Thursday, 24 of April of 2014

Category » Muslim News

Turkey’s Bridge that should bind us together

I travelled to Turkey and found myself asking, is this country really the bridge between civilisations, and do we need a bridge anyway?

One of the great cliches about Turkey is that it is the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, the connection between Christendom and Islam. When you stand on the bridge over the Bosphorous, the river that runs through the centre of Istanbul, you feel a profound sense of geographic importance. You are told that on one side is Europe, and on the other you are told is Asia. Cross the bridge, and these oft-repeated words make you feel as though you are stepping across cultural, historic and civilisational tectonic plates. Is this really true, or do we simply think it is the case because the mantra of “the bridge” has been repeated so many times?

Turkey has a long and ancient history of peoples and empires. In the nearer past, it was taken by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. It fell to Rome in the 1st century BC and remained under Roman rule till Constantinople was named as the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD.

In the 7th century, Islam began to rise to the east of Byzantium. The Arabs took Ankara in 654 and by 669 they set siege to Constantinople. It is said that one of the companions of the Prophet, Ayub Ansari, was buried in Constantinople. They brought a new language, a new civilisation and of course a new religion called Islam.

There was considerable cultural engagement between the Muslims and the Byzantines. The Byzantine emperor Leo adopted the Islamic view that pictures of human beings should be banned. When the Arabs saw the domes on Byzantine churches they adopted them for Islamic architecture of buildings like mosques. The Arabs also translated classical Greek works of science and philosophy into Arabic.

As the Muslim empire grew and came under the control of the Abbasids centring on Persia, the Turks – who were a nomadic people from Central Asia – had been moving westward and under the Turkish Seljuk clan they took the sultanate in Baghdad. By the 11th century they had taken Anatolia from the Byzantines. In the thirteen century they were overrun by the Mongols, but were united in 1300 by Osman who established the Ottoman dynasty.

In 1923 the modern secular state of Turkey was founded by Ataturk. Despite the country’s centrality in the Muslim world to this point, and in spite of what is still considered in parts to be a religious people, Ataturk confined religion to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the mosque and the private domain at home, where it has remained ever since. One of the great ironies of Turkey is that it is a Muslim country that does not permit its women to wear the hijab in an official public space such as a university or in parliament.

More recently, Turkey applied to join the European Union, and in 2005 began accession talks. This seems to have been met by a mixed reaction both in the EU and in Turkey. With a population of over 70 million, the world’s 17th largest economy and a geographically strategic location, Turkey is asking itself is it Turkey that needs the EU or the EU that needs Turkey? With thorny phrases like “Christian club” being bandied about recklessly, Turkey along with the Muslim world is asking itself whether it is the fact that it is a Muslim country that is creating resistance in some European quarters.

Given the fluidity of history, culture and trade across the landmass that is modern-day Turkey, it seems strange to think of it as anything but Europe. Visit Istanbul and you certainly feel like you are in a European city. It is quite different from Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo or Baghdad. Travel west across the country and you feel a change in granularity and perspective as you near the borders of Syria and Iraq, but it is slow and gradual. The attitudes, cultures and peoples change gently rather than with the abruptness of stepping over a bridge. And that seems perfectly natural – why should a country change suddenly in the middle of its territory?

The same question can be applied to larger areas of geography, history and culture. Why do we think that Europe and European ideals (however you choose to define them) end at a fixed geographic point? This has never been the case previously, and nor should it be. Our European world does not end abruptly with a glass wall hemming us in like the globe that enclosed Truman in The Truman show. Real life doesn’t work like that – it didn’t in the past, and it doesn’t need to in the future. Unless we say it so many times that we start ourselves to believe the corrosive propaganda.

