Day 3:11 pm

  • Urgent attention needed for the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar

    My EMEL column from September 2012

    One of the world’s most persecuted minorities needs our urgent attention: the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

    The Rohingya number about 800,000 people, mostly Muslims, In 1982, the military junta stripped them of citizenship, leaving them stateless. Regular victims of violence, rape and forced labour, their marriages are controlled, and they are only allowed two children.

    Myanmar’s consul general to Hong Kong described them as “ugly as ogres” and mocked their “dark brown skin” in a speech in 2009. That same year, Thailand’s then prime minister admitted that 1000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat had been pushed back to sea and abandoned.

    But the persecution, harassment and killing are not the end of the story. Those charities who are making efforts to send humanitarian aid are saying that it is being blocked, sometimes by Buddhist monks.

    The response of the government of Bangladesh in particular has been outrageous: not only are they not offering refuge within their borders, they are actively stopping others from offering humanitarian assistance. At the time of writing this article the government ordered three charities be prevented from distributing aid; and this during Ramadan, from a country that is almost entirely Muslim.

    But the shame is not just upon Bangladesh: the entire international community bears responsibility.

    Myanmar is going through an enormous transition from military to democratic rule. It’s most famous daughter is Aung Sang Suu Kyi, feted for remaining under house arrest during the military dictatorship in order to protest against the horrific. For this, she was awarded a Nobel peace prize twenty years ago, but only this year – when transition in Myanmar has begun – did she come to the West to accept the prize. But when asked about the Rohingya, she has avoided any clear statement, only saying that citizenship rights needed to be looked at.

    Suu Kyi follows in the footsteps of protestors like Nelson Mandela who have become global icons for their staunch pursuit of justice and freedom for their peoples. But her lacklustre response tells us how deep is the crisis of the Rohingya when even someone who is supposed to be a beacon of fairness refuses to make clear her support. We must hold her to account for her ambivalence on this subject, and also influence her to establish a clear acceptance of the Rohingya and their rights in Myanmar. There are those who argue that she has to proceed cautiously at this time and not alienate those who can influence a peaceful transition to democracy. But I say this: what kind of peace and democracy can there be when a minority are openly abused and persecuted and those in power do nothing, or through their lack of action seem to tacitly approve of it?

    Surrounding governments must also do more and not just shrug their shoulders. We must do more.

    First and foremost there must be pressure on the Myanmar government to address the issue of the citizenship of the Rohingya sharpish. There can be no true democracy nor justice in the country if a minority is abused in this fashion. Before they are welcomed into the international fold of nations, they must resolve their status. Figures with increasing political power like Suu Kyi must have political as well as moral pressure applied on them.

    Whilst diplomatic pressure is being enforced, surrounding governments must open their way to offer assistance to refugees who are fleeing for their lives. They must not prevent any aid reaching refugees. Refugees must not be turned back to certain persecution and death. We can protest outside embassies, send petitions,  and send aid.

    Here are some key things you can do: sign the petitions being presented to the UN to escalate the plight of the Rohingya. Write to your Prime Minister or President highlighting the persecution of this defenceless stateless people. Get in touch with your local member of parliament. Send aid through charities who are serving the Rohingya. And of course remember the Rohingya Muslims in your prayers.

    A Muslim is not a Muslim if he or she fails to remember the suffering of others. As the traditions of the Prophet remind us, let us act if we can; if we cannot, let us speak out, and if we cannot do that, let us feel their pain in our hearts. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar – one of the most persecuted minorities in the world – are waiting for humanity to reach out, protect them and restore their rights.

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  • A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar… the funny side of being Muslim

    My EMEL column from August 2012

    Comedy and humour are great ways of enlightening a dour mood, which is just the pick-up needed in these times.

    A few years ago, I attended a fundraising event enticed by a line up of budding Muslim stand-up comedians. On a Friday night in central London the place was sold-out with young trendy things who were looking for somewhere they could enjoy themselves after a hard week’s work, ensure they were in an Islamic environment, as well as getting the chance to make new friends, and contribute to charity.

