Islamic Vs Mainstream Schools – My First Televised Verbal Skirmish

My first televised skirmish did not end in my ‘opponents’ calling me ‘kaafir’ or I they. We were very polite and gentlemanly with our disagreements but for the very first time, my loyalty to Islamic scholarship was challenged and I was , perhaps a little (and I do mean a little!) disapprovingly, called a ‘modernist’.

I was fortunate enough to called for a third time to be on the ‘Questions’ programme on British Muslim TV. It was a programme I never had the pleasure of watching myself but through which I met some rather interesting people, one of whom was the writer of ‘Little Mosque on The Prairie’, Zarqa Nawaz. The topics were always controversial enough to stir up some debate (like ‘gender segregated prayer spaces’ and ‘can differences of opinion be acceptable’) but sadly, I guess the panellists were always so polite that a spirited debate never took really took place. We were simply too agreeable!

Today’s event had perhaps a lot more stake – the future of Muslim children. Is it better for them to have a secular, state sponsored education rather than go to faith-based Islamic schools? There were four guests, a Revert who has had decades of experience with Islamic schools, a Shi’ite educationist, a young man who was a representative of a group calling for an egalitarian education system (i.e. no faith-based schools) and of course, myself. Please note that I am using terms ‘revert’ and ‘shi’ite cleric’ simply because I have no other means to identify them short of using their names which I will n ot do without their permission. These are not judgemental terms in the least.

I had not got off to a good start even before the show began when I greeted the Revert with a ‘hallo there’ in my usual ‘tally ho wot wot’ accent and was given a rather cold ‘salamu alaikum’ in return! In my defence, this was not done on purpose as I did not want to presume that he was Muslim which would then be another awkward situation if I had got that wrong! This further augments my hypothesis that Islam is in reality, a race and the Revert was not readily identified as a Muslim due to his race.

The show got off to a good start with all of us agreeing that Muslim children need to be exposed to children of other faiths and traditions. However, the Revert chap and the Shi’ite scholar were more supportive of the need of faith schools. Certainly it was due to the fact that Muslim children would be more ‘comfortable’ in an educational space with similar values as their homes. I disagreed with this (and the advocacy rep did as well, of course). I personally felt that a secular education ensures that Muslim children would encounter opinions different than their own and thus be more understanding of others. They need to be pushed out of their comfort zone. There should ,however, be a caveat – that the secularity comes in the form of a space rather than an ideology. This is what is called ‘procedural’ rather than ‘ideological’ secularism (thanks to Tehmina Kazi of British Muslims for Secular Democracy for teaching me this!).

Things started to heat up when the Revert mentioned his reservations against ‘integrationist’ policies which to him sounded like assimilationist in nature. I then voiced my reservations against his reservations – that while I appreciated distinguishing identities (identities which makes one distinct in whatever way), I could not support dissociative identities (identities which makes one totally separate from other identities in a given polity). In other words, please wear your hijab if you wish but please do not judge people who believe in other forms of modesty.

The Revert chap was not happy about this – he insinuated that I was a relativist which is perhaps half true. I did believe in absolute truth but the only one privileged to that truth was Allah himself. He then threw the proverbial ‘Islamic scholarship’ book at me, which was quite standard, but me being a Quranist was rendered rather ineffective. Islamic scholars had a right to their view but I had a right to disagree and I did. Thus endeth the first skirmish but a greater one was yet to come…

The subject then finally moved on to radicalization in schools and I voiced my usual ‘radicalization is not an isolated process’ rant. I firmly believe that, given the current teaching methods in Islamic schools, that radicalization would inevitably happen. The reason can be as fundamental as simply considering other children as ‘kaafirs’. After all, people like the so-called ‘Islamic state’ are at war with ‘kaafirs’. This is simply the same Tradition producing varying levels of Islamofascism.

