A Muslim Uncle At Speaker’s Corner

I had not been to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London for a long time. I went once nearly two decades ago when I first came to the UK but before I moved to London. It was very exciting for me at the time. I had just arrived from Malaysia and the idea of free speech, especially in such a public place was an alien idea to me.

Two decades later, I am so used to the idea of free speech but never revisited Speaker’s Corner since that first time. I had come to join a protest against the sedition charges levelled at the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar. He may get imprisoned for forty-three years. I joined the protest and was ready to leave about two hours later.

On way out, I could not help but notice this Muslim uncle preaching to the public about Islam. He was loud and abrasive but in a nice way. He told the atheists that they were ‘confused.com’ (a price comparison site) and a Christian chap he was ‘lost.com’ (not any kind of site). He took their nastiness in stride though. One racist, upon hearing him say ‘we british’, actually asked him ‘are you really British, you don’t look British!’. The uncle was supercool though.

My beef with him was the material he used. It was just such a closed-minded, parochial view of Islam. For a start, calling athiests and Christians ‘confused and lost’ is simply disingenuous. His dismissal of the atheists’ sense of truth and justice simply because they did not believe in the idea of deity was unfair. One atheist responded with ‘well you were born and raised Muslim, you’ve never known anything else’. Our Muslim uncle simply said ‘yes, everyone was born Muslim. It’s our nature’. Something empirically unprovable like this cannot be used as an argument.

He then went on about the ‘miracles’ of Prophet Muhammad (he uttered the ubiquitous ‘pbuh’, of course), the ‘last and greatest of all the Prophets’. He had so many miracles, the uncle said. Hang on, MIRACLES? What miracles, I asked myself?!

I spoke up just then – Excuse me sir, that contradicts the Quran. He asked me how. I said, please look at Chapter 29 (Al-Ankaboot) Verse 51 which rhetorically ask if it is not enough that the book was sent as a sign (which Traditionalists translate as ‘miracle’). In any case, it is very clear that Muhammad only had the Quran, miracle or not.

The uncle then launched a tirade against me. He claimed I had no right to interpret the Quran, being unqualified so to do. Sadly, he landed himself in it by saying that because the atheist then reminded him that only minutes earlier, he said the Quran is clear as day and that non-Muslims should read it as well to learn ‘all about Islam’. Sadly, that was when the takfeer-ing (hereticizing) began. The uncle claimed I’m not really a Muslim because I doubted Muhammad’s miracles.

I asked him, what sort of a God would send a man to show a miracle to a handful of people and leave the rest of us with just a hadith about it? Would a just God expect faith like this? Furthermore, what does a miracle prove? Magicians perform tricks and fool people. What if ‘moon-splitting’ incident (the example he used) was just the result of some hashish? Do Prophets really need miracles? Nope, the man was on a winner with his ‘kafir, kafir’ rant so I left him to his crowd.

It is such a pity that Muslims typically rely on these pre-planned rhetoric to win more sheep to their flock. Islam is about thinking your way to truth, not this.

Another Evening with Ex-Religionists

A few months ago, I spent a very interesting evening listening to Ex-Muslims recount their story. I actually made two friends from the panellists and learnt a lot from their narratives. I am a believer in the Quran and its divine origin and I stand for the Ex-Muslims freedom of conscience. To me, they should be free to believe in any path they choose for howsoever long they choose and for whatever reason they choose. It is their lives and no one should have a say in it. Instead, they should be supported in transitioning to whatever their new identity is.

Tonight’s event with a lot wider that just Ex-Muslims though. There was one Ex-Muslim on the panellist of speakers but really, not quite (I’ll get to that later). The rest were Ex-New Ager, Ex-Catholic, Ex-Jehovah’s Witness and Ex-Hindu. Quite a mix indeed. The evening opened with an officer of the Atheists and Secular Humanists society, introducing the programme. I particularly appreciated his nuanced wording, claiming that various strains in religious traditions had negative elements. I appreciated this because discerning analysis helps get to the truth of the matter. While there are strains in various traditions which are oppressive (like Islamofascism), there are also strains which counter oppression.

