Wednesday, 23 of July of 2014

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Whose body is it anyway?

Christian and secular art have at least one thing in common – they like to have people in them. Christian religious art is brought to life with representations of the personalities that populate Christian history. From high art produced by the great masters, to local churches, the artistic interpretation of Christ and other figures opens the door to discussion about the spirituality conveyed. Body, whether through direct representation or iconography, is the gateway to the spiritual meaning of these works, and it feeds from the Christian idea that the incarnation of Christ connects human beings to the Divine through the body of Christ.

Islamic aesthetic principles find the body an alien impostor to spiritual aspiration. God has no incarnation, cannot be defined in bodily terms, nor has location, size, shape or gender. The Divine is found in the abstract and undepictable territories of the inner heart, and is manifested in the geometric perfections and multiplicities of both art and nature.

From a Christian European perspective, the body is uncomfortably absent from public Muslim life. Calligraphy and geometric art are used to transcend into the domain of the spiritual – human beings are not usually depicted. Even people seem to lack bodies in the public arena, with women tucked neatly under headscarves and men in looser shirts and full length trousers. Muslim heritage rejects the body being a public billboard. Instead, it is to be celebrated and shared only in private, retained for personal and family interactions and for the pleasures of intimacy. This is one of the fundamental reasons Muslim women wear the hijab: to be valued for who you are, not what you look like. Muslims, in this sense, are simply exercising their very modern right to privacy.

Today’s secular gods of consumerism and self indulgent gluttony, of beauty, youth and immortality, have their roots in the same Greco-Roman heritage that Christian art draws upon. Secular art, which is offered up to its own gods show us sculpted bodies that meet our contemporary ideals of bodily perfection. It idolises the oxymoron of super-slim yet ultra-curvy women, the sparkling white of pristine teeth that have gorged on chocolate – a modern day food for the gods – or the tough muscular six-pack man in the age of longer working hours and high alcohol consumption. Image is the ultimate altar to worship at. One men’s clothing chain ran an advertising campaign last year using simply the words: “Looks aren’t important. They are everything.” Body is the ultimate god, and fashion designers are its disciples.

The body is thus the fulcrum for public debate, expression and attitudes. What happens when the body is not available as the yardstick? Is the response to see women who wear the hijab as ‘withholding’ themselves from the public space, and to consider that inflammatory? The privacy of the body for Muslims means it is entirely natural for Muslim women not to shake hands with a man, but the role of body in social interaction through a European lens means it is highly unnatural not to. There is no quick fix to resolving these different perspectives, because they stem from deeply ingrained attitudes and perspectives. Intensive communication and understanding hold the only keys.

We are told that the body is public, but faith should be private. But if faith is about aligning your entire being towards a better way of being, then the body is de facto part of that. In the religious domain we focus on the body of Christ, in the secular it is the flesh of supermodels. In both cases, the body is a public canvas, a forum for discussion. The personal is public, and the public is political except, ironically, when it comes to using our own bodies to express faith. Faith, as an exception to everything else, is a private matter, we are told, separated from public life and to be left at home. It seems we are at cross purposes. Modernity protects our right to privacy, but this privacy does not seem to extend to the body.

This article was published in The Muslim News


Holding out for a hero – published on the Guardian

Poverty, war and climate change are all indications that individual is not as heroic as we once thought. Do we need a modern-day messiah?

Click here to read more

This article has just been published at Comment is Free on the Guardian website


We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you an Eid Mubarak… Christmas carols like never before

With the Muslim festival of Eid celebrating the hajj last week, and the celebration of Christmas this week, I couldn’t help myself but to indulge everyone in a little festive humour.

I have taken some beloved Christmas songs, and re-written the lyrics with a twist, and then had the carols performed by traditional carol singers. The result is an acoustic treat.

Enjoy the songs, and the festive season. And if you love them as much as I do, leave your comments and encouragement. Please make sure you credit Spirit21 correctly.

There are two songs, which have been recorded with a live audience:

We wish you an Eid Mubarak -
A timeless classic, with a bit of modern day multiculturalism

I’m dreaming of a moonsighting –
The new moon tells us when Eid is, but when is the new moon?
(c) All rights reserved


Saudi rape victim ‘pardoned’

The poor young woman known as the ‘Qatif girl’ has been pardoned by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for her ‘crime’ of being with an unrelated male. She was the victim of a multiple gang rape, but because she was accused of being alone with a man, and then complaining about her initial sentence, she was given a punishment of 200 lashes and six months in jail. The case provoked an international outcry, which seems to have paid off with this pardon.

