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:

Of Dogs, Faith and Imams by Mohammed Hanif

Published in New York Times,  SundayReview | Opinion 

KARACHI, Pakistan — When I take my dog for a walk on the beach near my house in Karachi, this is how people react: Mothers tell their kids, look, a dog; kids ask me the dog’s name and if they can touch him; most grown men either recoil or ask me about the price and the breed. Sometimes when I see someone heading to the neighborhood mosque, I cross to the other side of the street. There is a popular belief among the pious that if they come in contact with a dog, they become unclean. You have to take a ritual bath before you can offer your prayers.

Worshipers are usually in a hurry in Karachi. These are perilous times, and I don’t want to come between men of God and God by delaying their prayers. They are, after all, fulfilling their obligation as I am trying to do.

I grew up in a very religious household where dogs weren’t exactly loved, but our faith wasn’t threatened every time a dog appeared on our doorstep. As a teenager in our village in central Punjab, I saw our local imam, who led the prayers, playing with his Russian poodle. His grandsons, who were visiting one summer, brought it and left it behind. I would see the imam with his poodle out on the street, petting her, cuddling her. His long snow-white beard and the poodle’s electric shiny curls sometimes touched. In almost a decade of devoutness that I prayed behind him, I never saw anybody object to his coming into physical contact with a dog. Maybe it was the imam’s authority. Maybe the poodle looked cleaner than some of us peasant worshipers. Maybe people thought a man as old and as pious as he knew what he was doing.

Today, if someone in his position tried to cuddle a dog in public, he would surely lose his status as imam, if not his head. Like Muslims everywhere in the world, we also yearn for more innocent times, when we could stay pure by keeping dogs at bay. There are many more worshipers in the mosques now than there were in my childhood, but there are no imams to tell the religious stories about dog love.

If you go by the fatwas issued by today’s religious scholars, some dogs are allowed in Islam and other dogs are not. At best, they make it sound as if Islam were not the second-largest religion in the world — comprising various cultural histories, ancient myths and thousands of ways of relating to animals — but a posh kennel club.

Sometimes I wish I could ask our neighborhood imam to tell us the story that, as children, we heard in many Friday sermons. It’s an Islamic fable about compassion and forgiveness and dogs. Since most religions use a woman’s virtue to teach us about morality, this one happens to be about a prostitute who had lived all her life in sin. One day she stopped by a well to have a drink of water and spotted a dog, a very thirsty dog panting at the edge of the well. She lowered a shoe into the well to draw water and quenched the dog’s thirst. As a result of this single act of mercy, Allah forgave all her sins. The fable is about sinners getting a chance at redemption, but it’s the image of a thirsty dog panting by a well that stuck with me. In some versions of the story, the dog is so thirsty that he tries to eat mud.

The Quran itself is mostly silent on the subject of dogs. The only real dog that appears in the text is a companion of the People of the Cave, a small group of young men who, threatened by an ancient king after refusing to abandon their faith, hide in a cave and take a 309-year-long nap. During these three centuries of hiding, their dog lay stretched out at the entrance of the cave to keep any intruders at bay. 

The fable evokes not revulsion but time travel and companionship. The Quran’s other significant mention of the dog is in a story about a man in lust with earthly desires, of whom it is said, “If thou attackest him, lolleth out his tongue; and if thou leavest him alone, lolleth out his tongue.”

Most of Muslims’ dog hate comes to us via the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. There are various, often contradictory hadiths about whether or not you are allowed to keep a dog as a pet. Dogs are allowed for security, says one. Their fur is fine but their saliva is unclean, says another. But if the fur gets wet, it becomes unclean. You can pet dogs, but you may not kiss them. You can keep them if they are not allowed inside the house. You can have them as long as you use them for hunting. What about the saliva they leave on the hunted animals? That’s fine.

A popular hadith about dogs says that angels won’t enter your abode if there is a dog in the house. Apparently, the angels don’t mind if the dog is out on the lawn or playing in the courtyard. Which basically leads you to the conclusion that angels don’t much care for believers living in small apartments or houses without big lawns.

