Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Muslim magic – Islam has always dabbled in the occult through works of outstanding beauty – from sacred shirts to geomanic dice – this Ashmolean Museum exhibition demonstrates how seamlessly the Islamic faith shaded into stranger traditions

15 October 2016
9:00 AM

In 1402, when the Turkic conqueror Temur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, was poised to do battle with the mighty Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I, the greatest power in the Muslim world, he called in the astrologers. Knowing which side their bread was buttered on, the court officials duly pronounced that the planets were auspiciously positioned and gave a green light to attack. Temur was victorious. Not for nothing was he known as lord of the ‘Fortunate Conjunction of the Planets’.

Half a century later, in 1453, Bayazid’s great-grandson Mehmet II stood at the gates of Constantinople. Anxious to galvanise his siege-weary troops, he summoned court astrologers, diviners and holy men to do their business. They predicted Muslim victory over the perfidious Christians and rode through the Ottoman camp spreading the good news. On 29 May, the city that had resisted so many sieges finally fell and the Byzantine Empire breathed its last.

If these are historical reminders that the Islamic world was broad enough to accommodate traditional, pagan and pre-Islamic practices at the highest level, the Ashmolean’s exhibition Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural provides sumptuous visual evidence of the intersection between Islamic faith and superstition over the centuries. Here are the miniature and the monumental, richly decorated Qurans and finely wrought geomantic tablets and dice, astrolabes, magico-medicinal bowls, seals and scrolls, gemstones and jewellery, each artefact charged with religious and supernatural power.

Leaving aside the argument that all religion is a form of superstition, the exhibition demonstrates, through works of art of outstanding beauty, how seamlessly the Islamic faith has shaded into the supernatural and occult, especially at the popular level.

The leading light in the world of Islamic ‘magic’ was Ahmad ibn Ali al-Buni, a 12th-century author whose Luma’at al-nuraniyya (Brilliant Lights) investigated the occult properties of the 99 names of God and advised the faithful how they could harness their supernatural power through amulets and talismans. The manuscript here is just one of many highly coloured texts illustrated with tables and diagrams guiding the reader towards supernatural and divine succour.

As Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art, explains in one of several compelling essays in the show’s catalogue, amulets and talismans were frowned upon as a continuation of the pagan Arab tradition of wearing a stone on a chord around the neck to protect the wearer from evil, but the addition of Quranic verses and Islamic prayers on the objects rendered the practice more acceptable. In time it became completely commonplace for many Muslims, from royals to ordinary men and women. It is worth noting that two of the supporters of this exhibition are Qatari and Malaysian royals.

Talking of talismans, those with a keen sartorial interest will gravitate towards the extraordinary talismanic shirt, every square inch of which is superbly decorated with Quranic quotes, sacred invocations, holy names, squares and symbols. This striking garment recalls the letter from Hurrem Sultan to her husband Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1530s imploring him to wear the special shirt she had sent him, which would ‘turn aside bullets’ and keep him alive on the battlefield. Perhaps it worked. Suleyman proved to be the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan of all, subduing much of the Middle East and North Africa and taking his fearsome armies as far west as the gates of Vienna. You get your divine assistance where you can.

In their consistent interest in astrology, Muslims are no different from those of other faiths. Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi explored the zodiac in his Kitab al-Mawalid, or Book of Nativities, of which a fragmentary chapter about ‘People Born in the Third Decade of the Sign of Taurus’, probably from late 14th-century Baghdad, features here alongside Muslih al-Din al-Sururi’s Wonders of Creation with its charming illustration of the ‘Phases of the Moon’.

Power and protection, as the title of the exhibition suggests, were completely central to the fusion of the Islamic with the supernatural, and found their ultimate martial expression in coats of armour, swords, sabres and standards. One of the most striking exhibits is the 17th-century banner from India, a whopping triangle of cotton inscribed in coloured inks that measures almost 3.5 metres long. The border consists of 16 verses from chapter 48 of the Quran, the famous ‘Surat al Fath’, ‘The Victory’, in which Muslims are assured of God’s support for those fighting in His cause.

Away from the battlefield, Islam and the supernatural frequently met — and still meet today — in the use of sacred words and phrases to cure the unwell, offering users ‘a powerful reminder of the value traditionally attributed by Islam to sustained supplication and remembrance of God’, according to Francesca Leoni, the exhibition’s curator.

Islamic calligraphy is an art in its own right. A particularly beautiful example is the gilt copper finial of a falcon formed from the words of a classical Shia prayer calling on Ali in times of distress.

Anyone who thinks that, however artfully elaborated and embellished, all this is medieval mumbo-jumbo long since consigned to history, should pay a visit to Istanbul’s shrine of Eyup, an early hero from one of the 7th-century sieges of Constantinople. Here, among other delights, they will find enthusiastic vendors offering everything from blue beads to ward off the evil eye to fridge magnets offering one-stop-shop talismanic protection with representations of the Prophet’s seal of prophethood, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and their dog Qitmir, and 35 bismillahs fanning out from the name of God for good measure.

One of the most popular symbols of protection, for Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, is the human hand. Perhaps its most recognisable form in the Islamic world is the Hand of Fatima, a classic symbol to ward off evil influences seen in exquisite jewellery, prosaic door-knockers and tourist tat from Morocco to Malaysia. Few come as extravagant or as colourful as the late-18th or early-19th-century finials from India made of gold on a lac core, riotously decorated with rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls. Goldfinger doesn’t even come close. Shia Muslims also mark the hand as a poignant reminder of the severed limbs of Abbas, half-brother of Husayn, who was slaughtered at the fateful Battle of Karbala in 680, a conflict that did so much to divide the Islamic world into Sunni and Shia, and which still resonates bloodily across the Middle East 14 centuries later.

Power and Protection raises another important and controversial point. The numerous glorious miniatures and illustrated manuscripts from India, Iran and Turkey, among other places, together give the lie to the common assumption that Islam proscribes figurative art. They represent a triumph of art over zealous ideologues. They may remind some visitors, too, that for all its demonisation in modern western discourse, Iran is an ancient repository of culture and learning, sophistication and nuance.
Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural is at the Ashmolean Museum until 15 January 2017.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Comment: The future looks inclusive - University College Cork (UCC) - Religion and Homosexuality Event

The UCC LGBT Staff Network was set up in 2007 and publicly launched by the University’s President in 2008.

The initiative actually came from the University’s Equality Officer – I lauded this as the essence of inclusiveness: being invited to join instead of pounding on the door demanding admittance.

I’d personally experienced this a quarter of a century earlier in 1980 when as a student I was elected President of the Students’ Union and we founded a student GaySoc. The then Governing Body refused us recognition – it wasn’t until 1989 that the student society achieved recognition. We felt the sense of exclusion very personally.

So, in 2007 when an e-mail was sent from HR to all staff inviting interest in founding the LGBT Staff Network, it felt all the more inclusive.

Those of us who were interested subsequently founded the network with the HR department’s support. Dr. Michael Murphy as University President went out of his way to be present at the launch. Some of the senior members of the Administration also attended – so we were pleased with this signal that it was being taken seriously.  There are photos from the day on our website.

Over the years since we’ve organised a variety of events. In 2009 we held a conference on LGBT workplace networks in UCC. We’ve arranged several literary readings – Emma Donoghue in 2011 and Jamie O’Connell in 2014. We hold regular coffee mornings and a meet and greet for new staff at the start of each academic year. We organised a book club for a number of years and we’ve taken part in Cork Pride and arranged summer outings.

In 2015 we played an active role in lobbying for same-sex marriage in the national referendum.  This year we’ve been actively involved through the University Equality Committee in joining GLEN’s Diversity Champions.  Recently we’ve liaised with our fellow networks in TCD and UCD with a view to strengthening links. We were really pleased that UCC achieved the Athena Swan Bronze Award.

We have an e-mail discussion list, which is the main indication of membership. The energy ebbs and flows and as it does, so do our levels of activity.  This year we’ve got a very energetic officer board – led by Dr. Laurence Davis as Chair - which is ensuring we’re more visible and active than ever.  The future looks bright – and inclusive!