Quite unsurprisingly, I was challenged. Both the White Revert and Shi’ite Cleric were aghast that I would deny calling non-Muslims ‘kaafirs’. That was exactly right though – I could not accept calling people of other faiths or ideologies as ‘kaafirs’. They had their own experience (read: signs) and may be believers in their own way. We Muslims have no monopoly on truth and the Quran attests to truth’s multiplicity anyway. This obviously led to an impasse. Despite the quick burst of intensity though, this second skirmish ended amicably, not least because our hostess was very adept at handling disagreement.

I did give my salams to my erstwhile opponents and hoped they wouldn’t take my disagreement to heart. I am, after all, simply voicing my opinion based on what I feel was the intent of Allah in the Quran. Disagreements and even arguments are all part of human existence.

Reverts That Rock The Islamic Boat!

One of the things which fill me with great despair is seeing reverts to Islam lose themselves after conversion. These are people who actively sought the Truth and they happened to find it within the Islamic Tradition. The story should be a case of ‘all’s well that ends well’ but it rarely is. Reverts often get utterly disillusioned with their choice and the reason for that is simple: while the revert discovers Islam, he (and more frequently, she) also discovers Muslims.

This is not an attack on ‘Native Muslims’ (people who were born into Islamicate cultures). For the most part, we are decent people who do not use Islam as a means of control and oppression. However, a community is rarely defined by average folks. Rather it is those who are actively propagating the faith and worse, those who use the community to exploit the possible naïveté (about the Muslim community, not about life) of new reverts..

I was reminded of this sad fact today when I participated in another ‘reverts and natives’ discussion. Yet another revert was put off by the dictatorial and authoritarian treatment she received at the ends of a native with his born-again Muslim zeal. It was suggested in the discussion thread that reverts should have their support groups. This was met with loud disapproval by the native Muslims, claiming that it was divisive. One particularly high profile one mentioned that reverts have settled well, citing some reverts who are more native than the native themselves.

I had heard stories of a similar nature before. Stories like reverts being asked invasive personal questions about their lives prior to conversion. Being told, often in harsh tones, that they must conform to the native community. Being humiliated when they didn’t know the correct dress or ritual procedures. These are not pleasant experiences in the least.

However, I am very happy to say that I now know many reverts who are now rocking the Islamic boat. They have truly come to own a slice of Islam for themselves. Probably the loudest of these is Michael Muhammad Knight whose Islamic identity has metamorphosed several times already. This sort of sectarian musical chairs can be very disconcerting for native Muslims. But does Michael care? Heck no! He wrote Taqwacores (a very groundbreaking book about Muslim punks) and told the mullas ‘you fartwah me , I fartwah you back!’. This is kind of guts we need. Michael took his Islamic experience into his own hands and he has the absolute right to do so.

There are also reverts who are liberals, feminists, those who maintain afiliation with other faiths (like a Christian-Muslim-Pagan, how cool is that!). These types are very nerve wrecking to the natives. Imagine a native being told that his narrative is simply a subjective cultural story and that Islam can accommodate other narratives. Islam as we know it is simply not ready for that just now but it must be ready if it is to survive in this postmodern world.

Why are these new avenues of the Islamic experience important? Simply because they are not new. They are, in fact, how Islam was like originally. The native Muslims tend to forget that Muhammad and most companions were Arabs and so their human cultural beings interacted with the revelation they experienced which is the Quran. This is only normal. Arab culture thus became the first indigenous culture of Islam.

When the Islamic empire expanded, it encountered and appropriated various cultures. It thus shifted accordingly and Islamic culture came to include these newer elements. This is why you will find geographical particularities and specifications with the local forms of Islam. South East Asian Islams for example mixed with the local religions (similar to Hinduism) and you will find their Islam used to be very eclectic. Sadly, Wahabi influence from Saudi Arabia has managed to erode much of that today.

So when we challenge this main narrative, we are in fact challenging its human interpreters. They only act if they represent Allah. Allah never authorized to do so and the Muslims’ sacred object, the Quran does not concern itself with cultural minutiae.

