Month March

  • The Muslim Writers Awards – winner for Best Non-Fiction Writer

    [Readers are advised that this posting comes with a High-Cheese-Factor warning]

    As I stood on stage to accept this award under the glittering lights and in front of a thousand people, I felt a huge surge of emotion. It sounds cheesy, I know, but my lips were trembling as I tried to share my feelings with the audience. I felt – and all day today have been feeling – overwhelmed. Although I have always written since I was child, it is only two short years ago that I set up this blog as a cheeky place to be me, and to find my own voice. I am very moved, and extremely honoured that what I write and speak from the heart has touched others. And I am humbled that these words have been deemed worthy of an award.

    Here is the beautiful award. I must confess that I got out my cloth and spray today and gave it a bit of a polish.

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  • The rise and rise of Muslim awards

    This week sees not one, but two, glittering awards ceremonies designed to recognise achievement and encourage talent in the Muslim communities. The Muslim News Awards for Excellence was held on Tuesday to recognise individuals and organisations for contributions in areas ranging from arts and science, to citizenship and enterprise. Now in its 8th year the awards have shown consistency and have made a real impact on promoting the positive contribution of British Muslims to British society. As this year’s guest of honour David Milliband said, he was proud of the Awards not just as a politician, but also as a fellow citizen.

    This evening will see the second Muslim Writers Awards which are aimed at encouraging Muslims to reach out more to their pens and keyboards and find their voices. Gordon Brown pledged his support for the awards, stating: “This is a wonderful opportunity to bring excellent writing by Muslim writers to new audiences, and increase the mutual understanding of the people of Britain.” Again the event is a glittering event being held at the ICC, as a black tie do.

    And I should modestly mention that I have been shortlisted for one of the Muslim Writers Awards, apparently from amongst 10,000 entries. If I win, the blog will show jubilation. If it goes all quiet tomorrow, dear readers, you’ll know why…

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  • Tranquility in remembrance

    The Qur’anic stories of the Prophets offer us a reminder and an emotional connection towards the spirituality that Muslims strive for. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is therefore troubled by an increasing negativity towards remembrance and emotion.

    This year, the occasion of Easter and the occasion of the birth of the Prophet Muhammed, fall very close to each other. Both are clearly incredibly significant events to the faiths of Christianity and Islam respectively. Both mark the lives of individuals who have made a world-changing contribution (universe-changing some might say). Easter weekend falls from March 21st to March 24th, whilst the birthday of the Prophet falls somewhere between the 20th and the 25th, depending on which sources of history you refer to – the Islamic date usually being either the 12th or 17th of the 3rd Islamic month Rabiul Awwal.

    Easter – along with the other occasions of the Christian calendar – appears to me to be a unifying event for the Christian community. I do not agree with the doctrine it reinforces (having chosen to be a Muslim rather than a Christian), but I do admire its focus and reflection on an historical event that can stir emotions and also shed light on our current and future circumstances.

    It is an undeniable truth that the study of history and its remembrance is an aid to mapping a wiser brighter future. That is why Scripture – like the Qur’an – recounts the stories of Prophets and communities past, so that we can reflect on what happened to them, why it happened, and then avoid their mistakes. And the very point of narrating the stories and parables of these human guides is to offer an emotional connection and a human example of spirituality and worship.

    The Qur’an repeatedly remembers what has happened to the Prophets and peoples before us. It tells us that the Prophets were sent as bearers of good news and guidance but also as warners. It re-iterates their stories in chapter after chapter, reminding us of their birth, lives and deaths and urging us to remember them and what they said to their people. Sura Saffat (The Ranks, Chapter 37) for example, is a poetic essay of the lives of the saleheen, the good. It tells us about Prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Lot, Moses and Aaron. After the individual commemoration of each Prophet, the Qur’an says, salam, peace, to each one. In case we missed this repetition, it rounds off the chapter by saying, salam, to all the messengers, and then praises Allah.

    With all of this in mind, I have been startled in recent years by the growing numbers of messages I receive in the form of emails, newsletters and sombre advice telling me that I should refrain from remembering events such as the birthday of the Prophet. Such advice sometimes goes as far as to tell me it is haram to commemorate the Prophet’s birth. I am told not to commemorate his birth or death, not to mark the death of near or respected individuals, not to spend time in spiritual reflection on various nights throughout the year, not to remember the dead.

