• BBC Radio 2 “Pause for Thought” : Second Chances

    This is the text for my Pause For Thought that was aired this morning on BBC Radio 2 on the subject of ‘Second Chances.’

    You can listen to the audio if you are in the UK for the next 7 days.

    Last week the British Museum opened an exhibition about the hajj the Islamic pilgrimage. It‘s believed to be the first ever of its kind, showcasing historic artefacts collected from around the Muslim world which depict how integral this journey is to the global Muslim population.

    Mecca of course has religious significance for Muslims as the place towards which Muslims pray. It is the destination for the journey of a lifetime. But more than this: taking part in the hajj gives pilgrims the chance for a fresh start, to wipe away the sins, the regret, the remorse and the hurt we so often carry with us for years.

    Although it’s the iconic black cube called the Kaba which springs to mind when speaking of the hajj, it is in fact the desert known as Arafat which marks the turning point for pilgrims. Here under the fierce afternoon sun in the barren sands the pilgrims will gather to pray for purification and forgiveness. This is where redemption is granted.

    As afternoon gives way to dusk, they move forward to the next stage of the hajj, ready to begin their second chance. All the troubles and peccadilloes are wiped clean. There’s a palpable lightness of step in the feet of the pilgrims, an excitement at beginning life anew. Even the white clothing that all pilgrims wear is a public display of starting again.

    When the pilgrims return home, they’re greeted by the whole community who present them with garlands of fresh flowers. In Muslim countries even ministers will go to the airport to greet the returning hajjis. This is because the entire community recognises that these people have been given the opportunity for a second chance. This becomes a public celebration, to rejoice in the chance to start afresh.

    We don’t need to wait for an epic once in a lifetime event to give ourselves a second chance. We too can spend time thinking about how we will move forward, unshackling ourselves from our previous burdens, and releasing our regrets.

    We must look forward just as the pilgrims do in the hajj, rather than looking back. Like the pilgrims, realising we are not alone in this quest gives us strength.

    Most importantly, just as the pilgrims embrace the opportunity for a second chance, we too can be kind to ourselves and offer ourselves the chance for redemption.

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

    This article was published yesterday by Common Ground News Service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    continue reading
  • Steps Saudi Arabia needs to take to enhance the hajj

    Yesterday my op-ed was published in The National newspaper in the UAE.

    Millions of pilgrims from around the globe will converge on the holy city of Mecca in the coming days for the pilgrimage of the Haj, the world’s most diverse gathering. Last year some 2.8 million Muslims from 181 countries made the voyage to Saudi Arabia. It’s a crowded, emotionally intense, physically challenging and spiritually demanding experience.

    Arriving at the Kaaba, the pilgrims fall to their knees weeping. Since they first performed their daily prayers as children they have faced towards it in worship. Their dreams of Mecca are powered by wishes to step on the sand that has seen the footsteps of the Prophet, to feel the wind that has overseen the revelation of the Quran, to be where the promise of Islam was delivered. To be in this most blessed of places, they may have saved painstakingly over decades. And finally, here they are at the doors of the House of God.

    Geography and history have laid the mantle of responsibility on the shoulders of Saudi Arabia, within whose borders lie the holy cities of Mecca and Medina known together as the “haramain” and from which the king of Saudi Arabia draws his title, “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”. The honorific brings with it a heady responsibility. Modernisation and the age of the jet plane have multiplied the thousands of pilgrims who once embarked upon the road to the Haj into millions. To accommodate the pilgrims, there are ambitious plans for the expansion of the areas around the haramain, flattening almost the entire surroundings to construct multiple high rise luxury hotels, shopping centres, and access roads.