    After two acts that helped the audience to relax, the smiles turned into ripples of laughter, and the audience was clearly enjoying themselves. Then, one of the organisers came on stage for a quick interlude. “I’d just like to remind everyone of the hadith that says it is better not to laugh too much.” Not laugh at a comedy evening! The audience became subdued, as though told off by a schoolteacher, now afraid to express their pleasure at the very halal jokes being told to them.
    When Muslims are accused of lacking a sense of humour, it is hard not to agree that certainly in some places it is buried quite deep. I am not disputing the advice not to laugh too much—after all, it is hard to maintain the concern we are advised to have for the suffering of people around the world, and then find ourselves cackling with laughter. But it seems to me that comedy is useful as a means of relaxation, as well as a means to understand ourselves, our community foibles, and our core humanity. After all, the richest humour is found in the gap between our aspirations and our reality.

    Comedy helps us to come together and bond through the dropping of barriers and differences, but also by helping us to see that the struggles that we think are unique to us are in fact shared, and we are all in this together. Sharing a good joke can bring down barriers, and also offer a little wisdom about ourselves.
    For Muslims with a sense of religion and history, this role of comedy is nothing new. Mullah Nasruddin is one of the great entertainer-comedian-wise man of Muslim history, whose stories date back to the Middle Ages. A joke that never fails to make me laugh is this: A certain conqueror said to Nasruddin, “Mullah, all the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them. There was, for instance, ‘God-Gifted’, and ‘God-Accepted’, and so on. How about some such a name for me?” “God Forbid,” retorted Nasruddin, quick as a flash.

    The Qur’an also has humour. Every time I read the story of Prophet Ibrahim, I chuckle. He stood as a young man in front of his village elders the morning after he has chopped the heads off the idols and hung the axe on the one remaining statue. Spitting with rage they demand to know if he is responsible. “Just ask the big idol,” he replies. You can imagine them becoming enraged at the young upstart poking their bubble of arrogance. It is a moment combining deadpan comedy with sheer farce.

    I have huge admiration for the growing crop of new Muslim comedians: it takes bravery and a great deal of talent to be able to highlight the reality of being Muslim in a way that is sharp and funny, but also exposes the truth of our human failings. It is important work in a community that needs ways to understand itself and its place in the world.

    TV and film are increasingly used to explore the reality of Muslim life in the mainstream, comedy often being the medium of choice. There is already far too much portrayal as terrorists, honour-killers and killjoys. And the reality is that Muslims have in their own lives such a great sense of humour. We do not need to repress it when in the presence of religion, as though the two are separate. A good sense of humour is a gift that should be shared.

    Such comedy breaks down barriers to other communities, and this is crucial work also. A multi-faith joke might go like this: a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says, “What is this, a joke?” Well yes, it is a joke. And yes, it is absolutely fine to break out into a smile.

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  • Avoiding the trophy wife trap

    My EMEL column from July 2012

    With wedding season upon us, we need to have a serious discussion about mahr, which is the gift given by the groom to the bride.

    For those unfamiliar with mahr, it is a reversal of the traditional dowry that brides were obliged to bring to the groom. I’m gob smacked by some of the sums set by brides these days. For young people setting out in life, ten thousand, or even five thousand pounds can be crippling. If there was ever a way to set yourself up as a wife whose primary motivation is money, then asking for a big mahr is surely it.

    In marriage, the Holy Prophet advises people to avoid wealth, beauty and status as criteria, instead prioritising piety. Money comes and goes, but a man of good character will always treat you well.

    Let’s dispense with the usual protestations against a lower mahr. Most importantly, it is the choice of the bride. If she wants ten, fifty or a hundred thousand pounds, or something non-monetary, that is up to her. I can’t argue against the ‘bridal choice’ factor. But I’ll explain why I—and Islamic tradition—suggest a more modest mahr.

    There is also the ‘protection after divorce’ argument. Families argue that the mahr will allow the bride to support herself if she is divorced. Even before addressing this point I say: why have you not equipped your daughter to be able to support herself if circumstances dictate? What if she is widowed, her husband made redundant, or misfortune befalls the family? Even if mahr is for post-divorce support, how far will ten thousand pounds stretch: a year? Then what?