Cathal Kerrigan, Assistant Librarian, UCC and Co-Founder of the UCC LGBT Staff Network.
The UCC LGBT Staff Network will present a discussion on Religion and Homosexuality on Monday, October 10, from 6 to 8pm, at the O’Rahilly Building (Room G27). Speakers will include Dr. Andrew Yip, Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham; Dr Alana Vincent, Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies, University of Chester; Dr Richard O'Leary of Changing Attitude Ireland and previously Queen’s University Belfast; and Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, UCC (Chair). All welcome.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Why Pakistan's poor seek mental health cure at shrine - BBC News

29 September 2016 
From the section Asia
Copyright, All Rights Reserved 
Secrecy and silence surrounds the issue of mental health in Pakistan. Those with money can afford treatment but families in rural areas often fall back on ancient superstitions. BBC Urdu's Saba Eitizaz visited a centuries-old Sufi shrine in rural Punjab where impoverished families bring their ill relatives. 

Safia Bibi cannot afford a prescription for her only son so prayer is her only hope.

Ahmad, 20, keeps looking to his mother as if for reassurance, his eyes wide and scared. He leans towards her to accept a morsel of rice. The chains around his ankle which bind him to an old tree rattle with every movement.  Safia Bibi sits beside him, her face prematurely wrinkled with the etchings of a hard life.

A mother's sorrow

The last of her borrowed money has been spent in travelling from her native town of Gujranwala to this ancient Punjabi shrine in the south of the province. "For two years, he kept running away and I ran after him until the soles of my feet were bleeding," she said.

"He used to roam the alleys and children would pelt him with stones until I couldn't take it any more."
In the scorching sun, sweat rolls off her face and mingles with tears.
Ahmad is now playing with his chains and she can't stop looking at them.

"I have no money to get him medical treatment," she said. "But then someone told us that there's a baba in Punjab, you people are poor, take your son there, they will bind him with chains and when he gets better, God will undo the chains, they will open by themselves."

Dozens of desperate families scattered around the courtyard of Sufi saint Haji Sher Baba near the city of Burewala share the same belief.

Waiting in hope

Hundreds of mentally ill individuals from impoverished families spend every season of their life here, chained to trees and waiting for a cure. In a society where mental illness is often not acknowledged and frequently ridiculed, the families say the shrine offers a sanctuary.

Psychiatric experts say that most of the people brought here appear to be suffering from diagnosable and treatable mental conditions. But the people who come here do not have the money or the awareness to access this treatment.
Their belief in the shrine and its power to cure gives them some hope that their loved ones will return from the darkness within their minds.

A state of the art hospital has recently been built just a few kilometres from the shrine but thousands still flock to this holy place, reflecting a deep contradiction within Pakistani society between modernisation and ancient religious beliefs.

A bare-chested old man with a long, flowing beard is struggling against his chains, the tendons in his neck straining from the effort. He is constantly murmuring something under his breath. His wife is seated beside him. "He is not mad, he used to practise black magic and now he's been possessed by an evil spirit," she tells me. Atta Muhammad, who has been the custodian of the shrine for two decades, defends the living conditions of the people against accusations they are too harsh. "We give them food and a place to sleep. What else can we provide for the insane?"
He claims to have seen several of the miracle cures with his own eyes.
"Their chains open automatically when they are cured. It's their vow to Sufi Baba that they must sleep on the mat and sit on the floor."
He also says the number of "patients" appears to have doubled over the past few years, reflecting a growing crisis.

Lack of resources

More than 15 million people in Pakistan suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the latest estimate by the Pakistan Mental Health Association. But there are only five government-run psychiatric hospitals for a population of 180 million. And there are fewer than 300 qualified psychiatrists practising in Pakistan. In conservative areas, there is often a social stigma attached to even talking about mental illness and it is dismissed as a "weakness of character".
Dr Usman Rasheed is the director of Fountain House, a private mental health hospital, based in Lahore. He says the lack of resources is matched by a failure to raise awareness and show that mental illness is a disease, not a disgrace. "Our society tries to degrade anyone who is suffering from this, by alienating or ridiculing them," he said.

"Even those who can afford to seek help are afraid to admit that they are suffering. What hope is there for the disempowered poor but to resort to saints and superstition?" Back at the shrine, the courtyard is cluttered, full of the personal effects of each resident. The families often camp close to where their loved one has been chained. But sometimes years go by, they lose hope, leave - and the sick are left behind.
A young man wearing a garland of chains seems to be one of them. He is mesmerised by the mystical Qawwali music that takes place at the shrine every evening. The chains clink as he dances, eyes closed, hands reaching out to the sky, feet whirling to the beat of the drums. I ask the custodian who he is. "No one knows, it's been so long since they left him here, he belongs to the shrine now."

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Scotland and Ireland

Official photos from the 'Muslim Immigration in Europe: Masculinity, Politics and Law' forum that was organsied by Study of Religions - University College Cork on Friday 23 September 2016 at The Aula Maxima with President Michael Murphy, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (OBE. M.P. Ochil and South Pershire, Scotland), Dr. Samia Bano (Senior Lecturer in Islamic Law SOAS) and Chair of Event, Dr. Amanullah De Sondy (Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, UCC). (Photos taken by Emmet Curtin)

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'Muslim Immigration in Europe: Masculinity, Politics, and Law’ - University College Cork, Ireland

The Study of Religions - School of Asian Studies, and College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences in collaboration with ISS21 Migration/ Integration Cluster, Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights (CCJHR), and Women's Studies (UCC) presents a public forum on:

Dr. Michael B. Murphy, President (UCC), Opening Address
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (OBE), UK Member of Parliament – Ochil & South Perthshire 
Dr. Samia Bano, Senior Lecturer in Islamic Law, (SOAS London)
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam (UCC), Chair

Friday 23rd September
6:00pm – 7:30pm
Aula Maxima

All Welcome.  Please forward to all interested networks. 

RSVP Eventbrite (no charge)

Friday, 26 August 2016

Op-Ed: France's Burqini Ban and Scottish Police - Friday 26th August 2016

This was originally published on News and Views  - University College Cork website.  All Rights Reserved, Copyright

The image of a Muslim woman being forced to disrobe her burqini has sent shockwaves around the world with much supportive and dissenting commentary, as Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, UCC, discusses.

Sales of burqinis (fully covered swimsuits for Muslim women) have risen by 200% but the ban in Nice has been enforced through on-the-spot fines. The image of a Muslim woman being forced to disrobe her burqini has sent shockwaves around the world with much supportive and dissenting commentary.

France advocates that it is upholding its motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité yet the clash of cultures, values and modesty has been given an intense spotlight in the last few days. In amongst the horrific terrorist attacks that France has seen recently, the burqini ban has led some to question if this is about countering terrorism toward a more peaceful and inclusive society or just blatent Islamophobia.

In complete contrast, Scottish Police have announced that the Hijab (traditional Muslim women’s veil) has been approved as official uniform in order to recruit more Scottish Muslim women to the force.

Islamic customs and traditions have always alluded to a ‘modest dress’ in order for the pious to strengthen their commitment and submission to God alone. This requirement is in fact not just for women but for men too. How this is understood and lived varies yet the infatuation with Muslim women’s dress seems to never end. It seems that at the core of the issue is the position of minorities in any country.

The French are feeling betrayed and vulnerable by Muslim minorities and French Muslims are appealing to the sentiments of reason in not painting entire communities with the terrorist brush. It seems, French officials thought this was a good way of ‘assimilating’ Muslims to French society yet there is much to learn from the Scottish response, which focuses on ‘integrating’ communities. One of the hallmarks of my own upbringing in Scotland was that differences were celebrated.

We don’t all have to be the same and we must accept that Western societies have changed with diversity and colours.  