The hadith warning us about the angels’ revulsion for dogs is sometimes said to have been narrated by one of the Prophet Muhammad’s close companions and the most prolific of his scribes. His name was Abu Huraira. He was also the most famous cat lover in Islamic history. In fact, his name means Father of the Cats. Some competing scribes from the era have called him an unreliable narrator, but nobody can call him out on any perceived bias against dogs: He tells the story about the forgiven prostitute.

Many other stories support the fact that caring about dogs doesn’t automatically make you a heathen. In one story, the Prophet Muhammad was leading his army into a battle when he came upon a female dog with a litter of puppies. He posted a companion to protect them. Umar, the second caliph, stated that he would be personally responsible if even a stray dog went to sleep hungry under his administration.

There are lots of people who hate dogs but care about the human condition; they care about children begging on the streets, or transgender people not getting jobs. Like them, I worry if it’s O.K. to care about a mutt when the world around us is falling apart. Then I tell myself it’s exactly when the world is falling apart that you should care about mutts. After all, our prophet cared about the safety of dogs in the middle of a battle.

Our classical poetry, religious and romantic, heretic and Sufi, is full of verses where a lover wants to be a stray dog living on the street corner of his beloved’s home. Sufi poets have held dogs as a symbol of devotion and superhuman dedication. But even when the pious ones are crooning away about their desire to be a dog in the holy city of Medina, they can’t stand a real dog when it happens to pass by.

I have had to drag my dog away from speeches and recitals because he gets excited and starts barking. He probably wants to join in, but poets and protesters — religious or godless — don’t want dogs joining in their celebrations. I am reminded of the Arabic proverb: The dogs bark and the caravan moves on. Sometimes it’s the caravan that barks and the dogs that have to keep moving.

Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.”

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Paradise in the Islamic Tradition

Prof. Christian Lange (professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies) gave his inaugural lecture on paradise in the Islamic tradition, based on a close reading and analysis of how paradise is imagined in the Qur'an. He will pursue a dominant theme of the Qur'an in detail, namely, the spatio-temporal and existential nearness of paradise to this world.

Dr. Amina Wadud - Scholar and Activist on Islamic Gender Jihad

Thursday, 23 July 2015

No, Islam Is Not Inherently Misogynistic. Here's Why. by Bina Shah

Published in Huffington Post, All Rights Reserved, Copyright

Junaid Jamshed, Pakistani pop singer turned Islamic preacher, landed himself in hot water when he recently made misogynistic remarks on television. Erroneously trying to prove that women do not have an independent status of their own in Islam, he said, "Hazrat Maryam's (Mary's) name has been solely mentioned in the Holy Quran and that too because of Hazrat Isa (Jesus). Other than that, no other woman's name has been quoted in the Holy book. Also, Allah doesn't like it when a woman's name is mentioned in the Quran."

A "Ban Junaid Jamshed" movement sprang into life on social media within hours of the remarks being reported. Angered Pakistani women are urging people to boycott Jamshed's commercial ventures, which include a butcher shop and a clothing line.

Sadly, many people in the Muslim world share Jamshed's attitudes to greater or lesser degrees; literalists and the orthodox everywhere use the Quran and Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, to justify their misogyny, interpreting allegorical scripture with malicious literalism. They twist and distort the scripture's meanings, intent and context, until the true meaning of those verses has been obliterated. They disregard the fact that those verses pertaining to men and women were meant to introduce a balance between the sexes in a paganistic Arab society that had no concept of harmony and cooperation between men and women.

