I had this published on the Guardian website today.
Beyond the bounds of religion
Muslims should see Gaza not as a tragedy for the Islamic world, but for all human beings
Obama is offering a hand of friendship to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. This week he marked this new relationship, based in “mutual respect”, by dispatching George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is a veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process and is widely held to be a fair broker.
“I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries,” Obama stated. But is this enough to allow him to connect to the worldwide Muslim community which is watching to see whether his actions live up to his words?
The internet has exploded with Muslims expressing their anger, despair and frustration at the ongoing war. My inbox bubbles up with the emotion of email after email with photos of death, invitations to rallies and lectures, multiple Facebook campaigns and groups as well as the urgency of fundraising for aid.
For the first time since the rally attended by a million Britons just before the invasion of Iraq I have joined in protests. Held in London, around the country and across the world, they represented the people’s voice in its most raw and purest form. Those who participated came from all over the country, from all ages, creeds, colours and backgrounds, including, but not limited to, Muslims. Those who raised their voices were all human beings, religious or not. But who was listening?
Not the BBC it seems, which has drawn huge criticism from across the board for refusing to air the Gaza appeal. Nor Lord Falconer who defended the BBC decision on Question Time on Thursday night by saying that seeing the suffering of Palestinians might make people “sympathetic to the Palestinians” and “hostile to the Israelis”, implying that our instinctive moral judgment was wrong.
Muslims have expressed their feelings as members of the “ummah“, sharing their anguish and heartbreak at the suffering of other Muslims in Palestine. The notion of ummah is embedded very deeply in the Muslim psyche. Its basis is Prophet Muhammad’s observation that someone who does not wake up in the morning and feel the pain of other Muslims around the world is not a Muslim.
But Palestine is not a state populated only with Muslims; it encompasses those of Christian faith or none, all of them human beings. As well as the concept of “ummah”, Muslims should be invoking the wider idea of humanity. There might be additional benefits in seeing the crisis in this way: evoking sympathy from the wider public and making common cause with those who support Palestine in order to achieve justice and peace, simply because it is the right thing to do.
Beyond the labels and stereotypes, Muslims, politicians, the people of the world, should know that this is a human calamity. Human beings are being killed before our eyes with nowhere to run, no food to eat, no water to drink. A Palestinian mother will see leaflets floating down from the sky to tell her that she and her children will be bombed and should leave. But where should they run? Egypt closed the border and places of refuge such as mosques are also hit.
This is a human crisis that the Palestinians have recorded on film, and which will haunt all of us as human beings. Once we said “never again”. We must live by that promise.continue reading
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.continue reading
This article was published in The Muslim News
The following review that I have written of the book has just been published by the BBC
A romantic telling of the life of one of the wives of Islam’s prophet has caused controversy among some Muslims – and its publication has been indefinitely postponed in the UK amid fears of a violent reaction. But is The Jewel of Medina actually any good? Blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is one of the few people in Britain to have read it.
The Jewel of Medina is a chest-heaving, brassiere-busting book of outrageously tacky historical romantic fiction.
Some parts of the media are suggesting that this book is at the forefront of defending free speech. The author wants it to reach out to solve our global problems of intercultural dialogue. Between them they had me rolling around on the floor laughing.
The book claims to tell the story of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, through her own eyes, from the age of six, through adolescence and into adulthood. But although she lives through one of the most dramatic periods of history, the narrative conveys little of the enormity of the changes of the era, and of which Aisha was a huge part.
Sherry Jones, the author, says she wanted her book to be “at once a love story, a history lesson and a coming-of-age tale”.
In order to do so, she fabricates a storyline about a lover, Safwan, whom Aisha runs away with – but then decides to leave and return to Muhammad.
But this invented plot dominates, leaving barely any room for the real history and importance of her story.
Whether you believe her to be fact, fiction or fantasy, and Muslims believe her to be very real, Aisha is of great significance in global history. The one fifth of the world population who are Muslim regards her as the wife of the Prophet Muhammad and a “mother of the believers”.