    A related argument is ‘insurance against divorce’: if the mahr is stipulated very high, and payable on divorce, then a husband will think twice about divorce. First this flies in the face of the Islamic recommendation that mahr should be paid in full on the wedding night. Second, if the mahr is so high that the husband will not divorce his wife because it’s expensive, that means he sees his wife as a financial transaction. Who wants to be in a marriage with a husband who is only in it to avoid handing over the money he owes? These arguments all boil down to one thing: a marriage predicated on money. That is what is commonly referred to as being a trophy wife.

    The mahr is a sign of the husband’s affection, not a purchase price. It sets a tradition of kindness. And the way that the wife approaches the mahr also says something about the tone she wishes to set in the marriage. If we look at the tradition set by Lady Fatima, the daughter of the Holy Prophet, her mahr today would be worth around one hundred pounds. Yes! One hundred pounds.

    If you wish to instil love and affection into your marriage, rather than base it on monetary worth, then indicate this to your husband-to-be through your generosity of spirit, and by considering his financial situation. By being considerate of his finances, it conveys that the wellbeing of your husband and your family is important to you. These qualities are crucial as you begin a new and challenging journey. Would you rather be the understanding, mutually supportive wife, or the money-focused trophy wife?

    It’s also worth remembering that a large mahr doesn’t just magically appear out of nowhere: the husband must find the money, even from a loan. To ask for this is short sighted; it just means he will have less money and more strain after marriage. And why would you want your husband to go into debt to get married?

    Some families feel that because other women receive large mahrs, then if their daughter doesn’t, she will be seen as of lower status. I would say this: do you judge a woman’s worth by her mahr? Is your daughter a financial transaction? Islam teaches us to look at people’s qualities. In fact, there are some traditions that say that the best mahr is the lowest one.

    Please do not trade your daughter for a bank balance: give her to a man of quality and worth, who appreciates how to treat her well and respect her, who avoids going into debt, and will show her that he values her not by finances, but by her kindness, compassion and mutual understanding.

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  • Embracing our (British) Muslim identity as we look back on the Queen’s diamond Jubilee

    My EMEL column from June 2012

    As the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, it seems fitting to look back at how the British Muslim community has progressed since she took the throne.

    This June, the UK marks the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen. As a young woman, Elizabeth Windsor took the throne during the dying days of the world’s once largest empire. Her vast dominion included a sizeable proportion of the world’s Muslim populations in the Subcontinent, Middle East and Africa. Sixty years on she reigns over a nation that is radically different from the one she initially pledged to serve.

    Britain’s Muslim population today is very much of Britain, born and raised here and vastly different in its self-definition to their parents who may have seen this country as a temporary abode. So this seems a poignant moment to look back at a period that has seen a huge change in the UK Muslim population.

    Although there are records of interactions between Britain and the Muslim world as early as King Offa’s reign in the 8th century, and there had been a steady flow of Muslims into England since the 1800s, the Queen’s coronation marked a time when Muslim immigration grew much more rapidly in number. Waves of Muslims from all corners of the slowly disappearing empire made their way to what they perceived as the land of plenty, only to be faced with racism, difficult employment prospects and even poverty.

    Through immigration, global changes in the understanding of Muslims, and changes in the attitudes of the Muslim communities themselves, we find ourselves, at the Queen’s Jubilee, a vastly different kind of British Muslim population. No longer subservient to British masters in far away colonies, but rather a highly diverse population; no longer immigrant, but rather of Britain itself. Today’s Muslims have influenced Britain in areas ranging from its global connectivity to more mundane domestic issues such as modern British cuisine.

    A short comment article can never do justice to the huge changes that wider society and Muslim communities have undergone. However, it should prompt a wider discussion on where we were, where are we now, how did we get here, but most importantly, where do we and wider society see ourselves in another 60 years?

    Now settled in the UK, with second, third and fourth generations rooted in the nation and who in their own words are nothing but British, there is no more talk of going back home: we are home. And home is a place where we make things better for us, as well as those around us. For me, one of the important transitions we need to make is to establish a sense of confidence in who we are. That means that we have to open out our wagon trains which hitherto have kept us shielded and internally-focused, and when we speak of society, we must speak of all of British society. What goodness we wish for ourselves, we must wish for all.

