Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Islamic Reformation At Last!

...Well, the first signs of one, anyway. Turkey is apparently preparing a scholarly brief that looks like it'll review--with an exterminator's wary eye--the collection of hadith, with a view to removing the weeds.

It's hard to overstate how significant this is. For all the lambasting that the Qur'an gets, in actual fact, most of the awful and retrograde bullshit that occurs in Islamic societies--like female genital mutilation, the burqa, etc.--are based on the hadith: the collection of sayings and stories attributed to the prophet Mohammed, and collected after he died. Muslim feminists, especially in the west, routinely call for a return to the Qur'an and an abandonment of the hadith. And historians and Western scholars have long pointed out that the Mohammed that shows up in the hadith often bears little resemblance to the Mohammed of history, who was often derided by his fellow religious leaders for being overly fond of, and constantly caving in to, his wives, and for being too gentle with children.

Having said that, one hadith I'm rather fond of tells that one time when it was raining outside, The Prophet went to get his coat and found a cat sleeping on it. He went out into the rain without his coat rather than disturb the cat's slumber. (I may be recalling the details wrong; the story is in Karen Armstrong's Muhammad.) So not all the hadith are rotten. In fact (as you'll get a sense of) most of them are morally neutral answers to questions of procedure. But the ones that are wicked are truly awful. (By the way, the single most appalling practice of Islamic culture--"honor killings"--are not only not mentioned in the Qur'an, but I'm told they're not even in any of the hadith; they're just poisons picked up from the outside culture.)

I actually picked up a book of hadith (called A Manual of Hadith by Maulana Muhammad Ali), because they're actually pretty hard to find in English, and the official volumes I mostly came across were prohibitively expensive. (The book I have was collected, and contains commentary by, Maulana Muhammad Ali, who is, it should be noted, a member of a Muslim sect called the Ahmaddiyas, who follow a prophet who came AFTER Mohammed, so they're a bit like Muslim Mormons only not as weird.) There are a LOT of hadith--six volumes, minimum, if you're counting only the "strong" traditions (the hadith are divided into strong/authoritative and weak/less authoritative, based on their history of transmission)--and so the one volume I have is a compilation that seems pitched toward American converts, and I don't know enough to assert that these are all strong hadith. But I figure it can't hurt to give a quote or two to give a sense of what it's like to read the book:

"It is reported about Umm Waraqah who had learned the Qur'an by heart that The Prophet commanded her that she should act as imam of the people of her house, and she had a mu'adhdin [muezzin; the one who gives the call the prayer] and she used to act as imam of the people of her house."

"Abu Hurairah reported that the Messenger of Allah said, "When one of you leads the prayer for the people, he should lighten it, for among them is the weak one and the sick one and the old one; and when one of you prays alone, he may lengthen it as he likes."

"Samurah said, the Messenger of Allah commanded us that when we were three one of us [i.e., the one acting as imam] should stand in the front."

And so on. Most of them are very short, and most of them are reports on procedure ("How did The Prophet handle babies crying during Jummah?" etc.). Since there is no information about Mohammed in the Qur'an, the hadith, all read together, form something like the equivalent of the Gospels, and--at the same time--the equivalent of the Talmud.

I'm not saying the Qu'ran is a model of enlightenment. But if Islamic culture could throw off the tradition of the hadith (or at least employ scholarship to take out the bad ones), then there would be room for more liberal democratic readings of the Qu'ran--readings most American Muslims already practice, by the way--and Muslims everywhere would be freer to read the Qur'an the same way that Christians read the Bible and Jews read the Torah: by ignoring the weird, violent stuff and focusing on decency.

I predict a lot of violence over this--fundamentalists don't give up easily--but in the long run this is very good news for the planet.

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Blogger Chad E Burns said...

I agree, very good news for the world. Maybe it is just my obtuse reckoning, but it seems very similar to the complaint scholars often have about the differen "Pauls" of the NT: That "Paul" actually raised the stakes on Jesus being Messiah and Son of God, on being worshiped and church practice and doctrine. Jesus may have created Christians, but Paul created Christianity.

2/27/2008 3:56 PM  
Blogger HawaiianBrian said...

"...the same way that Christians read the Bible and Jews read the Torah: by ignoring the weird, violent stuff and focusing on decency."

Yes, but isn't this one of the annoying things about fundies? That they pick and choose? Not saying don't think they shouldn't, mind you...

2/27/2008 6:01 PM  
Blogger Bina said...

It's incorrect to say that Muslim feminists want to abandon the Hadiths. The sayings and doings of the Prophet make up the body of what is called "Sunnah", second in importance to the Quran in understanding and practicing the religion correctly. For example, the Quran instructs us to pray, but the Sunnah outlines the procedure.

