Happiness is a warm Jack o’ Lantern

This is the official blog of Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff—Bahá’í, writer, editor, musician, general misfit, child of Ray Bradbury and Star Trek, lover of baseball, magical realism, Dr. Who, the month of October and Jack’o’Lanterns (which make me very, very happy).

This is where I post things that mean something (cue mashed potatoes.)

On Every Page: Bill Maher and the Qur’an


Bill Maher

I read an article on Thinkprogress.com this morning that asks the question “Has Bill Maher Finally Gone Too Far?” with regard to his animosity toward Muslims and Islam. I personally think the answer is “yes”, if for no other reason than that he is taking significant heat from other self-identifying liberals, progressives and atheists.

In the article, Maher is quoted as saying, “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.”

I’ll cut to the chase. This is quickly and easily debunked by simply opening a Qur’an. Most of the snippets of text pulled from the Qur’an to show that (1) Islam is an inherently violent faith and (2) Muslims are directed to slay all non-Muslims (including Jews and Christians) because (3) “infidel” equals “non-Muslim” are cited out of context.

But first things first. Mr. Maher is wrong about the contents of the Qur’an. Perhaps he was indulging in hyperbole when he insisted that violence against “infidels” is “absolutely” “on every page.” It hardly matters because people who have not read the Qur’an may believe him simply because of who he is. Beyond this, there are a raft of assumptions wrapped up in Maher’s single sentence. I’d like to try to tackle them one at a time.

Violence on every page?

Bill Maher isn’t alone in his assertion that the Qur’an is wall to wall about violence toward “the infidel”. Recently a conservative political operative from Idaho stated:

“There are at least 109 Sura’s (sic) that advocate violence and death towards infidels. And make no mistake; if you are not a Muslim, you are an infidel. Period.”

quran_pickthall_english_small_There are 114 surihs in the Qur’an, total. I can vouch for the fact that only a handful of verses deal with “the infidel”, which Muhammad does not describe as anyone who is not Muslim. If you are unwilling to accept my word for it, please, get a Qur’an and read it for yourself. I recommend the Pickthall translation (in print) because the translator sets the historical context and gives contextual notes at the beginning of most Surihs.

What is in the Qur’an? Commandments to care for the poor, the sick and the needy, to revere women, to practice kindness, to not trespass on another’s property, to avoid hostilities, to teach by example and not to spread the faith through compulsion. There is the repeated assertion that The People of Scripture (Jews, Christians and Sabeans) have been rightly guided by God because, to Muhammad, these were earlier phases of the same revealed religion of submission (to the will of God)—in a word, Islam. There are laws pertaining to marriage and divorce and inheritance, the exhortation to free slaves, to practice justice. You will find the stories of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, of Jesus’ conception through the agency of the Holy Spirit and testimony to HIs greatness as a divine messenger (Muhammad referred to Christ as Ruhu’llah, meaning “the Spirit of God”).

There are verses like these:

Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! — Qur’an, Surih 107:1-7

(The above, by the way, is one of the earliest Surihs revealed by Muhammad. That’s the entire Surih. It serves as a sort of benchmark for Muslim behavior. It is one of the last surihs in the Qur’an because they are traditionally arranged by length.)

O ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to Allah. — Qur’an, Surih 5:8

Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. — Qur’an, Surih 2:62

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the Allah-fearing. — Qur’an, Surih 2:177

Translation (if one is needed): Righteousness does not come from the rituals or observances of doctrine, but from faith that is acted upon. The actions that are recommended here are ever-widening act of generosity (from kinsfolk all the way to mankind as a whole), magnanimity, piety, kindness and trustworthiness.The mention of keeping a treaty is important in context with the rest of the surih for reasons that will, I hope be clear as you read on.

Is Islam inherently violent?

BooksTakeFlight-300x297The last two verses above are from the Surih (Chapter) most often used to show Islam’s inherent hatred of anyone non-Muslim. They are not, however, often quoted. This passage is: “And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter.”

Here is the verse in context with the surrounding material, in which Muhammad begins to set forth the rules of warfare:

Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors. And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. But if they desist, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers. — Qur’an, Surih, 2:190-193

To recap:

  1. Fight only those who fight you.
  2. Do not begin hostilities.
  3. If your adversaries desist in persecuting you, forgive them and do not hold them in hostility.

