Month December

  • "New year, new you." If only.

    EMEL magazine has invited me to be one of their commentators, starting in their January edition which is out now. EMEL is a Muslim lifestyle magazine distributed widely across the UK and internationally, and now entering its sixth year, it is the first glossy magazine of its kind in this country.

    Twas’ the night before Eid, and all round the house, there wasn’t a sound… except for the phone ringing with a call from the distinguished editors of EMEL magazine. I put on my best suit, and my most posh voice, for one must give such distinguished callers their full due. Would I like to write for the magazine starting from the January edition? they asked.

    As a long time fan of EMEL, I was delighted. I was particularly thrilled because it meant that as the year begins I will immediately be starting something fresh and exciting. New year, new me, I declared smugly addressing the self-help gurus who will be plastered all over our pages in January, giving us advice on how to make new year resolutions and stick to them. Ha! I’ve beaten you at your game, you patronising pundits.

    Those new year articles explaining how the coming twelve months can lead to a smarter, brighter, more beautiful you, always make me feel bad. I read them last year, and the year before, and probably the one before that. I failed to achieve superwoman status then, and this year will most likely be no different. They worsen the mid-winter gloom.

    In 2009, the Islamic new year is at the same time as the calendar new year, and this means that the pressure will be intensified. My intentions every year are much the same: read more, get fit, and spend more time focusing on spirituality. It’s a simple strategy: one goal each for mind, body and spirit. These three are the foundation of a human being, and even though I recognise the importance of nourishing each of them, I feel frustrated that I can’t seem to actually do it.

    I know that I’m on the right track, and that at some point I will meet my targets because I have made a niyyah to achieve these goals. Islamic teachings pointed out the importance of intention well before we ever heard the term PMA, (positive mental attitude). I will get round to it. I will, I will. Eventually, that is. It’s just that life is so busy. First the sales (pick up a few must-have discounted suits for work); then engage in some spring cleaning (it all went to pot during the festive season); also need to re-inject some momentum into work (shake off the bad habits of the slow holiday period); plan a holiday for the spring (make the most of the Easter days off); and before you know it, it’s almost summer and I’m still thinking I’ll get to address my resolutions at some point. I console myself with the thought that at least I’ve held onto them, instead of resigning myself to failure.

    And therein lies the rub: the being busy. It gets in the way, without us even realising. I must meet this urgent deadline, I think, and then one more, and in the blink of an eye, we wonder where it has all gone. How long were you in the world, we’ll be asked. A day, or maybe half a day, we’ll respond. These words of the Qur’an cast a shadow over my life, especially at a moment where we turn back to review the months past, and prepare ourselves for the year to come. It is a sickening feeling to reach December and wonder what happened since last January. The busy-ness and the ease of procrastination are our greatest enemies. That’s what happens between niyyah and ‘amal, action; the difference between those who simply believe, and those who believe and do good deeds.

    This January, much will be written about Barack Obama, as he is sworn into office. If there is any one person of our time who embodies the enormous change that can be created in twelve months, then Obama must surely be a contender. Last year he was barely considered a challenger for the Democratic nomination: this month he will become arguably the most powerful man on the planet.

    Will his Presidency herald a new era for the world? Will this mean a new beginning for the USA? Much hope rests on his shoulders, but he will only be as good in leadership, as his constituents are in followership. If we feel swept away by his passion for hope and renewal, it only means that we’ve finally pushed aside all the delays, distractions and excuses, and got round to actually making the change. New year, new you? It’s there for the taking, if only we actually do something.

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  • Black Heart, Red Hands, Clear Smile

    You ask for it, you are a tease,
    I know your wish
    For me to crack your jaw
    To slap your face
    To scratch your skin
    To leave my mark.

    You’re pushing me,
    Unlocking your wrists
    “You have no right,”
    Your words are hissed
    Through broken teeth
    “You have no right.”

    You make me laugh,
    Cheap homeless witch
    With talk of ‘rights’.
    Our friends know me,
    My sovereign strength,
    They know I’m right.

    Who’d hear your words,
    Pathetic semite
    Our friends know what to say:
    “Stop pushing, girl,
    It’s not his fault,
    But sovereign defence.”

