Magic Muslims

  • Islam says let love blossom

    [I am posting this article belatedly. It was published in The National a few weeks ago to co-incide with the day which in Arabic is charmingly called Yawm-al-hubb, the Day of Love.]

    Before reading this article I should warn you that it might be considered subversive. It may lead you into the paths of disbelief. Beware dear reader, for we are about to discuss Valentine’s Day.Even though I am a Muslim, or perhaps because I am one, I will quite readily wish you “Happy Valentine’s Day” today. Even this simple act might land me in trouble with a handful of Islamic scholars such as the Egyptian cleric Hazem Shuman. He warned young Muslims this week that Valentine’s Day was “more dangerous than Aids, Ebola and cholera”. Wow, I had no idea that a red rose could be so lethal.
    We enjoy such perplexing tales courtesy of the right-wing press, keen to promote the view that Muslims see Valentine’s Day – and by extension love itself – as evil. Fox News last year covered a Kuwaiti MP who chaired a committee to prevent “such alien events from impacting on Kuwaiti society and spreading corruption”. Britain’s Daily Star tabloid newspaper elevated the former head of Al-Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary, to cleric status and quoted him saying that those celebrating Valentine’s Day “would rot in hell”.

    Boy, if there is anything that Muslims are good at it, it is melodrama. But are Muslims such as these just as guilty as the right-wing press of confusing the celebration of love with love itself?

    The origins of Valentine’s Day lie not in the romance with which we associate it today, but in events any person of faith would uphold. The celebration is usually traced to a number of early Christian martyrs called Valentine who were persecuted by pagan rulers.

    Another Valentine performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers forced to remain single by an Emperor who believed unmarried men made better soldiers.
    Since these events happened well before the advent of Islam, it is notable that the individuals are remembered for standing up for their belief in God and upholding the sanctity of marriage, two fundamental pillars of Islam as a deen, a way of life.
    There were already Roman celebrations linked to fertility, so it is possible the church decided to celebrate the feast of St Valentine at the same time to “Christianise” the festival. In the same way, Muslims in Egypt proposed to rename February 14 as “Prophet Mohammed’s Day”. One can only imagine that this was to defuse misconceptions young people may have about love and its various expressions.

    Those who argue for moving to a more “proper” Islamic celebration are most likely the same who argue against a specific day for love in the first place, their objection being why should love be limited to Valentine’s Day? But doesn’t the same argument apply to celebrating Prophet Mohammed’s Day? Shouldn’t that be every day as well?

    The connection with romantic love began with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th century poem celebrating the king’s engagement described it as the time when birds choose their mate. From then on romance and Valentine’s Day become increasingly entwined. The French set up a “court of love” on Valentine’s Day in 1400 to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women, with the judges selected by the women themselves.

    With the constant discussions about sharia courts, which deal mainly with women and personal law, perhaps they too should be renamed courts of love and aim to instil love and compassion between those in dispute? They could even allow female plaintiffs to choose the judges as in the French model – they would be selecting from a panel of judges, so all would be equally qualified. It seems a courteous and civilised way of resolving the current legal imbalances in many courts which do not allow women to be fully heard.
    The modern Valentine’s Day was created by Esther Howland, who mass produced cards of paper lace in 1847. Her seemingly innocuous act changed the face of the US greeting card industry which now credits Valentine’s Day with the second largest sales after Christmas.

    Approximately one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year, with women buying 85 per cent of them. Many are sent anonymously. It is a worrying echo of the stereotype that women ought to be shy in expressing their liking of someone, the hunted rather than the hunted.

    Conversely, men spend twice as much as women on the day, suggesting that they too are under pressure to conform to a stereotype of wooing a woman with their wealth. Advertisers and marketers have turned love into a cosmetic, superficial experience.

    On the other hand, Muslims seem to have reduced romance to a legalistic directive, determining their three words to be “it is bid’ah”, a worldly innovation contrary to Islam. Expressing love on days such as Valentine’s is “bid’ah”. What is perplexing is not just this legal opinion, but that Muslims need to ask such questions. How did we 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 Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

    These two polar opposites have both reduced love to a caricature of its true self, forcing us to choose between cheesy superficiality on the one hand and heartless rigidity on the other. It sounds almost like a “with us or against us” choice, and we all know the trouble that causes.

    Presented with this stark absurdity, all human beings – which, of course, includes Muslims – will be forced to look into their hearts and realise that expressing love is simply common sense. Instead of fatwas on how, what and where to celebrate, we need legal scholars to decree a return to the way of the Prophet – common sense and humanity.

    Those people of faith who oppose Valentine’s Day are missing a trick. Faith is about celebrating love – love of the Divine, love of humanity, love of your companion. There is no need to reject a celebration of love; rather those who believe in the sanctity of marriage should recapture such events for their original celebration of marriage. And each Valentine’s Day let us see love blossom and a thousand marriages bloom.
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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 MagicMuslims solve the Ramadan moonsighting issue…

    The MagicMuslims are here again, using their cartoon superpowers to make the world a better place. They bring levity and humour to a world that needs a smile. They are ‘Ordinary Muslims, with extraordinary powers.’ Brought to you by Spirit21, if you haven’t seen them before, you can read more here.

    Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and the beginning of each month is signalled by the sighting of the new moon. This becomes a particularly frenzied and controversial affair for the highly auspicious month of fasting, Ramadan, and leaves many confused over how such a simple matter ever got so complicated…

    Enjoy the cartoon.

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  • The Problem of the S-Word

    Let the tabloids and politicians spend their time foaming at the mouth over words like Shar’iah, we should be spending our time pioneering services and solutions to meet our community needs

    Shari’ah is once again big news. The Lord Chief Justice has said that, “There is no reason why Shari’ah principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.” His comments follow a speech earlier in the year by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been discussing the role of faith in the public sphere and had used the issue of Shari’ah courts as an example of where this could be done. The Lord Chief Justice commented about that speech: “It was not very radical to advocate embracing Shari’ah law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the Archbishop’s suggestion.

    Predictably, the tabloids went berserk, and sadly some of our sound-bite simplistic politicians followed suit. What a furore! This was a simple discussion about civil arbitration, a provision that is rooted deep in English law. As Madeleine Bunting wrote in the Guardian, “Because of the provision for mediation by a third party in English civil law, there is already a degree of accommodation for Shari’ah law in our legal system.” In fact, she argues, if we don’t want Shari’ah we would have to remove the “fundamental option of mediation outside the legal system when agreed by both parties… [which]…will require a pretty radical reform which would stir up a lot of opposition.”
    Clearly then, our politicians and media are not concerned with the actual essence of what the mediation process will be, but more upset about the word ‘Shari’ah’ itself.
    The Shari’ah courts were a solution that Muslims created to deal with life for their new communities in the UK. It is important that we are clear that it is absolutely right and proper that a community should be able to create structures and institutions to support its individuals and families to operate smoothly and according to its principles and values. Of course those structures should and do operate within the law of the land. However, their creation was based on models familiar to the communities from their countries of origin, where the decision-making role of the ‘court’ was its primary purpose. The courts in those countries would have been supported by more accessible and prevalent mosques and Imams, and a community that was most likely majority Muslim. Most of these support services – which acted as buffers to problems and disputes before the final limit of legal jurisdiction – are not easily available to us in Britain.

    So today, Muslims turn to bodies like Shari’ah courts as much for their Islamic decision-making status, as increasingly for their pastoral services. However, dealing with disputes requires counselling, therapy and support before a case can reach any final definitive verdict, all of which are an extension of a legal court’s traditional role. Individuals who are trapped in a dispute – whether marital or of another personal nature – want both support and recognition for their distress, which today they find may not be available elsewhere. They wish to feel the supportive hand of guidance and authority in resolving their pain based on the same principles by which they try to govern their own lives. It is therefore exactly in this grey area between civic dispute and any mediation ruling that an arbitration service based on Islamic principles can add tremendous value to our community.

    Those who participate in the existing Shari’ah courts give a great deal of their time and energies, but in order to achieve this goal they need more skills and resources, more focus, more participation from the community to meet the growing needs for pastoral care. We need more women, more counsellors and more youth workers to name but a few of the skills required.

    Most importantly what they need – what Muslims need – is to give themselves the freedom to think more freely about the purpose and function of such resources within the community. We must not diminish the need and importance of such mediation and resolution centres. They are a vital component of Muslim community institutions. But thinking of them within the prism of decision-making only, carries so much history and expectation with them that sometimes it can become impossible to create new models of operation.
    Will we ever find the freedom to dive into the very essence of our needs and pioneer new tools and methodologies to meet our changing times and circumstances? Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph says, “Do not bring up your children the way that you were brought up, because they live in different times.” We live in a different time, and we need to pioneer new solutions.

    Note: Cartoon is taken from Spirit21’s own MagicMuslims superheroes, visit

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  • The MagicMuslims go to the Elections

    If you want to meet the MagicMuslims, you can find out more here:

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  • Spirit21 reveals The Magic Muslims…

    Spirit21 is proud to reveal The Magic Muslims – Ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary Powers. Fun-loving, quirky and joyful in life, once you’ve met them, you’ll want to keep coming back for more. Any Muslim you meet could be a MagicMuslim – a quiet superhero trying to bring happiness, humour and compassion to the world.

    I’m really excited to bring you these characters – created and commissioned as original Superheroes by Spirit21 for everyone to enjoy and interact with. Every month or so a new cartoon with the characters will be published, so you can check out their antics in the world. I hope you enjoy them, as much as I enjoyed creating them. Please share your comments and thoughts, but do remember the copyright!

    Make sure you get to know The Magic Muslims better here

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  • Time for a Womelution

    The Muslim community needs to make a quantum leap in addressing the issues of gender roles, gender worth, and gender relations, and so this week I am declaring a ‘womelution’.

