exactly the kind of earnest, gullible question that gets asked there.

In fact, for fun I’ll post some mermaid-related questions from Yahoo! Answers:

i live on the oregon coast! and i saw a mermaid i was in a cave and it looked right at me in my eyes and jumped in the water and swam away!!!!!!!!!!

I really want to become a mermaid that you can choose your own mermaid tail color and your mermaid power. Is there a spell available for this option? Please write if you do.

I want to make up a very strong mermaid spell. It is kind-of hard. That’s why I need positive answers and positive help. All answers are acceptable but, negative answers.

Those were all on the first page of search results for “mermaid” on Yahoo! Answers. One is so recent that it is still an active question. One was posted in the Beauty & Style, Skin & Body section.

Sheikh al-Munajjid begins to answer the question:

A mermaid is a creature that lives in water and looks like a human. As to whether it really exists or it is a mythical being, that is subject to further discussion.

I hope no one takes these two sentences as evidence that Islam says mermaids exist. I think it’s pretty obvious that that is not what al-Munajjid is about to lead into. Unless this fatwa ends with, “And that’s why mermaids exist.” (Preview: it doesn’t).

Next he writes this:

It says in a footnote in al-Mawsoo’ah al-Fiqhiyyah (5/129): From the modern academic resources that are available to us, it may be understood that the mermaid, which is called Sirène in French, is a mythical creature that is described in fairy tales as having an upper body like a woman and a lower half like a fish.

Mermaids are mentioned in a footnote in an Islamic encyclopedia. They are mentioned as being mythical.

al-Munajjid also writes:

Al-Dumayri said in Hayaat al-Haywaan al-Kubra: Mermaid: it resembles a human but it has a tail. Al-Qazweeni said: Someone brought one of them in our time. End quote.

al-Dumayri died in 808. His words indicate he believed in the existence of mermaids.

al-Qazweeni died in 1283. His words indicate that a contemporary of his claimed to have physical possession of a mermaid.

That’s all either man had to write on the subject.

Now it starts to get fun, and while I don’t know sheikh al-Munajjid’s reputation, I believe he is having fun with this answer. After all, the questioner didn’t even ask if it was permissible to eat mermaids.

Many of the fuqaha’ mentioned mermaids and differed on the ruling concerning them. Some of them said that they are permissible (to eat) because of the general meaning of the evidence which says that whatever is in the sea is permissible. This is the view of the Shaafa’is and Hanbalis, and is the view of most of the Maalikis and of Ibn Hazm and others. And some of them regarded it as haraam because it is not a kind of fish. This is the view of the Hanafis and of al-Layth ibn Sa’d.

Now here comes the word of an Islamic scholar who really seems to think mermaids exist and that a Muslim can eat them:

Ibn Hazm (may Allaah have mercy on him) said in al-Muhalla (6/50): As for that which lives in the water and cannot live anywhere else, it is all halaal no matter what state it is in, whether it is caught alive and then dies, or it dies in the water and then floats or does not float, whether it was killed by a sea creature or a land animal. It is all halaal to eat, whether it is the pig of the sea (i.e., a dolphin), a mermaid, or a dog of the sea (i.e., shark) and so on. It is halaal to eat, whether it was killed by an idol-worshipper, a Muslim, a kitaabi (Jew or Christian) or it was not killed by anyone. The proof of that is the verses in which Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “And the two seas (kinds of water) are not alike: this is palatable, sweet and pleasant to drink, and that is salt and bitter. And from them both you eat fresh tender meat (fish)” [Faatir 35:12] and “Lawful to you is (the pursuit of) water game and its use for food — for the benefit of yourselves and those who travel” [al-Maa’idah 5:64]. Allaah spoke in general terms and did not exclude anything, “and your Lord is never forgetful” [Maryam 19:64]. End quote.

Ibn-Hazm died in 1064. He was a Muslim Arab in Andalusian Spain, and he’s famous for his book of poetry, The Ring of the Dove, about the art of love.

