Monday, 5 October 2015

Finding Allah: why more and more Scots are converting to Islam by Imran Azam and Karin Godwin

Published in The Herald Scotland - Sunday 4th October 2015
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

A GROWING number of Scots are converting to Islam - with the majority young women.
Glasgow Central Mosque alone is now seeing more than 200 Scots a year 'revert'. Due to the rising number of Scots finding Islam, mosques across the country are also setting up support groups for new 'reverts'. Many are fearful of abuse and intimidation.

Reversion is the preferred term within Islam for those who 'convert' - as Muslims believe everyone is born believing in Allah.

The Sunday Herald spoke to Hannah, a 25-year-old administrator from Glasgow who recently “reverted”. Hannah asked for her surname to be kept confidential. Though brought up without any particular faith, Hannah is one of a growing number of Scots who are turning to Islam despite what many see as a “demonisation” of the religion.

“I’d done a degree in comparative religion and had to analyse all the religious texts,” said Hannah. “I went away from that thinking that maybe I should be a Christian.

“But a few months later, while meditating, I found myself pulled in the direction of Islam. After that I started reading again, but this time in a more emotional way. I found I preferred the simplicity of Islam.”
After mulling it over for six months, she decided to revert. In July this year, she visited Glasgow Central Mosque to take the Shahada – a declaration of faith in front of two witnesses, in which Allah is recognised as the only God.

Her conversion was shared online by the Glasgow Central Mosque along with others including 20-year-old Jade from the Shetland Isles, and Katie, also 20 and an administration worker from Glasgow, who made her Shahada last month.

Glasgow Central Mosque says numbers of “reverts” have been gradually rising and they are now dealing with up to four conversions a week. Along with the Edinburgh Central Mosque, it has now started support groups for new Muslims. The total number of converts is not known, but according to a report by Faith Matters, 5,200 people now join the UK-wide Muslim population of three million every year. Scotland’s community is significantly smaller at 90,000 people, over one-third of whom live in Glasgow.

Rizy Mohammad, a co-ordinator at the Glasgow Central Mosque, said: “We are seeing an influx, particularly in the number of women expressing an interest in Islam. I don’t think there is one reason for it but it’s interesting that after 9/11, where Muslims were blamed for the bombing of the twin towers, a lot of people started doing their own research. Many found out more about Islam that led them to different conclusions.

“There is also the spiritual dimension. They’ve been part of the material world, done the shopping thing and now they are looking for a deeper connection.”

But for many reverts, it is not an easy transition. High-profile conversions of white Muslims such as Richard Dart, who is serving a six-year jail sentence for plotting an attack on soldiers in Royal Wootton Bassett, mean alarm bells often sound for family members.

“Because of the extent of Islamophobia in the media, my mum, who is a Pagan, thought that I was going to join IS,” said Hannah. “People see the violent, loud things. They don’t see the quiet Muslims who aren’t doing anything bad. My brother told her not to be so ridiculous and after about a week she came round. Now she makes sure that I don’t drink when I come to her house and even cooks halal for me.”

Hannah has also found some of the more conservative aspects of the religion, which still segregates men and women at places of worship, difficult to deal with. She admits she has taken off her hijab in parts of the city where she perceived the reaction to Muslim men and women wearing full traditional dress to be less than supportive. Since converting she has not been swimming due to concerns about covering up, and finds it hard cycling while wearing a hijab.

A 2013 Cambridge University study about women’s experience of conversion claimed it was “not for the faint-hearted”.

“I think in Islam men and women are equal but different,” said Hannah. “But I also think there are some cultural issues with equality.”

Jay (not his real name), who converted less than three months ago after a near-death experience with drugs, said that while some friends had asked if he was going to travel to Syria and fight for IS, most people have been positive about his decision. Before his conversion, he said, he worked and partied too hard, and lived for the weekend.

“One of my colleagues in particular was keen to know why I converted,” said Jay. “He wanted to know how I could give up the clubs, drink and girlfriends, and now spend my time praying.

“I told him that now I had inner peace. I could now go to sleep at night. A few weeks later he also became Muslim.”

However, other converts have been left disillusioned. Dawud Duncan, originally from Oban, who became Muslim nine years ago, believes the lack of support from fellow “heritage Muslims” - people born into Islam -has led some reverts to leave their newfound faith.?“When a person takes the Shahada they are treated like a superstar and everyone wants to know their story,” he said. “However, within a week they can be left to their own devices. This can make the individual feel very isolated as they are often caught between two communities.”

Duncan, who now lives in Glasgow, currently hosts an online radio programme for converts and also aims to set up a support and advocacy group. He hopes that issues raised by the group can be taken up by the leadership of the mosque to help avoid future problems.

“New Muslims have so much to offer the Muslim community and Scotland,” said Duncan. “This would include a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding of the cultural issues our society faces. Converts find it easier to explain Islam to a Scottish audience.”

His experience chimes with that of Saleem Mcgroarty, 43, from Edinburgh, a member of the Edinburgh Muslim Community Association who was raised a Catholic and converted to Islam at 26.
He no longer attends his local mosque due to concerns about its links to Saudi Arabia, a country with a very conservative approach to Islam, and has found it hard to integrate.