My friend Imtiaz then took over as host/mc. Imtiaz has been instrumental in getting the ‘Faith to Faithless’ concept off the ground and it has been growing from strength. The speakers then took turns delivering their stories.

I am deeply sympathetic with the violence suffered by these Ex-Religionists. The violence came in the physical form but also mental and emotional. Some are driven by guilt to embrace their faith. Others by social pressure. Some had to suffer abuse from their own parents. Others faced social and ethical dilemma. It could not have been easy and I am happy that these individuals found paths which feels right for them.

Now comes the not so supportive part…

This evening, however connective it was on a human level, did not provide sound critiques of religion and theism. Yes we can see how people of religion ultimately drove their own away from various faiths but religionists could easily reply that there are many strains in each religious tradition. Adding their personal narratives into the act of leaving merely gives religionists the excuse to say ‘ah see, they suffered traumas. This is why they left’. It connects us to their struggle, yes but it also gives the religionists a good counter argument.

The next issue is using people who were not quite of a particular faith. The Ex-Muslim guy, as it turns out, only left Islam because his Christian mother drove him away from it. In all fairness, this is not a strong reason at all and I wonder why this person was chosen. Nevertheless, he did give some theological reasons about the Biblical God but he did not show that he went into it in any great depth. Perhaps it was time limit.

The Ex-Catholic woman talked about her social experiences but also her theological and ethical dilemma. There were some issues raised but she did not disclose any kind of discussion from the point of view of her opponents. Yes she said that she did not understand why God needed to die for our sins but is it not important to know the answers from various quarters. Same with her ethical dilemmas.  The Ex-Hindu chap also raised some salient points about the social structures within Hinduism but failed to mention the mystical and socially democratizing movements as well.


Surely it is important to analyse the variety of answers as well. I’m not saying that one needs any kind of reason to disbelieve. I support any kind of reason as long as it is that person’s choice. I just think stronger cases could have been made if these folks delved more deeply into theology and philosophy of religion.

Ahmed Mohamed Incident Shows the Racism of Islamophobia

Islamophobes are loathe to admit that Islamophobia is a form of racism. The word ‘racism’ has acquired such a lot of negativity and power that to identify Islamophobia as a form of it would be really be detrimental to the Islamophobes’ hate campaigns. However, today’s news report of a 14 year old Muslim being arrested and questioned proves beyond any doubt the nature of Islamophobia. You may read about the incident here.

This is exactly the same kind of profiling which happened with Afro-americans. For some time now, violence against Afro-american young men by the police has been terribly disproportionate. Is it possible that there is a subconscious profiling which led to their terrible treatment? Do the police see ‘black’ and think ‘gang member’ etc?

In any case, we need to focus on this particular point – ideology does not come to it. It is simply the look of the individual – his complexion which became the decisive factor. The Afro-american victim is not asked what he believes in, if anything at all.

It is the same with Ahmed Mohamed and other Muslims who suffer from Islamophobia. Their ideologies do not come into it. We don’t even know if Ahmed believes in the Islamic religion at all, let alone adheres to a conservative brand. All we know is, he has that look and oh my God, does he ever have the name! Not only Ahmed but Ahmed Mohamed! Had he been of any other kind of ethnicity with a different name this would have not happened. Had any other kid with a name like John Smith made a clock, even if John Smith was a practising Muslim in the quiet, this also would not have happened. Belonging to the Muslim tribe is all about outward signs and is very dangerous these days.

To the Islamophobes who whine and moan when people say you practise racism, think about this example please. Why did this poor boy suffer this treatment? For the same reason Afro-american young men suffer police brutality. He just fits the profile…and that, my friends, is the very definition of racism.