    The debate about Islam, women and rights seems to have reached a dead end. We are stuck, all of us together – Muslim and otherwise – in a groundhog day regurgitation of the same arguments about women and Islam. It’s all talk with few new ideas and intellectual works being produced, little social change happening, and Muslims still not facing up to the fact that we need to address the subject of gender. We must reject this status of ‘stuck’. Stuck, is no longer an option. God does not change the state of a people until they change it themselves.

    We must also reject the notion of ‘fixing women’. Fixing women, doesn’t fix the problem. Let’s replace the issue of ‘women’ with a debate about women and men. After all, God does say He created human beings in pairs.

    What we need is for men and women to work together so that we can make substantive change and real improvements. What we need are open hearts and inquisitive minds so that we can make a positive move forward. What we need, is a womelution.

    Inspired by women, but for both men as well as women, the womelution is positive, engaging, creative and forward-looking. This is not a bloody revolution, but looks inside all traditions and heritages, to both genders, to all ages and multifarious ethnicities and languages.

    The womelution is about making real change: intellectual change but most importantly, real social change. It is characterised by compassion, humanity and humour and most of all by respect. It is not about women versus men, but about being on the same side, creating the best for everyone. It is rooted in Islam and its foundations are within the Muslim conception of the world. Its premise is that Islam has more to offer than it is currently given credit for, and it has a blueprint that can contribute to humanity in general. The womelution encourages questioning, respectful challenging and constructive criticism.

    1. We need to re-ignite the tradition of intellectual debate

    We need new thinking and output that moves forward Islamic scholarship on the issues of gender. The world has changed and we need to face up to that. We must ask challenging questions – but with respect and within the spirit and ethos of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet. Every time we look at the words of the Qur’an we are advised that they will reveal something new. In the same way, when every new generation looks at Qur’anic verses and the Prophetic traditions it will be through new lenses.

    In 2008, I invite every Muslim scholar, every Imam, and academic to tackle the issues around Islam and gender. It can be in the shape of a theological discourse, or a social reform, small or large, but it must offer something new and positive that leads to real change.

    2. Communal spaces, particularly mosques, need to re-balance gender participation

    Although a womelution is about both men and women, it is undoubted that in some areas – such as those of mosques and other public forums – getting women involved is the first priority. This will benefit both men and women. Those mosques or community centres which currently have no space for women need to create areas for women and start engaging with them. The many mosques where women are already actively involved need to make sure that there is at least one woman who is on the management or executive committee of that mosque or centre, and that she has actual authority and empowerment vested in her.

    Let 2008 be the year for asking questions and offering answers about how men and women should share mosques and community spaces, and when every single mosque up and down the UK succeeds in appointing a woman into an official position.

    3. Women must themselves actively pursue improvement and change – for the sake of society as a whole

    Men need to open hearts, minds and doors, but women must also grasp the mettle and engage in change. It can and will be difficult and will feel uncomfortable. Both men and women need to understand that women must participate to create a successful community. Women have new perspectives and approaches, and will bring forward issues that have not yet been addressed. Women will double the resources, brains and energies at the disposal of the Muslim community.

    4. Change must be based on addressing the needs of both men and women

    What are the traditional gender roles that we are upholding? How do men and women currently interact, how are responsibilities distributed, and are these rooted in culture or faith? Once we’ve asked these questions we need to assess: what should be our definitions of gender roles and what should be our notions of gender worth? We don’t live in a traditional world anymore. It is worth remembering that the greatest failing of the community of the Prophet Abraham was that they did what their fathers and forefathers before them did without questioning it.

    The biggest social and practical issue facing us today though, is that of gender relations – how should men and women relate to each other, and how do we implement personal law? Muslim women have become the bastions for maintaining and regulating gender relations. The concepts of hijab, niqab and segregation have been confused with the real concept of modesty in etiquette, behaviour and personal relationships. What does modesty really mean? What is its role in Muslim society, how should both men and women practice it, and how should it regulate the world of gender relations?

    5. Confidence, compassion and curiosity are the values that will drive positive change

    It’s time also to put paid to the frankly silly but insidious suggestions that Muslims are alien to Britain. Muslims must be confident in themselves, in their Islam and in living in Britain. We must have curiosity and confidence in asking questions to make the lives better of everyone around us – Muslim and otherwise. It also requires compassion and empathy for our neighbours which, of course, comes with the right to be treated with respect and love in return.

    This year should be the beginning of a womelution, a marked change in the tempo and confidence of the Muslim community, with a particular focus on gender. We will need vision and creativity and to be positive and work together. This is the only way that we will move forward.

    And if you’re still confused, it’s pronounced wi-mah-lou-shun.

    P.S. We also need a little inspiration and some humour. As my own personal contribution, I dedicate four Superhero characters, which you will find on my blog

    This article was recently published in The Muslim News

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