    There are social and economic issues that need to be addressed, such as poor education levels and low unemployment, especially among young Muslim men. Economic activity alongside social mobility must have their standards raised. There are even serious health issues to be tackled. Muslims must draw on their Islamic values to improve their own standards and take those around them with them in their upward travels. Islam cannot tolerate unemployment; the Islamic work ethic demands industry to the best of one’s ability. Achieving an education is a priority in the Islamic worldview; it cannot be sacrificed for any alternative. If standards in educational institutions are not good enough, they must be improved. And health is to be preserved, not frittered away with sugary halwas or deep fried foods as tradition might demand.

    If we truly believe as Muslims that we have a set of values through which we can achieve a contented and fulfilled life, then we must strive to achieve that life in all that we do. And we must build that fulfilled life not just for ourselves, but also for those around us

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  • Why Muslim men need to be part of the debate

    My EMEL column from May 2012

    The Qur’an describes the relationship between men and women as complementary, not oppressive. We need to uplift each other and aim for higher standards, otherwise both will suffer.

    Regular readers will know that one of my interests is writing about Muslim women. The joys, the despairs, the challenges, and the triumphs. There is never a moment in the media or in our communities when the subject of women loses its currency. Simply sharing experiences and conveying them to a wider audience who may be unaware of what it is like to be a Muslim woman and how we feel are actions that in themselves can be ground breaking.

    There is no doubt that we need to improve urgently the difficult and discriminatory situation facing many Muslim women. However, for me, the subject of Muslim women has an ever-wider importance than just highlighting our plight and offering insights into how we can improve our situation. This is because work on improving the situation of Muslim women (as part of the work towards improving the real-life situation of women in general) challenges us to think as Muslims about much bigger questions which impact our very understanding of human society, faith and the nature of the human being. What is the nature of equality? What kind of society does Islam envisage? And why have we not achieved that? Why are our societies so at variance with Islam’s aspirations? What does it mean to be a Muslim woman, and by extension, what does it mean to be a Muslim man? What does it mean to be a real human being?

    I feel a constant pressing need in any discussion around Muslim women to state what ought to be obvious: this discussion is not for women only, and this discussion does not affect women only. Muslim men: you need to step up and get involved. What is the point of women talking only to women about the issues affecting women? Whether it is about discrimination, violence or marriage, women cannot fix the issues alone; it takes two to tango.

    A change to the status and situation of women de facto means a change to the situation of men too—but that is a good thing. If women are suffering violence from men, that means some men are perpetrating violence, which is bad for men too. And it will not only be women being abused and attacked; anyone seen as weak or less powerful will also suffer, which includes men. And of course, there is the trauma of the children who witness the violence.

    Before you think I am blaming the world’s woes on men, stop! Muslim women are not the only ones suffering from discrimination and inequality. For every stereotype held against a Muslim woman that she must be brainwashed, there is one that holds that Muslim men are brainwashing them. For every monolithic pronouncement that Muslim women are weak and submissive, one paints all Muslim men as violent, uncouth, even capable of mass terror. Even in the relatively mundane sphere of marriage, men must live up to a cultural gold standard of having to be virile, hunter-gatherer, undomesticated, unemotional oafs with no sense of tenderness or intimacy with their wives or children.

    We need to change the burden of stereotypes on men, and Muslim writers are trying to do so. But we need to hear more voices from men. With women, the typical narrative is the ‘misery memoir’, which narrates their story of liberation from an oppressive family or culture. For Muslim men, the typical narrative foisted on them and which forms the watermark of the public discussion about them is to fall into extremist or terrorist ways, and then through an epiphany find liberation into more reasonable ideologies. This narrative of Muslim men has become as entrenched—and as unenlightening and stereotyped—as the ‘misery memoir’ genre for Muslim women.

    So come on Muslim men, let’s hear it from you. What are the pressures you face? What would you like to say about the reality of being a Muslim man? And how can we work together to make our community and society a better place?

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  • Genocide: Why never again must not mean just one more time

    My EMEL column from April 2012

    We must be serious about the promise made not to massacre people or commit genocide.

    In 1948, in the aftermath of the WWII, the member states of the UN General Assembly unanimously approved the Genocide Convention. People who targeted a particular national, ethnic or religious group would be punished.