    Sit quietly in your corner,
    I’ve closed the walls,
    The Pharaohs are my friends.
    The sea is sealed
    You have no rights, no worth,
    Admit you long for me.

    You look at me with children’s eyes,
    You ask for it
    You bare your mother’s breast to me,
    Still asking for it
    Your hands of tormented youth push me away,
    You drive me to it.

    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You invoke my suffering on you.
    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You attack, I defend.
    Can’t you see, it’s not my fault,
    You make me do it, you make me do it.

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  • Turkey’s Bridge that should bind us together

    I travelled to Turkey and found myself asking, is this country really the bridge between civilisations, and do we need a bridge anyway?

    One of the great cliches about Turkey is that it is the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, the connection between Christendom and Islam. When you stand on the bridge over the Bosphorous, the river that runs through the centre of Istanbul, you feel a profound sense of geographic importance. You are told that on one side is Europe, and on the other you are told is Asia. Cross the bridge, and these oft-repeated words make you feel as though you are stepping across cultural, historic and civilisational tectonic plates. Is this really true, or do we simply think it is the case because the mantra of “the bridge” has been repeated so many times?

    Turkey has a long and ancient history of peoples and empires. In the nearer past, it was taken by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. It fell to Rome in the 1st century BC and remained under Roman rule till Constantinople was named as the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD.

    In the 7th century, Islam began to rise to the east of Byzantium. The Arabs took Ankara in 654 and by 669 they set siege to Constantinople. It is said that one of the companions of the Prophet, Ayub Ansari, was buried in Constantinople. They brought a new language, a new civilisation and of course a new religion called Islam.

    There was considerable cultural engagement between the Muslims and the Byzantines. The Byzantine emperor Leo adopted the Islamic view that pictures of human beings should be banned. When the Arabs saw the domes on Byzantine churches they adopted them for Islamic architecture of buildings like mosques. The Arabs also translated classical Greek works of science and philosophy into Arabic.

    As the Muslim empire grew and came under the control of the Abbasids centring on Persia, the Turks – who were a nomadic people from Central Asia – had been moving westward and under the Turkish Seljuk clan they took the sultanate in Baghdad. By the 11th century they had taken Anatolia from the Byzantines. In the thirteen century they were overrun by the Mongols, but were united in 1300 by Osman who established the Ottoman dynasty.

    In 1923 the modern secular state of Turkey was founded by Ataturk. Despite the country’s centrality in the Muslim world to this point, and in spite of what is still considered in parts to be a religious people, Ataturk confined religion to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the mosque and the private domain at home, where it has remained ever since. One of the great ironies of Turkey is that it is a Muslim country that does not permit its women to wear the hijab in an official public space such as a university or in parliament.

    More recently, Turkey applied to join the European Union, and in 2005 began accession talks. This seems to have been met by a mixed reaction both in the EU and in Turkey. With a population of over 70 million, the world’s 17th largest economy and a geographically strategic location, Turkey is asking itself is it Turkey that needs the EU or the EU that needs Turkey? With thorny phrases like “Christian club” being bandied about recklessly, Turkey along with the Muslim world is asking itself whether it is the fact that it is a Muslim country that is creating resistance in some European quarters.

    Given the fluidity of history, culture and trade across the landmass that is modern-day Turkey, it seems strange to think of it as anything but Europe. Visit Istanbul and you certainly feel like you are in a European city. It is quite different from Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo or Baghdad. Travel west across the country and you feel a change in granularity and perspective as you near the borders of Syria and Iraq, but it is slow and gradual. The attitudes, cultures and peoples change gently rather than with the abruptness of stepping over a bridge. And that seems perfectly natural – why should a country change suddenly in the middle of its territory?

    The same question can be applied to larger areas of geography, history and culture. Why do we think that Europe and European ideals (however you choose to define them) end at a fixed geographic point? This has never been the case previously, and nor should it be. Our European world does not end abruptly with a glass wall hemming us in like the globe that enclosed Truman in The Truman show. Real life doesn’t work like that – it didn’t in the past, and it doesn’t need to in the future. Unless we say it so many times that we start ourselves to believe the corrosive propaganda.