Ask those who repeat the mantra “the bridge” about how they see that role being carried out, and the answers are tenuous at best. That’s because the very notion of bridge implies separation and division that must be stuck together with a plaster. Our geographic and cultural connections are not like that. There is no chasm that yawns ominously between us like an infernal abyss. They are much more fluid and tightly interconnected. Our architecture, our intellectual roots, our commerce, genetics, and history all overlap and inter-relate. There is no epic gulf that requires spanning physically or metaphorically. It would be better to see Turkey as weaving together the strands of our interconnections. We don’t need to bridge the divide, what we need is to be bound together.

This article was published in The Muslim News


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.


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


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


Re-interpreting Ramadhan

Ramadhan seems to mean being hungry by day, and laying tables full of fatty fried foods and high calorie treats by night. Have we completely missed the month of fasting’s messages of moderation and spiritual liberation?

As the credit crunch takes us into its firm grip, you might be forgiven for thinking that Muslims would be particularly prepared for tightening their belts. I put forward this bold thesis, as we get ready to begin fasting in the month of Ramadhan, a month highlighted for physical restraint and a rejection of excess. With years of experience in control and temperance, Muslims should be well-prepared to exercise moderation and eschew extravagance, but is that really the case?

The Qur’an advises those who believe, that fasting is prescribed for them, as it was for those who came before them so that “…you become of those who are conscious of God.” Physical restraint in all spiritual traditions – which includes but is not limited to Islam – is directly related to a blossoming of the spirit, and therefore a closer relationship to the Divine.

If you listen to any explanation of the spiritual and physical meaning of Ramadhan and why Muslims fast, one of the key reasons that features will undoubtedly be along the lines of… to remember those less fortunate than ourselves who have less to eat than we do. It makes perfect sense as an explanation: Muslims deny themselves food and drink (and other physical pleasures) during daylight hours, which create painful hunger pangs and a parched state of dehydration that offers a mild and temporary hint of the traumas and difficulties that people suffering food shortages, droughts and famines around the world must suffer. But this very weak and brief pain is tempered by the knowledge that within some hours- even if the number of those hours reach double digits – we will be tucking into food and drink again.

It is of no doubt that the hunger and thirst that we experience during Ramadhan is something we would never ordinarily feel. And in that sense it allows us a peek into the lives of those who are truly suffering and can have no respite from the shortages of food and comforts that we take for granted. Our experience is incomparable in magnitude and it would be arrogant and patronising to complain that we now ‘know how it feels’. But it can soften our hearts and at least give us a glimpse of the suffering that others go through, within the parameters of our own lives.

However, whilst we may be living the physical experience – albeit briefly – have we really grasped the meaning and spiritual experience? As soon as the adhaan rings out at maghrib time as the sun sets, we all settle down to heaving tables of our favourite foods. Tables buckle under the weight of specialities made for each individual’s palette. Every child is cooked their favourite, starters are multifarious and highly calorific and main courses include several varieties. Not to mention the many sugar-filled and fatty desserts which slip so easily and pleasurably past our lips. For those from the sub-continent, think samosas, bhaajis, halwa, kebabs, pakoras. It comes as no surprise that many people leave the month of Ramadhan heavier and more rotund than when they started.

This is not to mention the hours and hours that are ploughed into culinary production. You might imagine that the reduced number of meals, and the reduction in appetite might mean that less cooking needs to be done. Instead, the kitchen is on full alert for a greater stretch of the day – and night. It is usually the women who lead the culinary preparation and it is right that the cooks want their families to be well-taken care of. But if we started to look holistically at the purpose of Ramadhan – to free ourselves from our physical indulgences and open up possibilities of spiritual exploration that we otherwise deny ourselves – we might find that all that additional time spent cooking could actually be used to maximise our gains from Ramadhan. By not eating, and by having to cook less, Ramadhan suddenly offers a huge amount of extra time (at least three hours saved by avoiding breakfast and lunch and perhaps more if dinner was a light simple meal) which could be devoted to activities we all claim we do not have time for – lingering over prayers, reading Qur’an, community service, mediation and reflection. If you don’t cook that extra plate of samosas will it really make that much difference to the iftar experience? But if you spent all that extra time to read a few pages of the Qur’an – especially in the month of Ramadhan when the value and merit is so much greater – imagine what impact that could have.