    In seeking to understand how the horrors of WWII happened in the heart of Europe, and to prevent a re-occurrence, the promise that echoed loudly was “Never Again”. Yet the truth is that instead of “Never Again”, genocide has happened again and again since then, in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

    For those of us in the West, these are horrific incidents, deeply troubling for the collective human consciousness. But—and this is a shameful truth we must admit—they all seem rather far away, as though the West can say they were out of their hands. This is no excuse at all. But with Bosnia, even this pathetic defence does not hold. Here, in the heart of Europe, the promise of ‘never again’ became shameful lip service.

    We constantly hear that if immigrants to Europe want to be accepted, they should assimilate and try harder to be more European. Yet Bosnian Muslims, European by ethnicity, who even ‘look’ European (whatever that means) and many of whom by their own accounts were Muslim by name only, were in fact entirely assimilated and still faced such atrocities.

    These occurrences give lie to the myth that if you ‘assimilate’ then you will be accepted. This should be a sobering lesson as extremist voices like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Douglas Murray in the UK are given airtime. Murray has previously said that “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board,” and Wilders is well known for stoking up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hatred.

    Most worryingly, these are not fringe views; rather they are part of a mainstream call for either assimilation or rejection of Muslims. We must recognise the danger of these calls given they come with a backdrop of European history between WWII and Bosnia, a history that does not seem to have lived up to its promise of “Never Again”. Both these events show us that, in the worst-case scenario, the extreme conclusion of such calls can be gruesome.

    When we remember the Holocaust, we must remember all the other genocides. We must address them all with respect and gravitas. It is when we join the dots between them that we have any hope to understand the causes of why they happen again and again. It also helps us to avoid reducing the value of any one people who have been killed, and instead create equivalence in human worth of all victims and all losses.

    Thus, the greatest tribute we can offer to the victims of the Holocaust is to recognise that the blood-curdling genocide of Bosnia more than fifty years later means we still have lessons to learn. To remember the former, without acknowledging the latter, along with the many other genocides around the world, simply means that we prefer not to face the horrific truth that the promise of never again has in fact been broken many times. It means that we cannot pretend that whatever darkness lay at the heart of the horrors has been erased. It is a difficult and unpalatable truth to face, and so no wonder it is overlooked.

    What we must take steps to avoid is another half-century elapsing with more of these shameful events taking place. That is why commemorating all genocides and promising that for all of them ‘never again’, with a clear look at their roots is so very vital. This is the action that must accompany our deepest most heartfelt prayers for all those who lost their lives, homes and loved ones in these inhumane massacres

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  • Muslim mothers and fathers and the path to paradise

    A belated posting of my March column for EMEL coinciding with International Women’s Day on March 8.

    In March, mothers and women come under focus. But the Qur’an has been singing their praises for centuries.

    March is the month of International Women’s Day, and in many countries the month of Mother’s Day too. They have got me thinking about how we deal with both motherhood and parenthood within Muslim communities.

    We all know the famous sayings from the blessed Prophet that is commonly quoted, “Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother.” Another story is about when the Prophet was asked which parent to obey, he replied “Mother”, then “Mother”, once more “Mother” and only then “Father”. And the beautiful saying in which God expresses His love for human beings in the way a mother loves her child, describing His love as seventy times greater than a mother’s love. It gives a divine shimmer to the care with which a mother nurtures her child. These religious edicts weigh heavily on children, but they are just as much a responsibility on mothers to ensure they convey the Divine message to their children. If Paradise is beneath a mother’s feet, then the duty to provide a peaceful environment that offers contentment and joy is part of our responsibility. I speak as a new mother here, reflecting in the very first instance on my own home and my own child’s upbringing. If my child is to flourish under the shadow of my love, then I need to explore what that love means, and how to deliver it to my child. There are no easy answers.

    However, it is important to stress that a mother is not alone in bringing up a child. No father today can shirk his parental duties; no father can, as in times past, say, “that is the mother’s job.” Children are hugely influenced by the father, and the best role model of this is of course the blessed Prophet himself. His relationship with his daughter Fatima offers us clues on the softer skills of parenting. He referred to her affectionately as, “the mother of his father”, thereby elevating her status and ensuring his respect for her was clear to her. He would stand when she entered the room. How many fathers do you know would do that? Would they, instead, dispatch her off to the kitchen and berate her if the house has not been tidied?

