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.

Shiekh Al-Kabi Teaches Me Islam

Sometimes signs are undeniable. They go beyond the probabilities of mere coincidence. Today, I was shown just such a thing that sometimes you find what you’re looking for in the most unlikely places. I was invited to be on British Muslim TV, a program on Sky to speak about the Women’s Mosque which just opened last month. I was quite happy to do so as I believe that mosque space is one of the main areas where misogyny is most expressed. Female spaces in mosques are mostly just afterthoughts. This was enshrined in a line from the movie ‘Four Lions’ where Umar’s (the terrorist leader) wife said about such spaces ‘it was a flippin’ toilet till you took the china out!’. That is the situation, in a nutshell.

I had prepared myself with some sound theological arguments. To me, it was clear as day that was not an offense against Islam. I saw the prayer institution as a cultural practice anyway. How can culture be wrong?

British Muslim TV had very kindly offered to pick me up via taxi and I graciously accepted. I waited at the agreed spot as instructed by the cab driver. However, it was not easy for him to find the spot. That part of London was notoriously difficult to manoeuvre and you’d be lucky not getting fined. He had me on the phone while he looked for me and it was a good fifteen minutes before he finally found me. I thought this guy would just give up and then I’d be in hot soup but no, he was as cool as a cumber. Finally he found me (before I found him!) and he had to yell across the road before I finally clued up and saw him. Into the cab I got.

This was a Polish or Lithuanian man (possibly an associate of Boris the Bullet Dodger – called that because he dodges bullets, as we are told in the film ‘Snatch). I particularly liked speaking to East Europeans because of their very novel outlook to life. Theirs was a fresh immigration experience, much like my own.

I tried some small talk (weather, traffic, sorry about not seeing him) but it didn’t seem to take. He had a lot going on. Looking for the roads to take him to the next passenger was his number one priority. The area, as I said, was a mass of closed roads and hard to find exits. I decided to shut my gob. Then a call came on his mobile and he jabbered in a foreign language…except it wasn’t Polish or Lithuanian or even Russian. I was trying to remember when I had heard it before when he ended his call with a loud ‘khudaaa hafiz!’. This man was Iranian!

Finally we found the place where he was meant to pick up the next passenger who, as it turned out, was also a panellist on the same show as myself. Finally this Iranian gentleman was able to speak and introduced himself. He had been in this country for twenty-five years, he said. When I correctly identified his country of origin (we immigrants call it ‘coo’ for short), he became extra-friendly.

Then the other passenger got in. I became slight tense as this young man was dressed very conservatively. He wore a topi, a jubbah and had the standard Sunnah beard sans mustache. Uh oh, I thought. Guys like this usually hated guys like me for my irreverent views. He was sure to slaughter me during the show, I expected. I introduced myself and he surprised me then and there by saying he was part of a very important movement for social justice. I was very impressed because the cause he stands up for is a particularly sensitive issue in the Muslim community. He has his work cut out for him.

This other passenger and our cab driver quickly got to know each other through the whole Muslim brotherhood thing. Naturally the conversation turned to the topic of discussion and the other passenger asked my views. I figured he’d find out soon enough so I came out with it. To my surprise, he was open to the idea of an inclusive masjid. I dropped my defences and was ready to open up, being rather ashamed of myself for jumping to conclusions.

When three Muslims get together, it would be surprising if the conversation did not turn to the sorry state of affairs Muslims are currently experiencing. We got to that topic in about two seconds. It turned out, our cabbie had a lot to say!

He first talked about the beautiful religion of islam. He says it gave him so much peace and tranquillity. I really felt as if this man had some personal connection with Allah or something. Ok, if I wanted to get technical, I could perhaps fault his quotations from the Quran but that would be besides the point completely. The Quran was not his hymnbook, it was his jumping off point, his springboard. Perhaps his springboard usage wasn’t great but he more than made it up with his physical prowess (still sticking to the metaphor here). I’m referring to his deep intuition of what was islam and I was intently listening.