    It’s easy to criticise the Saudi authorities for these plans but pilgrim management is a challenging task. Muslims want to go to Mecca, and rightly so. But on arrival, they complain if facilities are not good enough, if hotels are not near enough, if paths are too crowded, if travel is too slow. Visitor numbers are rising annually, and quotas are deeply unpopular. With 1.8 billion Muslims in the world – and growing – conditions are unlikely to improve in the near future. Improvement efforts are continuous. The building around the Kaaba is multi-storeyed to increase capacity. Last year, a monorail was built to transport 70,000 pilgrims an hour. This year, pilgrims will be issued with digital smart cards to make the processing of visitors faster and smoother.

    Expansion will allow Saudi Arabia to increase the number of pilgrims. Muslims will benefit through greater access and the country will increase its tourism revenue. In 2009, 12 million pilgrims brought in US$7 billion. By 2013 the goal is $15bn. Last month the chair of the Tourism and Antiquities Commission talked about tourism as a way of generating income, relieving poverty, and creating jobs. There is talk of an “Umrah Plus” programme to open up travel for Umrah visitors, who currently are not permitted to venture outside the holy cities. The commission speaks of sites such as the ancient Nabataean city in Madaen Saleh and the 300-year-old village of Rijal Alma. It is heartening to see that the Saudi authorities are realising the value of their heritage.

    This is not the case for sites of Islamic religious historic importance say detractors. They point to news stories about sites in the vicinity of the haramain being bulldozed in minutes. These precious morsels of Islamic heritage will be replaced by towering luxury hotels. No wonder the global media has likened Mecca to Las Vegas.

    The sites date from the time of the Prophet, his companions and the early Islamic empire. Experts say some even date back to the time of Abraham. The Quran repeatedly exhorts believers to “travel the world” and “see the fate of those who have gone before”. The implicit conclusion from this is that there is a religious duty on believers to preserve historical remains.

    The bad news, say critics, is that so many important sites have been destroyed that only 20 or so remain from the period of the Prophet. An example is the graveyard of Jannatul Baqi in Medina, which contains the graves of the Prophet’s companions, his daughter Fatima, his wife Khadija and his grandson Hassan. It was bombed in 1926 to make the earth flat and undistinguished, all markings of these key individuals gone forever. Another site is the birthplace of the Prophet himself, which has been hidden beneath a library.

    Saudi Arabia is a powerful member of, as well as the headquarters of, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, whose 57 members represent the majority-Muslim nations of the world. It was founded in 1969 in response to an arson attack against the Al Aqsa mosque.

    The OIC continues to object vociferously to the destruction of Islamic sites in Israel. At its December 2005 meeting in Mecca, the preservation of historic Islamic sites in Jerusalem including the Al Aqsa mosque was raised as an issue of grave concern. Documents talk of steps to “safeguard the city’s cultural and historic landmarks and Arab-Islamic identity”.

    The secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu warned of “illegal Israeli practices” and “ aggressions” that aim to alter “historic landmarks”. He wrote elsewhere that the OIC should “spare no effort to preserve the Islamic historical and religious identity of Al Quds Al Sharif”.

    In response to calls to preserve Islamic heritage sites, the Saudi religious authorities say that their destruction is to avoid shrine-worship. The Haj authorities say it is to accommodate the ever growing numbers of pilgrims.

    But the Muslim world says that it wishes to see its religious and cultural heritage preserved. I say that Saudi Arabia has a religious duty – which nobody denies is a challenging one – to balance the needs of pilgrims with the need of the ummah to retain its history. For many, historic sites are a key part of the pilgrimage experience. It may be at odds with the purist Saudi Salafi tradition, but these actions are accepted within the wider Muslim heterodoxy.

    Saudi Arabia needs to be cautious about giving the impression that it does not care what the global Muslim community feels – even if that differs from its own specific tradition. The more damaging impression is that it cares more about commercialisation and less about historical legacy.

    Saudi Arabia also needs to ensure that the increasing cost of pilgrimage avoids pricing out the majority of the Muslim population. Even if pilgrims can scrape pennies together and use one of the low-cost Haj agencies the authorities have licensed, the “premium” focus of the tourism industry will affect the Haj experience in a profound way.

