• Taking part in today’s Big Read world record attempt

    This morning I’m off to take part in The Big Read, which is a world record attempt to get as many children reading with an adult as possible. It sounds like a lot of fun, and a great way to get children to realise that reading is enjoyable, and can be both a private and a shared experience.

    Here is the blurb from the press release about trying to get 3000 children involved:

     Over 35 schools across London and from as far as Reading and Croydon will participate in this unique event, which seeks to highlight the importance of literacy, locally, nationally and internationally.
    The world record attempt will involve authors, teachers and some special guests reading from Roald Dahl’s classic ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to the assembled children. Celebrities taking part include journalist, Victoria Brittain, BBC London presenter Asad Ahmed and Hedy Epstein, an 85 year old holocaust survivor.
    A special guest appearance will take place by John Stephens who worked as part of the special effects team on what turned out to be the cult film, ‘Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’
    Reverend Jesse Jackson, is lending his support to the BIG Read. At a forum at the House of Commons on Friday, 26 February 2010, the Reverend Jackson stated: “I support the BIG Read because if you can read, you can reason. Reading is like a light to your brain. It takes you out of darkness… Literacy liberates. Reading and reasoning are forces for change, for the good”.

    I certainly echo what the Reverend says – reading is absolutely fundamental. But also, once a child matures, making sense of what you are reading, and thinking critically about it – and realising that you too have something to say – is pretty important too.

    Thus spake the blogger who discovered much later than she ought to have that everyone has a voice, and everyone should express it.

    Having said all of that I’m looking forward to reading the part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chews the chewing gum and turns into a big purple blueberry.

    Update: The results of the event are in – and it’s a world record! There were 3234 participants (including me) who broke the world record for ‘the most children reading with an adult’.

    If you wanna be the best and stand out from the rest you gotta be a record breaker. No matter what the test if you become the best you gotta be a record breaker. Record breakers are headline makers and they are the top of heap!


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  • The Road from Damascus – review and author interview

    The Road from Damascus, written by Robin Yassin-Kassab, is set in London, and follows the story of Sami Traifi, a tortured academic who struggles to follow in the footsteps of his brilliant atheist secular Syrian father.

    The book opens in Damascus where Sami is visiting distant relatives in order to inspire his academic thesis, but he discovers a dark secret there that ought to shatter the perfect image he has of his father, but which pushes him deeper into crisis. Interwoven into his tale are the struggles of his neurotic but patient and devout mother Nur, his long-suffering and yet extremely balanced and new-to-discovering religion wife Muntaha, as well as his street-wise fundamentalist brother-in-law, and numerous other characters.

    It is a dark, disturbing and challenging read. This is not a frivolous by-the-beach book, far from it. You have to be fully engaged intellectually and emotionally with this book. It rattles you in the way intense literature can. At times you feel physically shaken, at others, you marvel at the author’s turn of phrase that shimmer jewel-like in the text.
    At first glance it is a welcome addition to the writings about Muslim experiences, and in particular it offers an insight into a world that is even less familiar to British readers – that of the Arab experience in the UK. It delves into the history and attitudes that have been shaped by the rise of Arab Nationalism and secularism in the region, and the tensions that have been created – rightly or wrongly – between the notion of keeping religion whilst aspiring to modernity. Sami is a secular atheist fundamentalist who cannot comprehend why his wife finds fulfilment and solace in the faith she discovers long after they are married. He is repulsed by his mother who prays and excludes her from his life out of disgust. Yet they are far more centred and content than he is despite the fact he claims moral and intellectual superiority. He spurns them, whilst they shower him in love.

    But whilst the book does much to inform readers of the “Muslim experience”, it is about something other than making a contribution to the landscape of literature that tries to untangle the complexity of religion in our society. The book is much bigger than this and in some ways less about religion and more about the intersections of life choices of different people, and how at some points they veer towards each other, and other times they veer apart. the human skill is to be able to hold relationships together no matter where you are on the curve.

    Sami is a deep, dark, miserable anti-hero, not realising that redemption comes not from remaining in the past, but by making sense of what has gone before in order to create the future. His are the darkest of human demons – disparaging the importance of emotion and spirituality in favour of the intellect. In many ways it is the portrait of the eternal questions that face human beings, and which are at the centre of our contemporary debates.

    I caught up with Robin Yasin-Kassab after he returned from the Palestine Literature Festival.

    Shelina: Where did the idea for your book come from?

    Robin: I don’t know. I just started writing. Which is my only advice to someone who wants to be a writer: just write.