This set the rules for Muslim warfare for centuries. Muslims were not to harm non-combatants, persecute priests or monks, poison or destroy wells, lay waste to crops, orchards or livestock. Which was why the Muslims were so appalled at the practices of the Christian Crusaders, who pursued a “scorched earth” policy and slaughtered non-combatants—even children and babes in arms.

Who is Muhammad speaking of, in the above passage? The term used in Pickthall translation is “disbeliever”, which is equated with the word “Infidel”. But who, exactly, did Muhammad consider an infidel? Not Christians, Jews or Sabeans in general, clearly. Not even atheists, of whom He said, essentially, “You go your way; I’ll go mine.”

The word “infidel” literally means “unfaithful.” Synonyms given in the Oxford Dictionary include: disloyal, treacherous, traitorous, untrustworthy, unreliable, undependable, false, false-hearted, faithless, perfidious, insincere, two-faced, Janus-faced, back-stabbing, double-crossing, double-dealing, deceitful. When it comes to personal relationships, we continue to define infidelity in this way, but in the realm of faith, the term “infidel” long ago came to mean “not us”. In Judaism, it referred to pagan gentiles. In Christianity, to non-Christian’s or enemies of the faith.

It is inarguable that in the minds of some Muslims, as in Bill Maher’s, an infidel is any non-Muslim. In the eyes of ISIS, the term even pertains to Muslims who are “not us”.

But the subject here is not what people have come to believe. It is what is in the pages of the Qur’an. Here’s how Muhammad described the people He will later in the same surih call upon His followers to fight:

And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day, when they believe not.… In their hearts is a disease, and Allah increaseth their disease. A painful doom is theirs because they lie. And when it is said unto them: Make not mischief in the earth, they say: We are peacemakers only … And when they fall in with those who believe, they say: We believe; but when they go apart to their devils they declare: Lo! we are with you; verily we did but mock. — Qur’an, Surih 2:8-14

Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: Those are they who are the losers. — Qur’an, Surih 2:27

And when We made with you a covenant (saying): Shed not the blood of your people nor turn (a party of) your people out of your dwellings. Then ye ratified (Our covenant) and ye were witnesses (thereto). Yet ye it is who slay each other and drive out a party of your people from their homes… Believe ye in part of the Scripture and disbelieve ye in part thereof? …Such are those who buy the life of the world at the price of the Hereafter. — Qur’an, Surih 2:84-86

BibleWhy the reference to believing in the Scripture? In the Qur’an “Scripture” refers to the Torah and Gospels. As you might suspect from the verses I quoted, the Prophet was responding to a betrayal by a group of people who claimed belief in the Scripture. It was a betrayal that threatened not just Muhammad’s life, but the existence of the entire Muslim community.

Here is the historical context: Having entered into a covenant with the Muslim community and claiming to have accepted Muhammad as their Messiah, the Jews of Yathrib consorted with the pagan tribes that had been trying to wipe out the Muslims. Muhammad’s reference to them slaying each other and driving people from their homes should remind us that the Muslims were not transplants from outside the area—they were people who not long before had been Christians, Sabeans, pagans or Jews themselves. Thus, the infidels that the Muslims were being called upon to fight (but only until they desisted) were people who had behaved treacherously toward the converts in their midst.

Context is everything.

It’s important when reading anything—Scripture or not—to avoid cherry-picking. One way to do this is to approach the subject with as much detachment and as little prejudice as possible. A difficult task, at best. There is a passage of Bahá’í scripture that most Bahá’ís refer to as the Tablet of the True Seeker. We use it as a benchmark for detachment, which was something I struggled with because of my own prejudice against Islam.

[The Seeker] must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth. — Bahá’u’lláh, Kitab-i-Iqan, Part II

Another critical element is to read with a desire to understand. Atheist scholar-philosopher Bertrand Russel wrote that

Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him.… — Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays

Most important, I’ve found, is to be aware of context. Is there a hierarchy of ideas in the texts? Is there an overriding principle to be held in mind, such as the twin commandments from Christ to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves? The Qur’anic verses about the treatment of infidels have their own internal context with commandments to never begin hostilities, to forgive as God forgives, to fight only wrong-doers. They also exist in context with verses in which Muhammad establishes overarching spiritual principles of unity and justice and utters a solemn warning that the believer not be seduced by hatred of any people into behaving unjustly.

