Thursday, 2 of October of 2014

Category » faith

What kind of Muslim are you?

This article was published in November’s edition of EMEL Magazine.

Recent marketing and advertising research concludes that ‘Muslims are diverse’. Why can’t Muslims be of the same opinion?

In the political, social and religious spheres, there are plenty of labels to define what kind of Muslim you are.  Are you a moderate or a fundamentalist? A Sufi or a Salafi? A progressive or a conservative?

More often than not, a Muslim will be defined by how outwardly pious they appear – how long is his beard, how expansive is her head-covering – as though a Muslim is defined on one axis only. Such lazy and judgemental labelling has prevented us from seeing the human aspirations, motivations and even foibles that make up the great mosaic of the global Muslim nation.

So when two of the world’s largest marketing and advertising agencies commission research into better understanding Muslim consumers, it is a good time to ask ourselves: can the commercial world get past these labels and help us gain better insight into the attitudes, diversity and aspirations of Muslims?

JWT’s aim was to identify the common values at the core of the Muslim market. Five segments emerged. It is worth noting that no segment is more or less merit worthy in terms of humanity.

‘Social Conformists’ (19%) believe social norms should be adhered to even at the cost of personal choice. They lack self confidence and rely on others for decisions. They are not religious and feel positively about Western values.  ‘Religious Conservatives’ (17%) follow and expect others to follow religious practices, which always override personal choice. They are anti-media and information averse. They support gender segregation. ‘Pragmatic Strivers’ (24%) are non traditional and ambitious, open-minded and willing to compromise on religious values in order to get ahead. ‘Extreme Liberals’ (21%) are independent and assertive and not particular about tradition or religious practices. They will explore options even if they don’t conform to religious or societal norms. ‘New Age Muslims’ (19%) are traditional and religious but do not expect others to be so. Whilst religious, they believe in gender equality, are pro-media and pro-Internet.

Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide published their report earlier this year, and have even set up a specialist Islamic branding and marketing agency. The CEO made an interesting remark about how piety is often confused with understanding the state of being Muslim: “While segmentations of Muslim consumers have been attempted before, they have often tended to merge into relatively simple scales of devoutness in terms of adherence to Islam on a scale of liberal to conservative. It seems more profound to look instead through the lens of the role that religion plays in their lives.”

The research identified six segments.  The ‘Connected’ (27%) who see themselves as part of the web-like network of the Ummah, saying ‘religion connects me’. Technology is positive, and compassion ranks highly. The ‘Grounded’ (23%) say ‘religion centres me’: Islam is their anchor, religion and culture are inseparable. They seek peace and closeness to God. The ‘Immaculates’ (11%) say ‘religion purifies me’ are younger, seek discipline and perfection, and may incline towards rejecting the impure. These three segments have a more ‘Traditionalist’ mindset; a desire for harmony and belonging; quietly proud of their faith; aligning with values of tolerance and compassion.

The remaining three segments were noted as of key importance in influence, labelled as the ‘Futurist’ mindset who see themselves as steadfast followers of Islam in a modern world. They are individualists who ‘choose’ Islam. Their pride is intense, regardless of the extent to which they would be categorised as ‘devout’. They believe in education and question intention. ‘Identifiers’ (27%) wear Islam with pride: ‘religion identifies me’ and want it strengthened and defended. The ‘Movers’ (6%) say ‘religion enables me’. They are internet savvy and act as change agents. The ‘Synthesizers’ (6%) are pragmatic, and adapt religious practice to their needs saying ‘religion individuates me’.

If we are to take any first insights from these commercial models, it is to learn that the aspirations and motivations of Muslims are not homogeneous, and Muslims should not be judged in a one-size-fits-all fashion. Muslims have complex and varying motivations, and yet their religion still informs what they do.

Muslims expect others to recognise and respect Muslim diversity. Such research highlights this, and if anything the immediate next step is to hope that we can learn to apply the same level of complexity to how we as Muslims ourselves see other Muslims, rather than just judging them by how pious they ‘appear’ to be.