He also spoke of some of the more unsavoury characters he has had to ferry over the years. One in particular disgusted him by saying we shouldn’t feel bad for those who are suffering in the cold if they are ‘kuffar’ (infidels). He replied by first asking permission to the Islamofascist if he could speak freely. When he got permission to do, he said to him, if you were in the hospital seriously ill and the doctor said, I don’t want to treat him because he’s a Muslim, what would you do? Not many can argue with such logic.

He also had a wonderful ‘feel’ for the hadith and sunnah. Prophet Muhammad is known in the Muslim world as ‘rahmah lil ‘alameen’ (mercy to the worlds, Traditional translations tell us) but with the presence of Islamofascism, one can rarely feel it these days. But he didn’t forget. He knew of some stories which captured the essence of the Prophet’s character. Even I, a Quranist, who haven’t been moved by these stories for so long felt the love for the Prophet again. Were these stories ‘sahih’ (authentic)? I don’t know. I would ask , were those stories authentic? The stories of him calling for the subjugation of mankind and forcing them into Islam? Our cabbie said, if they were authentic, he would not able to feel what he felt in Islam. That was good enough for me.

And so went on our happy chatter for the better part of an hour (traffic was heavy and it was a long-ish journey). Our cabbie told us about what he thought the Muslim world needed. To stop exploiting each and to go back to the basics. Islam was a religion for humanity. We are to be good neighbours to each other. We are not to force each other into our respective religions. We are to hold back our negative emotions and try to be patient (this man was the Job of cab drivers, believe me).

Finally we arrived at our destination with time to spare. Despite my fears, I did not want to say anything because I knew our cabbie. would just chalk whatever happens down to it being fated by Allah. Such was his absolute reliance. It turned out I had my epiphanic experience even before I arrived at the studio having an intellectual discussion. And it was all thanks to Shiekh Al-Cabbie.

I am A Muslim and I Love Free Speech!

I am a Muslim and I love free speech. Not just like it, I absolutely love it. I do not love it because I am free to insult other religions or even politicians. In fact, I never exercise free speech to those ends at all. No, I love free speech because it enables me to listen to the other sides of the story. And that is tremendously valuable in my human journey.

Growing up, I led a sheltered life, from a religious point of view. I did not grow up in the West but in Malaysia, where Islamofascist elements within the government prevented me from having open dialogue with people of other faiths. It is actually a crime to preach to Muslims, even by Muslims who are ‘unlicensed’ to do so. And so when I came to the West, I experienced a supermarket of ideas. I enjoyed that smorgasbord like no other!

Of course there was criticism towards Islam and challenges to its truth. At first, it was uncomfortable to experience but now I realise that, unless you actually listen to criticism and provide a rational explanation or even an experiential one to refute the, you faith would be like a hollow shell. That sort of faith is not for me.

Today, my belief in Islam has been through the harshest of criticisms and yet (praise God) I still believe that it is a path to God. Moreover, I believe there are infinite other paths to God and that people should follow their own portions of the Truth as long as they are peaceful to others. Does it compromise my faith that I believe Islam does not have the exclusive claim to Truth? Absolutely not. Rather it just means that given my cultural positioning, Islam is the best path for me. I acknowledge the fact that religions are vehicularized by cultures and that cultures are subjective. Thus it is incredibly easy for me to abstain from eating pork but it may be quite difficult for someone who converts to Islam.

I understand at present that Muslims are mostly opposed to free speech. The excuse they give is that free speech must not be used for mockery and insults. But let us think about this for a second – are we not insulting other faiths by our very existence? The Quran speaks mostly strongly against the belief most Christians hold – that Jesus is the son of God or God Himself. If we expect the Quran to be allowed circulation (which it is, you can find the Quran anywhere in the UK), then why are we upset that criticisms against Islam are also allowed? True that some of the criticisms against Islam are visual images which are perceived as insulting, but who is to draw the line against what’s acceptable? If we Muslims are ok with criticising other faiths, then we must be open to be criticised as well. The stoicism in the face of such insults is what creates true faith, in my opinion.