Eating and drinking in the hours of dark becomes a festival of indulgence at the polar opposite of the hunger and thirst we underwent for a few paltry hours. We acquire bipolar disorder – riding high in the daylight hours and then binging at night. What does that say about our understanding of the very meaning of hunger as empathy, hunger as freedom from the physical and release into the spiritual? We have followed the literal rules of Ramadhan, but what about the meaning? Instead of physical restraint and spiritual freedom, we have greater indulgence and have blinded ourselves to the spiritual opportunities. Ramadhan is not only about feeling the pain of those less fortunate, but about being able to distinguish and implement the very concepts of moderation rather than excess.


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


Modesty is not a black and white issue

Modest dress is a key component of Islam, but it’s important to retain personality and aesthetics in the way we dress

This week I tried out the most extreme black cloak to make it into my wardrobe. A piece of elastic attached it to the top of my head, and then the single piece of long fabric hung snugly over my hair, sweeping over my shoulders and down past my feet. The final flourish was for me to hold together the two edges under my chin. Two eyes, a nose and a squashed mouth peeked through the gap under the black sheet. My husband peered into the bedroom, and nearly dropped his mug of tea.

“You look like a black blob,” he said, horrified. “Where have you gone?” He poked underneath the black cloth like a serious Sherlock Holmes. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the cloak, no man was going to tell me how to observe modest dress. “Don’t you want me to hide my figure so I’m not attracting attention?” I barked at him. He froze, rabbit in headlights, and then looked at me for a clue.

“Of course I want you to be modest,” he said, certain that this was the right answer.

“And isn’t this long cloak, the most modest thing I could wear?”

“Well yes. Erm, well no, well yes, no, yes, yeah… no? yes, yes… ”

I looked at him sternly, with the if-you-dare glint of a determined Muslim woman, who has pro-actively chosen to wear the headscarf and modest dress. He looked more terrified of me in my new guise of crazy-eyed Muslim harridan than he had of the black blob. But he was right to be distressed.

The question about how we should define modesty is constantly plaguing the Muslim community. Neither men nor women can map out any consistency or meaning in the higgledy-piggledy implementation of the rules of modest behaviour. At work you can interact with the opposite gender but not at Islamic conferences. Muslim men can shake hands with non-Muslim women, but not vice-versa. Brides who normally wear hijab will uncover in front of men to be shown off. In some communities, men will push into the women’s section during weddings, but will enforce segregation at home. In others it is the opposite, with women not allowed to participate in mosque management due to the fitnah (division) this could cause, but happily socialising together.

The spirit and implementation of modesty is confused at best. Women and their clothing have become hijacked into being the symbol of how religious we are as a community. If women are properly covered, then everyone seems to think they can rest easy.

Her choice of dress is inextricably linked to a judgement about her spiritual status. At the sober end she is considered overly pious, not to mention excruciatingly dull. By contrast those women who choose not to wear a headscarf, are immediately judged to be irreligious, un-spiritual and not considered to be ‘properly’ practising. There has been a visible increase in the number of women wearing the hijab (head covering), the jilbab (loose fitting long dress) as well as the niqab (face covering).

Colours are subtle: greys, browns, blues, blacks. These women cite their dress as a freedom, an escape from the body-obsessed post-modern world, as well as a greater commitment to the values of Islam. At the other extreme is the rise of the Muhajababe. Her head covered, she probably wears skinny fit jeans and lycra t-shirts. For her, the headscarf itself has shown her commitment to her Muslim identity and faith.

We sighed simultaneously at the black cloak I was still wearing. “We all end up looking the same, I feel anonymous and unknown. I’m not me anymore,” I mourned to him. “Some people say that our voices should not be heard either. I’m part of a black silent mass at the back of the room. Surely individuality is important? Especially if Allah says that there are as many ways to know Him as there are human beings?”