Surprisingly, such commercial research may help us better understand our co-religionists, and what motivates and inspires them.


The meaning of minarets

This article was published in the latest issue of EMEL Magazine.

What is the difference between a church spire and a mosque minaret? This is a question that has pre-occupied me since late 2009, when the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban minarets, carrying the motion by 57.5%.
The ban has provoked controversy, and it is likely to be taken to appeal on the grounds of being a violation of religious freedom and expression. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of the former. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. What is the meaning we ascribe to such materials, and what is it that gives them their different meanings?
Given the political climate and increasingly strong anti-Muslim sentiment, this difference in reaction to minarets and spires comes as no surprise. It is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle of seemingly small and disparate trends: proposals to ban the niqab and the hijab; the pride in calling yourself ‘Islamophobic’; or the recent proposals for profiling. Politics to one side, what is it that gives a faith building its sacredness? Whether Muslim or otherwise, is faith really to be found in the confines of four walls designated as ‘place of worship’?
The Muslim populations in the UK arrived in stages from the beginning of the 20th century. Mosques were immediately set up primarily to meet the spiritual needs of prayer. They were ‘virtual’ mosques – hosted at community centres, schools or other hired buildings for the duration of the community needs. Their temporary function reflected the fact that many Muslim immigrants saw their own presence in the UK as temporary.
As time passed, a sense of permanence was invested in the worshippers’ lives as well as their place of worship. Buildings were bought and converted, and more recently purpose built. Many converted buildings are topped with a small green dome, or other physical attributes that denote the traditional typology of a mosque – large dome with minaret. The immediate needs of the community, along with constrained budgets mean that the functions offered by the mosque are prioritised over its form.

Although this is understandable, it is very sad. After all, one of the functions of the mosque ought to be for the beauty of its form to inspire worshippers, to engage them with the sublime, to create a connection to the transcendent. More than anything, the mosque ought to resonate fiercely with the worshipper’s surroundings and the culture that they are steeped in. This allows the individual to understand their own status as a unique individual while at the same time being part of the wider community. It allows the community to understand its own relationship to its surroundings and express its own nature amongst a community of communities. After all, human beings look different, speak different languages, dress differently – shouldn’t the mosques where they gather communally and worship communally, show variation in keeping with their local cultures too?

It is the people that make the faith building sacred. If you have ever stepped into an empty place of worship, the overwhelming energy and sparkle is electrifying, as you, the human being, bring meaning into that place.

That is why a minaret that looks so much like a spire can cause such anxiety and prejudice – because it is not the building that is the issue, it is what the building represents. Those who voted for the ban are expressing their negativity to the people who bring it to life.

Under this analysis, we must be conscious of the fact that some Muslim countries also show immense negativity towards places of worship for other faiths, although there are promising signs that this is slowly changing. The constraints placed on churches, synagogues and temples are against the spirit of respect inherent in Islam for other religions.
Even more significant however, is the fact that these constraints indicate that Muslim countries also see faith buildings simply as expressions of political meaning. Whether it is Switzerland or Saudi, Italy or Egypt, we need to see places of worship not as expressions of ‘otherness’ but rather as places where human beings can spark their own spiritual connections, and resolve the very human tension between individuality and being part of a community.

Far left image: Fraunmester Church in Zurich, Switzerland.
Left image: Mahmud Mosque in Zurich, Switzerland.
Other than age, the church spire and mosque minaret look remarkably similar, so why do they mean such different things?

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:

Faith%20buildings%20and%20Urban%20Environments%20%28Shelina%20Zahra%20Janmohamed%29.pdf
or here:
http://www.artsandislam.com/pdf/Faithbuildings.pdf


Hopes for a post-veil society

We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

Earlier this year, the head of of Al-Azhar Islamic university found himself in agreement with Italy’s extreme right-wing Northern League, the BNP’s anti-immigration anti-Islam stance and Turkey’s rampantly secular constitution. The subject was the veiling of Muslim women, a topic that makes for unlikely bed-fellows.