Unfortunately for converts today, Islamic cultural dynamism has long since ossified. When this ossification happened, what we know as ‘Islamic’ became frozen in time. Muslims men were told to keep beards. Why? Because the Prophet kept one. Had he been an Eskimo, the Sunnah would be to shave beards. Similarly, converts wondering why men and women need to pray separately need to see how Arabs and South Asians are very meticulous about gender separation. Essentially, ‘Islamic culture’ is simply that first indigenous culture. It has little or nothing to do with what we know as ‘islam’ in essence.

And that is why we need boat-rocking reverts. These are people who will tell the natives ‘NO. Sorry, this is also my faith and I decide what is true and what isn’t’. This sort of positive recalcitrance is needed to shake the Native Muslims out of their cultural doldrums. I hope to see reverts creating their own traditions in Quranic exegesis, their own Islamic artistic endeavours (art, poetry, music) and their own spaces away from the cultural hegemony of natives. We need to keep watering tree of Islam with fresh human experiences.


Al-Andalus Bestows A Kindred Spirit

During high school, I was very taken by the romantic vision of Muslim Spain. I supposed it was a search for my personal identity that I looked into Islamic history. Al-Andalus to me represented the peak of Islamic civilisation. I even wrote a poem which did not make it into the school yearbook. It was called ‘Cordova’ and modelled after Iqbal’s own. I don’t even know where it is anymore. It was written before my own IT revolution with pen and paper.

More than twenty years later, Al-Andalus has, in all honestly, faded into the background for me. Reason being, my own thinking is has come to focus on Quranic research and the contemporary Muslim cultural experience. I no longer see Islamic history as ‘manifest destiny’ but rather as a human response to the Muhammadan experience. Truth be told, the Quran has had a small role in Islamic history. But that doesn’t make Islamic history any less valuable. It is as valuable to us as Chinese history has had on the Chinese, no matter what their political or religious persuasion.

Anyway, I received an unexpected email a week or so back from ‘A Spanish Muslim’, as the title read. It was my first encounter with Juan, with whom I actually met today. Juan had read my Quranists Network website and agreed with our take on hadith (that is, we reject its authority). He was visiting the UK and wanted to meet with me.

We met at Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. It was probably the first truly bright day of spring, although the wind definitely took away from any warmth we may have had. We then adjourned to Waterstone’s Costa Café just across the road.

Juan turned out to be a fascinating fellow indeed. He was possessed of a deeply inquisitive mind and unlike many reverts I’ve met, does not know any limits when it comes to asking questions. He was especially concerned – and rightly so- about tawheed (monotheism) and was worried about popular Muslim beliefs such as intercession. Despite the fact that he had clearly read in the Quran that there can be no intercession on judgement day, he found that Muslims still believe that Prophet Muhammad can bestow it. Not only that, he could also bestow it on sinners. That has led some Muslims to believe that they can do anything in this earthly life and still achieve salvation.

Juan reasoned, if this was Islam, it would be the same if he had remained Catholic. I wholeheartedly concurred! Indeed, Muslims place Prophet Muhammad on an equal level as how Christians place Jesus! The only difference is, we do not use the term ‘son of God’. Every other function is exactly the same.

Juan and I also share a passion for Islamic mysticism and spirituality or Sufism. We both are wary, however, of the necessities of over veneration of the Shiekh (sufi master). We both believe that any given tariqa (lit. path, used often in a Sufi connotation) should be hierarchically flat. Democratizing and egalitarian. The tariqah should bear in that the goal is a direct connection with Allah. The goal is not the sheikh himself!

We also believed that there are many paths to Allah. Indeed this is only fair since Allah created us of many cultures and creeds. Our job is to clear a path so people can take it if it suits them. I am a very big fan of this ‘multiple paths’ thinking. For me, those who preach ‘one path fits all’ usually mean ‘THEIR path fits all’. And it doesn’t. No one’s path does.

Juan and I also agreed on the need for a just economic system as well social justice We saw the same social ills within the Islamic culture. One of the worst of these was racism and the ‘chosen people’ syndrome. It was lovely to not be alone for once.

Two hours flew by and alas, it was time for me to leave. We bid our goodbyes but would keep in touch. I was very fortunate to have met Juan today and look forward to a lifelong friendship with a kindred spirit from Al-Andalus