    Another answer would be: from the churning of ideas and experiences in my mind, having lived in London, Istanbul, Damascus, Rawalpindi and elsewhere, over the years. And from feeling the rising cultural tension after September 11th, the crushing of the second Intifada, the invasion of Iraq, etc.

    And from reading novels, of course.

    Shelina: In Britain, even though mainstream writing by and about British Muslims and Islam is relatively limited, what does exist tends to focus on the Sub-continental experience. Your book exposes a very different backdrop that many readers may be unfamiliar with like notions of Arab Nationalism, secularism and modernity in the Middle East. In what way do you feel the Arab experience in Britain has been different?

    Robin: According to the old imperial definition of citizenship, the peoples of the subcontinent (and the Caribbean) were British even before they arrived in Britain. In most cases Arab immigrants don’t have the long cultural-historical link with Britain that some other groups do. They are (with exceptions such as the Yemeni communities) more recent and less well-established arrivals, fewer in numbers, and more likely to be political refugees. Proportionately, there is a high number of intellectuals, journalists, writers etc, as these people have often had trouble with Arab regimes or occupation authorities. Mainstream Anglo society is perhaps even less conversant with the ideas and cultural references of the Arabs than with those of the subcontinent.

    In my book I didn’t intend to create a representative sample of British, or London, Arabs. I have spent most of the last fifteen years living in the Arab world, so my preoccupations while writing were not necessarily specifically British. I used a London setting to dramatise the preoccupations because I felt most comfortable writing about London. I still do feel most comfortable writing about London, and I’m not sure why. I’ve lived in other places much longer.

    Shelina: Let’s be honest, your main character Sami, is not the most likeable hero. And reading your book is at times a challenging emotional wrangle. Was this deliberate?

    Robin: It’s always a risk to write about an anti-hero or a failure, but most of us are partial failures, some of the time. And there’s a great contemporary tradition of nasty protagonists – from Dostoyevsky to Philip Roth and John Updike. In these cases, the reader’s discomfort is compensated for by the strength of the writing and observation, and in Roth’s case by humour. I hope that Sami’s unpleasantness is usually compensated for by psychological observation, humour, interesting writing, and the satirical angle of the narration. As for ‘challenging emotional wrangle’ – I sense disapproval here! – I suppose this was deliberate too. I wanted to transmit the emotional wrangles that my characters are challenged by, and that the world was challenged by in september 2001. Again, there is a great tradition of the challenging emotional wrangle text, real great claustrophobic classics, like Notes from Underground or Wuthering Heights. Of course, I do not possess the skill or experience of these writers. I do what I can.

    Shelina: The female characters in your book are much more centred, spiritual and accepting of others than the male characters. Why do you think this is?

    Robin: Because they are, I think, treated less satirically and more realistically. And in a slightly more forced way, becuase I wanted to write against the contemporary stereotype of the passive, ignorant, oppressed Muslim woman. In my novel Muslim women choose to wear hijab for their own reasons, becuae they have an inner life. In most of the media, Muslim women are told to wear the hijab.

    Shelina: As a female reader I felt frustrated by the female characters – they seemed too perfect, too right, too balanced. The male characters had much more leeway to explore themselves to their absolute limits. Do you think women are more constricted by culture and religion?

    Robin: Do you really think Sami explored himself to his absolute limit, more than Muntaha did? Wasn’t he in fact only avoiding self-exploration through dramatic diversions? Sami learns a disturbing secret in the first chapter and then takes until the end of the book to admit it to himself. Everything he pretends is exploration is really a red herring. I think Sami is shown as far more constricted by culture and religion (although his is a secular nationalist religion) than his adaptable wife.

    And I’m not sure that Nur is completely right and balanced. She’s a nervous chainsmoker for a start. And she is able to see through culture to the possibility that she may only be grasping at something unreal. Her justification for the hijab in the penultimate chapter is more Camus than Qaradawi.

    I suppose I used testosterone as a literary device. I think there is a certain kind of silliness – like Sami’s ridiculous drugged night out, or Ammar’s flirtation with militant blackness – for which boys are more likely candidates than girls.

    Shelina: Your main character Sami Traifi appears to be a secular fundamentalist who clings to his religion of unbelief with immense tenacity. His wife’s younger brother is a fundamentalist of a different kind, born of the street, combining hip hop, reggae and a need to claim some kind of social identity. What light, if any, does this shed on current debates on religious fundementalism?