Hadith is generally accepted as accurate if the line of transmission is strong. That is, the chain of people starting with the first person who heard the Prophet say a certain pronouncement, down to the person who actually recorded it in writing. The six books of Hadith are generally thought to be pretty authentic (Saeeh Bukhari is one of the strongest collections). The oral tradition in Islam is very strong, and continues to be so, with many Muslims seeking to learn the entire Quran by heart.

Any Hadith that seems to contradict the spirit of Islam (a saying that encourages cruelty towards women when the Quran advocates women's rights and the Prophet was well known for his kindness towards women) is generally regarded as a weak Hadith.

I'm not sure what you mean by "liberal democratic readings of the Quran". Could you explain that point further?

And any Ahmadiya maulana would be regarded as a non-Muslim by mainstream Muslims. One of the principle tenets of Islam is to accept the finality of Muhammed as the last Messenger.

I am sure you are aware that FGM is not an Islamic tradition, but an African one, and is practiced by many people in the African continent.

Please feel free to get in touch if you have any further questions about Islam. I'll do my best to answer them. (I am a Muslim feminist educated in the United States and currently living in Pakistan).

3/03/2008 12:53 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Thanks so much for finding me! You can bet I'll be in touch! At the moment, I'm doing the actual work of sending out the book proposal, but I'll be fixing this post accordingly as soon as I have a moment.

The most obvious question that comes to mind is, Is it actually true that the "strong" hadith are all uniformly feminist or feminism-friendly? The understanding I have gotten (principally from Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong, since Asma Gull Hasan is a little light on history and Abdul Rauf is light on theology) is that the relationship of the Qur'an to Abu Bakr and the collection of hadith is a little bit like the relationship of Jesus to the letters of Paul: that it's widely perceived among theological liberals that the second wave of the religion sought, in certain ways, to undo (or slow down) the radical liberation of the original.

Paul's letters are also indispensible to Christianity as it is practiced, but his critics have always tended to paint Paul as the judgmental rule-giver who came after Jesus, and in many ways opposed his spirit. (This is an oversimplification, since Jesus preached hell and Paul didn't, but it's an understandable perception.) Since I can scarcely find any English hadith collections for under $100, and the only version I have found comes from an odd sect of dubious authority, I have had to rely on broad statements, trusting that the life cycle of all religions (initial charismatic founder followed by a second generation that fucks things up) tends to hold across cultures and across history. Thanks for truing my beam.

And yes--I didn't have time to go into it without making a huge long digression, but I'm aware that the Ahmadiya are radical sectarians. That's why I compared them (for my Judeo-Christian readership) to the Mormons. The Mormons claim additional revelation from a guy who came AFTER Jesus and wrote his own books. They consider themselves Christian, but Christians don't. That's in the nature of being a Christian sect.

But as crazy as Mormon theology is, if they were to write a book about Jesus and the Bible, I would accept it as guardedly reliable, so I'm hoping the same applies to Maulana's collection of hadith. I have to hope this: it's the only collection I've found! (Although I guess I could go online; has Project Gutenberg done a translation yet?)

And so I ramble. Thanks again for caring enough to write. I'll be in contact.

3/03/2008 1:36 PM  
Blogger Bina said...

In answer to your first question, I'm afraid I don't have wide enough knowledge of all the hadith to answer you truthfully, but it's considered that the Hadith AND the Quran were radically pro-female for the time in which Islam appeared on the planet.

Asma Gul Hasan's books are a bit fluffy in regards to theology! My sister loved Reza Aslan's There is No God but God and my father loves Karen Armstrong's work, but I prefer the books written by the Islamic mystic Sheikh Fadhlallah Haeiri, which I think are available online if not on actual bookshelves in America. His "Thoughtful Guide to Islam" and "Thoughtful Guide to Sufism" are great starting points, and for those who are a little more advanced, he's written quite a few excellent books which really get to the heart of things in Islam (

Anyway, I digress. I think the matter of hadith is simpler than the theological explanations. Simply that there were Hadith that were real and then there were those that were made up for political or theological advantage. So say there were men who were unhappy with the freedoms and rights granted to women, they'd make up Hadith that would be restrictive so they could feel in control again.

As for the collections, I've always seen people go most regularly to Saeeh Bukhari and Saeeh Muslim. The Shias have four different books and also go to Fatima Zehra, the Prophet's daughter. The rule of thumb is that if a hadith contradicts the Quran, it is disregarded.

I don't know about Project Gutenberg, but I did a little research and found an online database of Hadith for you at

I do hope you find this useful and that I haven't made any terrible errors!

3/04/2008 1:11 AM  

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