    It is enlightening to explore the parent-child role models we have in the Qur’an. Prophet Noah feels deeply that his son is going astray and attempts to save him in the Ark, but is commanded by God to leave him to his own fate. It is understandable that parents wish to employ their wisdom to guide their children away from what they perceive are mistakes. That is why these stories are important for parents, crucial in explaining that parents must make best efforts to guide their children, but must ultimately allow them to make their own choices.
    In an environment where parents may find themselves in a new culture, a culture which their children, however, feel at home in, parents may wish to tightly control their child’s decisions, but this is not the Islamic way. Prophet Muhammad advises, “The child is the master for seven years; and a slave for seven years and a vizier for seven years.” This indicates that by the time the child reaches the mid teenage years they became a parent’s advisor, support, ally, and friend. The Prophet continues, “If he grows into a good character within 21 years, well and good; otherwise leave him alone because you have discharged your responsibility with God.”

    It is a hard lesson for parents, especially after a lifetime’s sacrifice. However, this trust in our children and their choices is of utmost importance. Ultimately, this trust that we have brought up our children as best we can depends on trust in God — tawakkul. We can return to the Qur’an to see the trust that Moses’ mother places in God as she sends her baby in a reed basket along the Nile, into the very arms of Pharaoh. Yet God reunites them.

    Our children live in different times to our own, and therefore need different skills to succeed materially and spiritually. The best we can do is love them, guide them, and prepare them not for our world, which is passing, but for the world in which they will live.

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  • Reclaiming Valentine’s Day

    Belatedly posting my February column for EMEL magazine.

    Love has a more defined place in our faith, than mere present-giving.

    Every year Valentine’s Day brings a discussion about whether Muslims should participate in this increasingly consumerist celebration. I’m one of those that believes that it should be reclaimed from its current tacky representation of love as red roses, staged meals for two, and mandatory present-giving.

    The roots of Valentine’s Day should give us pause to rethink our approach to love and its celebration. First, let me say this: love should be celebrated. It is one of the greatest gifts we have been given from God. It is what brings joy to life, binds parents to children, holds families together, creates the threads which unite Muslims; and love is what gives us compassion and connection with all other human beings. Being lost in pure love for God is our ultimate goal as human beings. So why do we look so sour-faced when it comes to talking about love? Let us rejoice in love! Let our love for those around us be an expression of our love for the Divine.

    In the early Christian era it seems that there were some Christians called Valentine who were persecuted by pagan rulers for their belief in God. We can empathise with that, right? Another Valentine performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers who were forced to remain single by an Emperor who believed unmarried men made better soldiers. We support marriage too, right? We could reclaim Valentine’s Day as a celebration of marriage, or of love for the Creator.

    It’s possible that the date for the feast of St Valentine was chosen to coincide with some Roman celebrations linked to fertility in a bid to ‘Christianise’ the pagan celebrations. In a similar way, there was talk a few years ago by Muslims in Egypt to rename February 14th as Prophet Muhammad’s Day. This year, their wish may come to be realised. Due to the lunar nature of the Islamic calendar, the birthday of the Prophet will also fall in February, not too far awa from Valentine’s Day. These are two wildly different events that carry huge signifi cance, albeit in different ways, across the world.

    Yet they have more in common than we might think, the key point being a recognition that love for other than the self underpins the quest to be human. In Valentine’s Day this quest meets its destination in romance. For the Prophet, and in Islam, this journey reaches its home in God. In fact, God often refers in the Qur’an to the fact that “to God is the final destination.” In colloquial parlance when we fi nd a partner to love, people may describe the feeling as finally feeling ‘at home.’

    This feeling of rushing towards God out of pure love needs more emphasis. The feelings of joy, contentment, peace and wisdom are born from tasting this love.

    And so I’m using this talk of reclaiming Valentine’s Day for love, marriage or belief in God to fl ag up a much bigger, more significant discussion. It’s not really Valentine’s Day I’m interested in or even care about. What we need to flag up in the Muslim community is a need to talk more about love—human, romantic, Divine, humanitarian, parent-child. Islam is not about fear, it is about love. God’s Compassion and Mercy which we talk of so often are expressions of His Love. So if God talks constantly of His Love, why are we so loathe to do the same?