An Evening of Deep Thought at the Muslim Institute

It’s becoming a little tradition with me to spend at least one summer evening a year at the Muslim Institute’s annual lecture. The event appropriately called the ‘Ibn Rushd Lecture’ and is completing its third session tonight. Held at the Arts Workers Guild in Holborn, it exudes a feel of those old intellectual circles once held in this great city of ours. No other Islamic organization can do it like the Muslim Institute.

I found myself seconded into helping out with the evening’s preparation which I gladly did. My reward was being able to hobnob with the lovely Meryl Wyn Davies and getting an unhurried handshake and a hug with the legendary Ziauddin Sardar who inquired after my scholastic developments (such as they were!). To have these two people speaking to me on such a personal level was simply astounding when I think back to my younger days admiring their work on TV. ‘Faces of Islam’ was a favourite series of mine which continues to colour my own Islamic cultural theory till today. I am aware of how that exposes my geekery, yes.

Today’s lecture was entitled ‘Between Ghazali and Ibn Rushd: Ethics, Reason and Humility’ by Professor Ebrahim Moosa. He struck me as a deeply humble man for all his knowledge but he had a way of delivering ‘stealth jokes’ and I found myself bursting out with laughter a few times throughout the evening.

Like father and son!

Like father and son!

The professor started off by warning us straight away not to fall into lazy generalizations (like Al-Ghazali was the executioner of Islamic philosophy or that Ibn Rushd was the unsung hero). That was certainly Dr Shahrour’s view. Dr Shahrour is a Quranist thinker from Syria who believes that the Muslim world went on a downward spiral because they chose to institutionalize Al-Ghazali while Europe came to its enlightenment for adopting the thinking of Ibn Rushd. The truth was far more complex, it seems.

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was a complex personality. He was a great scholar and prolific author whose works delved into the disciplines of theology, philosophy and mysticism. His magnum opus called the Ihya Ulum Ad-deen’, as per my understanding, seemed to ‘operationalize’ Sufism. While Sufism had erstwhile been something rather theoretical, even anecdotal, with Al-Ghazali it had become an experience one could access through mundane living. This evening however, his work on refuting the Peripatetic philosophers (Greek influenced Aristotelians mostly) was highlighted. It is called ‘Tahafut al-Faylasuf’ (Refutation of the Philosophers). In this work, Al-Ghazali pronounces heresy on those whose beliefs contradicted Islamic teachings.

After the death of Al-Ghazali, came Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) who was born in Muslim Spain. He was also a stellar academic who wrote on theology, philosophy and a number of sciences. He answered Al-Ghazali’s Tahafut by reconciling faith and philosophy and answering Al-Ghazali’s accusations towards the philosophers of being heretics.

What was the outcome of this exchange? Despite the clear victory of Ibn Rushd, not least owing to the fact that Al-Ghazali was already dead, Al-Ghazali still gained the upper hand in the field of Islamic discourse. This could be due to the fact that Al-Ghazali managed to systematize what become crucial to the Sunni doctrine due to his aforementioned magnum opus. Sunnism had consolidated its power just then and became what we now know as Islam (with Shia Islam remaining a distant heterodoxy). This contributed to Al-Ghazali’s dominance in Islamic discourse since then. It was not due to the notion that Al-Ghazali killed philosophy. He didn’t. We did.

Professor Ebrahim Moosa also emphasized that both Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd were also products of their time and situations. They were both, for example, supportive of the notions that the majority of the people would not be able to understand the deeper, more allegorical understandings of the Quran. These people should just be left with the literal meanings which are less likely to confuse them. Such elitist mindsets will not help the Ummah, I don’t think.

Today, little is known of the developments of current Muslim philosophy. While Majid Fakhry’s book ‘Islamic Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism’ does note Muslim philosophers of the 20th century (like Iqbal and Tabatabai) but these philosophers, great as they were, did not move civilizations like early Muslim philosophers. They operate strictly within the bounds of Islamic thought. Rather, what we need are philosophers from the world of Islam who engage with current trends in global philosophy. Perhaps they can answer the children of Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida and provide the next steps in world philosophy.