But there is another context in which Muhammad’s rules of warfare must be taken, I think. That is the way warfare is conducted in our presumably more civilized age. Look again at the restrictions placed upon Muslim warriors by the Prophet and imagine that all nations honored them in recent wars. Think of carpet bombing, land mines, chemical and nuclear weapons, napalm, drones and other things that have become part of our “cost of war” analysis.

Are groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda breaking rules of modern warfare? That’s debatable, but they are most certainly breaking the principles laid down by the Prophet they claim to follow—principles that the vast majority of Muslims the world over strive to adhere to. Mr. Maher has a huge following and is viewed by fans as an outspoken liberal/progressive voice. For reasons known only to himself and God, he is using that voice, his talent, his resources and his celebrity to create animus toward all Muslims, their faith and their Prophet. He stirs up fear and anger that has no place to go. This is, as my mother was fond of saying, an accident going somewhere to happen.

In the article that sparked this post, Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) commented,  “I don’t view bigotry or intolerance as liberal or progressive.”

CandleHis comment underscores the ironic sympathy between Mr. Maher’s opinions and those of a political activist with diametrically opposed views on just about any other subject. Fear and animosity are non-partisan. They are also, all too often, impervious to reason.

. . . love is light, no matter in what abode it dwelleth; and hate is darkness, no matter where it may make its nest. — Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, vs 1


The Mathematics of Writing


BooksTakeFlight-300x297History—and nonfiction of various types—offers a wonderful smorgasbord of events and interrelationships for writers to base stories on. Most writers—myself included—have mined nonfiction for fictional ideas. My collected history books have many pages with the words “Story here!” scrawled at the top, often with multiple exclamation points, highlighting and arrows pointing to the text that made the hair rise up on my neck and my ovaries twitch.

It’s easy to get ideas from nonfiction—books, magazine articles, TV documentaries, etc. My first published novel, THE MERI, occasioned me to read three fat and varied histories of Scotland upon whose progression of kings and system of governance I chose to base my fictional government. It was a lot of work, and I think sometimes that the tech revolution has had a deleterious effect on how some writers do research. I’ve had several experiences lately that make me suspect that the abridged nature of the information we take in makes some of us forget the mathematics of writing.

The visual media—TV documentaries and Youtube videos—have taken the place, in some aspiring writers’ lives of the in-depth sort of research and thought that writing a novel on a subject requires. I encountered a situation recently in which a writer I was working with gathered a basket full of ideas from documentaries and wikipedia entries and wanted to write them into his book. What resulted was interesting … in a Vulcan sort of way. Continue reading


My morning reading


One cEach morning, I spend some quiet time in devotion and study. My current study material is a 2005 missive from the Universal House of Justice (guiding institution for the global Bahá’í community) entitled One Common Faith. It is an exploration of the role of religion in the world, both past and future, and deals with a variety of related issues. For example, the role that our difficulty in distinguishing between eternal spiritual principles and evolving social conventions plays in dividing our world up along religious and tribal lines.

The House of Justice’s letters to the Bahá’í Community have always been prescient—usually their insights lead world events by five to ten years. I was struck by how these passages from One Common Faith resonate with the current state of the world.

If unity is indeed the litmus test of human progress, neither history nor Heaven will readily forgive those who choose deliberately to raise their hands against it. In trusting, people lower their defences and open themselves to others. Without doing so, there is no way in which they can commit themselves wholeheartedly to shared goals. Nothing is so devastating as suddenly to discover that, for the other party, commitments made in good faith have represented no more than an advantage gained, a means of achieving concealed objectives different from, or even inimical to, what had ostensibly been undertaken together. Such betrayal is a persistent thread in human history that found one of its earliest recorded expressions in the ancient tale of Cain’s jealousy of the brother whose faith God had chosen to confirm. If the appalling suffering endured by the earth’s peoples during the twentieth century has left a lesson, it lies in the fact that the systemic disunity, inherited from a dark past and poisoning relations in every sphere of life, could throw open the door in this age to demonic behaviour more bestial than anything the mind had dreamed possible.