Al-Tantawi, the senior sheikh at al-Azhar, was visiting a girl’s school when he told an 8th grade student to remove her face-veil saying, “the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and it is only a mere custom”adding bluntly, “I understand the religion better than you and your parents.”

At his insistence she removed the veil. He said shockingly: “You are actually like this (this ugly). What would you do if you were a little bit beautiful?”

Whether you agree or disagree with his intervention, it surprises me that a scholar -and role model -feels that he can use public intimidation on a young woman, and that he has a right over a woman’s clothing, defining and commenting on her intelligence, her family and her looks.

French president Sarkozy used the historic occasion of his first speech in the French parliament to pick out the veil as an issue of primary concern to the French public. It was subsequently reported that only 367 women in France’s population of over 62 million wear the face veil. This raises questions about why the veil is of greater concern than other issues relating to all women, across all social groups. For example, why not raise the serious topic of domestic violence, whose victims numbered a heart-rending 47,000 in France in 2007? Further, I found it spooky that French intelligence could offer such a specific number of niqab-wearers – were these women being monitored?

Sarkozy’s speech follows a ban on the headscarf in French schools and universities since 2004, not unlike a similar ban in Turkey which labels the headscarf as contrary to the country’s secular principles. Turkey finds itself in the peculiar situation that the out-of-power secular party is advocating against freedom of religious expression, resulting in women who wish to veil being denied high school and university education as well as public sector jobs.
Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi is a man who is not known for his dignified treatment of women. He too is advancing proposals with the anti’immigration Northern League to ban the veil in Italy, overturning a historic exemption in Italian law that allows the veil on grounds of freedom of religious expression.

Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Proposals to wear, discard or ban it are put forward for political reasons that vary depending on the country. But this much is certain – Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue ‘problem’, and that issue is the veil. I’m not even going to elaborate on the many variations in veiling – headscarf, niqab, jilbab, burqa – because that is irrelevant to the discussion. This debate is centred around the interchangeability of ‘Muslim women’ with ‘veiling’, as though a Muslim woman and her veil are one and the same thing. To make matters worse, complex issues underlying the inflammatory political positions of people like Sarkozy and Berlusconi – issues like integration, unemployment and identity – are blamed on the veil. This is simplistic single issue politics at its worst – offering a bland and unintelligent analysis of the very real problems Muslim women, as well as society at large, are all facing, grouping them altogether as caused by ‘the veil’ and producing the wrong ignorant solution: ‘ban it.’

This obsession with the veil as the source of contention is illustrated by the constant stream of news and opinion pieces with titles like “uncovering Islam” “behind the veil” “beneath the veil” and “under the veil”. We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

If Obama believes that a nation torn apart by race issues can become a post-racial society, then there is legitimate hope for a post-veil society. It is a society where a Muslim woman can get on with the task of living her life – in education, employment, security and safety in the family, private and public spheres. It is a society where who she is, rather than what she wears is her definition and her contribution. In such a society, the veil is no longer her only definition, no longer even her primary definition. This is a society where a woman’s choice to veil or not to veil is her choice and hers alone.


The Fall and Rise of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Guest Post on Spirit21 from David Miliband, Foreign Secretary.

It’s Friday today, Jum’ah, and as a special treat, the Foreign Secretary has written his first ever posting on a Muslim blog, here at Spirit21. David Miliband is no stranger to cyberspace and writes his own prolific blog over at the FCO website.

It would be fair to say that the relationship between the Foreign Office and the British and global Muslim community has been a tumultuous one (ahem, understatement), and many Britons, including British Muslims, believe that the Foreign Office needs to be held more strongly to account, and should adopt a more proactive and ethical approach to Foreign policy, working in partnership with Muslims and the Muslim world.