    I find this deeply troubling. The sign of a mature community is one that can reflect on what has past. It needs to study what has happened and learn the lessons of history and then move forward. Where we found ourselves wanting, we must mourn and then convert our remorse into a more positive future. Where we found good, we must rejoice. To stop remembrance severs our roots. It leaves us floating precariously in an unanchored vacuum where we have no frame of reference. That is when we become weak and pale as a people.

    What I also find troubling is that this growing negativity towards remembrance is aimed at quashing human emotion as a component of faith. There is an emotional value that remembrance brings to our faith, and by denying remembrance we are eroding the emotion of faith. It is natural for human beings to be joyful and emotional in remembering those who have done good to them – particularly when they have sacrificed their lives to bring us that goodness. The Prophet is the best example of this. It is the natural condition for a Muslim to feel love and happiness in relation towards him. In fact, the Qur’an tells us that the people asked the Prophet what he wanted in exchange for teaching them about Islam and the Qur’an answers that all he wanted is muwaddah, love. We should bear in mind that the Qur’an tells us that even Allah and the angels send their blessings on the Prophet, and that those who believe do the same.

    The fitrah of the human being is to remember. It is also the fitrah of the human being that he or she will rush in the direction in which emotion pulls it. Without that emotion to drive it, the path is arid and laborious. Infused with emotion and remembrance it appeals to the instinct which is placed in each human’s heart to reach for the Divine. Remembrance is what opens the heart and creates love and tranquility.

    The theological arguments about whether the birthday of the Prophet should be celebrated or not will continue to rage, I’m sure. However, as people centred around faith and spirituality, what we do need is an understanding that remembrance – in whatever way people choose to exercise it – is a crucial component of our community ethos.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • Indonesia, the land of sun, smiles and spirituality

    Here is a brief account of my recent trip to Indonesia. I’ll be posting a video in the next few days, and then publishing a more formal piece about the visit.

    It was a hot sticky evening in Jakarta, and we were about to return to our hotel after an amazing day visiting schools, women’s groups and an Ambassador’s reception. I was being a typical Brit complaining in the face of the torrential rain, imminent flooding and lengthy traffic queues. My Indonesian host on the other hand, smiled gently and serenely: “It will be ok, we’ll be there very soon”. He smiled again, a heartfelt peaceful smile.

    You could read his response as the typical Indonesian approach to ‘rubber time’, which allows for timing to be flexible and unstressed. In the face of Mother Nature’s stormy interventions into our plans, living by time elasticity is probably a sensible approach. But I preferred to see it as an example of that other Indonesian trait – a positive smile in the face of adversity. As my host explained, a smile can often ease away immediate problems.

    This smile was prevalent wherever I went. People were gentle, hospitable and friendly and had ease and kindness in dealing with people. A smilier bunch of people I’ve never met, it certainly gave me pause for thought.

    I began the journey in Jakarta, the financial heart of Indonesia. The country has the largest Muslim population in the world, more populous than the entire Arab nation. The country crams in 221m people of which about 88% are Muslim. It stretches from Aceh in the north which is parallel to Thailand, enveloping Malaysia and Singapore all the way to Papua in the East, and barely within spitting distance from Australia.

    About 13 million people reside in the huge sprawling metropolis of Jakarta, a city lit up with bright neon lights by night, and overcast with monstrous smog by day. My lasting memory is of the wide boulevards which criss-cross the city, but which are crammed with standstill traffic for most the day and night. The city has no metro system, and even a trip a few miles away can take a couple of hours.

    The city has South East Asia’s largest shopping mall (Mangga Dua), Indonesia’s largest mosque (Masjid Istiqlal) and the largest share of Indonesia’s population and economy. Quietly hidden amongst the skyscrapers are small simple mosques which are woven into the fabric of the city, but which are rarely front and centre. Except on Fridays, when a drum is beaten before the adhaan to announce Juma (Friday prayers), and streams and streams of people pour into and then back out of the mosques. Scooters are the vehicle of choice, filling up the scooter parks next to the mosques.

    The mosques have space for women to pray – again a reflection of the relative ease with which women participate in public life. The scholars, politicians and activists which I met dealt with women in a natural, un-contrived manner. The respect was innate and natural. It was a non-issue.