Muslim societies have long been the battleground for a conflict between classical patriarchy and the revolutionary spirit of early Islam. The pre-Islamic environment of 7th century Mecca, with its tribalism, lack of law and order and constant warfare, was strongly male-dominated. The advent of Islam challenged the status quo and sought not only to introduce a new kind of social order but to limit the excesses of Meccan society, which directly harmed women and girls -- abolishing the custom of burying baby girls at birth is one of the best examples of this spirit. Early Islam sought to elevate women and define them as independent agents possessed of free will, responsible for their own actions and imbued with certain rights over men (just as men are imbued with complementary rights and privileges over women).
"Early Islam sought to elevate women and define them as independent agents possessed of free will, responsible for their own actions and imbued with certain rights over men."
While it is true that only Mary is named in the Quran, we can count 24 women who appear in the Quran in various forms and purposes. According to Seyyedeh Sahar Kianfar, who writes about women in the Quran for the International Association of Sufism, 18 of those women appear as minor characters in Quranic stories for historical context. The major five -- including Mary mother of Jesus, Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, Mary's mother Hannah, Hawa (Eve) and Umm Musa, the mother of Moses -- "serve as examples of good character from which the seeker can learn and model oneself."

There is an entire chapter in the Quran entitled "Mary," which tells the story of Mary's life and Jesus's birth. Another chapter called "Women" outlines in great detail the rights and responsibilities of women and the rights and responsibilities of men towards them. This does not sound like a holy book in which the appearance of women is offensive to God.

Jamshed's crude analyses ignores the fact that the Quran was never meant as a "book" designed to satisfy modern intellectual sensibilities. Many detractors of Islam point to inheritance laws, polygamy and certain verses in the Quran that they have interpreted as condoning domestic violence, sex slavery and other travesties of justice and human rights. There are many Islamic feminists, such as Amina Wadud, Kecia Ali, Riffat Hassan and Laleh Bakhtiar, who are actively working to retranslate and reinterpret many of these verses of the Quran. They place the verses of the Quran, as well as many of the Hadiths or sayings of the prophet, within a correct historical context, adding the feminist perspective, which classical male jurists and translators and interpreters have ignored. The result is a scripture that looks very different from the book that Islam's detractors use to point to its "inherent" chauvinism, and that misogynists within Islam use to justify the perpetuation of patriarchal traditions.
"The advent of Islam sought not only to introduce a new kind of social order but to limit the excesses of Meccan society, which directly harmed women and girls."
Misogyny does not appeal to all Muslim men, but all Muslim men in traditional societies have been raised within a cultural context of patriarchy, which operates on strong principles of exclusion and male privilege. Monarchy, colonialism and violent dictatorship, which have affected most Muslim countries at some point in their histories, have served to ingrain those patriarchal principles deep within the psyche of men and women. It could be said that men have internalized the principles of authoritarianism, bolstered by the political systems under which they have lived. In turn, they have sought to rule women in Muslim countries the way those countries were ruled by local autocrats and then colonized by Western powers. It serves to retain a man's sense of personal power when his own political power has been robbed from him.

Lately, Muslim women have been claiming more of their rights within Islam because of a steady increase in women's education and literacy. They are also responding to the growing need for more women in the workforce to strengthen their countries' economies. Development, human rights and democratic movements coming from Western countries sometimes one-sidedly focus on the rights and status of Muslim women both in Muslim and in Western societies as a yardstick for how "oppressed" or "free" a society is. NPR's Senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli identified this trend as follows: "In the heated debate on Islam in the West, Muslim women are often the flashpoint -- their dress codes, their rights, their roles in society."

The result: some Muslim men welcome the increased stature of women, while others grow deeply resentful and view "women's rights" as a corrupting foreign influence -- a continuation of the colonialism that humiliated and alienated their parents' generation. The upsetting of the traditional balance which has always suited them, with the push coming both from the Western world and from Muslim women and their male allies, engenders within the misogynist a destructive kind of competitiveness with women. A clampdown on the advances of women and the use of physical and mental violence to restrict women's growing autonomy is the backlash for those men who cannot handle the powerful changes in their societies.
"There are many Islamic feminists who are actively working to reinterpret certain Quran verses from a woman's perspective."
No analysis of misogyny in Muslim societies would be complete without understanding the role of the mother in the Muslim family as an extremely powerful one. Most Muslims can recall growing up in a family where the home was the jurisdiction of the mother, supported by equally strong female figures -- aunts, elder sisters, grandmothers. The mother's authority over a child is complete (and Islam supports this by ensuring a young child stays with its mother even if a divorce takes place), although this runs contrary to the deep-seated patriarchy children observe outside the home.

