Tuesday, 2 of September of 2014

Category » spirituality

21st century spiritual literacy

This article was recently published in EMEL Magazine.

“Bring up your children differently to how you were brought up, because they live in different times to you.”

This is a famous saying of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. I grew up as part of a British-born Asian Muslim generation where trying to make sense of these competing identities was our primary concern. One of our main goals was to ‘fit in’ with mainstream society around us. Observing Asian customs and abiding by religious rules was something to be downplayed and hidden. Today’s young Muslims see their priorities differently.

They are much more confident, demanding even, about their place in society and their identities. For many youngsters, expressing your Muslim identity is a badge of honour, giving them a sense of belonging. The constant barrage of news about Muslims and the increasingly ferocious right-wing attacks on Muslims are likely to consolidate this identity. Even the world around us has been changing faster than ever before. I bought my first mobile phone in the mid-nineties, not long before acquiring dial-up internet access at home at the remarkable speed of 14.4k.

Today it is impossible to imagine living without either a mobile phone or the internet. The acquisition of life skills has changed too. Schools once emphasised subjects like domestic science, teaching children to cook and manage the budget at home. These skills are rarely taught at school, and in many cases have been lost to the home too. Yet television programming is full of shows trying to wean people away from fat-inducing take-aways and junk food by teaching them to cook.

Financial management is absent too from life skills training. Yet we now find that debt is higher than ever before, and that it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the recession. Learning the value of money and how to manage it is an essential skill in the portfolio of education. I don’t want to indulge in nostalgia or take a pop at our education system. What I want to do is set the scene to that other area of life skills that has slowly been eroded from our communities – spiritual literacy. Individuals are losing a sense of who they are in society and what they are worth as human beings.

To compensate, the self-help scene has exploded indicating that individuals are craving these skills. In religious training, rote learning and rules for rules’ sake were sufficient for generations. One question in modern life has changed all this: “why?” Having information is no longer enough, it is having the tools to make sense of what is around us that is critical. Only this can re-connect us to the spiritual meaning that we complain has been lost to modern literalist Islam.

Spiritual literacy needs several components. It has an information element – exploring the range of moral codes and belief systems like religions and their place in history and society. There is no need to be afraid of other religions. Being equipped to meet and relate to different belief systems is the key in the modern world. For those who are Muslim, there needs to be an intimacy with the Qur’anic text and Islamic history.

This is to provide basic knowledge as well as a yearning in the heart. Spiritual literacy needs to inculcate a sense of spiritual worth in each human being. This is the common denominator across society, because whether you believe in religion or not, we are all connected through the worth of the human spirit. Only this belief will allow us to treat those of other faiths and none with respect and create self-esteem in the individual.

This spiritual literacy however is underpinned by learning tools which will help address the ever present question of ‘why’. These are the tools of analysis and critical thinking which will allow an individual to understand and shape their spiritual inputs, and manage them and regulate them in the best manner possible. Families and local community classes are on their way to offering these skills. We need to recognise that spiritual literacy is the most important of all life skills. It is vital for the health of the human individual. Just as our life skills must include the ability to shape our physical sustenance in food and finances, so we must have the skills to develop our individual human spirit.


Taking some quiet time for the rest of Ramadan

Dear readers, I think it’s time to invest in creating some tranquility and repose. As many of you will know, we’ve now reached the last ten days of Ramadan, and I feel the need to wind down some of the many activities I’m involved in. That means the blog is on holiday for a couple of weeks. Please carry on reading, but if you post comments, they may not be moderated, or responded to (this includes comments you may already have posted which are un-published as yet). If you need to contact me please do so, but it may take a little while to respond. If it’s urgent, please mark it as such and I’ll get back to you.

It’s a strange feeling to “withdraw” (even though I’m not doing it fully), and in a way slightly scary – after all, what if I “miss out” on some big opportunities? What about ‘profile’? Will people lose interest? What about keeping up momentum and being fully engaged?

These are some of the fears which plague us, particularly in our busy modern world. But when we contribute to create the rapid pace (is it really as rapid as we think, or do we like to pretend we are at the centre of the whirlwind and oh-so-in-demand), is the result that we simply get trampled by it?
When everything I do is facing outwards, what is left to nurture what is within and keep the energy overflowing from inside to out? That’s why I’ll be spending the next two weeks in a quieter, more introspective way. I wonder what will be on the other side.

Image from The Joy of Tech


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.


What’s love got to do with it?

This article was recently published in EMEL Magazine.

February plays host to Valentine’s Day, and to the declaration of those ‘three little words.’ But what exactly are those three little words, and what do they reveal about our modern psyche?

A colleague of mine will be abroad, but will be sending flowers to his wife with the message: “I’m sorry I can’t be there to take you out for an over-priced meal. Here are some over-priced flowers instead.” He humorously conveys his love, but his words reflect a modern-day fatigue of being told what, when and how to feel, beholden to the manufacturing and commercialisation of emotion.

“Happy Hallmark Holiday” encapsulates our disillusion with modern angst for total perfection. Our very real, natural and rough-round-the-edges human processes are turned into flawless airbrushed ideals that do not resemble our lived experiences.

At the opposite extreme of expressing our feelings, we face another far too common three word phrase: “it is bid’ah“, denying our natural fitrah to express love. Last year, the Saudi Vice Police were sent to all shops the week before Valentine’s Day to ensure that nothing red-coloured was sold. Kuwaiti MPs declared that Valentine’s Day was ‘not compatible with our values.’ The Internet is replete with questions asking whether Valentine’s Day is haram, halal or bid’ah.

