I recently published the following article in The Muslim News
Are Muslims aware of their cultural space?
March was a busy month for the Muslim media pundit. There was the issue of the cartoons of the Prophet, the release of the film Syriana (disappointing and vague) and the showing of the The Road to Guantanamo (a film first, being released simultaneously on TV, DVD and on the internet). The creative and documentary media is fascinated with Islam, Muslims and the Muslim world. Syriana was the first Hollywood film I saw that opened with a recitation of the adhaan. The film delved into a huge number of issues that the west is attempting to understand on political as well cultural and moral dimensions. The fact that it was overwhelmed at the breadth of issues – failing in my opinion to tackle any of them with depth or focus – is testament to the sudden awakening by the mainstream creative media of a whole new vista on the world.
The Road to Guantanamo was a more focused docu-drama recounting how the Tipton Three found themselves at the notorious Camp X-ray, having set out on an innocent trip for a wedding in Pakistan, exploring how the relationship of British born Muslims to the origins of their parents, and some innocent errors of judgement can lead to the machinery of the American and British governments to treat Muslims as the fifth column.
The arts are a canvas for the West to explore its ideas and understanding of what it doesn’t know or understand. It is the arena for debate and discussion as well as expression of the limits of its understanding. The cartoons were a case in point, and these films show a hunger to explore, however much we may dislike or disagree with them. This is historically difficult for Muslims when traditional scholarship tends to regard theatre, film and fiction outside its permitted boundaries. Only some poetry, calligraphy and limited forms of geometrical art have strong traditions in the mainstream Muslim world. But where all of these different artforms exist, they are not used to explore and develop ideas and new experiences. The challenge for Muslims living in Europe and the Americas is to embrace the arts and media as a mechanism of expression, both for non-Muslims as well as Muslims.
Reflecting on Easter
Another Western cultural milestone is the forthcoming Easter holidays. In doctrinal terms, Easter demarcates the furthest points between Islam and Christianity. Jesus’ death and resurrection commemorated at this time of year, finds no place in Islam. The Qur’an relates the story that Jesus was taken into the heavens before he could be crucified, and someone resembling him was mistakenly put to death. But what has been overlooked and unexplored is the overlap in the concepts of martyrdom and sacrifice that play such a huge part in both faiths. In Islam, the surrender of one’s life in submission to the path of truth is the ultimate act and plays a central role in the Muslim’s goals. In the moment of death the human being witnesses the Truth and lives eternally. Although Muslims don’t accept the events of Easter, its message of giving up everything, even life, in order to live for ever, is surely worth pondering over.
Happy birthday Prophet Muhammed
This year, Easter will coincide approximately with the birthday of Prophet Muhammed. Known as Milad un Nabi, his birthday is a cause for joyous celebrations in much of the Muslim community. He is referred to in the Qur’an as a “mercy to all the worlds” and a “bringer of good news”. It is good to see the Muslim community coming together in happiness and praise at this occasion – one of the few events in the calendar where there is unity over the timing and reasons for celebrating. Some parts of the community feel that it is not appropriate to celebrate as they feel that the Prophet had said that since he was a mortal human being like any other, he should not be celebrated in this way.
Yet, the strength of feeling for the Prophet across the community was all too evident in the recent cartoon saga. His birthday presents an opportunity to deliver positive messages to a debate that has become far too negative, He is a character very much unknown by the Western psyche, sketched out only by bare caricatured facts – a 7th century be-turbaned Arab supposedly illiterate, but who somehow created a huge empire and civilisation. What we can hope for one day is that his birthday becomes part of the nation, a day where a Muslim can easily talk about Milad-un-Nabi and elicit awareness and congratulations from the wider community. But that means Muslims have to get to know their Prophet better, and understand what his legacy means to us today. What are the values and realities that he brings into our lives in the 21st century? And what do they mean not only to Muslims but to the society we live in? Only when we can answer these questions, can the beloved figure of the Prophet be appreciated by the wider community we live in.