If evil has a name, it is surely the deliberate violation of the hard-won covenants of peace and reconciliation by which people of goodwill seek to escape the past and to build together a new future.

Continue reading


Another Hero Goes into the West and Does Not Diminish

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

I was shocked and saddened to hear that one of my greatest heroes is dying.

I have experienced Oliver Sacks as a being of great wisdom and compassion. His work has been a blessing and an illumination to me as both as a writer and a human being, and has gifted me with many deep insights into the human spirit that have informed my own craft.

Anthropologist on Mars Dr. Sacks has written extensively about conditions that impact the way affected individuals experience the world—migraine, sleeping sickness, manic-depression, synesthesia, autism (it was through Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars that I first “met” the indomitable Temple Grandin, who has become the face of autism for many people). But he has also lived with such conditions (prosopagnosia or face blindness, and the loss of his stereoscopic vision) and has written extensively about and chronicled these experiences as eloquently as any fiction writer has chronicled the epic adventures of her characters. An Anthropologist on Mars remains one of the favorite and most significant books of my reading and writing life. I highly recommend it to anyone who has not had the immensely moving experience of reading Professor Sacks’ work.

Though I understand that his adventure is, in many ways, just beginning, I mourn our collective loss of this great humanitarian intellect and selfishly wish we might be allowed to keep him just a bit longer.


Off to Boskone…


Devil's DaughterJeff and I are among the Guests of Honor at Boskone this weekend where we will be performing, filking, paneling and at which I will give the first ever reading from my soon-to-be-released novel, Devil’s Daughter. This collaboration between Hope Schenk-de Michele, Paul Marquez and myself is the first book in the Lucinda’s Pawnshop series from Bird Street Books.

This is an urban fantasy filled with layer upon layer of dark secrets, plots and counter-plots, world-shattering stakes and the endgame to end all endgames. It’s a book about redemption, love and trust in the midst of the Devil’s myriad schemes to take down the human species. And it’s told the only way I know how to tell a story—through the eyes of the people on the ground and living in the middle of the chaos.

The central character is Lucinda Trompe—the Devil’s daughter. She is half mortal half immortal, and has one heck of a secret. She’s surrounded by demons, angels, and human beings who run the gamut from the noble to the hopelessly entangled in Lucifer’s webs of deceit. This is her story and the story of her volatile and torturous relationship with Lucifer.

The book will be on shelves everywhere in July and I hear we’re going to press tomorrow. So, think good thoughts and, of course, please buy the book!


Guns and the Religion of Competitive Materialism


close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-largeThanks to my friend Mark Heinz for catalyzing this post. I started out to reply to something he said on Facebook, only to realize that exploring the subject made for a post that was just too darn long for a Facebook comment thread. So, here it is on my Pretending to Look the Other Way blog site filed under Mashed Potatoes. And if you don’t get that reference, watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Mark replied to a post I made of the recent study from the American Public Health Association on the relationship between gun ownership and gun homicides in the US, by observing,

One thought regarding the subject of murder, suicide and culture, I think the U.S. might have high rates because, probably more than any place on earth, we have a competitive culture, as opposed to a cooperative one. Think about it; the word “competition” is cited and recited with almost religious reverence in our culture. Now, some might argue that’s been the driving force behind America’s success (however we might define that.) But, I think it’s clear it’s also come at a price. I would argue that, because our culture is so dogmatically and frantically competitive – even if you made every firearm in this country disappear tomorrow, Americans would probably still kill themselves and each other at alarmingly high rates.

What  Mark was speaking to, in part, was the American culture of consumerism and materialism. Which is something that we export worldwide along with our philosophies about Life, the Universe, and Everything, some of which are constructive and beneficial, and some of which are destructive.  Continue reading


Healthcare Myth #5: Other systems are too “foreign” to work here


liberty-weepingIn other words: America is unique and, some would argue, superior.

Well, duh. Every country is unique. And every country probably has some area in which it is (depending on your values) superior to other countries. Alas, in the area of taking care of our own, we are not doing all that well; which is why I like TR Reid’s idea of taking a serious and deep look at what other developed nations are doing for healthcare with the idea that we can do it just as well, if not better.