One argument I’ve heard recently is that ‘Muslims needs to follow the rules of the west just as we do when we go to their countries’. There have been many cases of white Westerners getting into trouble for being too amorous at beaches in Dubai or the way Christian minorities are treated in Pakistan but does this pitting one against the other help us build bridges or strengthen our human divide? And if the answer to that is ‘no’ then we must find more inclusive ways forward.

The edges are now ever so blurred.  My ethnic origins are in Pakistan but I was born and raised in Scotland and so I’m often baffled by the binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Muslim women covering or not covering are heated debates that Muslims ask throughout the world. My own Mum, who moved to Scotland in the 1960s, told me that modest dress in her Punjabi village in Pakistan meant to wear a colourful, multi-purpose scarf that was loosely placed over the head and often slipped off. Her eyes brightened whilst telling me these stories with a smile on her face. It certainly did not seem oppressive in her case.

I’ve learnt much about being a Muslim woman in patriarchal societies from my Mum’s life. Before joining UCC, I taught at the University of Miami for five years and had an apartment in South Beach’s infamous Ocean Drive. My Mum came to visit once and, being a talented seamstress, had brought her own brown velvet sequined burqini-style swimsuit for the beach.  My sister and I stood dumbstruck when she sauntered off to the beach only to return having had a wonderful time with a couple of topless German tourists she had met.  

Pakistan has no state-sanctioned modest dress code in contrast to places such as Saudi Arabia or Iran where there is a requirement for women to cover in public. Important to note the diverse Islamic customs of all three Islamic countries. It certainly pushes us to re-think those neat boxes we often place Muslims and Islam in to, especially women.

A recent report on Sky News from Iran challenged my own stereotypes of how society was organised there when the journalist interviewed men and women in a busy shopping mall. Some women wore the head covering tightly and others had improvised to wearing it differently. We need to consider the way in which Muslim women’s bodies are being used and policed in such a way and why?

A cartoon has been circulating on social media which shows a Muslim woman standing between what looks like a French policeman and a Saudi policeman. One is covering her up and the other disrobing her. I often show my students of Islam a documentary that was featured on MTV about Saudi youth titled ‘Resist the Power’. It followed the lives of a group of young Saudi men who wanted to organise a heavy metal rock concert, a young Saudi man on his quest for love and a young Saudi woman who wanted to wear a brightly-coloured scarf on her head as opposed to just black.

It seems that when we look at individual Muslim lives we see so much more colour, as opposed to what we are often led to believe when we look to a nation’s or state political narratives or commentaries.

We live at a time of heightened tension between communities, especially Muslims, and this requires reasoned debate and action focused on countering those who wish to cause harm to individual liberty and freedom for all. In the spirit of such a challenge, I am pleased to announce that I will be leading a discussion here at UCC on ‘Muslim Immigration in Europe: Masculinity, Politics and Law’ on September 23 with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, UK MP Ochill and South Perthshire and Dr Samia Bano, Islamic Law SOAS; with an opening address from UCC President Dr Michael Murphy.

At the time of writing France's highest administrative court had suspended a ban on burqini swimsuits, pending a definitive ruling later. The Conseil d'Etat gave the ruling following a request from the League of Human Rights to overturn the burqini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds it contravenes civil liberties. Villeneuve-Loubet is just one of around 30 towns which have passed burqini bans.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Liberal Islam is not the answer to Islamic State Attempts to fuse Islam and modern liberalism represent little more than the ghost of a renaissance. True reform will require bolder thinking

by Zaheer Kazmi / August 22, 2016
Published in Prospect Magazine - Copyright - All Rights Reserved

It is commonplace to argue that the problem of Islamist terrorism and extremism would be solved if only Islam reformed itself and became more liberal. But is that right—or even possible?

From religious leaders to former extremists and western governments, a consensus has emerged since 9/11 that stresses the compatibility between Islam and the liberal values of civility, freedom and tolerance, as opposed to terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS). Yet in many ways Islamist militancy and Islamic liberalism—though seemingly opposed—are two sides of the same reformist coin. They are both engaged in ideological projects for an Islamic revival in a time of western ascendancy. And they are equally plagued with the problems encountered by movements that rest their legitimacy on claims to a unique and timeless authenticity.

Muslim liberals tend to prescribe modern answers to postmodern questions. Their focus on reviving supposedly representative forms of religious authority show them to be ill at ease with the ways in which Islam has become increasingly atomised in a fragmented world. Their intellectual antecedents are the 19th-century modernist movements such as the al-Nahda or cultural “awakening” in the Arab world and the Aligarh movement in British India. They cling to these modes of reform grounded in synthesising Islam with western notions of progress. Post-9/11 calls from western governments and civil society for Muslims to counter the extremism in their midst have reactivated these agendas.

Four problems in particular blight attempts at Islamic liberal reform—none of which have anything to do with duplicity or conspiracy, as Islamophobes allege. The idea that Muslims only pretend to be liberal for strategic reasons is a red herring that has done much to divert attention away from the real dilemmas facing Muslim liberals. In fact, the strategies of Islamic liberalism are usually transparent. But does this make them any more coherent and effective than the forms of Islamist revival they rail against?

The first of these problems is that liberal Islam is based on a mostly imagined account of Islamic history.

Like other projects for reform which glorify the past, Muslim liberals rationalise history to serve the ideological purposes of the present. Ironically, they steamroll the actual existing pluralism of Islamic history to make way for a “correct” or “true” reading amenable to contemporary western conceptions of tolerance and freedom. This creates a marriage of convenience between history and ideology in which illiberal tendencies in Islamic history are airbrushed out of existence.

For example, Muslim liberals often present the Abbasid “Golden Age” of the caliphate (8th-10th century) or the multi-faith Andalusian Convivienca in medieval Spain as examples of a timeless and authentic Islamic tolerance. In reality, during the Golden Age the Muslim world was a competing mosaic of tribal empires which violently suppressed internal dissent and were often at war with each other; in Muslim Spain some non-Muslim minorities were given comparative protection though not equal status, while Muslim minorities were seldom tolerated. My point is not that there wasn’t any tolerance—indeed there was—but that there wasn’t only tolerance. And that tolerance was not solely as a result of Islamic tenets.

When we acknowledge both the good and bad of previous Muslim empires then the edifice of Muslim liberalism tends to fall apart, pointing to its fragility as an antidote to extremism. It is not that Islam cannot change and develop as other religions and cultures have done, but that fixing on such idealised visions of history is inadequate to the task.

The second problem is that, despite its claims to be an authentic reading of the faith, liberal Muslims cannot escape seeing Islam through a western gaze.

Forged in the age of empire in the 19th-century, one of the central paradoxes of liberalism has been its propagation of universal concepts in the service of particular interests. In the 19th-century Muslim world, these interests were defined largely by British imperial concerns. Today, liberal values are defined more broadly as stemming from a shared western heritage reaching back for legitimisation, as the British colonialists often did, to antiquity. Classical economic liberalism has recently even been prescribed as a panacea for both the Muslim world’s civilisational underdevelopment and its problems with extremism by the American scholar and policy adviser Vali Nasr and the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol.

For Nasr and Akyol, Muslim liberalism is a happy coincidence between the values of Islam and those of the west. But such Muslim liberals grasp for connections between Islam and the west through a modern ideology which by its nature has no provenance in the Muslim world. In this way, liberal Islam’s relationship to the west becomes parasitic rather than based on any elective affinity. This is why the more that Muslim liberals aim for synthesis, the more their faith is seemingly diminished.

This is not, of course, the same as saying there was never any freedom or tolerance in the Muslim world or that Islam precludes the free market. But it does go some way to explaining why attempts to refit Islamic concepts such as ijma (consensus) or shura (consultation) to those of liberal democratic values are so awkward. A liberal caliphate is an oxymoron. In fact, the language of “Reformation” associated so often with calls for new thinking symbolises the almost wholesale assimilation by Muslims of western ways of thinking about their faith.

Liberal Islam’s third problem is its preoccupation with the idea of defining a “true” Islam that excludes or even labels as heretics or non-Muslims those who don’t adhere to this perceived consensus.