Mcgroarty said: “I think there should be some emotional and community support, a buddy network; the things you really need when you are moving into another world.”

In Mecca I saw little of Islam’s compassion, but a lot of Saudi Arabia’s neglect by Sabreena Razaq Hussain

Published in The Guardian - Comment is Free, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Friday 2nd October 2015

I am grateful to be alive after a distressing Hajj experience – and urge all Muslims to protest about the inhumane treatment of pilgrims. Radical change is needed  

With 2 million people gathered in one small city for the hajj, some discomfort was to be expected. And putting up with it was, I initially thought, an opportunity to exercise the patience so very valued by our faith of Islam and in the holiest of cities. So we marched on hopefully.
But with the 40-plus degree heat of Mecca, the harsh policing, the aggressive crowds, the chaotic organisation, the pressure was relentless. As the days went on, I couldn’t have felt a starker contrast between the spiritual tranquillity and contentment experienced within the confines of the Grand Mosque and sites, and the anxiety and distress caused by those policing it. Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia, accompanying my parents on pilgrimage, my ignorance had led me to believe that one of the richest Muslim countries in the world would be well organised in facilitating the rites of hajj. Now, back in the UK, I am grateful to be alive and still horrified by what I witnessed. I fully understand why hundreds of people were crushed to death and I don’t believe that “God’s will” can be used an excuse.

We’d had a pleasant and spiritual warm-up in the crowded but welcoming streets of Medina. Our group of UK pilgrims remained incredibly organised, my mother’s diabetes was stable and my father, an asthmatic, remained mercifully unaffected by the heat. As a pilgrim, daughter and a GP, I was happy and excited to be heading for Mecca. But the reality was a shock.

Even getting to and from the mosque and other sites was distressing. Accompanying wheelchair users, we had to help them on and off the wheelchairs many times as the pavements were almost knee high with no clear ramps or similar. Considering the number of people with permanent disability or debilitating conditions, this was shocking.

The heat was one of the biggest tests of all, causing many to become exhausted and dehydrated. Yet only a few of the crowded routes had supplies of water. Some of the common pilgrim routes, where the symbolic stoning of Satan takes place for example, were devoid of any water supplies other than the presence of young policemen occasionally squirting random pilgrims’ faces with water.

The manners and communication skills of the stewards and police deployed in and around the mosque were deplorable. With pilgrims from hundreds of countries, one would think that communication in at least one language other than Arabic would be available. This was not the case.

Not only that, but their manner of aggressively shouting at even the most softly spoken of pilgrims was both needless and a cause of humiliation for those on the receiving end. Nobody had ever spoken to me or my parents in this way before.

It appeared the only thing the very young policemen were authorised to do was shout the Arabic word for “no” and to barricade entry routes as and when they pleased without warning, offering no alternative: clearly a recipe for a crush or a stampede in any of the holy sites.

We were in the mosque when they barricaded an exit and said we couldn’t leave until the next prayer finished, an hour and a half later. The physical pressure of hundreds of people had started to build up behind us, causing extreme anxiety and hyperventilation. I politely asked first, then literally begged the guards to let us exit as my mum’s diabetic medication was in our hotel which was quite near the mosque. Her sugar levels were dropping, but it made no difference. When we did finally find a pilgrim to translate for us, our exit was still refused. When I almost cried and asked “What happens if she collapses and dies here?”, the response was a shrug of the shoulders: if she dies she dies.

Aisha Khan, a Manchester-based business manager who was part of the same tour group told me a few days later of her anguish after the authorities would not open the barrier to let her husband through to her when she felt very unwell. She physically collapsed. Even then the stewards remained in a small group laughing, not helping him to call for an ambulance. She recalls him running distressed from one side of the road to another pleading for help.

Actually making it into an ambulance was another problem. I saw ambulances stuck in the stopped traffic with no provision for them to manoeuvre or overtake. Having stopped with a group of fellow pilgrims and doctors to help a lady slumped on the ground looking as if she may be having a heart attack, it was infuriating to find that when the so-called paramedics arrived (they appeared to be drivers in uniforms and not medically trained), they refused to even let us tell them what had happened. I partially stepped into the back of the ambulance concerned for the poor lady, to find no medical equipment visible whatsoever. We were shooed off and some of her family were left on the street in tears with no idea as to where the ambulance had gone.

There are numerous other distressing experiences I could relate, as most pilgrims can. But the insistence of some that the deaths of hundreds of people represented God’s will and were therefore unavoidable is something I refuse to accept. I believe Islam is based on reason: unless you have done everything you can within your means to actively avoid a bad situation, you cannot use the excuse of it being God’s will.

Some people who have made the pilgrimage before describe how things are slowly getting better with time. And the Saudi authorities are denying visas to pilgrims if they have done it in the past five years, in an attempt to control the influx. Heavy construction work is being completed at the mosque at the moment (the work indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of people last month when one of the cranes fell through a roof at the Grand Mosque). But radical changes are required.

Much of the poor management of the hajj stems from the actual functioning of Saudi Arabia itself. Authorities around the holy sites are clearly not allowed to make independent decisions, while members of the royal family and their guests are treated as VIPs, and therefore have no motivation to push the authorities into creating a safe and workable system.