In the Arabic, which Islam Q&A is kind enough to provide right there, Ibn-Hazm uses the terms “dog of the sea,” for sharks and “pig of the sea” for porpoises. “Dog of the sea,” is still in the Hans Wehr dictionary, and “pig of the sea” appears in the Arabic Wikipedia article on porpoises. I’m confident that Muslims didn’t think that porpoises were literally pigs that live in the sea. And I’m confident that medieval Romans didn’t, either. Let’s see if I can back that up:

The name derives from French pourpois, originally from Medieval Latin porcopiscus (porcus pig + piscus fish).

Oh my, look at this:

Until the 16th century,[3] sharks were known to mariners as “sea dogs”.[4] According to the OED the name “shark” first came into use after Sir John Hawkins’ sailors exhibited one in London in 1569 and used the word to refer to the large sharks of the Caribbean Sea, and later as a general term for all sharks.

The OED? That’s the Oxford English dictionary. How dare they make Christians look as silly as Muslims.

So when the medieval scholar Ibn-Hazm says “people of the sea,” (انسان الماء), is he really envisioning creatures who are human from the waist up and fish from the waist down? I don’t know. I tend to think his term “sea people” is analogous to “sea dog” and “sea pig.” Help me out, Wikipedia:

The word “dugong” derives from the Tagalog term dugong which was in turn adopted from the Malay duyung, both meaning “lady of the sea.”[14] Other common local names include “sea cow,” “sea pig” and “sea camel.”[8]

dugong range today

dugong range today

Dugongs inhabit the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the east coast of the African continent, etc. Arab sailors would have seen dugongs.

But so far I don’t have anything definitive to back me up on this. So maybe Ibn-Hazm believed in the Hans Christian Andersen genre of mermaids. al-Munajjid seems to be playing it this way. And I believe al-Munajjid is having fun with it.

He then quotes al-Durayr, who does not mention mermaids but says it okay to eat animals from the sea.

Then he quotes al-Saawi, who says that al-Durayr meant to include “sea people.”

Then he quotes al-Nawawi, who says nothing about mermaids, al-Mardawi, who says nothing about mermaids, and al-Kaasani, who says nothing about mermaids.

The penultimate authority mentioned, Ibn-‘Aabideen, does mention “sea people:”

Ibn ‘Aabideen – who was a Hanafi scholar – said in Radd al-Muhtaar (6/307): Anything other than fish and the like, such as mermaids and dolphins, is impure and remains prohibited.

This reads ambiguously to me. Is he saying mermaids are like fish and you can eat them, or that they’re not like fish and you can’t eat them? I think the Arabic is a little less ambigous:

وقال ابن عابدين – حنفي – في “رد المحتار” (6/307) : ” وما عدا أنواع السمك من نحو إنسان الماء وخنزيره خبيث فبقي داخلا تحت التحريم “.

In any case, the same issue remains. Did he mean literal mermaids, or did he mean dugongs?
Ibn ‘Aabideen died in 1836.

I found some Arabic-language sites discussing this exact fatwa back in 2007. Like this one, Mujahideen Ryder, “Not the average Muslim blog.” The blogger posts the entire fatwas from Islam Q&A with the preface:

Note: This is not mockery towards any scholar or any Muslim. Just read, laugh/smile and move on, inshaAllah!

In the comments to that blog post:

More questions:

– Is the feces of Godzilla considered najas?
– Is it permissible to wear dragon-skin belts?

It’s true (and useful!) for students of law to ask odd questions like that not so much as to really reach a conclusion, but to learn how to apply the rule to various fact patterns.

However, such an exercise, in my opinion, should be kept amongst those who understand the purpose of them and benefit from them. It might be fun for legal nerds to ponder this, but to pass out as a fatwa, especially when that’s not even what the asker had posed, is kind of off to me.