I say to fellow Muslims, try to understand that we live in the world and the world is full of diversity. Muslims are the inheritors of the result of historical agencies. There are cultures which despise Islam and Muhammad simply because of its historical interaction with Muslims. Try to be understanding and magnanimous. This is actually beneficial to your faith. Free speech is beautiful.

Female Leadership in Prayers – Challenging Islamic Male Privilege

Ten years ago, Amina Wadud Muhsin, a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, led Friday prayers with a mixed congregation. I can still remember the reverberations in the Muslim world as well as in the then embryonic social media. Conservative Traditional Muslims, guardians of the male privilege in Islam, were up in arms at this affront to Islamic male privilege. When social media became popular, the now notorious picture of a female-led prayer organised by the MPV became viral and not in a good way. The picture was smeared with hate rhetoric, calling them all sorts of hateful names. The Muslim world, it seems, is very resistant to such a big change. Last night, I attended a film screening of The Noble Struggle at the London School of Economics, a documentary about Amina Wadud’s struggle during those early days. There was a massive support of course , since the screening was attended by members of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (of which I am a member) and LSE’s Feminist Society. However, there was a question raised by a member of the audience which I feel doesn’t quite grasp the implications of female leadership in prayers. In Traditional Islam, to understand if something is valid or otherwise, one must recourse to the massive tradition of knowledge (turath). It is true in the Quran and the hadith, there is no explicit prohibition against women led prayers. Scant hadiths are quoted with some logical gymnastics but this is missing the point completely. The opponents of the female-led prayer give one seemingly unassailable point and that is, in the Sunnah (practises of the Prophet and of the Salaf, the earliest community) , there was no female leadership in prayers in a mixed congregation. This point is irrefutable and there must be confronted and overturned by stepping out of the paradigm of Islamic knowledge tradition. The question we need to ask at this point is – how much was Prophet Muhammad a cultural being? In other words, how much of his activity can be attributed to direct inspiration from Allah and consequently to his interactions with his cultural situation? Being a Quranist, the answer simple is for me – everything outside the Quran is culture. It’s such a clear demarcation. However, I appreciate my fellow Muslims would like to use extra-Quranic material. In this case, I urge them to consider the following arguments. Prophet Muhammad engaged in some spiritual practices including the ritual prayers. These prayers were recited in Arabic. If the Prophet was Chinese, Muslims would be praying in Chinese today. This is also true for the ritual itself. The ritual was already being practised in Makkah hence its inclusion with some modifications in the Islamic framework . It is culturally incidental and thus appropriated by the Prophet, historically speaking. Following this, it was probably not a cultural practice for Arabs to have female leadership in prayers. Prophet Muhammad, for reasons of his own, did not contravene this norm. It’s really as simple as that – he was a cultural being and reacting to his own cultural situations. Muslims have no problem adapting to technology. The ultra-conservative Salafees, literalists to the core, have a tremendous web presence despite their dislike of innovation (bid’ah). Ask them about this contradiction and they will tell you, they only dislike innovation for religious matters. Well aren’t religious discussions and preachings religious matters? Of course they are and perhaps the Prophet favoured direct interaction because it was ‘inspired by Allah’. Whatever the case, Salafees have turned a blind eye to this conundrum simply because they have to survive in the postmodern world. In the same way, female leadership is something which challenges them so they redrew the delineations between religion and worldly matters to exclude such a practice. In conclusion, female leadership in prayers is not unIslamic. It is simply an affront to the male-privileged Conservative Traditional Islam that the world knows. I think it is about time for such an affront. The Islamic prayer, being a ubiquitous symbol of the religion needs to be appropriated by women as well. This is simply a first step in overturning the oppression of Sharia law against women. Hail Amina Wadud and those with her!