In Mecca I saw Muslims, but I saw little Islam. I did not see compassion from our hosts, I did not see their concern for our welfare. I urge all Muslims, pilgrims or otherwise, not to just accept the above as part of the challenge or experience of hajj, but to raise their voices. Write to your local MP, write to the Muslim Council of Britain and utilise your local community groups to express your outrage, and add to the clamour already building in the international arena.

Pilgrimage is supposed to enlighten and change lives, not endanger or end them. It is time to reclaim it.

Sabreena Razaq Hussain is a doctor, writer and activist

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Can Art Stop Jihad by Catherine Milner - Guardian News Art and Design - Copyright, All Rightes Reserved

Monday 28th September 201518:15BST

“We need to invest in these young people before Isis does,” says Abdulnasser Gharem, a former lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army, sipping a glass of water in the Tate during a flying visit to London. “They have energy and have little to do in their own country – so what would you expect them to do?”

Gharem, who was in the same class at school as two of the 9/11 hijackers, is one of the Middle East’s biggest-selling artists. At Christie’s in 2011, he sold Message, Messenger – a sculpture symbolising the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem – for more than $800,000, a record-breaking price for contemporary Middle Eastern art at the time.

He’s now on a mission to lure the young away from terrorism – by encouraging them to become artists instead. With his younger brother Aljan, he has set up a foundati
on at his studio in Riyadh to mentor people accordingly. So far, the studio has 11 students, aged 18 to 22, whose works will be on display in London next month. He refuses to identify the jihadists he knew as a teenager, but says the only way to conquer the wave of terrorism sweeping the Middle East – and with it the world – is to encourage people to think “individually”.

At school, he was a star pupil but was threatened with coming bottom of the class unless he attended sermons in the mosque. “The teachers started to play with the exam marks,” he says. “I was going crazy because I was a good student and suddenly I was the worst guy in the school because I was not participating in their activities. To get my marks, I had to go along and hang out with them.”

His former classmates were “young and good”, he says. “But something happened to them – they changed. They went from saying, ‘Why not let us go along and see what is happening?’ to talking about jihad and fighting.” He adds: “Nothing has changed that much. It is the same education system, the same speeches in the mosque.”

Entertainment is thin on the ground in Saudi Arabia, let alone fine-art education. Cinemas and music concerts are banned, there are fewer than a dozen contemporary galleries and no art schools. “My idea is to help them find their path and not introduce themselves as a sacrifice in jihad. I want them to look around and develop their humanity.”

Many of those working in his studio have been educated in America or Europe: they are some of the 200,000 young people who benefit every year from an international scholarship programme established by King Abdullah 10 years ago. Their experience had a huge impact, he says. “You can see it in their work – they are acquiring fresh ideas.”

With more than 70% of the Saudi population under 40, the effect of this education will, he believes, transform the country. “There is a group of people in Saudi who want to go back into the past and freeze history. But I hope the studio will be the space where people can share their new ideas, come up with their own vision and be connected with society – not just an artist. I am trying to give them something long-term. Intellectuals in Saudi are lazy.”

In what may be an oblique criticism of Britain and America, the exhibition is called Ricochet, inspired by the idea that every country’s actions may cause “direct and indirect chain reactions”. One of the most haunting images, by Gharem himself, pictures a stealth bomber descending from the tessellated ceiling of the mosque at Isfahan in Iran, smoke bellowing out behind it like some terrifying Fury.

“Usually people look skywards for inspiration,” says Gharem, “but now they look up and see a bomber coming towards them.” The piece is constructed out of the kind of rubber stamps used by Saudi officialdom to keep people under control, he says. “With these stamps and systems, they are killing humanity and dreams. They keep you in a cage.”

Aljan has created a piece that is an actual cage configured into a 30ft-long mosque made of steel pipes and wire netting. “The idea is that ideology is a cage,” says Gharem. Another work by Gharem senior is Traditional Pain Treatment: a film of a fellow artist called Shaweesh enduring bloodletting through “cupping”, a treatment still practised in Saudi Arabia. The cups form a cross on a map of the Middle East inked across the man’s back.

“I was trying to find something that symbolised the detoxification of a bad ideology,” says Gharem. The cups, which are removed to allow the “doctor” to hasten the bloodletting by scoring the raised rings of flesh with a scalpel, form a cross to shame all the countries that exploited the region for oil. “They have wealth,” says Gharem, “and didn’t use it for the benefit of the people or for any humanitarian good, but to cause fire and heat for the ideology of the tribes.”

After this, a bizarre photo of the students painting and drawing a nude female model comes as light relief. Life drawing is banned in Saudi Arabia so the male artists, dressed in flowing robes and traditional cotton headdresses are not focusing on a real woman, but a plastic mannequin. It was bought in Dubai and had to be sliced into sections to get it through Saudi Arabian customs, then reassembled. “I was told it is idolatry to have a human figure with a head,” says Gharem.

The one woman exhibiting in this show works as a teacher in a girls’ school in Riyadh. Njoud Alanbari took a photograph of a picture painted on a wall in her school intended to promote good behaviour among its pupils, by showing how they should dress. A picture of a woman sporting long hair has been marked with a big red cross, while the black silhouette of a woman whose face and hair are blacked out has been given a large tick. Threatening scimitars encircle the women.
In a country with no free press or media, only time will tell whether art can bring about the change Gharem wants. “The image is playing a great role in this war thanks to the evolution of communication and information,” he says. “We need to be positive.”

