Month July

  • Where is the e-ummah?

    This article was published in EMEL Magazine.

    The internet has created an ummah that lives up to the Prophetic idea of a nation without boundaries. The Qur’an talks of “ummah wahida”, One Nation, which the Prophet described as a body that feels the pain that any other part of the body feels. Today, it is the e-ummah that feels the pain and joy of its brothers and sisters no matter their location, ethnicity or time zone, because it has dissolved the barriers of time, culture and distance.

    During the era of Muslim empires there was a sense of geographical unity, even if information about far flung reaches of its geography took time to spread. This united geography, under the banner of one religion made the ummah an easily identifiable entity. But modern times have changed the shape and distribution of Muslims. No longer are they consolidated in one area. Instead, they are spread out widely not just as a diaspora reaching out from historically Muslim lands, but being born out of native ethnicities and cultures fresh to Islam.

    In a world of nation states, nationalism and declining religiosity, the enduring sense of global connectivity to an ummah based on religious affiliation is an anomaly. Muslims are questioned about how they can show patriotism at the same time as being concerned about Muslims across the globe.

    But the notion of Ummah has always allowed for this layering of multiple identities. The Qur’an is quite clear that human beings have been created in different tribes with different ethnicities and languages so that people can ‘know each other’, an explicit directive to rejoice in difference and affiliation. The notion of ummah has no conflict with this. Instead, the two paradigms support the human need that at once desires to be both unique and have a sense of belonging.

    The internet has for the first time created immediate connections of communication to support the reality of a global ummah. News travels within seconds, and communities are created not by geography but by interest and purpose. When a Muslim in one part of the world expresses anguish, Muslims around the globe immediately and empathetically feel their pain, experiences and joy too. The rise of the citizen journalist and blogger means that more voices are heard from the grass roots than ever before.

    The internet has fostered the spiritual pursuits of education, support and encouragement too. We have seen the rise of religious learning, study groups as well of course as online matrimonials. In particular, it is worth noting that those who have historically been excluded access or participation from arenas of discussion and decision-making likes mosques and community centres – specifically women and youth – have found a forum within which to express themselves. The internet has given them freedom to explore ideas in a non-judgemental way, and to actually participate in the workings of the ummah. For these individuals in particular the e-ummah offers belonging and meaning that is lacking in their ‘real’ surroundings. It also allows the ummah to take advantage of their skills, talent and creativity – resources which the ummah has squandered over centuries and is not in any hurry to rectify. Life is not perfect in Muslim cyberspace. Etiquette is readily thrown out of the window as people engage in insult hurling at each other over political and religious difference. Some invoke the internet’s anonymity to stir up trouble and even say things that they would never have the nerve to say in person. They feel as though the facelessness of the internet absolves them of their responsibility for respect and good manners. They feel they are not being watched. But a Muslim of all people ought to know they are always being watched: by the Watcher Himself.

    The e-ummah has one other major drawback which it needs to understand and address: it isn’t really there! Islam is a religion of physicality which emphasises that social and spiritual development occurs through repeated action and ritual. The physical movements of the prayer are one such example. Rituals like the Hajj, the Friday prayer, the daily congregational prayers, and even smiling – all point to the importance of being in company with other people. What will be the impact on the individual as well as the community if we fully divert ourselves into e-tawaf and e-jumm’a?

    The internet is here to stay, and the e-ummah is one of the great miracles of our time. The challenge is to make sure that we avail ourselves of the magical connections that the internet has offered us, but retain the importance of real physical interaction in our daily lives.

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  • Looking for unusual books on Hajj

    I have long held an interest in the social history of hajj and its spiritual, religious and artistic importance amongst Muslims. I have decided that it is now time for me to explore and research this area in more detail. And since the season of hajj is now approaching, it seems even more poignant to start collecting materials and reading more deeply on the subject. I’d also like to put together a collection of books on this subject.