    Robin: Well, it’s a satirical reflection of our world. I think the cultural arrogance, reductive simplifications and monomania of the ‘new atheists’ is as fundamentalist as Ayman az-Zawahiri. Other ‘religions’, in whose names people are ready to kill, include American manifest destiny, the civilising mission, ‘liberty’, and so on. In good ways as well as bad, religions surround us – by which I mean religion in the widest sense, a story and set of values and meanings which are bigger than individual human beings. But the culture often pretends that only systems like traditional Christianity or Islam are religions.

    About Ammar, one point here is that he’s British. His hip hop-Islamist militancy (but he’s a gentleman really, just disturbed) could only be British. It’s like wearing a hood and saying innit, innit?

    Shelina: What do you hope for your book?

    Robin: I feel blessed with what has happened. I didn’t really expect it to be published. In the year since it’s come out I’ve met many interesting writers and been to Oslo, Milan, Dublin and Palestine. Being a participant in the Palestinian Festival of Literature was a great honour.

    Shelina: What is your next project?

    Robin: I’ve given up, for now, after a year and a half’s work, on my second novel. It was too complicated and self-conscious and wasn’t flowing. The difficult second novel. So I’m thinking about the third novel, and playing with three ideas. One involves an albino, one is a family saga, and one returns to Sami and Muntaha, later, and shows Muntaha in a period of weakness. Perhaps I should write that one for you, Shelina!

    I also have a blog and I’m a coeditor of Pulse , one of Le Monde Diplomatique’s five favourite websites.

    Shelina: Thanks Robin for taking some time out to talk to me, and I’m looking forward to that third book in my honour. I wonder if I’ll be mentioned in the dedication page! Good luck with your future writing, and I hope to read a lot more of your work in the future.

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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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  • Hurrah!

    Last week, my book Love in a Headscarf won the Best Published Non-Fiction prize at the Muslim Writers Awards. IslamOnline has described this event as the “Muslim Oscars” and it certainly is very glamorous.

    I was extremely delighted to win the award, and hopeful that this acknowledgement will bring even more wonderful things in the future. (More awards please!)

    Here’s a pic of the trophy itself, sunning itself in the garden the following day…
    And if you haven’t bought a copy of the book yet, you can visit to find out more, and purchase a copy. Happy reading 😀
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  • "Love in a Headscarf" shortlisted for Muslim Writers Awards

    Exciting news! My book Love in a Headscarf has been shortlisted by the Muslim Writers Awards for the Published Non-Fiction category.

    The competition is stiff, with some great books also on the shortlist, but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. The awards will be announced on May 27th.

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  • Spirit21 celebrates its 3rd birthday

    Over the weekend Spirit21 was three years old, and it’s been an exciting three years! This year has been packed full of new year resolutions, conferences and some thinking about Palestine and about love. You can read what happened in 2008, as well as a few thoughts I’ve had previously about birthdays.

    Over these years since I first dipped my toe into the blogosphere, and into the wider world of the media, I’ve been asked constantly to write a memoir of my experiences as a Muslim woman. I’ve been asked to share the honesty, humour and insight that I try and put into my articles in a book. And this weekend, just as we celebrate Spirit21’s third birthday, I will be announcing the publication of my first book, called “Love in a Headscarf“.

    You can read more about it at

    And for those of you who are in and about London you are invited to the launch on Friday evening at the City Circle.
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  • What’s love got to do with it?

    This article was recently published in EMEL Magazine.

    February plays host to Valentine’s Day, and to the declaration of those ‘three little words.’ But what exactly are those three little words, and what do they reveal about our modern psyche?

    A colleague of mine will be abroad, but will be sending flowers to his wife with the message: “I’m sorry I can’t be there to take you out for an over-priced meal. Here are some over-priced flowers instead.” He humorously conveys his love, but his words reflect a modern-day fatigue of being told what, when and how to feel, beholden to the manufacturing and commercialisation of emotion.

    “Happy Hallmark Holiday” encapsulates our disillusion with modern angst for total perfection. Our very real, natural and rough-round-the-edges human processes are turned into flawless airbrushed ideals that do not resemble our lived experiences.

    At the opposite extreme of expressing our feelings, we face another far too common three word phrase: “it is bid’ah“, denying our natural fitrah to express love. Last year, the Saudi Vice Police were sent to all shops the week before Valentine’s Day to ensure that nothing red-coloured was sold. Kuwaiti MPs declared that Valentine’s Day was ‘not compatible with our values.’ The Internet is replete with questions asking whether Valentine’s Day is haram, halal or bid’ah.