Abdulnasser Gharem: Ricochet is at Asia House, London, 12-18 October.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Eid Al-Adha: Some Prayers Last Longer Than Others by Haroom Moghal. Published in Huffington Post, Copyright, All Rights Reserved - 05/11/2011

I just wanted to share some brief thoughts on the Muslim holiday.

There are millions of Muslims on the verge of concluding their pilgrimage (hajj) in Mecca; by the time you read this, they're already finished, exhausted and sharing the meat of a sacrificed animal with family, neighbors and the poor. Across the world, hundreds of millions more are putting on their Sunday finest -- thanks to God and the moon and the curvature of space-time for complying with the spirit and the law of the Western weekend -- and heading to mosques. Often way too early in the morning. (Can we comply with the Western sleep cycle?)

It's Eid al-Adha today, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the biggest holiday of the pan-Muslim calendar. Muslims remember Abraham's decision to sacrifice his son, spared only at the very last moment. In honor of that moment, an animal is sacrificed to God and its meat is shared with those close and those in need. The day before was the Day of 'Arafat, when many fast -- as in Ramadan -- in honor of the standing at the plain of 'Arafat, where Muslims on hajj pour their hearts out to God. But really and ultimately, this holiday is about Abraham.

The reason Abraham affects us so is because of his life's tragedies. God is asking Abraham to take the life of his son; rationally, reasonably, that is unbelievable. In the broader Islamic tradition, murder is of course forbidden: We've got Cain and Abel too. And this is sort of what Abraham keeps getting: He doesn't have children until his very old age, and this is a source of great distress for him. As it would be for any of us, but especially in his day and age. And then, when he has a son, God says, dump him in the desert. When he finds him years later, much to his relief and joy -- we can imagine tears of happiness -- God says: Take his life. Show me and the world you love me most.

Abraham's father refused to believe in him. His people tried to kill him. They even made a fire to burn him in, and tossed him in. He wanders alone through the world, without offspring, for years; even married, for a long time he has no descendants. When finally God gives him Isaac and Ishmael, he is asked to leave Ishmael and Hagar (Ishmael's mother) in the wilderness of Paran, the deserts around Mecca. In that stunning, amazing, incredible request, Islam truly and properly begins. The spiritual ground is seeded in a sacrifice that will echo through time, and result in the Prophet Muhammad, Abraham's final heir through his son Ishmael, and the global Muslim community, the Prophet Muhammad's brothers and sisters.

Who says prayers aren't answered?

Time and again, Abraham is asked to sacrifice like no normal person is, or could be. He is asked to abandon, or take the life of his child, and God in each case intervenes. God saves. God guides. The greatest destiny unfolds in that tiny, stunning, unbelievable gesture of faith in God against all common sense. Or, as Iqbal put it, discussing Abraham elsewhere:
"Love dove into Nimrod's fire without hesitation / While reason's on the rooftop, merely considering the scene."
This is what Muslims celebrate on Sunday.

That prayers are answered, even if they aren't answered in our lifetime. That God tests us according to our capacity, and those of us who face the most hardship in dignity and fidelity are the most awesome in His sight. That God's promise is true. That the aches and pains in our souls will be healed one day. Perhaps not in this life, though; we must hold on to the rope of God until then.
Abraham was terrified he wouldn't have children. And in return for his faith, God gave him half the planet, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. It may well be that many of us pray more for Abraham and Muhammad than we do for any other families. Including our own. And the Muslim community centers its identity on him. We are his spiritual family, or at least hope to be. Little children of every ethnicity and nationality, all across the planet, stumble across words they will repeat for the rest of their lives, words they're taught to memorize, and often given gifts if they do, words which have an especially profound meaning on us today:
Allah bless Muhammad, and the family of Muhammad
As you blessed Abraham, and the family of Abraham
Eid Mubarak.

It’s time the media treated Muslims fairly by Miqdaad Versi

Published in The Guardian Comments
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Wednesday 23 September 2015

Hats off to the Mail on Sunday for finally apologising for its incendiary headline: “Muslim gang slashes tyres of immigration-raid van”. In the piece in question, an attack on an immigration enforcement van in east London was blamed on the “Muslim community” and “Muslim youths” – even though the faith of the perpetrators was not known, nor relevant. This fact has now been acknowledged by the paper, and it has rewritten the story and issued a correction both online and in print.

In the media, using Islam or Muslims as descriptive terms when referring to criminals remains all too common, even in cases where faith has little or nothing to do with the crime. The Times ran a front-page story in March with the provocative headline “Call for national debate on Muslim sex grooming”. There is nothing in Islam that could justify such heinous acts, and none of those involved in this particular crime cited Islam as their motive. So why was this story headlined in this way when articles about other cases of paedophilia made no mention of the perpetrators’ faith or ethnicity?