He responded enigmatically: “Each flower that God has created is specifically a different colour, and design. Even when they are closed, they make an effort to show their personality, and individuality.”

I squinted dubiously at him. “Does this mean you think women don’t need to wear niqab, jilbab or even the hijab?”

“Defining what ‘modesty’ means isn’t easy, and we Muslims spend an awful lot of time on the outward signs like dress and physical separation. Where we need to focus more is on the complex relationships between modesty, personality and aesthetics.”

I draped the abaya playfully over his shoulders. “Modesty isn’t just for Muslim women to worry about,” I reminded him. “To build a strong community we all have to be concerned with inner spirituality as well as outer codes of conduct like dress.” Grinning cheesily, I pointed at the cloak: “Modesty is definitely not a black and white issue.”

This article was published in The Muslim News


The Muslim World is Larger Than We Think

The Muslim world is made up of more than just people from the Middle East and the Subcontinent, and drawing on our wider heritage and perspectives could help us address the pressing questions of Islam and modernity

It would probably come as a surprise to most people to know that the largest ethnic group within the world’s billion or so Muslims, are not in fact, Arab. Nor are they Pakistani, or even Bangladeshi for that matter. Even the entire Muslim populations of Europe and America do not feature at the top of this list, and neither does China.

In Britain, our perceptions of Muslims – and thus of Islam – are shaped by the fact that the media shows us coverage of the Arab world as ‘Islam’ and also because the majority of Muslims in this country are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The issues and challenges that raise themselves in the Muslim community, and which spill over into the national discourse about Muslims and Islam, therefore naturally stem from our Arabic and Sub-continental-shaped spectacles. Even within the Muslim communities the problems we see and the solutions we propose continually hark back to world-views and religious paradigms based in Arab and Sub-continental perspectives on history and modernity. British Islam tastes of korma curry with a side-serving of hummus. In the global political arena too, the Sub-continent and the Middle East (read ‘Arab’) are also front and centre when it comes to ‘The Muslim World’.

With this restrictive bi-focal approach, we try to address the big questions facing Muslims today. We ask in this context, how do we get to a meaningful understanding of Islam and governance in the modern world order of nation-states? Should we choose to interact (or not) in democratic processes, and if so, what methods should we use? What should our identity and role be in this globalised world? Is there a dichotomy between nation and ummah, and if so, how do we reconcile them?

The biggest challenge out of all of these for Muslims, is to find meaningful proposals to create a framework for participation with positivity and integrity in this new world order. Muslims constantly hark back to a ‘better time’ of Islamic empires and Caliphates, which were the spiritual home of Muslims, and for the most part were their physical homes too. However, such an empire, or a universal ‘home’ state no longer exists. In many cases Muslims live as minorities within non-Muslim majority countries. There is no option – and in many cases no desire – to ‘go home’. Muslims should already feel respected and at home, and should not be treated as aliens. In the context of such a relationship, it is timely for Muslims to construct a robust place within the national community that they are part of and establish very clearly the contribution that they will make.

This desperately needed enterprise is being subverted by a small minority who wish to hijack this process of development and change. Their desire is to return to a ‘better time’, and to ‘Islamicise’. But they created these false notions through Arab-Sub-continental lenses. The neo-conservatives who have created their empty identities and standing in opposition to this so-called ‘Islamist’ political ideology also see the world in these two blinkered dimensions.

So here is the surprise. Large swathes of Muslims are asking the above-mentioned first set of positive questions about this new globalised world that we live in. The groundswell is to participate and contribute, to explore traditional notions of Islamic governance and to advance new ideas of engagement and civic participation. By no means are they getting it all right but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The most significant and flourishing example of this is Indonesia. This is a country of 221 million people, of which 88% are Muslim. This makes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, a fact unknown and overlooked by most people. The country stretches from Thailand to Australia, punctuated by lush rainforests and epic lively volcanoes. Its spirituality is understated but intricately and gently woven throughout the fabric of society. Mosques are plentiful (as are other places of worship), almost on every street corner, but they are softly tucked in, little oases in the hubbub of day to day life. Scattered liberally amongst the emerald green rice fields are small huts, used to protect workers from the tropical rain storms, and offer an accessible place for prayer.