Let’s look at the four basic models of healthcare provision currently in use:

  • The Bismarck Model, founded by Otto von Bismarck in Germany in the 19th century. This is a privatized but non-profit multiple payer model.
  • The Beveridge Model, invented by William Beveridge in Britain. This is a public service like the police and fire department.
  • The National  Health Insurance System (NHIS) Model, which has elements of both Bismarck and Beveridge systems. It has private providers, but government run funds to pay out.
  • The Out-of-Pocket Model, which is used in the developing world. Basically, the rich get medical care, the poor don’t. Pretty simple.

Reid comments, “Of course the foreign models could work for Americans; they already do.” Continue reading


Healthcare Myths #3 & 4: Bloated Bureaucracies & Cruel Necessities


Healing-ReidcoverThis first of two related myths, as summed up by TR Reid in The Healing of America, has it that the universal healthcare systems of other wealthy countries are run by bloated bureaucracies.

This is simply not true.

Every other system Reid cited is less wasteful than ours. This is true whether they are public or private systems. Our for-profit setup has the highest administrative costs in the world.

This is a major reason we spend more on healthcare and get less in return. Up until Obamacare, our insurance companies spent roughly 20 cents on the dollar (that is, 20% of every dollar they spend) for the non-medical, administrative costs required for a profit-making venture: paperwork, reviewing claims, rescission, marketing, etc. The fact that the ACA calls for a complete reversal of this ratio, has already begun to have an effect on our national expenditure, but we could do even better if we adopted a truly universal system.

In comparison, France, with its private, non-profit system, spends about 5% of every healthcare dollar to cover every resident of France; Canada spends about 6%; Taiwan—which broke in its brand new system in 1995—spends only 2%.

Reid refers to Japan as the “world champion” of cost control. This, despite the fact that Japan’s population is aging. They have better health outcomes, as well, and have the longest-lived and healthiest population in the world, though they are spending half as much per capita as we are.

One of the chief reasons these systems are so efficient has to do with the very fact that they DO cover everyone—in most cases, even visitors to the country. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. There is a vast pool of healthy people who—through taxes or premiums—pay into the system.
  2. There’s no need for a claims adjustment staff who are charged with finding reasons to not pay claims (this means doctors don’t require people in their offices to handle claims either, by the way, which brings their costs down).
  3. There’s no need to spend millions for marketing and other profit-making schemes.
  4. There’s no need for a rescission department charged with finding reasons to cut people from the rolls … just when they need the coverage the most.

Actually, this ties into another myth:

Myth #4: if insurance companies covered everyone they’d go broke. 

golden-dollar-sign-10036559They have to be cruel to stay in business, they say. If that’s the case, then why do the systems that cover everyone continue to exist? Because everyone is covered, as I mentioned. There are young and healthy people paying in to balance the older, sicker people. Then when those people are no longer young and healthy, they’re covered, in part, by the next generation of young and healthies coming along behind. It’s sort of “paying forward” … or maybe it’s paying backward. The point is that at some point, everyone will benefit from the system, so everyone pays in.

To balance this, in the other developed countries, if a doctor okays a procedure, it’s covered. Period. The costs are known, the claim is submitted, the sick fund or government agency or insurance company cuts a check. The doctors are paid within strict time limits. Coverage can’t be canceled or refused for any reason except non-payment of premiums in systems that use that method.

These plans don’t go broke; some, such as Switzerland’s fairly new privatized universal system, are doing very well indeed. Even if the government has to put more money in or raise premiums, they’ve still got massive amounts of headroom before they’d even be in the ballpark of what we’re spending.

Hey, today was a two-fer!

TR Reid’s next myth is that these plans are too “foreign” to work in our unique country. More later.


Healthcare Myth #2: Healthcare is rationed “out there.”


MD000613Here’s the big scary idea: Care in countries with universal health coverage is rationed with waiting lists and limited choice.

Yes, this is a real problem in some countries … including the US. I’ve had to wait for appointments simply because I couldn’t afford the out of pocket expenses or the copay. I’ve considered not renewing a prescription for a medicine I needed because of our financial situation at the time. I’ve had to wait because my doctor’s case load was too high. I’ve also had healthcare policies through employers who did not cover optical, dental, physical therapy or chiropractic.

Those are all forms of rationing. Continue reading