When tens of innocent pilgrims tragically lost their lives in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, the Mail Online linked their deaths to Osama bin Laden and 9/11 in its headline: “At least 87 people killed … after giant crane ‘operated by Bin Laden firm’ collapses … on anniversary of 9/11 attacks”, references that mimicked a plethora of rightwing bigots on Twitter. The newspaper did eventually remove the 9/11 reference, and later the Bin Laden link. But the damage was done: the odious headline had already spread across the internet like wildfire.

Should Muslims – and society more broadly – just accept this bigotry? We know sensationalism sells, especially online, where news sources use clickbait headlines and copy to attract readers in a crowded marketplace. And what better way to get people to read an article than by linking it to the far-right narrative that Islam is evil, and that its adherents need to be civilised to become “good Muslims”? It’s a narrative that many Muslims feel is often reflected in government rhetoric as well.

According to an Islamophobia Roundtable in Stockholm, held in June last year, and featuring world-renowned experts on the topic, the regular association of Islam and Muslims with crime and terror in the media and on the internet is vital to the spread of Islamophobic rhetoric.

The real-world consequences of the spread of one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry affects the very cohesiveness of our society. According to the largest survey of its kind in the UK, over a quarter of children aged between 10 and 16 believe Islam encourages terrorism, and almost a third believe Muslims are taking over the country. In addition, 37% of British people who were surveyed admitted they would support policies to reduce the number of Muslims in the country. Is it any wonder that more and more Muslims feel alienated?

This “othering” of Muslims has also manifested itself in a growth in hate crime: a 70% rise in the past year according to the Metropolitan police. We now live in a country where most Muslims know someone who has suffered from Islamophobic hate or abuse.
Of course, the media should not be held responsible for violence against Muslims – that is the liability of the attackers. But with over 90% of reports about Muslims taking a negative angle and playing up faith, even when irrelevant, it is not reasonable to deny that the media plays a key role in the development of anti-Muslim hatred.

So what can be done?

First, build awareness. According to research presented at the Muslim News’ Conference on “Reporting Islam and Muslims in Britain” last week, there have been improvements in the language that is being used, but religious illiteracy remains rife within parts of our newspaper elite. Until recently, a managing editor of a major national newspaper did not know that “jihad” had multiple meanings, and that “fatwa” did not just mean a death warrant. The lack of comprehension on a topic that is part of the bread and butter of newspapers today is deeply distressing and its role in editorial decision-making cannot be understated. I would like to think that this is due to sheer ignorance rather than pure malice, which is much harder to tackle.
Second, diversity. There is an under-representation of all minority groups, but particularly Muslims, within the media – especially within senior positions – and greater diversity will improve coverage and help combat misreporting. This requires greater outreach on the part of media organisations to bring in talent from all backgrounds through diversity programmes, paid internships and fast-track schemes to proactively close this gap.

The final piece in the jigsaw is regulation. Clause 12 of the Editors’ Code of Practice says: “Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion … must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.” The problem is that this protection only extends to individuals and not to groups, which is why Katie Hopkins was able to get away with her infamous comments comparing refugees to “cockroaches”.

The arguments about censorship and free speech are complex – but Jonathan Heawood of the Impress Project, an independent monitor of the press, believes the Editors’ Code should incorporate Lord Leveson’s suggestion that this clause is broadened to include groups. This would allow representative groups to hold the media to account for using “Islam” or “Muslims” where it was not “genuinely relevant” to the story.

We are equal members of society and demand fairness, not favours. Avoiding daily smears, group libel and the violent consequences is not too much to ask of the nation’s editors.

Monday, 14 September 2015

A new academic career at University College Cork, Republic of Ireland

A photograph taken at the iconic Quad of the University College Cork, Republic of Ireland.  The university was founded in 1845 as one of three Queen's Colleges located in Belfast, Cork, and Galway.  It became University College, Cork, under the Irish Universities Act of 1908. The Universities Act 1997 renamed the university as National University of Ireland, Cork, and a Ministerial Order of 1998 renamed the university as University College Cork – National University of Ireland, Cork, though it continues to be almost universally known as University College Cork.

L-R - Dr. James Kapalo, Lecturer - (Head of Department), Dr. Jenny Butler - Lecturer, Dr. Amanullah De Sondy - Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam and Dr. Lidia Guzy - Lecturer. 

Professor Brian Bocking retires from University College Cork, Ireland.

I have now relocated back to Celtic lands and taken up a senior position at University College Cork's Study of Religions Department in Contemporary Islam. At the International Association for the History of Religions conference held in Erfurt, Germany this August 2015, I was asked to present a token of appreciation to Professor Brian Bocking who retired this year as Professor of Religion at my new institution.  All the very best to him. 

With my new colleagues - L-R - Dr. James Kapalo (Head of Department), Professor Brian Bocking, me and Dr. Lidia Guzy

Friday, 14 August 2015

Muslims seem happier to identify as Scottish than English

Scottish Muslims

The thistle and the crescent
Printed in The Economist
All Rights Reserved - Copyright 
Aug 15th 2015

WHEN Glasgow Central Mosque was commissioned in the early 1980s, the architect received an important instruction: “Make it Scottish”. It ended up sharing a feature of many Glaswegian public buildings (but not many mosques): large panels of glass, creating long shafts of natural light inside. Now, facing renovation, it will get more Scottish still: there are plans to remodel it in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow’s favourite architect.