Perhaps the most popular response to Islamist extremism has been to reiterate the idea that the majority of Muslims are moderate. The problem here is not that most Muslims are not moderate (they are) but that projects encouraging Muslim moderation can be used against minorities, including within Islam, because they involve a process of “orientalising” others. This has been evident in the British government’s fostering of “moderate” Islam through its Prevent policy agenda for over a decade and its promotion of Britishness in more recent years—strategies which arguably have both divided Muslims and alienated them from wider society, especially those with conservative beliefs.

This mode of “othering” in the name of moderation also conflates extremism with heresy. So similar arguments about being beyond the pale of “mainstream” Islam can be applied to both terrorists like IS and those on the margins of Islam who may disagree with established forms of religious authority, or simply represent the wrong sect. It also ties together the will to marginalise dissent to the need for more authoritarian forms of leadership: witness the strange sight of western governments bolstering traditional Islamic centres of authority such as Al Azhar in Egypt—an institution whose legitimacy has been sustained by authoritarian governments.

These twin implications are epitomised in the contemporary revival of the Islamic concept of the “middle way”—associated with the majoritarian, and therefore moderate, legitimacy of the four major schools of Sunni law—and evident also in the rise of self-proclaimed global muftis and nationally “representative” Muslim organisations.

Theological distinctions such as these are important and legitimate undertakings in their own way, not least as they demonstrate the pluralism inherent in the religion. But nobody really expects the principles of a religious movement to be liberal, only that believers’ practices should be tolerant: otherwise there would be nothing distinctive about religion separate from a secular liberal order. Perhaps this is why in trying to meet the expectations of western models of toleration, Muslim liberals can find issues around the law among the most thorny to reconcile. The harder they try to justify their moderation through the sharia, the more difficult their own strategies of toleration become. There can be no easy fit between such demands, which rest on the theological arguments of a majority, and the precepts of a secular state.

Finally, as a form of religion, perhaps liberal Islam’s most stark problem is that it is largely devoid of any transcendent or mystical content.

Like the militant revivalist movements it opposes, the elevation of a legal and institutional ideal of a polity or society which expounds, or at least does not contradict, sharia remains the major plank of its reformist projects. This has made liberal Islam a largely technocratic concern focused principally on legitimising the state via law. Consequently, it is more regulatory than spiritual in its ambitions.

The preoccupation with management rather than mysticism has led liberal Muslim commentators, such as Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, to confuse the advocacy of sharia with the injection of Islamic spiritualism into politics. This is ironic given that his new book, Islamic Exceptionalism, is pitched as an apparent provocation against conventional western calls for Islamic liberalism. It is little wonder that Hamid vaunts Indonesia and Malaysia as models for the wider Muslim world while papering over Malaysia’s increasingly draconian sharia laws which have suppressed its dissenting Muslim and Christian minorities. Instead, like other Muslim liberals who see them as beacons of progress, he welcomes the normalisation of sharia in these states which, for him, reflects a positive “coming to terms with Islam in public life.”

Yet modern liberalism has, of course, always had its own western critics who see in its Enlightenment-grounded ideals of unerring rationality, cold impartiality and relentless progress, a dehumanising means of control rather than emancipation. Some of them, however, from Soren Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson and the spiritualists of the 19th-century to Dada, the Surrealists and counter-culturalists of the 20th, were also concerned more explicitly with the west’s re-enchantment—or a more theosophical response to the death of God than the Nietzschean “will to power.”

While globalisation and western values have affected many traditions in one way or another, one of the reasons for the Muslim world’s seeming inability to forge its own reformist movements without being swallowed up by western liberalism may lie in the extent to which modern Muslim thinkers have been so completely preoccupied with defining themselves against the west or in relation to it—particularly since the 19th century.

But the deeper problem is that Muslim liberals have yet to offer a clear spiritual alternative to both Islamist militancy and western secularism. And the vital question is whether this is, in fact, possible, given liberal Islam’s rationalist retreat from more affective, romantic and aesthetic expressions of faith. This retreat is symptomatic of the way in which the resurgence of liberal Islam in the face of extremism has gone hand in hand with the reconstruction of Islamic orthodoxy—and the forging of an uneasy alliance between the interests of western states under siege and traditional religious authorities on the wane. Concerned more with policing ideas than creating space for them to flourish, liberal Islam represents little more than the ghost of a renaissance. The horizon of possibilities between liberal and militant Islam is vast but has been shut down by their competing narratives.

Glimpses of alternative visions have been evident, for example, in the rejection of both neoliberalism and moderate Islamism during the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013, or in the relevance of anarchism among Muslim thinkers such as Mohammed Bamyeh or the aesthetic and literary critiques of figures as diverse as the writer Michael Muhammad Knight, whose latest book reevaluates the ideas of magic in Islam and the academic Sadia Abbas who points to the limits of postcolonial thought in At Freedom’s Limit. But, after liberalism, if Islam’s intellectual re-energisation is to be truly realised, it is likely to come, as it has in the past, from more radical, even heretical, thinking which takes neither the liberal state nor the imagined caliphate as its templates.

Clearly, Muslim liberals do not advocate terrorism like the militants they oppose. They stand for something different—even if what that actually is can sometimes be not entirely clear. But the intellectual tensions inherent in their projects for reform are ill-equipped to counter extremism. This may explain, in part at least, why Islamist violence continues to thrive. But it may also signal why liberal Islam can often appear to be so illusory and how it can inadvertently expose the very spiritual and intellectual malaise that its disavowal of extremism is intended to redress.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Racism and Strength

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Monday 15th August 2016
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland

The Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Hussain has said that racism is part of her every day life.  She spoke about how she had become used to being shoved, pushed or verbally abused.  Clearly showing her own inner strength, she never retaliates but used silence as a way of showing that she is the better person and in turn wanted her children to embrace a positive attitude to being British and Muslim.

Nadiya certainly made me think that I never really experienced racial abuse whilst growing up in Glasgow and I’d like to think that it is because this city is so racially diverse with a great inclusive culture.  However, recently in Cork city centre I was told by a very drunk Irishman to ‘go back home’ and to ‘stop taking all our jobs’.  It left me rather shaken but I wanted to shout out that Scotland was actually my home and I also wanted to shout something about Pakistan too.  It was an odd few minutes but a bystander turned to support me and told me to ignore the drunken man.  I guess, I also felt no need to retaliate but that walk home left me thinking about identity and that it is often more complex than we think.

Nadiya has decided not to set boundaries on her life but to move forward with a ‘can do’ attitude.  In some way these are linked.  It must be the aim of the narrow-minded racists and bigots to stop people from feeling happy in themselves.  Religious traditions can quite easily strengthen diverse identities or help fuel religious racism.  Thankfully there are a lot more religious organisations around that help in building bridges rather than divide.   Race is still an issue but it can be challenged with the same strength of our role models, such as Nadiya, in order for us to take steps to encourage ourselves and those around us to successfully work through any boundary that is set upon us.  

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Reflections on Eid

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Thursday 7th July 2016
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland

The month of fasting has ended with Eid celebrations throughout the world.  Muslims fasted for a full month from sunrise till sunset, without food or water, with the sole purpose of remembering God and as a point of refreshing their faith for the year ahead. 

It comes amidst some horrific tragedies around the world.  From the Orlando shooting, to bombs and killings in Istanbul, Baghdad, Dhaka and even the holiest of cities for Muslims, Medina, was not spared.  Closer to home, Eid celebrations for over 2,000 attendants was cancelled in Southampton due to escalating racial tensions after the EU referendum vote.  These are troubled times for us all.

I returned back from Cork to spend Eid with my family and friends in Glasgow.  It is a time of celebration and a time to reflect.  