Very good. I guess if one is a werewolf it would be best to follow the Maliki madhab. Do you have to make ghusl after changing back into human form or is wudhu ok?

The blogger adds a comment:

Actually. I’m not making fun of it. This is halal comedy. I think the ulema probably wanted the readers to have a little laugh. I see nothing wrong in this. This proves the statement “there is no such thing as a stupid question”.

Truly, how many sites can boast of fatwa bases in so many languages. This is a case of ignoring the overwhelming good and focusing on the controversial. Not the best attitude you’d like to show your fellow Muslim, more so a scholar.

Good point. I think what bothers me about many of the commenters on PZ’s site is that they take for granted that Muslims are stupid, humorless, and gullible. I hope my blog post helps to dispel this notion.

Jazakl’Allah Khayr rrrrryder… i’ll keep that in mind next time i catch a mermaid.

It’s funny and should make everyone smile and laugh.

Well, I’m glad we got that cleared up. Who wants to come over for some mermaid biryani?

haha…to eat a mermaid!!!
I am laughing with you, MR. nice funny fatwa which should not offend anyone. I don’t think any mermaid reads your blog or not.

Just to add to this. This fatwa shows that the ulema of the present and past have a sense of humor and also a sense of knowledge about almost everything possible.


Since Ibn ‘Abidin said its not a fish – I can’t eat mermaids. Good to know, often I am hungry and think, is that mermaid over there edible or no?

What if the mermaid meets an evil Sea Witch who makes a deal with her to give her human form for a couple of days. While the mermaid is in her human form – u cant eat the mermaid then…. Im sure theres no ikhtilaf on this issue.

can we marry the mermaid?

and if we do, then divorce her, can we still eat her?

this is a very pressing question for me…

Probaly not. Either way Hanafis cant eat them since their not really considered fish. So on the bright side, I’d never accidentally eat the Sea King’s daughter but a Shafi’i might. But you know mermaids shouldn’t engage in magic – its really haram – basically kufr…

One of my friends, who is studying at AOU, mentioned to me once that there was one school of thought that focused a great deal on hypothetical situations because “what if” it really happened? In fact, long before space travel became reality, people wondered what direction to pray in if they weren’t on earth (i.e. if they were in space).

al-Munajjid, the fatwa writer, does not in fact end up with, “And that’s why mermaids exist.” He ends with, “And Allaah knows best.”

This whole edible mermaid fatwa reminds me of a funny thread on the Straight Dope Message Board way back in 2002, on the topic, “What would Jesus Drive.” My vote for best answers are:

A Honda. But he didn’t own it: “For I come not of my own Accord, but of my Father’s.”

— ResIpsaLoquitor


A Plymouth:
And God drove Adam and Eve out of Paradise in a fury.

— SlowMindThinking

plush feejee mermaids

plush feejee mermaids

UPDATE: Mermaid sighting in Israel expected to boost tourism.


Filed under animals, arab, arabian, arabic, arabist, beasts, Islamic relations, language, pedantry

Islamophobia and Romance, Together at Last

The things one stumbles upon while perusing the internet. I was looking for new books to read, and through some strange twist of fate that can probably never be recreated, I found this specimen:

Allah’s Fire, book one of the Task Force Valor series, written by the dynamic duo of a prodigious romance novelist and a former Ranger turned author of Christian-military novels (a genre heretofore unknown to me).

Amazon is so informative that without reading the book I can know that the term “Ansar Inshallah” appears in it, and I’ll go ahead and assume that it’s the name of a terrorist group and not a character’s name, which would be funnier.

Ansar Inshallah isn’t a roll-on-the-floor funny kind of name, just absurd. Those words don’t go together. Ansar means “adherents” or “followers,” and in this grammatical structure it means “the adherents of…” A real organization with a name like this is Ansar Islam, “The Followers of Islam.”