    Whilst formality, duty and ritual are important in Islam, they only take on real meaning when we talk of the love that inspires them, and is inspired by them. We can’t just talk about rules and regulations and expect human beings to live regimented lives. The modern trends of lists of harsh dos and don’ts totally miss the spirit of being Muslim which is to create a Divine connection. After all—that is the very purpose of the Holy Prophet being “sent as a mercy to mankind”.

    So this year in February, we can of course tell those around us how much we love them. But let us also thank God and express our love for Him, and all He has given us. And let us thank Him for the Prophet who He sent as a guide and a mercy. After all, God says in the Qur’an, “indeed God and the angels send blessings on the Prophet”. If they can send their blessings, surely we can do the same.

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  • Muslims, Britishness and volunteering

    Belatedly posting my column for EMEL magazine from January 2012.

    A report published at the end of last year in the UK considered the place of national pride.  “Patriotism has become a dirty word to some and a nostalgic exercise for others,” it wrote. “For many on the left, it is a problematic concept, seen as the gateway to jingoism, nationalism and arrogance. For the right it is equated with outdated symbols of Britishness like the battle of Trafalgar and the Union Jack. On both sides of the spectrum, patriotism has been misconstrued, misrepresented and its significance undervalued.”

    The debate around this concept has been particularly difficult for Muslims because they are usually scapegoated as the source of diluting or even sabotaging ‘Britishness’. There is constant paranoia and inflammatory talk of ‘creeping Islamisation’ or the threat of shariah law being imposed by stealth on the UK, chipping away at ‘our’ way of life.

    The report looked at a cross section of British society and their attitudes towards the nation to see what national pride and patriotism actually mean. This is a good question since politicians over the last decade have struggled to come up with a robust answer. There has been much talk of shared values. But when it came to defining what exactly those values are, the answers tended to be generic universal truths such as freedom, justice and respect. Which country, nay which person,  wouldn’t say those were it values?

    The report found that British patriotism is “founded in a profound, emotional connection to the everyday acts, manners and kindnesses that British people see in themselves. […] Those who love their country most are shown to volunteer more and to trust their neighbours more than those who are either ambivalent or ashamed about Britain.”

    Those who have better neighbour relations, and volunteer in their local communities show greater pride at a local and a national level. So it should come as no surprise (not to Muslims anyway) that Muslims showed more pride as well as optimism in the nation, than their peers, 83% compared with the average of 79%.

    Community participation is one of the foundations of Muslim life.  Belonging to the ummah and taking an active role are key elements of mu’aamalat, the ‘action’ part of Islamic obligations. You have to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

    On the one hand Muslims need to nurture ‘belief’, called ‘imaan’. Side by side with this must go ‘amal us saalehaat’, good actions.  This pairing is familiar to us from the verse from Suratul Asr. But a similar pairing that is repeated often in the Qur’an is the encouragement to ‘establish prayer and to give zakat.’

    Zakat of course refers to charitable giving, giving away of the wealth that we have at 2.5%. This giving of wealth is obligatory.  But since we are not expected to just write a cheque and then sit idly by, I suggest that there is one further form of wealth that we have that we must give of, and that fits straight into the discussions of showing pride, loyalty and contribution to our communities.

    The commodity that we rarely think to proactively donate is our time. It is rare and precious. Our personal time is a true sacrifice, and also is unique because it brings our skills with it. Money is not a substitute for the love, skills and dedication that a personal donation of time makes.

    If a week is 168 hours, then 2.5% means only 4 and a quarter hours each week.  That’s about half a day – perhaps a Sunday morning teaching young children. Perhaps an afternoon helping elderly people do their shopping. Maybe it means volunteering on a charity drive once a week. Or you could go to a local charity and help with fundraising or admin.  Or maybe it’s a phone call every day to someone housebound who could do with some social interaction.

    Giving away our money is indeed noble and we must do it. But we also need to give of our time. This ‘hands-on’ contribution is good for our own souls and selves. As the report shows, it grows our love for our communities. And it makes us more humble and insightful of the world. More importantly it is crucial for those around us. If we want to grow our communities, money is important, but time is even more necessary.   Each week when we plan out our schedules, we need to factor in that 2.5% of our time should be given in zakat to the community.

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