    How did Muslims reach the point where we ask legal authorities about matters of celebrating love? Consider other questions that are asked: “Is falling in love allowed in Islam?” or “Can a husband express his love to his wife?” They reflect the increasingly legalistic approach that Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

    Today, as Muslims, we have become servants of the law, instead of the law serving us in order to achieve higher spiritual perfection. Abiding by the law is not a purpose in itself: it is a means to an end. It is critical to respect the law, and our jurists and scholars, but we must be careful not to derive a false satisfaction from following the law for the law’s sake over striving towards the underlying objectives of the law. Our current pre-occupation with legalities rather than ethos is directly connected to the fact that we have become unclear about our goals, our values and our principles as human beings who follow the faith of Islam.

    Bluntly put, we focus on the minutiae instead of freeing ourselves to ask world-changing questions. Let’s ask our scholars big questions that focus on Islam’s concern for all human beings. If Islam is about social welfare for the whole of humanity, then let’s ask: how do we use the institutions of zakat to put an end to world poverty? If the Prophet emphasised education by saying ‘seek education even to China’, then how do we ensure that every child goes to school? If Islam is concerned with physical as well as spiritual well-being, how do we ensure healthcare reaches all human beings?

    What of those other three little words, “I love you”? We often hear that Christianity is the religion of love, but Islam – wrongly in my opinion – is characterised as far from this. Why is Islam portrayed in this way?

    We must challenge the ideas that modern discourse – which includes Muslims themselves who have been brought up on a diet of legalistic directives – perpetuates that Muslims and Islam are lacking in love, or worse, are averse to it. The discussion of love – for Islam by its nature is predicated on love – is critical to our survival and contribution to the modern world. So much so, that I wanted to explore these forgotten ideas of love that underpin the very essence of being a Muslim, with humour, humanity and lightness of touch. The title and subject-matter of my forthcoming book, Love in a Headscarf, for these very reasons creates surprise at the juxtaposition of the idea of Muslims and love.

    Muslims say that Islam is the religion of peace. Some go further and say that it is the religion of justice, and that justice underpins peace. I would go further still and say that Islam is the religion of Rahmah, compassion. For compassion to be exercised, justice must already be inherent. But compassion also expels the lurking remnants of hatred, fear and pain through love. Hate cannot push out hate, only love can push out hatred. Allah insists we know Him by His name Rahman, the Lovingly Compassionate. We too must reclaim our role as the people of Rahmah.

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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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  • The Jewel of Medina – Sherry Jones meets Bridget Jones

    The following review that I have written of the book has just been published by the BBC

    A romantic telling of the life of one of the wives of Islam’s prophet has caused controversy among some Muslims – and its publication has been indefinitely postponed in the UK amid fears of a violent reaction. But is The Jewel of Medina actually any good? Blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is one of the few people in Britain to have read it.

    The Jewel of Medina is a chest-heaving, brassiere-busting book of outrageously tacky historical romantic fiction.

    Some parts of the media are suggesting that this book is at the forefront of defending free speech. The author wants it to reach out to solve our global problems of intercultural dialogue. Between them they had me rolling around on the floor laughing.

    The book claims to tell the story of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, through her own eyes, from the age of six, through adolescence and into adulthood. But although she lives through one of the most dramatic periods of history, the narrative conveys little of the enormity of the changes of the era, and of which Aisha was a huge part.

    Sherry Jones, the author, says she wanted her book to be “at once a love story, a history lesson and a coming-of-age tale”.

    In order to do so, she fabricates a storyline about a lover, Safwan, whom Aisha runs away with – but then decides to leave and return to Muhammad.

    But this invented plot dominates, leaving barely any room for the real history and importance of her story.

    Whether you believe her to be fact, fiction or fantasy, and Muslims believe her to be very real, Aisha is of great significance in global history. The one fifth of the world population who are Muslim regards her as the wife of the Prophet Muhammad and a “mother of the believers”.

    She is said to have been a leading scholar and teacher and recounted many of the traditions about the personality of Muhammad.

    Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.

    Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution. This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.

    With this in mind, I would have ignored this book and let it fade into obscurity. Allowing the book to be remembered only for the lack of interest it generated would have been the ultimate poetic justice. The original publisher pulled out – and those parts of the media who wanted to stir things up said Muslims wanted it banned.

    So, in order to find out what the (manufactured) fuss was about, I found myself spending 12 dreary hours reading this cringe-worthy melodramatic prose. Even if you feel that it is your duty to read it in the defence of freedom of speech, don’t do it, I beg you. Go out and enjoy the last sunny days of autumn, play with your children, watch paint dry. You’ll thank me for it.