Entire societies all across the Muslim world can develop and flourish through the advancement of women, and there is nothing in Islamic scripture that contradicts this idea. But misogyny in the Muslim world must be addressed so that we are not constantly playing at snakes and ladders, making gains and then sliding back down again, when it comes to enshrining women's rights in our rapidly-transitioning societies.

Bina Shah is a writer of English fiction and a journalist living in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a regular columnist for the Dawn and the Express Tribune, Pakistan’s major English-language newspapers, and has also contributed to international newspapers The Guardian, The Independent, and the International Herald Tribune and international journals, Wasafiri and Critical Muslim. Her latest novel, A Season For Martyrs, was published in Nov. 2014 in the U.S.

Bina was born in Karachi, Pakistan and was raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Pakistan. She holds a degree in Psychology from Wellesley College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a fellow of the University of Iowa, having participated in the International Writers Program in 2011. Her humorous writing, political satire, and clear-eyed view of social issues have earned her critical praise and a devoted following amongst Pakistanis all over the world.

"Oldest" Qur'an Fragments at Birmingham University - An Expert Speaks

"The fragment of the Qur'an folios that were found at Birmingham is not at all what they claim them to be. They in fact belong to the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century Higra if not later. All the features in them: the script, dotting, using golden and red ink as well as the separation of Ayat and Suar...etc.) indicate that they might have been written on parchments older than the script.Therefore, they are not as early as they think. Strange enough, Berlin and Tubingen claim the same with their own fragments."

Qasim al-Samarrai, Professor Emeritus of Paleography and Codicology, Leiden - Holland.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Eid in Glasgow

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Friday 17th July 2015
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork 

The month of fasting has come to an end and Muslims globally are about to celebrate the festival of Eid.  It’s a great time of year when family and friends get together to celebrate the official day dedicated to the ‘breaking of the fast’.  I’ve always found it a good time to reflect on what just happened to mind and body during the last month of fasting and how to move forward from it.  Even though the commercialization of the festival is never far from sight.  I’ve seen first hand the shopping frenzy of my own family during the last few days.  From food, special clothes and gifts, there seems to be no end to it. I avoided the rush and did my own shopping a few weeks ago. 

All this buying to celebrate is mixed with Islamic traditions that call upon Muslims to donate more than usual to those in need during this holy month.  I was struck by the generosity of Muslims in America who have been crowdfunding thousands of dollars to help rebuild black churches that were burnt by white supremacists a few weeks ago.  The campaigns page reads, ‘all houses of worship are sanctuaries, let’s unite to help our brothers and sisters in faith’.  This act of kindness has made me think of how charity can bring marginalized communities together to help each other and strengthen peace and social justice in society. 

But how does one keep the balance of spending on oneself and those in more desperate need?  There are extreme cases of Muslim charity.  Prince Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia vowed during the month of fasting that he would give away his entire 32 billion dollar wealth to charity.  The act of fasting brings in to perspective what we really need to live and those extra bits of luxury.  These are dilemmas that I’m sure most of us are faced with on a day-to-day basis.  It is the prioritizing of these acts that we must all try to keep in check and balance as best as we can.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Patricia Crone (1945-2015), a giant amongst Islam scholars, has passed away today. May you rest in peace. Thank you for making us all think. Your contribution to knowledge was immense and your questions important.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Arts in Iran Are Defying Conservatism by William O. Beeman

Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota
Published at Huffington Post- Arts and Cultures - July 9th 2015 - All Rights Reserved, Copyright 

The arts and cultural activity in Iran today have greatly expanded from the time of the Revolution of 1978-79. Many aspects of the arts challenge conservative religious authorities, but they are flourishing nonetheless to the great appreciation of the Iranian public. I have just returned from an extensive tour of Western and Central Iran encompassing a dozen cities and small towns and have seen evidence of this increased attention to the arts at every turn.