So here is your chance, people: our Foreign Secretary is reaching out and wanting to create dialogue, so take up the opportunity to question him – that’s how we create change. I’ll be posting my own comments a bit later, but dear readers – grill him, debate with him, criticise him, offer him positive and innovative policy ideas.

Foreign Secretary: here is your opportunity to listen and to make real change. And you should keep going with more direct engagement like this with the electorate – we like it when our elected politicians talk to us directly, really listen, and then make real the aspirations of the people of this nation.


David Miliband: Compromise and coalition of consent required

There is hardly a more important issue than how we build strong coalitions with Muslim majority countries on issues as diverse as non proliferation or climate change, or how we deepen understanding between people of different faiths. This was the theme of my speech yesterday in Oxford.

There is a need for humility in the West but there is also a need for responsibility from all sides rather than finger pointing. No speech can be the end of the matter. The speech focuses on the importance of politics and arenas for politics where compromise and communication are the order of the day. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to engage through Spirit 21.
There are hard questions left unanswered in my speech and tensions within it. But if Gallup are right that the vast majority of people in Muslim majority countries say they admire the commitment in the West to the rule of law and free speech, but want to see these values consistently applied, then there is more than enough room for all of us to shape common rules for what the Prime Minister calls “the global society”. As this morning’s FT editorial says, if we are asking the rights questions, then at least we are on our way to getting the right answers.
David Miliband

Muslims: beyond the caricature

This article was just posted at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

The Muslim attitudes survey reveals a loyal community, keen on integration – far from the usual stereotypes

My British glass is half empty. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, only half of the UK population identifies itself as very strongly British. And in Germany only 32% of the general public feels that way about being German. Who then identifies most strongly with their nation, reaching a whopping 77% in the UK? Muslims.

This refreshing piece of information is part of a wider picture that Gallup paints of a European Muslim population that is more tolerant and integrated, as well as more strongly identified with Europe’s nations than other communities. It is an excellent and much-needed study, capable of informing the ongoing debate about the situation and place of Muslims in Europe.

The report investigates the usual allegations levelled at Muslims. It establishes that religiosity is no indicator of support for violence against civilians and that in the UK and Germany Muslims are more likely to state that violence is not justified for a noble cause than the general public.

This vital information needs to be channelled immediately into policy, where Muslims are only ever seen through the prism of violent extremism and are falsely considered to be predisposed to violence when in fact the opposite is the case.

The idea that Muslims want to live in isolated “ghettos” is also untrue. Muslims are in fact more likely to want to live in a neighbourhood that has a mix of ethnic and religious people: 67% of Muslims vs 58% of the general public in the UK, 83% vs 68% in France.

Muslims also believe that it is nonreligious actions that will lead to integration – language, jobs, education. For example, over 80% of Muslims in the UK, France and Germany believe that mastering the local language is critical.
Whilst both the general and the Muslim populations believe these things are essential for integration, these are the areas where Muslims are found to be disproportionately struggling. They have lower levels of employment and lower standards of living. For our public discourse and for government, this is where the focus needs to be and funding need to be applied.

The really worry is the gulf between how Muslims see their integration into society and how the wider population sees them. Some 82% of British Muslims say they are loyal to Britain. Only 36% of the general population believe British Muslims are loyal to the country.

This has its roots in misinformation and miscommunication across society and means we all need to work hard to dissipate the dark cloud of fear that hangs above our heads. The Gallup report points to other countries like Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa which have a very high level of tolerance and integration across society and suggests that this may be a result of governments that actively promote religious tolerance, recognise multiple religious traditions in official holidays and national celebrations and enshrine religious freedoms in the constitution.

As a British Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, I was particularly proud to see that in Britain the headscarf is seen positively. When asked what qualities it was associated with, a third said confidence and courage, and 41% said freedom. Some 37% said it enriched European culture.

Instead of building on the platform for understanding and communication that this report brings, the mainstream media coverage has sensationalised the report by reducing it to one thing: Muslim opinions about sexual relationships.

