Month January

  • 1001 Inventions exhibition: discover Muslim heritage and re-discover the excitement of science

    Over the weekend I went to the see the “1001 Inventions – Muslim heritage in our world” exhibition at the Science Museum, which is based on the website and book of the same name.

    The exhibition consists of a number of stands like the one in the picture, under different themes like medecine, market and town. There are intriguing exhibits like Al-Jazari’s elephant clock, model wind-turbines pre-dating Dutch windmills, in Afghanistan to harness renewable energy (a lesson for today’s green energy activists?) as well as plenty of information like Muslim scholars predicted the world’s circumference to within 125 miles 8 centuries ago, and Muslim doctors pioneered cataract removal and the use of catgut around that time as well.

    The whole exhibition is a revelation about the “Dark ages” where in fact many discoveries were made that have laid the foundations for today’s modern science – dispelling the absurd myths that the Muslim world was devoid of creativity, invention or contribution. Quite the opposite. From this perspective, the exhibition is a must see for historical, cultural as well as of course scientific knowledge.

    From a personal perspective though, it was the short film starring Ben Kingsley as a mysterious polymath from a golden age that captured my imagination. The film was broadcast at regular intervals on a huge screen in the exhibition hall. It re-ignited my childhood excitement for discoveries, and the incredible wealth of science that we have around us today. The story follows a group of school children spending the day at a museum investigating the science discovered in various eras of history. The teacher hands the assignment for “The Dark Ages” with pity to three children, warning them that they are unlikely to find much if anything. As they enter the library section they are greeted with the mysterious Ben Kingsley. He conjures up secrets from the period, and summons various scientists and philosophers to explain their secrets to the children. Once I’d got past the Harry Potter-esque introduction, I too was swept away by the enormity of the scientific findings and the graphics are magical enough to create a tingling about how science itself is magical.
    The stories of these Muslim scientists and their myriad of inventions left me feeling inspired to discover the secrets of the universe… All in all, an afternoon well-spent.
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  • Haiti – this report from the front line…

    Haiti continues to break our hearts. I received this email from Irfan Akram, the Director of the Muslim Writers Awards and part of Muslim Hands, a UK charity that focuses on development and aid. He’s been out in Haiti for ten days. Here are his words from the front line:

    “Haiti, it’s impossible to exaggerate the horror. Animals eating bodies on the streets, bodies wrapped in rugs or stuffed suitcases and left to rot. The stench is unbearable. The camps are made up of survivors who will most likely die as soon as there is no water. Even if they get past that, then disease will kill many more than have already died.

    It’s hard to stop crying most of the time while distributing aid, but we are getting food and water in and are racing hard to upscale the operation by liaising with the UN to facilitate the receipt of ships and more convoys, and to provide security for these incoming shipments As a Muslim charity, we are taking advantage of the mosque infrastructure to distribute to everyone regardless of religion. Again, we are working to build the capacity of Muslims in Santo Domingo and in Haiti itself, to ensure that local communities of whatever background are supported with the essentials. Staff and offices are in place too.

    Security-wise, it’s very scary – you need support to distribute safely and effectively while the UN machine gets geared up. Most of the worst-hit are not receiving aid: the World Food Programme needs 100 million food packages and has access to only 15 million in the pipeline, and there is a 2 week waiting time for hospitals. People are so desperate that un-coordinated food distribution in the street would lead to riots. Gangs are looking for opportunities to steal.For the scale of the disaster, the funds we’re getting in are woefully inadequate. We need help to get the messages out.

    We want to do more work, get more food, more shelter, re-instate some basic services. But we need help.”

    If you’d like to donate to Muslim Hands (or any other charity of your choice) so they can continue with their work, you can make a contribution.
    The link to Muslim Hands donations is here:

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  • Asian Women of Achievement awards – nominate now

    The Asian Women of Achievement awards are now in their eleventh year, aiming to honour the vibrant contributions of Asian women across all aspects of life and unearth inspiring and humbling stories of achievement.