    So let’s deal with its literary merits. If you’re a man, you’ll probably hate this bodice-ripper. If you like well-written prose, then you should steer clear too. What it does have going for it is pace and saucy pre-TV-watershed romance.
    Open it randomly and you read churning phrases such as: “His eyes like honey flowed sweet glances over my face and body,” or “Is your young bride ripe at last?” Grab a crumbling Flake and a pot of ice-cream.

    The author claims she wants to humanise Aisha, to reach out to the Muslim world and to create debate. I found the opposite of this spirit in the book. Muslims will not recognise the characters and stories here because they vary so wildly with recorded history. As the copyright note makes clear, this is a work of fiction.
    Take, for example, the night of “Hijrah”. This was the moment when the first band of Muslims left the hostile city of Mecca to move to Medina where Islam flourished – a turning point in Islamic history. But the book changes events to place Aisha at the house of Muhammad.

    Jones changes the very essence of these individuals, so their characters are at odds with historical traditions. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as well as one of the great leaders of early Islam, is portrayed as conniving, hot-tempered and lascivious. The Islamic texts document him as a consistently staunch defender of truth and justice, an upstanding character.
    So, if you drive a wedge between Muslims and others by fictionalising core characters, how can the book be a platform for debate?

    Jones admits that she has introduced concepts that were absent from the period and place to help to create her story. For example, Aisha is put into purdah, seclusion, as a child, but this is an Indian sub-continental idea then unknown to Arabia.

    A huge focus of Aisha’s energies is to become the hatun, the lead wife, and make all the other wives bow to her. But hatun is a Turkish concept – and bowing is contrary to all Islamic teachings.

    What we end up with is an outdated Orientalist reading of an exoticised woman.
    Aisha’s angst is the angst of 19th Century western writers who couldn’t understand the culture they were observing. And when they couldn’t understand, they maligned the ideas they found unfamiliar, such as veiling of women like Aisha.

    The result is an awkward unconvincing story, created to fit a pre-existing pre-determined idea of what life for Muslim women ought to be like. The cover art is The Queen of the Harem, a 19th Century Orientalist painting of a European-looking woman.

    Sex, sex and more sex

    The most irritating thing is its constant obsession with sex. The author sees it everywhere and in everything, and makes Aisha do the same. Her life is reduced to a parody of a smutty Bridget Jones diary.

    I lost count of the references to “child bride”. Even till relatively modern times, marriage for women in their early teens was completely natural and common in parts of the world, including Europe.

    Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.

    What we need for debate and discussion are accessible histories of all the key figures in Islamic history. As Muslims, instead of honouring these individuals blindly, we will accord them much more respect by opening our eyes to their achievements through critical re-examination of their lives. This cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

    Some Muslims oppose a style of writing and analysis that offers insights into the very human lives these individuals led.

    I believe this opposition is misplaced, because that is what we already do with the words and deeds of the Prophet, known as the hadith: we read, empathise and re-apply the essence of those day-to-day experiences.

    The crucial issue in creating positive understanding and dialogue through such writings is that they must be historically sound, and see the world through the experiences, morality and realities of the protagonists themselves.

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  • "Conversations on Religion" book launch

    Tomorrow is the launch of a new book entitled Conversations on Religion edited by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson. “A stimulating collection of interviews on the subject of religion and belief, including high-profile names such as Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks.” Here is the blurb:

    Conversations On Religion addresses questions such as; How do we define religion? Can we define faith? Why in our twenty first century world are so many people religious? and What should our ambition for religion be?

    Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson explore these questions together with 18 well-known religious thinkers and commentators, including: AC Grayling, Giles Fraser, Rowan Williams, Lewis and Matthew Wolpert, Don Cuppit, Muhammad Yusuf Al-Hussaini, Tariq Ramadan, John Gray, Alistair McGrath, Abdelwahab El Affendi, Richard Dawkins, Julia Neuberger, Fraser Watts, Azzam Tamimi, Ann Widdecombe, Karen Armstrong, Shelina Janmohamed, and Jonathan Sacks.

    The result is a fascinating insight into human nature. We human beings are strange in our commitment to beliefs which we inherit, imbibe and choose. We find them difficult to let go. For better and for worse, this is our commonality. The task is to better understand and attempt to take responsibility for those different beliefs and positions which seem to mean so much to us. Conversations on Religion is an important part of that process.

    Yes, well-spotted! There is a chapter with me amongst all the well-known names, reflecting on what faith and religion mean to me, and answering some of the questions that come up time and again about extremism, Muslim women and organised religion.

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