    Consider that in the immediate proximity of the holy sites all the accommodation will be in luxury hotels. Only the rich will stay there, the poor shunted out of view. Haj will become a two tier experience, in opposition to its ethos of creating equality between rich and poor.

    Saudi Arabia bears a heavy responsibility for the care of pilgrims and a religious duty mandated in the Quran to preserve historic religious sites. And we must not forget the responsibility of maintaining the egalitarian ethos of the Haj itself. If it can achieve all of these, then it will win the hearts of the world’s Muslim population, and do justice to the pinnacle of Islamic rituals.

    continue reading
  • 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!

    continue reading
  • 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!)

    continue reading
  • Armchair spirituality is not enough

    If the hajj teaches us anything, it is that you have to get involved spiritually and physically in order to make lasting and impactful change.

    Muslims from all around the world will be travelling to Makkah in early December to take part in the hajj pilgrimage which takes place in the first ten days of the month. All the pilgrims dress in stark white clothing, indistinguishable from each other, as their clothing levels out the differences of prince or plumber. Their white brilliance contrasts with the Ka’bah which is draped in black cloth and around which they circulate to perform the duties of the pilgrimage. For many, it is a dream come true to visit in person the place which they face every day as they perform their five daily prayers. Each person is simply a soul, undifferentiated by wealth, status or colour. You can no longer hide behind clothes, make-up or social status. It is a sobering experience to come face-to-face with the grim realities of the bare souls of others, as well as your own.

    The pilgrims then move to a desert expanse known as Arafat which represents the starkness of the Last Day. It is a place to ask for forgiveness, and make peace with oneself and the Creator. With no distractions, and a clear uncluttered head and unencumbered body, the change that is needed becomes apparent in your heart, and resolutions for making life better are quick to emerge. Pilgrims comment about the profundity and solidity of the change that occurs in this barren setting, which somehow frees the inner spirit. The physical presence in a challenging environment stimulates personal growth and development. No matter how much someone explains the environment and sensation, it never has the impact of being there in person. You have to taste it, breathe it, live it.

    The journey passes through the night towards Mina, where Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his beloved child and to show that he was willing to give up what was dearest to him. The pilgrims make a symbolic sacrifice of an animal, to represent the surrender of something of utmost importance to them for the sake of God. Still following Abraham’s actions, they throw seven pebbles at stone satans, as though they are stoning the devils of their own inner desires.

    Exhausted, the pilgrims return to Makkah, physically broken, but spiritually elated. The hajj pushes the human being to the limits of physical and spiritual endeavour. The lasting impact that hajj creates, and its success in creating change is down to the fact that it address both the physical and the spiritual. The body and the spirit are integral and interconnected parts of the human being that need nurturing. They must both go on a real, symbolic and ritual journey together in order to make change.

    The images of these pilgrims is broadcast across the world on television networks, and we can watch the painstaking journey that each person is experiencing as they go through this most rigorous and gruelling of physical and spiritual challenges. Going through the event, and feeling the pain and elation at every moment is what cements the spiritual experience.

    We sit and watch the journey of hajj from the comfort of our armchairs, enthralled by the experience, but not able to access the benefits for ourselves. We cannot create the same impact as walking those footsteps and tasting the sweat and tears, whilst we sit ensconced in the soft sheltered environment of our own homes. So it is with developing our own communities and our own spirituality. We like to shake our fists at community leaders, the state of the Ummah, and the ongoing problems we face, from the sanctuary of our sofas. It is like expecting your cheers whilst you watch your football team play on TV to have an impact, or as though shouting at the television set will change events as they unfold. It is like walking the footsteps of the hajjis watching through the live TV coverage: this can never create that type and strength of change.

    If we believe that by sitting at home and engaging in armchair protests that we can make an impact, then we are deluded. Muttering astaghfirullahs whilst propped on a comfortable cushion with no connection to the outside world cannot create change. The hajj gives us that very evidence – you have to be right in the centre of things to make an impact.