She is said to have been a leading scholar and teacher and recounted many of the traditions about the personality of Muhammad.
Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.
Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution. This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.
With this in mind, I would have ignored this book and let it fade into obscurity. Allowing the book to be remembered only for the lack of interest it generated would have been the ultimate poetic justice. The original publisher pulled out – and those parts of the media who wanted to stir things up said Muslims wanted it banned.
So, in order to find out what the (manufactured) fuss was about, I found myself spending 12 dreary hours reading this cringe-worthy melodramatic prose. Even if you feel that it is your duty to read it in the defence of freedom of speech, don’t do it, I beg you. Go out and enjoy the last sunny days of autumn, play with your children, watch paint dry. You’ll thank me for it.
So let’s deal with its literary merits. If you’re a man, you’ll probably hate this bodice-ripper. If you like well-written prose, then you should steer clear too. What it does have going for it is pace and saucy pre-TV-watershed romance.
Open it randomly and you read churning phrases such as: “His eyes like honey flowed sweet glances over my face and body,” or “Is your young bride ripe at last?” Grab a crumbling Flake and a pot of ice-cream.
The author claims she wants to humanise Aisha, to reach out to the Muslim world and to create debate. I found the opposite of this spirit in the book. Muslims will not recognise the characters and stories here because they vary so wildly with recorded history. As the copyright note makes clear, this is a work of fiction.
Take, for example, the night of “Hijrah”. This was the moment when the first band of Muslims left the hostile city of Mecca to move to Medina where Islam flourished – a turning point in Islamic history. But the book changes events to place Aisha at the house of Muhammad.
Jones changes the very essence of these individuals, so their characters are at odds with historical traditions. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as well as one of the great leaders of early Islam, is portrayed as conniving, hot-tempered and lascivious. The Islamic texts document him as a consistently staunch defender of truth and justice, an upstanding character.
So, if you drive a wedge between Muslims and others by fictionalising core characters, how can the book be a platform for debate?
Jones admits that she has introduced concepts that were absent from the period and place to help to create her story. For example, Aisha is put into purdah, seclusion, as a child, but this is an Indian sub-continental idea then unknown to Arabia.
A huge focus of Aisha’s energies is to become the hatun, the lead wife, and make all the other wives bow to her. But hatun is a Turkish concept – and bowing is contrary to all Islamic teachings.
What we end up with is an outdated Orientalist reading of an exoticised woman.
Aisha’s angst is the angst of 19th Century western writers who couldn’t understand the culture they were observing. And when they couldn’t understand, they maligned the ideas they found unfamiliar, such as veiling of women like Aisha.
The result is an awkward unconvincing story, created to fit a pre-existing pre-determined idea of what life for Muslim women ought to be like. The cover art is The Queen of the Harem, a 19th Century Orientalist painting of a European-looking woman.
Sex, sex and more sex
The most irritating thing is its constant obsession with sex. The author sees it everywhere and in everything, and makes Aisha do the same. Her life is reduced to a parody of a smutty Bridget Jones diary.
I lost count of the references to “child bride”. Even till relatively modern times, marriage for women in their early teens was completely natural and common in parts of the world, including Europe.
Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.
What we need for debate and discussion are accessible histories of all the key figures in Islamic history. As Muslims, instead of honouring these individuals blindly, we will accord them much more respect by opening our eyes to their achievements through critical re-examination of their lives. This cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
Some Muslims oppose a style of writing and analysis that offers insights into the very human lives these individuals led.
I believe this opposition is misplaced, because that is what we already do with the words and deeds of the Prophet, known as the hadith: we read, empathise and re-apply the essence of those day-to-day experiences.
The crucial issue in creating positive understanding and dialogue through such writings is that they must be historically sound, and see the world through the experiences, morality and realities of the protagonists themselves.continue reading
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.continue reading
This article was published in The Muslim News