I managed to have two questions of mine fielded to the good professor. The first was on Al-Ghazali’s notion of philosophers going against ‘Islamic teachings’. What constitutes ‘Islamic teachings’, I asked? Professor Ebrahim replied that Al-Ghazali was a scholar who was retained by the Abbasid caliphate and hence had to acknowledge the ‘official doctrines’, as it were. Fair enough, this only shows that that he’s not only fallible, we may bypass him altogether. If we choose to construct a different framework, there’s nothing to hold us back.

The second question I asked when I sneakily ‘found myself’ in the long queue for dinner for the second time. Well there was no other way to speak to Professor Ebrahim so there I was. I managed to ask him about what he thought Ex-Muslims can add to the discourse. He agreed that even their dissent can add to the discourse. This could even change of what we conceive to be the ‘Ummah’. Sadly the conversation ended there.

The only bone I have to pick with the Muslim Institute is that the Ibn Rushd lecture is only held once a year. I would have preferred quarterly or even once every sixth months. So there I was, all by myself in Holborn, walking back to the station from whence I came.

More Encounters with Unusual Muslims

Mondays are meant real downers but I was fortunate to be able to take an afternoon off last Monday since things were slowing down as summer was already here. I had made two consecutive appointments with two Muslims one would normally meet. My happy hunting ground? Appropriately enough, the Edgeware Road/Paddington area.

My first meet up was with a journalist cum political analyst. I had met this lovely young lady as co-panelist on British Muslim TV the previous week. We were very much in agreement about the subject (on whether Muslim’s identity signals like beards and hijab are appropriately placed) although we had to ‘tussle’ a little bit to get to that point. She had very kindly agreed to help me on my quest to break into mainstream reporting.

In the usual ‘Muslims Vs The West’ scenario, it is usual to see people (from either side) become fanatical in their passionate defence of their ‘side’. It was so refreshing to see that my new friend did not fall into this category. Her journalism from what I understand seemed to be about bringing the other side of the Muslim narrative to the forefront. For example, the increase in women’s representation in Muslim parliaments. Sadly, this positive journalism does not feed well into the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ type scenario. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s shambolic stories make better headlines and that’s why truth becomes secondary. I can empathise. I have been following a ‘Muslim Atheist’ for some time and am amazed that he does not even read what he himself quotes!

My friend is also very balanced as she is not afraid to criticise Muslims where appropriate. She recognises outward signs of piety as cultural signals Muslims affect in order to flex their identity. This is something which is similar to how other young people affect cultural signals from other traditions (like punk or goth). She also had very strong feminist leanings and was very critical of the patriarchal nature of (what I call) Conservative Traditional Islam.

Yet, for all her liberalism, my friend was very unwavering in her notion of what is ethically acceptable. She was very wary of what she called ‘Koombayah Islam’ (a phrase which made my coffee go the wrong way!) and how the response to Conservative Traditional Islam should not be anything goes! I may not agree on what is ‘ethically accetable’ but I do feel that one needs to be unwavering on what one believes to be right.

I was early for my second appointment so I decided to walk over to Paddington. It was not a long a walk as I had expected. I even had the time to scope out a Malaysian restaurant I used to visit but it turns out, it was closed. I think closed down for good because if it was still open, it would be open at that hour!

I was here to meet a friend I met on Facebook, Hassan. We met in a group called British Muslims for Secular Democracy where I was struck by Hassan’s description of himself as an ‘Agnostic Muslim’. I am not one of those people who balk at such terms either. I happily acknowledge that there are infinite varieties of Muslims who have infinite religious experiences. What struck about Hassan, even before we met in person, was his emphasis that his position as an agnostic Muslim was his own. He was speaking for himself, no one else. This is contrary to many I know. I highly respect this because my own approach to religion is predicated upon my subjective experience. Check out the name of this blog, if you don’t believe me.

Hassan and I met at The Victoria pub just down the road from Paddington station (see pic below). It was a lovely pub in which you can imagine George Roper and Jeffery Fourmile having one of their little quarrels in. Hassan had very kindly offered to buy me lunch which made me all the more agreeable!