    Nominations for the 2010 event are now open and you can nominate someone you know, or even yourself! Categories are: Art and Culture, Public Sector, Social and Humanitarian, Business Woman, Entrepreneur, Media, Professional, Young Achiever and the Asian Woman of the Year Award.

    Nominations close on Friday March 5, 2010. You can see more info here, and download the nomination forms. It’s a great chance for Asian Women to be recognised for all their incredible achievements.

    (although where is the one we most expect Asians to honour – Mum of the Year??!! Is that too typical?)

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  • The many faces behind the veil – in today’s Independent

    The Independent published this double page spread today, with stories from 5 different Muslim women about why they wear the hijab, niqab or not at all, including yours truly. It’s a colourful and varied piece of coverage. The opening introduction runs as below.

    The many faces behind the veil
    A symbol of female subjugation? These women believe their Islamic headwear is a
    liberating way of expressing their identities.

    Jilbab. Niqab. Al Amira. Dupatta. Burqa. Chador. Even the language used to describe the various kinds of clothing worn by Muslim women can seem as complicated and muddied as the issue itself. Rarely has an item of cloth caused so much consternation, controversy and misunderstanding
    as with the Islamic headscarf or veil. For those Muslims who literally wear their religion on their sleeves, hijab (from the Arabic for curtain or screen) can be many things. For some it is a cultural practice handed down through the generations, an unquestioned given that is simply adopted. For others the need to dress and behave modestly can define a person’s relationship with God, their
    religious devotion or even their politics. For others still hijab is a complicated journey, one with twists and turns where veils are briefly discarded on the ground or taken up with willing fervour.
    “Muslim women wear hijab for many reasons including piety, identity and even as political statements,” says Tahmina Saleem, the co-founder of Inspire, a consultancy which helps Muslim
    women become vocal members of their communities. “Most do so willingly, some unwillingly.”

    To its detractors
    the headscarf – and in particular its more visible cousin the face veil – is
    simply a form of oppression, regardless of whether modest clothing has been
    adopted willingly or not. Why, the abolitionists ask, would any woman ever
    voluntarily choose to hide her hair or face in public?
    Later this month
    France’s ruling party will debate a law that could see the face veils banned in
    public, meaning any woman caught wearing a niqab or a burqa (the Arab and Afghan
    versions of a full face
    veil) could be fined £700. If the law is passed it
    would represent a watershed moment in Western Europe’s relationship with its
    Muslims citizens and could encourage politicians in neighbouring countries to
    promote similar legislation.

    In the
    argument over whether to ban or not to ban, the polemicists usually reign
    supreme. Hijab is either good or evil, wrong or right. The voices of the women
    whose lives would be monumentally affected by any sort of curb on Islamic
    clothing are rarely seen or heard from.
    Today The Independent speaks to five
    British women from different walks of life about what form of hijab they choose
    to wear and why they wear it. From a graduate who became the first one in her
    family to cover her face entirely, to the mother of four who chose to take
    off her headscarf and sees no problem with remaining a devout and practising
    Muslims – their stories are as varied and colourful as the scarves on their
    shoulders. “

    Now, regular readers of my blog will know that I have been advocating more recently (here and here) that we don’t need to get “behind the veil” as much as we just need to get past it. However, whilst others want to talk about it, there is a duty to respond, explain and communicate. I think this piece makes a good effort to do so by letting Muslim women tell their own stories.Link By using their own
    words, at least the thinking and decision-making behind the choices – the women’s own free choices – is apparent.

    It’s quite a different approach to Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s comment piece last week in the Evening Standard. I’m generally an admirer of Alibhai-Brown and have great respect for the trail that she has blazed in the media. I enjoy her writing, and her commitment to say it how it is. But in this particular case, I need to politely disagree. In this piece, she warns women that they should be “wary of romanticising Islam“. By ‘romanticising Islam’ her concern is that these women are saying they are finding moral certitude in Islam from lives they see as having lost their compass.