    Jakarta is also home to Mini-Indonesia, a drive-thru theme park that is home to traditional houses from around the country, plus a rather spectacular lake that has islands in the shape of the Indonesian archipelago. Built by Suharto’s wife it proved unpopular to start with as many locals were evicted to make way for the enormous site.

    Next it was off to Yogyakarta, commonly called Jogja, a much smaller, gentler cultural town. It is home to South East Asia’s largest Hindu temple (Prambanan) and the largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur). The former was built around the 10th century and the latter in the 8th and 9th century, but they were quickly abandoned for unknown reasons. As the guide to the sites said, “These sites are Hindu and Buddhist, but most of the visitors are Muslim. This is Indonesia.” A statement that is the perfect summary of the respectful spirituality of this vast diverse nation.

    This should have come as no surprise in a country where one of the five principles upon which the state is built is “Unity in diversity.” These five pancacila were the foundation of the new nation that declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945. The country was based on a theistic vision of statehood: belief in the one and only God. It also envisioned a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives.

    It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating. Jogja was a perfect example of this with the ease with the which the locals look after Prambanan and Borobudur. They are horrified at the attempted terrorist attacks aimed at destroying them.

    Yogyakarta was heavily affected by an earthquake measuring 6.2 in 2006. Bantul, a small suburb of Jogja was almost entirely destroyed taking a hit of almost two thirds of the 3500 dead. I visited some house rebuilding projects being run by the British NGO Muslim Aid. I spoke to one family that had been housed. The father had been injured by falling debris in the quake and was unable to work to support his four children. Muslim Aid had given them a brick house with three rooms so they could re-build their lives. This was a huge boon to the family whose breadwinner is the mother. She earns their living by peeling garlic cloves by hand, for which she earns about 30 pence per day. Each house costs 4 million rupiah – a mere £240, in order to give a family a home, and allow them to get on with their lives.

    I also went to visit House of Lawe, (“Conserving tradition, empowering women”) a local project not far away which gives people the resources to create yarn, fabric and handicrafts to sell in the local community and with which to support themselves. It is the oldest such project in the area, and the day I arrived was the launch of their new women’s handicraft project.

    Earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only epic disasters to befall Indonesia. Set in the ‘Ring of fire’, volcanoes are widely prevalent throughout the country. Merapi is Jogja’s own volcano, and it erupted in 2007. Since this was still monsoon season, the path to the volcano was closed due to potential torrential rain and sodden ash in the path. On the way, we chanced upon a missionary church built in one of the poorer villages. It stood in the same style of rectangular thatched building used for mosques, town halls and prayer areas.

    Before leaving town, I visited the local shopping mall, another ‘biggest…’, which was jam-packed with the same American brands wherever I turned – Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hard Rock Cafe. It was like home away from home (note the irony). What was surprising was that the prices were similar to those in the UK, in a country where poverty runs at approximately 40 per cent.

    Next stop was Bali, the Ibiza of Asia. The Ozzies had popped over just as the Brits might have done to the Spanish coast. My base was Legian, just north of the infamous Kuta, made notorious by the Bali bombings of 2002. The public face of Bali was a body shock coming from quiet sleepy Muslim Yogyakarta. Bali is mainly Hindu, although quite different in flavour to Indian Hinduism. It is sprinkled with in-your-face adult entertainment and fast food joints. A gentle walk on the sea front led to a disconcerting number of offers for marijuana from dreadlocked Indonesians.

    The spirit of the island changed heading further inland. The landscaped changed from frenetic building work to jaw-dropping green paddy fields with unbelievable curved terraces, with hot steam rising when the rains came pouring down. Hobbits could be seen traversing the greenery. The taxi-driver trailed me through batik shops, art houses, wooden carving joints, furniture shops and silversmiths trying hard to earn commission from any sales I might generate, but the quality was sadly too tourist-y. But then we reached Ubud, the touristic and artistic centre of the island which is replete with expensive shops, and fortunately balanced by a cheap bustling market (bargain hard!). I ventured nervously into Monkey Forest where about a hundred cute little monkeys bounced around chasing after visitors and snatching away any loose items.