    It is the same with spirituality. To refine our souls and our ethics we have to interact with the world around us. It is only through participation and relationships with other human beings that we can truly learn what it means to be the purest of souls. Muslims are quick to point out that asceticism is rejected by Islam – physical separation is prohibited in that sense. Sitting on our sofas, and complaining about the world around us, is only one step away from that.

    Proceeding with patience and prayer is the hallmark of a human being, and that is because the spiritual relationship with the Divine can only flourish through interaction and participation with society. This requires us to extract ourselves from the cushioned comfort of our armchairs, and to step out of the front door to take part in the world.

    continue reading
  • Make Eid, Not War

    Ramadan is a celebration of togetherness and tolerance, so let’s break out the Eid sweets and put away the bitterness for good

    The best Eids are those you experience as a child. You are elated with tingles of excitement which send shivers of pleasure and anticipation through you. That inner excitement as Eid approaches never disappears because in its essence Eid is a very simple matter. You have fasted all month, suffered headaches and growling stomachs, re-arranged the routine of daily life, read more Qur’an than in the whole year most probably, tried your best to be nice to friends and family, and reflected on your own life and where it is going. You have been working hard, physically and spiritually and so the joy of Eid is simple because it is a celebration of an achievement that looks daunting and unachievable. The joy is pure because the task was undertaken in order to get closer to the Divine. Eid is exciting because it celebrates renewal, refreshment and rejuvenation.

    The physical and spiritual stretch has been enormous and as the month draws to its finale, you feel both exhausted and elated. It is the triumph of the achievement of spirit over body that makes Eid such an amazing event. As a community we experience more togetherness and unity than at any other time during Ramadan: we’ve all been in it together. Suddenly there is an explosion of love and trust. Until night before Eid. And then our spiritual and community synchronicity fizzles away under the weight of disagreement about the moonsighting.

    After a month of tolerance and understanding our togetherness vanishes oh-so-suddenly. Is it sapped by the multitude of phone calls round the world to establish if a sliver of crescent has been spotted? Is it the plethora of text messages that ratchet up our bills to the mobile network companies? Is it the uncertainty of whether to cook Eid breakfast or not?

    Ramadan is about unity of spirit. We reject the physical so we can concentrate on our connections as souls. As with hajj, when we fast, the outer is irrelevant. Each human being we come across who is in this state of worship is a beautiful thing for us to appreciate. Ramadan is the epitome of love, peace and goodwill to humanity. We know that “Allah cannot be contained anywhere in the universe except in the heart of the believer”, and “there are as many ways to know Allah as there are human beings”. Yet we insist on squabbling over our differences whether they be about Eid, the specifics of how to pray or do wudhu, what time the fast breaks, or how long or short out trousers, beards or headscarves should be.

    We then approach the final days when Eid is almost upon us, and as soon as we see the exit gates back into the dunya, the spirit of unity that we worked so hard to cultivate is lost. Worse still, we we take pleasure in returning to the intolerant bickering like an ex-smoker returning to his beloved cigarettes. Was the peace, harmony and unity of Ramadan so transient and painful that we longed to return to the disagreements and divisive behaviours that we experience all year round?

    If so, then it reveals more about us as a Muslim community than we might like to admit. If we had truly learnt to be as happy for our brothers and sisters as we are for ourselves, and if we had internalised the notion that we must celebrate difference, then we would not fall out over Eid the very second – and yes, it is the very single second – that Ramadan ends.

    If others are celebrating Eid before us, we should be joyful for them. They have reached their triumphant end. But we too have joy, for we are blessed enough to have an additional day of Ramadan. Who would wish to pass up even a single minute of this month? If we are celebrating Eid before others, then what better blessing than to prepare the way for those who are still to come and join us to start our fresh journey into the year? It’s Eid, let’s relax and chill out. We managed to keep it together under the physical duress of Ramadan, let’s not lose it over deciding which day is Eid, and then return to the mire of un-ending disputes the year-round. The Prophet says that any day that is better than the previous one is a day of Eid for the believer, so why not make it Eid every day?