How did Muslims reach the point where we ask legal authorities about matters of celebrating love? Consider other questions that are asked: “Is falling in love allowed in Islam?” or “Can a husband express his love to his wife?” They reflect the increasingly legalistic approach that Muslims are taking in all matters of life.

Today, as Muslims, we have become servants of the law, instead of the law serving us in order to achieve higher spiritual perfection. Abiding by the law is not a purpose in itself: it is a means to an end. It is critical to respect the law, and our jurists and scholars, but we must be careful not to derive a false satisfaction from following the law for the law’s sake over striving towards the underlying objectives of the law. Our current pre-occupation with legalities rather than ethos is directly connected to the fact that we have become unclear about our goals, our values and our principles as human beings who follow the faith of Islam.

Bluntly put, we focus on the minutiae instead of freeing ourselves to ask world-changing questions. Let’s ask our scholars big questions that focus on Islam’s concern for all human beings. If Islam is about social welfare for the whole of humanity, then let’s ask: how do we use the institutions of zakat to put an end to world poverty? If the Prophet emphasised education by saying ’seek education even to China’, then how do we ensure that every child goes to school? If Islam is concerned with physical as well as spiritual well-being, how do we ensure healthcare reaches all human beings?

What of those other three little words, “I love you”? We often hear that Christianity is the religion of love, but Islam – wrongly in my opinion – is characterised as far from this. Why is Islam portrayed in this way?

We must challenge the ideas that modern discourse – which includes Muslims themselves who have been brought up on a diet of legalistic directives – perpetuates that Muslims and Islam are lacking in love, or worse, are averse to it. The discussion of love – for Islam by its nature is predicated on love – is critical to our survival and contribution to the modern world. So much so, that I wanted to explore these forgotten ideas of love that underpin the very essence of being a Muslim, with humour, humanity and lightness of touch. The title and subject-matter of my forthcoming book, Love in a Headscarf, for these very reasons creates surprise at the juxtaposition of the idea of Muslims and love.

Muslims say that Islam is the religion of peace. Some go further and say that it is the religion of justice, and that justice underpins peace. I would go further still and say that Islam is the religion of Rahmah, compassion. For compassion to be exercised, justice must already be inherent. But compassion also expels the lurking remnants of hatred, fear and pain through love. Hate cannot push out hate, only love can push out hatred. Allah insists we know Him by His name Rahman, the Lovingly Compassionate. We too must reclaim our role as the people of Rahmah.


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


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.


In conversation with God…

As we approach the month of Ramadhan, it’s time to get my head into shape, and my soul more tender so that they spiritual days of fasting can work their magic. At a prep-lecture last night, the speaker talked about the importance of engaging in munajat (moo-nah-jaat) with the Creator – intimate conversation. I was moved to think about how little we (for which read ‘I’) focus on creating space for ourselves and in dialogue with the Divine. Sadly, I think a lot translations of the Qur’an (and other Holy scripture) create the sense of distance, grandeur and scariness of the Creator, when perhaps we should be think more along the lines of best friend?

In that spirit, I rather liked this animated short by Matthew Walker called ‘Operator’ where a man calls the operator to get the number for God so he can have a chat. Spot on. Enjoy.

Temporary note: there seems to be a problem with the video running which i’m looking at fixing, in the meantime click on the link above, or please come back when the video is running properly. Sorry!


Can you dress provocatively and be religious?

I’ve just got back from BBC Asian Network discussing the issues around revealing clothing and being a person of faith. Can you wear a short skirt and low cut top and call yourself religious? Can you show off your assets in tight jeans and a teeny tight white t-shirt (I’m talking about the men here!)

It’s a topic of passionate discussion, and that’s because it is much more complex than it appears. First (and let’s be honest about this), the conversation is almost always sparked off about complaining about women not being properly covered up. Rarely is the question asked in relation to men. Muslim women who do not wear the headscarf are immediately assumed to be less religious than those who wear it. Those who do wear it, are immediately assumed to be over-zealous and seated on their prayer mats for 22 hours each day. Those who do and don’t wear hijab are constantly frustrated by these caricatures which block their path to exploring their faith and spirituality. Why should we judge an individual’s constant struggle to be a person of faith by what they wear? We cannot judge that status. Judgement is only for God. What we can do is comment on the impact that their dress makes on those around them, and what we think it reveals about their understanding of modesty – for whatever is inside, always shows itself on the outside.

More challenging for our modern society is the issue this topic raises with regards to public and private faith. Even when you have strong inner values, we are told that they can and should be divorced from your participation in the public domain. Faith, we are told, is a private matter. But faith, de facto, must be public because it shows itself in the relationships you build with the people around you. For example, faith encourages compassion and kindness. There is no point exhibiting these values only at home – you need to demonstrate them in the world ‘out there’. In fact, you must exhibit them out there, because part of being a person of faith is making the world a better place.

Modest dress and behaviour is part of all religions, in order to maintain humility, but also to make it easier to build relations with others. We have forgotten in our post-modern society that everything we do has an impact on others, and that whilst we have the freedoms of individuality, they come with responsibilities to others. It’s not just all me-me-me. If modesty is an inner value, it must and will show itself to the world around us.


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