    I imagine that Bali was once what Lombok is today which was the next stop – an unspoilt magical island to the east of Bali. Affected heavily by the drop in tourism after all the catastrophic events, Lombok’s fledgling tourist industry took a downturn. As a result, top end hotels are a bargain (book your rooms now! Sadly I get no commission). The sands are soft, the sea is calm and deep blue, the food is tasty and cheap, the people are helpful and friendly. I felt like I was in paradise. Until a trip to Gili Trawangan, part of the Gili Islands. After an hour on a motorised catamaran across perfect inky blue waters, I really did find paradise. Perfect white sand beach. Perfect turquoise sea, perfect gentle breeze. I drank fresh lime soda stretched out on a sun-lounger watching the waves kiss the shore. Did I really have to come home?

    Lombok is stunning. The roads wind dramatically along the coastline revealing mile upon mile of idyllic beaches on one side, and lush green palm groves on the other. It is called the Island of a Thousand Mosques, and lives up to its name with tiny mosques dotted subtly throughout the forests, paddy fields and small towns. The countryside is punctuated with small huts to allow for both shelter from the rain, but also for convenient prayer places. And this is the story of Indonesia. It is a country that seems at ease with its faith at a human ordinary people level. It is interwoven into the rhythm of life, not in-your-face.

    Only ten years on from the reformasi and the country’s move to democracy, the nation is showing signs of an active civic engagement in democratic process. People are asking questions about nationhood, democracy and faith. I was asked many times – how do you reconcile your faith with being British – by people who were asking how they could create Indonesia into a country that was at ease with all its faiths as well as its nationhood.

    Coming from a country where participation in the political process is at an all time low, the Indonesian vigour and enthusiasm at civic engagement was overwhelming. In Britain the shutters have come down on exploring our national identity in an open and progressive manner. In Indonesia I found the opposite – ordinary people, not just politicians – asking questions about the values that bind its people irrespective of faith and ethnicity, and how to deal fairly and intelligently with minorities. They do not have all the answers, and they are certainly far from perfect in many areas. In fact, their record in some areas is poor, and there are many trouble spots the country will have to negotiate through at a political and state level, extremism being at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But whilst extremism dominates the world’s view of Indonesia, at a local people level they want to be known as a people of moderation and peace (check out the video I will be posting soon).

    It was exciting to travel in a country of such variety in its people, places, ethnicities and faith that is asking questions of itself and is capable of creating change so rapidly. From the bustle of Jakarta to the serenity of Lombok, and all the places I didn’t even get a chance to visit, Indonesia is a place that should be firmly on everyone’s radar.
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  • Excrutiating jetlag

    It’s 6am and I’m wide awake, and I have been for the last hour and a half. I’m far from feeling fresh and perky, but instead I’m suffering a constant headache and fatigue. I’ve travelled extensively before but this return trip from Indonesia has sunk a right hook into my stomach and left me reeling. I know the adjustment is supposed to be a day for every hour of time difference, but I can’t face up to a week of jetlag agony.

    I have many photos, stories and videos to share of Indonesia, so bear with me and they will soon be up, with full commentary and a Shelina ready for discussion!
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  • Greetings from Indonesia

    This is a huge country whose islands play join-the-dots all the way from Singapore to Australia. It contains three of the world’s six largest islands, sits nervously on the ring of fire which makes it prone to volcano eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes and of course to tsunamis. It is hot, densely populated and in the current rainy season it is very very wet. And it has some of the nicest, politest, mild-mannered people I have ever met. They are constantly smiling, always go out of their way to help and are a gentle considerate people.

    The country’s capital is also at a total standstill because of the traffic. Never was a metro system more needed. But it is a country of immense contrasts too – a skyline of skyscrapers in Jakarta, and malls filled with global designer labels jostle with poor housing and workers that live on less than 35GBP per month. The country wears its Islam, its nationhood and its democracy in its heart. I’m constantly asked questions about Britain, the government, and I’m asked to share reflections on being Muslim and British. Only ten years into democracy and reformasi, my first impressions of Indonesia are of a country that is pulsing with faith, politics and nationhood and making great strides to race into the 21st century. My impressions are also of a vast and cultured land with huge variation in countryside, ethnicities and cultures. They also make a fantastic cup of coffee. Java, they call it…

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