I watched an interview with a young Iraqi man the other day in Baghdad who cried as he asked if this was how Eid was to be celebrated. He told the interviewer that people had come to buy presents and clothes for Eid and were now returning to buy coffin boxes.  As I watched this and listened to his words, I felt numb.  It has made me think about how difficult it is to celebrate any religious festival in the world we live in today.
Happiness and sadness are better understood in connection to each other and it is important to reflect on how sad realities in the world place happiness in perspective.  Muslims globally may be celebrating Eid but they don’t all have the same Eid experience.  Sharing the sorrows and joys within any community is important.  

As I watched my own baby niece smiling, making us laugh all day, innocently unaware of the destructive realities that surround us, left me hoping that those grieving globally, from all walks of life, were able to find a smile and cheer during the day, and that my niece might grow up to live in a kinder, more tolerant world.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

How Death Threats and the Government Shut Down Pakistan's First LGBTQ Website

In BLACKOUT, a series made possible by Jigsaw, VICE News takes viewers across the globe, from Pakistan to Belarus, to examine technology's role in the ongoing fight for free expression.

Pakistan is one of the world’s least tolerant countries when it comes to homosexuality. Being gay is illegal in the Islamic republic and carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Gay men are often accused of bringing shame to their families and commonly face violence — sometimes even murder.

Gay-focused apps like Grindr, Scruff, and ManJam offer a discreet way for Pakistan’s LGBT community to connect and socialize, but they’re also risky: A man was recently arrested for allegedly using the apps to lure gay men and kill them.

VICE News went to Pakistan to unravel the country’s underground gay scene and examine the ways that technology is being used to achieve sexual freedom.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Acts of Faith: Opinion LGBT Muslims do exist, and they are grieving. It’s time for acceptance. by Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

Published in Washington Post
June 13th 2016
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

Muslim Americans. LGBT Americans. One would imagine that the marginalized would unite.
From the straight Muslim man who is profiled at the airport for his bushy, long beard to the transgender Muslim who fears being shunned from the mosque held so dear to heart and faith — is there so much distance?

Yet those who are marginalized are not immune to their own prejudices and phobias. Omar Mateen, who killed at least 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday morning, offers a chilling example.
I’ve spent more than a decade researching Islamic masculinities, including five years living and teaching in Florida before I moved last year. I have heard some Western Muslim leaders step haltingly toward acceptance. But most of what I have heard, when Muslim leaders speak to the LGBT believers in their midst, is callous disregard or deafening silence.

We can no longer go on without accepting every Muslim of every sexuality. Sunday’s violence in Orlando proves that all too painfully.

As I have monitored the evolving statements of Western Muslim leaders — most of whom are straight — over the years, here’s what I have heard: a slight movement with regard to LGBT issues by some. Many are silent, but some have realized that the issue must now be publicly addressed, especially with the rise of countries adopting same-sex-marriage bills.

There are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims who stand proud in their understanding that they have a God-given right to claim their gender and sexuality. But the religious leaders who speak out at all on LGBT issues say only this — reluctant and guarded — “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” From the discussions I have had informally with these leaders, this is as far as they think they can go without losing their own followers.

This sort of cautious stance echoes repeatedly. Muslim writer Mehdi Hasan headlined his 2013 essay on the subject, “As a Muslim, I struggle with the idea of homosexuality — but I oppose homophobia.” University of Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan wrote before that, “Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam,” but “we must avoid condemning or rejecting individuals.” There are dozens more statements like these only a YouTube search away.

In the anxious day since the shooting in Orlando, this horrific event seems to be making Muslim communities at last stand up and make bolder statements about the LGBT community. But not all offer support. There are those on social media — Muslim and Christian, in the Middle East and the United States — who basically applaud the disgusting actions of Mateen. And surely it is easier to focus on “the other” than to admit that there is a true overlap between the Muslim community and the LGBT community, and between Islamophobia and homophobia.

But today, Muslim communities are saying it: LGBT Muslims do exist. They face both Islamophobia and homophobia every day. And they are grieving.

This is a thorny issue within Muslim communities, who find it difficult to find the rainbow within historical, rigid understandings of the tradition. But it is possible to f
ind different colors of a tradition, text or law if we begin by associating that text with the lives of those who uphold it.

Of course, it is also easy to find the dark, gloom or heterocentric within the Muslim tradition. We must remember that much of this “tradition” was written by heterosexual Muslim men who may have been pressured to uphold particular forms of gender and sexual custom in print.

The challenge for Muslim communities around the globe today is to find and appreciate differences and pluralism and to support the lives of believers who do not fit societal norms. It is imperative if we want to support those on the margins who are hurt and damaged.

We need to think carefully about what goes through the mind of that closeted Muslim man listening to the statements today, who may well end up married to someone of the opposite sex because he fears losing his position in his Muslim community. We need to think carefully about what these statements do to empower heterosexual Muslim individuals, who then stand to represent not just Islam but the “ideal” gender and sexuality.

Are the small steps by Muslim leaders enough? Is this slight movement enough to prevent hatred and killing? There is no quick fix to this tension. But just as heterosexual Muslims combat Islamophobia through their loud voices, they must also now listen and accept the voices of LGBT Muslims as equals within the fold of Islam.

Much of our effort in the West to combat extremist ideology relies on building bridges between people, and many Muslim leaders are the first to take to the podium in interfaith dialogue. In light of the Orlando shooting, it is now untenable to have this dialogue of action without including and accepting every face of marginalization within faith communities — especially the LGBT people who are essential partners in our desire for a bright and colorful world.

Amanullah De Sondy, author of “The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities,” taught Islamic studies at the University of Miami. He now lives in Ireland, where he teaches at University College Cork.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Orlando Shooting

Horrific news from Orlando. I have received several messages from former students today. I taught Islam for five years at the University of Miami in hope to empower the bridge builders. 

Today more than ever before I send good wishes and strength to all Muslims in Florida in stamping out hate and fear and confidently standing with the lgbtq communities. 

It is now imperative for all those who seek to build bridges between religious communities and none to highlight LGBTQ issues in these exchanges between and amongst.  

Islam is justice, peace and love. 

Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
University College Cork, Sunday 12th June 2016

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Flying to Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg to present at 3 part workshop on Key Concepts and Metaphors in Interreligious Dialogue: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The opening workshop on Thursday will be on 'The Concept of Man/Human Being in Islam'.

In subsequent workshops my Islamic Studies colleagues Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina will speak on 'Freedom' and Prof. Asma Afsaruddin will speak on 'Revelation'. Humbled to be a part of such a group. 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

‘I am fascinated by the question of what God’s problem with poor people is’ January 18, 2016 By Farid Esack / M Noushad

Published at Interactive
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

‘Committed’ and ‘multi-pronged.’ The adjectives fit well with Dr Farid Esack, his oeuvre, and academic as well as activist engagements. He published Quran, Liberation and Pluralism in 1997; the work was noted for its academic solemnity as well as earnestness to take the message of the divine text to all it matters. In 1999, his more popular On Being a Muslim came up; the work was a personal, humorous, passionate, and politically committed take on being a believer in the age of multi-layered structures of power and domination. The rest of the works were about the Quran with a characteristic thrust on liberation and living together. Dr Farid is professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa; political activist known for his opposition to apartheid, his appointment by Nelson Mandela as a gender equity commissioner, and his work for inter-religious dialogue

Dr. Farid recently visited Calicut to address the Muqaddima conference organized by Students Islamic Organisation. He spoke to MUHAMMED NOUSHAD on a wide range of issues including gender, liberation theology, progressive Islam, HIV rehabilitation, political Islam, Shia-Sunni polemics, decolonizing knowledge traditions etc.

 As a Muslim theologian, what is your paradigm of looking at the gender question in Islam? There have been different schools and approaches within the Muslim world to address the gender issue. 

First of all, gender is one of a series of questions I am interested in or fascinated with. It is one way of looking at the marginalized. The trajectory of my personal life (justifies that perspective of looking). I started off with an awareness of the issue of race, and racial injustice. And then I did religious learning in Pakistan. I was in a madrassa for eight years. And in Pakistan I became aware of how, in many ways, there are similarities between gender oppression and my own oppression as a non-white male in apartheid South Africa. So when I went back to South Africa, much before I was engaged in the struggle for racial liberation, I started working on questions of gender justice. In many ways, I was quite instrumental in some of that work. And then I became aware of the question of HIV and AIDS. As you know, South Africa and Africa in general were very badly affected by it and the discrimination against people who are living with sexually transmitted disease and I became very involved in that.