To be sure, Muslims are indeed more conservative than the general population, but this is perhaps a trait shared with other religious communities. In fact, the areas which concern Muslims are in some cases those that we find socially contentious anyway: pornography, abortion, suicide, homosexuality and extra-marital relations.

French Muslims appear to be more “liberal” with regards to sexual mores than German or British Muslims. This is a red herring. It does not necessarily mean that they have “more integrated” sexual attitudes. All it seems to reflect are broader views on sexuality in those countries. For example, the French public considers married men and women having an affair far more morally acceptable than Brits or Germans, and this difference is reflected in the Muslim population across all three countries.

The danger in focusing on sexuality as a litmus test of integration is that in turns this into a one-issue debate. The point here is that it is that it is completely irrelevant to a discussion of integration and a happily functioning society, where mutual respect and understanding for each others moral codes – whether we agree or not – ought to be the foundations for a shared vision of a shared society. We see this in the statistics about homosexuality: it’s true that no Muslims in the UK found this to be morally acceptable (though there is a 5% margin of error for Muslims across all the statistics in the report). However, this needs to be seen in context of the fact that Muslims are more respectful of those different to themselves than the general British public. The important point here is not that we should have homogeneous social and moral attitudes, but that we can respect and live with those who hold opinions at different ends of that spectrum.

The message is this: we should use this report to silence those who spread hate once and for all. We need to move on from the monochromatic discussions of loyalty being either to the state or to religion, discussions that force a choice between “my way or the highway”.

Our glass is actually more than half full. There is much hard work to be done, and many aspects of economic and social policy that need to be addressed, but the status quo offers all of us much hope for an integrated future. It is a future that can be built on the evidence before us of ample scope for dialogue and understanding.


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.


Beyond the bounds of religion

I had this published on the Guardian website today.

Beyond the bounds of religion
Muslims should see Gaza not as a tragedy for the Islamic world, but for all human beings

Obama is offering a hand of friendship to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. This week he marked this new relationship, based in “mutual respect”, by dispatching George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is a veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process and is widely held to be a fair broker.

“I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries,” Obama stated. But is this enough to allow him to connect to the worldwide Muslim community which is watching to see whether his actions live up to his words?

The internet has exploded with Muslims expressing their anger, despair and frustration at the ongoing war. My inbox bubbles up with the emotion of email after email with photos of death, invitations to rallies and lectures, multiple Facebook campaigns and groups as well as the urgency of fundraising for aid.

For the first time since the rally attended by a million Britons just before the invasion of Iraq I have joined in protests. Held in London, around the country and across the world, they represented the people’s voice in its most raw and purest form. Those who participated came from all over the country, from all ages, creeds, colours and backgrounds, including, but not limited to, Muslims. Those who raised their voices were all human beings, religious or not. But who was listening?

Not the BBC it seems, which has drawn huge criticism from across the board for refusing to air the Gaza appeal. Nor Lord Falconer who defended the BBC decision on Question Time on Thursday night by saying that seeing the suffering of Palestinians might make people “sympathetic to the Palestinians” and “hostile to the Israelis”, implying that our instinctive moral judgment was wrong.

Muslims have expressed their feelings as members of the “ummah“, sharing their anguish and heartbreak at the suffering of other Muslims in Palestine. The notion of ummah is embedded very deeply in the Muslim psyche. Its basis is Prophet Muhammad’s observation that someone who does not wake up in the morning and feel the pain of other Muslims around the world is not a Muslim.

But Palestine is not a state populated only with Muslims; it encompasses those of Christian faith or none, all of them human beings. As well as the concept of “ummah”, Muslims should be invoking the wider idea of humanity. There might be additional benefits in seeing the crisis in this way: evoking sympathy from the wider public and making common cause with those who support Palestine in order to achieve justice and peace, simply because it is the right thing to do.

