Month January

  • British Museum exhibit offers visitors a chance to experience Muslim pilgrimage

    This article was published yesterday by Common Ground News Service.

    London – Qaisra Khan and I are standing in the Round Reading Room of the world-renowned British Museum in London. Around us people are busy installing historic artefacts from the Muslim world relating to the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca – a principal religious obligation of adult Muslims.

    Khan is one of the curators of the exhibit “Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam”, which will open on the 26th of January at the British Museum. She is visibly excited that those who are not Muslim will finally get to vicariously experience the pilgrimage through this pioneering exhibit. Relics painstakingly gathered from public and private collections from the UK, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world are on display. Loans from Saudi Arabia include a seetanah, an embroidered cloth that parts in the middle to allow entry into the Kaaba itself when being used. The reds and blues which surround the stitched Arabic calligraphy highlight the richness of the Qur’anic text that adorns the cloth.

    The exhibit offers the opportunity to hear about both contemporary and historic pilgrim experiences. My eye is caught by an original map identifying the possible routes for the Hijaz Railway, which was planned by the Ottoman official Haji Mukhtar Bey during his own haj.

    On the other side of the hall is a brightly coloured, almost cartoonish image of a group of people. Among them is a pilgrim, standing on the edge of a sandy plane surrounded by intense blue. It is a painting from southern Egypt, where for hundreds of years members of small villages have painted these images to depict the departure of the pilgrims.

    When it comes to Muslims, Khan says, “All we hear about is ‘sharia’, and actually this is one of the few times when there is none of that – it’s just about what it is like to be Muslim.” Her aspiration is that visitors will be granted this experience.

    It is a profound sentiment and one which calls for further reflection: What does it feel like to stand in someone else’s shoes and experience the world from their perspective?

    The haj is a primary instance of creating connections with other people by sharing space and time with them. As pilgrimages go, it is not the largest in scale, but it certainly has the most diverse group of participants –bringing together people from over 180 nationalities last year.

    Amongst the historic artefacts in the exhibit is a 15th century painting from Shiraz (in modern day Iran) which depicts a throng of people inside theharam, or holy sanctuary, in Mecca. The artist has depicted a sea of humanity with skin tones from black to white and every shade in between.

    On the other side of the hall is a photograph from 2009 showing contemporary pilgrims at the desert of Arafat where pilgrims journey for forgiveness. Again, the faces are a portrait of humanity, joined together in their single quest for forgiveness, united by the same simple white clothing, all external differences erased. Any pilgrim who joins can’t help but get to know those from different countries and cultures and in turn be changed by the realisation of their shared humanity.

    The British Museum’s haj exhibition attempts to recreate this intense experience by sharing it with a wide audience.

    Such co-sharing of space and time is crucial to our development of empathy, and triggers an instinctive willingness to help others. The event of haj is an epic experience, but taking action to create empathy is something that happens on a day-to-day level too. We human beings can create this kind of empathy by supporting others in what they feel is important.

    I have seen this in action at a mosque in London, which organised for its congregation to attend midnight mass at Christmas to create bonds with the local Christian community. And when I was living and working in Bahrain, I saw Sunni Muslims show their support and understanding when Shia Muslims commemorated Ashura, a ritual day of mourning, by sending food so that their Shia friends would not be detained by chores on a day of great importance to them.

    Sharing experiences is vital to creating emotional bonds and support. Although this exhibition is a historic and cultural enterprise, and refreshingly apolitical, it offers visitors – Muslim or non-Muslim alike – the chance to stand in someone else’s shoes for a moment. And that is something, in our world of unfortunate divisions, which is always to be welcomed.

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  • It’s not women who need preaching about “corruption” and “social responsibility”

    Here’s my weekly column from The National.

    Men are poor helpless creatures who can’t control their feelings or libidos, or so it seems they want society to think. I’m a believer in the general goodness of most men, but baffled by the attitude that they are helpless in the face of womanly charms and must therefore refer to themselves in derogatory and weak ways.

    Take this comment – a mild one compared to many – I came across while reading about a new line of Islamic fashion: “If a girl attracts other males even unintentionally, it will end up to be a sin [sic] … So style in Islam is OK, but it should be limited to an extent that won’t create new feelings within the pervert males of today.” Baffling that it’s not the “pervert males” responsible for their warped feelings.

    This is on the same dimension as arguments against women being educated, or driving: that they will spread “corruption” by entering the public space. Or recent comments by the former head of the women’s studies department at Bangalore University telling women how to dress to avoid rape, but no edict telling men not to rape.