Dear New Atheists Re: Chapel Hill Shootings

Dear New Atheist Thinkers,

Salaamun alaikum (Peace be upon you),

I understand how conviction drives people. When we believe in an idea and we believe that it is good, nay the best for humankind, then we will go to great lengths to ensure that this idea is accepted. Sometimes we may even lose our objectivity in pushing this idea. We see it with religionists all the time. The compelling nature of dogma causes you to delude others, inadvertently perhaps. Maybe this delusion can even be self-delusion.

However, being New Atheists, I highly expect you to be reasonable people. After all, it was the very exercise of reasoning which enabled you to conclude that God does not exist. I disagree with your conclusions, of course but I respect you more than I respect religionists who simply inherit the dogma of their forefathers without question. Through your works, I can see that you have highly developed reasoning skills which obviously went into your ground-breaking and often philosophically challenging thought. This is how you became a movement, heralding a new phase in Atheism, as it were.

I must therefore ask you, why has this genius not found its way into your analysis of Islam?

I have read your books and followed your statements about Islam for some time and I find the most generalising language being used. I see phrases like ‘Islam is the problem’ ,‘Islam believes in’ and ‘Islam says’. This sort of language one can only find in public discourse. No, I take it back. Not public discourse but public chatter. It is no different from when, waiting for a bus along with a middle aged lady, we saw an elderly man in Muslim garb spit his betel nut juice on the ground. She commented to me, perhaps not guessing I’m a Muslim myself, ‘it’s his religion’.

I do understand that you see religion as the bane of human existence. From your writings, I would guess that you feel that Islam is probably the biggest bane of all. That’s fair enough. That is your perception and I respect it. I can even agree with you that Islamofascism (which I define to be the strain with the Islamic tradition given to oppression and suppression) is a huge menace to humanity and needs to be extinguished. However, why not use your mammoth intellects to also see that Muslims use their religion to empower themselves towards becoming better people? You may say that they can do that without religion and I would agree but why does that matter if they do indeed become better people? Surely if you press your way as the only way to Truth, then yourselves would be construed as religious fundamentalists! Why not respect that other people have their own ways to evolve?

A great tragedy occurred two days ago in Chapel Hill. I don’t need to tell you about it because you have responded. It is becoming clear that the alleged murderer was inspired by your writings. I am in no way suggesting that your writings encourage murder. Far from it. However, you cannot control who your readers are. One may read your books and use it as a justification to commit violence against those whom you consider ‘deluded’. This would be in no way your fault but here is what I would like to ask you: Is it possible that your generalizing language enables such evil individuals to perceive Muslims tribalistically, almost racially? Such perceptions cause random violence.

Perhaps, instead of saying ‘Islam says’, say ‘within the Islamic Tradition, it is said’ or ‘Islamofascism, an ideology distinct from other forms of Islam, says’ or even ‘some Muslim scholars say, but there are Muslims who disagree’. This is specific and precise language worthy of people with gargantuan intellects. Such people can understand various shades of grey. If you think about it, ‘Islam’ cannot say anything anyway. It is mostly a complex network of human discussions compiled over a thousand plus years. People speak, using these texts as their mouthpieces. By highlighting the specificity and subjectivity of these views, you will help people isolate the Islamofascists from the main body of Muslims and thereby cut it off from its human resource. Isn’t that your objective, rather than using Islam as a punching bag to increase your popularity? I sincerely hope it is.

Thank you very much for reading my humble letter and I hope we can all live together in a more peaceful world soon.

With peace.

Farouk A. Peru

The Chapel Hill Murders – A Proactive Response

My deepest condolences to the families of the three young people murdered in Chapel Hill last evening. They were 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. They were in their shared home when a man broke in and shot them ‘execution style’.

I can’t even imagine the grief their families are experiencing right now. These three had bright futures ahead of them and seemed to be enjoying life to the fullest. Deah was in dental school and did charity work. His sister in law, Razan, had recently graduated and showed some great creative pursuits. These were not radicalised young people who hated the West. They seem to be fully normalised and were getting somewhere in life. What must have been through in their minds in those final moments? I shudder to think, truly.