    Ask those who repeat the mantra “the bridge” about how they see that role being carried out, and the answers are tenuous at best. That’s because the very notion of bridge implies separation and division that must be stuck together with a plaster. Our geographic and cultural connections are not like that. There is no chasm that yawns ominously between us like an infernal abyss. They are much more fluid and tightly interconnected. Our architecture, our intellectual roots, our commerce, genetics, and history all overlap and inter-relate. There is no epic gulf that requires spanning physically or metaphorically. It would be better to see Turkey as weaving together the strands of our interconnections. We don’t need to bridge the divide, what we need is to be bound together.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • Spirit21 in 2008 – a year in review

    We are nearing the end of the year, and it is the traditional time to look back and see how we fared over the last twelve months. In particular, it’s been a year since I won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent Awards. Much to my excitement I’ve been nominated again. It’s not the only recognition the blog has received. I won Best Non-Fiction Writer at the glamorous Muslim Writers Awards, and was named an ‘influential blog’ by the BBC.

    Shari’ah was big news this year. The Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about Shari’ah courts which created a national controversy, and which reverberated round the world. I tried to get underneath the dense text with a detailed analysis of his speech. I mentioned a few other words too to highlight that we need to have a conversation about real meaning, not just tabloid screaming. (I used words like Shariah, fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women. I think some readers had anxiety attacks after that.) Separately, the Lord Chief Justice re-ignited the debate started by the Archbishop, and I commented that we had a significant problem with the S-Word.

    I spent a lot of time writing about Muslim women, and declared that it was Time for a Womelution. It is time for things to change, and I kept up the pace demanding “Let Muslim Women Speak” both here at Spirit21 and at the Guardian. It seems that everyone out there is happy to tell Muslim women what they should think and say, but won’t let them say it for themselves. It wasn’t the only thing that made me cross. I was riled by the book Jewel of Medina, written by an American author about Ai’shah the wife of the Prophet. It wasn’t about blasphemy or censorship that the author annoyed me, but rather at her delivery of a sex-obsessed Mills and Boon frippery, about a woman and a period of history that was crying out for a high calibre text. What a wasted opportunity. I read the book and wrote a review for the BBC. It was painful. Watch paint dry, I advised readers, it is more fascinating than the book.

    I was still fascinated by hijab, niqab and modesty and wrote several articles trying to understand the different perceptions of modesty and hijab. Modesty is not a black and white issue got some interesting feedback – some people told me in person that it was the best piece I’ve ever written, others said they didn’t get it at all. I also asked, whose body is it anyway, and wondered why it is considered inflammatory by some for a women to cover her hair or face. I made reference in the former article to the rise of the muhajababe, the fabulously stylish and sometimes skimpily clad be-headscarfed Muslim woman, and posted a cartoon asking, what is the meaning of hijab, and wrote a piece considering, can you dress provocatively and be religious? It should all be based around a woman choosing her clothing for herself, but is it really a free choice, and what exactly is she choosing?

    The amazing Muslim women who often are considered oppressed and forgotten inspired me to create The Magic Muslims, ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary superpowers, foremost amongst them being SuperJabi. They also included MagicMullah, HipHopHalalMan and WonderBibi. Watch out for them, there will be more in the coming year!

    I was also published in the book Conversations on Religion, alongside other high profile dignitaries in the field of faith (or absence of) such as Richard Dawkins, the Chief Rabbi, AC Grayling and the Archbishop.

    On the subject of conversations, I had some amazing dialogues with people in Indonesia and Turkey, where I spent a good amount of time this year. Indonesia prompted me to think of sun, smiles and spirituality, whilst in Turkey I found myself asking, what does a Muslim country look like? Hopefully I made some fans whilst out there too…

    My comments about Valentine’s Day being banned generated some interest as i was asking if it was the day or love that was being prohibited; just as exciting was an interview with the charming and sparky Riazat Butt for the Guardian about hajj. They also enjoyed posting a piece exploring our modern ideas about what kind of hero, messiah or mehdi, we are looking for these days. Do we really need one?