    On a more practical note, if we celebrate all of our Eids together, then we can have up to three days of festivities, joy and of course highly delicious and calorific sweets. Instead of being stingy and tightening our belts towards Eid, let us be joyful, generous and above all happy enough spend a trio of exuberant days celebrating not only the completion of Ramadan, but also the immense achievement of learning to accept, support and celebrate our differences.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

    continue reading
  • The Global Ummah Needs to Start Local

    Muslims are rightly proud of the diverse global ummah, but we should be more willing to embrace the diversity of the British Muslim communities, and channel it to drive forward new ideas

    Outside of the period of hajj in Makkah, the UK is home to the most diverse Muslim community in the world. The extraordinary mix of ethnic origins and opinions from across the theological spectrum make it a unique moment in the history of the Muslim world, representing a microcosm of the diversity that Islam has always aspired to.

    Islam and Muslims have travelled fluidly through history – across the Arabian Peninsula on horseback, by boat along the Eastern coasts of Africa and across to India and into the South Indian seas. It was often trade, by sea, or across the Silk Road, that flung Muslims eastward to China and Indonesia and west towards Morocco and Spain. In fact, records of the slave trade to the Americas suggested that Muslims had made it across the Atlantic long ago.

    The re-drawing of national boundaries, wars, post-colonialism and the ease of travel and communication which have been the driving forces of the twentieth century, have once again shuffled Muslims around the world. Their movement has been mostly into Europe and North America, and nowhere has this redistribution and melting pot of Muslims been more apparent than in the UK.

    In 2001, the British census estimated that there were 1.6 million Muslims in the UK, a number which is now forecast to be close to 2 million. This makes Muslims the second largest faith group in the country, and Muslims make up more than half of the non-Christian faith community. Almost three quarters of Muslims in the UK are from an Asian ethnic background. Those from Pakistan make up 43 per cent, from Bangladesh 16 per cent and Indians and other Asians make up 14 per cent. We probably could have guessed that. But did you know that 17 per cent consider themselves to be from a ‘white’ background, whether that is White British, Turkish, Cypriot, Arab or Eastern European? And did you know that 6 per cent of Muslims are of Black African origin, from North and West Africa, particularly Somalia.

    We also know that all these figures are out of date, and show little of those of Middle Eastern origin who have joined us on this green and pleasant land in the last few years. If you haven’t spotted your country on the list, then you make up that great overlooked fact of British Muslims – that they come from all the blessed corners of this God’s great earth.

    But so what?

    First, it is important to take note of these astounding facts. We live in an historic time and place for Muslims. We have more ideas, cultures and perspectives in a concentrated space than ever before, to inspire, motivate and produce more than ever before. If ever we were to create something overwhelming, tumultuous and inspirational, then the time has never been more ripe. The great age of Muslim learning flowered because minds were open to new ideas, perspectives and cultures. Thinkers would wait eagerly for new books and learnings to travel across the ethnicities and languages of the Muslim world.

    Islam is also about appreciating different people and knowing them. The Qur’an is quite clear about this, and Muslims love to quote that Allah created people into “tribes and nations” so that we may “know each other”. We take positive pride in the diversity across the global Ummah. We claim that we love all our brothers and sisters, and that we feel their pain, wherever and whoever they are! Of course, this statement of bravado only lasts as long as we don’t have to go to a mosque that ‘belongs’ to those of a different ethnicity. As long as we don’t have to marry them. As long as we don’t have to have children with them. As long as we don’t have to work in communities together. There are exceptions, but they are relatively few.

    We will protest vehemently for the Palestinian cause, and we may deplore the terrible situation in Iraq, but do we know any Palestinians or Iraqis here in the UK? It is easier to care for those thousands of miles away, then to look after those on our doorstep.

    Nowhere in the world do we have more opportunity than in the UK, to put into action the ethos that the Prophet taught us – to treat all human beings as equal in worth, and to appreciate our variations and differences. At no time in history have we had the opportunity to infuse so much culture, so many ideas and so much vivacity into the future of Muslims.