The country is founded on five principles, the first of which is the ‘belief in the one and only God.’ For a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, its political principles define it not as Islamic, but as theistic. There is concern to ensure that the huge variety of ethnicities that make up the nation, as well as its six official religions, share a sense of cohesion which is expressed in another of its founding principles: ‘Unity in diversity’. It also envisions a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating.

Ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian government, the country is racing through a reformasi, and asking piercing questions about nationhood and faith. Whilst travelling there, I was constantly surprised by the strength of feeling amongst all the people I met about driving their country forward.

How did the fact that I am both British and Muslim manifest itself, and how did I relate to my nation, I was constantly asked. Instead of simplistic shock at the existence of Muslims in the UK, the Indonesians greeted my fusion of British Islam with thoughtfulness. They reflected on what they could learn from the experience of British Muslims, to create a cohesive nation state that could respect faith, benefit from it, and use it as a force to create unity – a slippery and elusive goal for a country of its huge geography, variation and population. They wanted to learn about how minorities were treated, and apply positive experiences to their own nation.

There was no possible question of not participating in political and civic processes. Faith – whether Muslim or otherwise – was a natural part of civic life. There was no need to make a headline fuss of it. It did not dictate the political agenda. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives on dealing with social, political and economic issues. None of this is to say that Indonesia is not dealing with pockets of extremist activity like we are in the UK. Indonesia has many human rights and security issues of its own to deal with. Despite the challenges it is facing, it was refreshing to be in a Muslim majority country, amongst politically and civically active Muslims, for whom Islam was not the only item on the agenda – if in fact it was on the agenda at all. Creating a society where faith is woven into nationhood, and exists happily under its banner were of greater concern to people on the street.

I came away thinking that as British Muslims we had many things we could learn from them. Indonesia sits very firmly as part of the Muslim world, and sees itself as a key player amongst Muslim nations. It is attempting to deal with some of the questions that face both Islam and faith in general in this new millennium. And like a child learning to sit up and survey the world around it, their experience can offer Muslims fresh eyes onto our modern day challenges. Muslims speak with pride about sharing the joy and pain of a global ummah. But sometimes we forget that the ummah stretches much further not only in geography, but also much further in culture, politics and creativity than we might think.

This article was published in The Muslim News


The rise and rise of Muslim awards

This week sees not one, but two, glittering awards ceremonies designed to recognise achievement and encourage talent in the Muslim communities. The Muslim News Awards for Excellence was held on Tuesday to recognise individuals and organisations for contributions in areas ranging from arts and science, to citizenship and enterprise. Now in its 8th year the awards have shown consistency and have made a real impact on promoting the positive contribution of British Muslims to British society. As this year’s guest of honour David Milliband said, he was proud of the Awards not just as a politician, but also as a fellow citizen.

This evening will see the second Muslim Writers Awards which are aimed at encouraging Muslims to reach out more to their pens and keyboards and find their voices. Gordon Brown pledged his support for the awards, stating: “This is a wonderful opportunity to bring excellent writing by Muslim writers to new audiences, and increase the mutual understanding of the people of Britain.” Again the event is a glittering event being held at the ICC, as a black tie do.

And I should modestly mention that I have been shortlisted for one of the Muslim Writers Awards, apparently from amongst 10,000 entries. If I win, the blog will show jubilation. If it goes all quiet tomorrow, dear readers, you’ll know why…


Tranquility in remembrance

The Qur’anic stories of the Prophets offer us a reminder and an emotional connection towards the spirituality that Muslims strive for. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is therefore troubled by an increasing negativity towards remembrance and emotion.