And so, it is both the question of a comprehensive approach to injustice, of growing awareness of the different manifestations of it, and of then moving on to whatever I think as the urgent manifestations of injustice. So, the context of gender equality and the struggle for gender justice forms a path of my insistence on looking at my own theological tradition. I am a theologian and I am also a committed Muslim, whatever that may mean. That is where the question of gender fits in.

When white people and rich people contract HIV, there is medical insurance for them. There is advanced medical care. So there are structural, systemic causes underneath these things.
When white people and rich people contract HIV, there is medical insurance for them. There is advanced medical care. So there are structural, systemic causes underneath these things.

And then I don’t much frame the question in the context of women’s equality. I frame it in the context of gender justice. I mean, the gender question is slightly more complex than the question of women’s equality. Religious people are very good at topics like ‘the role of women in Islam’, for example. I think the question of gender in Islam is more complex; it takes on board the very idea that gender is a social construct. That the body is naturally given, but the functions assigned to the body is not. But it all takes on board the questions of masculinity and challenges traditional and religious views of what masculinity is and what the role of masculinity is. And that also touches on the different questions, for example, of the sexually assigned role to different bodies and so I insist on speaking about gender equality because I do believe that all of these things need to be considered through the lens of justice and they are all challenging. However, I don’t come to it from the angle of ‘Oops, these westerns; they problematise the role of women in Islam, let me find some quick answers for it’. That is not the position I come from.

Many Muslim societies often appear to be patriarchal and misogynist. And there are certain Muslim scholars who take the position that women’s equality is fundamentally a western agenda. They often reject the idea of gender justice, saying that it is a feminist idea. How do you take The Quran and hermeneutics to address this rejection?

I can well imagine this in a society like India or Pakistan on in the Arab world. In South Africa, it didn’t emerge as a western idea, but as a question inside the liberation struggle. And the liberation struggle wasn’t a western struggle. It was a struggle of the black people. And inside that struggle, people were making the connection between racism and sexism. So, for us, it didn’t.

Then, it is true that a particular kind of feminism has emerged in the west and the question of gender is used as a weapon with which to beat Muslims. Secondly, it is true that many of the western reform movements are contingent upon the embrace of western civilizational values and consumer values. For example, many western feminists are prepared to put a thousand different kinds of lipsticks and bikinis in front of Muslim women, from all sort of fashions, and tell them you are completely free to choose any of these. But when you say ‘no, I don’t want to choose any of this, I don’t want to chose your fashion, I don’t want to buy your concept of designing and consumerism and your notions of beauty, and I choose to wear a hijab’ – then, they say ‘no, you are not free’. So the same feminists in the vanguard of feminism will deny women their basic right of choice.

It is not unlike Lord Macaulay, who was the Governor General of Egypt in the late 1800s, standing in the forefront for the freedom for Egyptian women, and back in England, being the head of the movement that wanted to prevent women there from getting voting rights! It is again the story of Laura Bush, the Republicans who have done so much to disadvantage American women through various laws, especially Single Mothers, and posing themselves as the liberators of the women of Afghanistan. So there is a case to be made about how feminism becomes part of the machinery of occupation and wars of occupation, destroying local cultures and traditions.

. They come along and elevate the life of a single fighter for women to have access to education – Malala Yusefsai – and celebrate her life. And then they go along and destroy hundreds of schools with students in them through their bombing campaigns.
They come along and elevate the life of a single fighter for women to have access to education – Malala Yusefsai. And then they go along and destroy hundreds of schools with students in them.

At the same time, it is a fact that Muslim women are hurting, it is true. The fact that the west is exploiting the idea of oppression of our women, the fact that the west comes to us with a solution that fits into the frame of consumerism, capitalism and empire building, does not detract from the fact that inside Muslim society, as in Latino society, as in African society, as in Hindu society, and in western society, women suffer abuse at the hands of men. So, regardless of who mentions the idea first, it is a problem we must address. And we address those problems because our women are being hurt; not because they scream. When they scream, they scream selectively. They pick up the case of one woman in Nigeria, who is about to be stoned to death, and ignore the fact that there are thousands of women dying because they can’t get access to clean drinking water. As the west has introduced the idea of privatization of water those women can’t afford water. And therefore they are killing thousands of women. They come along and elevate the life of a single fighter for women to have access to education – Malala Yusefsai – and celebrate her life. And then they go along and destroy hundreds of schools with students in them through their bombing campaigns. But at the end of the day, the problem is still a problem that is ours. But not uniquely ours and the solution must be ours. But there is a problem and we don’t have to point our fingers at the west.
You mean one needs to find an approach or framework within the faith?
Within the faith and within the community. And so we need to address gender violence from a Quranic perspective and gender relations from a prophetic perspective. And there are many texts, with exceptions, that do address the question of gender violence. There are texts that address the question of male female relations, and of course there are texts that endorse patriarchy. And these texts are also to be dealt with. They must be dissected hermeneutically; they must be rethought with our own tools.
There are texts that address the question of male female relations, and of course there are texts that endorse patriarchy. And these texts are also to be dealt with. They must be dissected hermeneutically; they must be rethought with our own tools.
There are texts that address the question of male female relations, and of course there are texts that endorse patriarchy. And these texts are also to be dealt with. They must be dissected hermeneutically; they must be rethought with our own tools.

And I am not saying that our tools are uniquely ours. Our tools can also be learnt from others. But this idea of us learning from others and others never learning from us is very problematic. I don’t think that as believers, we should be shy from learning from others – methodologies, hermeneutical tools and so on. The larger issue is, is it a one-way street? Can the west, can the powerful, learn to become less powerful? Can they try to sell us things that don’t advance their power? And above all, can they learn from us? It is not a question of Muslims reaching at the top; it is about creating a new world where people can learn from each other. But as long as they insist on imposing their ideas in imperialistic language and pushing these ideas with imperialistic armies, our people are going to continue to resist their ideas, and, as a result, make the work of people who are genuinely committed to their communities just more difficult.

One of your major intellectual explorations has been the liberation theology of Islam. Why do you emphasis on the emancipatory potential of Quran?

I have always been religious. Not in a very casual way. My religiosity hangs very easily on me. People say I don’t look religious, I don’t act religious. And there are other set of people who get surprised, saying ‘oh this guy is religious!’ But I have always had an interest in religion; it has been a passion of mine. And I have always been deeply moved by any manifestation of injustice. And so it’s simple combining of the two passions of mine – my passion to see an elimination of injustice on the one hand and the fact that I enjoy my texts, religious books, I enjoy my tradition. I love it; I find it not only inspirational, but a very valuable tool. And it is to bring these two elements together that I find myself in this area of liberation theology. It speaks meaningfully to me.

It was an invaluable tool for us in the liberation struggle of South Africa. It became real for us in mobilizing Muslims, in drawing them in hundreds and thousands to the liberation struggle. The language of the Quran kept us moving when we were in jail; it encouraged us and gave us hope. The Quran walked with us in our darkest moments. In jail we were allowed only one or two books; if you are a Christian, you were given a Bible and if you are a Muslim, a Quran. And they thought they were giving us opium, along the lines of Marxism, religion being the opium of the masses. In fact they gave us good companions. We found fascinating stories of inspiration in them, for ourselves and other people.

How to understand Islam from the margins became an obsession for me. If you look at the text from the top, you find ways to justify the status quo; but if you look at the same text from the margins you find ways to subvert the system. For me, liberation also means liberation from mankind to serve God. So it is a transcendental movement. It is also asking what is the presence of God in the midst of all this suffering.

When you look back now at the liberation theology movement, how do you see its progress and the current trends? 