Foremost is the extraordinary efforts in preservation of cultural and historical monuments. Iran has a huge number of heritage sites, sixteen of which have been designated as UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites. In the distant past these were poorly maintained. Now the major and many smaller sights are beautifully maintained. Many others are still in the throes of extensive restoration. The public response from Iranians has been overwhelming. Iran has one of the most extensive domestic tourism industries in the world today as tourist sites become more accessible, transportation has improved, and lodging and food options have modernized and expanded.

 In the stunning city of Isfahan we encountered a group of Iranian Kurds from the western city of Mahabad touring with a chartered bus. We caught up with them at the 17th Century Chehel Sotoon Palace in Isfahan. They were on a two week tour through Central Iran. They were not family, just friends, this was a very different pattern of travel. Several couples had actually left their children at home. In the past a group of otherwise unrelated adult tourists would have been a rarity in Iran. Now it appears to be commonplace.

Chehel Sotoon itself has been a tourist attraction for years not only because of the building, but also because of the marvelous Safavid paintings of court life and battles that cover the walls. The lively depictions of musicians and male and female dancers are somewhat at odds with conservative Islam. On the Nakhsh-e Jahan square, which contains major Islamic and secular monuments in Isfahan, is found the Ali Qapu Palace, which is also under continual restoration. The marvelous paintings and cutouts in the palace are slowly emerging in their original beauty. Many of the miniatures on the walls of the palace are distinctly erotic, and these too are being lovingly restored.

In one of the traditional restaurants near the spectacular Masjed-e Imam (formerly the Masjed-e Shah) we encountered a young woman using goache colors to add decoration to the walls and columns. She was a graduate in fine arts (painting) from the University of Isfahan, and did this side job, while working on the restorations in the Ali Qapu. We asked her about careers for artists today, and she replied that this was one of the real sources of growth in employment as restoration expanded throughout the nation.

The Armenian Orthodox Church in the Isfahan quarter of Jolfa has also been beautifully restored. It is now a semi-museum used only for religious services on five major Christian celebrations. It's hybrid decor is most interesting. The lower parts of the walls in the church are covered with ceramic tiles reminiscent of the great mosques while the upper portions contain scenes from the life of Christ. The church was swarming with Muslim tourists on the second day of the Islamic fasting month, Ramazan.
In the museum portion of the church there are numerous figurative paintings.

One Muslim boy insisted on having his picture taken in front of a dramatic picture of the Crucifixion, depicting, as is usual in Western art, but not in Islam, the semi-nude Christ. I later found out that the boy and his family were from the southern city of Abadan at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. His father was a member of the Iranian national water polo team. They came to the church because they had heard about the dramatic paintings.

Eating in the excellent restaurant in the Jolfa Hotel, I noticed that all the canned music consisted of recordings from Armenian singers from an earlier age who were popular throughout Iran before the Revolution of 1978-79. To my surprise the younger people in the restaurant knew all the songs and even hummed along. The walls of the restaurant were lined with large paintings of Iranian-Armenian artists and musicians.

Gardens are a major art form in Iran and the major gardens in Shiraz, Isfahan and other cities are a magnet for the public who picnic on the lawns or just use the parks and gardens as places to relax. Even the wealthiest citizens will pack elaborate picnics for social time out of doors. Of great interest to me was the large amount of public art in these parks--not just statuary but also contemporary sculpture incorporating human figures, again, a challenge to the most conservative authorities who see such monuments as a form of idolatry.

The great bridges of Isfahan, Si-o-Se Pol ("33" bridge) and the Pol-e-Khaju have also been landscaped and made in to a large, beautiful park. People stroll the bridges (now dedicated to pedestrians) and inhabit the grassy areas. In times other than Ramazan there would be food vendors out during the day, and we were told that they would indeed appear after dusk, when fasting ends.

On the Pol-e-Khaju an elderly gentleman sat and sang the classic Iranian love story of Leila and Majnoon to the delight of the young people crowded around him. I sat next to an older woman who had worked 30 years in a woolen factory producing suiting and blankets. She was now retired and came with her daughter just to enjoy the park at sunset. She said she loved the ambiance and the occasional informal concerts taking place on the bridge. Two young guys were college students in Isfahan sitting on the bridge. My companion asked me to ask them if they were looking for romance. They laughed and said that indeed this was one of the most romantic places they knew and chances of meeting girls were very good in their experience.