    That is where I am looking for help from you dear readers. I’m looking for books, writing and arts on all hajj related matters (and Mecca/Medina too) in English. This can be travelogues, histories, photographs, stories, maps, guidebooks, contemporary or historical, anything at all. Since I am investigating more of a social, historical and spiritual aspect, the only thing I am not looking for is fiqh books.

    If you have any books like this, and are feeling generous (or no longer need them), please please do send them to me so I can put them to good use. You can post a comment on this article with details and then I will get in touch to arrange transfer of the book.

    Many of these books are quite unusual, and can be difficult to find out about their existence, and hard to get hold of, which is why if you have any it would be a great deal of help to me. Thank you in advance!

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  • The Fall and Rise of Religion

    This was published in the June edition of EMEL Magazine (apologies for the delay in posting it up).

    Religion is not important; not in the daily life of almost three quarters of the British public. The French exhibit similar levels of irreligiosity. By contrast, the Muslim populations in both countries say that religion is important to almost 70% of them. Can this vast gulf in the belief of the importance of religion ever be overcome? Will Muslims along with other faith groups follow the wider public into religious oblivion? Or will the believers be able to persuade the public of the value of religion, and if so, how will they do it?

    In May 2009, Gallup published the Coexist Index, designed to measure global attitudes toward people from different faith traditions. Spanning 27 countries across 4 continents, the report gave special focus to attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the UK about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation.

    Religion is not important in the daily lives of the French and the British, and there is an indication that the general public’s view of religion is that religion itself is not of value. The UK, France and Norway, the three countries that came bottom of in rating the importance of religion in daily life, also showed lower ratings on two related issues: whether ‘religious faiths make a positive contribution to society’ and on the indicator of whether they had ‘learned something positive from a person of another faith’ in the last year. It seems they are becoming less and less respectful and impressed by religion.

    There was a time in the near past when it was enough to point to something as condoned or recommended by religion to gain approval and understanding. Now, adding the label ‘religious’ seems a hindrance rather than a positive attribute. No wonder then that Muslims have gained little sympathy when they have stated that they have found certain books, cartoons and other incidences to be offensive. Religion itself no longer carries inherent respect. In fact, there is a palpable fear of religion, particularly visible in the UK where 26% of the public felt that people of different religious practices threatened their way of life.

    Muslims, like others to whom religion is important, need to think carefully about how to express their religious values to the wider public, and how to convey how dear those values are to them. At the moment, the methods and language used do not seem to be working, and Muslims see themselves quite differently to how the wider public see them. 82% of British Muslims thought that Muslims were loyal to the UK. That figure fell to 36% amongst the British public.

    Of course the fear-mongering whipped up in the media and by the far right must take a great deal of blame for this mistrust. They must be held accountable for the constant and lie-laden coverage of Muslims and for whipping up a frenzy of phobia and hatred. What the data also doesn’t indicate is whether this level of mistrust applies to other faith groups too, although my suspicion is it would be at significantly reduced levels, if at all.

    Working with the mainstream media, politicians and policy-makers is essential in changing widespread opinion, and reducing this chasm of misunderstanding. However, there are other clues in the research as to how Muslims can make proactive change.

    One of them is getting involved in civic society. Muslims polled significantly lower than the general public in France, Germany and the UK on whether volunteering in organisations serving the public was important. Shockingly, in the UK only 24% of Muslims versus 64% of the public felt this was important, the lowest across all three countries. If Muslims don’t invest in the public sphere then on a purely selfish level they will not weave themselves into the fabric of society. But this is not about being selfish: alongside belief in the Creator, a Muslim’s purpose is to serve other human beings and work towards social justice. Showing disregard for involvement in public organisations ought to be anathema to Muslims.

    Muslims need to step up fully to the civic engagement and responsibility that are part of their faith heritage. They need to be engaged more in these activities – not just as much as their public counterparts, but more so. This is because they are people to whom religion is a part of daily life; and religion is about making a positive contribution not only to your own daily life, but to the lives of those around you.

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