Inshallah, on the other hand, is not a noun, which makes the whole “name” impossible and this is what makes me laugh. Inshallah is a phrase that literally means “If God wills it,” and is used countless millions of times a day around the world to mean “hopefully…”

So Ansar Inshallah would be The Followers of ‘Hopefully,’ which would be really weird. Kind of like The Followers of ‘Fingers Crossed’ or The Followers of ‘Here’s Mud in Your Eye.’

But I digress. Here’s the blurb:

A suicide bomber blows up a hotel in Beirut, killing hundreds of people. A young American woman is kidnapped in Lebanon by terrorists. Connected or coincidence? Despite the government’s difficulty in locating her sister, Liz Fairchild, a reporter from the States, is determined to find her…regardless of the risks. Meanwhile, Sergeant John Cooper and his elite Special Ops team hunt down Palestinian extremists in possession of a new undetectable explosive that will change the “face of terror.” When Liz and Task Force Valor’s paths intersect, more is at risk than their separate missions. While maneuvering through hostile territory, Liz and John realize they need each other to survive. Their antagonism gradually gives way to cooperation—and something more.

Employing my mad analysis skillz, I deduced that the titular “Allah’s Fire” is what the terrorists call their new, devastating, secret weapon that only Task Force Valor can stop.

I am not going to be able to bring myself it to read it, though. So please don’t consider this a review, this is just a tip. A glimpse.

1 Comment

Filed under arab, arabic, books, pedantry

The Caped Mujahid

Recently I took part in a seminar that touched on Islam and Arabs, and the subject came up of how the US views the word “crusader” and the Arab world views the word “jihad.”

(Mujahid, which I use in the title of this post, is the same, but more Arabic word, as Jihadist).

Just as “crusader” is seen as a positive thing in the US, “jihad” is seen as universally positive in the Arab world.

From Wikipedia:

Jihad (Arabic: جهاد‎ IPA: [ʤɪhæːd]), an Islamic term, is a religious duty of Muslims. In Arabic, the word jihad is a noun meaning “the struggle” Jihad appears frequently in the Qur’an and common usage as the idiomatic expression “striving in the way of Allah (al-jihad fi sabil Allah)”.[1][2] A person engaged in jihad is called a mujahid, the plural is mujahideen.


In Modern Standard Arabic, jihad is one of the correct terms for a struggle for any cause, violent or not, religious or secular (though كفاح kifāḥ is also used).[citation needed] For instance, Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence is called a “jihad” in Modern Standard Arabic (as well as many other dialects of Arabic); the terminology is applied to the fight for women’s liberation.[19]

So while several decades of the US media have used “jihad” exclusively to mean “violent killing of innocent people by bloodthirsty savages,” that is not what it means and certainly not how it is seen in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (Which overlap, but aren’t the same thing).

In the US, we think of “crusader” as a wholly positive thing. I believe that most Americans don’t even think about The Crusades when they hear the word “crusader.” They think of Batman, the Caped Crusader, or some local citizen who is “on a crusade against illiteracy.”

From Wikpedia:

The word “crusade” is also used vernacularly to signify any struggle for a worthy cause, a meaning that is extruded from the memory of the historical Crusades as seen from the perspective of the Christian partisans.

Meanwhile, the Arab world sees “crusader” much the way we see “jihad.” Crusaders were filthy, violent barbarians who came from abroad and killed and plundered and destroyed, just like Huns or Mongols. And that explains why Arabs and Muslims were horrified to hear Bush talk about a crusade against terrorism, especially as his administration was already implying that Islam equals terrorism.

1950 cartoon “Crusader Rabbit.”

I find that if I switch “mujahid” for “crusader” and vice versa, they pretty much mean the same thing in the popular psyche. If Batman had been “the Caped Mujahid,” instead of “the Caped Crusader,” we would feel the same way about the word “jihad” that the Arab world does. And if Bush had said “this is a jihad against terrorism,” it would have gone over better.


Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, language, pedantry, War in Iraq