Victoria Pub in Paddington

Victoria Pub in Paddington

Hassan grew in during the ‘classical’ period of British Islam. I say ‘classical’ because this was the incubation period of Muslim youth. You could read a very beautiful narrative of this period by another British Muslim who grew up during this period, Ziauddin Sardar in his book ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim’ . Hassan was not just a casual Muslim. He studied and worked in the field!

He came to his agnosticism when he found there were theological questions he could not answer. The example he mentioned was the eternity of hell. Surely a merciful god would not torture human beings eternally even for a lifetime of errors. I could attempt to answer this conundrum here but really, I would just be speculating on God’s logic myself. The fact of the matter is, this is a metaphysical issue for which no objective answer can be reached.

Hassan and I shared an alma matter which was SOAS, that place where the historical criticism school of John Wansbrough first originated. Hassan actually studied under the man himself and I studied under his prodigy, Gerald Hawting (in his final class, no less).

An interesting subject which came up and which I will be writing on in my Quranology blog is on the issue of the asmaa ul husna. The 99 names of Allah. Hassan pointed out that some of these names were not based on the Quran and some of names which can be formulated from the Quran are not there. Very interesting, I thought. He also pointed out that some names of Gods were positive sounding but not others. In the end, he concluded, that God is beyond what we try to pin him down with.

This mode of thinking also extended to the Quran itself. For Hassan, the Quran was a divine inspiration in the same way any human being can be inspired to produce something meaningful. Prophet Muhammad was inspired but he had to express this inspiration in a human language and thus wrote down the Quran. So the wording was his but the source of the wording was not, if you will. Hassan still saw the Quran as a source of wisdom but has the choice of taking that wisdom on his own terms. It was very ironic, I thought, that he and I had different metaphysical views yet when it came to the practical application of Quran, we were on the same page. To me, Prophet Muhammad was inspired to verbalize what became the Quran. They were not his words but God’s own choice of words. This is why he could not understand them in full but had to see knowledge (as Quran 20/114 tells us). Of course, this is only my belief. I have no way of objectively proving this. In any case, in terms of application, we were on the same page. The Quran to me is applicable to the Reader who must decide if he is experiencing the particular sign or not.

Time passes quickly when you’re into these deep discussions and soon Hassan had to leave. We promised to meet up again soon. I looked forward to that very much. All in all, it was a beautiful Monday and I went home glowing.

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


Men in Charge? Not Today!

I was very privileged having been extended an invitation to attend a conference last Saturday entitled ‘Men in Charge?’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The eponymous question is obviously rhetorical and the answer was a resounding NO. That is what Musawah, the conference’s organizer is all about, redressing the imbalance of power.

Islamic Feminism which seeks to redress this imbalance is often condemned by Conservative Traditional Islam as being influenced by the West. I strongly disagree with this. The only reason Islam can seems so patriarchal and misogynistic is by ignoring the Quran and interpreting the Sunnah in ways which favours the male.

Here is where Musawah comes in. The etymology of the very word ‘musawah’ is related to equality and thus justice. Musawah engages with the prevailing discourse of Conservative Traditional Islam in order to produce a fairer and more balanced Fiqh (literally ‘understanding’ but connotatively human engagement with Shari’a to produce legal norms). Fiqh is invariably human in nature and thus will reflect the socio-cultural milieu from which it operates. There is no real ‘divine law’, only the ideal of one as conveyed by the term ‘Shari’a’ whose deep meaning is ‘a watering source where the water is flowing’.

Musawah’s first conference last Saturday was amazingly organized. The layout of the day’s proceedings engaged with the myth of male authority from a variety of angles. These angles helped us understand that although Islamic law is derived from Islamic texts, they also must operate in what are lived realities. This is one thing to which Conservative Traditional Islam turns a blind eye, the reality of the results of its legal norms

The morning began with an introduction by three speakers. I was very familiar with Zainah Anwar (pic) and have been for over two decades. She is a hero for Malaysian Reformist Muslims. A founding member of the famous (and for some ‘infamous’) Sisters in Islam, she is also a director of Musawah. You can see from my cheesy grin how delighted I was to finally meet her in the flesh.