Beyond the labels and stereotypes, Muslims, politicians, the people of the world, should know that this is a human calamity. Human beings are being killed before our eyes with nowhere to run, no food to eat, no water to drink. A Palestinian mother will see leaflets floating down from the sky to tell her that she and her children will be bombed and should leave. But where should they run? Egypt closed the border and places of refuge such as mosques are also hit.

This is a human crisis that the Palestinians have recorded on film, and which will haunt all of us as human beings. Once we said “never again”. We must live by that promise.


Rahmah not Rubbish

We love to tell the stories of the life of the Prophet, but have we really learnt to apply them to our daily lives?

One of the favourite stories that Muslims like to recount is that of the woman who threw rubbish at the Prophet. We like it because it tells a simple human tale of compassion that wins out over malice. It is the triumph of patience and good manners over hatred.

The Prophet walked along a particular street every day on his way to conducting his affairs. From one of the windows, a woman who was angry at him for preaching the message of one God, would throw rubbish at him. Each day he would walk past, and each day she would throw her fetid refuse at him. One day, as he is walking past, there is no rubbish thrown at him.

Let us pause for a moment, before completing the story, and really truly think about what it must have been like to face this daily occurrence. We recount it very glibly, and don’t really feel it in our hearts.

Dear reader, please take a moment to create this situation as though it is real to you, and feel the emotions that rise up within you. You are walking under a window, and a pile of stinking vegetable peelings, rotting banana skins, three day old meat trimmings and some used toilet roll hits your head. You live in a hot environment, and so the mixture of putrid waste is particularly disgusting. A voice rings out above you: “******* Muslims! Terrorist! Osama lover!” and the abuse continues. We can all easily fill in blanks of the insults that Muslims face everyday. I would feel angry, furious. That is the natural human response.

Now we return to the behaviour of the Prophet himself. One particular day, there is no rubbish thrown at him. He is concerned and so he enquires after the whereabouts of the woman. When he is advised that she is unwell, he goes to visit her to see the state of her health. She is shocked when he arrives, knowing full well the extent of her abuse. His kindness and patience in dealing with her cruelty wins her over, and she accepts the message that the Prophet has been preaching.

How much we love to tell this story! How proud we are of the Prophet’s exemplary character! But we fail to apply this in our daily lives. Let us return to our imaginary scene above. Would we have asked about the well-being of our abuser? Would we have taken time to get to the bottom of why they abused us? Would we have dealt with compassion and reason with them?

Many Muslims today already do suffer this kind of abuse, from simple rude comments on the street, to derogatory content in the media, to smearing in political circles, to books which cause offence. Sometimes we find it hard to connect it to the stories of the Prophet because we have not internalised the human experiences of the individuals whom we rightly venerate. And this is because we have not put ourselves in the shoes of their real human experience.

When we see an attack on Islam or Muslims, we ignore the example of the Prophet to return violence with rahmah, compassion, and concern, and instead return it with anger, protest and in a handful of cases with violence. It is easy to wax lyrical about the Prophet’s patience, but have we really ever imagined ourselves in the situation, as we did a moment ago? Can we now imagine how hard what he did was? When scorn is poured upon Muslims, upon Islam and heartbreakingly on those whom we respect, we must rise above the instinctive response to retaliate with base violence. Defending yourself, and asserting your rights is indeed critical. It is right and proper to rise up to the full extent of law and justice. But we have to also bear in mind the vision that Muslims ought to have for society: to create an equal, fair and tolerant world that is based on knowledge and compassion.

A visionary can only take a dream and turn it into reality by meeting abuse with knowledge. And when those who are thirsty to know about all the values that can make us the best of human, they will look to wherever they can find that knowledge. If Muslims are not offering accessible knowledge, then that thirst will be quenched wherever even the mirage of truth appears. Where there is abuse, it must be replaced with knowledge and compassion, rahmah. That is what happened when the Prophet stepped into the woman’s home. As the Qur’an says, when we face those who are ignorant, we should return it with peace; that is the spirit that leads to quantum change.

This article was published in The Muslim News