    She gives the example of Boris Johnson’s ex-wife Allegra Mostyn Owen, who is now married to a British Pakistani man. She says about her: “… she is going for complete surrender, an uncritical acceptance of the most regressive practices of some of my co-religionists. ” This is an assumption about this woman, her beliefs and her choices. We don’t actually get to hear from Mostyn Owen about the nature of her marital relationship, the details of why she made the choice to (one assumes from Alibhai-Brown’s article) become Muslim and what her feelings and thoughts are about various practices along the vast spectrum of liberal to orthodox Islam. The reasons for choosing to marry her now husband are also obscured. These are huge assumptions about someone’s personal choices and beliefs.

    Alibhai-Brown concludes: “Mostyn-Owen and other such submissive converts may think their new lives are excitingly exotic but their choices drag the faith back to the dark ages.”

    The notion that converts must be ‘submissive’, despite the fact that they have to generally create great change in their lives and in their personal relationships is absurd. Alibhai-Brown herself describes Mostyn-Owens as “clearly not a woman to shirk challenges”. I only wish we’d actually got to hear Mostyn-Owens telling her own story, rather than assumptions about her motivations and beliefs.

    Update (15-01-10): Allegra Mostyn Owen has come by the blog and left a comment for clarification (thanks AMO). You can read it for yourselves below, but she clarifies that she has not become a Muslim but has a “serene relationship with Allah “.

    My point, however, still stands. She has her own story, beliefs and motivations and these were huge assumptions about these things without letting the woman tell it for herself, and let her explain for herself why she has made those choices.

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  • And the snow fell…

    I have been watching the snow this morning, from the window of my study. The tiny flakes so delicate, as to be almost invisible as they fall. There is something incredibly soothing about watching the constant cascade.

    Now being a suburban-ite, I can see the snow settling onto the ground and turning everything white – a pleasure almost entirely denied me as one of those city-types last year, where the urban heat creates a whole separate climate.

    It’s incredibly quiet outside. The only signs of life have been the postman’s visit this morning (hat-tip to the postman and his valiant determination in the face of the snow), and the paw-tracks of the incorrigible local cat.
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  • Hopes for a post-veil society (part 2)

    I wrote a follow up on the theme of “we don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it” for The National, aiming at a Muslim and also a Middle Eastern audience.

    You can read the full piece here:

    However, here is an extract which adds to the original piece which was written for EMEL magazine.

    “…Four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament found themselves at the opposite end of another discussion about veiling – an insistence that they should cover in order to be admitted to fulfil their constitutional roles.

    Their election came after Kuwaiti women received full political rights in 2005. Since two of the women choose not to cover, an ultraconservative MP asked the ministry of Islamic affairs and endowments’ Fatwa department if Sharia obliged women to wear the hijab.When the ministry agreed that women were indeed obliged to do so, there was a movement in parliament to impose hijab on the national assembly’s female members, stating that it was incumbent on women in parliament to subscribe to Sharia.

    […] The constitutional court has upheld the right of the women to remain uncovered if they choose. We can hope that this will drive home the importance of what the women have to say, and the value they will bring to the political process, rather than reducing them to their clothing, as though they were vacuous Barbie dolls.
    Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue “problem”, and that issue is the veil.That is the problem with Marnia Lazreg’s recent book Questioning the Veil. Lazreg, an American academic with Algerian roots, lays the problems that Muslim women face at the feet of the veil. She claims to systematically demolish every reason that Muslim women give for wearing the veil. She highlights issues such as sexual harassment, men defining women’s bodies, gender politics in the workplace, the anonymity of women, men wielding full control over women and women as the vessels of male honour.
    She then draws the tenuous conclusion that the veil lies at the heart of all these issues.I disagree. Even if the veil was removed, these underlying problems would still be rampant. The veil is the wrong symptom she is trying to treat. What we should be doing is tackling the underlying causes.She also adds that, if a woman truly believes that wearing a veil is the right thing to do, and she has made an informed choice to do so, then we should accept her decision. Simply put, we do not need to force women to veil, nor do we need to force them not to veil – what we need is education and free choice.

    […] Curiously, it is veiled Muslim women themselves who [are] fed up with seeing themselves portrayed as nothing more than the veil they wear. I feel it too as a Muslim woman, yet I feel compelled to write about it in order to create a movement to get over it. I have to keep writing about it till the Sarkozys of the world stop women gaining citizenship because of it. I am driven to keep highlighting the Marwa Sherbinis of the world – a woman stabbed in full public view in a German court, at the hands of a man who hated her for her headscarf.

    It may shock both liberals who oppose covering of any sort, as well as traditionalists who would enforce mandatory veiling on women, that Muslim women more often than not have other priorities, and also want something other than their clothing discussed. For example, in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where “saving”Muslim women is high on the list of justifications for invasion, the discourse on veiling is low on the list of women’s concerns. Security tops their needs, something that the “liberating” forces have denied them. We need to get past the veil, and into the business of living – education, employment, security, personal law and civic and political participation.

    Aseel al Awadhi, one of the women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament asked: “Why do only women have to comply with Sharia law and not men? This is, by itself, discrimination.” Her subtext: veiling and visible religiosity are used as gatekeepers and excuses to exclude women from public and
    political discourse – that it has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with power.”

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  • Faith buildings and urban environments: mosques, minarets and multi-faith

    Towards the end of last year, the Arts and Islam programme held an intriguing seminar about the relationship between faith buildings and the urban environments that many of them inhabit.

    My review:

    The mosques that I went to as a child, were of two types. The first were ephemeral fleeting locations: hired halls, school rooms, community centres. They functioned as mosques only during the time that they were populated by Muslims, melting back into their ordinary functions as soon as the last worshipper had left.

    The second kind were permanent structures, with the dedicated function of being a mosque; but somehow they were still lacking in confidence, constrained by lack of time, resources and vision. Purchased from owners who found the large buildings too costly to maintain as a result of disuse or disrepair, they were often old town halls, churches and even schools. They offered benefits such as being well located with large halls to accommodate worshippers. But the bathrooms were too small for the ritual ablutions, the floors too hard for prayers, the qibla that points the congregation to Mecca at a crooked angle to the building, and most likely in need of restoration.

    What baffled me most – even as a child – was the crowning of these new buildings with a little green dome. I understand why it was done – a symbolic marking of the building’s new life as a Muslim centre. Was it necessary though, I wondered? And what was the impact of these and similar architectural changes on the aesthetics of existing – often historic – buildings? And did it enhance the worshippers’ faith?

    These questions have been bubbling away in my mind for many years, so imagine my delight in finding a seminar hosted at a Muslim centre, and inspired by Muslims, focusing on the spatial relationships of faith buildings with their community and environment. Why had I never come across such a discussion before?

    The seminar was prescient – coming only weeks before the Swiss referendum on whether to ban the building of minarets. 53.4% of the population turned out to a vote which carried the motion to ban minarets by 57.5%. The ban has provoked controversy, and has been called a violation of religious freedom and expression, but it highlights the significant meaning which people attach to faith buildings. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of them. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. It might be naive to wonder why this might be, but when
    approaching this question from an architectural rather than a political perspective, it gets to the very heart of this seminar’s question about how faith buildings influence and interact with their surroundings.

    The seminar was part of the This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG) Festival, a weekend of presentations, debates and forums on the city and urban citizenship. It was co-sponsored by Arts Council England’s Arts and Islam initiative, and in his introduction the director of diversity Tony Panayiotou made a bold statement: “Arts can help young people from turning to extremism.” I wondered whether, by extension, was the same true for faith architecture? I have always maintained that those who have been seduced by violence have not found it in mosques, but rather have been alienated from them. Was it therefore possible that a well-designed, well-built, well-implemented faith building could inspire souls and minds in positive ways?

    You can read the full review here:

    or here:

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