Of course, handicrafts are everywhere. They are still a lively industry. I was delighted to see two women working in a silversmith's shop. They had degrees in art, but said that apprenticing to a silversmith master was the only way they could practically learn the trade. Their work was stunning and original.

Our group was very keen to go to a contemporary art museum. Fortunately there is an excellent one in Isfahan. It doesn't have its own collection, but mounted an exhibit of three contemporary graphic artists. The docents were all young women graduates in studio art from the University of Isfahan. Two were painters and two were experts in carpet design.

One of the painters identified herself as a "feminist artist" and seeing images of her work on her phone we knew what she meant. Using herself as a model, she had arresting images showing a woman in situations showing both hope and restrictions on thought. She did her final intellectual project on the work of the well-known contemporary Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, whose work, exhibited in the New York City Museum of Modern Art, was well known to her.

There is intense interest in music, both Iranian classical and contemporary. I have been involved in several discussions about the quality of music whether the traditional "dastgah" classical Iranian musical suite or Iranian rap music. Recordings are regularly available and are broadcast on radio and television. I asked about the prohibition of music by some conservative clerics. One young man sniffed and said, "people should ignore them." The recent annual Fajr music festival resulted in prizes for many musicians.

However, music remains a sticking point for some conservative clerics and pockets of resistance in the government. Iran's Minister of Culture and Guidance, Ali Jannati, has been a fierce defender of musical culture. He recently announced a program of exchange with Armenia in which musical groups would explicitly be exchanged between the two nations. His ministry has authorized a steady stream of music concerts of all varieties of music (except for solo female singers, who are still not permitted). However, in some instances the concerts have been canceled at the last minute by the police with no warning. Minister Jannati objected strenuously in the Iranian press, saying: "Alongside prayer and fasting the people need and deserve music."

Film is such a prominent art form now that most newspapers devote a whole page or section to it. Iran has its own "Oscars." Now it its 15th Year, the Hafez Awards give prizes to the best films, documentaries, television programs, actor, actress, comedian and comedienne (for both film and television), film singer (which went to the very well known singers Homayun Shajarian and Shahram Nazaeri). The top film this year was Masud Jafari-Jozani's new comedy drama, Iranburger. Our group of Americans had seen Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film, A Separation, and his most recent release, About Elly. We couldn't find anyone from age 15 and up who hadn't seen these films either in cities or small towns. Discussion of these films were always a conversation starter.

Theater is slowly making inroads again in Iran. The City Theater (Theatr-e Shahr) in Tehran is not only an active producing institution, it is also a training ground for actors in stage, television and film. Live theater, once common outside of the capital, is slowly finding its way back into the life of medium and smaller cities. Actor training is also found in many universities today.

I have to end with a mention of cuisine. Traditional Iranian cuisine has always been world-class and it is no less so today. The traditional kebabs and rice and khoreshts (stews of meat and vegetables or fruit served over rice) are still there, but have been elevated to a new level. Of most note is the large number of new vegetable offerings on menus, particularly as salads and cold offerings. Thirty years ago a vegetarian or vegan would have had a hard time in Iran. Not so today. Menus are full of vegetable offerings and with healthful preparation with little oil (yoghurt bases are most common). A new kind of Iranian cooking based on traditional roots is in the near future.

This appears to be no accident. A nutritionist at the Ministry of Health informed me that the government has been successful in eliminating trans-fats from the Iranian diet. Healthful vegetable oils are now the rule, and the Iranian diet is now employing home-grown vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, once rare, in much greater quantities in delicious, original preparations, beautifully presented.

While on our journey, Iran beat the United States team in volleyball in a tournament in Tehran. Everyone was glued to any television they could find to watch this game. As we watched in a crowded hotel lobby, one man turned to me and said, "You know I'm happy we won, but I was really delighted to hear how happy the United States team was at our hospitality. We wanted them to have a good time while in Iran."