I welcome the fact that the victim will not have to endure further punishment. Her husband has stated that she is a “crushed human being.” Who wouldn’t be after a rape ordeal like hers? And then having to face the prospect of further punishment, and supposedly her own brother wanting to kill her to save honour? I feel huge relief for her, but also worry about her ongoing physical and mental well-being, and her safety as the case comes to a close.

It seems the pardon comes with a forked tongue. The letter states that “the suffering of the two rape victims was in itself enough “discipline” so they would “learn the lesson”", implying that the guilt was there, and that somehow the two involved had invited what happened to them. The country’s Ministry of Justice had defended the woman’s punishment, declaring her to be an adulteress who “provoked the attack” because she was “indecently dressed”. The man she was alone with was also raped and sentenced to punishment for being alone with her. The pardon also applies to him. Despite the threats of being disbarred, the lawyer will also retain his license to practice.

A great post on the utter ludicrousness and incoherency of the Saudi laws is here explained by a young woman living in said country. Her post entitled “Lash me I was alone with my driver” runs riot through the impossibilities of the law of not being alone, starting from the simple point that women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, and therefore must have a driver, with whom de facto they end up being alone.

This horrific case illustrates the extremity of the problems that the Muslim world has to deal with in relation to gender. The point of the Islamic ideals of modesty, in my humble opinion, is to make gender interaction and relationships easier and smoother and reduce the tensions, heartache and difficulties that exist in human societies. However, Muslims seem to have taken modesty in the entirely opposite direction and completely split the genders apart. First of all, how does a society then function holistically? And second, and what is illustrated here, is that the genders have no clue how to interact with each other. It foments hatred and discrimination.

Instead of modest dress and behaviour allowing women and men to be seen as human beings rather than physical objects, the extreme segregation has had the total opposite effect – of seeing women as physical objects with only sexual intentions by them and towards them. That’s why the court can make a ridiculous statement like “she provoked it” or elsewhere statements like “inviting rape like open meat to a cat”.

Muslims need a fundamental overhaul in their understanding of ‘modesty’ and gender relations.

Before anyone reading this gets too complacent that the ‘western world’ has all the answers: Europe, the Americas, the West and the East, all have issues with gender relations, whether it be in areas such as political representation, domestic violence or equality of pay. Even rape is a difficult area, with only 5% of cases in the UK leading to conviction, and the victim having to defend her credibility and good character. The ‘She asked for it’ attitude also exists here. However, at least the debate has recognised the victim’s status and is in principle set to defend her. For this I am thankful.

I notice that whenever I point out that we in the ‘west’ still have problems dealing with women, I am quickly barraged and sent insults and offences. (I’ve been called ‘weasly, very weasly’ by a well-known journalist).

I am in no way drawing a direct comparison but simply pointing out that we also have issues to deal with. The scale and magnitude of the problems are quite different I agree, quite distressingly different. At least we can have a debate and discussion – something that is sadly progressing very slowly, or is not permitted or possible, in some parts of the Muslim world. But if we are asking the Muslim world to apply some honesty and integrity, then we must be willing to do the same.


The Perils of Reality TV (2) – Make Me a Muslim

I wrote earlier in the week about my apprehension about the channel 4 TV mini-series Make Me a Muslim. The media and politics focuses too much on the ideology and theology of Islam, the programme makers had told me. This causes confusion and discord. They wanted to open a discusion about what it is like to live as ‘ordinary people’ together. I found this stance quite refreshing. As a writer and commentator, I’m very interested in how we can all get along together in this ol’ world of ours.

I thought that offering people the chance to live as Muslims, and gaining insight and context about what Muslims do and why might be a Good Thing. I pinned my hopes on the discovery of a shared humanity. Real experiences are much more impactful then dry theory. Alas, this lofty goal was not to be.

The show took several participants from the Harrogate area in Yorkshire, four mentors and three weeks of proposed ritual obedience as its foundations. I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for a journey to unfold. Reality TV is about watching human change, that is why it is so annoyingly compelling. But the participants refused utterly to embark on any kind of voyage, either physical or spiritual. Poor Ajmal Masroor (despite the overhyped goal the voiceover set him to ‘restore the moral backbone of Britain’) spent most of his time trying to get the participants to live up to their role of participating, rather than being able to offer them insight.

The programme threw the participants into a barrage of physical ritual and practice, without seeming to set the framework for these actions. The basic building blocks of Islam – to believe in a Creator, to aspire to be a better person through physical and spiritual actions, and to build a strong, just, compassionate society – did not appear to feature in the teachings. No wonder the dress code, prayers, fasting, washing and so on, were challenging. Ritual and physical actions are only impactful retrospectively or prospectively i.e., they must look back towards a framework of belief, or they must look forward to achieving change. Otherwise they are meaningless irritants that require effort and change for no reason. And of course human beings utterly dislike doing things for no reason. What became obvious is that as a nation we desperately need context and insight, not parody and ritual.