    Most controversial were two pieces related to what was happening on the political scene. I had people respond to them with enormous prickliness (or excitement, depending) even months later in person, so they’ve hit a chord! I tried to separate out the political agendas that have confused the need for social cohesion with preventing violent extremism, and seems to see Muslims only through the prism of (potential) terrorism. Later in the year the political insinuations that Muslims were not wanted in politics appeared to grow stronger, and I wrote with much passion that it seems that we Muslims were being told that “The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one.” The article proliferated wildly and despite a certain level of anonymity as a writer, i had people ‘in person’ searching me out to comment on it.

    Phew! What a year! And inshallah, 2009 is going to be even more exciting – there are already some fabulous things in the works – watch this space!

    (p.s. vote for Spirit21 Best Blog and Best Female blog at the Brass Crescent Awards to show your support!)

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  • Armchair spirituality is not enough

    If the hajj teaches us anything, it is that you have to get involved spiritually and physically in order to make lasting and impactful change.

    Muslims from all around the world will be travelling to Makkah in early December to take part in the hajj pilgrimage which takes place in the first ten days of the month. All the pilgrims dress in stark white clothing, indistinguishable from each other, as their clothing levels out the differences of prince or plumber. Their white brilliance contrasts with the Ka’bah which is draped in black cloth and around which they circulate to perform the duties of the pilgrimage. For many, it is a dream come true to visit in person the place which they face every day as they perform their five daily prayers. 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.

    The pilgrims then move to a desert expanse known as Arafat which represents the starkness of the Last Day. It is a place to ask for forgiveness, and make peace with oneself and the Creator. With no distractions, and a clear uncluttered head and unencumbered body, the change that is needed becomes apparent in your heart, and resolutions for making life better are quick to emerge. Pilgrims comment about the profundity and solidity of the change that occurs in this barren setting, which somehow frees the inner spirit. The physical presence in a challenging environment stimulates personal growth and development. No matter how much someone explains the environment and sensation, it never has the impact of being there in person. You have to taste it, breathe it, live it.

    The journey passes through the night towards Mina, where Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his beloved child and to show that he was willing to give up what was dearest to him. The pilgrims make a symbolic sacrifice of an animal, to represent the surrender of something of utmost importance to them for the sake of God. Still following Abraham’s actions, they throw seven pebbles at stone satans, as though they are stoning the devils of their own inner desires.

    Exhausted, the pilgrims return to Makkah, physically broken, but spiritually elated. The hajj pushes the human being to the limits of physical and spiritual endeavour. The lasting impact that hajj creates, and its success in creating change is down to the fact that it address both the physical and the 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.

    The images of these pilgrims is broadcast across the world on television networks, and we can watch the painstaking journey that each person is experiencing as they go through this most rigorous and gruelling of physical and spiritual challenges. Going through the event, and feeling the pain and elation at every moment is what cements the spiritual experience.

    We sit and watch the journey of hajj from the comfort of our armchairs, enthralled by the experience, but not able to access the benefits for ourselves. We cannot create the same impact as walking those footsteps and tasting the sweat and tears, whilst we sit ensconced in the soft sheltered environment of our own homes. So it is with developing our own communities and our own spirituality. We like to shake our fists at community leaders, the state of the Ummah, and the ongoing problems we face, from the sanctuary of our sofas. It is like expecting your cheers whilst you watch your football team play on TV to have an impact, or as though shouting at the television set will change events as they unfold. It is like walking the footsteps of the hajjis watching through the live TV coverage: this can never create that type and strength of change.

    If we believe that by sitting at home and engaging in armchair protests that we can make an impact, then we are deluded. Muttering astaghfirullahs whilst propped on a comfortable cushion with no connection to the outside world cannot create change. The hajj gives us that very evidence – you have to be right in the centre of things to make an impact.

    It is the same with spirituality. To refine our souls and our ethics we have to interact with the world around us. It is only through participation and relationships with other human beings that we can truly learn what it means to be the purest of souls. Muslims are quick to point out that asceticism is rejected by Islam – physical separation is prohibited in that sense. Sitting on our sofas, and complaining about the world around us, is only one step away from that.

    Proceeding with patience and prayer is the hallmark of a human being, and that is because the spiritual relationship with the Divine can only flourish through interaction and participation with society. This requires us to extract ourselves from the cushioned comfort of our armchairs, and to step out of the front door to take part in the world.

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