    History will judge us harshly if we remain enclosed in our ethnic and ideological bunkers. Our future generations will be even less forgiving if we fail to create the magic of cultural fusion and intellectual development that history has shown is in the DNA of the Muslim spirit.

    This article was published in The Muslim News
    Statistics quoted can be found in greater detail at the National Office of Statistics

    continue reading
  • Chatting to the Guardian about Hajj

    The Guardian’s religious correspondent Riazat Butt is out in the hajj at the moment, and is reporting back on her experiences. RB made the front page earlier this week – go girl! – and I caught up with her last week to chat to her about what she might expect.


    continue reading
  • Spiritual journeys like the hajj must challenge body and soul

    Yesterday I was published in the Guardian’s Face to Faith column discussing the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj which is currently underway.

    About 25,000 British Muslims will travel to Mecca this week to take part in the hajj. They will join almost 2 million Muslims, from around the world, including 214,000 from Indonesia and 15 from Argentina. All of them will begin and end their journey at the Kaaba, an enormous iconic cube, usually draped in black, that Muslims turn towards every day when they pray. Everyone dresses in the simplest of white clothing. The trappings of the material world are momentarily erased. Each person is simply a soul, undifferentiated by wealth, status or colour. You can no longer hide behind clothes, make-up or social status. It is a sobering experience to come face-to-face with the grim realities of the bare souls of others, as well as your own.

    Each person enters a swirling ocean of humanity that circulates seven times around the Kaaba on foot. It is an amazing sight as blonde and brunette, black, brown and white, young and old walk side by side. The microcosm that each person represents finds its place in this most diverse representation of humans.

    The pilgrims then move to a desert expanse known as Arafat to look deep into their own souls. The barren landscape shines a harsh light on the inner self. Arafat represents the starkness of the Last Day. It is a place to ask for forgiveness, and make peace with oneself and the Creator.

    Without temporal distractions, new perspectives and priorities about living the good life emerge, along with firm resolutions about making change. Pilgrims return from the Hajj talking about a life-changing experience, which does seem to have long-lasting effects. Islamic tradition says that after reflecting at Arafat, the pilgrim leaves fully purified, as innocent as a babe, ready to start life anew.

    The journey passes through the night towards Mina, a resting place that is also the backdrop for two symbolic actions. In Islamic narratives Abraham was so dear to God that he was called “the friend of God”. He grew into old age longing for an heir. When he was finally blessed with a son, God asked him to give up his child. He personified his devotion to God by entrusting to God that which was most beloved to him. The pilgrims must each sacrifice an animal, to symbolise that they too are prepared to give up what they love most.

    On his journey to sacrifice his son Abraham was plagued by, and eventually overcame, the Devil. Pilgrims exorcise their own devils by throwing seven symbolic pebbles at stone satans, one pebble for each flaw they wish to erase. People throw their pebbles passionately, and their intention to wipe away previous shortcomings is buried into their muscle memory and DNA. The symbolism of ritual has a ripple effect into real life, and this is one of the great lessons of the hajj.

    The triumphant spiritual return to Mecca is accompanied by a sense of physical exhaustion. The hajj is an arduous journey that challenges both body and soul. Its power lies in this very fact: that it addresses both parts of the human being and pushes them to extraordinary lengths. The journey needs to be both physical as well as spiritual. The body and the spirit are integral and interconnected parts of the human being that need nurturing. They must both go on a real, symbolic and ritual journey together in order to make change. Today, sadly, the body has been separated from the spiritual domain. It is worshipped in its own right, rather than as an integral part of the development of our individual humanity.

    Curled up in our armchairs, we imagine that reading self-help books will create radical and long-lasting change. Those who have been on a pilgrimage, whether on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, to the many Hindu holy places or on the hajj, will tell you that it is the endurance, ritual and symbolism of the physical journey that reveals the secrets of the human soul.

    continue reading