There was a sense of childish rebellion about the whole thing. Some of the participants protested wilfully, and objected vehemently every step of the way. I don’t want to do that, they stamped their feet, on many occasions. Why on earth did you agree to be part of the programme, I thought to myself, when the whole point was to try things out?

Karla, half of a mixed race, mixed faith couple led the rebellion. She had been with her lapsed-Muslim partner for two years, and was still not accepted by his family (a case not uncommon, stemming from cultural reasons more than anything, where families often don’t even accept Muslim partners of the same ethnicity. Muslims are not alone in parental disapproval of partners) Despite her partner’s lack of religiosity, religion still seemed to lie at the root of problems between them. One imagined that she had agreed to participate just to prove that she was making efforts and that despite this she was still rejected. She screamed at every occasion, showed little effort to gain insight or try things out with the hope of understanding (if not changing herself).

I’m sure no-one, neither the programme makers nor the participants, had any objectives to actually, Make a Muslim (despite the rather tabloid title). It was, rather, an experiment to see what it might be like to live as a Muslim. With this goal in mind, it seemed that other than Luke (a remarkably likeable and charming gay hairdresser with a natural wit) and Hayley (a reflective, thoughtful and considered skin therapist), and a liberal family who wanted their children to experience new things (but who featured little overall), the participants hadn’t really grasped that they had signed up to try something new. They appeared to come out of the experiment unchanged, mainly because they hadn’t bothered to try. The voiceover gloss at the end of the programme suggesting any changes, was misleading.

It’s a shame that an opportunity to create dialogue and connections on a real human level between Muslims and the wider nation we are part of was not milked to the full, and for this I feel saddened. On a lighter note, however, I do have two eye-brow raising hopes. There were some amusing scenes with the ‘aladdin’s jug’ and its uses for bathroom hygiene – whatever did Middle Englad make of this?. (if you’re confused, check this post). And I’m also wondering, when will Mohamed and Suleyman, the two supporting Imams, get their own spin-off comedy series?

Chatting to the Guardian about Hajj

The Guardian’s religious correspondent Riazat Butt is out in the hajj at the moment, and is reporting back on her experiences. RB made the front page earlier this week – go girl! – and I caught up with her last week to chat to her about what she might expect.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/interactive/2007/dec/17/hajj2007


Spirit21 wins Best Blog and Best Female Blog

Clears throat, lights dim, drum roll, audience hush
I’d like to thank my parents, my brother, my uncles and aunts, my inspirational husband, my friends, my colleagues, my nieces, my fans, my readers, the British public, my porter, those who sit stuck on the M25 with me, my fellow Londoners, the nation, the world, the universe…. Speech continues fading into distance

I’m thrilled that Spirit21 has won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent awards this year. The awards are designed to recognise and honour the best of the Muslim blogosphere, so I’m truly honoured to have won. Many thanks to all those who showed their support by voting. I hope you will continue to enjoy my writings, and hopefully find a voice in my words, along with hope, humour and insight.


The Perils of Reality TV

Channel 4 aired the first of a three part series tonight entitled “Make Me a Muslim.” The premise of this reality TV show is that a group of Muslim mentors (three Imams from various backgrounds, and a female Muslim convert) spend three weeks with six people of other faiths (or none) to show them how to live as Muslims. Not only did the programme’s title cause me concern – but its opening blurb made me wince, when it said that in the context of increasing social problems, the Imams want to “restore the moral backbone of Britain by introducing Islam. Can a 1400 year old religion really sort out people’s lives?”

The next two parts of the programme air on Monday and Tuesday, so I’ll wait till then to comment fully. However, the Guardian ran a piece a few weeks ago exploring if the reality TV approach to religion was really ‘dumbing down’ the idea of faith. The show’s producer, Narinder Minhas said he was ‘tired of watching “po-faced” programmes about Islam and, always on the hunt for hybrids, wanted to turn religion into factual entertainment. ‘

Well, there certainly a number of comic moments in tonights show, but ones that made me want to cry rather than laugh. As a community that is already misunderstood, and has difficulty in communicating and connecting with the wider society it is part of, for Muslims to appear on reality TV, and face all the perils that brings with it, makes me very nervous…

P.S. There are other things that make me very nervous about the programme too, but I’ll tell you about those on Tuesday


Spiritual journeys like the hajj must challenge body and soul

Yesterday I was published in the Guardian’s Face to Faith column discussing the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj which is currently underway.