The focus of the seminar can be summarized as what was called the ‘gender contract’ which is essentially how husbands and wives should behave towards one another in Islam. This is based on the Traditionalists’ interpretation of the Quran Ch 4 Verse 34 (yes, the infamous so-called ‘Wife-Beating’ verse!). Based on this verse, husbands are said to be in a state of qiwamah (understood to mean authority) over wives. Besides this, there are also edicts from the sunnah that male family members wilayah (guardianship) over female members. These two questionable principles have expanded into an entire system of oppression!

The gender contract was approached from a variety of angles in this conference. There was a conceptual angle by Dr Ziba Mir Hosseini which outlined the qiwamah and wilayah concepts effectively. This was balanced off well by Dr Mulki Al-Sharmani who presented to us on the lived realities of these concepts which was presented in the self-explanatorily titled ‘Global Life Stories’ project.

The highlight of the morning session for me was when Prof Wadud herself did her usual thing – linking theology with ethics. Being a novice theologian myself, I appreciated how she used the principle of tawheed to be the basis of Islamic ethics. Tawheed for her, not just being the unity of Allah, also implies the unification of the human race. This then should be the guiding principle of the Islamic ethos. I wholeheartedly agree as the Quran itself describes ‘an-naas’ (humankind) as ideally ‘ummatan wahida’ (a unified ummah) in Chapter 2 Verse 213. How can the unification happen when women are subject to the Traditionally understood qiwamah and wilayah?

The afternoon proceeded with a panel approaching male authority from a variety of legal angles. Professor Lynn Welchman approach qiwamah as a legal postulate and how this manifests. Marwa Sharafeldin on the interactions of human rights and Islamic law (potentially an explosive meet there. Lena Larsen on fatwas on spousal roles and rights which are how imams and muftis interact with specific situations. Finally we had Mussurut Zia who told us a tragic story on how family pride was used to perpetuate abuse.


The final panel kept me wide awake even after the proceedings of a long day. We had Omaima Abou Bakr explain how qiwamah was an exegetical construct which essentially is how this concept was perpetuated and developed by jurists to ratify dominance over women. Ayesha Choudhury then presented on the issues in hadith with respect to wilayah. I particularly enjoyed the final panelist’s, Asma Lamrabet, presentation which showed the ethical basis of equality in the Quran which is typically ignored to press the partriarchal agenda.


With this conference, Musawah has now a powerful course to chart. I feel that it should continue investistigations into the link between tawheed and fundamental ethical ideas and the very semantics of gender. The Quran has a wide technical vocabulary related to gender and this is often ignored (I have explored possibilities of such meaning here) . Apart from that, perhaps they should explore the given Traditionalist maxims such as the division between ‘ibadat’ (ritualistic worship) and ‘mu’amalat’ (social relationships). The Quran does not have such divisions. Ibadat is total and this has wide implications. Lastly, they did emphasize the role of context in interpretation and if I understood this correctly to mean socio-cultural context, I would be cautious about using sources which are so clearly biased in favour of patriarchy. Changing strategy while playing the same game isn’t enough. We have to change the game itself since the rules were created by those we challenge. After all, the concept of wilayah as Traditionally understood is nowhere to be found in the Quran. We need to excise it once and for all.


Having said the above, I do feel Musawah poses a tremendous challenge to the hegemony to the patriarchal, misogynistic Conservative Traditional Islam. Musawah will take us a long way along the path of Islamic Reform and that’s what matters.