Inside, people marry in kilts (the hem let down an inch, in keeping with the dress code for Muslim men) to the sound of bagpipes. Halal haggis is sold nearby, and across the River Clyde is the council office where in 2012 a new tartan was launched: blue for the Saltire, green for Islam.

 The relationship between Scottish nationalism and the Muslim community seems unusually harmonious. Six out of ten Scots believe Muslims are integrated into everyday Scottish life, according to a poll in 2010 by Ipsos Mori. A survey in 2011 by the Scottish government found Muslims in Scotland felt that being Scottish was an important part of their identity, and that for them “community” tended to mean the shop down the road, rather than a local or global network of other Muslims.

In last year’s referendum the pro-independence Yes campaign was backed by 64% of Asians, most of them Muslims, according to a poll by Scotland’s main Asian radio station. Mazhar Khan of the Muslim Council of Scotland says that Muslims in Scotland will define themselves as Scottish, while those in England are prepared only to call themselves British. Why?

Scottish Muslims have greater economic power than their English counterparts: many are involved in business, and arrived with the means to set themselves up (a large proportion are from Punjab, a relatively rich Indian state). Most English Muslims hail from poorer bits of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and often went into industries that have since faltered. In Scotland ethnic minorities sometimes benefit from “reverse discrimination”: as the National Health Service was the first employer to send minorities to some of Scotland’s farther-flung areas, it is often assumed that non-whites are doctors. Mohammad Sarwar, a Scot, was Britain’s first Muslim MP.

Theories abound: Scots regard themselves as a minority, persecuted by the English; left-leaning Scottish nationalism is friendlier to minorities than English Conservatism. And Scottish Muslims are few—they make up just 1.5% of the population, compared with 4.5% across Britain—giving them a greater incentive to integrate.

So far, so historical, but recent policy may have something to do with it too. Whereas the government in Westminster makes sweeping criticisms of Muslim extremism (see previous article), its counterpart in Holyrood does not dwell on the subject and therefore, says Mr Kahn, does not wind up local Muslims. Only a tiny minority of the 700 people reported to have left Britain for Syria appear to have come from Scotland. The happy relationship may not be the result of luck alone.

Pakistan’s transgender community rolls out 700-foot national flag for Independence Day 2015 by Zeresh John, DAWN News Pakistan

Pakistan’s transgender community came out to celebrate the county’s 69th Independence Day with a 700-foot long flag that they meticulously stitched together over 12 days.

Organised by the Sindh chapter of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), hundreds of Khawaja Sarras rolled out the gigantic flag at the Bagh-e-Quaid-e-Azam, previously known as the Polo Ground, in Karachi right before the clock struck 12 on August 13.

President of the Sindh chapter of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), Bindiya Rana.

Ecstatic and proud of their accomplishment, they walked across the length of the park holding up the flag, shouting “Pakistan Zinadabad!

As a result, they continue to face discrimination from society. They largely depend on a livelihood of singing and dancing at weddings and birth celebrations. They are also treated as sex objects and often become the victims of violent assault.

Transgenders in Pakistan were awarded the right to register as a third gender on their CNICs in 2012. The Supreme Court had also ordered free education and free health care for the Khawaja Sarra community. However, provincial welfare departments have yet to implement the decision.  

However, yesterday night, the open space at Bagh-e-Quaid-e-Azam rang with profound patriotism, thanks to this same community.

One day, hopefully, they will stop being stigmatised and start to gain social recognition in their own country.

According to the vice president of GIA, Mazhar Anjum the making of the flag cost 100,000 rupees.

“We wish to walk abreast all Pakistanis,” GIA’s vice president Mazhar Anjum said. “All we ask for is some respect,” Rani said.

The flag measures 700 feet in length and 50 feet in breadth.

“We put in a lot of hard over this flag; it is to show our love for Pakistan. We value this country with all our hearts and would not hesitate to die for it,” Sapna said.

 “I’m glad to see that so many people turned up to stand with us here for Pakistan. This is Pakistani unity!” Sheila said.

The Khawaja Sarra community stitched the flag over the course of 12 days.

“I’m here today because I want to spend this independence day with the country’s most tolerant community,” Sadaqat Ali said.


Monday, 10 August 2015

World's Oldest Qur'an

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Monday 10th August 2015
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork

The recent discovery of what is said to be the world’s oldest Qur’an at Birmingham University has us asking about how we deal with things that are old.  I’ve been following the different ways this new find has been welcomed.  The views vary.  From those who question whether it is that old by looking at the material, the way it is written, and even the ink that is used.  To the many Muslims around the world who present this as a way of showing the authenticity and ‘proof’ of Islam.

I can’t help but think that we might actually be missing the bigger point as we think about texts, religious or otherwise, and what really matters about them. Is it about how they came to be or if they are authentic or not - or is it more about what they say - how the text impacts on the lives of people who read it and live by it. Texts live through the lives of individuals.  Like Harry Potter, a great story that touched the mind and soul of many kids, and adults, in various ways because it had themes of good, evil, morals and ethics.  These key concepts of creating a good life and society are probably what every author wants their readers to think about.  But even the Qur’an, as we know it, is out of the hands of God and in the hands of every day Muslims. From its earliest time to the current day, it has been interpreted in various ways. 