About 25,000 British Muslims will travel to Mecca this week to take part in the hajj. They will join almost 2 million Muslims, from around the world, including 214,000 from Indonesia and 15 from Argentina. All of them will begin and end their journey at the Kaaba, an enormous iconic cube, usually draped in black, that Muslims turn towards every day when they pray. Everyone dresses in the simplest of white clothing. The trappings of the material world are momentarily erased. Each person is simply a soul, undifferentiated by wealth, status or colour. You can no longer hide behind clothes, make-up or social status. It is a sobering experience to come face-to-face with the grim realities of the bare souls of others, as well as your own.

Each person enters a swirling ocean of humanity that circulates seven times around the Kaaba on foot. It is an amazing sight as blonde and brunette, black, brown and white, young and old walk side by side. The microcosm that each person represents finds its place in this most diverse representation of humans.

The pilgrims then move to a desert expanse known as Arafat to look deep into their own souls. The barren landscape shines a harsh light on the inner self. Arafat represents the starkness of the Last Day. It is a place to ask for forgiveness, and make peace with oneself and the Creator.

Without temporal distractions, new perspectives and priorities about living the good life emerge, along with firm resolutions about making change. Pilgrims return from the Hajj talking about a life-changing experience, which does seem to have long-lasting effects. Islamic tradition says that after reflecting at Arafat, the pilgrim leaves fully purified, as innocent as a babe, ready to start life anew.

The journey passes through the night towards Mina, a resting place that is also the backdrop for two symbolic actions. In Islamic narratives Abraham was so dear to God that he was called “the friend of God”. He grew into old age longing for an heir. When he was finally blessed with a son, God asked him to give up his child. He personified his devotion to God by entrusting to God that which was most beloved to him. The pilgrims must each sacrifice an animal, to symbolise that they too are prepared to give up what they love most.

On his journey to sacrifice his son Abraham was plagued by, and eventually overcame, the Devil. Pilgrims exorcise their own devils by throwing seven symbolic pebbles at stone satans, one pebble for each flaw they wish to erase. People throw their pebbles passionately, and their intention to wipe away previous shortcomings is buried into their muscle memory and DNA. The symbolism of ritual has a ripple effect into real life, and this is one of the great lessons of the hajj.

The triumphant spiritual return to Mecca is accompanied by a sense of physical exhaustion. The hajj is an arduous journey that challenges both body and soul. Its power lies in this very fact: that it addresses both parts of the human being and pushes them to extraordinary lengths. The journey needs to be both physical as well as spiritual. The body and the spirit are integral and interconnected parts of the human being that need nurturing. They must both go on a real, symbolic and ritual journey together in order to make change. Today, sadly, the body has been separated from the spiritual domain. It is worshipped in its own right, rather than as an integral part of the development of our individual humanity.

Curled up in our armchairs, we imagine that reading self-help books will create radical and long-lasting change. Those who have been on a pilgrimage, whether on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, to the many Hindu holy places or on the hajj, will tell you that it is the endurance, ritual and symbolism of the physical journey that reveals the secrets of the human soul.


‘Tis the season to…

… well, I’m not sure anymore. I do know that being brought up in a nominally Christian school, and in a country that once paused at the end of the year to assess itself, that it used to be the Season of Peace and Goodwill To All Men (which we should now read as ‘to all people’ as gender equality legislation should suggest that women too are permitted peace and goodwill, except not on the big day itself when they have to come up with an enormous and perfect family meal).

Then it seemed to become the Season To Be Jolly. It’s not quite on a par with achieving global peace, and pushing ourselves to be better people, but in a society of high levels of stress, trauma and depression it was not wholly inappropriate.

But lately, lately, it’s now the Season to be Gorgeous. According to Boots in their new advertising campaign (and yes, I get that their strapline is about selling cosmetics etc), Christmas is now all about hair, make-up and spangly lycra. Because of course, that is what all we women aspire to (and according to gender equality legislation, probably men too), and what brings (short-term) meaning to our lives. Do I sound cynical? I don’t mean to. Because I really do think that we are indulging in parties and creating delicious good looks for a sense of instant fulfilment and momentary happiness, that masks the fact that we no longer, as a collective, seem to aspire if even for a day or month for the lofty goals of peace and goodwill.

We dream these days to be good looking and sexy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s pretty low on the scale of the totality of what human beings can aspire to and achieve. I think we should advocate a return to the Season of Peace and Goodwill as a marker of our aspirations. As they sang in Happy Talk “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”