In South Africa, liberation theology receded. Because liberation theologians were drawn into occupying state positions. And these other people then came in. Generally in the world, the Catholic Church was also undergoing issues. There was the Cardinal Ratzinger – the pop who recently retired and I never accepted the fact that he was a pop as he was in charge of the board that decides who has become an infidel and outcast. As he was performing that role in the Church before he became the Pope, there was an antagonism towards liberation theology. As for Muslim thinkers, many progressive thinkers were sold out for other reasons. September 11 made them more interested in the questions of America, or America’s problems with Islam. So the Muslim liberation theologians started becoming more moderate and asking about Islam and violence, Islam and peace, instead of asking about Islam and imperial violence, Islam and occupations, the questions of poverty, the questions of hunger and starvation and so on. For the last while, it has been going through a difficult patch, but it is now seeing a revival in the marriage between decolonial movement and liberation theology, with the questions of urgency having been shifted to marginalized communities.

You have been active and have invested your time and effort in rehabilitating Black HIV patients. Could you say about it? 

 The HIV and AIDS was a dreadful thing in South Africa and the religious response in general was a very simple one – you are angering God with your sex outside marriage and AIDS is God’s punishment. For example, Malik Badari said, embarrassingly, that it is a maalika (angelic) virus that was constructed in the rectums of the homosexuals of San Francisco; this is God’s punishment coming to people. And my question has always been: what is God’s problem with black people? What is God’s issue with the poor? Are you saying that black people have more sex than white people? In Europe you find parks where people can go and have sex; there are packets of condoms hung on trees. You don’t find this in Africa. When white people and rich people contract HIV, there is medical insurance for them. There is advanced medical care. So there are structural, systemic causes underneath these things. It is like saying when an earthquake happens this is adaab (punishment) from God. When an earthquake hits in Japan, with 6.2 in the Richter scale, nobody dies. When an earthquake happens 5.6 in the Richter scale in Indonesia, thousands of people die.

What is God’s issue with the people of poor countries? On the one hand you say it is a punishment from God, and it is applicable only to poor people. So there is a systemic issue. Issues of development, issues of poverty-a whole range of issues connected to all of this. The relationship between this and theology fascinated me. I got interested in HIV issues, because it was affecting the poorest of people; it was affecting black people-the most marginalized community in South Africa. By the way, in Africa it has got nothing to do with the question of homosexuality. In Europe and the US, in the beginning, it was primarily about men having sex with men. In Africa, it wasn’t. It was about mother to child transmission, or sex outside marriage, or sometimes sex inside marriage also. The vast majority of women in India, for example, who have contracted this disease, got it from their husbands.   

 You have been an active part of Progressive Islam. In places like Kerala, the word means a left-oriented, liberal, secular Islam, or rather a “good” Islam. What is it for you?

Progressive Muslim basically means anybody who is prepared to lie down and pretend to be dead as the United States and its allies walk over them, or Modi and his allies walked over them, and say ‘Islam has nothing to say about anything’ or ‘we don’t have no resistance to offer to anything, we are dead, tell us what you want us to be and we will be that.’ That is what liberal Islam means.
Progressive Muslim basically means anybody who is prepared to lie down and pretend to be dead as the United States and its allies walk over them, or Modi and his allies walked over them, and say ‘Islam has nothing to say about anything’ or ‘we don’t have no resistance to offer to anything

In South Africa, progressive meant, leftist, anti-imperialist, anti-west. It was after the 9/11 that the term progressive Islam was appropriated by people in the west, to mean anything and anybody that had an issue with Muslim authority. I then walked away from the term. I haven’t since identified with the term. Today, Progressive Muslim basically means anybody who is prepared to lie down and pretend to be dead as the United States and its allies walk over them, or Modi and his allies walked over them, and say ‘Islam has nothing to say about anything’ or ‘we don’t have no resistance to offer to anything, we are dead, tell us what you want us to be and we will be that.’ That is what liberal Islam means. That is what moderate Muslim means. That is what progressive Islam looks like today. So, before the 9/11, in the South African context, I was happy to be identified as a progressive Islamist. After 9/11, particularly after the release of that book Progressive Muslims, edited by Omid Safi, the term progressive was really appropriated by them and I have since walked away from that.

Now, the global north is producing the newest Islamic knowledge and thinking; English has become the first language that produces Islamic knowledge, too. The global south is often a consumer of the knowledge that the north produces. How do you look at this and what are the ways to decolonize Islamic knowledge tradition? 

It is a problem. I was teaching in the United States, in Harvard University, before I came to Johannesburg, and the reason why I came back to Johannesburg was all my questions, my intellectual questions being asked inside the States, with the United States’ interests and their political questions in mind. And the questions from the third world and from the global south are a very different set of questions. Intellectual power shifted in a serious way to the west. And even our critical thinkers, scholars like Hamid Dabbashi, Ramon Grosfugel, Amartya Sen, they all find themselves in the west. It is easier  for us to travel to the global north; it is more lucrative, we get paid. When you come to places like India, you have to pay your own tickets; you are lucky if you get your accommodation paid for.

Last week I was in Nigeria, and you spend hours and hours traveling from airport to your hotel. And you just want to get out of this place. The traffic, the pollution, the living conditions. And that is because we have internalized the first world also. When you want to publish a book, the first thing that your publisher asks is, ‘will this book sell in America?’ If your book doesn’t sell in America, there is no way that they are going to publish your book. So, there is a real problem of the colonization of knowledge and the production of knowledge happening in the west in the academies that seemingly pretend to be neutrally and objectively functioning inside the heart of the empire and it functions as a way of carrying forward the meaning discourse of the empire.

I don’t have anything useful to say about alternatives. I think that the one thing that is good is the ongoing piracy of books, important books. Dabbashi gets pirated and becomes available in countries like this. I think that is very good, that must be encouraged. And local writers must be encouraged; local, global south writers must learn to establish their own network. It is possible through the internet where you don’t have to actually buy the books and also encourage each other to publish books locally outside the frameworks of these bigger players. I think that is the only way we can force the local sharing of knowledge and the local productions of knowledge. Because at the moment, this is like the huge pharmaceutical companies that have become monopolists. They push up the prices of all the stuff, and people cannot afford them and then it results in death. These are some of the things that can be done. But we have a very long way to go. We actually have a growing number of local writers. Unfortunately, they remain local. And there isn’t enough being made to globalise them. I, for example, am determined that I am now spending more of my traveling time in the global south. I can tell you it is a problem. In the last year I have been to three African countries. This is my second visit to India. I have been to Indonesia and some other country. I also have been to a similar number of countries in the global north.

Next year I am getting seven months off, and I am spending three months in Jordan, three months in Morocco and so on. But I can tell you it is a problem. Because all the time, whenever I spend time in these countries, I have to pay and don’t get my honorarium. And I fund my foreign students through my honorariums, and now I have to figure out other means to fund my foreign students who all come from the third world. But I also have decided that I am going to be consciously recruiting in the south of India so that I can develop a stronger partnership with my university and students in the south of India. We have partnerships with the universities in the north and these are exchange and so on. But I am working on a very different pattern of partnership of actually recruiting students to South Africa where we support them in everything and occasionally send our students here and learn from the movements and the developments here.

There has been a criticism that many reformist ideas in the Muslim world are basically answers to the western issues and worries. How do you respond to this argument? 

I agree. I told you I left the US because I was tired of answering western questions. That one analogy I made explains this again. If there is one woman going to be stoned then the whole world responds, but nobody cares if there are hundreds of women dying for lack of drinking water. So it is a legitimate criticism. We have our own issues – issues of poverty, issues of impoverishment, issues of exploitation of our countries by both local landlords and capitalists from abroad. We have own male-female issues. We need to work on them. We have to be careful that these issues are not being co-opted by white NGOs, because this way they ensure that their issues remain the sexy ones. A principled commitment to justice means that we will tackle these issues regardless of how and who raises them.

You have been actively organising interfaith dialogues and inter-religious solidarity programmes. How do you approach inter-faith activities?