In times like this, I believe Muslims need to remind ourselves to be proactive. What can we do to stem the rising tide of Islamophobia? Depend on the media? Probably not. While there are good media framings of Muslims, there seems to be also a huge media bias against us. This is especially true in the States where apparently the Chapel Hill murders are said (at the time of this writing) to be only minimally covered. It is not the same in the UK. When the Charlie Hebdo massacre happened last month, the was plenty of media coverage of Muslims who vehemently condemned the attack.

But what can we really do in the face such hate? According to reports, the man who turned himself in, was an atheist-fundamentalist who read the works of major atheist thinkers. I can easily see how these thinkers can promote hate in their writings. These thinkers have extremely well developed critical thought but when it comes to scrutinizing Islam and Muslims, they have a total Dick-and-Jane approach (These are Muslims. They do X). Such hate rhetoric does not help the situation at all but merely throws fuel upon the already raging fire. Something eventually got burned.

Perhaps there is nothing we can do to prevent Islamophobic attacks. After all it only takes one person who go from ‘Islam is a problem’ to ‘Lets kill Muslims’ (an actual trended hashtag, if you remember). However, I do believe we can go a long way towards diffusing this anger. We need to be more proactive rather than let media portrayals define us. Here are a few things we can do:

  1. There are Muslims who show extreme vehemence and recalcitrance when it comes to the West These Muslims are generally young, born and brought up in the West themselves and well-educated. However, they subconsciously see Islam as a tribe and it is against their tribal pride to admit there is a problem within the Ummah. You will recognise them by their use of their term ‘White’ in a very negative way. When Cathy Newman retracted her ‘ushered out of the mosque’ response, they referred to her as ‘white woman’. Muslims often say that Islam does not recognise racial superiority. Why then do these Tribalist Muslims press that button often?

Not only that, they condemn Muslims who agree that Islam has a problem as ‘coconuts’ (brown on the outside, White on the inside). This is a highly racialised slur which shows that these people are themselves racists. How do we know if the alleged killer did not experience the wrath of these Tribalist Muslims? Their hate rhetoric could easily raze the blaze of his own hatred. Muslims need to identify these Tribalists and abandon them en masse.

  1. Going by the story which is emerging , it does not seem unreasonable to assume that the alleged killer targeted these victims due to their dress. That is the only overt sign I can see about them and that too, only among the Abu Salha sisters who wore the hijab. We have to understand, by adopting a religious uniform, we are enabling general perceptions. It is no different from people condemning Goths even though they are all individuals. The Goth look is the first thing they encounter and so they judge by it first. Is this right? Absolutely not. Does it happen? Well it just has.

I am not saying abandon the hijab (even though I do not think it is a command from God) but I am saying that please be aware – if you have a religious uniform, you will be defined by what the other members do. This is unfortunately how violent people operate. They do not come into your homes, ask about your religious beliefs and have in depth theological discussions. You assume the tribal signals – you become unwitting victims. That is how fast it happens. Even approximate tribal signals get included. Remember the Sikh gas station attendant who was killed after 9 -11?

  1. Finallay and perhaps most importantly, Muslims need to go to our tribal leaders and demand that they reform their views. During the Charlie Hebdo incident last month, no one single leader said a word about the theological causes behind Jihadism. There is a massive number of hadiths and ‘scholarly’ opinions’ which enable violence. When are our tribal elders going to be honest and call for the reform of these texts? This is not about becoming ‘modern’ or ‘westernised’, this is about becoming more islamic in the true sense. I guess these leaders are afraid of losing support from the Muslim populous if they do call for reform. Well they have a choice to make. Reform or continue to feed the Islamofascist narrative. Don’t be surprised then when Islamophobia rises accordingly and tragedies like this occur.

It is perhaps the greatest irony of this tragedy that Deah Barakat, the promising young dental student said on his twitter account in the final month of his life, “It’s so freaking sad to hear people saying we should ‘kill Jews’ or ‘kill Palestinians’. As if that’s going to solve anything.” I think it is even sadder that his rare voice of conciliation and moderation will now be silenced forever.