And so we find that old and new texts can do harm too, especially religious texts that are used to promote only one type of understanding.  As a Muslim, I see first hand how the Qur’an is understood in a variety of ways, from whirling dervishes to terrorists.  Life is given to the text beyond how old or even how authentic it is.  For me, thinking more closely at the various ways to live a text out in a beautiful way is what it is all about. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

Kithay Nain Na Jorin - English Translation

Ali Sethi - Kithay Nain Na Jorin (Official Video) by Pakistanmusicmind

Don't meet in someone's eyes but mine
Return, whilst I am alive
for the sake of God, turn your horse toward country, your abode

Don't meet in someone's eyes but mine 

This world can't bear to see two in love, together
From this or that, in every say or way, it forever tries to tear apart this love
Don't fall for their words
And break that trust I have in you, for Gods sake
for God's Sake, turn your horse towards country, your abode
Don't meet in someone's eyes but mine
By rendering me infatuated at heart, you moved aside
The days now pass with the support of your memories

Don't meet in someone's eyes but mine
for God's Sake , turn your horse toward country, your abode

Translation: Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Same-Sex Relationships & the Fluidity of Marriage in Islamic History (by Ali A. Olomi)

--> -->Published at IslamiCommentary - A Forum for Public Scholarship
July 17th 2015

Since the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th 2015, various religious groups have responded to the ruling. Muslim Americans, who themselves are a minority group in the United States, have struggled to find consensus.

Some have openly condemned the ruling. Others have urged a more hesitant acceptance of the court’s decision. Cognizant of the precarious position of minorities in the United States, Imam Suhaib Webb posted an online message where he encouraged a nuanced perspective that respected the ruling and supported it politically, while acknowledging the theological and ethical dilemmas for conservative Muslims. A group of Afghan American thinkers and activists on The Samovar Network took a more accepting stance when they held an online panel (via a Google hangout) and showed support for the ruling and the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Above left: 
-->“Aqa Mirak” – 16th Safavid watercolor by Aqa Mirak depicting two young princes and lovers. (currently located in the Smithsonian) 
Author, Reza Aslan and comedian, Hasan Minhaj wrote an open letter, published in Religion Dispatches, to Muslim Americans encouraging acceptance and tolerance, reminding Muslims that they too are a minority in the United States and should stand for the rights of their fellow minorities.
People were surprised by the letter and some have attributed the position of the authors to Western influence. Popular representations in America and Europe, tend to depict Muslims as staunchly against same-sex marriage. But I would point out that positions like Reza’s and others like him actually highlight a forgotten part of Islamic history.

Just as in the case of Christianity, the history on same-sex relationships in Islam is far more complex than some would have you believe.

First, we have to acknowledge that though same-sex relationships are timeless and gay people have existed throughout history, according to theorists, like Michel Foucault, homosexuality as an identity emerged alongside heterosexuality in modernity. Indeed, an argument can be made that homophobia itself is a predominantly modern fear tied to anxieties about masculinity within nationalist contexts. The Qur’an itself does not address homosexuality directly, but refers to specific practices.
When it comes to same-sex relationships, Muslims point to the infamous Qur’anic verses on the People of Lot (7:80-84), which some modern scholars — by projecting modern sensibilities on the verse — interpret as being a condemnation of homosexuality. Yet, other scholars point out the context of the verse in the Qisas Al Anbiya, a commentary and history on the lives of the Islamic prophets by Al Kisa’i, that relates the tale of Lot as a condemnation of the corruption festering in the people of Lot, whose bestial carnality led to rape and sodomy; i.e. it’s not a direct condemnation of sodomy.

Above Right: “Haft Awrang”- The Seven Thrones, an illuminated manuscript by 16th Century Jami. Depicts a male youth with his male suitors.

In fact, the Qur’an actually supports diversity of desires when it states that God created various mates for mankind (30:21). Furthermore, the Qur’an uses homoerotic imagery to describe paradise as full of eternally youthful manservants so attractive that “when you see them, you’d think them as beautiful as scattered pearls.” (52: 24, 76: 19).

We must also consider the Prophet Muhammad’s life and how his wife, Umm Salama, had a gay or interest manservant, Hit. In addition to Hit, there was also Tuways and Al Dalal. These individuals, known as mukhanathum, were counted as companions of Muhammad, or disciples and friends. The mukhanathum even served as guardians of Muhammad’s tomb when he died.

Same-sex relationships and romance existed throughout the history of Islamic civilization from the 7th century on. The famed Persian poet Rumi and the father of Classical Islamic poetry, Abu Nawas, wrote verses extolling the beauty of young men. Indeed, in medieval Abbasid, Ottoman, and Safavid empires, the normative standards of beauty in works of poetry and art revolved around the youthful and desirable appearance of young men.

While women were absolutely praised, the normative standard of beauty focused primarily on a concept of youthfulness that was equated to vitality and desire. In many of the poems like those of Abu Nawas and Rumi and many others, this meant young men, but these young men were attributed with feminine qualities, highlighting the fluid nature of masculinity and femininity.