. I am not interested in having tea with you and telling you how nice my religion is on the question of women and then you telling me how nice your religion is on the question of women. I put some nice hadith in front of you; you put some nice verses for me. And there we go home after that. The problem has never been between religions, the problem has been about the exploitation of religions, and the actual injustices that are happening in front of our eyes.
I am not interested in having tea with you and telling you how nice my religion is on the question of women and then you telling me how nice your religion is on the question of women. The problem has never been between religions, the problem has been about the exploitation of religions, and the actual injustices.

I work extensively in interfaith dialogue. But the question isn’t one of harmony. The more Christians tell me how Jesus Christ is both human and spirit and God, and how Christ became God on earth, the more confused I become. It is not a story that sits in my head. It is a story that I find utterly confusing, and the more explanations I get the more confusions I have. I don’t think that the problem between me and Christians is that we don’t understand each other. I am not interested in understanding their theology. And so the problem is not this lack of understanding between people; and the argument that only if we understand each other, the things will be wonderful, is ridiculous. In the power dynamics going on in the world today, Christianity is being invoked as a weapon of oppression, and Christianity is being invoked as a weapon of liberation.

Similarly, Islam is being invoked as a weapon of oppression, and as a weapon of liberation. I am interested in how do people of different religions get together and demonstrate in their solidarity with each other the usefulness or the uselessness of their faith in combating injustice. It is on this terrain I want to see whether you are useful or not. And so I am interested in inter-religious solidarity against injustice. I am not interested in having tea with you and telling you how nice my religion is on the question of women and then you telling me how nice your religion is on the question of women. I put some nice hadith in front of you; you put some nice verses for me. And there we go home after that. The problem has never been between religions, the problem has been about the exploitation of religions, and the actual injustices that are happening in front of our eyes. And that only is the inter-religious question.

In the contemporary context how do you engage with the movements based on political Islam?

First of all I don’t know what you mean by political Islam. If by political Islam, you mean groups that are openly espousing alternatives to the current political states or groups that say we need alternative political system, like khilafat, groups such as Tafkir wal Hijra or the Muhajirun or ISIS. Are you referring to those groups as political Islam?

No. I meant the democratic and non-violent movements inspired by the intellectual pursuits of scholars like Syed Qutub and Syed Maududi. 

I think that there is a desperate need for the insertion of Islam and Islamic ideas into political discourse. And I don’t think that Muslims should eschew from participating in these political discourses. I think there are paradigmatic ideas in Islam that speak to this situation. There are ideas of accountability, ideas of the common good, ideas of anathema to nepotism. There is this example of Abubaker saying that if my daughter Fatima would have been accused of this, then I would have held her to the same punishment. So that is an anti-nepotistic idea. And there is the rule that certain punishment must be suspended in the time of emergencies such as drought. The idea that if a single person dies in a neighborhood of hunger, all the neighbors of 40 houses in all directions will be held accountable. There are these social ideals that can be translated into serious political ideas and practice. And so I don’t advocate the separation of religion from politics. I think that religious people must intervene in political matters. And they can even intervene as politicians.
islamic state
I am particularly afraid of the states that they get their mandate from beyond human authority. Because once you tell me that God has told you something, then there is no space for me, if I don’t share your God, in that conversation.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that politics is a dirty game. I think there are many decent politicians, certainly in my part of the country, who are genuinely interested in people’s issues, and still working and transforming the lives of people. It is all well for moralists to walk around and say I don’t want to be in politics, all these politicians are corrupt. If all of us have to go to the toilet, somebody has to clean the toilet; somebody has to manage the cleaning of toilets and this is what politicians do. Managing the consequences of human shit. Of course in many corrupt societies, there is a lot of money in it. I am just talking about politics in general. I think Muslims should enter politics and there are Islamic ideas on politics. Does this mean Muslims should aspire for an Islamic state? No, I don’t agree with that. You try to insert Islamic values in your society.

I am not even sure if I am a particular fan of the state itself. The state is a relatively new invention. There are many other ways in which people have found ways to govern themselves. I think those smaller cooperative units, there are different models, I haven’t really thought through. But I think there is a need for a legitimacy of Muslims inserting religious values into the discourse on the state, intervening in actual public debates on policies and even becoming engaged in politics themselves.
I am always afraid of states, especially large ones, and I am particularly afraid of the states that they get their mandate from beyond human authority. Because once you tell me that God has told you something, then there is no space for me, if I don’t share your God, in that conversation. This is like Zionists saying, our God whispered to us one night that this piece of land is yours even though that piece of land happened to have had millions of other inhabitants who have lived there for thousands and thousands of years uninterruptedly. And because of the promise your God made to you, you can come there today and become a citizen. And that state must engage in continuous move to bring in more Jews and to engage in ethnic cleansing to reduce the Palestinian population. That is the nature of religious states. There is no space for democracy, equality. All the religious states are deeply flawed, and I am not a friend of any big state, I am not a friend of the ethnic state, I am not a friend of religious states.

 In Muslim community, there is also a Shia-Sunni polemics, both in theological and political level. There are Sunnis who argue that Shiism is historically a Jewish construct to destabilize Islam.  

First of all, India and Pakistan and much of the Muslim world, are very rich with conspiracies. There are at least a couple of conspiracies hiding under every bed. When I was teaching many years ago in a religious school, some Shia friends told me that the Sunni Muslims fold their hands while they pray because there they hide their idols they worship. And in the madrassa I was again taught that the Shias, in the night of Ashura, switch off the lights in the second part of the ceremony, so that they can have lots of sex orgies. A 16 year old boy hearing this in a madrasa might even think ‘I wish I were a Shia to have endless sex on those nights’! There is no basis for this. Most of the times these are the lies we spread of each other. And it is very insulting that your faith must sustain on your ability to tell lies about another community.

And the Sunni-Shia tensions at a larger level are also reflective of the political tensions that are happening inside the Muslim world. The truth is that whenever anything happens that threatens power, people will find ways to demonize each other. Whether it is accusing a sex scandal about somebody or saying somebody is a Mossad agent or so. There are theological differences between Sunnis and Shias. But anybody who has eyes can see that it is on the whole the Sunni countries that have aligned themselves with the United States and Israeli interests in the Middle East for better or worse. And there is Iran, Lebanon which is a bi-sectarian country and Syria to an extent that have consistently aligned against American interests. Iraq used to be anti-US when Saddam Hussain was there. On the Sunni side, of course, Hamas has also been very consistent in its opposition to Zionism. I am not saying that all the Sunnis are bad. The part of the vilification of Syria, and Iran at the moment – in Syria there is an excuse of having an undemocratic government, in Iran, much less so – is mostly based on their Shiite leadership. So this is sectarianism.

South Africa is a multicultural society and you have religious Muslims accepted at very high ranks, the most visible example being your bearded cricket captain. In countries like India, in spite of being secular and plural, the Muslim identity is often at stake and the so-called mainstream is not culturally inclusive.  

In South Africa, secularism is not a God to be worshipped. Religion is something to be respected. People’s beliefs and non-beliefs are something to be respected

Not only do we have a bearded cricket captain. The Speaker of Upper House is a muhajaba; the minister of science and technology is a muhajaba; our minister of economic development is a muhajaba; many of our deputy ministers are muhajaba; there is a musalla inside parliament itself. Our ambassador to Washington DC is a religious Muslim. The minister of transport is a Tablighi with his bog kurta and jubba and 40 days jamaat. In South Africa, secularism is not a God to be worshipped. Religion is something to be respected. People’s beliefs and non-beliefs are something to be respected. And by respecting it, we give some space in the public domain. The African National Congress, the ruling party, had their national cadre conference recently, and I was asked to open the meeting with a prayer. A Muslim was asked to open it with a prayer. Nobody objected.
In India, secularism is presented as a means of maintaining the balance of forces between different religious groups, and controlling those balances of forces in theory. In practice, it is used as a weapon to demonize religious minorities, and to privilege one religion over others.