    We get it: men think women are the source of corruption and that in order to stop the world coming to an end you must tell us what to think and how to act (and what to wear) because of course we have no brains, no sense of social responsibility, no spirituality and no reason. Oh wait – you say we do? Because that is just logic? And because it is our human fitrah to have all of those? And because the Quran says that we are all equal in spirit? Oh right.

    Women are constantly preached to about social responsibilities even though we are not the ones responsible for most domestic abuse, violence, crime, rape or “corruption”. It’s time for our menfolk to preach to themselves about social responsibility.

    It takes two to tango, so even if your outrageous idea that women are responsible for “corruption” is true, why don’t you stay away from them? Too weak? Oh dear, how can you run a society if you are too weak to resist a woman?

    So now you have a choice in the arguments you employ: are you too weak in the face of women’s “corruptive” influence, which therefore means you are too weak to “lead” them? Or are you strong enough to lead, which means that it should be water off a duck’s back if women participate in society. Which is it to be?

    I want to emphasise that I believe both men and women have responsibilities to act and dress modestly. To achieve social harmony, creativity and spiritual ease, both must participate fully but be equally modest and respectful.

    So brothers, fathers, male colleagues – extend a little respect to the womenfolk around you. They are not toys, slaves, maids, objects or chattel to be bought, sold or bartered. Women are people. Yes, people.

    And if you are a man from a society that isn’t majority Muslim in culture (note my use of the word “culture” and not the phrase “Islamic in religion”), please don’t look smug. There is plenty of oppression, abuse, violence and discrimination against women in all societies that no man – and no society – anywhere can be holier than thou.

    So for men and societies everywhere, here are your mantras for 2012: be nice to women, be respectful of women’s intelligence and change yourselves instead of blaming women for the “pervert males”.

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  • Getting ready for 2012: from money to the meaning of life

    Here is this week’s National column published on new year’s eve.

    As the year comes to a close, one of my perennial resolutions rears its head and commands me: take better control of the household budget. The talk at a global scale of bankruptcy, poor credit and downgrading has made the resolution ever more urgent. Where are my slippery and elusive pennies going?

    Don’t tell my Dad about this confession, he will give me a stern look and tell me that he taught me better, that money doesn’t grow on trees, that a man one penny in the red is a poor man, and a penny in the black is rich. I know I ought to know all this, but before you make me blush, are you able to account for your expenditure down to the last penny, cent or fils?

    The pessimism I feel about my financial management is exacerbated by the fact that it seems ever more important to get a grip on it. Somehow, the fact that the world’s leading economists, and in particular the European leaders, found themselves in difficulty this year while trying to manage a successful budget for their countries, suggests that I should try to do a better job in my own little domain.

    But if all those clever people overlooked the flaws in their financial systems, how am I supposed to manage any better?

    I’ve done what all aspirational budget managers have done: I’ve created an extensive and detailed spreadsheet to list out all the outgoings. And there are a lot of them.

    It’s easy to spot where I can get better deals on regular household expenses – although it will take some time to work through the changes. But the main struggle is in adjusting lifestyle: do I want to give up the enjoyable holidays? I love buying pretty clothes for my baby. And what harm is there in a pleasurable if slightly overpriced cup of coffee a couple of times each week?

    Therein lies the crux of my challenge: getting the best deals is a straightforward if tedious task. My bigger challenge is deciding what kind of life I’d like to live: frugal to the point of asceticism? Cautious and sacrificing some pleasures of daily life? Sensible but enjoyable? Carefree, tomorrow will take care of itself?

    To me, these questions raise the issue of identifying a deeper truth about who I am and who I aspire to be.

    I often think that we could easily live in a much smaller abode, with fewer things and less obligations. Isn’t that the right approach for someone who wants to spend time nurturing their spirit rather than their bank balance?

    On the other hand, our home offers sanctuary for the family, a place of exploration for our child and an enjoyment of the good things in life.

    There’s no profligacy or extravagance. A car, a good school for baby, smart clothes (but not designer) to be well presented, the education of seeing the world on our travels: I see these as blessings we are able to afford. I see these as to be balanced with work for the community, charitable giving and constant thankfulness for all that we have.

    My spreadsheet may help me to balance the books. A spreadsheet can never help me to build a balanced life: for that I need constant reflection, a generous helping of wisdom and a selfless love of those around me.

    Most of all what I need is an appreciation of the value of all that I have, and I am fortunate to have a great deal. What a wonderful way to start 2012. Happy New Year!

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