Caliphs like Al Amin in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate engaged in same-sex relationships, and it is written that the warriors of Abu Muslim, who overthrew the Umayyads, lay with their male pages. While periods of oppression certainly existed and scholars anxiously debated whether acts were permissible or prohibited, on the whole, Islamic civilization tended to be not only tolerant, but accepting of same-sex romances.

Textual evidence for same-sex relationship between women were not as widespread in the Arabic and Islamic literary tradition, but there is still ample evidence of the tolerance and even praise of same-sex relationships between women. For example, in the 10th century, Jawami al-Ladhdha or, Encyclopedia of Pleasure by Abul Hasan Ali, he relates a story of love and romance between two women, Hind bint al Nur’man and Al Zarqa.

Some periods of Islamic history were more accepting than others and we should acknowledge that there was regional variation, but the historical arc was significantly towards toleration. When famed 19th century Moroccan scholar, Muhammad al Saffar traveled to Europe he was surprised to find same-sex courtship repugnant to the Europeans in contrast to its acceptance in the Islamic world. Indeed, that acceptance of same-sex courtship and romance was used by European Christian and orientalist writers as a sign of the supposed moral laxity of the “orient.”

Same-sex relationships between men, for example, were depicted in art, including in these images (now in the public domain): 1) “Shah Abbas and Wine Boy”- 17th Century art by Muhammad Qasim depicting Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas with his lover and wine boy; 2) “Haft Awrang”- The Seven Thrones, an illuminated manuscript by 16th Century Jami. Depicts a male youth with his male suitors; 3) “Aqa Mirak” – 16th Safavid watercolor by Aqa Mirak Tabriz depicting two young princes and lovers (currently located in the Smithsonian) and 4) “Sawaqub”– 19th Century Ottoman depiction in Sawaqub al Manaquib depicting sexual relations between a man and his wine servant.

Above Left:  “Shah Abbas and Wine Boy”- 17th Century art by Muhammad Qasim depicting Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas with his lover and wine boy.

These cultural and social realities of same-sex relationships in Islam have been made subterranean in historical reflection. People who wish to push a singular interpretation of religion conveniently ignore these parts of Islamic history in favor of narratives hewn from their prejudices. While the historical existence of relationships between couples of the same sex is an irrefutable fact, these narratives are often swept under the rug and the history of tolerance is forgotten in favor of depictions of Islam as a homophobic and aggressive faith.

Aside from this complex history, in Islam the definition of marriage and permissible relationships has evolved—something that historians of marriage in general often point out.

Most modern Muslims practice traditional marriage as one man and one woman for the purpose of family, yet this definition is quite different than what Qur’an depicts.

While accepting of sexual pleasure, marriage in the Qur’an can be polygamous (4:3). Additionally, as in the Bible, men are allowed to retain female concubines, referred to as ma malakat aymankum, or “those your right hand possesses (4:24, 23:5-6).”

Today, marriage is defined in Islam quite differently and most of its orthodoxy does not actively promote concubinage, nor do the majority of Muslims practice polygamy. Throughout its history, the Islamic interpretation of the concept of marriage has evolved and changed and what we call “traditional marriage” is hardly an immutable institution.

Understanding this history is important and was largely unquestioned up until the emergence of the puritanical literalists, the Salafis, on one side, and Islamophobes on the other. Scripture, arguably, does not change, but the believer’s engagement with scripture is constantly evolving according to the historical conditions that they live in.
It is important that we remember the history of tolerance and acceptance in Islam. Reza and others like him aren’t necessarily “Westernized,” but are also looking at the matter by examining Islam’s own history.

By acknowledging that there are other narratives about marriage and same-sex relationships already embedded in their religious traditions, Muslims and others should shake off the notion of a singular and monolithic concept of “traditional marriage” while celebrating the diversity allowed within their religious scriptures.

Ali A. Olomi is a historian, writer, and Ph.D student at the University of California Irvine where he studies the history of the Middle East and Islam, specializing in topics of religion, gender and sexuality, cultural and intellectual history, and politics. In addition to his academic work, he writes articles putting contemporary politics into historical context. He Tweets at @aaolomi.

- See more at:
Since the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th 2015, various religious groups have responded to the ruling. Muslim Americans, who themselves are a minority group in the United States, have struggled to find consensus.
Some have openly condemned the ruling. Others have urged a more hesitant acceptance of the court’s decision. Cognizant of the precarious position of minorities in the United States, Imam Suhaib Webb posted an online message where he encouraged a nuanced perspective that respected the ruling and supported it politically, while acknowledging the theological and ethical dilemmas for conservative Muslims. A group of Afghan American thinkers and activists on The Samovar Network took a more accepting stance when they held an online panel (via a Google hangout) and showed support for the ruling and the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Author, Reza Aslan and comedian, Hasan Minhaj wrote an open letter, published in Religion Dispatches, to Muslim Americans encouraging acceptance and tolerance, reminding Muslims that they too are a minority in the United States and should stand for the rights of their fellow minorities.
People were surprised by the letter and some have attributed the position of the authors to Western influence. Popular representations in America and Europe, tend to depict Muslims as staunchly against same-sex marriage. But I would point out that positions like Reza’s and others like him actually highlight a forgotten part of Islamic history.
- See more at: