Thursday, 28 of August of 2014

Category » religion

What kind of Muslim are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Muslim men, this one’s for you…

This article has just been published in EMEL Magazine.

Muslim women are changing the world. Fed up with voices on all sides telling us how we should dress, what is ‘right’ for Muslim women, and how we should be defending Islam or in other cases dismantling it, Muslim women are getting themselves together and initiating change. But what does this mean if you are a Muslim man?

I should make two statements here: first, that I am an advocate for Muslim women and the changes that they want to make to traditional structures within Muslim communities, from within the faith. I believe Islam has a blueprint that offers liberation for both genders. Second, whilst there are some great changes afoot, an unspeakably huge amount still needs to be done in order to redress the oppression that Muslim women face from all sides.

With this in mind, I ask again, what if you are a Muslim man? It is a challenge being a Muslim woman, but I imagine that it is also a challenge being a Muslim man. There are plenty of books, talks and articles produced about “Women and Islam” but what about “Men and Islam.” It even sounds strange, doesn’t it?

Muslim women are constantly torn between the competing tensions of faith and multiple cultures. Men must be as well. For example, there is much talk about the difficulty that Muslim women face in finding marriage partners. Muslim men, what are your thoughts on this experience?

What notion of fatherhood can a Muslim man shape when battling traditional external notions that it is a ‘woman’s job’, a concept that exists in both western and eastern cultures?

When it comes to ideas about modesty and Muslim dress, what thought processes and support do Muslim men have in determining what they wear and whether this conforms to any standard of modest dress? And when it comes to the traditional notion that the hijab is there to save men from their uncontrollable cave-man sexual urges, do you have any opinions or more to the point, do you take offence at this? I think you should, and I have argued previously that hijab should not be explained in terms of denigrating men as licentious monsters.

When it comes to identity and stereotyping, Muslim men are typecast as today’s ‘angry young men’, with a beard and rucksack as labels for ‘terrorist’. What are the challenges that Muslim men are facing? What support do you want to address these?

If we want to create a change for women, then men need to be engaged. It’s the right thing to do, and it is the inevitable thing. It’s right because if Muslim men truly believe that Islam liberates women, and that it is built on the foundation of both genders being ‘created from one soul’, then they will – they must – stand in support of the changes women are advocating. More significantly, it is inevitable because any change that affects Muslim women must by definition affect Muslim men because the two occupy interconnected spheres of influence. Put another way, if men proactively make changes in conjunction with women, then problems affecting both genders will be solved much more quickly and effectively.

This is not about detracting from women, or diminishing their cause, nor is it about re-instating men as more important, or going back to patriarchy. It is about helping women, and helping the balance of our society as a whole.

Actually, this still sounds very Muslim-woman-centric, and there is a reason for framing my outreach to Muslim men in this way. I don’t want Muslim men’s needs to be hijacked by the same unyielding voices of traditional patriarchy that drown out Muslim women’s voices by telling them that they know better than Muslim women what it is exactly that Muslim women need.

By framing up our need to hear men’s voices from within the paradigm of the changes Muslim women are creating, I’m hoping to give space and freedom to Muslim men to be honest about the challenges they face. Young men can suffer at the hands of tradition, culture and patriarchy too, their needs being overlooked, unheard or dismissed as rebellious immature youth.

All of us need to make space for men to speak up about their concerns. There are two critical components of this space: that men can speak honestly about their issues; and also, that men and women can talk to each other, openly, sincerely and productively.

Muslim men, we need to hear from you.


The Fall and Rise of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Muslims: beyond the caricature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Created from a single soul

This week, The Guardian’s Comment is Free has been asking “Is religion good for women?” My response has just been published.

The Question: Is religion good for women?
Created from a single soul: If there is unequal treatment it is because those with power have forgotten the underlying principles of religion

I am irked by this question, the sense it carries with it that women are some kind of second best, an after-thought for religion, that require special attention. Women aren’t a remnant, or an aberration whose existence is there simply to sweep up the leftover genetic code off the floor and perpetuate the species. Women are fundamental to successful human flourishing – both physical and spiritual. It comes as no surprise to me that with the constant oppression that women face – whether in the name of religion or the cultural codes that seem to exist across all societies – the result is human society as a whole lurching from one failure to another. How can the human environment we all live in blossom if half of its inhabitants suffer in so many ways because of their gender?

As a Muslim woman, I was annoyed by the opening blurb introducing the question “Is religion good for women?” that set the background to the question saying that the Abrahamic faiths “believe in a father God, ruling the world through a network of men”. Islam emphatically does not believe in a father God. The divine is gender-neutral. The more I have discussed religion, the more I have found myself veering away from the word “God” for the very reason that it seems to carry historical baggage with it that in vulgar terms is very male, with a long beard and throne somewhere on high, which immediately engenders (yes, pun intended) a sense of exclusion in all of us who are non-male, or at the very least non-bearded, or non-throned.

Instead, I have found myself using other terms from within the Islamic paradigm like “the divine”, or “the creator” or even borrowing from other mystical traditions with a word like “enlightenment”, in order to get rid of the accepted male status quo within religion.

The fundamental way of knowing “the divine” as a Muslim are the 99 names which describe the qualities of the deity. Islamic scholars have grouped these broadly into two halves, male and female, and any comprehensive understanding and connection to the divine must understand and embrace both the male and the female attributes. By extension, human beings also aspire to manifest all of these qualities, which therefore underlines the critical importance of the female within any sort of understanding and practice of religion.

Men and women in Islamic theology were “created from a single soul”, as quoted in the Qur’an, and are “made in pairs”. The origins and relationship of men and women are therefore equal and equitable, neither one being able to exist or fully function without the other. The assumption behind the phrase “a network of men” is therefore also false. Every story related in scripture almost invariably has a man and a woman who carry the message together. Jesus and Mary, Moses and Miriam, Muhammed and Khadija. These stories are told in Islamic scripture with feisty, spiritual women who change the course of history.

Take the story of Mary as related in the Qur’an. Her father promised that his unborn child would be dedicated to God and would serve in the temple. He was surprised to find it was a girl – Mary – as only boys were traditionally dedicated for this purpose. He is instructed by the divine to continue with his dedication, and Mary went to live in the temple, shocking those around him with the idea that a woman could be worthy enough to serve the divine, a privilege previously accorded only to men. Mary’s very presence in the temple was designed to crush oppressive and misogynistic ideas, but many of these are still perpetuated vigorously today. As an aside, I should mention that Islamic tale of Mary’s birth of Jesus is told without reference to any male father figure. There is no Joseph, instead Mary is the epitome of the strong single mother whose neighbours gossip about her, but who raises a great child.

With such a powerful parable to draw on, and with the fundamental blueprint of gender relations in Islam being framed in the paradigm of “a single soul” I often ask myself why women are still treated as second best. I find it incomprehensible that women are excluded from some mosques, when by decree Mary was placed at the place of worship. I find it equally baffling that men treat women as lesser beings when the clear instruction is that both are created from the same spiritual fabric. All other actions must be carried out in the context of this basic human blueprint.

The problem is, those who have power will justify keeping it in any way they can, sometimes by conveniently forgetting the underlying principles of religion. The challenge is to reject black-and-white polarising questions like “Is religion good for women” and start from the basic fundamentals of equality. “Created from a single soul” seems a pretty good place to start to overturn the misogynists.


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!)


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


The Jewel of Medina – Sherry Jones meets Bridget Jones

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.

Bodice-ripper

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.


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.