Please buy the book ‘Men In Charge?’ and support our cause. You may do so here

The Theology of Inclusivity – A Jumma Prayer with Amina Wadud

amina and farouk


L.et me tell you something about the Islamic Reform movement. We don’t have many people. We don’t have much money (petrodollars? We don’t have steam engine dollars!). We don’t have any permanent spaces (just ‘pop up’ spaces for now). But we do have it where it counts – the heart. We have a bunch of people have sincere hearts and that was what made today’s event a runaway success.

I had been reading the work of Professor Amina Wadud since my late teens. I actually own an original copy of Quran and Woman published in Malaysia (from whence I came). Ten years ago, when Amina led a mixed congregation in Friday prayers, I silently cheered. This ground breaking , earth shattering act by Amina was an affront to the dominance of Conservative Traditional Islam who styled themselves as the ‘true’ form of Islam. The entire Muslim world reverberated with this quake and condemnations and threats were abound. But Amina kept on. And people followed.

Ten years on, I see more supporters and less negative responses. Not quite the end-game I would like but still tremendous progress. Today, Amina graciously accepted to lead the Jumma prayers organized by the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) at St John’s Church in Waterloo, London.

As I said, we don’t have much financial support but that did not affect today’s proceedings one iota. We had a set of willing volunteers who organised the church hall in minutes. It was really a matter of the intention to help out. That really was what made things happen. When Amina came in, there was a silence. It was a ‘omg – she’s here’ type moment. We couldn’t keep ‘fear of a notable figure’ type feeling for long though. Amina was simply too down to earth. She spoke to well wishers calmly. This was a woman who just flew in yesterday and had travelled to Bristol and back! I am two-thirds her age and that type of schedule would have knackered me!

I found myself in one of the back rows when the khutba started. That suited me fine as I couldn’t be tweeting right in front of her which I had to do. Not without looking very impertinent anyway. I loved her opening comment straight away – when she translated yawm al-jum’ah as ‘day of gathering’ rather than simply Friday. I believe this translation far suited the universal nature of the Quran.

Today, Amina spoke about one of the shortest yet most powerful chapters of the Quran – Chapter 103 (Al-Asr). The wisdom of this chapter is obvious. It starts out by mentioning time and how we are at a loss as time marches on. This is unless we devote ourselves to the correct endeavours.

Dr Wadud opened up far greater depths than this. She called the first two verses ‘negative theology’. I understood this to mean that it was an understanding of Allah which gives a pessimistic view of life. Who can fight time, after all? However, it does not end there. If time was utilised in the correct manner, then it may bring us the benefit which the Quran promises.

Dr Wadud then went into a detailed breakdown of the third and final aya. She pointed out that the form in which the word ‘to enjoin’ (tawasau) is in the form of mutuality and reciprocity. We are to enjoin each other with the truth and with endurance. Dr Wadud tells us that the truth (al-haqq) here is absolute rather than relative truth. I am not sure about this because as subjective beings, whatever engagement we have with the Absolute will be our versions thereof. Therefore, I feel that it is a shared truth rather than an absolute one.

However, the ‘enjoining with endurance’ (tawasau bis sabr) was what blew me away. While the usual exegeses normally see this phrase as an ethical precept, Dr Wadud saw took it to the metaphysical dimension. She saw ‘sabr’ as a a constant endeavour. Not just by us but by our interaction with Allah!

This then implied that Allah was in constant interaction with everyone. His presence therefore is everywhere (not His essence but presence, it must be emphasized) and not just in mosques. This directly implies inclusivity. Everywhere, everywhen, it is God’s activity at play. There are no exclusive spaces. Inclusivity, it seems, is built in to the metaphysic of the universe.

In all my life, I had not heard such a mind blowing Friday sermon. The sermons around London were so repetitive, parochial and Islamofascist that I deliberately attend a mosque in which the sermons are in a language I cannot understand! Dr Wadud brought the spirit of Jumma back for me and I thank her for that.

The atmosphere after the Jumma was just as great. Everyone was so warm and friendly and helpful. Few, if any rushed out the way people do after standard Jummas. This was more like Eid rather than Jumma. And in a way, thanks to Dr Wadud, it was.