This year, the occasion of Easter and the occasion of the birth of the Prophet Muhammed, fall very close to each other. Both are clearly incredibly significant events to the faiths of Christianity and Islam respectively. Both mark the lives of individuals who have made a world-changing contribution (universe-changing some might say). Easter weekend falls from March 21st to March 24th, whilst the birthday of the Prophet falls somewhere between the 20th and the 25th, depending on which sources of history you refer to – the Islamic date usually being either the 12th or 17th of the 3rd Islamic month Rabiul Awwal.

Easter – along with the other occasions of the Christian calendar – appears to me to be a unifying event for the Christian community. I do not agree with the doctrine it reinforces (having chosen to be a Muslim rather than a Christian), but I do admire its focus and reflection on an historical event that can stir emotions and also shed light on our current and future circumstances.

It is an undeniable truth that the study of history and its remembrance is an aid to mapping a wiser brighter future. That is why Scripture – like the Qur’an – recounts the stories of Prophets and communities past, so that we can reflect on what happened to them, why it happened, and then avoid their mistakes. And the very point of narrating the stories and parables of these human guides is to offer an emotional connection and a human example of spirituality and worship.

The Qur’an repeatedly remembers what has happened to the Prophets and peoples before us. It tells us that the Prophets were sent as bearers of good news and guidance but also as warners. It re-iterates their stories in chapter after chapter, reminding us of their birth, lives and deaths and urging us to remember them and what they said to their people. Sura Saffat (The Ranks, Chapter 37) for example, is a poetic essay of the lives of the saleheen, the good. It tells us about Prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Lot, Moses and Aaron. After the individual commemoration of each Prophet, the Qur’an says, salam, peace, to each one. In case we missed this repetition, it rounds off the chapter by saying, salam, to all the messengers, and then praises Allah.

With all of this in mind, I have been startled in recent years by the growing numbers of messages I receive in the form of emails, newsletters and sombre advice telling me that I should refrain from remembering events such as the birthday of the Prophet. Such advice sometimes goes as far as to tell me it is haram to commemorate the Prophet’s birth. I am told not to commemorate his birth or death, not to mark the death of near or respected individuals, not to spend time in spiritual reflection on various nights throughout the year, not to remember the dead.

I find this deeply troubling. The sign of a mature community is one that can reflect on what has past. It needs to study what has happened and learn the lessons of history and then move forward. Where we found ourselves wanting, we must mourn and then convert our remorse into a more positive future. Where we found good, we must rejoice. To stop remembrance severs our roots. It leaves us floating precariously in an unanchored vacuum where we have no frame of reference. That is when we become weak and pale as a people.

What I also find troubling is that this growing negativity towards remembrance is aimed at quashing human emotion as a component of faith. There is an emotional value that remembrance brings to our faith, and by denying remembrance we are eroding the emotion of faith. It is natural for human beings to be joyful and emotional in remembering those who have done good to them – particularly when they have sacrificed their lives to bring us that goodness. The Prophet is the best example of this. It is the natural condition for a Muslim to feel love and happiness in relation towards him. In fact, the Qur’an tells us that the people asked the Prophet what he wanted in exchange for teaching them about Islam and the Qur’an answers that all he wanted is muwaddah, love. We should bear in mind that the Qur’an tells us that even Allah and the angels send their blessings on the Prophet, and that those who believe do the same.

The fitrah of the human being is to remember. It is also the fitrah of the human being that he or she will rush in the direction in which emotion pulls it. Without that emotion to drive it, the path is arid and laborious. Infused with emotion and remembrance it appeals to the instinct which is placed in each human’s heart to reach for the Divine. Remembrance is what opens the heart and creates love and tranquility.

The theological arguments about whether the birthday of the Prophet should be celebrated or not will continue to rage, I’m sure. However, as people centred around faith and spirituality, what we do need is an understanding that remembrance – in whatever way people choose to exercise it – is a crucial component of our community ethos.

This article was published in The Muslim News